Thursday 19 March 2015

By the Water's Edge: short story

I left the boxy flat with my family squeezed inside - my mother sweating by the window, her unshaved legs spread apart in a warrior position; my grandma sweating by the stove, dipping a finger into the bubbling soup, licking it off with a click; my brother and sister bored and hot and sweating on the sofa.
    I left, sweating myself, my thighs already wet as they rubbed against themselves under my skirt, calling back through the closed door - ‘Just going for a swim!’
     I walked down the steps that echoed and smelt like every other hallway in this place - a mixture of cigarettes and stock-cubes. I carried a plastic bag that cut into my hand, weighed down with a towel, picnic supplies, and a book I hadn’t started yet. It was too hot to eat or read but I needed the pretense of having something to do.
    Outside, the air was heavy, basting me with greasy heat. Moving was hard and slow. I waited by the road while a tractor passed. It wheezed like an old pair of lungs. The farmer waved and beeped his horn.
    Remembering the way to the riverbank, I crossed to the dirt-track lined with unfinished houses on either side. Some were crumbling, clearly destroyed, others were half-built and caged by scaffolding. The grass was dead and yellow, the mud grey and dry. On my right was Mira’s house. She was a friend of my grandma’s who we’d visited the previous day. I passed the shady patch of garden where we had sat eating watermelon.
    Kids played in the field ahead, kicking balls through rusty white goalposts stuck in at jaunty angles. Kids half-naked, skinny and brown and bare-footed. They ran and screamed at each other. I felt embarrassed, like they were looking at me knowing I didn’t belong, thinking who...?

    I walked to the quiet patch by the river, away from the wooden docks where the dogs played and left their shit to slip on. Through the gaps in the trees I could see the broad stretch of water glinting playfully.
    Cornfields spread out to my left, so tall I felt protected. Grassy mounds and weeping trees surrounded the riverbank, making it soft and swamp-like. But there was noise, hot noise, bugs and echoes of the children screaming. I lay on my towel feeling self-conscious even with no one around. I straightened it out, moved it so it was level on the ground and wondered which way I should put my head. The towel was starchy and coarse on my back. I stripped down to my bikini and sat bent over, kneading the folds of my stomach. I lay down instead, preferring it flat.
    An image came to me - of my grandma reading her gossip magazines by the electric fan. It made me wish I had kissed her goodbye.
    I lay with my hands above my head and gave my body a stretch right down to the toes and I felt it in me, some fleshy heat that travelled up and along me, collected where the sweat was spreading between my thighs. With my eyes closed I felt drowsy, drugged. It was only half pleasant.
    The earth beneath my head thudded. I tensed but didn’t open my eyes. The thudding stopped and I felt the sunlight blocked out from beneath my eyelids.


    It was a voice that resounded, stayed static in the air.
    I started, sat up, twisted around awkwardly. It was Atso, Mira’s son. I’d only met him in passing, dressed in his light-blue uniform buttoned all the way to the top. Tight trousers. He had smiled down at me, my head only reaching the badge on his chest.
    Now he was standing there, towering over me even more. He wore swimming trunks, white and worn. He had foam slippers on his feet. One of them was almost touching my hand, which was spread out to support my weight.
    ‘Cao’, I answered back, the only word I could pronounce with confidence.

    He crouched down, a violent and sudden action, changing his whole stature. His elbows leant on knees that jutted out towards me. It was an open gesture. He squinted through the sun and smiled wide. There were small gaps between his teeth.

    ‘Is hot.’ The words shivered and wafted into the heat.


    He came to sit beside me, I moved over on my towel. I was glad that I looked red from the heat. I hugged my knees as close as I could. His shoulder brushed mine so lightly that a current ran up my skin. He opened his mouth - closed it again - furrowed his eyebrows.
    ‘ swim?’

    I unclasped my knees.



    He stood up, his knee next to my head now, hairs like brambles.
    I waited until he had walked right down to the riverbank. I was suspended for a moment - I wondered if it was a joke, if he really wanted me here. He hadn’t brought a towel. I watched as he kicked off his slippers and without a backwards glance jumped into the water. He howled like a wolf. The sound shocked me out of my stupor in time to see his face rising out and sparkling. I smiled.

    ‘Aide!’ he called again.

    I snapped the fabric of my bikini bottoms, pulling them to cover my buttocks. The earth under my feet was smooth and compact. I didn’t jump. I stepped in slowly, my blood fizzing with the cold. He laughed when I threw myself under and resurfaced with a scream.
    The river looked like a lake - so wide and still. The water was cloudy and filtered green from the bordering trees. I could feel the promise of river weeds tickling my toes as I kicked lazily to keep afloat. Atso did flips underwater. I swam breaststroke, wondering if I looked elegant or just shy.
    There was a moment when I turned around and he was gone. I looked in all directions. Then I felt a tug on my ankle. Something was pulling me under. I struggled to get away - splashed and breathed in gulps of water. Then he emerged beside me, hair dripping, an intent smile coursing over his face. I splashed him.

    ‘Nemoj! Don’t do that!’ I said, laughing.

We swam for hours until the water felt lukewarm and natural, like air around our bodies. The river had soaked off a layer of skin. I felt opened up and stretched out.
    We spoke through laughter and exclamations of ‘ahhh...’ The sky was pink and alive - a final burst of colour before nightfall. I followed Atso as he swam to the shore, watched his shoulder blades beat like wings.
    It was strange when we stood on dry land. Everything was heavier and more real. I handed him my towel and pretended to search through my bag. I couldn’t look at him as he rubbed his hair dry. The way he bent down reminded me of grazing bulls.
    We walked in twilight, his slippers slapping his feet, a rhythm conducting the near silence.

    Then he asked, ‘How many years you have?’

    I hesitated. Two slaps of the slippers.

    ‘Fourteen’ I replied, immediately wishing I’d added on three years instead of one.

    He turned to me, his eyes white, ‘Strasno!’ Then he laughed low and long and said something I didn’t understand.

The dirt-track was lit up by kitchen lights, cosy and orange. There were still people outside in their gardens, stoking mini bonfires and roasting corn, an old man loading firewood into the back of his truck.

    ‘Jesi li gladno? Eat?’ Atso asked, stopping outside the bare-brick walls of his mother’s house. Half his face was in shadow, making his long nose stick out and his features look moulded like clay.

    I nodded, feeling my skin prickle. I followed him inside where Mira was at the sink, her body bulky, the same formidable stance as my grandma. Her face lit up when she saw us. She came to me and kissed my cheeks, said my name in a throaty voice. She spoke no English but I laughed along regardless.
    When we were here the day before she had sneaked glasses of rakija to my little brother until we realised, as he rushed around, crashing his head on the sofa, that he was drunk.
    I sat down at the table covered in a plastic sheet, decorated with gingham and cartoon woodland animals. The news was on the TV. I could make out a shot of some smoke-filled city, before it switched to a turbofolk concert. Trashy ballads filled the room. Mira poured me a glass of strawberry juice, thick and pulpy, ice-cold from the fridge. Atso lay down a plate piled high with ready-made pancakes and next to it, a tub of chocolate spread so big it could have held paint. Still topless, he sat down beside me, stray pearls of river water dripping down his temples. We ate in silence while Mira fussed around us. The pancakes were damp with butter. I could feel the wet bikini soak my clothes.
    Atso motioned me to eat more - I refused. He laughed and said something about ‘little’ and ‘English’. Mira laughed back and placed a parched hand on my shoulder.
    It was nearly eight. I wondered if my brother and sister were in bed. If my mother was also looking at the clock. I discarded the thought when Atso invited me upstairs, leading me along an olive-green carpet. First he showed me his brother’s bedroom. It was bare apart from a mattress on the floor. He tried to explain where he’d gone. The walls were painted a bright, sickly blue, covered with graffiti letters in shades of silver and gold. Some words I recognised, ‘Gangsta’, ‘Get Money Fuck Bitchez’, dollar signs everywhere. There was a sort of pride in the way Atso showed me the walls.
    His room was next door. It was white and just as bare. His bed had a frame at least. My mother had told me he was training to be a policeman. A red leather punch-bag hung in the corner, swaying from the slam of the door.
    He pulled on a t-shirt. It was plain, grey-blue, too big even for him. He sat on a plastic chair while I leant on the wall, my legs rigid and straight on top of the duvet. The laptop made a welcoming ping as he turned it on.

    ‘You watch video?’


    He clicked on a folder and scrolled down, muttering under his breath. He showed me videos, some I’d seen before, of kids falling off skateboards, football tackles gone wrong, singers tripping onstage. He made me jump with his laughter; it burst out of him like claps of thunder.
    Then he showed me something else.
    It was a man sitting at a table, filmed like a police tape, grainy and official. The man was crying, pleading. I didn’t recognise the language. There was another, deeper voice coming from behind the camera. The man’s eyes were dark and laced with desperation. Saliva trickled down the corners of his mouth.
    Then - a gunshot.
    The man’s head crashed and spluttered, a mess of red on the wall behind. It all happened in an instant. Then the video ended.
    Atso was laughing. A jolt ran through me. I tried to look relaxed and push out a giggle but I felt sick with adrenalin, the pancakes dancing in my stomach. I worried that he could hear my pulse - so loud, it was as if the blood wanted to escape my body.
    He sighed; exhausted, amused.

    ‘Eis Ventoora? Jim Cerry?’

    I nodded. My hands held each other still.
    He played the film and turned off the light. For the next hour and a half I felt his body next to mine like a radiator turned up too high.

I knew my mother would be worried by the time he walked me home. We were surrounded by the creaks of crickets and the warm residue of the day. All the houses were dark by now, drenched in blue ink. I wrapped my arms around myself, the jumper he’d leant me scratchy, almost reaching my knees. We walked slowly. Atso dragged his feet, kicking the dust and stones. He kept his eyes forward like they were stuck.
    I thought I could see my grandma’s balcony on the far side of the road. White sheets hung high on the washing line. I heard a window close and the distant sound of a dog’s bark.

    ‘You cold?’ he asked, as I shivered.

First Impressions: snapshots of life

In the square

A red-head walks to the cafe. She wears black-and-white trousers and a fitted jacket. Her shoes sound out from the stone floor, each step like a wave telling people she’s there.
    She sits under the canopy. Empty tables surround her and she looks down at her hands, fiddles with her phone.
      Staring at the cream stone statue in the square she wills herself to get lost in the history of such a thing. She wants to go exploring, seep into the outside world. But she flitters inside as if her heart’s beating wings as she imagines Julia arriving, her soft voice vibrating in her ear, kissing her three times and saying sorry for being late. She imagines what Julia will talk about - Harry most likely, and what he’s neglected this time - and wonders how she might respond. She can see Julia’s long, brown fingers tapping her cigarette over the ashtray.
    Checking her phone, she is met with a blank screen. She bites the nail of her middle finger too hard and it hangs, half torn, exposing a fleshy part of her.


Number 44 is a green-tiled building on the far side of the square. It looks like it was built in China, shipped over in parts, then reassembled. Its roof is thin and covered in yellow moss, with a narrow wooden door reaching all the way to the top.
    A family lived here once who came from a country no one had heard of. They spoke to no one, but kept the front door open all day so that if you passed, you could hear music coming from inside. The music was quick and spindly like a spider spinning its web, with lots of strings and jumps in melody. The youngest boys would poke their heads out and follow your steps with watery dark eyes. If the day was light and you felt it in you, you could go up to them and give them a sweet. Often you would miss your chance, as a hand would come and grab their necks, pulling them back into the dim-lit room.
    It wasn’t until the music stopped that anyone noticed they had left.


Brie - if that’s her real name - leans her elbows on the table. The mint-green of her painted nails matches  her earrings.
    ‘I was thinking about you last night.’
     As she speaks, she looks into the distance and frowns. Turning back to the man opposite her, she blinks in slow motion, her eyelids lingering closed for a moment. It is an attempt to emphasize her point, to let the last word linger too.
    When she opens her eyes she opens them wide and imagines that her stare is penetrating him.
    He shows no reaction, only nods.
    To push her point further, she screws the pointed tip of her shoe into his shin, staring straight at him. He doesn’t move.
    They stay like this for minutes, her screwing the tip of her shoe, him defiant and still.
    Eventually she gives up.
    ‘Do you like my dress?’ she asks, her voice curling. ‘It’s new. I bought it at the market.’
     ‘Too small?’, he says.
    She turns away, resting her chin in her hand, and smiles. It is the kind of smile where the bottom lip slightly overlaps the top, the kind usually accompanied by a sigh through the nose. It is a kind that says, ‘funny, isn’t it?’
    ‘Why didn’t you come and play on Saturday?’ she says.
    ‘I was busy.’
    ‘Too busy to play?’
    He grabs her ankle hard. She raises her eyebrows in surprise. Once again, they remain frozen like this. After a few beating moments he says to her slowly, ‘This is not a game, my sunshine. You understand?’
    His voice rolls across the table straight into her lap. She looks down, suddenly shy. He lets go of her ankle, seizes her hand instead. He kisses her knuckles one by one, scratching her skin with his stubble.


An old man crosses the square, dressed like a teenager, a green ‘M’ stitched on to his baseball cap.     Though Marni is well over sixty, he has the assured stride of someone much younger. He throws and catches a pair of keys, looking about for a familiar face, anyone to catch his eye. He is on the way to the garage owned by his friend Gustav. They have arranged to play cards and drink beer in the back room, but Marni has other plans. He wants to drive to the lake where they spent summers building campfires and strumming guitars. He knows Gustav will agree to anything as long as there’s beer involved.
    He watches two boys ride their bikes. They wear similar caps to him. One goes up on his back wheel and shouts at his friend to look. Marni curses them through missing teeth.
    Marni could tell you stories that would make you blush and pull at your skirt hem. But he is off to find trouble with Gustav, so he turns and leaves you with a wink.

On the beach

Pandora feels like a honey-soaked apricot, all juicy from the heat. She could melt right now and she would taste like a burnt dessert. Her boyfriend sits beside her reading a newspaper. He eats a sandwich and chews it with his mouth open.
    She likes that he is rough and messy. She likes watching him play football and cheering from the sidelines. She knows all his friends look at her and whisper to each other when they pass. She likes that even more.
    Pandora knows the girls at school look at her funny when she wears her favourite denim hot-pants. Her mother says people like that are just jealous.
     Pandora was six when her mother first painted her nails. There are times when her mother looks at her as if she were looking in a mirror.
    Sometimes when she rides the tram, she can sense a man’s stare on her back. It feels like the compressed heat from an open oven door. It gives her a forbidden rush. Occasionally she will feel the touch of a man on her thigh, a faint brush, and the tingle of it stays with her for minutes.


Children play with monkey nuts on the pier, their feet dangling off the sides. They bite each one open by cracking the shell, discarding the woody fibres on the concrete floor. Chewing the nuts into an oily pulp, they spit them at each other, aiming for the head, or even better, the eye.
    This game does not necessarily end with swallowing the nut. It is not nourishment they are looking for, it is the prize within the shell. Once the prize is found, that is the end of it. The nut is used only as a vessel for saliva.
    Some of the shells fall into the foamy edges of the sea, and by evening there is a family of them floating, bobbing like overturned boats.


 A green headband pulls back Karina’s hair with a strict force. She is reading a book on Michelangelo and is so exhausted that the words jump around the page. She makes notes with a black biro. She doesn’t see anything wrong with that; books aren’t sacred. It is dangerous to put such high esteem onto pieces of paper.
    Things that perish do so unconsciously. When a book is thrown into the fire, it does not scream or try to resist. Even the human body does not resist in the way we think it does. Yes- it holds its hands up to threat, and turns its head away from destruction. But the body perishes in an unseen way, unaware.
    As she reads, she pouts and un-pouts her lips, an unconscious motion. Her lips are moving with her heart, in a way that reminds her that they are still alive, that they are still with the body, yet are unaware of their own inevitable ceasing, of how one day they will part in an accidental surrender, an outlet for the last breath.
    She is on the chapter about his upbringing. Thirteen-year old Michelangelo is being punished by his father because he does not understand his son’s obsession with art.
    Karina once met a man called Michelangelo but he was a plumber and bore none of the immortal quality of his namesake. He had long, curly hair and spoke with a nervous giggle at the end of each sentence. When she told him that Michelangelo was her favourite artist, he responded, ‘You know, I too am an artist. It’s only because people cannot see pipes and drains that I don’t get credit for it.’
    She smiled, touched by the innocence of his joke, saddened by the way it sounded rehearsed.


Life on one side of the lens is different to that on the other. It is a life behind glass; the panting of breath amplified in a small box. Outside the lens is colour, noise, commotion. Inside, on the first side, it is still and innocent. It is mere projection of light, the projection of light which has not yet reached its screen. It travels, innocently, then reaches the lens and is met with a clear image. All the eye wants is to be met.
    Grayson has worn glasses since he was three. Sometimes he thinks about what it was like for those three years and is glad he can’t remember. It was life without the lens. It was innocent projection that wasn’t met, left stranded in a space without borders or outlines.
    Grayson still has moments when he wakes up from a bad dream, and feels trapped again in that space. His dreams spread themselves so thick that he forgets to reach for his glasses on the bedside cabinet and all he hears is his breath, slowing and fainting.


The book is covered in wrapping paper (African print: red, yellow and green). Old Mister’s hands shake slightly as he turns the pages, awaiting the next word, savouring them like he’s sucking a boiled sweet. The paper is starting to crumble.
    He reaches a paragraph on page forty-two and stops, reads it a second time. It seems familiar. It describes the heroine placing a flower in her hair, getting ready for a dance. The flower is red with yellow seeds.
    He reads the first sentence again- ‘She held the flower, and stuck a pin in its stem as if she were making a daisy chain’.
    Why did it strike him? Where had he seen this before?
    He remembers his sisters making daisy chains when it was summer and the grass was long.     But that wasn’t it.
    The words were tugging at a deeper memory, one that had become lodged under the rubble of other, more painful memories.
    He doesn’t notice but his grip has tightened on the pages. The image of a red flower being fastened on to a pin...It was so clear to him. He couldn’t imagine any of the women from his past doing something so exotic.
    What it stirred in him was like love in a dream; a tremor from an earthquake, leaving no mark, but felt in the body.
    He scratches his neck, the folds of his skin tremble slightly at the touch. His throat feels dry and scratchy like he’s swallowed a hair. He makes himself cough, it only gets worse.
    In his mind, the woman fastens the flower on to a thin scarf tied around her head and leans down to check herself in the mirror, lifting her eyebrows to get a better look. He watches in the background without her noticing.

INT/EXT: collaboration with Ellie Green

‘Sometimes I walk through crowds
    and pull down my hood as far as it can go’

                                                                     ‘Last night I dreamt that I was telling everyone a story                                                                               but no one was listening - no one let me say the                                                                                                                                                     punchline’

‘I try and do things that will make me melt a little,
 give me nice quiet feelings.
Those morning moments - sunlight - coffee - just you awake’

                                                                                                                                 ‘Soaked with sweat                                                             I danced up close to everyone - as close as I could - I did - 

                                                          I needed it - but I left hungry - the true thing wasn’t there’

‘I sat on the bath’s edge -
it all felt so deliciously helpless my wet face my wet arse
the cold bathroom. There was something so beautiful in giving up’

                                                                                               ‘The sickening crunching and tightening                                                 that happens when you neglect yourself - travel far from yourself -                                 travel far away into other people’s bodies. I’ve been on holiday for too long’

‘I need to strip everything away -
lose my layers -
turn away from the sun -
so I can build myself again’

                                                               ‘What scares me most is living a dull life, one of seclusion,                                        one where I choose to be upstairs creating a cocoon to prevent any love                                                                              from penetrating me, leaving me naked, unarmed’

‘I fear the path where I lose myself,
become heady and withdrawn from routine,
choosing powder and the dwindling promise of adventure
that gets old and lost over time’

                                                                                                                  ‘I seek the world, I embrace it’
‘I seek myself, I embrace my knees...

                             ...I bend my knees’                                    
                                                                                                                                      ‘I open the door’

        ‘I bend my head’                                   

                                                                                                                                 ‘I call out -’

                ‘I look inside’                                        
                                                                                                        ‘I look outside’

                                                                           I see me

In this project, we wanted to explore the idea of 'self portrait'- representing personality through an image - subjectivity in art. Because of the collaborative element, Ellie painted the image from a face-morph of us both. We also find it interesting that we're the same personality types, but I'm the extrovert type, and Ellie's the introvert, which connects to this whole idea of inner and outer worlds, two opposing concepts which we have attempted to blend together. The words to go with it is a dialogue between the introverted and extroverted self which then become one.