‘Smiley Face’ by Harry Wilding

When I bought you
five years ago?
your                      smile
your big innocent smile
it was cute
but now as you lean
lean still against the side
your                      smile
your big mocking smile
it condescends 

I wanted to learn guitar
was able to vaguely produce 
The Simpsons theme
‘Seven Nation Army’
parts of       ‘Come as You Are’
‘All Right Now’
lo-lo-lo-lo-‘Lola’

but really 
I just wanted to play guitar
round the campfire  in the stadium
on my knees  ten minute solo
smash smash smash like Simonon
impress the girls  impress the boys
so you         are what?
not as rock & roll but
less strings   less size   less chords
= the easier option?
your                smile
your big rigid smile
it is unyielding
below your hollow empty eyes
dust layering your sunshine yellow while
your             innocent  mocking  rigid
smile
it remains sickeningly optimistic
that one day   I will play
I will learn
perhaps a chord or two
of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’
on you

Meet the Poet

Harry Wilding writes in Nottingham, where he fantasises about elaborate heists that steal from the rich and give to the poor. He has had poems published by the likes of WriteresqueThe Drabble and Selcouth Station. He likes doughnuts and equality very much.

‘It’s Hard To See When You Don’t Have A Head’ by Ross Crawford

‘That’s Hugh Headless outside again,’ she said, looking through the curtains.

‘Right, I’ll go and speak to him.’ 

The man walked down the driveway and cleared his throat. Hugh Headless spun around as if alarmed.

‘Evening Hugh, it’s John from Number 32 again. It’s Angie you’re haunting, isn’t it? She’s just down the road, Number 43.’

If Hugh had a head he would have nodded.

Meet the Author!

Ross Crawford is a writer/scriever/poet based in Stirling, Scotland. He takes most of his inspiration from the history, nature, and folklore of his home country, especially the rural landscapes of Ayrshire, the Trossachs, and the West Highlands. You can find him on Twitter at @RRMCrawford.

‘One Day This House Will Be Empty’ by Tom Kelly

with messages found behind wallpaper
photos buried in pelmets
strangers smiling back. 
Walls disappear, make way for a glossy kitchen,
have visitors asking, ‘Who lived here?’
Filigree ceiling dust settled for too long disappears.
Orphaned keys in a jar under the sink.
Walls, floors and ceilings gouged,
leaving gaps where only memories lie.
Children once filled every room: cots to king-size beds, 
long legs sliding out of a too small divan.
One day this house will be empty of us.

Meet the Poet

Tom Kelly is a Jarrow-born writer now living happily further up the Tyne at Blaydon. He has had eleven books of poetry, short stories and a play published in as many years. His new poetry collection THIS SMALL PATCH has recently been re-printed by Red Squirrel Press.  His second short story collection, NO LOVE RATIONS, will be published in April, 2022. 
Website www.tomkelly.org.uk

                                                     ‘Chasing a Bear’ by Victor Okechukwu

When Tolu was at Comprehensive College, Aguda, he was regarded as a tiger, yet in every annual running competition for Lagos state schools, he always took bronze. When it came to the relay races he usually asked his running mates whether they were mad, for they either took last or second to the last. He got admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka at the age of seventeen and kept jogging around the school three days a week, amidst the hectic schoolwork. He never wanted to join the Runners’ Association in school, as he felt they ran occasionally and went to the gym often, and each time he saw them while jogging past the gym, he called them ‘fools for nothing good’.

When he graduated from the University, the self-assertion of being a sprinter had died and a new notion weighed upon him. This time he ran from Bolaji Avenue to Oshodi Road, chasing down his troubles and confusion to free himself from the indictments and abuse. Each day he pursued it, eight hundred meters away, and returned happy as though he had won an Olympic Gold medal, yet it came back with greater force. It came tempting him to depression and suicide, and the more he resisted them on his desk, the less he became conscious of himself.

Every day he chased his fears. While returning, he looked around the decayed houses, pothole roads, noisy streets, the dilapidated grammar school, the empty bookstores, the unsigned brothels, the madmen flocking around in rag clothes, and the corners where drug addicts slept. He wanted to scream when he gazed at all of these, asking himself each time: when would he wake up one day in the streets of New York or somewhere in Europe, or one of those places he had often read about in the novels?

He lived with his parents; his father was an obstinate, indoctrinated, old man trying to please the old century by always speaking against globalisation and technology. Anything that had to do with the twenty-first century was demonic; he loved to wear baggy shirts and four-button suits to work. His mother was gentle and always thoughtful, but she supported her husband by wearing only her native attire (Ankara) and criticized the new world fashion. Most times Tolu’s father – Femi – called him to the sitting room and asked him several questions about his move for the career he was trying to build, but he stood saying either motivating jokes or useless plans for the future. But most times he pretended to listen, though he kept thinking about how to twist the plot of his three hundred page novel. And each time he came back from his run, he had a new idea, or felt his characters should possess a new demon.

He didn’t run this morning, because he woke up too weak to think properly: confused, empty and lonely. He had switched off his phone, the windows were closed and the door shut; the room smelt of burnt corn. He rested his head on the table, sighing, almost in tears as his disappointments pressed down heavy on him. It wouldn’t have been this way if Professor Aloysius hadn’t always told them to seize the day. He taught them in his final year, Factors Affecting Contemporary Africa, and spoke largely about the revolution of the mind. Tolu loved his class and always sat in the front smiling. One day after class he met him at the carport.

“Sir, you spoke about doing what gives you joy,” Tolu said. “I have a flair for writing, but I don’t know how to go about it.”

“Just read and write what you know – that’s what every good writer does.” Professor Aloysius touched his grey beard. “Don’t take any other advice, because great men are non-conformist: they reject rules and methods because they only lead to laziness.”

“But I’ve tried reading and writing, yet nothing I write makes sense.”

“Then try harder. You need to fail so you will give life its full worth.” He approached his car, opened the front door. “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, go get that book and read the life about it.” He closed the door and drove away in the silver Toyota Corolla.

He felt annoyed anytime he thought of Professor Aloysius, his optimistic lies and foolish zeal. He stood up, paced around the room before opening the door tentatively, and peeked at the dark passage – checking for his siblings, he saw no one, so he went into the kitchen and took a loaf of bread and butter from the fridge with a cup of water. He turned only to see his two stubborn brothers – Bimbo and Kehinde – staring at him, with their gaze asking, ‘what are you still doing here?’. He walked out of the kitchen nervously, felt pained, and turned back.

“Jesus! Are you guys devils?”

Both turned to each other and smiled. He rushed into his room, banging the door. He began to eat in the dark, heard his siblings laughing in the next room, and felt ridiculed. He wanted to take a knife, walk into their room, and warn them never to insult him again, but he remembered when he did that to Ezinne, that she screamed and never spoke to him again. He felt bitter that people’s gaze held more words of hate than what they said. When he began to have feelings for Sister Abigail six months ago, when he asked her about having a relationship, she asked what he did and he said he was a writer… she stared at him with that same hate.

He heard a gentle knock on his door and pushed the remaining piece of bread into his mouth, then drank the cup of water. He finished eating the bread before opening the door to see his mother standing there. He switched on the white fluorescent that streamed its rays on her black skin and an Ankara blouse and wrapper.

“Why are you sweating?” she asked.

“I was doing pushups.”

She walked into the scattered room, with dirty clothes around and stacked books on the floor and table. She gazed at them.

” Aren’t you tired of locking yourself in with these troubles?” she asked.

“I’m trying, Mama, but you wouldn’t understand.”

She sat down on the wooden chair and gazed around the dirty orange wall, allowing the quiet atmosphere to settle. Both could now hear from outside the screeching of iron wheels, a fiercer noise of clashed horns, fenders bumped, and tires careening into potholes.

“You didn’t run today?”

“No, I had a muscle pull and back pain,” Tolu replied, standing.

“Have you heard from Chigozie recently?” 

“No.”

“He has bought a car for his mother,” she said. “Since his father died he has always been supportive and thoughtful.”

“I guess he had a gift for that,” he replied.

“What about you?”

“I believe in the next two years people will read my novels,” he said, trying a faint smile.

“Tolu, what do you want from life?”

“I think it’s the best that everyone wants.”

“Do you think being a writer will achieve that?’

” I would try my – “

“Why haven’t you applied for a job yet? You graduated with a distinction in sociology and anthropology.” She raised six fingers of both hands. “Tolu, this is six years staying at home writing crap and reading about these dead men.”

“Mama, I’m a writer and I love what I do.”

“What have you ever written? And what do you expect from me?” She held her stomach, “and your father.”

“I don’t know but with time I can do something. Probably if I can leave this country.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m struggling to be an artist here. In this place, with everything I see – “

“Do you love me?”

“Why are you asking me all these questions?” He walked close to her.

“Have you ever loved anyone else in your life?”

“Of course.” He said, wanting to touch her hand, which she rejected and a silence breathed upon them. They tried not to have eye contact.

“I’m trying, Mama, you know this is me. And I love you and Papa more than you can think of.” He said, “I am not a rebellious son.”

“Then do something, find something better than all these troubles you bury yourself with.” Tears trickled from her eyes. “Your father is too old and about to retire from his managing job, and I’m about to die.”

“Mummy.” He knelt.

“Why do you hate me so much?” She glanced at him.

“I love you, you’re the best thing in my life. I will make it this time. I would do anything to please you.” He searched her watery eyes.

“Why did you allow me to die?”

“I didn’t kill you, Mama. I can’t.”

“A cancer is growing inside of me, and they say I will die.”

“What can I do to stop the growth?”

“Go get a job, so that when I die you can look after your siblings.”

She cleaned her eyes and walked out of the room, leaving the door open. He rolled on the floor, then stood up and began to tear all the stacked books in madness, until he was exhausted. He looked at the door and saw his two brothers standing there, and didn’t mind.

“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Meet the Author

Victor Okechukwu is a writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is currently studying mass communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves reading and writing, and working towards being persistent in creativity.

‘The Perfect Shade of Crimson’ by Frances Mulholland

“I think we can do a little better than that, can’t we, Mrs Hope?”

Stella’s knees crumbled underneath her and she clung to the railings so she wouldn’t fall. She wouldn’t let her physiotherapist see her fail, not again. 

“Have you been doing your exercises at home?”

“Yes,” panted Stella. “It’s hard to remember sometimes -“

“You can’t make excuses, you know.”

“Well maybe if I hadn’t just spent three months in a coma, I wouldn’t have so much trouble remembering!”

The physiotherapist averted her eyes, and Stella wondered when these people began to lose their sense of humanity. It had been the same when her father was dying of cancer. He’d lost his appetite, and Stella and her brother had been shocked to discover it was because the cancer was filling his insides, spreading like the roots of some cursed tree inside his torso. The doctor who’d rolled his eyes at their innocence and ignorance had forgotten that ordinary people didn’t know these things. 

Stella thought of her father’s legs, once so strong, withered and shrivelled. She pulled herself up, picked up her bag, and stormed out with all the dignity she could summon. 

The walk to the car park was excruciating. When the car had slammed into her six months ago, Stella had been thrown into the air and, upon landing, had fractured her skull, all the bones on the left side of her body, and punctured her left lung. 

She couldn’t even remember why she’d stepped out like that. She was usually so careful. 

Pulling out her car keys, she noticed a shabby-looking basket at the entrance to the car park, overflowing with the remnants of summer flowers. She didn’t know what kind they were, but she stopped to admire their fading red vibrancy. 

Stella took her phone out to snap a picture and saw she had a message from her husband. A jolt of revulsion rocked her stomach and she ignored it. Another thing she didn’t understand since the accident. 

Back in the warmth of her car, she saved the photograph of the flowers to an album entitled ‘Crimson’. Ever since she’d come out of the coma, she’d found herself obsessed with the colour. She knew she was looking for a particular shade – bright red, blue undertones, a hint of pink in there – but she didn’t know why. 

Stella and Mark hadn’t been planning to decorate, so it couldn’t be that. She’d already bought her clothes for their holiday in Tuscany, nobody’s birthday was coming up…

Stella swiped idly through the album of flowers, scarves, paintings she’d seen. On the radio, The Kills were playing. ‘The Search for Cherry Red.’ No, it wasn’t cherry red she wanted, either. She turned it off in irritation. 

Mark wasn’t sure that Stella should be going out so soon, but in five years, she’d never missed his firm’s Christmas party, and she didn’t intend to start now. As she dressed for the evening – a long, black, one-shouldered gown that cleverly concealed the worst of her injuries, she thought feverishly of all the different shades of red she would encounter that night. From Tony the MD’s terrible Santa suit to Rachel’s traditional outlandish Christmas manicure, she would be able to take her pick. She’d synced her phone to free up storage. Mark had smiled at how excited she was. Stella wondered how he’d react if he knew the real reason. 

It was the first time she’d seen any of Mark’s colleagues since the accident. Gavin and Manjeet jokingly wrapped some silver tinsel around her crutch, and Julie made a terrible fuss of her, ensuring she had plenty to drink. 

“Go easy, love,” Mark frowned. “Think of all those pain meds!”

“It’s my first night out in months, I can have a couple of drinks!” Stella replied. 

This was nice. This was normal. If Lynsey the hypochondriac was to be believed, Stella wasn’t even the worst off at that party. 

After almost half an hour of listening to the woman chunter on about her irritable bowel and her migraines and her recurrent tonsillitis and her piles and her ingrown toenails, Stella realised that Mark was no longer by her side. She strained to look for him, and managed to slip away when Lynsey latched onto a newcomer. 

This was familiar. This was unpleasant. Stella felt the revulsion she’d felt at seeing her husband or his name the last three months churning in her belly as she walked, and she knew that she’d walked exactly this way six months earlier, for the exact same purpose, only with no crutch to keep her steady.

Mark was half-hidden behind a pillar at the far end of the corridor. A woman was with him – tall, blonde, her hair flowing over her shoulders like the cheap champagne they were serving back in the party. Stella couldn’t move. She wanted to see it all, but then the woman saw her, and she and Stella’s husband broke apart. 

Stella fled. She had only been in the ladies’ toilets a few moments when the woman caught up with her. 

“Stella, it’s not what you think…”

She proceeded to rime off the rest of the cliches while Stella gripped the white enamel basin. She tried to focus on the expensive hand wash in the heavy, white, porcelain dispenser, the identical hand cream, the fabric of the footstool in the mirror behind her…

And then she noticed the woman’s lipstick. Bright red, with blue undertones, just a hint of pink. 

“…we didn’t mean for you to find out, and then when you caught us back at the summer party  – we both felt so bad, we felt like it was our fault you’d run out into the road like–”

The woman never managed to finish her sentence. Stella smashed the hand wash dispenser into the side of her head. Stella had a brain injury, she’d been plied with alcohol all night which had probably affected her medication, and her husband was cheating on her with the office tart. Hell, their affair had nearly killed her. No jury would possibly convict her. 

As her rival fell to the floor, Stella admired the flow of blood onto the pristine white tiles. The contrast settled the churning in Stella’s stomach as she settled into the feeling of a task completed. The woman’s blood was a deeper shade of crimson than the woman’s lipstick, but pleasing, nonetheless.  

Meet the Author

Frances Mulholland’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review, Brave Voices, Mslexia, and others. She lives in Northumberland.

‘The Figure Skater’ by William Falo

The rubles felt heavy in my pocket, and I waved the lorry past the open gate until I saw the ice skates dangling out of a bag. I clenched my fists and ran after the truck with visions of the girl I loved doing triple axles on the ice skating rink in his head. “Stop,” I yelled. The truck screeched to a stop. The shrieks of the hidden stowaways came from under the blankets in the back of the truck. I grabbed the ice skates and pulled back the blanket. Three girls shivered in a corner; they all glared at me.

The driver stormed toward me, “We paid you.”

“Whose ice skates?”

“Mine,” a girl said.

“Not anymore,” I said.

“Take the skates.” The driver walked back toward the front of the truck. “But let us through.”

“No.” I signaled for them to turn around, and I walked back to the guard shack, carrying the skates. The truck turned around. 

The wind increased, and gray clouds drifted into Seversk. 

I often thought of leaving the city and all its pollution. The nuclear plant scared me after both my parents died from cancer in their fifties. They both worked at the plant when it exploded in 1993. I was lucky to get the security guard job, and one day I met a beautiful figure skater and helped her leave. 

The wind whistled through holes in the shack, and I pulled out the bottle of vodka from under the desk. The ice skates hit the floor with a thud, and the vodka warmed my insides.

I remembered the day that Ekaterina skated on the frozen pond despite a blizzard. She spun in circles with such speed that she became a blur. I told her that she was going to be a champion.

Later, she hired a coach who would meet her in Moscow. I gave her money and helped her escape, and I planned to meet her there in the future. But, after she won a few competitions, I never saw her again except on TV with her new husband, her coach. I thought I was over it until I saw the skates on the truck.

The empty vodka bottle shattered on the floor next to the skates. I picked the skates up and slung them over my shoulder, and left the shack. Andrei, the relief guard, shook his head. All the guards confiscated items to allow smugglers to get people out of the closed city, but ice skates had to be a first.

I lugged them into my apartment with plans to destroy them.

The morning sun shimmered off the ice when I watched children skating across a pond on the way to the guardhouse; I spotted one girl skating on a ragged-looking pair of ice skates. 

“Her feet must be killing her,” a man standing on the hill alongside me said. “She found those in the dump; imagine if she had good skates.”

It was Viktoria, the one I took the skates from at the guard post. She spun in circles that made her blur, then, with spread arms, glided across the ice with her hair dangling behind her. 

It was beautiful, and I fought back the comparison to Ekaterina. The shift at the gate proved to be excruciating due to my headache. A few truckers used obvious fake identification cards, but I let them pass when they paid me.

I checked every destination, and each one made me dream of other places. The names of distant cities echoed in my mind; St. Petersburg, Moscow, Vladivostok, and others filled my mind. I never saw any of them. I was born in this closed city and stayed here my whole life, even after my parents died. I planned to leave to be with Ekaterina to follow her on her skating adventures, but she left me behind. 

That night, I bought more vodka with the bribe money and walked the cold streets. A few people wandered alone like me, and I saw the figure skater.

I turned away, but she saw me. “Wait, I want to talk to you.”

I stopped.  “Can I have my ice skates back?”

Bruises covered her arms. 

“Are they from falls on the ice?” I pointed at the bruises.

“Some of them,” she said while covering her arms.

“What else happened?” 

She looked away.

“Oh,” I said and reached out to touch them but pulled my shaking hand back.

“Why are you trying to leave?”

“I don’t have to tell you,” she said and turned away.

“No, but I have your skates.”

“What’s your name?”

“Anton. I heard them call you Viktoria.”

She nodded. “I am trying to compete in figure skating, and there is a competition coming up in Moscow.”

I knew what the smugglers require if you don’t have enough money. 

A car stopped in front of them. “Viktoria, you still owe us money for messing up that smuggling attempt with those skates.”

She turned away and started walking down the street. “Wait,” I walked toward the car. “Leave her alone.”

“What are you going to do, security guard? Fight us, or report us. How about all the bribes you took?”

I stopped. They rolled up the window and drove away, leaving me standing there. The sound of sobbing came from the direction that the girl walked, but she was gone when I tried to find her.

I kept checking, but Viktoria never arrived at the pond the next day, and I couldn’t find her on the streets. When I returned to the guard shack, I searched the records for any trucks going west. A few could have left with girls in them. I had an idea. 

The car I owned sat under a covering of snow, and I cleared it off. The engine started, and I drove down the street. I stopped at a bus station. There was one bus going to Moscow to take residents to visit relatives in Moscow. It already had the permit. I signed it and changed the number of passengers to add one more. The skates felt heavy in my hands, and I put them on the last seat of the bus. 

“I don’t want anyone to touch them or sit next to them,” I  said, and I gave a handful of rubles to the driver.

Darkness spread over the city, and I walked through the streets looking for Viktoria. I found her near the pond.

“Viktoria,” I said. “I got a plan to get you out of here.” I held out a ticket for Moscow.

“What’s that for?”

“So, you can compete. I saw you. You can be great.” I paused when I realized that I remembered saying those exact words to Ekaterina.

“It’s too late now,” Viktoria said.

“No, it’s not; take this.” I handed her the tickets and an envelope filled with rubles. 

“They won’t let me leave.”

“I’ll stop them. Hurry, the bus leaves soon. It’s a few streets over. Go to the last seat.”

“Why are you helping me?” 

I hesitated. I couldn”t answer. I did it before for love, and it ended up hurting me. This time it was different. Maybe it was love, but real love. I knew I would probably never see her again, and yet I wanted to help her.

“You better go,” I said without answering her question.

“Will I see you again?” 

“You never know,” I said, but I didn’t believe it.

She started walking away, and a car followed her. She walked faster, and the vehicle began to speed up.

She tried to run, but the car closed in on her, and I ran out into the street. The sound of brakes screeched, but the car hit me. The pain seared through me. A man got out of the car and tried to drag me out of the way, but I fought him.

Sirens echoed through the city, and the flashing lights got brighter. The man dropped me, and I saw a light flicker inside the bus as it drove away. I glimpsed Viktoria holding the skates in the window – then the light went out, but I smiled, knowing that she would skate again. I pushed the man away and limped to my car. Without looking back, I drove toward the city gate. It was closed, but I smashed through it and headed east, leaving the city that became my prison behind without looking back at it. 

Before Viktoria skated in the Russia Federation Figure Skating Championship, she looked at the audience for any familiar faces, but there were none. She had no family anymore, and there wasn’t anybody to cheer for her. Her coach gave her last-minute encouragement. She skated a near-perfect routine ending in a spin that seemed to have her twirling forever. She ended up facing the crowd, and in the last row, she saw a familiar face clapping for her. Their eyes locked, and he smiled; she wanted to wave to him, but someone stood up in front of Anton, and her coach called her over as the crowd applauded.

After getting her scores that qualified her for the National Team, she looked for Anton in the audience, but the seat was empty. 

About the Author

William Falo lives in New Jersey with his family, including a papillon named Dax. His recent short stories can be found in Vamp Cat Magazine, Fragmented Voices, Dead Skunk Literary Magazine, the anthology of the year’s best dog stories, and other literary journals. He can be found on Twitter @williamfalo and Instagram @william.falo

Pushcart Prize Nominations

We are delighted to reveal our chosen nominations for this year’s Pushcart Prize, selected from our magazine and this year’s Big Book, Heart/h . Our deepest thanks to each of our authors and poets for entrusting us with your work – you make this possible!

For Poetry

Holly Magill for Dad Teaches Me to Light Matches7th April 2021

Kayleigh Campbell for Lunar Eclipse28th April 2021

Clive Donovan for Buttons26 May 2021

For Short Stories

Mikki Aronoff for ‘Nature/Nurture‘ in Heart/h

Sean Burke for ‘A Silver Maple‘ in Heart/h

Kelly Kaur for ‘The Kitchen is her Home‘ in Heart/h

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Pushcart Prize?

The Pushcart Prize is a time-honoured literary project in the United States. Founded in 1976, it recognises the best small presses in the world by publishing the winning pieces in a yearly anthology.

Why didn’t you choose my piece?

We are deeply passionate about all our authors’ work – that’s why we published you! We’re only allowed six nominations, though, so we went for those pieces which had especially stuck with us this past year.

Can I nominate my own work?

The Pushcart Prize only accepts nominations from publishers, not from individuals.

‘Granda Tot’ by Tom Kelly

Jarrow born writer, Tom Kelly, tries to discover the life and hard times of his maternal grandfather, almost fifty years after his death. He follows him from a boy on the training ship, ‘The Wellesley,’ moored off North Shields, through two world wars. And still asks, “do I know my grandfather?”

Photographs of Granda in a sailor suit with his mother.

In this rare photograph, taken one hundred and twenty years ago, we see an unsmiling mother and child. No smiles for the camera. No wonder. Margaret Henderson, his mother, my great grandmother, would have been thirty-years-old. 

My grandfather, James Robert Henderson, was born in Jarrow on March 14th 1889 and died August 18th, 1972. The bald facts. What do they hide, what do they tell us? How much do I really know about him? Take away photographs and family stories and what is left? 

Just weeks after his birth, on March 31st, 1889, the Eiffel Tower was unveiled for the Paris Exhibition. The Tower, at the time, was the World’s tallest structure. It is seen as one of the masterpieces of nineteenth century architecture. In sharp contrast, my grandfather’s birth would have been met with a sense of foreboding. No fanfare for James Robert Henderson. His mother, Margaret, was a single mother. He was illegitimate. The mark of Cain was on his head. His father was killed in a pit accident at Hebburn Colliery months before his birth.

Granda was born into a world where the stigma of being illegitimate was difficult to overcome. His mother needed to work. She did not have family support and she placed her son initially in Green’s Boys Home, South Shields and at twelve-year-old on the ‘The Wellesley’, an Industrial School ship, moored off Liddell Street Quays, North Shields. ‘The Wellesley’ was initiated in 1868 to take care of boys who, “through poverty, parental neglect or being orphans may be in contamination with vice and crime”. There were 300 hundred boys on the ship.  The boys could have visitors once they had been onboard for two months and provided the visitors were not drunk!

Life onboard ‘The Wellesley’ was harsh. At half-past four in the summer, or five in the winter, they would wash, have breakfast and scrub the decks.

He was fifteen when he left the training ship and signed on a sailing ship that left the Tyne for the Black Sea in 1904. Incidentally ‘The Wellesley’ was burnt off the Tyne on March 11th, 1914. I suspect Granda did not shed many tears at its demise.

However, ‘The Wellesley’ developed a number of skills he used all his life, his dexterity with rope always amazed me as did his prowess at darning, knitting and sewing. He was also a strong swimmer, which was encouraged and developed on the ship. It is said he saved a man’s life in the Tyne, that led him to being awarded a lifesaving medal, which was pawned when money was in short supply in the 1920’s and 30’s.

After returning from sea, he worked in the shipyards on the Tyne. 

He used the sailing skills learnt upon ‘The Wellesley’ and became a Rigger.

He told me he would stand outside the shipyard gates and if you had paid the foreman a bribe you would get a start, perhaps a day or two’s work.

This bribe, in the form of a half-a crown, would be placed in a matchbox and slid along the counter to the Foreman, often in Jarrow’s ‘Long Bar’.

During this time Granda met Margaret Cumiskey, my grandmother. Her father, my great grandfather, was Thomas Cumiskey an Irishman from Clonbur, in Galway. Bridget Lydon, his wife and my great grandmother was born in Jarrow in 1865 and Thomas in Clonbur a year later in 1866. Thomas came from Ireland to work in Jarrow’s Palmers Shipyard.

When Granny brought Granda to meet her father, for the first time, and told him that Granda was not a Catholic she was told, “Don’t bring that man in this house again”. Reason, eventually, prevailed. Granda ‘turned’ and became a Catholic and they married at St Bede’s Church, Monkton Road, Jarrow, on February 21st 1914. 

With the First World War looming Granda joined the East Yorkshire regiment and became, Private James Henderson 16985, which is stamped on his three medals in a case on my desk. The medals were presented to each surviving serviceman at the end of the war and were nicknamed ‘Bubble, Squeak and Wilfred’ by the servicemen of the day. 

War was declared on August 4th 1914 and he saw action in Italy, France, and Salonika.  In an article in the Gazette in February 1964, celebrating their Golden Wedding Granda said, “I was there at the beginning and at the end”. And that is why among his medals is the ‘1914-1915 Star’, which were given to those who saw service between August 1914 and December 31st 1915.

He fought in Gallipoli from April 1915 to December 1915. The conditions that the troops at Gallipoli had to endure were horrendous, bad sanitation led to a dysentery epidemic. Granda, along with thousands of others, contracted dysentery, which stayed with him all the way home through France. He also suffered frostbite and on his return to England was treated for several months at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, in Buckinghamshire before he was able to return home to Tyneside.

After his recuperation he returned to working in the shipyards of the Tyne.  It was while working in the yards he gained his nickname ‘Tot’, as he was a small man. However, he always preferred his full name, James Robert Henderson, which he would say slowly and with pride.

His mother, Margaret, known as ‘Polly’ died in 1937 and now the Second World War was on the horizon and his sons fought in Borneo and South Africa. 

He continued to work in the yards throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s and when he retired from the shipyards took a part-time job on the building of Jarrow shopping centre in the 1960’s and later at a bakery on the Simonside Industrial Trading Estate. His wife, my grandmother, died at home, in 1969.  Grandfather died not long after being told of the birth of my sister Maureen’s son, Stephen. Granda was 83.

There they are the bald facts I have gleaned over the years. Do I know him any better? I can still hear his voice: deep, slow and resonant but recall little of what he said or not enough. I want to know more, but now it’s too late to ask.

How do you take your triangles?

Editors. 

We don’t always get it right. At the end of the day, we are simply people with opinions – lots of them! Take, for example, these infamous rejection letters for books and series which would later become absolute classics.  

“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.”

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

“An absurd and uninteresting fantasy that was rubbish and dull.”

William Golding, Lord of the Flies

“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends to be funny.”

Joseph Heller, Catch 22

“I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title. It’s a kind of Prince of Denmark of the hotel world: a collection of clichés and stock characters I can’t see being anything but a disaster.”

Fawlty Towers

T.S. Elliott rejected George Orwell’s Animal Farm whilst working for Faber & Faber.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was told to de-Gatsby The Great Gatsby. 

Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women) was encouraged to “stick to teaching.”

One person’s trash is another’s treasure. It’s an undeniable fact that as editors we are gatekeepers – but are we opening the door to new voices, or checking names against a VIP list? 

We started Fragmented Voices because we know all too well the feeling of not fitting in, of not being the right shape. We do want good writing – writing that gets you in the belly, that sticks with you. We just don’t believe it comes from one type of person. 

Meet Finn.

Our mascot. Our totem. Finn the fox is a loner. He is made up of all the pieces that wouldn’t fit – those thought too pointy, too awkward, just… not the right shape. Put ’em together, and you get something special. There is a place for everyone in the publishing world. You just have to make foxes out of them!

So, English isn’t your first language? Submit to us! You haven’t yet been published? Submit to us! You’re just dipping your toe in? Dive in! 

We currently have an open callout for our Big Book project over the summer. Our online magazine opens again from September. 

You may not be accepted. We receive a lot of submissions, and we have a very full publishing roster – but we will aim to help you understand why you weren’t successful this time. Let’s demystify the process! 

We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Rue

* With thanks to good old QI, Season 15, for many of these rejection letters. 

Poetry in Widnes by Pauline Rowe

          At the age of six I read William Blake’s The Tyger, a poem I found in a book my mother used for her night-school studies.  It was 1969, the year Lulu won the Eurovision Song Contest with Boom-Bang-a-Bang, when Patrick Troughton was Doctor Who, and Oliver Postgate’s Clangers first appeared on television. In the world, there were riots in Derry, the British Government sent the troops into Northern Ireland and Barbara Castle published her white paper In Place of Strife.  In my world I lived with my older sister, Mum, Dad, Uncle Joe and Aunty Wendy and attended a Catholic primary school that required a ten-minute walk and a twenty-minute bus ride to reach.  It was a year since my Mum’s younger brother and sister came to live with us after Grandad Attwood died in our front room.  My Dad worked at Fords and my Mum worked as a dental receptionist in the day and a part-time bingo caller at the Regal for a couple of nights a week.  She was also a student at Widnes Tech, where she was studying for her O levels at night-school.  My Mum and Dad were both marked in different ways by the experiment of Secondary Modern education.  My Dad was a good singer, a great believer in exercise and keen advocate of the radio. He was, briefly, a professional rugby player signed to Widnes, then to Liverpool City, who lost his chance of life as a sportsman because of injury.  My mother was present and absent in her reading of books.

          I was curious about the power one of her books seemed to possess.  I imagine, for I do not clearly remember, that the book opened at a frequently consulted page, but my first reading of this poem seemed to me to be an act of discovery.    I was pleased to see an eccentric spelling of tyger.  I read the poem silently inside my head:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?   …

So much begins here.  The word tyger repeated; tyger, tyger: as alliterative invocation, as defiant challenge to the command ‘twinkle, twinkle,’ as a spell, a magical call to the wild, wide world of creation.  Words on a page that I could hear somehow inside my own head as a voice, words composed centuries before, words that had travelled through time to become a new personal experience.  I did not know the meaning of every word but I understood that this poem possessed a power through its sounds, its incantatory qualities and its complexities. It struck me like a spell and I fell in love with the defiant singularity of the encounter as well as the text, those words first published in 1794 belonging to me somehow, a child growing up in a Northern industrial town, being raised by a young mother who longed to be educated. 

          The pages of Mum’s poetry book were creamy and thick like buttermilk and the poem had a small black and white woodcut print of a tiger just above it, the size of a first-class stamp.  Tyger, tyger, burning bright.  This was better than Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and had the vivid heat of Great Grandad’s coal fire about it.  In the forest of the night.  Like the thick, sharp vines and thorns around the castle in Sleeping Beauty, but the moon has moved behind a cloud. I could see the fire of the tiger’s coat moving like a torch in the dark, hot enough to set light to my Bri-Nylon nightie.   What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?  I liked the sound of these sentences.  They made me think of mum pinching the skin on my arm if I messed around in church.  Her eyes would burn at me.   In what distant deeps or skies Burnt the fire of thine eyes?  I liked this William Blake who had his name on the poem.  He was telling me that this tiny room would not be where I would stand forever.  The distant deeps – like in Captain Nemo.  Now I could see the tiger’s eyes burning green from the thorny jungle and his coat burning orange and yellow with flashes of purple. 

          I read through the rest of the poem, it rang in my head like the Angelus, my heart was beating hard – What dread hand? And what dread feet?  I knew that, in these words, a very different kind of God was living than the Father God resident in St Thomas More’s church around the corner.  I felt that my heart too had sinews that had been twisted although I didn’t imagine it was God’s hands that caused the pain.  I carried the book to my bottom bunk and placed it under my pillow.

          I took the poem to my teacher, Mrs Hobday, a cheerful, practical woman and she asked me to read it aloud to the class.  I was unafraid, articulating Blake’s words in front of thirty silent peers, even though I didn’t know what sinews looked like or what else in the world might possess ‘fearful symmetry’.  I was reciting something like a prayer with its thys, thees, thines and “he who made the Lamb,” – and in its pronouncement I was protected from the fearfulness celebrated in the poem. 

What the hammer? what the chain, 

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp, 

Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

This was my discovery of poetry as both magic and mystery.  At six the experience I had was a profound experience through reading.  The nature of the poem, what it is, remained true in my partial understanding of it as much as in its very self.  A poem is an animation of the spirit of an idea. It becomes, in part, the person of the poet as well as the person of the reader.  It is a direct connection from the hand of the poet to the eye of the reader, from the voice of the poet to the ear of the mind.  Tyger embodies, for me, the essence of what poetry can achieve in language, rhythm, concept, vision and magic.

          Our tyger is “burning bright/in the forest of the night.” It is both a conflagration and a beacon, an illumination and a signal to darkness and danger.  It lights up the night, a night that is also a forest. The metaphor does not need to be doubted for the forest is a known place of danger and magic in a child’s imagination.  To the child I was, this was both knowing and not knowing.  When I read the poem out loud to my class it felt to me as though the very words could conjure up the tyger. I was used to hearing the incantations of mysterious language every Sunday.  There was a feeling of power in becoming the sayer of mysterious words. 

          But I did not love this poem because I wanted to conjure the tiger but because of its language and its intimacy, because I wanted to be myself and the poem helped me to be myself in a way that I did not understand except in the light of the poem.  Tyger was both proclaimed and public and personal.  No other art achieves such electricity in both its stillness of being and reception. That is something to do with its process of making within the mind, through the body (in the act of writing) and out of the experience of one person and then, in its telling, to the mind of another.  There is voice here and sensation but always through the prism of language, the inadequacy of words, a reaching for meaning, an attempt to distill and capture human experience.   In Poetry in the Making Ted Hughes describes this as follows:

Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are…Something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our bodies from moment to moment like water in a river.  Something of the spirit of the snowflake in the water of the river.  Something of the duplicity and the relativity and the merely fleeting quality of all this.  Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaningless.  And when words can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment of time, and in that moment make out of it all the vital signature of a human being – not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or of a heap of lenses, but a human being – we call it poetry.   (p.124)

It is also helpful to consider poetry and the language of poetry in contradistinction to narrative prose because poetry favours figurative and metaphorical language in its various testaments to human experience as integral to its own nature as an art.  I took the book of poems into Mrs Hobday’s class in response to her invitation for us to take in our favourite stories.  This is the first moment in my life that I recall making a conscious decision about my preference for poetry rather than prose. This is a preference for a distinct way of thinking and organising words.  In a recent lecture published in Poetry Review Anne Carson described the painter Francis Bacon as wanting “to defeat narrative wherever it seeks to arise.”  This defeat of narrative has also become part of poetry’s purpose in post-modern times. As John Berger  argues in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos:

Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories.  All stories are about battles which end in victory or defeat.  Everything moves towards the end when the outcome will be known.  Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful.  They bring a kind of peace, not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it has never been.  The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter to, the experience that demanded, that cried out.”    [‘Once in a Poem’.]

Tyger speaks of the terrible power of nature and the wrath of God.  In its question: “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” I was on familiar ground, used to reciting: “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” 

          In my childish reading of Blake I experienced the poem as liturgy, knowing nothing of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Its power is in its magic, images, its metaphors, its priestliness and mysteries, its sounds and its rhymes and in it becoming my own, belonging to me personally as a gift; similarly, it has remained with me, for I know it by heart and have carried it inside me ever since.          

          I started to write my own inventions when I was in Junior school, aged seven.  I have a clear memory of writing a poem about a whale that began:

This creature lives under the sea

as fierce, as fierce can be…..

With the romantic, nature-loving instinct of a child I scribbled half lines and rhymes about animals and weather, about creatures and seasons.  My whale poem concluded with a drawing of a whale.  I learned about writing through reading and through looking and then attempted to think with a pencil in my hand.  I had three endeavours that related to writing.  The first was the idea that I would be a writer and in pursuit of that I made my own writing space in the shed that I shared with my pet rabbit.  I used an old dressing table as my desk and book-shelf. The second endeavour involved a gathering of resources, of tools I would need, including my books, writing paper, pencil and pen (I was some years away from my first typewriter).  The books I kept in the shed were my weekly library books, The Observer Book of Pondlife (perhaps my most important book) and A Puffin Quartet of Poets (which included Eleanor Farjeon, James Reeves, E.V. Rieu and Ian Serraillier), a book I consulted regularly. My third endeavour was in thinking.  I spent a lot of time thinking about and working on descriptions of observed objects, and I was particularly interested in insects and portraits of human faces.  Writing about the human face is something I associate with prose and school, rather than poetry. The insects were, for me, poetic and personal material. The face-writing was linked to creative work that a young student teacher, Miss Hays, developed with us in fourth year.  Although I cannot remember the result, I recall the thinking and struggle I encountered when trying to compose a descriptive piece about Thomas More’s face. 

          Writing is how I think and negotiate my space in the world. My first experience of writing was associated with silence and space away from everyone else, reading, discovering books and thinking. These are aspects of writing that remain central to my life. The experience of that first poem established for me the importance of reading, seeing in the mind (imagination), rhythm, magic, rhyme, sound, voice, thinking (the working out) as essential components of my own creative and writing life.

About the Author

Dr Pauline Rowe is Poet-in-Residence for Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust. Her publications and achievements include    The Ghost Hospital (Maytree Press, 2019) Shortlisted, best poetry pamphlet category — Saboteur Awards 2020; The Allotments (Victoria Gallery & Museum, LOOK Biennial 2019)   Sleeping in the Middle (Open Eye Gallery, 2018)  and earlier Voices of the Benares (Lapwing Publications, 2014)   Waiting For the Brown Trout God (Headland Publications, 2009).