Love Letters #38

Have you ever sunk down into the belly of London?

There are vertical escalators, and sometimes they squeak and squeal, groaning under the weight of a thousand feet every second of every day. Never stopping. Hundreds of stories and minds. Millions of thoughts, whispered in thousands of accents, drowned by the voices of people getting things done.

There are pictures on the metal walls, pictures that move and shift and change shapes, kaleidoscopic in their constant swirling motion, and for a moment you want to go to the theatre and see Les Miserable, and the next moment the thought vanishes from your brain as you frantically feel your way through pale yellow tunnels, following the crowd and wondering if you are going the right way, can’t turn back or else people will shove you back the way you came, the rush of hot air pulling you further and further into the belly of London.

Old walls, crumbling civilisations giving way to new ones.

I was born in London.

Tooting.

Same hospital as my mother was born in. So strange, that thought. Twenty four years apart.

My father fell down the stairs and broke his coccyx bone the day I was born. He was rushing to the hospital to see his first child. For twenty three years he hasn’t been able to sit properly.

When I was six years old, my stomach curled and unfurled itself as I clutched a small pink straw bag, descending on those vertical escalators down, down down below the crowded surface of the busy city.

Do we have to go on the tube? Can’t we go on the overground train?

Don’t be so silly, Lenora. Look sharp now, quickly!

My mother, seasoned, marching through the tunnels with myself and my little brother in tow. Stepping onto the train, grabbing the back of her skirt, sick with fear.

Then the hurtle, the loud screaming of the train on those metal tracks, the blackness outside the windows. Why were there even windows, if there was nothing to look at? Terrified. Barely able to breathe. Is this the stop? Can we get out?

No!? Ohhhh. 

A soft groan, deep in my belly.

Any minute now the lights would turn off and the train would stop and we would be stuck down here in the dark and heat forever and ever and

forever.

Loud, screaming, hurtling, whistling, wailing. I would close my eyes, begging for this nightmare to be over.

When I was eleven I read a story about the people who cleaned the underground tunnels.

You wouldn’t believe what they found there. Giant rats, and fleas the size of cockroaches, flittering in the darkness. An old woman spoke of the horrors of those tunnels. Yet, they were a refuge to many during the war. Safe havens, in giant brick pools under the ancient city of London. Curving under the Thames and even crossing by the long forgotten rivers that people seldom remember, yet traverse past daily.

And still, I was terrified.

The tube?! Really?! We can get to Victoria on the overground. What about a bus?! A bus is so much better.

Oh, grow up, you silly girl.

Stuck to my seat, sometimes shoved under someone’s armpit, holding tight, my stomach swaying as the train hustled and swerved and screamed its way through those hot, windy tunnels. Fear seeped through my skin, soaking my clothes and beading on my upper lip.

The roaring becoming louder, and louder, and louder, rising in volume and ferocity,

 – why is it so angry -?!

I open my eyes.

I am twenty three years old. I am sitting on the tube for the first time in three years, and before that, for the first time nine.

London has not been my home for twelve years.

Yet, every time I step off the train and into Euston or King’s Cross, a rush of overwhelming familiarity hits me.

The smells and the noise pollution, rising high in the sky, thousands of lives picking their way through thousands of machines, breathing in exhaust fumes and coffee grounds, heels on newspapers, sweat pooling in the creases of skin, accents and countries and worlds colliding as people get on with their business.

And I love the tube. I love the tube with all my heart.

I love the feeling of standing on the furthest end, watching everybody and their engrossed detachment from the world around them. The ginger man sitting next to a nun, sneaking peeks at her reading material. The woman who is watching a Netflix show and the audience of standing commuters, eyes glued to her screen behind the grimy glass that separates her seat from the doors.

I love the hurtling, screaming ferocity. I love the traffic of humans, all hurrying, running, racing, sweating, on the same journey but so trained in avoiding any real contact with each other. Physically pressed up against each other but mentally floating high above the tunnels through which they are carried at top speeds.

I don’t love London at all. I might love the memories I have, which lurk around unexpected corners and in strange places. That place that I vomited outside the Natural History museum. That spot in the British library where I tried to hide those chewits. That fountain in Hyde Park where I sprained my ankle and subsequently cried all the way home on the 319. That tree where the dog barked at my brother and I, scaring our five and four year old selves half to death. That rookery where we rolled down the hills and I got grass stains on my blue Alice in Wonderland dress.

But I love the Tube.

I love the old terror that rises in my throat like bile, because my twenty three year old self recognises it for what it really is;

Adrenaline.

Excitement.

Adventure.

Thrill.

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Monstrosity

A word must be put in for monstrosity.

It has an ugly head, but disguises itself wonderfully under the soft and peachy skin of a four year old child who is loved by everybody. She knows she is loved. She knows her smile will charm an adult, and a kiss on a wrinkled cheek will yield more affection, which she thrives on.

Her eyes are wont to fill quickly, as her heart is so sensitive, and the adults croon over her, saying what a kind and wonderful soul she has.

‘You were so sweet and charming, Len,’ my mother says.

She doesn’t know the truth.

She doesn’t know that when I was four, I used to pinch a little girl. I pinched her and she cried.

I did it again the next day.

And the day after that as well.

I don’t know why I did it. I just remember doing it. I remember feeling guilty.

So why did I do it?

What was wrong with me?

Was I guilty about doing it, or was I guilty about being found out?

If you look at photographs, you see a small child with shiny brown curly hair and a dimpled smile. Her eyes sparkle with innocence and brim with joy.

If you peep into my memories, you see lots of love. Lashings of it. I am saturated in love. I have so much that it spills easily out of me and I can make little gifts of it to give to everybody else.

So where was the love in my four year old brain when I pinched that innocent little girl who did nothing to me?

My mother doesn’t know that when I was seventeen, I thought I was in love, and did many selfish things to chase something that was bad for me.

She doesn’t know that when I was twenty three, I felt hard done by, and used my husband’s love for me to selfishly get my own way, even though another party deserved to have her whims met more than I.

She doesn’t know that I have temper tantrums, sometimes, and say cruel things to my husband, who goes out of his way to please me, and who always wants to treat me well.

She thinks I am kind, and compassionate, and sweet, and she takes comfort in the fact that a child of hers creates good in the world.

But you see, I don’t feel so good.

I feel monstrous.

I cannot sleep at night, because I cannot ask forgiveness of those I have wronged, because I am either terrified they will crash back into my life, or because they do not know I have wronged them.

I did not commit a murder. I didn’t take anybody’s rights away. They probably don’t even think about what happened because they don’t know, and even if they did, they would not think it was monstrous.

But it is.

Oh, it is.

And humanity is not perfect, nor will it ever be. Humans make mistakes, that is for sure. But I have learned one heartbreaking thing about adulthood, and that is that humans have the power to hurt others. They can hurt others without realising it, so very deeply, and they can make selfish mistakes.

The mistakes you can make, others can make too. So you really should work on treating people well, and really think about what slithers out of your mouth.

There.

That is all I have to say today.

I wanted to disguise these dark thoughts in a piece of fiction, but I don’t have it in my heart. I feel very heavy and monstrous.

I have to work on being kinder, and better, and more honest. And dear God, forgive me for pinching that girl when I was four years old, because I severely regret it. What was wrong with me?

I long for a past I didn’t live.

I was watching some old adverts from the 1950s, and as the scratchy music saturated the room around me, my retina display screen flickering with the erratic film of times of yore, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of deep sadness and great nostalgia.

I felt as though I belonged somewhere, and left it a long time ago, and these jingles reminded me of a time I was a part of, and yet missed.

It was so strange.

You see, I was born in 1994, the turn of the century. I would say I am a millennial, if even that, right on the cusp of one generation and teetering on the edge of the next.

I grew up with dial-up internet connection, satellite TV and the iPhone revolution. Of course, we didn’t have any of these things, because my parents had old fashioned notions about technology. My mum still thinks she doesn’t need a mobile phone, and laments days of yore when she could do what she wanted without somebody being able to get a hold of her whenever they wanted. It works swell for me, I am an anxious person and I need to check on my mother’s safety, much to her vast irritation!

Of course, there were aspects of my life that were still very reminiscent of times of yore. My grandmother’s kitchen was time capsule, not changed since 1971, and her habits and ways were very much what she had been brought up with in the 40s and 50s. Can you believe she was born in 1935? Before the second world war? My own Nana? The thought fills me with wonder. My mother was a70s – 80s teenager, and the pop songs of the time were what she sang when in a good mood. Songs I never heard but knew off my heart, so when I did hear them I was pleasantly surprised and suddenly sad.

‘Video killed the radio star, video killed the radio star’ over and over when she fried eggs or mopped the kitchen floor. I heard this song throughout my life from her own mouth, and then last month when I was watching Take This Waltz (directed by Sarah Polley) – the song played in one of the scenes, and I had to pause it, sitting up in shock. Hey, this is an actual real song!

When I was in a museum once, a song from 1904 played over and over again, scratchy and faint, and I stopped and stared at a wall for five minutes because I felt as though a rope had suddenly jerked me back through the curtain of time, and I was in a place I had never been, but ached for. I wanted to stay there forever, but at the same time I wanted to run far, far away.

I ache when I watch those old adverts. It’s so strange. What is this phenomenon?

When I scrolled down to see the comments under the video, I noticed quite a lot of other people felt nostalgia for this time too, despite never existing then and never experiencing it.

My husband scoffs at me, he has no time for the old, he is always looking ahead at what is new and innovative and what the future will be. But I seem to be a sad little ghost peering in through cloudy windows at years gone by, straining my ears to hear the voices of decades past. I want them so badly. I don’t know why, or what I want, but I want those sounds, that scratchy record player, those brown shoes, the clatter of forks, the dull brown wallpaper, the 1960 Cadillac, the haze of cigarette smoke, the jingles, the streets, all of it.

My logical mind tells me that this, here, now, 2017, is my time, just like 1962 was their time, and forty years later this will be vintage nostalgia; but I do not see it like that.

And I know I am not the only one who feels this way.

Its the strangest thing, because I am certain I would not particularly like life back in the 1950s. Men were incredibly sexist and women did not have many chances in the world, life was more difficult, and the economy was trying to recover from the Great Depression.

However, I know there were good parts too, else the elders wouldn’t want to talk so much about it.

What do you think? Do you ever feel nostalgia for a time you never lived?

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A Man

A strange man was staring intently at something on the pavement.

I stopped to see what he was looking at.

He glanced at me, and in his eyes, I saw something that I didn’t care to examine.

Then he lifted his hat, put it back on his head, and walked off, lighting a cigarette.

His footsteps sounded gravelly on the pavement, which was slick with the drizzle that had rained down for the past hour.

The heavens were grey.

The houses huddled together.

A faint haze clouded the world, just so you couldn’t make out what was in the distance, but you couldn’t be entirely sure it was a fog.

‘What were you looking at?.’

The man vanished into the not-fog.

And there was nothing on the pavement.

I hurried along, feeling self conscious, somehow. Why did I stop. I don’t know.

I was expecting to see a dead rabbit, it’s body ripped apart so the insides spilled out and plastered onto the elements.

I was expecting to see a hole leading right down to the other side of the world, assuming the world was round, that is.

I was expecting to see the secrets of life in an open book. Why else would a man be so fascinated?

I don’t know.

Why was the strange man staring at the pavement?

When I got home, my roommate told me that sometimes people have private thoughts which the world has no business trying to get a hold of.

‘You can’t just pick up the phone, Penny, and ask what’s up.’

But you can, that is what phones are for.

I really wanted to know.

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When the Sun Rises

Sunrises, in the silence of a morning.

Birdsong, and sleeping windows. Fresh breeze, footsteps echo. Why do they echo so early in the morning?

Why does everything seem louder, somehow?

And goodness, why does the world feel so fresh, when only a few hours earlier the atmosphere was simmering in the drunken, filthy haze of a long, lived-out day?

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Eating Sadness

I woke up ravenous today.

I wanted to eat,

everything in sight.

A mango was not enough for me.

I had to follow it up with a bowl of grapes.

Then I wolfed down an entire punnet of strawberries,

Craving the sugar,

but barely tasting it.

I was hungry, still.

So I went to the kitchen in search of more food.

There was nothing in the cupboards, and the fridge was empty

save for a wilted celery stick.

I scarfed that in a moment.

Then I sat down,

to think about

why the cave inside my stomach

could not be filled.

And as I thought, my throat constricted,

my lungs felt tight,

and I wanted to gasp for breath.

The knot in my chest loosened a little,

when some tears

rolled down my face.

And I realised,

that all this time,

I was not hungry,

I was just sad.

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Footprints in the Sand

This short piece of fiction is part of a challenge put together by fellow blogger Frank from AFrankAngle – Check his post out!

On Footprints in the Sand.

Here is mine.

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Footprints in the Sand

The sun rose slowly in the horizon, its rays gradually strengthening to the music of waves crashing on the shore. Loud, then soft, then loud again, as the tide pulled the frothy waters away from the ascending sand-dunes, only for it to come scrambling back up again, reaching foamy fingers higher up the dunes each time.

The beach was empty, save for a few gulls calling dismally as their soft bodies were buffeted by the winds high in the sky.

The remains of yesterday were completely wiped away by the tides. It was fresh and new as though someone had washed the world and removed all human traces from the sand. No sandcastles, no left-behind toys, and all conversations that wafted on the gentle sea breeze had long been snatched away, sailing far over the seas to distant lands.

No, the beach was fresh this morning. Ready for a new horde of laughter and life. Lively in anticipation, bringing rose-tinted blue skies and soft, pillowy clouds scudding across as though in a hurry to be gone before the sun had completely reclaimed her power.

The beach was empty, for now, in these blissful early morning hours. The beach was empty, and restful, yet oddly restless.

The beach was empty, and yet a set of footprints made their way solidly across the dry sand just inches away from the water, pattering, forming, collapsing in on themselves all along the beach line and into the brightness in the distance, and there was nobody there to make the mark.

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The Red Dress

Gathering dust, in the far corner of her wardrobe. She didn’t check in on it any longer, but Annabelle always knew it was there.

A flash of scarlet when she rummaged at the back after her comfortable leggings. A small tug at her heart. A shrug. A passing thought that she would come back to it later, when she was smaller, trimmer, sexier. Maybe Ted would look at her differently then. Maybe.

The days and weeks passed by. When she woke up one morning it had been five years. She thought guiltily of the dress, flattened by years pressed between old winter jackets, and ate another slice of cake. Her stomach distended comfortably within her elastic waisted jeans.

One day she checked in on it. Pulled it out, held it against her body. She wondered if she could slip into it like her old self could, and imagined how it would slink past her shoulders and surround her waist, hovering, floating, around her knees. Silk and gauze, satin and chiffon, all combined intricately to create an image of vivid, crimson beauty.

She sighed. She couldn’t make herself do it, and put it back on the hanger to wait another five years.

‘I’ll lose a few pounds then it will be fine.’

She didn’t, though.

In the middle of the night, when the dew glistened on the grass, singing as they perched atop the dark green blades, their voices rising in the black night, like the tinkle of a thousand small glasses clinking together; the wardrobe door opened.

It creaked a little, and Annabelle’s eyes opened. The ceiling glittered, as though there was moonlight shining on a body of water, and she found that odd, but she didn’t say anything.

The red dress swished a little. She didn’t know how she knew it was the dress, but she knew. She dared not look, for a strange fright took hold of her, clasping her neck gently with cold fingers. It slid out of the wardrobe, and as though there were a pair of dainty feet beneath the folds of chiffon, it danced ever so slowly across her floorboards, barely making a creak, and flew right out of her open window.

A gust of cool night air brushed her cheeks, and she felt her cold tears freeze.

The soft song of the dew outside drew her from beneath her sheets, and she glided over to the window in her red satin pyjamas, her eyes wide in wonder. For the world under the starry night sky was unlike any world she had seen before. The dew glittered on the grass like a thousand diamonds, and she saw the red dress among its blades. Only there was a woman within the chiffon folds, so faint and transparent she barely saw her, save for a flash of her throat as she turned her head gracefully in the moonlight, and a flutter of long, black lashes. Her hands hovered above the grass, caressing the plants, and she danced to the tune of the dew.

Annabelle stood, staring. She felt light as a feather, as though she, too, could glide out of the window and dance in the dew. She felt beautiful, like the invisible lady in the dress, and her limbs ached to move, but her eyelids felt heavy, and slowly, lulled by the soft music, they fluttered shut.

When she woke up the next morning, she was back in her warm bed. She threw her covers back and darted across the room, flinging her wardrobe door open. There was her dress, right at the front, the hem soaked.

She glanced back at her window. It was closed.

Later that evening, when glasses clinked and the chatter of content adults rose towards the ceiling of the large drawing room downstairs, a stunning young woman walked down the stairs. She was soft and warm, her jet black hair piled at the back of her head, and gleaming curls cascaded down her bare shoulders. Teetering on the edge of her shoulders, the satin sleeves of her crimson dress nestled. She walked confidently, and her dress brought out the glitter in her large, dark eyes. Ted could not take his eyes off her. Who on earth was she?

Annabelle walked down the stairs, feeling quite unlike her usual self. She glanced around, watching people talking and laughing amongst themselves. She wished she didn’t wear it. She felt the satin stretch a little around her waist. It looked so glamorous in the mirror, but now she wasn’t quite so sure. She had the sudden urge to wear it tonight, instead of her loose grey gown that she always wore. Her mother handed her a tall glass of something red and sweet, and she held it in her hands, looking around to mingle.

‘Goodness gracious me, is that Annabelle?’

She glanced up.

‘Janey! You decided to come after all!’

‘Yes, darling, but you look fabulous!’

‘Do you really think so?’

‘Oh, darling, you are positively stunning! I didn’t recognise you at first! And goodness me, Ted can’t take his eyes off you.’ She leaned towards her conspiratorially, breathing the last sentence out at her, before gulping down the rest of her drink and setting it down on the table next to her, ‘Right, I’m off to dance with some fine young gents,’ and she gave Annabelle a peachy kiss on her flushed cheek, before sailing gaily away.

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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

I just watched this film and didn’t quite know what to make of it.

I usually enjoy films like this; sweet and romantic, with vivid imagery and significant conversations.

This one fell a little flat, somehow. Maybe it was because I grew up in the Middle East. One of my closest friends at school was Yemeni. I was submerged in the Arabian culture, and even met plenty of bedouins.

The thing that stands out about these people is that they are intrinsically tough, but a lifestyle of riches and ease has made them softer. Their natures are harsh, but they are the most generous, warm and hospitable people I have ever met. The desert folk are certainly not as affectionate as, say, the Lebanese or the Syrians, or even the Moroccans. However, they have a charm of their own, a charm which is years of strife in the heat and strong family connections and a deep sense of self-less generosity.

Salmon fishing in the Yemen is a story about a sheikh who wants to bring salmon fishing to his people in Yemen, a scientist who strongly opposes the absurd notion of taking British salmon to a torrid country, and the young woman who works for the sheikh, and plays a large part in persuading the scientist (Dr. Alfred Jones) to help make the project happen.

Essentially, this is a love story. The story of a scientist in a dead-end marriage, a young woman who has promised herself to a British soldier whom she barely knows, and a sheikh intent on changing his homeland to make it better for his people and join the tribes together.

Growing up in the Middle-East, the whole tribe thing was very much a real situation. My husband, who also grew up there, bore the brunt of it. He went to an all-boys government school, populated by the sons of bedouins, and if you looked a certain way, or talked differently, you were bullied. If you were friends with a boy with that particular surname, then the boys of another surname would harass you and attack you. He was called ‘Bush’ because he was white, and came from England, and the boys hated ‘Bush’ because Bush bombed other countries. He had to survive by mocking them and their ways, and learning how to fight. Only when he fought them, was he accepted as their equal. It was ultimately tribal, and small boys learned from older boys who learned from their parents.

On the girls side, it was less violent and more catty. It was more bragging about how many princesses they know and who’s mother was friends with which princess. If a girl was from a revered tribe, the other girls would treat her royally. For me, it was disgusting, and I wanted no part of it. For that, I was made to feel like a ratty little girl from the slums who sweats. Ugh, how could she sweat?! How undignified. Look at her, let’s ignore her because she is not as pretty as us and her hair is not straight. Look at her uniform, and my goodness, she uses the same school bag every year?! That was honestly the reason why a lot of girls shunned me or looked down on me. They all followed fashion trends when it came to accessories and because my parents were British and working class, they didn’t see fit to waste money on a new bag when I already had a perfectly useful one. So while all the other girls had their gleaming, satin trim Lulu Catty bags, I walked in with my square pattern, solid bag coloured a drab brown.

Of course, as I grew older, and my little enemies became my very close friends, because bags no longer mattered and deep down, these girls were wonderful and had deep, understanding personalities. I am still in contact with a few of them and they are some of the truest friends I have ever had. I learned that tribal feuds were very real, but also not as nuanced as the days of yore because everybody’s lifestyle had changed.

The point is, of course, that Salmon Fishing in the Yemen portrayed a glorified and unrealistic Arab sheikh. Even when they were speaking with each other, I had to laugh. Every man had a different dialect, and some were speaking Standard Arabic, which is like Shakespeare to desert-folk. They only use it for poetry and when they recite the Qur-an. Literally nobody, ESPECIALLY not a bedouin, speaks like that. I know I am nitpicking. I know. But for me, it dimmed the magic of the story somewhat.

Then we move on to the story itself. The plot was actually wonderful. It was a story of survival, faith, a merging of cultures, acceptance and ultimately, of course, love. If you took the love equation out of it all, the story would have been magnificent. However I think the filmmakers tried way too hard. They romanticised the sheikh to an absurd level. I found it hard to buy his character, namely because it was a version designed to fit the Western ideals of good and bad. It wasn’t true to Yemen or the Arabs.

I felt there was no chemistry between the lead actor (Obi Wan in the prequel series! Ewan McGregor) and actress (Emily Blunt, who is brilliantly beautiful, I have to say). I didn’t see why they had to fall in love, they basically had nothing in common and certainly nothing real to talk about. Blunt’s character was grieving for her army boyfriend throughout their ‘courtship’, so falling for Dr. Jones seemed vastly inappropriate and exceedingly uncomfortable, especially when her boyfriend was miraculously found alive. Dr. Jones said some dubious things to him, and it really didn’t go down well for me or add to his character. Not to mention that he was already married!? I didn’t like how he left his wife, sending her a text saying ‘it’s for the best.’ That was cruel and harsh. If there had been a real reason to be so horrid, it would have made sense, but to me, marriage is sacred, and one could at least make a show of trying, rather than scarpering at the call of the first attractive young woman. It was ridiculous and cheap.

To be honest, I didn’t feel invested in the story. The dialogue was dry and tried too hard to appeal to emotions, ultimately failing to convince me of anything.

I heard this film was based on a book, but frankly I have no interest in reading it. Who knows, it might be brilliant, but I just didn’t buy it. I hate that sometimes other cultures are ‘Westernised’ to fit into the Western ideal or understanding. They are romanticised and made to seem ethereal and magical, when in reality they are just other people living their lives just like we are.

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On a Footprints Challenge

I am going to be participating in this excellent challenge by Frank, from A Frank Angle. If you love writing, especially short stories, then this is the challenge you will certainly enjoy. If you’re interested, please check it out on Frank’s page, and maybe join too! 🙂

A Frank Angle

It’s challenge time!

Long-time visitors to my little corner of the world know that writing fiction isn’t my thing. With over 1,900 posts, I’ve written one fiction post. Actually two because the original post did turn into a short story challenge that involved me changing my original story.

Not that I’m changing my format in on these pages, but what the heck – let’s try it again!

1. Write a short story based on the image below in the genre of your choice.


2. The story must be 150 words or less.

3. Publish your story after I post mine (Monday, July 10th @ 12:15 am Eastern US) AND link back to the post with my story (not this post).

4. Display the image above your story

5. The story title must be Footprints in the Sand

6. Display the following image after the story.

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