First Day of School

Be reckless, when you do good. Not caring whether your kindness always meets a true need.

Be greedy, when you create a bucket list, aim to do it all and let’s see how far you get.

Be aggressive, when you go after your dreams, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too small.

Be possessive, of those you care about, stepping in first to share anything you have to give.

Be suspicious, of those who don’t cheer on your improvements, or celebrate your wins.

Be jealous, of those with superior knowledge, learn voraciously and chase to catch up.

Be angry, as you see those more vulnerable than you treated badly.

Be childish, as often and as loudly as possible, if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.

Be forgetful, as others may hurt you unintentionally, and moving on swiftly is best for you both.

 

Most of all, my loves. Be happy, be happy, be happy. And give me a hug before you leave.

Feel good, Look good

I’m lucky enough to be in a relationship which predates online dating. Although I have had a little flutter with some of the Tinder-style dating apps, as I used to write for an online dating brand, my experience is pretty limited. However, I think you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that men can be pretty grim on dating sites. From dick pics and insults, all the way to death threats, a lot of women don’t feel safe online. 

The following exchange has been doing the rounds on social media, of this woman who was abused for her choice of profile photos.

Image result for asos dress insults woman

The sad thing is, I don’t even feel surprised by his entitled response to the images of herself she chooses to put on her own space, or by the disgusting way he speaks to her. The entire website ByeFelipe is a testament to how difficult it is to navigate dating online without coming up against creeps time and time again.
But then… ASOS came along and made my week. In response to this viral photo, the company decided to put the woman in question up on their website, as one of the models for this dress. (Check it out, just swipe to the second picture.)
And yet, I’ve seen so many people disparage the act as ‘a PR stunt’ and dismiss it outright.
Sure, the choice to put her on the site is probably great for PR. Especially as ASOS have some fantastic campaigns about celebrating non-photoshopped women and bodies recently. But why can’t it be great for PR and also just… great?
We have an online world where people are so often mean to each other, both publicly and privately. They don’t look to support and celebrate, regardless of whether they would get good press doing it or not.
So hey, here’s an idea. Once we’re inundated with people being kind in the name of PR, selfishly driven acts of humanity that do a ton of good, then let’s turn our attention to worrying about not having enough selfless good deeds online shall we?
I for one, am celebrating a public ‘up yours’ to anyone who thinks it’s still ok to clothes or body shame other people. And if ASOS, a company that truly puts that message front and centre wants to benefit from a PR opportunity that gets that word out far and wide? Well, I’m sure as heck gonna write a blog that helps them do it.

To Have Loved and Lost

Three months ago, one of my best friends broke up with me. It might sound like melodrama to use that expression, usually reserved for passion and romance, but I stand by my choice. Our friendship was intense, zealously guarded, emotional and powerful. Without it, I might not be a writer, I might not be a feminist, I might not be living in this country, I would not be me.

Sometimes, I find myself insecure and confused over facets of the relationship that I would never have thought to call into question at the time. But if I try to look back on our six years with a clear mind, without the knot in my chest, I know that it wasn’t toxic, or full of drama or pain. An inverse Princess and the Pea, the odd sharp turn is inevitable in any relationship, and had always quickly receded into the soft and safe comfort of the love and trust we built for one another.

Until it didn’t.

Rewriting something on the way out the door is easy to do, hey – words are our trade after all. Pull some ammunition from an ever-ready arsenal and sitting across the table it’s unlikely you’re going to miss your target. But they won’t stick, they can’t wound deeply – not if they aren’t made of something substantial to begin with. I could apologize for a fourth time, but deep down I know, this is nothing to do with me.

Still – I’ve lost a lot of trust. As I never could have believed that this would happen, ‘why shouldn’t it happen again?’ I ask myself, despite the people who love me reassuring me they are here for the long haul.  I’ve hidden myself away a bit, taken Facebook off my phone, cancelled on people last minute because they made a date with me – and not my anxiety.

Today is a bad day. My friend, my ex-friend, is getting married in one week. A day that I was meant to be a part of. A day that I would have written a checklist for ahead of time, the eager Bridesmaid at the ready with a needle and thread, a spare bottle of water, tissues for when things get emotional. On top of the staples, I’d planned bits and pieces, the way we always showered each other with generosity. A watercolour portrait of her and her new husband drawn from a beautiful photo, painstakingly tracked down well-wishes from half the cast of Grey’s Anatomy, a card marked with tears of joy for this next chapter in her life, as well as messages from my kids who cried when I told them that there had been a mix up, and actually they couldn’t go to the wedding of someone they loved. “No,” I replied to them, working hard to keep my voice steady. “Of course you didn’t do anything wrong.”  Blocked on social media, now I won’t even see the day in frozen hindsight. I hope someone else remembers the needle and thread, although I think I’ll keep those tissues close by.

These past three months have been like an aftershock, small ripples that catch me off guard. I’ve found two new podcasts for when I’m walking from place to place. I’ve finished a writing project that’s been 5 years in the making. I’ve reconnected with friends who I’d lost touch with – not through a sudden break, but slowly, like sand through an hourglass, busy lives making one month turn into another. I’d like to say that I’m okay, but I think that’s a lot for me to ask of myself. After all, I’ve never done this before.

People sometimes ask me why I write about personal things in such a public way. Actually, it’s probably the question that those who read my blog ask me the most. After all, I’m not being paid for this, and it could end up causing drama or even hurt, although that’s never my intention.

Of course, the writing itself is cathartic, but so is the sharing. I will likely spend years grappling with what happened to our relationship, and how it could be less painful to exclude me from the most important day of her life than to have me by her side, or heck – standing at the back of a crowded hall. I can’t make myself get over this any quicker than time will allow.

For today though, the act of writing and sharing lets some of the hurt and confusion that I’m feeling out into the world. As it does, and I can’t explain it better than this – I feel that corresponding weight lifting from my chest. Those feelings might find someone else who recognises their own pain in my words, it often does, and those are some of my favourite moments as a writer. As for the pain itself? I’m not naïve enough to think it won’t be back, this week especially. But for a moment, as I hit publish – I can let it go, for a while.

The Usual Suspects of… Pesach Prep

Pesach is quite literally right around the corner. So please do allow me this spot of procrastination from finding out what’s growing behind my fridge-freezer to identify some of the usual suspects of this time of year. The people we know and love around this Jewish festival.

1. The Early Bird
‘10 weeks to Pesach!’ she cheerfully coos somewhere around Tu Bishvat. ‘I’m so behind schedule, I haven’t even started on the curtains yet!’ Presumably those curtains double up as picnic blankets. ‘When will the shops start stocking Pesach food, I’ve hardly even begun baking, and it’s Purim in a month! Oy!’

Flourless brownies in the chest freezer, cupboard stocked with potato starch and seventeen jars of jam, she’s good to go. In fact, she’s so far ahead of herself that her Seder table is set a fortnight before the big night itself, along with fully topped up wine glasses and matza that will no doubt be totally stale by… oh wait, no, it will probably taste the same. Carry on.

2. Last-Minute Lucy

On the other end of the spectrum is everyone’s favorite late-comer to the party, there to make us feel better about ourselves… to a point, anyway. If she hasn’t even begun cleaning, it’s probably fine that my cleaner has cancelled this week and I haven’t even thought about surface covers, right? And if she hasn’t started running down the freezer, then I’m sure I have time to convince my family they want to eat three aluminium foil pans worth of chametz schnitzel this week. At least, I think it’s schnitzel, I’d need to scrape off the ice to be sure.

The humble brag of the last-minute Lucy can be heard far and wide as the days slip away towards the festival. ‘Oh I haven’t even started shopping yet’, she will say, two days before chag. ‘Cooking? Me? No no, I’m only entertaining seven families with six kids each, no need to go overboard.’

Listen carefully as you light your yomtov candles and you might hear her flex her knuckles, get up from the sofa and search for a dustpan and brush. ‘Hmm, I’d better get started’ you might hear her say.

3. The Pesach Protestor
You’ll recognize this one, whose natural habitat is Facebook posts where she can complain about something. The topic can vary, ranging from the cost of Pesach food (‘Outrageous! It’s just PAPRIKA’) to the amount of cookies people are making. (‘Can’t you people live without cakes and cookies for one week? It’s just eight days! In our house, we just eat fruit and vegetables, and nothing else. I don’t even VISIT the Pesach grocery store, except to laugh at people.’) She’s also very very upset that you’re making Pesach rolls, which are absolutely not in the spirit of things.

How dare you all spend that hard-earned money on making the festival enjoyable for yourselves and trying to create carbs-based snacks that your toddlers won’t turn their noses up at? Don’t you know that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt? None of you are being nearly oppressed enough.

4. The Planner
This one is probably on your speed dial, the one with all the spreadsheets and the knowledge of the rare ingredients that supposedly make Pesach pancakes “just as fluffy” as the regular kind. (It’s tapioca flour. Or is it almond meal? Hang on, let me send her a quick text.)

She’s got all the answers, has made Pesach fifteen times, and is totally happy to share her wisdom. Where can I buy that shankbone from again, and should it go in the freezer? Can she check with her grandma which apples she used for that awesome Charoset last year? What’s the optimal salt to water ratio?

Her menus are colour coded, she knows the place to get the cheapest baking chocolate, and if you look stressed out and pathetic enough, she might even make you a batch of macaroons so you don’t need to spend all day separating eggs. Never leave me.

Recognize yourself? A happy Pesach to all the characters listed above, whichever one you may be. May you find plenty to do with all your leftover egg yolks (Pro tip: google Pesach thumbprint cookies), have minimal stress in the lead-up, and enjoy your holiday with family and friends!

Solidarity

Womanly means different things, to everyone who’s using it,
There really isn’t a description that would be abusing it.
So if you find your womanhood, in football or karate,
Know that you’re as female, as the hostess of the party.
If you want to be a mother, and put kids in every room,
That’s great, but you’re no less, because you have less in your womb.

Feminine is not defined by the make up that you wear,
It isn’t formed from nail length, or the style of your hair
Female can’t be spotted by the hours that you work,
It doesn’t disappear because you run or shout or twerk.
No one takes the name away because you love your single life,
And no one’s less a woman when they choose to be a wife.

You can’t find ‘female’ in rosy cheeks, or soft or golden hair,
Theres no one way a ‘lady’ should sit down on a chair,
It doesn’t make you masculine to raise your voice and speak,
It doesn’t make you feminine when someone calls you meek,
There’s no such thing as ‘womanly curves’, the ‘real woman’ is a lie.
We’re all as real as each other, in the race to ‘female’? It’s a tie.

This International Woman’s Day, lets celebrate what makes us strong,
That united in our quest for more, we’ve all been female all along.

What Are You Afraid Of?

There is a petition doing the rounds, collecting signatures in connection with Relationship and Sex Education, set to become mandatory in 2020. The petition asks that parents be allowed to decide for themselves whether their children be taught RSE at school, or if they would like their children to sit out of these classes altogether. I’ve had it shared with me four times today, by parents of differing religious levels and from various schools, but all of whom have children at Jewish schools in London.

The party line seems to be that parents know their children better, understand what they need in more depth, and should have the final decision as to what they need to know around sex and relationships.

The first point that stands out to me is that some parents don’t know what their children need as well as they think they might. If you grew up in a sheltered environment, you may not realise the dangers and realities for today’s children. On the contrary, if you grew up un-sheltered, you may not be aware of how little your children understand in comparison to what you did at that age. Unhealthy relationships can form at any age, and you’re not with your child 100% of the time, so why not give them the skills and education to recognise and speak up when something isn’t right?

One in 20 children in the UK has been sexually abused, over 90% by someone they know. In many cases, this is the parents themselves, the same people who the signers of this petition believe have the kids best interests at heart. I call this line of thinking naive at best, and dangerous at worst. Of course, the majority of us would never hurt our children intentionally, but for those who do – being able to opt out of RSE means that their children may never learn the language or even the understanding to speak up when something is terribly wrong behind closed doors.

By making this a religious issue, we’re giving sexual predators a reasonable excuse to hide behind when they politely decline on behalf of these children. By pretending that there is any difference to these frightening statistics within our religious bubble, we’re sticking our heads in the sand and doing all of our kids a disservice.

We live in a world with so many unknown dangers. We provide our children with helmets and kneepads and road safety lessons. We give them rules for what to do when they’re being bullied, or how to speak up when something is unfair or unjust. If your child cuts themselves – they know to get a plaster, if they have a headache, they understand how to ask for Calpol or take a lie down.

The move to make RSE mandatory for all children is a way to ensure that our kids have all the tools and words they need to speak up when something is posing a danger to their emotional, mental or physical wellbeing. To recognise that their body is their own and they get final say over what they do with it. Just as importantly, to recognise that other people’s bodies are their own and that they need to respect that, too. These lessons of kindness and consent, in an age-appropriate way, not only keep them safe – but allow them to grow into open and communicative adults who can form intimate and loving relationships, not just with a future spouse but with friends and family too.

For anyone who has been sent the petition, and is considering signing it, I would urge you to look below at the suggestions from the Department of Education as to what these mandatory RSE lessons will cover.

-Different types of relationships, including friendships, family relationships, dealing with strangers and, at secondary school, intimate relationships;
– How to recognise, understand and build healthy relationships, including self-respect and respect for others, commitment, tolerance, boundaries and consent, and how to manage conflict, and also how to recognise unhealthy relationships;
– How relationships may affect health and wellbeing, including mental health;
– Healthy relationships and safety online;
– Factual knowledge, at secondary school, around sex, sexual health and sexuality, set firmly within the context of relationships.

Many might argue that it shouldn’t affect me or anyone else if their child doesn’t take part in these lessons. I couldn’t disagree more. Creating a culture in our schools where we can use religion or any other excuse under the sun to opt out of essential education for our children’s wellbeing is dangerous. It means there is a subsection of our schools that aren’t being taught how to speak up for themselves or others, or how to treat their peers with respect in line with today’s emotional understanding. And that’s everyone’s concern.

Heartwrenching

Trying vainly to hail a cab on the busy street, Shane wondered whether the subway would have been quicker during the lunch-hour rush. The doctors wouldn’t wait for him if he was late.

He spotted a taxi pulling up on the opposite side of the road and raised his arm to get the driver’s attention. “Hey!” he shouted, stepping into the street, crossing purposefully. It wasn’t until he heard the screech of tyres he realised he hadn’t noticed the car heading straight for him. Shane’s hands hit the hood of the vehicle as it stopped, just in time.

“Oh my god!” the man in the car unbuckled his seat belt and made to open the driver’s side door.

“I’m so sorry!” called Shane. “I wasn’t looking. It was my fault. I’m sorry – I’m rushing, I have to get that cab.” He pointed to the parked taxi, then sprinted the last few steps across the road. His heart sank as he realised another pedestrian was already in negotiations with the driver about her fare. God, this day was turning into a nightmare, and that was saying something considering the last few months.

As Shane was about to start looking for another cab, he overheard the taxi driver. “This time of day, you won’t find anyone willing to take you to St Duke’s for less than twenty, love.”

“Excuse me?” Shane approached the woman, delighted for a stroke of luck. “Are you going to St Duke’s Hospital? Do you want to split the cab?”

The woman didn’t seem too happy about it, but she nodded towards the driver and got into the backseat, hardly leaving enough time for Shane to clamber in after her before she reached across him and slammed the door, hard. Shane rolled his eyes. No one heading to St Duke’s was in a great mood, but he had just saved her a tenner.

The neurological hospital was known for lost causes. Shane hadn’t heard of it until four months ago, when his fiancée, Anna, had collapsed in the street after suffering a brain haemorrhage. St Duke’s was recommended to him after his local hospital said there was nothing more they could do. It hadn’t been easy – least of all convincing Anna’s parents, technically next of kin until the wedding next Spring, that they shouldn’t turn off life support for the love of his life, all because he knew in his heart, and was telling Anna every day from her bedside, that their story wasn’t over yet. And his patience had been rewarded. The doctors had suggested a ‘miracle drug’, and they were administering it today. Shane felt his throat constrict as he imagined her eyes opening, after all this time. The catch? If the drug didn’t wake her up, it was likely to be too much for her heart to take.

Lost in his own thoughts, Shane couldn’t remember the rest of the car journey, or even paying the driver and entering the hospital building. He found himself in the stairwell, behind two doctors that were taking the stairs two at a time.

“This was inevitable” the older of the two was saying to the other. “She’s been on borrowed time since she was transferred here. The boyfriend pushed for this new drug, but it was always going to be too much strain on her heart.”

A flicker of panic shot across Shane’s chest as he followed behind them. It couldn’t be…

But any doubts he had were stolen as he walked across the familiar ward towards Anna’s cubicle. Through the glass partition he could see Anna, lying in bed surrounded by doctors, a defibrillator being held above her chest. Feeling his knees buckle, he turned back towards the stairwell and let himself sink to the floor. There, on hands and knees, he let out a cry like a wounded animal, listening to the indistinct voices call “Clear!” as they failed to bring Anna back to life.

“Shane?”

He would have recognised her voice anywhere, despite not hearing it for four months. But… how?

Shane got to his feet and stepped towards his fiancée. “What… how?”

“Hey stranger” she laughed, and the sound was like music to his ears as she reached forward to embrace him. Shane shook his head, wondering if he was losing his mind. Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t focus enough to work out what it was.

The stairwell door swung open again, and two nurses came in. Shane recognised them from the ward, Laura and Izzy. Shane waited for them to notice Anna; to say something to him. Instead, they ignored them entirely, sat down on the landing and unwrapped their lunch.

“Busy morning?” Izzy took a bite out of her hamburger and offered Laura some fries.

“Nah” Laura shook her head in reply, taking a couple of fries hungrily. “The only new patient ended up being DOA.” Shane recognised the acronym for Dead on Arrival.

“Oh yeah?” Izzy asked. “What happened?”

“Some guy stepped in front of a car.” Laura shrugged. “It happens.”

Shane looked up at the two nurses. A creeping sensation was coursing through his body. “Anna?” he turned to look at his fiancée, who smiled sadly at him and nodded. “Looks like you were right” she said softly. “Our story isn’t over yet.”

Before he could respond, the look on Anna’s face changed from sadness to confusion. She lifted a hand and touched her chest, her eyes widening in fear as while he watched, her image started moving out of focus. “I’m sorry Shane, I’m so so sorry.”

“What? What’s going on?” Shane spun around, looking for where she had been standing just seconds before. He rushed back to her bedside, just in time to see the doctors sigh with relief at the close call– they had restarted Anna’s heart. As Shane watched, her eyelids flickered once, then opened.

“Anna?” Shane asked, reaching for her hand.

But Anna looked right through him. She was alive.

 

Electricity in the Air

I recently entered the NYCmidnight flash fiction competition, and challenged myself to write a 1,000 word story in 48 hours on given prompts. My heat were all given the same prompts, which were:
Genre: Romance
Location: Electronic vehicle charging station
Object: A tote bag
I’ve shared the story below, I was delighted to place second in my heat!

Electricity in the Air

Cruze gazed around the crowded car park until he caught sight of a familiar silver sheen. For an instant, he wasn’t sure if it was her. But as their eyes met, and her headlights dipped shyly, Cruze knew he would have found Bolt anywhere.

Checking quickly to see if Mike was still immersed in his magazine, Cruze lifted a windscreen wiper in greeting, feeling himself grinning from bumper to bumper like a lovestruck teen. Play it cool, Cruze he muttered to himself. He knew he was acting like he’d just come off the production line in 2017, but he couldn’t help it. He had never known anyone like Bolt before. Cruze knew logically that there must be thousands of automobiles that exact colour, but somehow, she was the shade of sterling silver while the rest were a dull grey. Her headlights were like sunshine captured behind plastic, and man, that body. Cruze felt his engine rev of its own accord as he pictured Chevrolet breaking the mold when Bolt came on the scene– we’ve hit our peak guys, we’re shutting up shop.

Bolt was fluttering her own windscreen wipers coyly in reply, and Cruze wished for the umpteenth time he could just roll on over and speak to her, or encourage his driver towards the empty spaces to her left and right. There was always plenty of time. Mike’s habit was to grab a coffee at this service station on his way back from work in the afternoon, needing a pick me up after a long shift, and Cruze was pretty sure that Bolt’s driver must work here, as she was pretty much always parked in the same spot. His eyes lifted to the sign above her parking space – Electronic Vehicles Only. The petrol flowing through his engine usually made him feel strong and powerful, but at these moments it was like Kryptonite.

So day after day, the two cars flirted across the tarmac, summoning up the courage to wink indicator lights in each other’s direction, or sometimes waving a wing mirror towards the waning sunlight as Mike drove Cruze away each afternoon, sending a glint through the air; the equivalent of a chastely blown kiss. Even if Cruze knew how to make Mike understand him, he couldn’t change the very make up of their engineering. Bolt was electric and Cruze was petrol-powered, and that meant that their love would always be at a distance.

Taking his mind off Bolt was never easy, but Cruze concentrated on the motorway that afternoon as they completed the last leg of Mike’s journey home from work. This was his favourite time of day, as the sun set, and Mike put his foot down hard on the accelerator. They zipped past other cars, leaving them a blur of colour in their wake. Mike was his best friend, and Cruze wished he could speak to him freely. He almost felt like Mike was doing the same thing that he was, using the speed to distract him from some impossible situation of his own.
As they came off the motorway, they slowed down, and turned easily down the side roads which led to Mike’s semi-detached house. Cruze felt mocked by the two-car garage, immediately reminded of lonely nights in the dark, with only thoughts of Bolt to keep him warm. As the door closed behind him, Cruze gave a heavy puff of his exhaust, ready to try to get some sleep.

Suddenly, he heard a car door slam, right outside the garage.

“Oh, hey, it’s you.” Came Mike’s voice, full of surprise.

“Hey Mike, sorry for literally just showing up – you probably think I’m crazy!” Cruze didn’t recognise the voice, and wished he could turn around in the tight space and press his ear up to the door to hear better.

“Sure! I mean, no, not at all. But what’s up?”

“It’s your bag.” Cruze heard the door of the car open again, and imagined this faceless woman lifting up a bag in the pause that followed. “You left it behind, and I never see you without it.” She paused again. “Not that I’m always watching you or anything, but you know. It’s a cool bag. I’ve never seen a tote which zips up like that, and you always have it, so I figured it’s kind of important, so I looked up your address on the loyalty app database..“ This time the pause was shorter. “Which is probably illegal or something. I’m a freak, forget I was here, take your bag, I’ll just go.”

The car door opened again, and Cruze heard Mike call out. “Laura, hold up a second. Seriously.” Cruze stared into his wing mirrors, as if sheer determination could help him see through the door of the garage. “Laura” Mike repeated. “Your coffee isn’t that great.”

“Oh.” Laura replied, unsure what to say. “Sorry. I don’t get to choose the roasters or anything.”

“No. I mean, your coffee isn’t that great, but I still come in to your coffee shop every single day on my way back from work. And then that coffee keeps me awake at night, and I lie there wondering why I didn’t manage to say more than five words to you. Then I make myself promise I’ll manage it the next day before I can let myself fall asleep.”

“Oh.” Laura’s voice was quieter now, but the car door stayed open.

“It’s getting dark. Do you want to put your car in my garage and come in for a drink?” asked Mike.

Laura must have nodded, because the next sound after her car door closed was Mike opening back up the garage door. Cruze’s engine almost leapt into life independently as the vehicle smoothly slipped into place next to him. Sterling silver, sunlight captured behind plastic, and man, that body.

I Don’t Know What That Looks Like

You would be 75, and I don’t know what that looks like.

Would you be a crotchety old man with a zimmer frame, an old 75 – telling my kids to quiet down because Zeida is trying to read the paper, letting them sit on your knee and regale you with exaggerated stories from school and nursery? Or a sprightly man who looks a good decade younger than his years, a young 75 – winning races against your 7-year old grandson who adores how you play and laugh? Are you losing your inhibitions and your filter, making jokes which embarrass my husband and make me pretend I didn’t hear you? Have I stopped explaining the work I do – because the technical stuff is too complicated, so I just narrow it down to “y’know, articles and blogs – that kind of thing.”

You would be my 75 year old father, and I don’t know what that looks like.

Would you call me every day, like you used to when I was a teen, the last time you called me, excited to hear the minutia of my day? Would you hang up, then call again ten minutes later – just to tell me something inconsequential that I could have coped not knowing? (Was that just pretext to hear my voice one more time again that day? I wish I knew.) Or would the passing of time have made that different for you, now the pace of change in my years has slowed down? Would you know what my identical days look and sound like, and speak to me every other evening or so, busying yourself with a Netflix subscription, the thought of which was science fiction when you were alive. Orange is the New Black? What nonsense, who watches this rubbish? Does that sound right? I don’t know. Would you be supportive of the choices I’ve made these last 12 years? Or would my adulthood be a surprising second act to you, if you hadn’t left my show during the interval – when I was just finding my feet?

I am your 30 year old daughter, and I don’t know what that looks like.

Do I call you every day instead? Check up on your health? Did I buy you one of those clever medical alert systems so that I can check you took your prescription meds today? It’s all done through a mobile app now – oh, how the world has changed. Do I send you photos on WhatsApp of the kids and me playing in the park, feeling guilty we haven’t visited in more than a week? Or are you there with us in the photo, ruining it by smiling at the wrong split second and making me delete the snap immediately, tutting at my phone and starting over, because I have what feels like endless chances to do that – to start over. Do I berate you for the way you give the kids treats right before their lunch? Forget to turn a blind eye while you sneak forbidden tooth-rotting, choking hazard lollipops from your oversized pockets in those shorts I wish you would let me replace. Come on now Dad, you’ve had them since I was a kid. Am I stupid enough to tell you off for acting like my kids are yours, am I ignorant enough not to realise what a gift we have?

I was your 19 year old daughter, and I knew just what that looked like.

It was crystal clear, a handprint on my memory, I thought we’d seen and done it all. You carried me into this world and then I carried you right out of it, with an eternity in between made of 19 years of getting it right and getting it wrong. And now those memories, the ones that filled the in-between are hazy and feel like they don’t belong to me anymore. They belong to a child. Next year, my son will be closer than I will be to the last age I heard your voice or held your hand.

Those hazy memories are worn, they are fragmented, most days they feel foreign, but worst of all, they are all I have. I am penniless to replace them, my pockets are turned out to the seams looking for a currency which doesn’t exist. I can’t buy more time, I’ll never uncover more stories. How ironic, as stories are my trade. Don’t worry, I’ll continue to imagine them for us both. Fiction is easier to create than the truth is to recall. 75 now, 80 in five years time, 90 or even 100, those milestones keep on coming. You’ll be glad to know that you always look great for your age in my mind’s eye. I don’t have a choice, I can’t imagine you any other way. I simply don’t know what that looks like.

 

Disillusioned

I recently entered the NYC Midnight short story competition 2018, a contest where 4,000 writers get randomly put into heats and have to write a 2,500 word story in a week. The Genre, the Subject and a Character is chosen for them. I found out today that I got through the first round, which means me and 624 others will be writing another story this weekend, (Jews, let me hear you groan for me?) in the hopes of getting to the finals. Here is my round one entry, which I’m delighted to say came third in it’s category. What do you think? 🙂

Genre: Fairytale
Subject: Cloning
Character: A Nihilist.

Disillusioned

Ashley heard the door creak open, but she didn’t turn her head. She couldn’t look at his face. She braced herself to hear his voice, but when it came she still wasn’t ready. She was never ready anymore.

“I just came to say goodnight.” He paused. “Did you eat anything at all today?” he asked her, softly. She didn’t answer, watching his hands reach out to take the bowl from her bedside table, still half full of congealing Pumpkin soup. He stood there for a moment, waiting. “Princess…” he started. “Isn’t there anything I can…”

“Don’t call me that” Ashley snapped at him, turning away. “Not anymore.”

The door closed with the same creak, leaving her alone again. For a second, her eyes paused on a photo of her father, taken when Ash was just a kid. He was swinging her into the air, the joy emanating from the photo like physical warmth. It must have been taken right before that witch of a stepmother cast her spell over him. Whatever it was, it was enough to make him forget her late mother and marry a woman who hated his daughter instead. He had died just 18 months later.

She looked back at the screen of her computer, Disillusioned was open, more comments pinging up every few seconds. They were all the same, the women on her group. They had started out incredibly happy, euphoric even. They had all found their versions of happily ever after, only to realise that life didn’t work out as planned.  That there was no God, no grand plan, no right and wrong even. Everyone ended up alone. United in that isolation, they shared stories and talked at all hours. When inevitably they suffered from bouts of hope, which they all did from time to time, they reminded one another that nothing mattered.

Ash? You still there?

That was Alex. She had grown up religious and been abandoned by her family when she realized that God was just another version of the Easter Bunny.

Yeah. I’m here. He came in. He’s gone now.

Why don’t you just get the divorce? You’ll be happier. You can start over.

Start over? You think I can forget about him? When everywhere I go I’ll see his face? Whatever. Let’s not talk about it. It doesn’t matter. What’s new with you?

As she waited for Alex to reply, she let her mind drift back. How could she have been so easily fooled? Yet, even now, she remembered the wedding. Everyone smiled and danced and told her how happy they were for her, tilted their heads in empathy at how sad it was that her mother and father hadn’t lived to see this day. After that, how could she say no to the dinner invite, to celebrate the marriage and put the past behind them?

The truth is, it was obvious that her stepsister Trudy was up to something the second they had walked through the door. From the moment she took both of their jackets and put them in the cupboard, to the way she was laughing too much at their jokes. It drove Ash mad how she over emphasized that ridiculous limp of hers which just reminded everyone of how this all began. She should be in a lunatic asylum after what she had done. Who cuts off their own toes to get a guy to stay with her?

They had been dating for about 4 months at the time. Of course, self-centred as ever, Trudy had got it into her head that he was coming around to their house all the time to see her. Ash thought back to that night, that ridiculous night where she had been playing a match and forgotten her football boots. Always the knight in shining armour, he had heard her panic over the phone and had gone over to her house to pick them up for her…

As soon as Trudy had seen him at the door, she had gone into flirtation mode, he told Ashley later. Touching his arm, getting him a drink even though he was just there looking for the shoes and wanted to get out as quickly as possible. And then as he was heading for the door, that insane scream from the kitchen, where the carving knife had “accidently” fallen on her toes, severing the two smallest. Of course, he took her to the hospital, and called her mum to come look after her. By that point, Ashley had borrowed shoes from one of the subs, but when he arrived, holding her footwear by the laces and with this crazy story about her evil stepsister, he couldn’t help but laughingly call her Princess. Her name was even Ash, she was the perfect Cinderella. What does that make you eh? she had laughed back. Fancy yourself Prince Charming?

That night at dinner, Trudy was being too nice, and Ash couldn’t wait to leave. To speed up the process, she had helped to clear away the last of the dishes, taking them into the kitchen.  That’s where she saw Trudy. Her stepsister had her eyes tightly closed, and was gripping her new husband’s empty plate tightly in her hands. She had almost laughed at the intense look on Trudy’s face, until she heard the strange sounds coming out of her mouth. There was only one way to describe it; an incantation.

Ash would never forget the look on Trudy’s face, or the words out her mouth as the sisters locked eyes. If you have to have him, so will everyone else.

 

It was a year later that her friends first started sending her a link to the website. Isn’t that…? Have you seen….?

Your Real-Life Prince Charming the webpage tempted. The photo was large, and to add insult to injury it was from her wedding, with her image cruelly photoshopped out next to him. The testimonials were already taking up most of the page. He’s so kind and attentive, the best boyfriend I’ve ever had…. They don’t lie when they say Prince Charming, I modified mine for extra politeness and manners, it’s like having a partner who is also a butler, insane! … The first real cloning experience with no glitches, no sudden ageing, no heart defects, and programmed perfectly, it’s like I stumbled upon my true love!

Ash felt so stupid. Knowingly walking into a house filled with witches and expecting to be able to get away scot-free. Whatever cordial of science and magic Trudy had used, she made sure to tweak the personality slightly with every single one she sent out, enough that the police had said there was technically nothing illegal going on. The laws on human cloning were so new, the issues so nuanced, that the world and the courts were still catching up with the science.

It didn’t matter anyway. Even if she could close down Trudy’s business, (her thriving business, she should add, which had made her a millionaire) there were already thousands of Prince Charming clones on the arms of women everywhere. Trudy had hidden her black magic behind science and technology, and Ash had handed her the final ingredient for her cauldron, her husband’s DNA.

Not all the clones were kind, some had an edge, as she had learned in the early days when she still had a job. She had come home from work one evening to her husband wearing a sweater she didn’t recognise, and then been followed to the bathroom where she picked up on the unusual scent of his skin too late. She was held down and shown again and again what kind of happy ending she truly deserved. The police had almost laughed when bruised and shaken she had tried to describe him, another challenge which hadn’t yet caught up with the world they now lived in.

Since then, Ash didn’t really go out. One had joined her department, and she couldn’t sit opposite him all day, so she had given in her notice almost immediately, making money tighter than ever. She was too frightened to leave the house alone, and when they went out as a couple, she’d get knowing winks from women in the street, as if they shared a secret which Ash didn’t want to be privy to. She would catch sight of her husband’s broad build, blue eyes, or sandy coloured hair in the line for checkout at the supermarket, or in the driver’s seat of a car as it flew past. She kept the blinds closed now, even in her own room.

After a while, she couldn’t even look at him. How could she smile and chat idly with the image of her attacker, despite logically understanding that it wasn’t him who had hurt her? And even if she could, does true love still have meaning if everyone could buy it online for £1999? If you could pick it out as a Christmas gift and have it delivered to a friend’s home packaged with a bow? Her Prince Charming had turned out to be replicable and ten-a-penny, a doorway to more hurt and desolation.

The lights flickered above her head, jarring her from her reverie. Uch, she thought, checking her laptop battery and the time. 11.55pm. A power outage would suck right about now. Ash had got into the habit of chatting on Disillusioned most of the night, as the majority of her friends were at least 5 hours behind GMT in the USA. She caught up on sleep in the mornings.

Just then, she felt a cold breeze, and looked sharply towards the closed windows, sitting up a little taller and turning her eyes towards the door. She heard nothing. The hairs on her arms were standing on end, there was a prickling sensation on the back of her neck. The thought came unbidden into her head, as clear as a voice speaking to her out loud; There’s magic in the air.

Suddenly, the lights gave another sputter and then turned off altogether, making Ash gasp involuntarily. Was this Trudy? She began to move from her bed towards the switch by the door, but was distracted by something on her laptop screen, the only thing visible in the dark room.

A private message had appeared in her toolbar, and as she watched, the cursor moved without her direction, opening the email before her eyes. She held her breath and looked closer, her whole body poised for fight or flight. The name on the email caught her attention. Bonne Fee. Her French was pretty rusty, but didn’t that mean… Fairy Godmother? As she read the words, coloured sparks filled the air, fizzing and crackling like harmless versions of fireworks, just like on New Year’s, piercing the silence with the sound of expectation and renewal. Ash followed the sparks with her eyes, tasting the unfamiliar flavour of belief. This was really happening.

Before she could read the email, from across the room she saw her mobile phone light up. She moved towards the glow and saw that her PayPal app was open on the screen, despite her not even being able to remember the password at this point. She stared at the app, momentarily stunned as the numbers spun upwards in front of her eyes. How many zeroes was that? The sparks escalated into a frenzy of reds and greens and blues and yellows, bursting and teeming with enough light to dissipate any amount of darkness.

Suddenly, when the noise and light were almost too much to bear, the numbers stopped moving, the sparks petered out, and immediately, the overhead light turned back on. Ash turned to look at her computer, which lay open on the bed. It was exactly midnight. All was still.

Picking up her phone with the tips of her fingers, as if touching it too much would make the numbers disappear, she returned to her laptop and looked back at the message on her screen. It was just a name and a number, and not one she recognised. Tapping the name into Google, she glanced again at her usually empty PayPal account as she waited for the search engine to do its thing.

***

Ashley sat on the beach, with her sunglasses lifted so she could read her magazine. She sporadically sipped from a cocktail next to her, one of those proper ones like you see on the adverts, in a pineapple and everything. She turned to her husband and grinned.

“Having a good time?” he asked her.

The best.” she said. “The perfect 20th anniversary trip. I can’t believe we waited this long to come here! We should have chosen the Bahamas for our 10 year anniversary instead of going to Paris.”

“If I remember rightly, at the time you said you would die if you didn’t get to see the Mona Lisa!” he laughed. “Anyway, I’m glad we waited. It’s perfect for our 20th, now the kids are old enough to be left with a nanny.” He looked at a photo on his phone. “She sent this over this morning, did you see? Ella is literally covered in Cheerios and milk.”

“Not our problem!” Ash answered cheerfully, glancing at the photo before reaching for her cocktail again.

She reached over and idly stroked his neck with her fingertips, touching the tendrils of his dark hair, almost jet black. It would never go grey, she reminded herself. Just like how he would never get shorter, his spine having been surgically altered to make him an inch taller. Hating the idea of catching him without contacts, his blue eyes had been made permanently dark brown, she could now hardly remember them any other way. As she slipped her hand under his collar, she imagined one of the clones in her mind’s eye, fairer skinned, and aging so differently from her own spouse. She could hardly reconcile those faces with the man beside her, not any more.

She thought back to that day, seeing the details of the world’s premier cosmetic surgeon appear on her Google search. The Transformation Package. It cost so much that it was usually only bought by the government in place of witness protection programs, which had died out in the twenties. Glancing at her phone again as she bookmarked the webpage, she hadn’t been surprised to see the matching number on her PayPal app.

“Princess?”

Sorry, what did you say? I was miles away.”

“I said do you want to get some lunch?” He was holding her shoes out for her, waiting for her to join him. She nodded happily, thinking how much hope there was in the world, and about the unexplained magic that had saved their true love.

She slipped into the shoes. They were a perfect fit.