Pseu’s comp

Here are the parameters for Pseu’s writing comp. I’m posting mine now, but I may revise it during the week. It’s all imagined apart from the saying, which my mother used frequently. And my sister was a good sprinter and hockey player.

Thanks Pseu.

Up to 2,000 words as a short story, which contains argument of any sort.

2. a childhood memory and

3. a phrase (or saying /quotation /word) which is particular to your family.

Or up to 50 lines as a poem,which contains argument of any sort.

2. a childhood memory and

3. a phrase (or saying /quotation/ word) which is particular to your family.

Deadline midnight GMT on 28th August 2010.
(01.00 am BST on the day immediately following the specified day and all and/or any other time zones pari passu)

‘This won’t pay the rent, or bath the baby,’ said my mother, standing up and bringing an end to our post high tea chat.

‘We don’t have a baby, and you and Dad own this house,’ said my brother, as he always did, but he stood up too and started to collect plates to take to the kitchen.

My father and I looked at each other across the remains of the salads, the cheeses and the cold meats. My father raised his eyebrows at me, and I reached for the water jug and the radishes, popping one in my mouth and crunching on it as I left the room.

‘There’ll be no salad tomorrow if you eat it all now,’ his voice warned my back. At the door, I turned in time to see him reach for a gherkin.

‘Caught you!’ I laughed.

Only Joan, my sister, sat silent and unmoving. Part of our conversation over tea had been about her need for new hockey boots. My parents reckoned that, now that she had a Saturday job in Marks and Spencer, she should pay for them. My sister had protested, pointing out that she already bought all her toiletries and paid for her hockey club subs, as well as any small entertainments like trips to the cinema, but my parents remained unimpressed by her pleas. They pointed out that they housed and fed her, paid for her holidays and were happy for her to stay in education as long as she wished, but that money did not grow on trees. It was time, in their view, for her to contribute a bit more, even if it was just for hockey boots. It would also help to teach her how to manage her money, and to spend her small income wisely. It was a principle that was at stake. My parents were quite comfortably off, but fiscal commonsense was an important lesson  that we all needed to learn.

Now, she pushed her chair away from the table with sudden violence. ‘Why does Mum put all the food on the table every Sunday evening when she doesn’t want us to eat it all?’ she demanded in a high, tense voice. ‘It’s just stupid, like everything else in this family.’

‘Don’t speak about your mother like that,’ said my father at once.

‘It’s not just her,’ said Joan, ‘You’re just as bad. God, I’ll be glad when I can leave home and live with normal people.’

She was about to fling off up the stairs, but my father blocked her path.

‘Take that back, young lady, ‘ he said in a voice all the more stern because it was so calm, ‘You can apologise now, and then go and help your brother and sister with the washing up.’

Joan burst into noisy tears and my mother went back into the dining room, drying her hands on the kitchen towel.

‘Roger,’ she said quietly, ‘do you want to leave this to me?’

I moved silently from the hall into the kitchen, and headed for the sink. It was my turn to do the dishes. Robert looked at me and mouthed, ‘She’s got her period; bet you.’

Normally I’d have thrown one of my rubber gloves at him, but given the circumstances, it seemed unwise. Robert might have responded by flicking the tea-towel at me. Sooner or later one of us would have yelped. It might have provoked my father to come and give us a lecture on the seriousness of plate-washing; to look at us reproachfully; and more in sorrow than in anger, let us know how we had disappointed him. Worse, it might have meant a visit in our bedrooms from our mother. A visit where she would sit on the end of the bed, and talk about her miserable childhood, explaining that she just wanted us to all get on. She might cry, and then we would feel like murderers, and also subtly betrayed.

The thing was, my family didn’t do rows. My mother always maintained that if we didn’t have anything nice to say, we should say nothing. She also told us regularly that she did not want dissension. She could not cope with it. She had had too much of it in her childhood. The upshot was many silent evenings where you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife; a big knife; a chainsaw perhaps. Certainly not a penknife. That  might have made a notch, but it couldn’t have coped with the thickness of unvoiced anger and resentment. We learned to censor our comments before we made them; to think before we spoke; to judge how our parents received a remark before we elaborated on an theme. A lot of topics remained strictly off limits in case they might prove contentious. It was a revelation when I had meals with friends’ families and everyone at the table would engage in a full-blown argument about politics. Everyone except me of course. I was just a fascinated spectator. Nobody got hurt, nobody even seemed upset by the forthright words flying around. At home, such scenes were unthinkable; they were like breaking all ten commandments, and then some more, in one go. They might have precipitated the end of the world.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t have an unhappy childhood. We had our fair share of family jokes and fun. There was real warmth and love between all of us. But each of us children went for an awful lot of solitary walks with the dog to relieve our pent up feelings.

To combat our enforced silences we developed other skills. Displacement activities, I think you could call them. Creative escapism maybe. My sister’s love of sport – she was the fastest sprinter for her age in the County and a fearless and fearsome hockey player – was the most obvious of our outlets. You’d probably recognise her. She was one of the gold-medal winning team at the Olympics in the eighties. She still coaches. She laughs at the memory of that tea-time row now, and says it was one of the things that drove her to success. She decided then and there that if she was buying her own kit, it would be the best she could afford, not the standard schoolgirl stuff our parents would have paid for, and that in turn made her more determined to do well. Robert practised the bass guitar with an intense religiosity, and is a successful session player. He couldn’t manage being in a band with the in-fights and arguments; he’d turn dumb and defensive, a stereotypically silent bass player. He hardly spoke for a while; he’d just nod like some yogic sage, and reach for his guitar. You’ll find his name on many of your CDs if you look. I painted. At my first major exhibition, one critic for a national paper remarked on the repressed passion of the colours and brushstrokes. She said she wouldn’t like to meet me on a dark night. That’s nonsense of course; I’m a pussycat, and my claws hardly ever come out.

So, in some ways we seem to have benefited from our forcibly controlled emotions. Would we have achieved all that we have, had we been able to express our feelings freely in our home? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

But we have also been casualties of that control. Neither I, nor my siblings, ever learned how to cope with a good air-clearing row; how a few quick-tempered sentences in raised voices can relieve feelings and not split a family in half. We’re the ones with no words; tears in our eyes; lumps in our throats; wanting to flee; wanting the earth to swallow us up; our tender souls torn to shreds by others’ words; our hurt and wounded pride festering; bearing grudges days after everyone else has forgotten there ever was an argument. We lie awake thinking of the most cruel responses and putdowns we couId have made, and then feel ashamed of such base desires. We yearn to annihilate. Then we think we deserve to be annihilated. It has made communication in our relationships difficult. No one else seems to play by the same rules. While we hold back, our partners feel no such restraint. Our savage silences they categorise as sulks. They do not understand how successfully we have been made mute, and how much we fear what we might say if the gag were removed. The genie could be out of the bottle. Maybe we would go too far, not knowing how far it is safe to go. We could be those mad unleashed people baring our teeth; pouring scorn like venom; screaming in the street; shameful shameful lack of control.

Nowadays, what we lack is probably called emotional intelligence. I suppose what we have is emotional constipation. It’s not that we don’t feel, it’s just that we lack practice in effective rowing techniques. We don’t know how to do it in a contained yet therapeutic way. We are novices in our middle ages. I suppose it’s lucky that none of us has turned out to be a serial killer, or a stamp collector.

So when we’d finished the washing up, Robert and I, in unspoken accord, reached for our jackets, and Bessie, our dog, scrabbled out of her bed wagging her tail. The dining room door was still shut, and we could hear our mother’s voice behind it. We let ourselves out into the cool of the autumn evening and headed for the common, and an uncomplicated half hour of stick throwing for Bess.

When we got back, our parents were watching a detective drama on the television. Bessie lay down contentedly on the rug. Robert muttered something about restringing his guitar and took himself off to the shed. I offered to make my parents some tea, and then I went up to the bedroom I shared with Joan to finish my homework, and put my school things together for the next day. I was just ruling off after the last maths’ problem when Joan joined me. She’d had a bath. Her face was still a bit blotchy, but she seemed calm. She lay down on top of the quilt in her dressing gown and put her hands behind her head.

‘You okay?’ I asked.

‘They are going to be the best hockey boots I can find,’ she answered. ‘Then I’m getting a new stick, and an Adidas tracksuit.’

I looked at her, and waited.

She turned her head to me, ‘Watch and learn, brat,’ she said. ‘Watch and learn. I won’t just get even; I’ll leave them standing.’

18 thoughts on “Pseu’s comp

    • Thank-you Claire. I am tempted to ask where you want more, but I think that might be cheating, as I have already indicated that I may revise this, time allowing, and I’m not sure how Pseu would feel about allowing feedback before the final cut. Perhaps you could tell me after 28th.
      I had half a story for your historical comp, but no time to work on it unfortunately. Maybe one day.

      • Ok, will keep schtum until then. I think it’s a very strong piece, though. I like the tension between the banality/mundanity and the unspoken conflict.
        Shame about the historical story. Maybe you should finish it and post it; I’d love to read. 🙂

  1. Banality/mundanity just about sums up my subject matter in general I think. Unlike Louise Doughty, I’m quite happy writing in the domestic domain. Gentle relief from the hurly burly of the rest of existence.

  2. Hiya, Isobel. I enjoyed a really good read here – much darker than my frothy offering.

    Good luck and may the best man….er, wolf….er….well, you know what I mean. 🙂


    P.S. Why haven’t you posted your story on Boa’s Chariot?

  3. Actually, one of the qualities I have always admired in Louise Doughty’s writing is the incisiveness; the ability to scatter deep/ profound thoughts, or conflict in among mundane, ordinary events and banal details. It’s quite astonishing, and you seem to have achieved something similar here. It is very, very good.

  4. You know, I’ve not read any of her books, though the latest sounds like a must read. I listened to her on radio 4 when I was driving through Leytonstone last week, and thought she got quite cross about the domestic label. Then I read something she wrote in MyT, and maybe what she was protesting about was the way that publishers and bookshops (and even the libraries) like to pigeonhole writers. and I agree that’s very annoying. I wanted to re-read Shame by Salman Rushdie, which is a very political novel. I could not find it. I asked a library assistant. It was shelved under Black Interest.

  5. Oh good. It’s just that I also wrote a comment reply here, tho’ I may have done it via email, and it doesn’t appear to have worked. so I wondered.
    Do you know much about Morris Minors? Tugging at the edges of my memory, I know there was a difference between my parents’ first one which had a split windscfreen and the second. What would that be?
    You’ve started something you see!

  6. Just catching up on the short stories, Isobel, having neglected all cyber-things lately. I agree with Claire; left me wanting a follow-up. Good story and good luck. 🙂

    • Ah. well now the deadline has passed, i can ask where it left you wanting more and how. And wanting more in a positive ‘oh I’d like to read more of this’ way, or a frustrated ‘why hasn’t she explained that a bit more’ way? 🙂

    • Hello dther
      Can you give me a clue who you are? Do I know you? I don’t approve comments until i’m satisfied the source is safe.
      But you’ll have to explain the Andrew A and Priscus comment for me anyway!

  7. I’m awfully sorry to have interferred here. I was on MyT and pressed a button having thought I was joining a thread under Pseu’s name. (She and I used to correspond a lot and Andrew A and Priscus used to join in and spar )
    As I feel like an interloper anyway and don’t want to join any more time consuming sites, (Heaven knows MyT is bad enough) I’m quite happy for you to ejaculate me outta here without further ado.

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