She

She was a jellyfish, floating under a wave. Bobbing gently with the ebbing current. Her translucent hair swaying silently around her still face, eyes tightly shut, sealed like death merged with life.

She was the calm in a strong wind. The centre of a storm. The silence as the raging destruction hurled life over a precipice and into the unknown. The deep breath, pregnant with dread.

She was the shadows when you slept, the coat behind the door, the woman silently watching as you tried to coax yourself to sleep. She was there, even though you convinced yourself she was just the dressing gown. Everything looks frightening in the dark.

She was surreal reality, dread behind a closed door. She was the exhibit they ignored, because it made them feel uncomfortable. She was the haunting in Connecticut, the dried eyelids in a box. She was the soft breeze that blew out the candles when the windows were closed. She was the buzzing sound of a wasp when there was none to be seen.

She held her breath for as long as she could, and when she surfaced, life flooded into her in the gasps she took of the air which hummed with oxygen. Her eyes flew open, and reflected the vivid blue stretched over her head. The waves crashed on the distant shore, and her muscles ached with the struggle for life. She kicked, hard, and glanced back. Silhouettes stood on the beach, children’s laughter carried off by the wind.

She was alive, not dead. Death hadn’t captured her yet. The current was far from her curled toes, and she pushed her chest forward with strong strokes of her slender, young arms. Back to the shore.

Back.

To life.

‘Darling, you were away for so long!’, Mam said, as she meandered with long, swaying strides towards the blanket which lay slightly rumpled in the hot sand. She bent over and towelled her hair dry.

‘I was drinking the sea,’ she murmured.

‘Do you want a sarnie? Before Chris eats them all. We’ve got egg mayo and tuna.’

‘I nearly died, mam.’

‘Don’t be silly, we were watching you the entire time.’ her mother said, cheerfully, handing her a sandwich out of a fat orange Sainsbury’s bag next to her foldable beach chair.

She took it, a fat rectangle stuffed with filling and molded like a pillow in saran wrap. She looked at the sea, crashing gently on the shore. Swimmers splashed as the sun beamed down beautifully.

I could have died, if I’d wanted to. 

Me and Machine

The train poured out of the tunnel, and endless stream of boxcars and flat empty carriage holders, on and on and on, the engines roaring in a crescendo of deafening sound, yet the pull of the train too slow to warrant such a noise so it made it seem like a weak, outdated machine.

Maybe the train was just too heavy, and so the engines had to work extra hard. I counted forty boxcars and then I lost count, as more kept spilling out of the gaping hole of the tunnel at the furthest end of the station; the mouth of this huge cavern of a station echoing with humanity drowned in the noise of the machine. Boxcars filled by robots, operated by robots, stacked by robots and sent off by robots to factories run by artificial intelligence.

So much power created, and the world carried on pretending to be the humdrum efficient system humans had created it to be.

And still it kept coming, more and more, vomiting out boxcars as they trundled along to the ends of the earth. I watched them glide past, too fast to jump on without serious injury or even fatality, and too slow to not contemplate doing the latter.

In the end, when the noise faded after the last boxcar holder, devoid of its box, melted into the wavy distance of burning horizon, the station sat in silence. Hunched over after the hefty belch it had just expelled from its gut.

I looked around me. Emptiness. Stillness. The laughter and chatter I imagined beneath the roaring noise of firing pistons had disappeared with the train, and I was left alone.

Was it my imagination, there there were people around me? The heat blazed outside the gaping lips of the station, where trains go after they have surfaced from its gut. The sky was brilliantly blue, deliciously deceiving, for I knew my skin would burn and curl up into brown flakiness the minute I stepped out of the shadow. I was alone. Sitting on a bench. Clutching my canvas bag close to me, feeling my sweaty thighs meld together under the soft cotton of my dress, which felt a little damp from the sweat I imagined pooled there.

My throat was dry, but the shops were closed. I sat and waited for the next train, the next glimpse of humanity to cure my aching loneliness. I would imagine human chatter under the noise of mechanical efficiency. After all, machines were created by humans.

I can’t be the only one left in the aftershock of viral destruction. It can’t be just me and the machines. Me and the remnants of man.

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The Girl in the Mirror

‘My mother was a witch.’

He laughed loudly. Throwing his head back to let his mirth spill into the night air. She looked piqued at his reaction to her confession.

‘I mean it. She really was!’

‘Okay, sure. What, she was so mean to you?’

‘God, no. Never mean to us at all. She was an enchantress.’ 

She watched his eyes search her face for the lie. There was no lie, however. She bit her lip.

‘Go on,’ he prodded, finally.

She had the night sky in her eyes.’

He rolled his.

When she spoke, her voice was like the angels. So gentle, so quiet. A calming effect in the stormiest of seas. When my little sister bawled my mother sang to her. She swayed about the room, swishing her skirts and singing until my sister, sprawled on the floor, stopped her fit and stared in wonder.’

He shrugged, ‘She loved her mother.’

It was more than that.’

The silence hung between them like a heavy drape. The air was still, the stars above twinkling brightly. The city spread beneath them, their feet resting solidly on the edges of the plateau. He was staring out at the lights, she couldn’t read the expression on his face.

‘Well?’

Well?’

‘More than what?’

Oh. She was ethereal. Every mundane experience we had was something magical when she became involved. The table was a plateau. The fox was a wolf. The bread was cake dripping with honey. The blossoms were homes for the fairies and the daises were their purple tinged dresses.’

He turned to look at her then. His blue eyes looked black in the darkness. His face was thrown into shadow. She saw his outline against the backdrop of lights, which spilled into the inky blackness of the sky above, so that the stars over the city vanished, even though the ones above them were so brilliant.

‘You really loved your mother.’

His voice was soft. Sad.

I loved her, yes. But even if I hadn’t, even if I hadn’t’

‘How did she die?’

She looked down at the city again. She could hear it, all the way from here. The sound of  a rising highway. The sound of hundreds of machines. A loud, yet soft humming. A thrumming in the earth. The roots of concrete and people. She knew this was not the natural noise the earth made, and it made her feel part of something greater, somehow. As though she wasn’t entirely alone.

She didn’t.’

‘What?’

She didn’t die. She just tripped back through the mirror from where she came’

‘Emily, come on..’

‘My father always said that she stepped out of the mirror one day. He called her the Girl in the Mirror, when we were children, and we would laugh at him, calling him silly. He would tug at her long black tresses sometimes, and his eyes would look at her sadly. Once, when I was ten years old, he held her in his arms and whispered, ‘thank you for giving me your four little gifts’ – he meant us, of course. When she went back in, he told us it was her time to go back, and that she had left us four for him to always remember her by.’

‘Emily..’

She did not look at him. Her large violet eyes reflecting the thousands of lights spread before her.

There’s a girl in my mirror. I know she is not me. Sometimes when I blink, she doesn’t. Her smile is a little more sly than mine.’

‘I think this is all your imagination.’

And once I caught her making faces at my little sister.’

‘A coping mechanism, to cope with the pain of losing your mother..’

We are enemies now.’

‘Emily..’

I’ve always wondered who my mother’s Other Woman was. And if she looks like her at all. And if she knows her Mirror Woman came out and lived with us for a while.’

He didn’t say anything. Her face had a faraway quality to it. He realised that she wasn’t even there, with him, at that moment. He didn’t know if she’d heard anything he had said. He began to wish he hadn’t said it at all.

A low breeze wafted suddenly through the trees behind them, tugging gently at her long, ethereal black tresses, that cascaded all the way down her back. He heard it, swishing in the leaves and rumbling in the sky, he saw her dress move with it, but he didn’t feel it.

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Swarm

She was eloquently gut wrenching.

It couldn’t be said any other way. Languidly staring out of the dust-encrusted windows, the hazy afternoon sunshine filtering in through cracks on the caked grime. The dust mites did their peaceful thing, swirling in the slants of the lights, deceiving you into sobriety while the world burned outside.

There was nothing to look at, really. Everything was covered with white drapes, to protect the furniture from the same dusty decline that the floorboards had succumbed to. Termites, most likely.

She tiptoed cautiously around the holes, her boots making a suspicious crunching sound on the floor, amid, I then saw, mounds of sand, and small curled dead insect bodies.

‘I used to live here.’ I murmured.

She didn’t say anything. I stared at the ceiling; years of cobwebs interlacing each other, like an old, grey, time-worn wedding gown. The wooden beams arched upwards, meeting in a concave point high above our heads. When she stopped walking, the silence hissed loudly, pressing in on us, trapped and seething beneath the heavy roof.

‘Dina?’ she began, tentatively.

‘Hmm?’

‘I’m sorry I lied.’

‘You told me you had stage four brain cancer.’ I said, shortly. The sign outside creaked ominously, breaking the hissing silence my words had left behind them.

She shrugged. Her eyes were unreadable. She would do it again, and again, and again. Who would her next naive, fully supporting victim be?

Her hands brushed gently over one of the white sheets covering something sharp. She made as though to pull it off.

‘No.’

She stopped, looking expectantly at me. When I didn’t say anything else, she pulled it off anyway. Her mouth was set and firm, and I watched with a smirk that etched itself on my face against my will as a swarm of wasps surged out from under the sheet and swarmed towards her, as the sheet drifted to the ground amid a cloud of dust and stray wasps. Her shriek was lost in the loud, swirling drone.

I backed away slowly, feeling the wall behind me until I was at the entrance, my feet scraping on the piles of dust beneath me. A force field developed around the obstacle before me. I was alarmed, yet a little excited. I wanted to watch, I wanted to help, but I also wanted to desperately to run away as fast as I could.

So I did. I shut my eyes and turned away, opening them to the dim, cobwebby hallway. I wrenched the front door open, the wood fat and swollen with rot, and it crumbled against the wall behind me as I raced out and through the empty street, my feet flying past the brown rubble and ash covered doorways.

The sound was deafening. The image of her vanishing beneath the swarm clung to my brain and tugged at the edges of my heart, or my gut. I don’t know. I didn’t look back. I kept going.

Storytellers

Stories have been told to countless audiences throughout the centuries of human existence. We started off with oral storytelling, where the individuality of a teller was just as important as the telling of the story, where both of these aspects married with the dynamic nature of the story itself to produce something vivid and magical, to ensnare an audience and teach countless generations lessons pertaining to life, morals and their own rich history and ancestry.

Storytelling does not just limit itself to mystical tellers enrapturing an audience around a campfire or in an ancient tent, however. Stories can be found in the most common places, around a dinner table, at a sleepover, during a picnic, at a meet up, over a steaming cup of coffee, in a diary and even through a Facebook message! A story does not just have to be a well written, much drafted and severely edited piece of work. It can also be an event dressed up and communicated through several choice words, expressions and gestures, all interplaying to create a tale which is uniquely creative to the person telling it.

A story is a performance, no matter it does not strictly adhere to a play or an opera. A story is individual or collective artistry, working closely with the conventions of performance and forming something familiar, yet distinct in its own right. And that is what captures the attention.

Tradition is therefore a huge part of storytelling. Be it at a pantomime or around a dinner table, certain conventions and expectations of performance intertwine with the teller’s innovation. The key here is manipulation of convention – a good story turns expectations on its heel, and makes something new out of something expected. A good novel has an unexpected twist, or challenges conventions of creative writing by using unique language structure, or changes the face of a genre by interlacing two completely different ones. A good play is one that challenges the audience to think and bates the breath. A good family story is one told with enough wit to conjure laughter at the table, or with a hilarious display of gestures to endear, or with solemnity in an otherwise jovial demeanour. The ways are countless, and they all can be understood through the context in which they are told, and the audience must therefore be familiar with the traditions around these stories. A story from Shakespeare’s time would not, perhaps, be understood in the midst of the Arabia desert, since they are worlds apart and flourish under different cultures.

As to how stories and story telling affect one’s life, well, we are living and breathing results of such an experiment. Every single one of us has heard stories in the past, has perhaps been influenced by a story or has had a story change one’s mindset.

As a child I heard hundreds of stories, from books, from relatives, from the security guard of our building warning us not to do something because so and so did it and such and such happened, from my mother relating past experiences in her mesmerising way, short and concise, yet carrying deep meaning, from my grandmother adding snippets in conversation, rolling rotis out and telling me the servants used to let her roll the last roti because they didn’t want her to ruin the batch. From my paternal aunt telling me stories of my father as a child, helping me understand his character better. Stories have added to my life perspective about people, places and feelings. And accompanying the stories themselves, the ways of narration, the different accents and languages and gestures and fonts and structures through which they were told have had just as much impact as the stories themselves. Stories would not carry the way they were, for impact as much as they have been, were it not for storytellers and story weavers.

Research has shown that storytelling in very young children improves their cognitive abilities. Stories are important. They are life changing, and they add colour and insight to one’s existence. They are the small threads that connect people together and unite them under one cause or many, under one tradition or many, and make people feel as though they are part of something larger in this vast world. I think that is something everybody wants to feel, don’t you?

How have stories and storytelling impacted your life? 

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Poppy

Resilient.

That is what I would call her. She flounders, sometimes, in the shallows of life. Her heart may seem weak, but I secretly know she is just sensitive. She thinks too deeply about things.

He says she is drowning in ‘her vortex’.

Why, she asks, do they write about sad things, and try to make jokes out of them?

I think about what she means. She means those dark comedy sitcoms. You know, where the family are poor and there are lots of rude sex jokes, and dirty people saying filthy things, and jokes about mental instability and emotional unavailability.

Those are dark things. She says, Things you should keep hidden away. Things you mustn’t make light of.

Why?

Because the world needs to see happiness and hope. Not misery accompanied by obnoxious music. If I am unhappy, why would I want to laugh at other people’s unhappiness?

It’s just a TV show.

People drink too much alcohol and are seen as ‘party types’, adventurous and daring. People have ‘daddy issues’ and are blunt and rude about other people. People joking about the pills they pop to hide their deepest pains. People unconscious because of intoxication. When did this become a norm in society? What happened to living and laughing and talking genuinely about real things?

It’s just.. a TV show, Poppy.

She dances quietly in the rain, sometimes. Her movements, although rhythm-less, have a certain cadence. The way her arms move around her head, the way her bare feet touch the wet grass, gently kissing the sodden blades before moving on to another spot. The way her throat supports her face, craned towards the pregnant, grey heavens.

I think, sometimes, that you have to let life into your skin.

I don’t know what that means, Poppy.

When she works, she is vigilant. She is furious. When she sleeps, she is restless. Her eyes are always wandering.

Once she saw an old lady outside with no stockings. She rushed indoors and brought her a cape. The old woman, pushing her trolley before her, shook her away irritably.

What do you think I am, senile?!

Poppy stared as she hobbled away down the road. I couldn’t read the expression on her face.

She was vibrant, alive. But there was always a heavy sadness clinging to her. In her eyes, sometimes, when she thought I wasn’t looking.

I feel lonely, Sebastian.

I’m here, Poppy.

I .. know.

Your life, always, over mine, Poppy.

 

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Notes

Notes.

Everyday, with a timestamp, and a small sentence or a quote that, frankly, meant nothing.

6.23PM – Sat 18th November

May this day beam you well, and the rest shine brighter.

What did that even mean?!

It was mid autumn, so the days were short and grey, flashes of red and brown and vibrant yellow swiftly dragging the winter ever closer. Soon even those colours would vanish, as the world settled in its dismal, bare armed huddle to wait the winter out.

I liked this time of year. I loved my jumpers and my thick red scarf aunty Mel had bought for me from Harrods three years ago. I wore it everywhere, and it still looked as delightfully new and pristine as it did the first day I unwrapped it from its cocoon of crispy tissue paper.  I loved the way leaves would pile up in soggy mounds on the wet pavements, and the way damp gravel scraped under my heel. I loved how the tip of my nose and my cheeks glowed with the warmth of my body, as the raging elements whipped around my outer garments. They had no way in, and I loved that.

And everyday, when I left home after giving my mother a toast-and-tea kiss, pulling on my stripy gloves, I would catch a note.

The first note was just lying on the ground. It drew attention to itself because it was so out of the ordinary. It certainly looked ordinary enough, but it had been raining all night, and the note, sitting atop the bush at the end of my front garden, was dry as a bone. It flapped a little, but it was wedged in between the twigs. I pulled it out,

6:10AM – Mon 26th September

I don’t know where pineapples come from, but I would sure love to see the apples my Pines produce.

Huh. I put the note in my pocket. Perhaps it was somebody’s and they dropped it and it got caught in that hedge. I went off and had my day.

The next morning there was another note.

7:23AM – Tue 27th September

Where the wild creatures roam, a sea of orchids will nod.

 This time it was folded neatly and slotted in between the wooden slats of my front gate. I slid it into my pocket again.

This one seemed intentional.

 

 

Longing

What is so divine about them? She didn’t know how to pinpoint it exactly.

Oh it was everything. Everything!

The effortless way their hair cascaded down past their shoulders. Their skin so soft and smooth and blemish free. The way their eyes were so clear and their eyelashes so full.

The way their bodies carried their garments. So elegant. Slender. Graceful.

No effort in the pristine way they put one booted foot before another.

Their smiles lit up their whole faces.

Their fingers, so ladylike in the way they curled around a gleaming glass or held a pendant up to their throats. Stockings. Gloves. Scarves wafting sweet scents on the night breeze. Red lips, glittering earrings swinging gently from their ears, tear drops of gold.

She caught glimpses of their fabulous lives before the curtains were drawn in the twilight, as the street lamps were lit one by one. She saw flashes of their finery beneath cloaks as they were helped aboard coaches. She was amongst their feet, crawling in the squelchy mud and manure of the streets.

She knew all too well how she blended in with the dark grey cobbles and the brown mud. Her apron was always soaked and dirty and her hair, like spun gold when she managed to wash it, was always a dusty hue that faded into the perpetual cloud that hung over the city.

Oh, how she longed to be like them. To be courted and smiled at. To have all eyes on her as she stepped onto a gleaming marble floor in the prettiest shoes imaginable. To have her small, rough, brown paws covered in a sleek satin glove. To carry a frilly white parasol, and have some dashing gentleman’s arm to lean on.

How she longed.

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Espresso

I spilt my coffee all over the table and if it hadn’t been for that, I would not have become who I am today.

It all started that morning. The twenty third of August. I woke up ten minutes late feeling exhausted. And my hands were shaking in that way that only coffee can cure. Or cause. I am not a habitual coffee drinker. I would not know.

I went into the coffee shop and asked for their strongest drink. The coffee-tender looked at me oddly before pouring me an espresso. I overheard a man wearing a cashmere jumper saying primly that it was called ‘espresso, not expresso’, and he ‘didn’t know where these hobos got their kicks’.

Nevertheless, I sat down with quite a thump, earning me some disapproving glances from a pair of thickly spectacled young ladies who were tapping away at ten thousand words per minute, while simultaneously sipping their drinks. Whatever they were drinking looked heavenly because they kept smacking their lips and commenting on the divinity of their beverage.

So I took my first sip of espresso, turning my eyes to the golden rays of morning sunshine flooding the city streets, preparing my mind for the stressful day at work ahead, when the abominable taste of coffee knocked me to my senses. I spluttered most unbecomingly and slapped the table, feeling my face flush deeply as I struggled to contain the hot coffee in my throat without choking.

Choke I did, of course, and I made such a palaver of it that everybody stopped what they were doing to stare at me. Well done, they all thought, can’t even choke quietly.

While I was making my racket my hand flew outwards uncontrollably and I knocked the espresso all over the table.

There is a monster under my bed. I swear it. And he is intent on having me scramble out of bed on the wrong side every day, minutes late for anything I set out to do. There is a monster under my bed, and he is hindering me from success.