CALLING ALL EDITORS

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I have a short story I’m about to send in to a competition – 1000 words max.

Would anyone be able to help out with offering their thoughts on the story?

For those interested, the competition is for Yen Magazine, and must feature a suitcase. The details are here. Entries close August 15th Рget writing!

Steph x

Week Twenty-One Prompt: The straw that stirs the drink.

Geoffrey looks a little like Karl Lagerfeld, minus the rings and the camp. I know his name is Geoffrey because I sneak a peek at his boarding pass as I stash my bag in the overhead bin. My friend plunks herself in the window seat, insists I take the middle, and she pulls down her eye mask, pops in her ear plugs and there is no hope for me. Geoffrey and I sit on the plane next to each other, perfect strangers confined in a petri dish for the next 16 hours. I tell him where we’re going. He nods as I list off the usual hot spots, but his eyes light up as I mention his home.  

           
            I’ve lived there for 20 years, he tells me.

            I spent three days there once. Does that count?

            It’s not enough.

            I know, I say. That’s why I’m going back.

As the plane touches down, he hands me a vomit bag. Across it he has scrawled bars, restaurants, hotels, sights, hand drawn maps. Two words etched across the top of the paper in messy ink hold my attention.

San Francisco.

*

            I could never live here, she says with a toss of her hair.

She sucks her juice through a straw as she looks across the bay. I hate the way she does it, lifting the straw above the level of the liquid, just enough that the noise disturbs the group of German boys at the next table. I want to snap at her. She knows what she is doing, she knows the best way to stir me after five months of travelling together, but it is getting old.

We have been to Victoria Falls, then Johannesburg, Tokyo, Osaka, Lausanne, Paris, London, New York, Vegas, now, finally, San Fran. Five months away. It feels like the whole world should be changed and my mind is half back home, in my sunlit bedroom, listening to music and cooking dinner, going to work, dropping by my parents house. Five months and the friend I’ve been travelling with isn’t my friend anymore. Conversation has run dry, there are no more words spilling from our mouths. We go some place loud, some place we don’t have to talk and just dance the night away. There have been people we’ve met along the way who have filled in the blanks, but now I’m sick of it.

So I take a breath.

I am silent, taking in the way the light slants off the bay, the faint noise of the Pier 39 seals below us, the beat of this city. I close my eyes, tuning her out. She is saying something about how it is too slow here, the people are too simple, the place is too pretty and it is all just a bit vapid. We pay and leave Eagle Café and I take another breath, watching my feet wind their way through the street, careful not to step on the cracks. There are so many here, spread out over the road like scars. I imagine they are from earthquakes that rumble underneath the city while cats hide behind refrigerators and people sleep on, undisturbed. People who live in an earthquake city aren’t slow or simple, I want to yell at her. So what if it’s pretty and the people are nice? Does that mean it can’t also be taken seriously?

*

We walk down to the water and take a ferry out to Alcatraz. It’s one of the strangest places I’ve ever been to. I stand in the tiny cell open to visitors, stare at the four walls and imagine how cold this place would be at night. My not-friend takes photos of herself putting her head through the bars, pulling faces and I look away, a bit ashamed, but she just shrugs and says the men who were in here deserved everything they got.

*

We rent bikes from Dylan’s Bike Store, and we follow the map he marks out for us in highlighter, right before he adjusts the seat heights for us and gives us a number to call if we puncture a tyre and I can’t stop saying thank you because people are so friggin’ nice here.

We ride through Marina and get looks from rich young things spending their money on Union Street underwear, and I stop and stare through the window at the French lace corsets, delicate as butterfly wings. The women who wear these are tall and tanned (and young and lovely) and I want to be them, or be friends with them or I would even settle for standing near them sometimes and smelling their perfume.

We wind through Russian Hill and take in the zig-zagging Lombard Street. I imagine the architects and town planners; and someone slapping their palm onto a table crying, “I’ve got it!” The houses are tiny leaning towers of Pisa and there are eight hairpin turns slashed into the hill and she thinks they were kind of crazy, but I think they were kind of amazing.

We turn onto Valencia and suddenly we are in the Mission. We fly past bars and restaurants and colours, so many colours they blur as we tear down the hill towards the water and then we are at the waterfront. The rest is a haze of shape and shadow until we reach the bridge. We climb off our bikes and look down at the waves crashing against the pillars holding it up. We see the tiny dots of the surfers in full winter body suits, and something comes over me and I speak. She almost listens.

*

I would rather live in New York, she says to me as we stroll through the Farmers Markets looking for cheese.

I shrug and don’t say what I’m thinking, because in total I’ve spent less than eight days of my life here and I know that it’s incredibly weird, but I’m protective of this place the way I am about my family, and I don’t want anybody insulting it.

New York is the younger sister skulking behind a tree; edgy and bright and boiling over with too much of everything. Lost souls are drawn to her bright lights and she burns them out while they don’t even notice.

Las Vegas is the older sister dressed in sequins tap-dancing around the kitchen table. She gets a boob job and a tattoo that says princess just above her butt and she makes no apologies for it.

San Francisco is the middle sister lazing on the couch reading a book, effortlessly stylish in a way that tells others she doesn’t give a shit. She has fights with her parents about global warming and the importance of standing up for gay marriage, and she brakes for animals. She is kind, kind in the way that doesn’t come along too often these days and she feeds the homeless regularly. She can peel an apple in one long strip.

*

We’re in Haight-Ashbury, having been directed there by the hotel, spending so much money there’s no point putting my credit card back in my wallet. Even she has to admit the shopping here is fantastic, and even though we had other plans today we let them slide with a ‘we’ll get to that tomorrow’ as we stare at rack after rack of clothes, shoes, bags, knick knacks.

It’s a shame that it’s winter and I’m wearing so many layers because much valuable shopping time is lost peeling leggings and stockings and thermals on and off again. I’m in a frenzy, ripping things I don’t need from shelves and saying, “I’ll take it,” and I feel sick at the amount I have spent, but this place is getting to me and I need to take a small part of it home as proof.

I will keep these things in my closet until someone I trust comes over for tea. I will wait for a lull in the conversation, then I will take the things out of my closet, shyly offering them one by one to the person I trust. I will show them the vomit bag Geoffrey gave me, carefully kept for all those months. I will show them photos of me on the cable cars. I will make them touch the fabric of the clothes and trust in the power of osmosis to explain for me the unsettling pit in my stomach; one which tells me that I feel at home here in a way that startles me out of my old skin. I could carve out a life here, here in this pretty earthquake city with the vapid slow simple people. I could hang out in the Castro and make gay friends and I could run down by the waterfront, only eating organic veggies I buy from the farmers market. I could be a kind stranger on a plane dispensing advice to young girls about my home and I could take my mum and dad out to Alcatraz when they visit, and they wouldn’t stick their heads through the bars. I could ride my bike over the bridge, pausing at the top to watch the fog roll through the bay, freezing my hair into slick tendrils that stick to my skin. I could leave my sunlit bedroom behind and settle into this city by the sea, and I could get a cat that would hide behind my refrigerator as I sleep undisturbed in my San Francisco bed.

I could.

This has been an intersection with the very lovely . Many thanks go to her for being so inspiring, and also to , for her insight on how to make this not suck. 

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Week Seventeen Prompt: Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

"All I know is that every time I go to Africa, I am shaken to my core." 

Stephen Lewis

Sean finds the turtle shell on his grandparents farm outside of Harare. It is empty, sunbaked and dried out and so, so cool. He picks it up, tiny hands clasping the grooved surface, white against green, determined. He isn’t worried about the fact that it’s dirty, or that something has died in there and rotted out and that he could get an infection. He does what every other six-year-old boy would do. He straps it onto his back, cuts his mother’s tablecloth into strips, ties those strips around his forehead, ankles and wrists, and tells everyone he knows (and some he doesn’t) that he is a teenage mutant ninja turtle.

Now all he needs is a knife.

Sean makes knives in his dad’s factory; long jagged pieces of steel torn off from discarded sheet metal lying on the factory floor. Sean watches the orange sparks skitter with the dust motes in the factory air; watches his knives against the grinder, sharpened by the workers who won’t ever let him use the machine himself.

Sean eats with the workers, small white hands mingling with their large black ones in the bowl of sadza nyama nemuriwo, rolling hot sticky gloops between his fingers, slipping them into his mouth before it gets cold. Friday laughs at him, white teeth bright and flashing as he shows Sean how he makes it. The steam warms Sean's face as he leans over the bowl, breathing it in. He has never tasted anything more delicious.

Years pass, and Sean’s parents worry about him. They worry for his safety, because a friend of theirs has just been shot trying to pick her kids up from school. They worry because one of Sean’s friends found her dad’s gun, put it to her belly and pulled the trigger. They worry because blacks and whites are dying and there’s no food or petrol left and Sean won’t be a boy much longer and pretty soon he might have to use his toy knives for survival and his parents don’t think it will be enough against all this history and hate and corruption.

It breaks their hearts, but they leave, because they are in a position to do so. 

Sean brings his Australian girlfriend to Zimbabwe when he is twenty-five. She has never been in a place where the difference between white and black is so pronounced before. 

She brings a journal. “I’m going to find out everything,” she tells Sean and he smiles. That’s how she shows she’s here for him.

She talks to everyone, as much as she can, because she wants to understand this sad and lovely place Sean comes from. This country which has fought itself broken and back again and she wants to know why.

Everything is solid here; the air, thick and overwhelming, the ground beneath her feet dirt red and rich and green, so green she can't believe it. The houses and the furniture, everything seems to be carved out of the earth, hewn from rocks and trees and there since forever.

Here, nothing comes from Ikea and there is no such thing as Tupperware. The people here draw warm, easy breaths into their hard working lungs, people who, according to Knowledge, the bus driver she talks to, can do anything. He says the people of his country could do anything given half the chance, and she can see that he is hoping with all his might for that half a chance to come along.

She speaks to a farmer who immigrated to Zambia after being thrown out of Zimbabwe, and he is bitter and broken and trying not to be. “As long as you have this white skin? Ah sut, you are just a visitor. You don’t belong.” He is speaking more to himself than to her and she is not prepared for this. She doesn’t know what to say.

Tulani tells her that although things were nicer before, they are getting okay now. He is guarded when she asks him about the election coming up (whenever Bob decides to call it) and who he thinks will win. Tulani does not have the luxury of an opinion, but he hopes things will get better for him, his family and his country.

The pilot she talks to tells her that 2002 was a bad year; the year they all nearly left. He is lean and careworn. There is something in his eyes she can’t bring herself to look at, because she doesn’t know how to define it, and she has never had that problem before.

She does not understand what has happened here, and her African adventure is not at all what she imagined it would be.

Instead, she has come to an old country, to God’s country, and she has seen sunsets and waterfalls and lions eating baboons and shanty towns and community vegetable gardens and bowls made from cut off pieces of telephone wire sewn together with copper and kids playing soccer with rolled up TM bags and this place, this hopeful hopeless place stirs her blood more deeply than anything she could possibly have imagined.

Sean finds her sitting on his grandma’s spare bed; quiet, unopened journal in her hand. She looks soft and young and fragile like this with a patchwork quilt beside her and her legs tucked up under her.

“Hey,” he smiles at her. She looks up. “What are you thinking about?”

“Oh,” she sighs. “Just,” there is a silence. He waits. “Everything I guess. This place,” she gestures vaguely.

“It makes you want to save it, you know?” She is earnest, her hands fisted at her sides. “But there's too…It's too…You can’t.”

She knows how naïve she sounds and hopes he won’t make fun of it. She feels impotent and inadequate and everything she has never felt before in her first world life. Her intentions, her words, her journal are no use here.

“No, you can’t,” Sean agrees. He slips an arm around her waist. “It’s just going to have to save itself.”

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Week Eight Prompt: A Travelling Travesty

Ellen had never been what you would call artistic. She’d never been able to make the picture in her head come out the right way; the images instead teensy and wonky and just sort of curious – a travesty of what she had wanted. A teacher had told her once that she had no poetry in her soul and she hadn’t even been offended. Words, she understood in a way she never could a picture or, if she were honest with herself, a glance or a touch; such tiny actions which rendered her – Ellen Michaels – speechless. Words were something solid, something dependable and you always knew where you stood with words.

Then the plane touched down on the tarmac at Sydney International, and Dave was beside her, outlined against the beyond blue sky in the tiny window. Dave had grabbed her hand suddenly, painfully, and his hand was sweaty against hers but she didn’t mind because her stomach was twisting and jolting in a way that should have been unpleasant but she might be about to meet her birth mother and –

She had no words. They should have sent a poet.

*

Ellen had thought Australia would be hot, even during the winter. She had thought she wouldn’t need a coat or a scarf here; that her lips wouldn’t be chapped from the wind and that she wouldn’t have to apply moisturiser to dry cracked hands in the morning, rifling carefully through her bag in the semi-darkness of the hotel room so as not to wake Dave. He tended to drift off at odd times, like when they were on the bus or in yet another waiting room or once, sitting in a grimy booth at McDonald’s that to Ellen just felt dirty. She stared at his dark head on the pillow next to her, thinking about how different things had been since his brother had died.

At first, they had touched a lot. They had even kissed once, at the wake. She had paused at his door, listening for any noise. Suddenly Dave was in front of her. She had been pushed roughly up against the door, black dress against black suit and hands slammed above her head.  Heart hammering in her chest she had seen something in his eyes that scared her, because she wasn’t sure if she could fix something so broken and the thought that Dave might never be the same again was too awful to contemplate. Dave had grunted and crashed his lips to hers and Ellen had had to remind herself that this was Dave, her Dave, and he wouldn’t hurt her, ever, not in that way. So she had closed her eyes and kissed him back, because he was still Dave and she wanted to yell at herself because she was only eighteen and shouldn’t be thinking things like oh God, this is it, forever at her age. Maybe, though, with one of Dave’s hands tangled in her hair and the press of him along the line of her body, there was hope for them and she shivered at the idea.

Perhaps Dave had felt the tremor run through her because he had broken off suddenly and pressed his forehead against hers for a moment, eyes closed and shoulders heaving, gradually loosening his grip on her wrists. She brought her hands down slowly, the way you would with an animal that has been cornered, no sudden movements. The grip marks on her wrists were red and angry against her skin and she rubbed vaguely at the marks. Dave had opened his eyes then.

“Did I do that?” His voice was thick and heavy, and if Ellen had been a meaner person she would have looked to see if he was crying, but she didn’t. Instead, she pulled the sleeves of her cardigan over the marks, shrugging.

“It’s fine. You didn’t mean to.”

“I’m-” Dave’s voice broke, and Ellen reached a hand up to his face suddenly. He started at the movement, and she caught a glimpse of his anguished expression before he tore himself away.  She pressed against the door as she listened to his heavy footsteps down the stairs.
They hadn’t spoken about it since.

She had thought that Dave needed to be somewhere different where his siblings weren’t walking around like ghosts and his mother didn’t burst into tears at the sight of a pair of Jack’s socks; somewhere his father’s mouth wasn’t a perpetual grim line. He had offered to go with her to find her mother, one hand rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly while trying not to look as though he was saying something important. She had wondered whether this had anything to do with the kiss, but then he had cleared his throat and she had looked up to find his eyes on her, and that had been that. She had nodded, and he had nodded, and they left a week later.   

She had thought that they would be okay here in Australia; that they would be a they here, not a him and a her, but the hotel air between them was filled with awkward space she couldn’t breach. Watching him sleep was all she had and it wasn’t enough and she shouldn’t even be thinking about this while she had a job to do. 
 
Over the next few days, they continued to search, grabbing phone books and business directories from hotel concierges who spoke something that sounded like English but wasn’t really, and they would emerge from the lobby, blinking in the bright light that was bright in a way that was different to how it was in England.

Ellen imagined that when she met her mother, she would pat her on the head and tell her it was just culture shock, but her mother was sort of the problem. Ellen didn’t know where she was.

*

“We’re going to Brisbane.”
 
Dave’s head snapped up from his study of the remote control and he nodded slowly.

“Okay." There was a silence, then, “Do you want to play a game?”

Dave’s eyes met hers and she swallowed. “What sort of game?”

 “Well,” Dave began, “It’s meant to be played with alcohol.” 

Ellen shifted against the door, and Dave’s eyes followed the line of her legs up to her thighs. Ellen tried not to look at the way his hands clenched slightly, skin pulling taught over thick fingers and veins standing out for a moment. It’s just a hand, you idiot, she told herself.

“It’s called, ‘I never’, and you have to start off a sentence with ‘I never’ and then follow it with something you’ve never done, and if the other person has done it they drink.”
Ellen nodded slowly as Dave rummaged in the bar fridge, muttering to himself.

“I know there’s some in here somewhere.”

He looked up at her with a smile on his face, bottle in hand.

“Ready?”
*

“I’ve never failed a subject in my life,” Dave nudged her with his shoulder; head tipped toward hers as he took a swig. Ellen wanted to tell him that he was missing the point of the game; that he was meant to say things he hadn’t done, but he winked at her like he knew what she was thinking and she giggled. They lay next to each other, shoulders touching. A tiny part of her was horrified at the fact that she was brave enough to try to chase down her birth mother but still couldn’t tell Dave she was half in love with him, so she told him something else instead.

“I failed art.” Ellen screwed her eyes shut. She felt Dave shift beside her and cracked an eye open. He quirked his eyebrow at her.

“You failed it? Actually failed?”

Ellen nodded, flushing red.

“Yes.”

“Wow.”

“I’m just not creative. It’s fine, I’ve never really been bothered by it. Once actually, a teacher looked at this picture I had drawn of my adopted family and just about fell to the ground laughing. I was ten.”

“That’s horrible! What a useless bloody teacher.”

She shrugged, “Not really. It was a rather dreadful painting.”

“But still, I mean, it’s not as though – she could’ve been nicer about it couldn’t she?”

Dave looked so adorably put out that Ellen wanted to hug him. So she did. He stiffened slightly before Ellen decided that enough was enough.

“Just hold me,” she mumbled into his shirt, just quietly enough so that if he wanted to he could pretend not to have heard it, but then he put his arms around her. The tightness in her stomach receded and she breathed him in.

“Imagine if I hadn’t run away from you last time,” Dave said suddenly into the stillness, anger underlying his voice as he gulped his drink.

“I would’ve…I would’ve kissed you a lot sooner.” The air was filled with a pleasant tension that sizzled and popped between them, and maybe it was the alcohol but Ellen felt something swelling inside her, like if air was a feeling.

“If I let you, you mean,” she teased, nudging him with her shoulder.

“Let me?” Dave said, mock offended. “Please, you were begging for it.” There was a beat, then, “I would have wanted to.” Dave’s voice was barely above a whisper and Ellen could feel the warm vibration shift the loose strands of hair around her ear. She looked up at him then, and her breath caught because in that moment, in that hotel room in Sydney with the noise of passing traffic muffled on the street below them, she could forget, for a tiny moment, about why she was there and focus instead on the person she came there with.

“I had fun tonight. I mean, despite everything, this is the most fun I’ve had in ages.” Ellen’s voice was breathless and a slow smile spread over Dave’s face.

“Yeah. Me too.” His voice was thick and low; it made Ellen shiver a little bit. He reached out an arm towards her, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Thank you,” he said seriously.

“For what?”

“For just…you know. Being there. For everything. For letting me come with you. These past few weeks have been bloody awful, but you’ve made it…you know…bearable.”

“So have you,” she said. “I couldn’t have done this without you.”
 
Her stared at her and she swallowed noisily.

“It’s funny,” Dave said. “It changes you,” and Ellen didn’t have to ask what he was talking about. She could hear it in his voice, the slight ache that always came when he spoke about his brother Jack.

“Maybe not in a huge noticeable way, but it does change you. You look at things a bit differently, and you feel,” Dave hesitated for a moment, shrugging, searching for the right words. “I dunno, you feel sadder, I guess, and older, but not necessarily wiser,” he smiled ruefully as he said this and looked at her sideways.

“I’m going to be there for you, you know,” Ellen said suddenly. “No matter what.”

Dave was silent for a moment, just staring at her. Then, without warning, he leaned closer, trailing one hand along the side of her face till he was cupping her chin.

“Ellen. I think you’re bloody brilliant,” he said, and then his lips were on hers, and Ellen’s arms found their way around his neck. It was all softness and slow, warm motion and Ellen sunk down deeper into him, until she couldn’t remember what it was like to not kiss Dave, to not be with him like this. He tasted like heat and alcohol and smelled so familiar that she felt an ache well up inside her at the thought that finally, finally, things were making sense. She was going to meet her mother and she would be with Dave.

*

Ellen hadn’t expected Brisbane to be beautiful, but after spending two days walking around the city squinting in the harsh winter sunlight that didn’t seem to warm anything up, she had gotten used to the light and the space and the winding river that ran through it all. It reminded her a little of a smaller, quieter London, but this time it didn’t make her homesick. With Dave next to her, occasionally holding her hand and rubbing his thumb against hers, she thought that maybe they could one day come back for a visit; a proper visit, with cameras and dorky clothes and they would smile and laugh more. They wouldn’t have a job to do.

 “Here we are,” Ellen said, peering up at the tiny numbers over the doorway.

“I’ve got a good feeling about this one,” Dave said and Ellen smiled. He said that every time.

“What’s this now? Seventeenth time lucky?”

“You never know.”

*

It was her mum’s voice that did it. Ellen had waited anxiously for her knock to be answered, and it was, and her mother had known who she was, and she had said, “Hello”, as though it was something they had said to each other every single day.

There was a silence for a while, during which Ellen just stared at her mother, drinking her in, and she so badly wanted to hug her and have her mother tell her that everything was okay and stroke her hair and make her some cocoa and talk to her about the Dave situation and her mother would be happy for her, but –

She didn’t have the words.

*

The introductions were a tiny bit awkward. Dave had tried very hard to look as though he hadn’t spent the last week or so sleeping in the same bed as her daughter. He had kissed Ellen’s mum’s cheek and then tactfully disappeared, saying he would meet up with her at the hotel.

*

Ellen was waiting in the lobby when Dave finally returned. She heard a cough behind her and spun around and saw Dave standing there with a small package in his hands. She took it confusedly.

“What’s this for?”

 “Just open it.”

A small box fell out, with the words ‘digital camera’ printed on the side. Ellen stared at the box for a while, dumbfounded.

“Well, are you going to say anything?"

Ellen looked up at him, and the expression on her face must have reassured him somehow because he visibly relaxed, the tension fading from the lines of his shoulders as he breathed a sigh of relief.

“So do you like it? You do like it don’t you?”

“I-” Ellen said. She didn’t think ‘like it’ were the right words here. Maybe, love-it-so-much-you-are-so-brilliant-I-want-to-be-the-mother-of-your-children, might have been going a bit far, but she didn’t think so.

“I know you don’t think you’re artistic, and all that,” Dave continued, “but I think that you should, you know,” he stopped, brow furrowing as he thought about what he was trying to say. “You have things in your life that you should make memories of, you know? Good things, things that you’ll want to look back on and be like, yeah, that was bloody brilliant, and it doesn’t matter if everything comes out blurry, you shouldn’t let that stop you.” He took a deep breath and slipped his thumb along her jaw.

“Because you’ll want something like that at some point. I wish-” he broke off, staring at her for a minute. “Well, I had to use Jack’s money for something, right?”
 
Suddenly, telling Dave she wanted to be the mother of his children didn’t seem to be a big enough gesture, but she thought that with Dave, she might have to start small.

“Thank you,” she said, trying to convey in those two words exactly how grateful she was to him. Dave nodded and she decided she didn’t care that they were in a hotel lobby. Today, she had met her mother and it was all because of him. She threw her arms around him and kissed him then, before she could change her mind. Dave did this thing with his hand where he traced a small circle on her back and nothing mattered except the feeling of him against her and the fluttering in her stomach and the beat of his heart and she didn’t want to stop. Ever. She somehow thought that Dave wouldn’t mind.  

*

Ellen wrote to her mother every fortnight after returning home, and Ellen visited her again many times. Ellen always took two things with her: Dave, and her camera.