The Blackest of Fridays

She crept to her door, iPhone pinging deliriously in hand. It was out there. Waiting, just for her. She peered out. Nothing could be seen through the bobbled glass. She would have to go outside.

Stretching between the hedge and next door’s wall was a web, a brown-speckled spider brooding in its middle. She walked past it and out, seeking those things that were promised to her. The sky was cold blue, remnants of leaves squadged into mounds. She would need to go further.

The bus lurched, gorged full of swaying bodies. Each of them clutched phones, trolleys, bags, waiting to be filled. At their destination the bus vomited them onto the grey pavement. Hard concrete under her feet, huge signs shouted from windows. All those things, just for her.

She checked her phone. It took her hand, guided her to the best place. The one where she could get the most.

Hours spent dragging other people’s food over a barcode scanner. Mopping up the spilt orange juice in Fridge Aisle Three. Pinning the laminated badge over her shirt-enclosed breast. She was happy to help. And this was her reward.

Bargains dripped from the walls. Scavengers looted the racks, garments falling to the floor, trampled under shoes bought two weeks ago, ready to be replaced. In the distance were the electronics, recognisable from the heaving mass that throbbed around the shelves.

That could wait. A gaudy blue dress squawked at her from its hanger. But there were others it called, too. Applying her elbow firmly to the nearest set of ribs, she clambered over a heap of clothes, something solid under the fabric, and clawed it from the hanger. Such a bright blue. And that fabric, the hang of it. Hot For This Season, and definitely suitable to Transform From Office To A Night Out. She clutched it close, the scent of newness hanging over it.

But there was a jacket, too. Stripes To Flatter Your Figure. This was harder to get to. Another had it already in her grasping fingers. She reached over, smiled, scraped her fingernails up the exposed length of arm. The woman shrank back, easing her grip. Perfect. All it needed was some jewellery to go with it. Perhaps those people, the reporters, would stop her on the street when she wore it, her face smiling from those coloured pages, a beacon of fashion to the dowdy.

Scattered finery littered the floor. Necklaces, jangling bracelets, it was like walking over a dragon’s hoard. What she needed was gold. Something to Stand Out From The Crowd. A glitter caught her magpie eyes. Chunky chain, adorned with fake-diamond lumps and a cross at the bottom. Perfect. But there was only one left.

She watched as another swooped in. Lacquered nails clasped around the treasured item. The usurper started to walk away. She would have to act fast.

Grabbing a set of earrings, she lunged forward, tripping, falling to her knees. In one movement she drove the studs into the back of the woman’s leg. A trickle of blood could just be seen through the 20-denier tights.

With a shout, the trinket fell to the floor. She scooped it up, dodging round the display filled with hair accessories to avoid recriminations. Her prize was clutched in her hands. Such a good start, after only thirty minutes of shopping time. Imagine what she could achieve in a whole day.

Her key scraped in the lock. Heaving herself up the stairs, she collapsed onto the sofa in a satisfied lump. Bags were lined up each arm, a huge box clutched between her hands. As she leaned forward to put it on the coffee table she winced, the twinge in her back attending to the distance she’d walked back with this lot, unable to fit on the bus.

She peeled the packaging off the black hulk – Active Shutter 3D, curved screen, LED, 720p, High contrast ratio, Internet connected HDTV. Her reflection was muted in the 50-inch display. The smudge of a bruise on her cheek, the red ribbon of blood trickling down from her split lip. She dropped the bags, wincing at the pain from her cracked rib. They healed on their own. Better to try these things on, parade her body in front of a mirror, fragrance it, shave it, moisturise it, daub it with colour, style it, dry it, freeze it in a single click of a glorious selfie that would capture her in this beautiful peacock dress, sitting amongst her purchases after the Blackest of Fridays.

The Jacket

It was bought for Harry’s christening. Sharp darts in the waist and a slippery blue lining. Mum kept it at the back of the wardrobe, shielded in a cover. Black makes anything look smart.

A baked late-September day; the interview. Perched at the back of the bus, the hum of the engine vibrated sweat into my skin. Keep the arms down. CV printed at the internet cafe with grades in a bigger font than the school name.

I’d tried to press out the cardboard shape from the shirt packaging. Iron too hot; a shine-streak down the front, a whiff of polyester plastic.

They put us in a room. The other candidates were beige flowing lines, rippling pages of magazines. I was the cardboard leaflet jammed through the letterbox.

The slick from the bus crept from beneath the fabric. That prized item. It didn’t belong here.

Supermoon

img_0699

Tonight the moon was huge. There was a tweet, an article on my feed, a pop up ad. Don’t miss it.

Scuttling out into leaf-speckled roads, I looked. Peered between the dark branches of chimneys, stretched my eyes to look beyond the splashes of brightness dropped from streetlights.

Something was glowing behind the house opposite. I imagined the size of it, the golden glow, the ballooning of it in the navy sky.

To get a clear look, I had to walk to the end of the road. Reach the onslaught of traffic on the corner. The crossing beeped, sparse fireworks popped, bodies hurried past. No-one was looking up.

Past the corner and up the road, I turned back and saw it. Golden, yes, but no more than the electric hum nearby that guided children on scooters. Huge, probably, but tucked between rooftops it was apologetic, an urban intruder.

Tonight I want the moon to be huge somewhere else, not trapped here where the sky is too small. 

Lessons from YA Books

Having read several dystopian novels lately (see my thoughts here) I decided to try a YA version, to see how they compared. I was pleasantly surprised. While I’m incredibly wary of genre-specific snobbery, I confess I am subject to a bit of it when it comes to the YA genre. The books that I’ve read tend to be trite, or the emotions overstated, or clichéd, or they simply dealt with an area of human experience that had lost resonance for me. In the case of The Giver, I not only found a genuinely good book, I also thought that the ‘adult’ sphere of novels could learn a few lessons from it.

A great story doesn’t have to be complicated. 

We are in a perfect world. There is no pain, no hunger, no loss, no poverty. But, of course, this comes at a price. In order to live in a society this controlled, feelings must be suppressed. The question the book asks is quite simple – is a world without sorrow, hate or pain worth it, when there is no joy or love?

We follow Jonas, a young boy who meets The Giver, a man who holds the collective memories of humanity. As The Receiver, Jonas must start to take on the memories himself. As a result, he starts to discover a hidden past, along with profound feelings that leave him confused. He comes to realise the flaws in the perfect world around him, and starts to question the nature of the world around him.

But all of this is told in a very simplistic way. We don’t enter into huge philosophical debates, there is no fluffy description or hyperbolising. Often, the most simply stated things are the most moving.

Being simple doesn’t mean you can’t be complex.

Just because the plot and the language seem straightforward, doesn’t mean the questions and metaphors they’re throwing up are basic. The whole world could be a metaphor for censorship or control, and the effects it has on people. By taking things that people assume are ‘perfect’ to the extreme, you could question the very nature of happiness and perfection, and that part of the beauty of humanity is the struggle, the contrast between highs and lows. The ending could be hugely optimistic or depressingly cynical, depending on how you choose to read it. In fact, it is because things are not overtly spelled out, that the book can be open to a myriad of interpretations.

Never underestimate a decent plot. 

People that tell stories well are often undervalued. The great Stephen King, rarely given much credence in terms of ‘literature,’ is masterful at weaving together stories and keeping them pacy and engaging. This, as I’m discovering, is one of the most difficult elements of writing. Take me into another world, make me see it and feel it, use language to make it sound nice – these things are fairly accessible to all writers.

But immerse me in a story, convince me to follow a character through twists and turns, make me unable to tear my eyes away from a page – this has somehow been deemed a lesser skill. Not that I’m advocating reading Dan Brown, but it’s worth remembering that a good plot with tension dropped in at pertinent points is harder than it seems.

Children aren’t stupid.

I think one of the objections people have to reading from the perspectives of children is because they find them a little, well, childish. In fact, the best authors of this genre don’t underestimate the interpretive powers of their young protagonists. One of the criticisms against The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (although I love that book) is that Bruno comes across as just a little too clueless. In this book, Jonas can comprehend the magnitude of what he is seeing, the power he holds, the difference it makes in the world. The way he sees his parents change, and he is forced into an uncomfortable decision. Child narrators allow a writer to pare things down, but also allow for a much richer level of discovery and development.

Novels like The Giver remind us that stories can be simple, written for children, and still beautiful and resonant for readers of all ages.

When Revenge Goes Bad…

Frank Herbert offers us an insight into the darker side of human nature in The White Plague, an apocalyptic tale of revenge.

The cover of the book is very apt – murky fog, a solitary figure, a town shrouded in obscurity. Even if the weather is fine, or we are indoors, this novel revels in the unknown. The words not said, agendas not revealed, or the problems or changes that might be lurking just around the corner. The message is clear: no-one is to be trusted.

In Ireland, a man is visiting with his family. In one push of a button, his life is destroyed. The provisional IRA detonate a bomb, killing his wife and two children. From this, a desperate revenge unfolds. He creates a virus that attacks only women, the worst possible curse he can imagine to harm the nations that have wronged him.

We are offered a fairly universal viewpoint as the book develops, rather than being ‘on the ground’ in one country, as most dystopias tend to be. We shift between Irish, English and US perspectives, with some French and Russian characters thrown in to counterbalance it all. This gives a true sense of the scale of this hypothetical virus, and allows the author to imagine the global conflict and power struggles that would erupt under such conditions.

There are a few questionable plot points, which didn’t gape wide enough to unhinge the story. How, for example, is it possible that one scientist, in a makeshift lab, can disprove theories of molecular DNA? His science also feels overstated, and for that purpose, doesn’t ring quite true, almost as though he’s trying to labour the fact that he’s done his research. Having said that, his prediction of the use of genetics in warfare was pretty spot on, with the book being written in 1982.

These questions make the book feel more like a ‘what if?’ than a genuine scientific possibility. This perhaps impacts on how much we care about outcomes, but it still explores these ideas in an incredibly interesting way.

The later parts of the book are mostly set in Ireland. We follow a tortuous journey through the Irish countryside – devastated as it was one of the first areas hit, with the characters arguing over the long-term problems of Ireland and the possibility of hope and faith in such a world. We follow the man who created the virus (slightly dodgy use of schizophrenia as a plot tool), the man who blew up his family, a priest, and a young boy silenced by the horrors he has seen.

It’s certainly compelling. I found myself unable to put the book down. Each character had enough depth that I cared what happened to them. The setting was very atmospheric and moody, painting a bleak picture of how humanity might behave if it were faced with such problems.

I did find, however, that the rambling conversations of the troupe in Ireland were unnecessarily long. It almost felt like the author had an interest in philosophy, especially in relation to religion, and wanted to debate a series of arguments. In an extreme setting, questions of God and morality are important, but at times it felt laboured.

Of course, what Herbert is really questioning is the extent to which scientific understanding, in the wrong hands, is perhaps the most dangerous knowledge on earth. Which makes for a pretty good book.

How Not to Write a Feminist Utopia/Dystopia

Recently, I’ve been delving into the world of gender-based utopian fiction (that usually winds up being dystopian). Yes, it’s a little niche, but seeing as I’m dabbling with something like that myself, I thought I’d spend a bit of time seeing what was already out there. From my search, I’ve discovered a fair bit. Mostly written by men, we have scenarios ranging from weird viruses, to birth control resulting in unpleasant side effects, to an isolated society that began to spontaneously reproduce without men. So far, so good. By wiping out half the species you can have a good rummage around the human psyche, and imagine a few interesting ways things might pan out. But be warned, it isn’t all plain sailing.

How can a world without men be sexist?

A simple question, you might ask. Unfortunately, we have very recognisable character tropes trotted out, or in the case of World Without Men by Charles Maine (yes it was written in 1958, no it’s still not ok), apparently the only reason society has made no significant advances since all the men disappeared is simply because women lack the originality of thought to question or innovate. Add to that, they’re not even running the society, machines are. Excuse me while I go shout at the nearest person (apologies) or kick the hell out of a treadmill in order to vent my frustration. Surely the whole point of this type of fiction is to move outside the limits we’ve set ourselves? Just a thought.

It can go too far the other way…

If we look at something like Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, we’ve become so drunk on our own oestrogen that it’s all got a bit silly. The clothes are perfect, the money is perfect, they look perfect, everything is damn perfect. Until the men rock up, of course. A book that usurps any dominant power has a tricky line to tread. Yes, of course we want to see them get their comeuppance, but to imply that the society that replaces them will be completely flawless is just silly. That’s why, in some ways, Y-The Last Man was great, because some of the women were still murderous power-crazed idiots.

It spends too long telling you things

Then she walked into the room, and I just need to tell you a little bit about how the government works now, and, you know, other changes that I thought up when coming up with my idea. This is a tricky one. Creating an alternative universe takes a while (trust me, my massive pile of notes, and the people I’ve been bothering with my idea). When writing, it’s very tempting to let the reader know that you really have done your homework, that you’ve thought through every detail of this reality absolutely perfectly, and by the way, isn’t it great? Well, yes, but I’ve now lost the thread of the story. Books like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood are fantastic, because they manage to immerse us into this new world without making us feel like we’re being told a whole load of useless information. It happens as part of the story (note to self/all writers penning their new bestseller).

They forget about character

In World Without Men, I had no feelings whatsoever about the lead characters. In Y-The Last Man, I found most of the characters unbelievable. Yes, you need to create a brilliant world, yes, you need an exciting story, but you’re not going to get very far on premise alone. If Game of Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that you can create a fancy world with dragons and castles, but what makes your story compelling is the creation of complex characters, and the interest an audience gets from watching them change and grow as a story develops.

I’ve just started reading The White Plague by Frank Herbert, and early indications are that it’s pretty good. Perhaps it will give me a bit more hope than the last few.

It may well be that you have experienced some wonderful gender-based dystopian fiction that manages to completely sidestep all of these issues. If so, do please comment below! Would be great to hear about them. If you’re working on a bit of fantasy writing yourself, you can take this list as a bit of a backwards ‘how-not-to’ list, to make sure the world gets to read some brilliant stories that don’t fall foul of these unfortunate issues. Happy reading!

Hag-Seed

unknown-1

A new book by Margaret Atwood! Very exciting. I went along to her talk at the Southbank Centre (proper fan moment) and heard her discuss the book, her life, and her work. She is one interesting lady. She also has good shoes (silver!). There’s something incredibly refreshing about listening to someone like her talk. Intelligent, yes, talented, yes, but there is something fundamentally captivating about a person who is just so interested and passionate about the world. With so much whining about things on social media, here we have a woman of immense literary talent who devotes her time to helping out local libraries, who supports campaigns to help combat global warming, and who writes graphic novels about a part-cat, part-bird superhero called Angel Cat Bird. Now there’s someone I would like to invite to dinner.

And, of course, she talked about her new novel, Hag-Seed. A reinventing of The Tempest, it is the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, following Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of The Winter’s Tale, Howard Jacobson’s of The Merchant of Venice and Anne Tyler’s of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a tricky thing, as she acknowledged herself, to re-invent such a well-heeled play from such a respected writer as Shakespeare.

Rather than trip around the subject, Atwood tackles this head on, and allows her main character in on the secret – he is perfectly aware that his life is following the structure of the play, and in fact is in the process of trying to put on a performance of it. He even has a daughter called Miranda. This deft layering of story onto story is a little nudge to the reader; we’re all in on it. It allows for both subtle and overt analysis of the play, its characters themes and ideas, as well as making us feel very clever for getting the references.

Our Prospero is played by Felix, a director who has been spurned from the local Festival, usurped by (of course) his evil brother, and shunned by society. He goes to an obscure little hovel to lick his wounds, and is kept company by his visions of a daughter who died at age 3. So far, so familiar. In fact, I found the opening a little ploddy, but it all took off after Felix takes a job working in the Fletcher Correctional Institute. Here, we meet a new cast of characters, in the inmates who provide the acting skills for various Shakespeare plays. His dream is to finally stage his perfect Tempest. Of course, underpinning all of this is Felix’s desire for revenge. One day he will confront his brother and take back what is rightfully his. Best way to do that? Putting on some plays with criminals, apparently. I have to say I was curious as to how this particular plot would play out, but I needn’t have feared. With Atwood, you’re always in safe hands, and she steers the course of the novel deftly towards its climax.

Some reviewers have found the inmates to be lacking depth as characters. Personally, I quite liked that. It allowed for a layering of interpretations and modernisation to be done through them, without needing to know who they are. They almost figuratively played the part of Prospero’s goblins (they do literally too), in that they are a means to an end, rather than characters in themselves. As Felix brings together his plans for The Tempest, we also have a rather important aside – namely the power of literature to educate and engage the incarcerated. It’s an oft-repeated accusation that prisoners have a ‘cushy’ life, and funding for programmes like literature or drama is often cut. Atwood reminds us of the power of performance, and how a sense of pride and a desire for knowledge can be a powerful tool in rehabilitation. Also, it’s great to hear hardened criminals only swearing in Shakespearean. I might use that one in my classes.

Because the characters aren’t fully realised, there are some great things that can be done with them. We have modernised Shakespearean rap, continuations of the story into fanciful places, modern twists and interpretations of characters and actions, and of course (it being Atwood) a high-kicking Miranda who refuses to be anyone’s plaything. At times it is playful and fun, at others a deep commentary on the nature of loss, identity, and how people can learn to trust each other and heal themselves. I particularly liked how much spotlight was given to Caliban, the Hag-Seed himself, whose origins and destiny are scrutinised, especially by the characters that identify with him.

In re-imagining something, the idea is to take the coherent themes and see how they can be manipulated. Having such an overt agenda in this book means that we can join in, something that I found truly engaging. It’s like an English teacher’s dream. The resonance of Shakespeare’s words are always far-reaching, but it seems that Atwood brings that very notion directly to the surface, rather than hiding it beneath a completely different story. I loved the overt references and discussion and hey, who doesn’t like a few goddesses thrown in for good measure?

Atwood, through Shakespeare, reminds us that The Tempest is all about confinement. In many ways, we are all imprisoned. Sometimes by society, or the way others treat us, or perhaps in prisons of our own making. We are reminded that it is self awareness and hope, not desire for revenge, that will ultimately allow us to be free.

The Fragrance of Blood

canstock8023705

She lets the sun touch her through the window. Dips her head, past the dark line drawn on the table, sits her face into the sharp heat. Magnified warmth. It could be Ghana outside – thick orange dust, women piling yellow fruits. Amplify the squawk of a hedge-bird, it could be a gull – clawing its way into the sky, scissored feathers in glossy blue. She squints at the shaking strands of light shredded through the Volvic water bottle – a reflection of a swaggering pool, a shard of light cut from the shifting sea.

The minute hand of the clock stabs. They’ll be back soon. She pulls her face back into the shade, reconciles her eyes to the brown lines of houses across the road, next door’s terracotta fence too orange, like a beach with a fake tan. Crushing the waxy wrappings, she cups her hand and drags it over the wooden surface, scraping her skin white to make sure all traces are gone.  She picks up a bit of gristle and grinds it between her teeth.

The evidence goes in a sealed freezer bag, the air hushed out, then the rigmarole with the chair so she can reach all the way to the back of the airing cupboard, nestled with the others between the folds of the ruched curtains they took down last summer. Two slices of ham and a sealed pack of pastrami for next week.

It might start to smell. A quick squirt of Berry and Shimmering Mist, thorough hand wash, everything is hidden. She slips back the lid of the piano and smears some fingerprints on it, puts some pans on the hob and a willing carrot on the chopping board. The last moment before the clatter arrives at the door, she lifts one hand into the beam of evening light, dancing the warmth in her fingers.

Once they’re here, she changes. Three other bodies, shifting around hers, demanding, placating, the, ‘yes-but-I-didn’t-mean-it,’ and, ‘what-are-you-telling-me-for,’ dips up and down like a chorus, a tape-loop of grievances and defences, repetition smoothing them to melody. Her movements are easier, guided by expectations, pinned by these male eyes. Once separated from her body, they lifted and turned against her.

When they are almost at the table He will arrive, then is the ritual of the eating and the asking. The Requests, now the wallet is near, before they disperse into corners, leaving her to cleanse the portions of the house they have touched, to make it ready for their onslaught again.

Something sticks. Before the clatter of his key, a jump in the rhythm, a caught needle. It’s like a lump, a hard thing, too early in the month for that, and too high up, but a similar clenching around a hard mass, something she swallowed perhaps. The boys gape at her, this unexpected stillness. One finger under a rib – poke, rub, it will go soon.

It resumes, their dance exhaling back into what it was. Lentil bake today, followed by yoghurt and raspberry compote.  He arrives; ‘oh-what-did-you-get-for-homework,’ and, ‘you-won’t-get-better-unless-you-practise,’ until they scatter.

The obstruction persists, an accusation under her skin as she smooths on the thick blubber of face cream and reads five pages before sleep.

Mince sits in sops of it, gleaming on the edge of chops, the steak carved out from the redness itself. Blood smells more fragrant than Purple Lavender Meadow. Last time it was just a pork pie, a pink hunk hidden inside a clump of pastry. It could have been cheese, vegetable. Easy to hide. Before that a sausage roll, a turkey stick. All so hard and cold. She wants something with juice today, for it to leak between her lips as she eats it. Cooking is too risky, they might smell it.

Impaled chickens rotate in an oven, brown fat glistening on their hides. The largest one is sealed in a foil bag, pressed into her hands. So warm. She double bags it, shoves it in her large handbag, escapes into the street, planning her route.

“Lina!” Joanne, who runs the knitting and mindfulness class on Tuesdays, lumped across the whole pavement. A whisper of escape to her left, but now she’s hesitated too long.

“Didn’t think you’d be going in there.” Joanne nods through the glass, lumps of squashed red things delicate in their displays. “Although knowing you, more guests for dinner, yes?” Joanne leans in, her nose edging towards the bag. A silver chain drops out from under her chin, a drop of blue at the end, darkening to purple under the bloody awning of the butcher’s. So pretty. Just like the thing she lost.

Another dance will begin – the swaying of compliments, a dangled invitation to be snatched at or dodged. The heat is leaching from the bag, each minute solidifying the glorious fat.

“Sorry, got to get back, the boys.” It’s an easy excuse.

There’s a poke, lower down this time, shifted over to the left. Like it’s working down through her, dragging something with it. She walks past Joanne, a wince in her step as it nags at her all the way to the car, round the ring road and out to the industrial estate. She sits on a wall and buries her face in the grease of the chicken, sucking the meat from the white rounds of gristle and spitting them on the floor among the dandelions.

The thing she lost, was tricked into giving away. It had been a gift, from Aunty Fran, the cold chain dropped into her palm without a box, so Mum wouldn’t see. An upside-down V curved in gold, for wishes. She secreted it under her school shirt, sweated in a vest so it stuck to her skin. Mum worried the mark it left with a sponge in the bath. Before sleep, she slid her middle finger along the curve of it, soothed by the up and down, her hands aching from all the piano scales. A smile was given, if she completed the hours, ticked off the things on her list.

On Sundays they trooped to church. The new man came for a one-off guest appearance, highlighted on the leaflet like a headline act. He walked among them, gesticulated, had the first button of his shirt undone and a scruff of beard. You should give something precious, he said, to show your love. There was a bin bag, he rattled it, already full with his things. Stuff, he said, it isn’t important. A sniff of something as he walked past. Perhaps he had a bacon sandwich for breakfast, while they ground down cereals like cattle, spooned quivering egg folds onto toast.

She reached behind her neck, hid the strand in her hand, put the scratchy gloves on top, as if that were her gift. Her hands splayed flat, so he could see the flash of it as it fell into the bag. It had seemed obvious then, her way to an unspoken salvation. If not, she’d find a way to retrieve it, later. After the droning of the last hymn he led them out, breath claggy in the cold, out over the graveyard, to the river. She teetered at the back, craning her feet in the stiff shoes, enough to catch the carelessness of his hand as he flung the bag over the edge. Her wishes, submerged in scudding water.

There’s a spot of grease on her chest, bits of skin in her hair. She’s gasping, as full of breath as when the babies squeezed out. Different though, to be filled. A lemon wet wipe takes care of the worst of it. In the rearview mirror she finds a speck of rubbery pink on her chest. Where the wishbone used to sit.

No sun today. It could be Estonia – sharp spires, the rain a shivering waterfall, frothing mist in a green valley. Leek and mushroom pasta.

It digs in her stomach, this hard thing. Worse tonight. It must be the size of the large dollops of creme fraiche she spoons in. A little lower again, in the middle, where she got the first jabbing sensation. You’re a woman now, Mum said, cleaning her up and pressing flower-crusted pads into her hand. It felt like being emptied out.

Plates on the table, it resumes around her, the ‘but-it-isn’t-fair’ and ‘I-expect-better-from-you.’ After the first gift in the bag, it continued. Things to be bestowed on others. Your appreciation, your virginity, your grades, your debts from University, your hope of being an architect, travelling, your hand in marriage.

The clatter has stopped. She scans the faces, reflections of herself, cut into more angular shapes. They look confused. She feels something wet in her hand. A loop of spaghetti, draped around her neck, her middle finger sliding over it. Quite cold now, it must have been there a while. She slops it onto the plate, moves too early into the after-eating tempo, ignoring the resistant hands as she takes plates still strewn with food. Wincing over the bubbles, it feels like it’s growing.

On Wednesday the school calls. She was stooping her back in the sun, Guyana outside the window. Now there will be traffic and snivelling, vomit and soothing hands required. She takes the big handbag again, decides to pop in on the way, maybe something to have in the cupboard, to waft her nose over when it gets a bit much.

The lamb chops cling to the severed bone. On special offer. Thick steaks, seeping redness onto their little plastic tray. She asks for two, three, four. A squashy parcel of waxed paper, placed at the bottom of the bag.

The school is two roads down on the left. Outside, a necklace of yellow V shapes mark the boundary of it on the tarmac. She traces the inverse shape on her collarbone. Drowned, in such a beautiful stream. Her foot reaches for the pedal.

The ring road is quiet at this time of day. On the motorway, it’s surprising how quickly the miles are eaten up. At twenty, she throws the mobile phone out the window. At thirty, the keys to the house. Forty brings the remembrance of the thick packet of waxed paper. She pulls it out, opens it in her lap. With one hand steering, the other frees the hunks of meat. It wafts up to her – a metal tint of rotten fruit. Impossible to wait. She rips at the corner of one with her teeth, juice spilling down her chin. The hard knot dissipates, wetness between her legs. At fifty she’s onto the second fillet, cheeks red in the bleeding sky.

The Perils of Being a Reader-Commuter

We’re all busy people. But, if you’re like me, then any space of time can be used as an excuse to read a few pages. From reading on the loo to spilling my lunchtime soup on a few pages (travesty), there’s always a way to get you ticking through your latest book.

As a Londoner, I spend an inordinate amount of time on public transport. It’s bizarre. If someone had asked me, outside London, if I fancied meeting them somewhere that took me over an hour and involved three different types of transport, I’d tell them I probably wouldn’t bother. Here, we cheerfully hop onto tubes in the full knowledge that we won’t even be close to our destination for at least forty minutes.

However, the beauty of that commute? Reading time. No more passive-aggressive shouting at the Audi driver in front of me on the road, I can dedicate all of those tedious minutes spent swaying along on various modes of transport, reading. What a delight. While others play games (yes, I deleted Candy Crush because it was using up too much of my life) or read the substandard freebies that count as ‘news,’ I get to absorb myself in whatever wonderful universe I’m currently wallowing in.

Despite the bonus reading time, there are a few pitfalls.

Other People

Well, Jean-Paul Sartre had a point. Not just when you’re in the queue for a coffee, or when you’re already running a bit late (sorry, everyone I know). Nothing dismays the reader-commuter more than the sight of a packed bus or train. Not that it will stop you reading. No, it will just mean that you spend the rest of your journey wedged up against someone’s armpit with your book jammed between your face and the handbag of the woman that keeps turning round and glaring at you. What? I’m trying to read here!

Getting There

The last time this happened to me I was heading for a bar near Holborn, reading The Portable Veblen. All I had to do was change at Oxford Circus. No problem. Unfortunately, I got so carried away with the squirrel-related antics I completely missed my stop. The next time I looked up, I was almost at Victoria. I swore, leapt off the train, had to go back two stops in the other direction, before then getting my connection. Needless to say, I was more than late. This is also a problem on the commute to work, but more because I’d much rather sit quietly reading a book than go to work.

Appearing Normal

This is a tricky one. Obviously, London is a city full of rich and varied people and experiences, and pretty much anything goes, up to a point. I was reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing on the bus, just around the time she heads to a new city, and well, it was all a bit graphic. I became very aware that a nice lady (about my mum’s age) was sat next to me, quite possibly reading every word. I’m pretty sure that even if she couldn’t see the print, the horrified rictus of my face probably communicated that the content wasn’t exactly pleasant. Perhaps try something less provocative if you like meeting new people on the way to work.

Backache

I wouldn’t usually buy the hardback, but it was a Christmas present. And yes, I could have waited until I got home to read the next bit, but I didn’t want to. Lugging Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life around for the best part of the day was not exactly what my shoulders needed. By the time I got back home, Jude had been through some pretty tough times, but so had my muscles.

So, if you haven’t tried the wonders of being a reader-commuter, trust me, it’s worth it. Soon you’ll find your book pile going down much quicker than when you could only squeeze in a few minutes before bedtime. Sure, you might have sore muscles and people will be less likely to sit next to you, but it’s definitely worth it.

Y: The Last Man

I know I’m massively behind the times in reading this, but as I’m currently working on a similar narrative, several people recommended this graphic novel as a good place to look at how a gender-imbalanced dystopia played out. Interesting ideas, some lessons learned, and a few pitfalls to avoid.

On a day in 2002, a mystery virus simultaneously kills off every creature with a Y chromosome on the planet. Apart from one. Yorick (his parents liked Shakespeare) and his monkey Ampersand, are the only males left alive on the planet.

It’s a neat premise, that leads to a range of far-reaching narratives. There’s loads to explore, and the comic uses split narratives and unusual time-framing to quickly absorb us into the various effects all over the world. It acknowledges the immediate economic and political collapse, as these are areas almost completely dominated by men. The planes that would drop out of the sky, the trains that would crash, the nuclear plants that would suddenly be under threat.

But, where is the resilience? I refuse to believe that half of the species would simply sit about and get hungry. There are a huge number of women in a range of very practical professions, and the cavalier response to disaster just felt a little weak, as if over-exaggerating the impact it would have. Don’t get me wrong, it would be huge initially, but there is technology, systems in place, and the lack of order in the book smacked of the ‘helpless female’ stereotype I hoped this book would try to avoid.

The story is fast-paced and the characters interesting, leading to The Last Man embarking on a journey to discover why he was immune, and how he could find the secret and therefore, save the planet. With him are a secret agent and a doctor, who provide more nuanced characters than the rest, and give a foil for the often arrogant Yorick to bounce against. As a relative newcomer to graphic novels, I found it a really enjoyable read. Of course it is telling a female story, but ultimately, it is the man that is setting out to save the world, which was a little disappointing.

There were other problems with it. At times it was a little stylised. All of the people that we hear from in the story are beautiful, everyone from convicts to guerrilla fighters. Despite being in a world without men, we still had hugely sexualised female characters. The garbage collector just happens to be an ex-model, and we are given a very minimal range of female characters. I suppose with so many narrative threads running through, it’s hard to get completely rounded characters, and so far I have only read the first edition. However, for a world without men, I would have much preferred to have more variation on the scale from ‘nice girl’ to ‘psycho bitch/butch lady’, with a couple of ‘intelligent’ women thrown in for good measure. For a book that’s re-examining the world as we know it, I would like to think they could move outside existing tropes of femininity. I also didn’t understand why we couldn’t look beyond simple gender binary, with all the women apparently falling over themselves to be with Yorick. It was an opportunity to look outside these simple pairings, and I think it missed a trick.

Having said that, the level of violence is, in a way, refreshing. Far from the ‘mother earth’ nonsense that often turns up in feminine utopias, we see struggles for power, killing and chaos in the aftermath of the disease. It’s good that it acknowledges these things are human problems, not male problems. Desire for control and a search for understanding in the world is what preoccupies everyone, and it often leads to fatal conflict. Why should men not being around make any difference? Having said that, the Amazons were infuriating. Ridiculous characters with no believable back story, they form a sort of anti-male cult. Which, apart from anything else, is now entirely pointless. It seems they only exist to give Yorick something to run away from. A lazy plot device that sticks to the ‘feminists as psychos’ trope.

There are plenty of hooks dropped in to make you want to carry on reading the series. The reason the men died, a scientific accident, some loopholes drifting above the stratosphere, there is plenty of story here.

I just found it a little, showy. Yes it’s very compelling, I genuinely cared about the characters, but I felt too often the hand of the writer, creating plot twists with a little ‘ta da!’ in the background. Maybe comics aren’t for me, as the reviews I’ve read say that this is a refreshing break from stereotypical characters, so what must the other stuff be like?

Anything that questions gender politics is good in my book, but let’s try and do something a bit more complex next time. It opened up a lot of possibilities and questions for the world I’m currently creating (watch this space!) which is definitely what I was after. Perhaps we have just moved on a little from 2002. I would like to think so. Perhaps a version of this comic now would try to shock us in different ways.