Amy and Isabelle

I bought this book as an afterthought, selected out of a range of pickings offered to me on Amazon after I’d purchased a book already. It stood out because of its simple, no-nonsense title; I wanted to know more.

The New York Times Book Review daubed it “one of those rare, invigorating books that take an apparently familiar world and peer into it with ruthless intimacy, revealing a strange and startling place”.

Set in a baking town in the middle of an intensely hot summer, the vivid imagery of a rotting green river snaking through the heart of the town makes for a stunning metaphor of the rotting sickness underlying the relationship between mother and daughter. Not that its long-term, of course. The story explores the complicated relationship between a girl on the cusp of adulthood, and a mother who has made many sacrifices in order to lead, at least in her own mind, a ‘respectable’ life.

At the heart of this story is a tale of two minds, formed and influenced by unfortunate circumstances. It speaks of loneliness, desperation for human contact, and highlights the way your own mind can form a barrier between you and your basic human desire to be social. In a way this novel spoke to me directly, because I related on a very personal level with the loneliness felt by Isabelle, the construction of social events in her mind. I was terribly lonely when I moved to a different city, leaving all my friends behind. Gradually we lost contact, and I found it immensely difficult to make new friends. It got to a point so severe that I did something incredibly stupid – for want of human contact. It’s sad and pathetic, but so real. Elizabeth Stout painted this in such a raw, open way. It was quite tough subject matter to navigate through.

Despite loneliness being the driving force behind the main characters’ actions, there were many more complex themes driving the plot forward. Amy’s burgeoning sexuality, Isabelle’s anxious, overprotective and even jealous tendencies towards her daughter, feelings of inadequacy, lack of communication and even Amy feeling a little embarrassed of her mother, were just some aspects explored by Stout, and which made for often uncomfortable reading.

I didn’t particularly enjoy reading this book. It was difficult, at times revolting. Despite this, I couldn’t put it down. The narrative was compelling; with Strout interweaving the minds of the two protagonists, combining two very separate outlooks on the same world (which I suppose is the reality of our lives, viewing the world through a million different perspectives), and setting them amidst vivid descriptions of the town, the slow, almost zombie-like townsfolk who, as it happened, had very real, very raw lives of their own.

This book was brilliantly written, the exposition foreshadowed almost poetically, and the emergence into truth almost like a blossoming of understanding, which I felt fitted in marvellously with the subject-matter. The novel ‘came of age’ beautifully, in a way which is wistfully reminiscent of much of our growth and understanding. This novel is about learning to love, learning to let go, and learning to ‘live’.

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No Title.

Haka-haka-haka-haka. His sobs reverberated through the phone, punctuated at intervals by wet gasps. He cries like he laughs, she thought, like a raucous oscillating drill. She sat in the living room downstairs, her family sound asleep in their beds upstairs, unaware of her turmoil.

Please, God, please. Help me.

“How could you do this?” he rasped.

She didn’t reply, but her shoulders trembled, and silent tears formed rivers down her soaked, swollen face. She felt strangely detached from him. She was hurting because she didn’t want to hurt him, but a part of her was itching to slam the phone down and run away.

He took a deep breath, “I won’t let this happen!” he choked, “I’m getting in my car right now and driving up to give your father a piece of my mind,” he spat, the old malice strong in his tones. Anger clouded her vision like a red veil. She stood up.

No more! No. Fucking. More!

She held back the overwhelming urge to scream, aware she was hyperventilating; her voice was high and harsh, an icy whisper into the phone.

“How DARE you,” she hissed, drawing power from her fury, “WHO do you think you are?! Don’t you DARE come down here. I don’t WANT you here. Don’t you DARE.” She spat each word out. She was terrified he would do what he threatened to, and indignant that he would have the audacity.

He was sobbing quietly as she finished talking. She became aware of her heavy panting. Both her fists were clenched, holding the phone so tight to her ear that when she moved it a little it unstuck from her hot, wet face with a squelch. All her muscles were tight, on edge, ready for flight.

“You’ve ruined my life,” he finally whispered.

You’ve ruined mine.

“Why did you waste all my time?”

“I didn’t,” her voice faltered.

Two years!” the hacking increased.

Haka-haka-haka-haka.

She wanted to slap him across the face. He wouldn’t manipulate her feelings like that anymore. That pathetic, weak crying. She felt repulsed.

I didn’t waste your time. I didn’t. Did I?

I chased him, though. I ran after him and wept when he didn’t text back or answer calls for weeks and weeks. I put myself out there for him and lied through my teeth for him, and went to him even when he was cheating on me the whole time.

I lied for him when my mother demanded to know where all my pocket money would go. Later, when I had no pocket money left, I stole money for him to pay his insurance. Not just once or twice, but many times. I always put it back, though, when my money came through.

‘What would I do without you?’ he asked me, smiling gently as I put ten twenty pound notes in his ravaged, bony fingers. It felt good, when he smiled like that.

“Len?”

She heard the hope in his voice and hung up, heart thumping wildly, staring at her blank screen. He didn’t call back. One minute passed. Then another, and another. She got up and lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling.

Please, God, keep him away from me. Please protect me from him. Please make him happy without me. Please, please God.

An hour later a message lit up her phone. Under his name in the notification bar was a small yellow face with two rivers of tears running down it. Her heart slumped.

Please, God.

***

“Is it because your parents don’t approve?” he asked her a week earlier when she tried to break up with him in person. They were in his mother’s front room, him standing, her sitting. He had been angry all afternoon, slamming cupboards, shaking her.

“No!” she sobbed.

“Then why?” his voice was rising, and a vein on his forehead protruded, purple and throbbing.

“I just don’t.. want this life.”

“I told you I would marry you.”

She shook her head, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably. He moved closer to her, and her eyes focused on the giant metal cross leaning against the far wall, everything else in her frame of vision blurring. His crotch pressed into her face, as she focused on the way the russet hair of Jesus curled over his bronze face. He pushed into her and her head jerked back roughly against the sofa, straining her neck.

“I don’t let my parents choose who I should love,” was his parting shot, his eyes red and wet.

 

***

She knew deep down in her heart that it was wrong. She knew it was wrong when she started talking to him. She did a double take when she saw his photo online. Strong brows knitted over a pair of sharp ocean eyes, pointy nose and bright red mouth. Hair spiked up over his forehead.

‘Hello! How are you today? :)’

‘Hi, I’m good thanks, you?’

They spoke for a while. Then she went out and had no internet. When she got home, there was a message from him online.

‘You make my tummy flip!’

It sounded cheesy, and she didn’t know if it was the excitement of the day clinging on to her, but the sentence made her tummy flip.

‘I bet you say that to all the girls.’

What am I doing?

Three days later, he professed his love for her, and told her he was jealous of all boys who spoke to her. Never had she been so flattered in her life. She hugged herself everywhere, her knees wobbled like jelly when she thought about him.

I’m in love.

Maybe it was this wholehearted, deep rooted infatuation making her half mad that obscured her judgement. She called him every night. He told her she was ‘so fucking sexy’ when she sent him a photo of herself at his request. He said her voice on the phone was beautiful, he could listen to it all night.

‘I don’t believe in sex before marriage,’ she said, when he mentioned that he wanted to be inside her. It threw her a little, disgusted her, but another part of her liked hearing that.

‘So marry me.’

She loved his voice in the dark as she lay on the damp grass under the stars through the summer, her phone pressed hard to her ear, her voice a quivering whisper as they spoke into the small hours.

“Come and see me,” he pleaded with her, “be brave.”

She did go, finally. The harsh light overhead accompanied with the rattling and swaying as the bus wound around tight country roads made her queasy. She watched the man in front of her, as the folds of his neck, behind the sweat stained cuffs of his shirt, rolled over each other with each movement the bus made, and when he turned to glare out of the window, she caught a whiff of something acrid. She leant as far back on the seat as she could, tugging at her neckline. If it was a little looser, perhaps she wouldn’t feel so nauseous. Or maybe it wasn’t her surroundings at all, but the fact that she was doing this. She was going to meet him. A loud voice in the back of her mind which she tried her best to stifle, was telling her to go back, go home, but his words rang in her ears.

‘You’ll always be under the control of your parents.’

He loves me, though. He loves me.

When the bus pulled into the station, there he stood, waiting for her. A cold, clammy feeling spread over her body as though somebody had cracked a giant egg on her head.

 

***

His face loomed in front of her, his eyes not blue and not green but an icy ocean of both colours.

Live a little, his voice raspy from all the cigarettes he was always smoking, it’s legal I promise.

No no no no. I don’t want to.

 

Go on you buzzkill.

She took the flimsy little roll up he held out to her. She toked on it, and her eyes scanned the stars above. She shivered in the icy cold.

Eyyyy. That was nothing. Have another.

It doesn’t taste nice.

That cackle again. Hack hack hack.

She breathed in the putrid smoke, she held it there like she’d seen him do so many times. She breathed it out, and watched the swirls drift away in the wintry air. Just him and her, standing alone in the doorway to the garden. Just how she’d always wanted it. Why, then, was she so unhappy? She tried to lift her feet but they wouldn’t move.

“My feet won’t move,” she heard her voice say solemnly. She felt anything but solemn, panic rose inside her. Her movements were slow and dreamy, her speech was lethargic. Her brain separated into two, one ugly one telling her she was mad and that she was going to die, and the other swelling up, the voice of reason, telling her to hold on. His eyes drifted in front of her, and her logical brain told her not to trust him.

‘I’m dying,’ she murmured faintly, ‘call an ambulance, please!’

He laughed. High pitched and feminine, she thought. Hold on, hold on, hold on.

***

“Where were you?” her mother demanded, her tone terse. Amal could see the worry creasing the lines beside her eyes.

“With Lucy,” Amal muttered, pushing past her mother and going up the stairs. She sniffed the inside of her polo neck. She smelled of him. Cigarettes and lynx, and something musky.

“Were you, really?”

She hated the accusation in her mother’s voice.

“Yes.” Her voice was clipped.

She pushed herself into the bathroom, and ripped off her clothes, discarding them on the cold, tiled floor.

She had rushed out in the morning, without any breakfast. Used whatever money she had left to buy the bus ticket. Sat on the rickety bus for an hour and a half, feeling as though she was going to vomit from nerves and heat. Walked across the disgusting old bus station and crossed the road to where he was waiting in his ancient, battered dark blue Citroen. Climbing in. Then her silence would settle in. It was as if a heavy weight was placed on her chest, suffocating her. Thoughts would bubble up and froth away, swallowed back down her oesophagus, until her belly was full, like a leaden sack. He would talk at her, mostly lies to big himself up. The sack in her belly growing and growing until it swelled into her chest, eating away at her as he launched into his customary rant trashing her family, calling her parents all kinds of names. Did she argue? No, she just sat there and drank it all in. But she loved him, so it was okay. She loved him when the pain seared through her, every inch of her body tense. It’s almost over. Almost over.

In the shower, as the scalding water beat on her skin, plastering her hair to her face, her whole body revolted, repulsed. She was throbbing and sore. Her legs shook and she had to hold on tight to the side of the bath so keep the room in focus.

How could she have let him touch her.

 

***

He texted a few months after she had left him. ‘Your name. That’s all I can think about.’

 ‘I miss you so much.’

‘I will call your mother.’

‘You ruined my life. I’m going to kidnap you and kill your father.’

‘I will kill your whole family.’

‘I love you so so much. I can’t stop thinking about you. If you don’t reply, I will kill myself. You heartless bitch.’

The last text, full of malicious venom, made her shriek with fury. She refused to reply, though, to grace his malice with any response.

She screamed and and screamed into the emptiness of her house.

Delete, delete, delete. Twenty calls a day. Anxiety ripping her apart, racking her body, making bile rise in her throat. She retched from fear, but nothing came out of her mouth.

***

Manipulative psychopath. His figure was blurry in the distance, but the lanky legs shooting out beneath him as he scuttled along the pavement like a giant grasshopper were telling. His bony shoulders jutted out on either side, his long head rising up in the centre, the light brown fluff on top, greasy and thin, swept over his huge, gaping forehead. The way his head sat a little forward, his neck protruding out over his chest, giving him a self-conscious hunch. His body growing narrower and narrower down to his feet. He was long and narrow and bony and revolting.

He won’t recognise me. It’s been so long. 

She felt he was looking at her; she drew her face inwards so that folds of skin bulged out beneath her chin. She scowled heavily, knitting her brows together, and lifting her upper lip, trying to make herself as ugly as possible.

He was coming closer. Each step she took was weighted.

Don’t look up.

They passed each other. Blood thundered in her ears.

Please don’t recognise me.

The moment passed. The whirlwind rushed by. Her limbs were weak.

Manipulative psychopath.

His crotch in her face.

His drugs in her mouth.

His scent in her nose.

His harsh anger, rattling through the phone, making her throat dry and filling her with dread.

His threats.

“I’ll kick you in the fanny if you don’t shut up.”

“CUN-ttttt.”

Threatening her if she refused to come and see him.

Slamming doors in her face.

Calling her mother a bitch.

Those sexual messages to Angie, Katie, Chloe.

Her running after him, despite the sexual messages.

His.. crotch.. in .. her face.

“CUNT-ttttt.”

She whipped around sharply, suddenly furious, her scarf whirling around her head.

I had no closure.

She followed him as he jaunted off down the street. His long arms swung uselessly beside him, making her angry, twitching like that. She walked faster.

He needs to pay for what he did.

Her voice broke when she tried to call out to him. He didn’t turn around.

I’m going to punch that fucker in the face.

Her breath came out heavy and thick, her chest heaving with adrenaline and anticipation and hot, hot rage.

He can’t just walk away from me.

Turn around. Turn around and face me, you coward.

 

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The Girl Who Stopped Growing

The moment when Lem Pringle realised that she was no longer growing took it’s fine old time to reach her, clambering like a rheumatic old man to lodge itself in a firm nook in Lem’s vivacious brain.  By then she had not been growing for a fair amount of time. Months, even. Her hair hung silky and chestnutty as ever, in limp ringlets just below her shoulder blades, stark against her brown, bony back. She measured it with a ruler. It hadn’t grown an inch! She was particular about her hair. She washed it in honey every other week, as her mama taught her, and she liked to lie on the grass sometimes, her hair cool as it fell over her face, breathing in the soft, sweet scent of honey and grass, a faint lemony fragrance that hung about her wherever she went.

Lem, Alex certified, was a very lemony child. Alex was Lem’s older, oldest and only sister.

But Lem really was not growing. Her nails had been trimmed four months ago, and they remained neatly trimmed. This, Lem mused, was not a terrible thing. At least she didn’t have to go through the hassle of cutting her nails every week. She looked at them often, under the table at school, when her hands twisted forwards and backwards over the handlebars of her bike as she whizzed through streets and up hills, thighs burning. She watched her nails very carefully when she ironed the family’s clothes on Sunday mornings. She glanced at them when she wrote her compositions for school, when she buttoned up her dress, when her small brown paws caressed her bows as she mused over which one she would choose that day.

They stayed the same.

Once she showed them to Finn.

“Look at my nails,” she said, walking into his shed one rainy day. Finn glanced, not really looking. He was carving something pretty. Later Lem saw the pretty thing on Alex’s chest of drawers. Alex never put anything on her chest of drawers.

Lem wondered if Finn thought they looked the same as four months ago. “Have my nails changed, Finn?”

He didn’t notice how big and brown her eyes were, how they were brimming with invisible tears.

“They’re very pretty,” he said. He smiled at her. Lem liked Finn’s smile. It rarely showed itself in full glory. It was a slow smile, and took it’s time to appear. Lem thought that you had to really like Finn to be patient enough to wait for his smile to get ready to present itself. It began as a small twitch of the corners of his mouth, and then small dimples appeared in his cheeks, they took their time to deepen as his mouth stretched from side to side, his teeth peeking out, the joy spreading from his lips to his eyes, dancing, merry, like the stars glittering in jubilant festivity.

She liked waiting for smiles. Too many people gave up too quickly. They didn’t look at other people, really look, long enough. They retreated quickly into themselves. They were afraid. Of what, though? Lem decided that they were missing out. She was glad she waited for Finn’s smile. She decided to always wait for people’s smiles. If they didn’t arrive. she hurried them on by giving them some of her own. That always made smiles travel faster. Smiles are attracted to smiles.

Lem didn’t care if her nails were pretty, of course. Lem wasn’t worried about such things. She just wanted them to grow. She wanted them to scratch her involuntarily when she clambered up a tree, or pulled on a pair of comfy woolly socks. She wanted to say, “Oh. Hallo. I need a nail cutter.” or “ouch. My nails are getting quite long now. I must give them a small chop”

She even wanted to trawl all over the house hunting for a nail cutter, eventually finding it somewhere ridiculous like under George’s bed, or in the fridge. Or in the sugar bowl. That was a grimy state of affairs, Lem remembered fondly.

Alas, she wasn’t growing at all. The height chart on George’s doorframe grew faded. Nobody raced to be taller anymore. Nobody glugged their milk down with ferocious determination.

When Lem Pringle looked down at her feet, they were the exact same distance that they were the last time she looked. They certainly weren’t getting nearer. But they weren’t getting further either.

****

If you have managed to make it this far, dear reader, could you let me know what you think? Only if you are inclined to, of course. This is an excerpt from a longer novel that I am currently writing. I have been working on this particular story for about three years now. My heroine is mentioned in this blog post.