In Response To…

Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

I’m still working from home full-time and rarely going out. I’m not ready to start socialising in person or doing the tourist thing. So, when I recently took a week off work as holiday, I attended lots of on-line classes for creative writing and poetry. One of the common themes is to ask the delegates to respond to a piece of artwork in the form of a poem or short story. Here follows some of the prompts and my responses. All were written within the 5-6 minutes allocated in class. I think it’s a really fun exercise to do – to write without thinking about it too much, read it aloud and get immediate positive feedback.


MONDAY

The poem, ‘Richard’ by Carol Ann Duffy can be read in full by clicking here.

Grant me the carving of my name.

from ‘Richard’ by Carol Ann Duffy

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

This is my response to that poem.


Richard’s Third and Final Resting Place

Respect at last, gentle peace

you would not recognise this

City’s tribute. You’re home.


TUESDAY

The Heart of trees

by Jaume Plensa

This is my response to the sculpture (if you look closely, you can almost see the word, ‘Nicola’ on his body.)


Swept up under the carpet

a quiet protest

the weight on me to remain true

as he scars my name into his flesh

I am just, trust, a mast, ballast

strong like glue.


WEDNESDAY

Photo by Henry Lai on Unsplash

The brief was to write a short story in response to the prompt of an animal overcoming adversity.


I eventually found the hamster stuck in a pipe underneath the sink in the kitchen. How he managed to get out of his cage, I’ll never know. Well, I think I do know because the cat was crouching underneath a dining room chair, ready to pounce, and looked guilty as sin. I daren’t tell him off or I’ll get a scratch. Cats are the moodiest creatures I know – worse than any of my children – and I’ve got 3 teenagers.

You wouldn’t believe it, but there are actual YouTube videos on how to free trapped hamsters! I did it – eventually – by sawing the plastic pipe and pouring olive oil down the sides. It was the extra virgin stuff too. He plopped right out, bum first, into the breach.

Maybe I should have got one of the kids to film me doing it. I reckon it might have got a few hits.


THURSDAY

The brief was to write a haibun about a journey or place.

TERMINAL 5

Time is static, shocking, jerking me

I’m a tourist attraction in a glass cage.

Friendly, bored pods glide polite waltzes with lost teddy bears.

Waking up, smelling coffee just a sip or I won’t sleep.

overtired kids

it’s too late to go home now

air smells different.


It feels strange thinking about the time before, when we could travel freely. Maybe one day, I’ll be at the airport again. Is this living nostalgia? A yearning for a life we never appreciated at the time? Rites of passage missed? I feel like I’m thriving right now, so I hope that when we do start living normally again, some things will have changed for the better permanently.

My book of the week recommendation therefore combines the post-pandemic world and an airport. The brilliant ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St John Mandel, which is soon to be released as a HBO tv series.

“The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.”



Be a lady

Be a gentleman

Be a human

124. They Never Leave Their Wives

Photo by Plann on Unsplash

This, like all my short stories, is a work of fiction. It was inspired by a newspaper headline prompt on the theme of lockdown in a creative writing/flash fiction zoom class hosted by the author SJ Bradley. Thanks also to Comma Press and North West Libraries Reader Development Partnership.

Photo by Malik Skydsgaard on Unsplash

It’s not limbo. It’s purgatory. No, it’s hell. He’s all I think about. I should be baking sourdough or banana bread, or getting through that pile of hardbacks, painting watercolours, or even doing jigsaws like every other saddo, but I can’t focus.

Every day it’s the same. I start getting properly ready about 4pm. At 5:30, give or take, he goes for a run and rings me. I imagine him all hot and sweaty. If he doesn’t ring me on time, then I know he’s not alone. He says he sometimes pretends he’s listening to his voicemail, so I only get a breathless “hi”. Then I have to wait until he gets home. That’s the best bit of my day. The muted zoom call while he’s in the shower. We have about fifteen uninterrupted minutes to watch each other.

Oh God, what if he’s recording those and putting them on the internet!

I don’t think he knows that I activated his find my phone app, or he’d have said something. I keep thinking that I might drive to that woodland area where he runs, just so I can bump into him accidentally on purpose, but what if he’s got his kids with him? It would be just my luck to get questioned by the police for going out of area to exercise.

It’s not fair. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage with two ungrateful teenage kids and a fat nagging wife, while I’m here all alone, in this flat, wasting one of my hot years. Every other woman stopped wearing a bra months ago, and slobs around all day in pyjamas, eating what they want. Not me. Full make-up and matching lingerie, just in case he facetimes me from the supermarket car park.

I can’t stop worrying about whether he’s cheating on me with his wife.

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

120. Mixed Signals

Photo by Harry Grout on Unsplash

I can still remember the last moment we were a happy family, before I ruined it all. It was the Easter holidays, and I was six. I was busy drawing a picture at the kitchen table and Eileen, my baby sister, was asleep upstairs. My mother was washing up when my father came home early from work. Seeing his face appear at the window startled her, so she pretended to flick suds at him. 

“Hello Treacle,” he said to me, and kissed the top of my head.

“You’re home early love,” said my Mother. He put his arms around her waist, kissed the side of her neck and dabbled his dirty hands in the dishwater. After he had dried them, he flicked the teatowel on her backside, which made her squeal, then she turned around, cupped his face with her soapy hands and he bent her back right over to kiss her like they did in the films. Then they both laughed. 

“You might squeeze a cup out of that pot,” she said, so he took a mug from the draining board. He pretended to look down the spout of the teapot to check, which I thought was silly, then he poured a little bit more water from the kettle into it. While he was waiting for his brew, he sat down, lit a cigarette, took a drag and scratched his head. “We have to go onto short time, or some of us will be let go,” he said.

“Oh Fred,” sighed my mother, “We’ll manage. We always do.” She looked at me and smiled. “Don’t worry, Cyn, we could always sell some of your drawings. You’re quite the little artist.”

“She is that indeed. Let me see?” said my father. I held up my latest drawing. “You can sell some of my pictures but you can’t sell this one. It’s a present for Mummy’s friend, Mr Turner.” I said.

I never slept in my own bed again.

Photo by Max Harlynking on Unsplash

When I was fourteen, I fell in love with the paper boy. We’d said fewer than ten words to each other in the six months that he’d been delivering Mr Crane’s newspaper, but I knew that I wanted to marry him. One Friday morning, I got up early to watch out for his bike, and I opened the front door just as he was about to post the newspaper through the letterbox. I grabbed it off him, pushed a letter into his hand and closed the door in his face. I was so embarrassed that I barely even glanced at him.

He was there outside the bakers at 11 o’clock the next day, just like I’d asked him to be in my letter. I could see he had made a real effort. Polished shoes, a neat parting and smelling of coal tar soap. His name was Brian and he was also fourteen. He said he wanted to work on the railways when he left school, so that’s where we went for our walk to find a nice picnic spot. I’d brought cheese and cucumber sandwiches and two apples. Our shoes soon got dusty from walking alongside the tracks and as it was a hot day, he decided to open the bottle of cherryade that he’d brought. Then he needed to pee. The other girls in the Home had warned me never to be alone with a boy or a man if he got his cock out. They told me that he would try to get me to touch it and if I did then I might have a baby, but if I didn’t, then I was frigid and was going to become a nun. I didn’t like the sound of either of those things, so I ran away from him.

I clomped up the wooden stairs of the signal box and opened the door. There was nobody in there. Three of the walls were made up of windows. It was stiflingly hot and smelled of BO and stale cigarettes. One long shelf at my eye level was full of polished wooden boxes and shiny bells that looked like the ones on a hotel reception desk, and there were a dozen big levers sticking out of the floor. In the corner there was a desk with two office chairs on wheels and two telephones. One black and one red. The wireless was playing music quietly. I rang one of the bells and it dinged, then I pressed the top of another bell but its ring sounded different to the first one, so I tried another, which sounded out an even higher note. They reminded me of when the Campanology Club was practising in church.  I turned a handle sticking out of one of the wooden boxes and tried to pull one of the levers, but I couldn’t do it because it was so stiff.

I heard Brian say, “you’re not supposed to be in here”.

Suddenly, the signalman started shouting at us. “What are you two doing in here?”, “I heard those bells. You better not have bloody touched anything. You could cause a crash,” then, “can’t a man have five minutes peace to go for a shit?” and “what did you touch?”.

When he had finished shouting, I pointed at the bells and told the signalman that I’d pressed those and turned that handle, but Brian said, “she moved one of those levers as well. I saw her do it.”

“No, I didn’t you liar!” I shouted back at him.

The signalman said, “You’re a cheeky little bitch, aren’t you? What’s your name?”

“Cynthia Archer,” I said. He said nothing but studied me for a moment, then said, “I know you. You’re Fred Archer’s girl. Do you give it away too just like your mother did? I bet you do. They all do in that Home. My mate wouldn’t be in prison now if she wasn’t such a dirty slut.”

“Don’t you talk like that about my mother!” I shouted back at him, and some of my spit landed on his jacket.

“Filthy little…” he began but was interrupted by one of the bells ringing on its own. “Oh shit. Get out, the both of you or you’ll feel the back of my hand. Go on, bugger off.”

The next morning, after church, I had to go to Mrs Crane’s office. “I have received a telephone call from a gentleman who says that he caught you and a boy up to no good in the signal box near to the top end of town. Is this true?”

“I was there with him but…”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses. I’m tired of your stories. This is a serious matter. You were trespassing on private property. Your actions could have caused a train crash. People could have died. Not only that but you were out alone with a boy. What were you thinking? The reputation of our Home is at stake.”

“Yes, Mrs Crane.”

“I am going to give you a choice. You can either help to clean the church for an hour every morning and evening for the next month or work in the laundry. So, you will have plenty of time to consider what you have done and what could have happened. You will also not be attending the fete next week and you going on the school trip to Whitby is absolutely out of the question. You will not see that boy again, or any other boy for that matter, as long as you are living under this roof. I am shocked that one of my girls is writing letters to boys and spitting on British Rail employees. That boy no longer delivers newspapers and I understand that his father gave him a good hiding. We do not condone corporal punishment here, but if we did, I would not hesitate. Do you understand how lucky you are?”

Photo by Krisztina Papp on Unsplash

After I saw my father kill my mother, he washed his hands in the bowl of still-warm water and told me that I had to be a good girl and go next door to tell Mrs Bailey to phone the police, and that I was to stay there and not come back. She made me a boiled egg, toast and Ovaltine for my tea and I thought I was going to have it in my new eggcup that I got with my easter egg, but I didn’t. Mrs Bailey gave me an a teddy bear that she said used to be her daughter’s and asked me to look after it, then a nice police lady took me to the Girls Home. My new bed was next to the window and there was a nightdress on the pillow. I liked it in summer because the window was open, but in winter I had to be careful not to burn myself on the radiator. I stayed there until the day after my 16th birthday, which was the earliest date I was permitted to leave. Mrs Crane told me that my sister was adopted straight away by a nice family who couldn’t have children of their own so this was really quite the blessing. 

After Eileen grew up, she found me with help from the Salvation Army and a woman at the Citizens Advice Bureau, and we finally met when I was 36. We have different accents but everyone can tell that we have the same mother. I’m still quite good at drawing but I’d never let anyone see them, and I sometimes drive past the Girls Home on my way home from work. It’s a hotel now. I haven’t been inside since it was refurbished, but I’ve seen the brochure that they have for weddings. The room I used to sleep in with five other girls is now the bridal suite.

Me? No, I never married.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash