Edited by Kate Pullinger and Carole Buchan.
In 2001, the Asham Literary Trust organized the third bi-annual competition of short stories by women in honour of Asham House, the house in Sussex where Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived. The competition attracted over nine hundred entries of which the judges selected 12 which are published here together with commissioned stories by Louise Doughty, Patricia Duncker, A.L. Kennedy, Elena Lappin, Kate Pullinger and Carol Shields.
The result is a collection of stories that successfully blends the work of established writers with new authors and taken together represents the very best of contemporary short story writing. Jo Campbell, Tania Casselle, Frances Childs, Fiona Curnow, Louise Doughty, Patricia Duncker, Magi Gibson, A.L. Kennedy, Leila Keys, Elena Lappin, Linda Leatherbarrow, Rowena MacDonald, Ravai Marindo, Jenny Mitchell, Georgia Moseley, Kate Pullinger, Carol Shields, and Ling E. Teo.
‘What are we doing tomorrow?’
‘Going to Emma’s in the morning, school in the afternoon, then Sian is picking you up so you can play with Marcus after school.’
‘What are we doing the next day?’
‘Going to Emma’s in the morning, school in the afternoon, then Marcus is coming over here to play.’
‘What are we doing the next day after that?’
‘Going to Emma’s in the morning, school in the afternoon, then Tea and Cakes after school, most likely.’
‘What are we doing the next day after that?’
Will she kill him? Of course not. But she contemplates it.
In spare moments, Clara thinks about the past, about the time when she was free, before she bowed down to domestic servitude. Is that what it is? She isn’t at all sure how to describe her present state. There is one thing that Clara is sure about, though (whisper this, she thinks): parenthood can be boring.
Back then, in the old days, Before Baby, Clara lived in a big dingy house with a bunch of artists; she wasn’t an artist, but they didn’t seem to mind. The big dingy house was one of a collection of big dingy houses around a long neglected south London square. No one knew who owned the buildings, but they moved in anyway, jimmying the locks, climbing in through the windows, and set about renovating. Clara’s house was actually two houses; once they got themselves established in the first house – electricity, gas, plumbing – they knocked through the walls at strategic places, mostly stair landings, and annexed next door. House number two was exactly like house number one, except in reverse, a mirror-image. It made for a pleasing symmetry. One of the blokes expanded his room at the top of the house to include the room next door. His space was enormous and, consequently, perfect for parties. They had lots of parties.
Her own room was small and cosy, with a tiny fireplace and enough space for a table and chair and her single bed. Clara liked the narrow bed, with its worn black and pink blanket; it gave the room a spartan appearance. She’d stripped the floral wallpaper off the walls when they moved in, and had left the old plaster bare; she liked the look of it as well, the meandering cracks, rough and smooth, glazed and dull like an old leather coat you might find on a skip. The artists would have made the bare walls an aesthetic choice, but Clara left them untouched out of uncertainty – what were you supposed to do next? She stuck postcards of her favourite paintings low on the wall, where she could gaze at them as she lay in bed, but these fell off within a few days, wedging themselves down between the skirting board and the wall, leaving tags of bluetack in their place.
She kept the room warm – warmish – with a parafin heater. It sat in the corner like a pale green metal chimney pot; it was fumey and unreliable and if she had it on for long she worried it might explode. But it was better than nothing, better than the unrelenting cold.
And so Clara and the artists concerned themselves with the business of living – crappy low-paid jobs in retail and catering, signing on, eating cheese on toast late at night after the pub, endless talking. The artists were concerned with Capitalism and its Onward March through time and space; they were concerned about the World and Politics. Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street and they felt a profound unease, casting around for a foothold against Nicaragua, apartheid, Israel. This was what occupied the artists at the kitchen table, this was what they discussed at the pub, this was what they argued about while falling in and out of each other’s beds. Clara listened in; she was like a highly tuned listening device – like a spy, in fact. Except she wasn’t a spy, she was just Clara. She was waiting for it all to make sense.
He is four years old. Tall, and getting taller. Very independent, and yet dependant too, traces of babyhood lingering. Sitting on his mother’s lap is still a priority at times. And his mother’s opinion looms large. ‘You’ve hurt my feelings’ is his favourite complaint, along with ‘I’m very cross with you,’ and ‘I’m very upset.’
‘What are we doing tomorrow mummy?’
‘Sweetie, we’ve been through this. You know what we’re doing. You do the same things every week.’
He looks a little crestfallen.
‘What are we doing the next day?’
‘I don’t know, sweetie. Where’s your bag of dinosaurs? Have they all escaped?’ At four, he remains divertable.
One of the big dingy houses on the square had its ground floor converted into a café. They took it in turns to produce big, healthy vegetarian meals – large trays of vegetable crumble, lasagna, apple bake. Any money raised went toward a cause; there were many causes, and the causes needed money. Everyone came along, to sit at the stubby old tables on the wonky chairs in the candlelight, bringing their own beer and wine, and the conversation wove itself in the air, like a rich and delicate textile one of the artists had designed.
Clara didn’t know anything about the Iran/Iraq war; she didn’t know anything about El Salvador, she’d barely heard of these places. They were very far away. None of her housemates ate meat and some of them took this particular tenet as far as not wearing leather. Clara had a couple of pairs of strappy leather slingbacks stuffed under her bed; sometimes when she was in town she would buy and eat a Big Mac. One of the artists had been to Nicaragua and was raising money to go back; another was dodging the South African Army draft; another had gone to prison for the ALF, the anti-fur, anti-vivisection brigade. Clara had had a teddy bear childhood in Teddington, southwest London; the house she grew up in backed onto the Thames. In summer, Clara and her brothers used to swing out over the water on a rope, letting go to crash into the silky warm river, carefree dive-bombers with no known enemy. Church of England, a private girl’s school, a Mummy who stayed home and baked cakes for tea: this childhood was like a basket she carried around at all times, full of good things. Because of it she would never go hungry. But it weighed her down as well, with its narrowness, its politeness, its concern with courtesy. No matter what she wore, no matter what colour she dyed her hair, it shone through: her parents’ affluence, her way of speaking. She felt a barrier between her self and the rest of the world, not only far-flung places but the artists, her friends.
This is what he likes to eat: pasta, sauce free, garnished only with a dab of pesto from a jar and a sprinkle of cheese. Sausages. Cheese sandwiches. Little baby tomatoes, cucumber. Mango. Bananas. Broccoli on occasion – unpredictable. Same for fish fingers. Nothing resembling grown up food, nothing where the flavours are mixed or complicated. He eats well, providing she does not attempt to spring anything new on him. And of course he loves sweet things. Every little sweet thing.
Sometimes he can be exceptionally graceful and charming. One evening as she is getting dressed to go out he points to an item of her clothing. ‘What’s that?’
Clara looks. ‘A skirt.’ She doesn’t get out much these days.
And later as she is putting him to bed: ‘Mummy, you do look lovely.’
She almost cries. ‘Thank you sweetheart. Thank you.’
Their relationship has an intensity that is heart-breaking. It marginalises everything else. There he is, so little and sturdy, with his hopes, his dreams. How could he be anything other than demanding?
Clara didn’t have a cause of her own. She wasn’t that way inclined. There was too much choice: what was it to be, the homeless in London or the disappeared in Chile? It all felt too pressing, too urgent, too desperate; and besides, she thought, perhaps the world would be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust anyway. She contemplated joining CND; she contemplated joining many things.
And sleeping around. Clara didn’t do that either. No particular reason, it just wasn’t what she did. The artists didn’t expect it of her. ‘You’re too earnest,’ they would say to her, as if that alone ruled out sex. ‘Isn’t it important to be earnest?’ she’d reply. And she’d laugh and the artists would look at her as though she came from another planet.
And then the miners’ strike started. Up north somewhere. Up there.
As the strike took hold, the Left mobilized (‘The left what?’ Clara wanted to ask but did not), and with it, the artists. In the square activity coalesced around the café; they held a meeting to discuss how to fundraise. The miners were asking for food and money. The artists decided they needed someone to lobby the manager of the local supermarket. Heads turned. Clara swiveled in her chair to see who was sitting behind her. But there was no one. They were looking at her.
‘But,’ she said.
‘Clara,’ they replied.
And so she applied herself. She wrote a letter to the manager first, and then made an appointment by telephone. She wore a suit that one of the artists had helped her find at Brick Lane market; it was older than she was and cost fifty pence. She put on lipstick and when she looked in the mirror she thought her mother had suddenly appeared. She put on her strappy leather slingbacks and told herself it was in aid of a good cause. Then she trudged up the broad gusty road, rubbing grit out of her eyes, batting away flying crisp packets. Under the rail bridge, to the right and into the supermarket. She was so nervous she had to remind herself of her own name.
‘We would like to hand out leaflets at the front entrance to the store,’ she said.
The manager nodded and smiled.
‘The leaflet will have a list of products that your customers can buy for the miners and their families. Food, toiletries, household items.’
He smiled again, encouragingly.
‘We will be at the exit to collect the products as your customers leave.’
The manager remained pleasingly silent.
‘We will be polite and discreet. Cash donations may also be given.’
At last the manager spoke: ‘Sounds fine to me.’ He smiled again, his benevolent, managerial smile.
When Clara got outside the supermarket she screamed.
He can make her angrier than she’d thought possible. How was she to know that motherhood would make her so angry?
They are discussing the picking up and tidying of toys.
He throws himself on the floor and wails. She struggles to suppress her own rage, like forcing a vengeful genie back into a tiny bottle. He is four, after all, he no longer bites, kicks, or pinches, so why should she?
‘I’ll help you.’
He stops sobbing as abruptly as he began. ‘All right then,’ he sighs wearily. ‘Come on mummy.’
When he’s asleep it is easy to love him. He sleeps with his arms flung out, blameless, abandoned to it, so far gone sometimes he rolls right out of bed. She lies awake in the next room and listens to him when – at two a.m, sometimes three – he gets up and, standing, drinks from the glass of milk she has left him, puts it down, goes to the loo, gets back in bed. At these moments she doubts her own perceptions; is she no longer the person she used to be? Has motherhood, with all its responsibilities, with its abrupt shifts in way of life – one minute she’s party girl, all sheeny and bright, the next she’s in on her own every single night – changed her as much as she thinks?
The supermarket collection went well; the supermarket’s customers responded with thoughtful generosity, supplying much more than endless tins of baked beans. And they were well organised in the square, ferrying the goods to the central collection point on time, constantly amending and updating the list of requested goods according to instructions from the NUM strike committee. Clara listened to the radio news reports with interest, wishing they had a telly. The strike had many factors against it: the power utilities had enormous reserves of coal, the Nottinghamshire union did not go out on strike, there was no secondary action. Arthur Scargill had not balloted the NUM, and the artists debated the wisdom of that night after night around the kitchen table. And there was Thatcher herself, astride the country with her pearls and her hairdo and her voice.
Delegations of miners began to arrive in London. They came down to attend rallies, to help mobilize and fundraise. There was plenty of room to put up people in the big dingy houses around the square and so they notified the strike committee. The artists began to organise a special benefit night in the café, a welcoming party for their guests. As the day approached the square was buoyant with anticipation; it was not every day that the Cause came to stay. The delegation was from a small mining town outside Manchester; none of the artists had ever been anywhere near the place. As far as Clara was concerned, they could have been coming from Namibia. She had never met a miner. She had never seen a miner, nor a mine, nor even a pit village, in fact the closest she had come was reading Zola’s Germinal, a novel set in France during the 19th Century.
Finally, the evening was upon them. Everyone gathered in the café.At 8:30 they put the food on the back burners. At 9:00 they started to open bottles of wine. By 10:00 dancing had broken out in the middle of the café. By 10:30 some people could wait no longer, and the kitchen was raided. By 11:00 they had forgotten why they were having a party. No one noticed the minibus arrive.
The door of the café opened. Someone shouted ‘shut up’ and the music was switched off and everyone stopped dancing, eating, drinking. Clara stood on a chair to get a better view of the door, and she gasped in spite of herself.
She had never seen so much fur.
They had been expecting a dozen miners. What they got was a dozen miner’s wives.
They trooped into the café one by one, taking up an enormous amount of space. No one had anticipated how much space they would require; every single woman, every single wife, was wearing fur. Fur coats, brown-red and silky, silver and glossy, black and shimmering; fur hats, bulky and soviet; one woman was wearing fur gloves. The café’s inhabitants took a collective gulp. And then someone shouted ‘Welcome!’ The miners’ wives smiled. ‘Come in,’ someone else shouted and, with a laugh, ‘can we take your coats?’
The thing about having a small child, Clara finds, is that it forces you back into your own past, into your own childhood. It makes your parents into people – people like you, in fact. It is that negative bind that characterises so much of parenting – at Clara’s worst moments, when she is too tired, too harassed, too not-herself, she thinks: I’m turning into my mother. And then she thinks: Is that such a bad thing?
‘What are we doing on Wednesday?’
‘Wednesday?’ Today is Thursday.
‘Emma’s in the morning, school in the afternoon.’
‘What are we doing on Friday?’
Ah, she thinks, he has moved on a stage. Is he trying to impress me with his grasp of the days of the week?
‘Friday is your swimming lesson.’
‘Oh,’ he says, ‘that’s right. I’m very good at swimming.’
She doesn’t reply, she is attempting to tune the radio.
‘I’m very good at swimming Mummy.’
The damn thing has a terrible hiss.
‘Mummy, I’m very good at swimming.’
She can’t get it to work. It’s been like this all week.
‘Mummy – ‘ he is getting louder. ‘Mummy – ‘
She succeeds in her fiddling. At last she hears what he is saying. ‘Yes, sweetheart, you are very good at swimming. You should put your face in the water next time, shouldn’t you.’
He nods, pushing his train across the carpet. Now he isn’t listening to her.
Clara couldn’t understand a thing that the miners’ wives said. Their accents – specific to the village in which they had lived and worked all their lives – were unintelligible to her. The woman they had staying in their house was called Barbara; whenever Clara encountered her on the stairs or in the doorway she smiled broadly, said ‘Hello Barbara,’ and then scuttled away. She got on with her supermarket collecting.
In the evenings Barbara wore her fur coat and held court in the kitchen. The kitchen had no heating, but Clara and the artists had grown accustomed to it. When it got too cold to bear, they turned on the cooker and left the oven door open. While Barbara was staying, the household undertook to cook a good meal every night. The artist who grew up in Leeds – Mark – served as unofficial interpreter.
Barbara said something.
‘Do we always eat together?’ Mark translated. He also supplied the reply. ‘Well, pretty often, I guess, maybe even most nights. We take it in turns to cook.’
Clara was sitting in the corner, hoping she wouldn’t be called upon to speak.
Barbara said something.
‘No, we don’t have a cleaning rota as such.’ Mark looked a little shame-faced.
Clara looked around the kitchen. She realised, with surprise, that it was filthy. On the floor the lino was cracked, missing in patches. The walls were festooned with ad hoc wiring and the wires were coated with oily black dust. There was no splashback behind the cooker and the area was dark with grease; the wall behind the rubbish bin was caked and streaky.
Barbara said something and then laughed warmly.
Mark smiled. ‘Yes, we do have big hearts.’ Everyone in the kitchen either guffawed or giggled and Clara smiled in spite of herself.
Another two days and Barbara and the artists were beginning to comprehend each other more fully. One morning, on her way to a rally at Westminster, Barbara came into the kitchen while Clara was making toast.
‘Would you like a piece?’ Clara offered.
‘No thank you.’
Clara spread vegemite on the bread, despite not liking the taste. She thought it might be good for her.
‘It is very kind of you to put us up here in the square,’ Barbara said.
Clara shrugged, she didn’t know how to reply.
‘Things are tough in the villages now. We are running out of money.’ Barbara put her handbag down and began to button her fur coat. ‘No more overtime bonuses. I might even have to sell this!’ She spread her arms wide and laughed, then was abruptly serious once more. ‘I worry that we are running out of time. Our whole way of life – it’s not nice down the pit, but – ‘ she stopped herself. ‘You know all of this already.’ She smiled again. ‘You people obviously have nothing.’
Clara put down her toast and looked around. And then she realised that Barbara thought they lived this way because they were poor. Nothing to do with choice.
‘And yet you have been so generous. We appreciate it so much. All over England, people have been – fantastic.’
‘It shouldn’t be happening like this,’ Clara said. She meant the strike, she meant the pit closures, she meant the violent battles on the coalfields between the miners and the police. The plexiglass-clad police.
‘Ah,’ said Barbara, ‘but it is. It’s not the young men that I worry about; they’ll be all right. It’s the older ones that’ll end up on the slagheap – like my Robbie.’
Clara couldn’t reply.
‘Okay,’ said Barbara, breezy once more, ‘I’m off.’ And with a soft and furry flourish, she departed.
It has been an awful morning and it looks set to get worse. It has been raining since they got up – hard, silent rain. He has a temperature and a runny nose and she’s worried he’s got conjunctivitis from rubbing snot into his eyes. He won’t lie down and he won’t play with his toys. Instead he follows her around the flat, and whines. She has a cold too, and a hangover from the three bottles of beer she drank last night, in front of the telly. All she wants to do is lie down and be very, very quiet.
Now she is brittle with tension, close to cracking. On days like this he’s not a little boy but a huge force, a tremendous non-stop barrage of need.
The phone rings. She leaps up and answers it.
‘Hello love,’ Barbara says. ‘Are you up for a visit this weekend?’
It is fifteen years since the strike – fifteen years, Clara reflects, as she listens to Barbara speak. After the strike Barbara’s husband Robbie took redundancy and promptly died. Their kids were grown, so Barbara went to college on the redundancy money. Now she manages an enormous supermarket in Manchester.
‘I’m thinking of taking the fur coat out of storage.’
‘No listen – they’re back in fashion – they’re all the rage.’
‘They are not.’
‘They are! It says so in my magazine.’
‘Oh well then.’
‘You’re young, you look great whatever you wear.’
‘I’m not young anymore.’
‘No?’ says Barbara. ‘I suppose not. How’s the lad?’
He is sitting next to Clara on the settee, his head in her lap. He takes her hand and places it on his temple, so that she’ll stroke his hair. ‘He’s all right,’ Clara says, ‘he’s okay.’