Victim Support

By Janet Olearski

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They’re at home, Leah and her father. They’re sitting in the kitchen and they hear someone pushing at the door of the flat. There’s a faint knocking too. They look at each other.

‘What’s that?’ says her father.

‘I don’t know,’ she says.

He gets up and goes to the door to look. She hears him say something like, ‘Who do you want?’ He sounds suspicious, but not alarmed. She follows him to look. There is a boy on the staircase, a teenager. He is already off down the stairs, saying he is sorry, he has made a mistake. He is not sorry. He has not made a mistake.

Looking down the stairs to the bathroom on the landing, Leah sees that the curtains, which are normally closed, are open.

She says to her father: ‘Did you open the curtains?’

‘No.’ He looks bewildered.

‘Well, neither did I.’

The blind is rolled up, the window catch is unlocked, the bathroom cabinet is open. The boy thought he might get into the flat across the roof. No if’s or but’s, or benefits of the doubt.

Leah calls the police.

They send a small efficient policewoman with a blotchy red birthmark on her face to listen to their troubles and to write a report in her black-leather-covered notebook. She wears a white shirt with short sleeves, and a cute little police hat that you would expect to fall off but that stays in place while she scribbles down the details in large curvy writing. The policewoman’s writing is the sort that Leah once produced herself: her writing is grown-up now.

Her father keeps interrupting with irrelevant facts. Leah tries to bring the discussion back to observations that are of significance. The policewoman is business-like, but she’s also compassionate. She listens.

‘It’s only happened once before in thirty-five years,’ Leah tells the policewoman, who writes it all down in her book.

‘We’ve been here thirty-five years,’ says her father. He is being helpful.

Leah looks at her father and thinks, ‘That much she has grasped.’

‘As long as that!’ says the policewoman.

They tell her a story of times past. Who else will they tell it to?

‘A boy – another boy – came up the stairs,’ says Leah. ‘The door was unlocked. It was always unlocked. We live on the top floor. Who would come up here? The boy pushed the door open. My father saw the shadow. But not the light. He had been having himself a slice of bread and butter. My father, not the boy. The carving knife was on the table. My father picked up the knife and went to the door.’ The boy met a man with a carving knife at the top of the staircase. Should she be telling this story to a police officer? ‘The boy said he had made a mistake and flew away down the stairs.’

Leah’s father smiles at the retelling of the tale, but there’s uncertainty in his eyes. He is hearing it for the first time. He knows it must be true, but he cannot remember any of it. Not even the carving knife.

‘He never came back,’ says Leah.

The policewoman says she will send the fingerprint man. Her father will make him welcome, she is sure. A robbery, even just an attempted one, is an opportunity for much brewing of tea.

They’re living at the scene of a crime. Most of the day’s conversation revolves around what should have happened and what could have happened.

Leah goes out later for a walk to clear her head. When she is away on her holiday, she wonders if the flat will be burgled in her absence. Her father might be stolen. What would it be like without him?

She stops by the dry cleaner’s to tell Siobhan the story.

‘And what if your father had been on his own?’ says Siobhan. What if, indeed? Siobhan says she thinks she saw two boys hanging about around midday.

‘A tall one,’ says Siobhan, ‘and a short one. When I saw them, I thought to myself, I wonder what they’re up to?’

Another part of the jigsaw for Inspector Whoever. They’re on the case. They need all the help they can get. Dry cleaner watch.

Every time Leah thinks she should be moving ahead towards something new, covering fresh ground, she finds she is stuck. There are ends to tie up, letters to write, matters of business to be seen to. There is always something else, something to be dealt with, so much to do that she does not know where to start. The days seem short. She is going on holiday. She does not have much time. She will have to leave him alone and there are thieves about. She has to sort out her clothes for the trip, and tell him she is going, and sort out who is going to keep an eye on the car, and who is going to keep an eye on him. And on and on.

People ask him if he is all right. He is the victim of a crime: a break-in, an attempted crime, if nothing else.

‘How are you feeling?’ they say. ‘It hasn’t upset you, has it?’

He looks concerned. Yes, he thinks he is all right. He will manage. But he is amazed at the fellow’s nerve. ‘I mean… coming up the stairs like that, having a story ready…’

Yes, he is all right. But Leah is not. She needs help.

She is eating her pre-packed salad with the Thousand Islands dressing. She has the brochure open in front of her. She says to her father, ‘What do you think about where I’m going for my holiday?’ He looks at her, horrified.

‘You’re not serious, are you?’ he says.

‘Yes. I’m very serious,’ she says. She has been hinting at the holiday for weeks. He never believed for one moment that she was going. He is selfish for not wanting her to go. She is selfish for going. He thinks her selfish. He just wants her there and there and there.

‘All I ever seem to do is fill in forms,’ she says. She needs a holiday. ‘Insurance forms, Pension forms, Tax forms, Reader’s Digest forms.’ She’s a household form filler.

Leah takes her holiday clothes to the dry cleaner’s. She tells Siobhan she has been feeling very low since the ‘flu. Siobhan says she has been a bit low herself.

‘I don’t feel like speaking to anyone,’ says Siobhan.

‘I feel the same,’ Leah says. ‘Maybe I need a change.’

‘Yes, a holiday,’ says Siobhan.

The fingerprint man comes. He looks about eighteen and wears a business suit. He has a ponytail, rich chestnut hair with a tinge of ginger. He wears glasses and has very white skin. He carries a large silver case and the inside of the case is silver too, with little pockets for tubes and tubs and brushes, big silver soft-tufted brushes that he fluffs and twirls across their bathroom window, across the dust of ages that she jokes about.

‘It hasn’t been opened all winter,’ she says. She does not say which winter.

‘The print is fresh,’ he says. He peers at a smudge on a blotchy pane. Leah wonders if he wants to take her father’s prints, and she imagines him looking at her father’s yellow-stained fingertips.

‘No,’ he says, ‘old people lose definition.’

She always knew her father had lost definition. How long before she will too?

He looks at her fingers. Perhaps she is the thief. All will soon be revealed. He has her press her thumb into a soft damp pad of black ink.

‘No, too much,’ he says. ‘Oh, that’s too much,’ he says.

It was nice, she thought, in the black pad, like rolling about in therapeutic mud. She imprints slowly on his clipboard.

‘I should really get you to do this properly,’ he says. He takes her hand in his and he shows her how she must roll her black thumb across the page.

‘That’s better,’ he says and he scrutinises the whirls and twirls. He compares.

‘Is it the same?’ she asks.

‘No, it’s not yours.’ he says.

Leah wonders if it belongs to her dead mother. As if she had left them nothing but her thumb print.

Her mother would know what to do.

‘They didn’t want your prints,’ Leah says to her father when she goes back upstairs. He looks at her nonplussed.

She goes to collect her cleaning.

‘You’ll feel more secure now that you’ve had your prints done,’ says Siobhan.

‘Yes,’ says Leah, ‘I know now that at least one of us is above suspicion.

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‘Victim Support’ was first published in 2015 in Jotters United.

Janet Olearski is a London-born author and writing coach, who lives in Central Portugal. Her short fiction has appeared in Constellate, Sleet Magazine, The Commonline Journal, Wasafiri, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Manchester Writing School at MMU, Janet is the author of the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com Twitter: @JanetOlearski

Typewriter

By Janet Olearski

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‘I don’t think you quite understand, Nick. We’re out of time. Ten more days and they’ll want their money.’

‘Is that ten day-days or ten working days?’ I said.

‘Not funny,’ she said, and the phone went dead.

I shuffled to the fridge, rattled out the rum and re-powered the contents of my glass. Back at my desk, I took baby sips and tried to see around the yellow Post-It notes that obscured the view from my window. I reflected on the nature of obligation, read notes at random, and sipped on. I was none the wiser. I had an incoherent narrative. As the daylight faded, I saw my reflected self materialise in the shiny blackness of the pane. Then a profound thought – we need these once in a while – that without my work I would hardly know who I was. And, on staring into that dark mirror, I no longer recognised my own distorted image.

It was difficult to remember how I’d cajoled myself into starting, but I’d managed and felt smug about it. After that everything had petered out, all the juices used up, all the imagination wafted out through the air vent. I sat late into the night at my laptop, with nothing coming. A blank screen, a sense of guilt, of deep anxiety, of unhappiness. Woe, woe, woe, I’d think. Why me? Every day I’d be overcome by a bludgeoning weariness, and then I’d wake, slumped at my desk, my hair stuck to my forehead, my eyes bleary and unseeing.

Yes, I have always had a fondness for melodrama.

And now the ultimatum. I’d stalled to the limits of everyone’s patience and they were onto me. This long night I needed to step out and walk off the desperation, just follow the darkness. I needed to open some empty space in my head, like opening doors and windows to let out the bad air.

I wrestled into my jacket, my collar and cuffs askew, but what did I care? I caught sight of my face in the hall mirror as I exited the flat and it disturbed me. Surely I could look better than this? Not doing what I was supposed to do had wrecked me. Just thinking about having to do it had wrecked me.

Outside, the city slapped into my skin and blew me awake. I wandered down the road, along the pedestrian walkways, and into the market, passing stalls and small shops, cafes, restaurants, and multi-coloured people to suit all locations. I found myself a stranger in my own city, entering alleys and narrow streets I’d never ventured into before. It was Saturday night and the place was alive. This energy was a revelation to me. I’d been so wrapped up in myself and my private agonies that I’d forgotten there was a world out here to be enjoyed. I had lost months. Should I worry now about the loss of a Saturday night?

I thought I might choose some small bar with tables out on the pavement, and sit there, taking it all in, watching people come and go. I yearned for liberty, but shame was the greater emotion. So many months, so little accomplished. My conscience kept me moving. It kept me hoping that something would jar inside my head, and that I’d get one of those prophetic signs that we all pray for, the signal that tells us something … only we don’t always know what.

That’s when something did happen, and I did get the message.

I turned a corner and I lost my bearings. Not that it mattered, since I’d lost those long ago and wallowed in the self-pity of my self-imposed loss. I found myself standing, looking into the window of a dimly-lit shop. And in the semi-darkness, I saw a black, antique typewriter.

‘For Sale,’ it said, ‘one special owner.’

I pulled open the door and went in. A bell dinged. There was a man sitting behind a dark, veneered table that passed for a desk. He was turning the pages of a newspaper, his massive forearms covered in tattoos. A sliver of smoke rose from an oversized cigar in an ashtray by his side.

He looked up. ‘Hello, my friend,’ he said. ‘You need something?’

‘The typewriter,’ I said. ‘What’s special about it?’

He looked me up and down. He said, ‘It’s Hemingway’s. You know Hemingway?’

The Hemingway?’

‘Hemingway the writer.’ He sat back in his chair. ‘You know him?’ he said. He had a sourish, almost confrontational look on his face.

‘How do you know that?’ I said. ‘How do you know that it’s his?’

‘I know. Of course I know. I’m Cubano,’ he said. ‘You see the name of this shop? You see it? Cuban Curios. That’s the name and that’s what we got – Cuban curios.’

‘How much?

The man reached for his cigar, took a puff. ‘For the typewriter? Three hundred dollars.’

‘Way too much,’ I said, and I turned as if to make for the door.

‘You no have to buy it, my friend,’ he said, ‘but someone else will. You type on that…’ He gestured with the cigar towards the typewriter. ‘You type on that – you buying Hemingway. You buying… the spirit of Hemingway.’

‘That’s rot,’ I said.

For a split second the man’s eyes flared. Then they relaxed and he grinned, revealing a set of tightly-packed spindly yellow teeth. ‘Maybe you right, my friend,’ he said. ‘But I know how it work. You come here because you blocked. I see it before. Buy this, you not blocked no more.’ He took another puff of his cigar. Behind him some kind of moth-eaten animal – a gazelle, or an elk – something brown at any rate – leaned out from the wall and cast a shadow over his face.

‘You give me the money,’ he said. ‘You take the typewriter. You problems finish.’

I looked at the typewriter. How it shone. How it glowed. I wanted it. ‘Yeah, like I’ve got three hundred dollars in my pocket…’

‘I take Mastercard,’ said the man, and he reached below the table and pulled out a card machine.’

I stared at him. He stared back. Then he rattled his newspaper and continued reading.

‘Okay,’ I said, and I felt in my pockets for my card. ‘What about ribbons?’ I said. ‘Don’t I need ribbons?’

So, there I was, sitting facing the typewriter. I hadn’t much idea how it worked but I sure as Hell was going to find out. I pressed down the shift key and felt it lock. Then I pressed ‘H’ – ‘H’ for Hemingway – and it went down nice and easy, like pressing your finger into a sponge and, as it went down, the thin metal bar reared up. I let it drop and then I slid my hands across the keyboard, across his keys. They felt as though they had been moulded to the shape of my fingertips. His touch was mine now. The lights came on for me at that precise moment.

I wrote that night, the next day, the next night… and on and on. And when my agent called and said, ‘You’re paying back the advance tomorrow, Nick,’ I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And she said, ‘You can’t tell me you’re done…’ And I said, ‘Oh but I can. I’m done.’

Three books later, I was still going. I went out for air one Sunday evening. Dark shadows hung under my eyes, my shoulders were hunched and painful, my joints – knees, wrists, elbows – swollen, my mouth and throat parched from the self-neglect of the obsessed.

Hemingway had a lot to answer for.

I walked down through the pedestrian walkway, along the alleys and semi-familiar streets. Curiosity drove me. I realised I was looking for the shop. It took some time, but I did find it. At first I didn’t recognise where I was. The light was negligible. The building was in darkness. There was a chill in the air. I shivered and looked up, searching for the sign. And there it was – Cuban Curios. I levelled my gaze at the shop window and gave a start. A face stared back at me from the glass. My own self reflected. I leaned in close to the window, cupping my hand over my eyes. And as my vision adjusted to the gloom inside the shop, a large dark object gained definition. I blinked. And there it was, glorious and shining. Hemingway’s typewriter.

I mean… how many did he have?

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‘Typewriter’ first appeared in the literary journal Jotters United in 2014.

Janet Olearski is a London-born author and writing coach, who lives in Central Portugal. Her short fiction has appeared in Constellate, Sleet Magazine, The Commonline JournalWasafiri, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Manchester Writing School at MMU, Janet is the author of the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com   Twitter: @JanetOlearski

Evelyn’s Virtual Diary

By Janet Olearski

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My origination day is Forsday. I had almost forgotten. I strolled into the lounge with my bowl of Coco Pops (penultimate packet) and the entire AnimaDisk lit up. ‘Good morning, Evelyn,’ it said. ‘This is to advise you that your expiry approaches. Please select your date and time of processing.’

I need to think this through.

Twosday

When I go, I may take a few with me. What do I care? Frank will be top of my list. He dropped by yesterday morning with a large tube of decorative vitamites, and he saw the message. He said he hadn’t realised I was that old. I really didn’t look it and it was amazing what they could do these days.

He asked if I was going to throw a deletion party.

Threesday

I stepped out to gather a few vegetables from my patch – real food – and before I knew it, I had a gaggle of bloated little plastikids around me, tubby little stomachs, fat legs and double chins. I may be old but I can still walk and run, which is more than I can say for them.

Are they old enough to drive those SlipShoes?

Forsday

A circle of fluorescent flowers lit up the AnimaDisk this morning. The message read,

On this origination day,

With joyeous voice we say

‘Happy Hundreth, Evelyn!’

I nearly puked. Underneath, it said,

Congratulations!

Your processing is booked at Yoothanazium for 12 noon on Fivesday.

We hope you had a good life and we wish you a smooth departure.

Finding the tube empty, Frank said it wasn’t a good idea to down so many vitamites in one go. Colourful they may be, but they are not sweeties. Too true. They are, however, tempting to plastikids with fast shoes.

Fivesday

[Click here to enter your thoughts.]

“The desires of today are the errors of our tomorrow.”

Evelyn Coomber, 2061

HISTORICAL NOTES ON EVELYN’S VIRTUAL DIARY

Evelyn transferred her kreditz into powndz on the BlakMarkit. This enabled her to live out the rest of her days comfortably in Bermooda.

We understand that Evelyn reached the Bakovbeeyond under her own steam as it were, wearing a pair of SlipShooz, which she obtained from a plastikid through the barter of a large tube of multicoloured vitamites.

The government’s ‘Perfekt Children for All’ manifesto was rejected but the idea appealed to, and was supported by, the affluent middle klasses who subsequently reverted to the services of popular providers such as Optimal Offspring and ChildPerfekt.

Plastikids were intended as first generation origination improvements. Their facial features were to be corrected and re-calibrated at intervals of between one to five years. Teeth could be straightened at origination, while skin and feature defects could be could be controlled through painless sinthetik injections.

Plastikids were eventually discontinued. Initially, the government’s ‘No sport at skool’ policy, which had been designed with the aim of protecting plastikids from injury, had the effect of nurturing obesity. Later, due to a preponderance of law soots against teachers, home skooling through Interactive AnimaViz replaced regular skooling. However, long-term AnimaViz exposure resulted in a number of horrific melt-down incidents in plastikid subjects that had been treated with advanced sinthetiks.

It would seem that Evelyn used a RetroPC for the writing of her diary. There is no trace of this hardware but, miraculously, paypa hardcopy of her document survived and is now preserved in the Heritage Moozeyum.

Evelyn’s work came to light through research undertaken by the Society for the Preservation of Ritten Rekordz. The Society seeks to conserve our linguistic heritage and supports the reinstatement of ritten documentation, the skill of riting and an appreciation of “classical” speling. The Society advocates the standardisation of speling. (Note Ben: A number of critics/kritics have denounced the inconsistency of the Society’s own ritten output and akordingly efforts are being made to remedy this.)

The decline of the ritten word began with the rise in popularity of text messages, which we at the Society believe handicapped and de-skilled our young people. Around 2040, works of fiction submitted for the Booker Prize were limited to a maximum of 50,000 words per book. Publishers eventually applied this rule to all books, mainly for financial reasons. But the fact was that, increasingly, the general public was finding it a strain to read ‘long books’ on their book devices. It was only a question of time before official riting was limited to 250 words per communication (though this could be interpreted liberally).

Research revealed that the excessive use of sinthetikz was in fact affecting brain-eye coordination with the result that attention spans were declining steadily. University dissertations were rarely longer than 1,000 words. However, most educated people could not read more than 250 words at one sitting. The ‘man in the street’ could not manage even 250 words in a month… hence the return of oralkulture. It is highly probable that if you are able to read thus far, you will be a second generation klonak.

The practice of having oneself kloned and thus drawing on previously learned and arkival knowledge is common in the field of akademia. Certainly it does give akademics the edge both where their students and their unkloned colleagues are concerned. The only disadvantage with this procedure is that the subject must be deceased in order to undergo processing.

Evelyn’s neighbour and would-be suitor Frank was deleted by appointment at Yoothanazium in 2082.

Evelyn herself died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 152. A statue was erected in her honour in the grand foyer of the Heritage Moozeyum but, following requests from the public, this was later replaced by a plak engraved as follows:

Evelyn Coomber 1951-2103

A life prolonged is experience gained

In recognition of Evelyn’s heroic flight from deletion, the statue itself was transferred to the Moozeyum’s gardens so that Evelyn’s free spirit could gaze across the vast yellow plains of Bakovbeeyond.

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‘Evelyn’s Virtual Diary’ first appeared in the literary journal Beautiful Scruffiness in 2011.

Janet Olearski is from London and lives in Central Portugal. Her short fiction has appeared in Constellate, Sleet Magazine, The Commonline JournalWasafiri, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Manchester Writing School at MMU, Janet is the author of the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com   Twitter: @JanetOlearski

Postcard

By Janet Olearski

IMG_6018In some distant country, in the back of beyond, when Christina stood pushing her postcards into an empty metal post box, hearing them clatter onto its hollow floor, she remembered Sonia. Sonia flitted into her mind like a soul without a home.

It was Sonia who had appeared in shows, auditioned, sung at concerts, and travelled to film studios together with Christina’s grandmother Kay. The two women, Sonia and Kay, had been almost inseparable. Sonia was not at all flamboyant in the way that Kay had been, but she was of the same essence. Theatricality is in the blood, they say. Except everyone ruled that out when they met Christina.

Christina thought back to the winter when Sonia had contacted her mother. It had been agreed that she and her mother should pay a visit. Christina was not especially keen. She worried that her mother might be showing her off, and that Sonia would be expecting her to be just like her grandmother. It seemed to Christina that she would disappoint them both. She protested, but her mother had got it into her head that they had to go and was ready for a stroll down memory lane. Christina sulked – as she did in those days – but they went anyway.

Over time, people lose the details of experiences and events. They think they’ll remember, but they don’t. Those details are gone. When she looked back, Christina could not recall if the day of that meeting they had taken the bus one stop too far, or not far enough. She had studied the relevant pages from the A to Z, turning it sideways and upside down to get her bearings. Her mother tried to spot street names as the bus trundled along under an overcast sky. When they finally arrived, they found Sonia there in the street waiting for them, concerned they might get lost. She had come out into the cold to find them and guide them back to her front room, where tea in fine rose-patterned china cups and Viennese cakes on matching plates awaited.

It was at a time when Christina must have been at university, or perhaps was about to go. She was journeying back and forth to stay in some arid Calabrian coastal town, to be with a man, pointlessly so. It was all costing a good bit of money. The man was having fine times at Christina’s expense.

‘I wish I could have done the same at her age,’ her mother would say, whenever she learned that Christina was off again to Italy – as if this were an acceptable thing, a young woman taking herself away to visit a man who never once thought to come and visit her. That was part of Christina’s embarrassment. She had nothing to report to Sonia, only that she had a boyfriend from there. She had enough sense not to let slip that she – Kay’s granddaughter no less – was seeing a man who was separated, but not yet divorced. And him a foreigner at that. Years later it pained her to think about it. Sometimes people know things are wrong and, because they’re wrong, the ‘being wrong’ isolates them. They’re slapped over with the paint of guilt and it won’t wash off.

When they got into the light and warmth of the flat, Sonia couldn’t take her eyes off Christina. She was looking for the resemblance, almost in awe. Christina could not gauge how much she did, or did not, look like her grandmother. That was for others to perceive. Christina reminded Sonia of someone. It was partly Kay, but it was also someone else. Sonia stared and thought as she poured the tea. In an armchair, in a corner of the room, sat her husband, reading his newspaper.

‘Who does Christina remind you of, Bernard?’ she asked him more than once. Bernard looked at Christina over his glasses, said nothing, and continued reading.

Christina was drawn into an interrogation for which she was ill-prepared. Sonia wanted to hear all about how much she liked Calabria. In truth Christina hated it, but could not say. She only went because of the man. Sonia wanted hear about Christina’s interests, her studies, her aspirations. Everything had seemed perfectly clear until Sonia had asked her. How could she answer when she did not really know? She didn’t know her own mind either, which was worse. When she thought back to that time, she did not despise the Christina of the past for her ignorance. She felt compassion for her.

In the midst of this, there was a sudden flash of recognition in Sonia’s expression. She knew without a shadow of a doubt who it was Christina reminded her of.

‘Vivien Leigh!’ she said. ‘That’s who you look like. A young Vivien Leigh.’

Christina was immediately evaluated by three pairs of eyes.

‘Who?’ said Christina.

‘Can’t you see it, Bernard?’ Sonia said, turning to her husband. ‘Vivien Leigh, Gone With The Wind. Remember?’

He rattled his newspaper. ‘Maybe,’ he conceded.

‘Look,’ said Sonia to Christina’s mother, ‘can’t you see it? The similarity.’

Christina’s mother was flattered, if not surprised, that a daughter of hers should have come out looking like Vivien Leigh.

‘Oh yes!’ she said, seeing it for the first time.

‘Oh yes,’ said Sonia. ‘Definitely Vivien Leigh!’

And there were the two of them staring at Christina, admiring her, wondering at the coincidence.

‘It’s the eyes,’ said Sonia, ‘and the shape of her face …’ Christina could have been Vivien Leigh’s stand-in. Sonia knew. She had worked on Ship of Fools and had seen the real Vivien. So, who could argue with her? But there was something demeaning about being compared to someone who, even at Christina’s age, was renowned, when Christina herself was not, and probably never would be. Christina was the first insignificant one of her kind, but the millionth Vivien Leigh look-alike. There’s something not quite right about that. But not to Sonia’s mind. It brought her immense pleasure this discovery.

So, a scene in Sonia’s front room: Christina and her mother sipping their Earl Grey and eating dainty European pastries; Bernard sitting in his armchair and reading his newspaper, glancing from time to time at the visitors without saying a word; Sonia telling them about her holidays in Capri, and how she’d sing medleys of old favourites at the piano in some Italian trattoria to the delight of the proprietor. And Sonia remembering Kay, her eyes becoming glassy as she considered the loss of her old friend so long gone. For a few moments, they all sat silently in that memory.

Christina knew her mother wanted to get back to give her father his dinner. Sonia urged them to stay, but they could not. Christina’s mother said they would definitely come again. She would come on her own, or with Christina … if Christina was back from Italy. She was leaving again in a few days’ time. Another reason why Christina hadn’t wanted to visit that day: there were things to do, a suitcase to pack. But people can always find time for the things that matter. As Christina later discovered.  

Sonia hurried into another room and brought back an address book and a postcard. She had an old friend in Taormina. Perhaps when Christina got there, to wherever she was going, she would post a card to him from Sonia. Christina was not going anywhere remotely near. The card would have arrived sooner from England. Despite that, Christina agreed. Sonia was, in any case, already scribbling her message. Christina had the vaguest impression that Bernard raised his head for a moment to look in their direction.

Sonia wanted to give Christina the money. For a postcard? Christina said not to worry – she would take care of it.

And then they left, Sonia insisting on accompanying them up the road.

‘You’ll make yourself ill,’ said Bernard. ‘I’ll go.’

‘No, you’ll make yourself ill,’ said Sonia. ‘You stay here and read your paper.’

And she went with them in the cold all the way to the bus stop, hugged them both, made them promise to come back. Christina was relieved to get away, as she always was, even years later, whenever she went to visit anyone. She was no sooner there than she wanted to be gone. And yet, in retrospect, she had enjoyed that day. She didn’t know if she had enjoyed it for what had been said, or because she had done a good deed and had been there to give some satisfaction to an old lady.

The two women both came away with the sense of a job well done. Somehow, though, Christina could not really see herself returning. They watched Sonia standing in the darkness waving to them as they sat in the bus. And then they were off, heading home through the unknown territories of Hampstead. When someone doesn’t own a car – and they didn’t – even places that are near seem light years away. Christina would fly for three and a half hours to see her Italian, but twenty-five minutes on the bus in a freezing English winter seemed an eternity.

She took Sonia’s postcard with her to Calabria. She was miles from the nearest post office, she had no transport. She relied on him. Whatever her initial intentions back in London, she did not dare ask the man about buying stamps. He didn’t consider things like that important. Christina had the wrong kind of relationship with him, she realized. If she couldn’t ask him to buy her a stamp, what kind of a relationship was it? On the last day, her conscience got the better of her, and she asked him. Please, she said, please could he post this card for her? It was very important.

He scrutinised the postcard and the message. He sat for a long time trying to decipher it. Every so often he looked up at her, then back again at the card. His expression was stern, but otherwise deadpan. That’s the way he was. But he was shut out, too, from her language and her world: he had shut himself out. Christina knew what he was thinking, that she might have written it herself … to a secret boyfriend.

She said, ‘I know what you’re thinking.’

He said, ‘What am I thinking?’

‘That I’ve written the card to some man I know,’ she said. ‘Anyway, you can see it’s not my writing.’

‘Isn’t it?’ he said. He could be very awkward when he wanted to be.

‘I’d hardly give it to you to post if it was to a boyfriend, would I?’

‘You might,’ he said, ‘to make me jealous.’

Christina wanted to do one of her sarcastic laughs and say, ‘You can’t be serious,’ but she didn’t. Scorn was wasted on him. Either he didn’t get it or he didn’t want to get it. In the end he took the card and posted it. It was a game he was playing, but the trouble was Christina never knew where the game began and where it ended. And that was always the problem.

Back in England, Bernard phoned Christina’s mother. He told her Sonia had collapsed and died just the week after their visit. He had not known where to lay his hands on their number. In the end, he had found it in one of Sonia’s address books, but by the time Christina’s mother had had the news, Sonia was dead and buried. And it was probably around that time that Sonia’s postcard, her last postcard, had reached its destination.

*

‘Did you ever post that card for her?’ Christina’s mother, increasingly forgetful, often asked her daughter. And Christina, whose trips now were always for business, never for pleasure, thought how the recipient, whoever he was, had had a postcard from a dead woman, sent on her behalf by a poor imitation of a deceased film star.

But the Christina of those times was long gone, of course.

Vivien Leigh***

‘Postcard’ was one of the winners of the National Newspaper Short Story Competition in association with the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, and was published online by The National in 2013.

The Older Short-Haired Female

By Janet Olearski

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She was the older, short-haired female. A rather aggressive species, he thought. Older, and therefore experienced. It was fearsome for him to consider – and so he did not – the lives she had lived, might have lived, lives she had enjoyed and destroyed, the wiliness of her moves directed by her knowledge of things past and carried forward now into the future.

He had spotted her from afar, blue-winged and scarlet in her habitat, a high-flying estuary bird of a kind he had rarely observed before.

He should have known better. The older, short-haired female is not to be meddled with. Not by the likes of him. She fluttered seductively in men’s paths, knowing what she knew and applying it to her advantage. Unlike the past, when she had applied it to her disadvantage. For she had once been the prey of man. Easy prey. But then she was the younger, long-haired female, a delicate, pale creature, verging on the anorexic, easy to have, easy to please, easy to leave and take another.

Now she was a more evolved specimen, not as sleek perhaps, weathered – maybe hardened – possibly, but also, and resoundingly, magnetic, compulsive, charismatic, alluring, luring the helpless man-beast to her nest, entrapping and entangling the hopeless, hapless male in his inevitable flight towards an undefined fulfilment. But with one certainty: that once ensnared, he was never to escape. As surely as the sparrow hawk preyed on smaller birds, who ate the grubs in the earth, who ate the nutrients of the soil, the older, short-haired female played her part in the chain of man’s downfall, but perhaps also his redemption.

She sits at a mirror, a distant captive behind the wrought iron bars of her balcony. He watches her, captivated. She lifts her brush and pulls it carefully through glistening plumage. She turns her face this way and that, staring into her reflection. He experiences a private ecstasy, reserved for secret observers. Viewing her in silence, his home a hide with slits and peep holes, his home a hive of excited anticipation, as her robe floats feather-like to the carpet, he knows he must have her. And, when her silhouette slips from view, his hand caresses the curved inanimate surfaces of stolen eggs on the rich polished wood of the dresser in his bedroom, and he believes himself all powerful, a licensed thief of nature.

You must not move about or make a noise.

This is not conducive to the intimate study of birds.

It is a long-term project. He observes her habits, notes her displays. He knows little of her mating patterns, but he waits. He prepares himself for her broody promiscuity, knowing that it will disappoint him. Such is the species, but his is a scientific approach. He always bases action on careful research. When action is necessary, he takes it.

He passes her on the stairs. She looks at him, but does not see. He nods his head in acknowledgement. Her coat brushes his. She is there and, with a faint rustle, she is gone. He hears the door close behind her.

A case history. He watches and takes note. She is totally self-centred, an arrogant, intimidating creature. All the more intriguing for this. He observes. She preens herself with conviction and commitment.

You must always take care to keep your distance.

She is in her kitchen. She takes something from a cupboard. She turns her head and inclines it, as if listening. She stands immobile. She moves to the window. She pulls down the blind.

You, of all people, must comprehend the problems facing wild birds, the threats to their environment, the violation of their natural habitats.

Field observation. She is unlocking her car. She looks up as he passes. He would like to see her at close hand. He needs to know what she is like, her behaviour. The older, short-haired female always stands her ground. She stares you right in the eye. He lowers his eyes and moves on.  

There are many ways to attract wild birds, but these methods cannot

be relied upon. Frequently birds are heard but not seen.

As you must certainly know, they often appear when least expected.

He stands behind the door in the darkness of his hall. There is a circular marking of light around his eye. He watches her through his spy hole as she waits for his response to her call. He notes her restlessness and this gives him pleasure. She rings the bell, but he does not answer. He knows she will return. She will come closer and closer… until she is close enough to touch. He will wait and watch. He knows his chance will come.

‘I live across the courtyard,’ she tells him.

‘Ah, yes,’ he says.

‘I wondered if I might…’

‘Of course,’ he says.

Good fortune and a rapport with birds have brought her to him. He is masterful with birds. Silently he listens as she reports the fault from the phone in his study.

You believe in conservation. Beware. The conservation of memory and desire belongs only to human-kind. It is folly to seek in others what you find in yourself.

‘Your glove,’ he says.

‘I never missed it,’ she tells him. What she loses – or has lost – is of no consequence to her.

Yes, he will accept a drink.

He stands in her living room. He has never seen this room before. It is not within his range.

The bird is an unpredictable creature. You cannot be sure how it may react

when threatened. Take care not to alarm it.

Her flight is late.

‘I hope you won’t think me rude,’ he says, as he stands in her doorway. ‘I’ve cooked enough for two.’

He has always shown a concern for the protection and welfare of the wild bird.

She is glad of the offer.      

The light is dimmed. She perches on a stool in his kitchen. She pecks at her food, watching him. He offers her food from his own plate. Just a taste. If she will.

She will.

She grasps his hand in hers. Her nails are long and polished. She takes the food with her teeth and tongue. She is lit by the candlelight. Her eyes glint, her pupils wide and dark. His fingertips stretch towards the transparent down of eyebrows, and then to the soft pink of her lips.

‘I have her,’ he thinks. ‘I have… her.’

And one, or the other, is captivated.

He wakes in the half-light of the morning. There is a distant electric dawn. She is an early bird, humming as she splashes under his shower. He hears her voice and closes his eyes. He feels her presence in the room, an emperor and his nightingale. She rustles close by. In his dream, he turns to watch her as she bends towards the telescope. She speaks softly.

‘A perfect view,’ she says, ‘perfect,’ and her words dissolve into melodious, singing laughter. He smiles in his sleep.

Light floods his room. On the floor there is crushed eggshell, but it hardly matters. He views her through his binoculars and knows she will see him. Is this wise? She is speaking on the phone. She turns, catches sight and waves to him. She is smiling. He waves back. He is, of course, a tamer of wild birds.

‘I’ll be away. A day or two,’ she says when he calls.

‘I’ll miss you,’ he says.

‘I’ll miss you too.’

Generally, birds do not display their emotions.

 He knows this, but he has forgotten.

‘I’ll call you,’ she tells him. ‘Or you call me.’

He goes about his business. Common birds are dots in the distance, looking dark and colourless. They hardly interest him. She is his obsession now. He is aware that the migratory bird is at risk abroad and this troubles him. At his office he waits to be called, but his phone is silent. He calls her.

‘You’re back,’ he says.

Yes, she’s back.

Perhaps his feeling for birds has failed him.

But she is joyful. She longs to be with him. She says.

‘We’ll see each other soon,’ she says. ‘Call me. Any time. Day or night.’

These creatures come and go airily. They snatch what they can. They are erratic. They flit here and there. They swoop, they steal, they mislead. They are elusive. They soar out of reach. They abandon you.

Being an expert in the field does not equip you to manage it.

You have been, and were intended to be, an observer, not a participator.

He trains his telescope on her windows. Her shutters are closed.

He calls her. The answering machine engages, and he hears her voice. The sullen, serious voice of the older, short-haired female.

‘Leave a message,’ the voice tells him.

Leave a thought, an aspiration, a fear? He cannot abide his words gliding on this limbo of airways.

You must surely remember the raptors. There is a link through time, forgotten

or ignored as desires replace wisdom, as greed cancels caution.

When handling predators, you must mind the talons.

He thinks on these matters as he waits, illuminated only by his hallway’s prehistoric glow. Across the courtyard, her shutters open. It takes him by surprise. He focuses the lenses. She faces him directly. Her arm is raised. She is pointing, identifying him to others – to the men standing by her side. Waiting to spot him.

And then comes the moment when, in its impotence, as beating wings descend,

the prey is paralysed by the cognizance of its fate.

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‘The Older Short-Haired Female’ first appeared in Bare Fiction Magazine, April 2014.

Getting Your Stories Published

Some words of encouragement for those of you who have been trying to get your work published.

Submitting stories for publication can be a long and thankless task, but it is immensely uplifting when a story is accepted. It means that someone has read your work and has, in a sense, validated it. One of my favourite stories: A Cure For Snakebites, was sent out a total of 30 times to different literary journals between 2011 and 2017. I re-wrote the story multiple times, but essentially the heart of it remained the same. I had a message to convey and somewhere the message was embedded in that story.  Sometimes when we start writing a story – or even when we have written the first few drafts – we are not sure what our story is about. We cling to that tale because our heart says we must.

I stuck with this story for that reason. I would take it out, re-read it, tweak it, and experience a range of ‘Aha!’ moments as I began to understand what it meant for me. The writer Dorothea Brande said, “Writing is re-writing.” We need to re-write in order to dig deeply and find out what is in the pit of our subconscious. So, don’t write your story and say that you are done with it after the first draft. Look again and you will see something new. 

For readers, our stories may have many different meanings. We can explain up to a point what we were trying to say, but ultimately it must be for the reader to search and find what they are looking for in that story.

A Cure For Snakebites was finally accepted on the 31st try, by the literary journal Litro at the beginning of 2017, and I later republished it under the title Charmed in the collection  A Brief History of Several Boyfriends.

3 A Brief History of Several Boyfriends - janet Olearski

Part of the key to getting your stories published is finding the right match between your style of writing and the journal to which you are submitting. That means reading the material they publish to see if your story is likely to fit. Don’t submit at random. Your story, if you love it, deserves better than that.

 

NaNoWriMo – The Fast and Furious Guide

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We’ve been having a conversation on WhatsApp about how to do NaNoWriMo. Here is my Fast and Furious Guide. It defies all the laws of good writing, but it may help you clock up your 50,000 words, and once you have those, you have the first draft of your book.

About plans

So first, sketch out a rough plan. Spend five minutes on this. Don’t agonize over it.

Next, write a one- or two-line premise to remind yourself what you are writing about. Ask yourself, ‘Whose story is it? What happens?’ That’s the absolute basic.

Now, expand on that. Ask questions of your story. Add the answers to these questions to your premise or synopsis and allow it to expand and expand. When you wake up in the morning, your brain will tell you what’s going to happen next. This is the bit that non-writers have a hard time understanding. The founder of NaNoWriMo understood very well that it is only by total immersion in your work-in-progress that you will come to be a part of it and live it. Day by day, this intimate contact with your story and its characters will show you the way. If you do not believe and you do not commit, this won’t happen for you.

About scenes

So, you have in front of you your expanding story outline. Now write the scene that first comes into your mind. You can write your scenes in any order, and then put them in order after NaNoWriMo. For now, just throw words down on the page.

If you already have a synopsis, that’s brilliant. Roughly divide it into three sections following the traditional Three-Act structure that we have talked about in the past. Do this not because it is the solution to plotting, but because it will give you a quick plan to work to. Remember always that your plan is organic. New ideas will come to you in the writing of your story, and you need to be flexible enough to accommodate these ideas.

Divide your first section or Act into scenes. Start writing the scenes in any order. As mentioned before, editing comes later.

Trick your mind

Do not share. Otherwise you will want your work to be perfect. It will be a first draft so it won’t be perfect and, because it is not perfect, you will stop writing. You will be paralyzed. This is why you should just write, and not blather on to other people about what you have written.

The setting up of your novel on the NaNoWriMo site means nothing. It is for you, psychologically, to know that your novel exists and that what you have outlined there on the site is roughly what you are going to write. I say ‘roughly’ because it is your book and you can change anything you like.

The technical stuff

During NaNoWriMo you actually write your story on your own laptop, or computer, or in your notebook. You are not required to upload anything else. You will need to type your work into a Word document because at the end, when you have come to the 30th day, or have finished the first draft, you have to copy and past your text into the NaNoWriMo word counter. On the basis of this you are issued with your ‘winning’ certificate. Your manuscript is not checked for content, grammar, spelling, or anything else. It is not printed or published anywhere. The upload is merely to check that you have in fact written 50,000 words or more.

About first drafts

Working towards a first draft and not stopping to edit pushes you towards reaching your desired word count. Many people get blocked because they feel dissatisfied with a sentence or a word that they have written and, because of this, they never move on. You can go back and tweak a bit here and there if it makes you feel better, but NaNoWriMo is a quirky kind of event, the aim of which is to get you unstuck about always thinking about writing that book and never ever doing it. It also tests whether you have the staying power to engage with a long piece of writing. Most people don’t. It takes stamina and seat glue. You have to say ‘no’ to invitations during the month of November, you have to live and breathe the writing. Won’t you do that for yourself for just one month?

Expanding your plan

So, your plan is roughly divided into three sections or Acts. You need to aim for three sets of scenes. As you work through some of your early scenes, the later scenes will come to mind, and as they do, you add them – the outline of them – as they appear, so that by the time you move on to the next section, your scenes, or most of them, are already in place.

As I said before, your story is organic. The synopsis, plan, scenes are in place to keep you on track. You elaborate these as you go along. You must write down ALL your ideas in the same document. It’s all part of your word count. At a later stage, when you have substantial material in a particular section, you can divide that text into chapters, but this is not essential since that would really just be cosmetic. Editing, and the division into chapters can come after NaNoWriMo when you begin the real work, and when you have found out what your book is really about. Your plan is there so that you don’t lose the plot. Follow the plan, but as a guide only.

Writing in company or in secret

By all means, find yourself a ‘writing buddy,’ but just for support and encouragement. Don’t start philosophizing about what you are doing or it will never happen.

There is nothing to stop you from signing up and using a pseudonym. Do your writing in secret and don’t tell anyone, but try to challenge yourself by keeping up your word count. If you fail miserably no one will ever know. There is no money to be spent, there is no one telling you what you should or shouldn’t write. This is actually just you challenging yourself and showing yourself that you can clock up a large number of words that tell – in the form of a rough draft – the story you want to elaborate.

Why?

People who do NaNoWriMo realize that the real work of the writer comes later when they build the bricks and the sand and the miscellaneous rubble into a designer house. That happens after NaNoWriMo. If you have no materials to work with, you cannot redraft, rewrite, elaborate, and you cannot produce anything worthwhile.

Focus and trust

So, during the 30 days of NaNoWriMo, keep a notebook by your side all through the day and write down any thoughts, lines, descriptions, scenes that relate to your story. If you’re focusing, and doing this right, the story will come to you and you will never be staring at a blank page.

Let me know if you are encountering any problems and what the nature of those problems is. I may be able to suggest a solution. Keep writing, especially this month.