Welcome To Britain

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I wrote this after a discussion at a recent meditation class. It’s just a bit of fun but seems appropriate to post on the day that the giant Trump baby makes an appearance at the ‘it was never a state visit, protests don’t bother me – FAKE NEWS!’

CHERISH

The white room is in the city but surrounded by trees that filter out the sound of traffic. Birds sing from their branches and the leaves rustle in accompaniment. The white room in the city is quiet save for this natural music and the soft in/out breath of those assembled for weekly lunchtime meditation. The meditators sit in ordered rows on institutional burgundy chairs but are all shoeless, their bare soles placed square on the floor. Some – the ones who look lithe and carefree – bend themselves with ease into the lotus position on the pale carpet, hands on knees, their backs pole straight. In the white room in the city, three golden Buddhas look down with benevolent smiles on the faithful, offerings of saffron-coloured flowers at their feet, goldfish bowls of crystal water, smoke rising from incense and candles.

In the white room in the city your back is already beginning to hurt as you close your eyes, lulled by the soft monotone of the leader. You lose her words for a moment as you consider how a Scottish accent is now almost a pre-requisite for guiding meditation. All the leaders lately are Scottish. It’s getting boring. You imagine a Geordie one or an Aussie like the one you have set for Siri.

‘Feel the breath on the in.’ She intones, ‘and then on the out.’

You concentrate on your breathing, your nostrils tickle and you have to hold your breath to smother a sneeze, letting out a loud exhalation that causes the person next to you to shift in their chair.

In the white room in the city the leader tells you that this meditation is called Cherish Others. You think of Madonna and the long hot summer of 1989, when you ran through the warm waves on a Southern Indian beach and didn’t actually need daily meditation to free your spirit but did it anyway because the instructor was a cute Canadian called Brad. Every night the two of you danced to Madonna on the shore in the moonlight as the wind caressed the palm trees. It was your song.  Brad’s lips tasted of salt. In the white room in the city you wonder what happened to your long lost lover and almost sing along to the song in your head.

When we cherish others we cherish the universe. If you wish peace for the person sitting next to you it has a knock on effect, spreading love throughout the world.’

The beach and Brad disappear, leaving you in the white room in the city surrounded by a collective unconscious but totally alone. Perhaps you will go back to India this year. Perhaps you will look up Brad on Facebook. There can’t be that many of them. You remind yourself to concentrate really hard on the in and out of your breath.

‘Everyone in the world just wants to be happy. Everyone in the world just wants to be happy. Pick someone to wish happiness on. It could be your boss or a neighbour, someone who has upset you, someone who makes you angry. Our own anger is damaging to us. By wishing that person well instead of ill we heal ourselves and the world.’

In the white room in the city you think about wishing your boss well but the thought of him brings to mind the sensation of his hand on your arse and the promotion that passed you by a few days after you told him you were reporting him to HR. You feel anger building in your stomach.  There is a loud rumble and your mouth waters at the thought of the spinach and beetroot quiche you will all soon have for lunch.

‘If we can learn to wish our neighbours well we ourselves will be at peace’.

In the white room in the city you think about your neighbour and the constant, bone-shaking  ‘music’ which gets turned up when you knock to complain.  You think of the dog poo on the path, something you suspect to be intentional but something you can do nothing about without more abuse. Instead of wishing them peace and happiness you wish that the ugly squat dog will turn on his keeper, and you imagine slashing teeth and saliva and buckets of blood. You smile as you hear your neighbour’s screams. Get him off me! he shouts at you. Sorry you say, can’t hear you – your music has made me deaf. In the white room in the city you allow yourself to smile.

‘When we cherish those who have done us wrong, the burden of hate is lifted. Forgiveness is like a warm healing light.’

In the white room in the city you try to cherish your ex. You know you should wish him all the happiness in the world. You were not a good match. He is far better off in the flat he shares with the woman who was your best friend until he sent you a text message meant for her. The wedding date is set. They didn’t invite you but all of your friends are going. You find yourself wishing that masked men will break down their front door and take them hostage, torture them in indescribable ways and then blow up the house – including the traitorous pug Mr Biscuits, who you used to walk every day when your ex was ‘working’ and who you now blame for your expanding waistline.

You heart rate increases and your realise you are panting rather than breathing. More than the average number of meditators seem to be shuffling in their seats, maybe it’s not only you having a hard time finding someone to cherish.

‘Calm,’ soothes the leader, picking up on the distraction. ‘If you find you mind wandering come back to the breath, feel the cool air entering your nostrils and the slightly warmer air come out. Send a cherish wish out to your chosen person and hold it deep in your heart.’

For fuck’s sake! You can’t think of anyone who won’t make you forget how to breathe. Mother? Not since the argument about your driving. Sister? Not since she commented on your expanding waistline. You grapple feverishly with your thoughts, suggesting and rejecting recipients of the cherish wish. You are a terrible person.

‘If everyone cherished everyone in the world, there would be no more war.’

The breathing throughout the room settles into a symbiotic rhythm. You relax your shoulders and let yourself float, breathing in and out with one face in your thoughts.

In a pushily decorated room in a white house, thousands of miles from the white room in the city, sits an old orange man. His hair matches his skin, his eyes are slits and his jaw is set hard, lines scrunched across his forehead as he listens to his advisors. The press he still trusts are assembled, a bank of photographers ready to capture the historic moment. The old orange man is about sign an order that will tighten the country’s borders. One of the results of the order will be the enforced removal of children from ‘migrant’ parents. They will be placed in detention centres, separated and alone. Babies as young as 3 months old will cry for their mothers and be fed formula to quiet them before being shipped off to adoption centres. Five year olds will be locked behind bars, with a bucket for a toilet and a foil blanket for warmth. Most will never see their parents again, mobile phones will be confiscated and children’s names will be lost, the cost of reuniting on deportation will too great for the world’s most civilized nation. Families will be buried under red tape and poverty.

As he lifts his pen with a flourish the old orange man feels a great rush of well-being. His whole body glows from within. It’s as though a giant pair of hands has scooped him up and is swaying him gently to and fro.  The sensation takes his breath away. He closes his eyes and is transported back to the family home in Queens, to the small square of grass that served for a backyard throughout his first four years. Birds sing and the sun beats down. His mother sets up a sprinkler and he runs back and forth with his siblings through the cooling shower, surrounded by a prism of refracted light. His mother sits on a lawn chair under and enormous hat and watches her children, a smile spreading across her face. Soon there will be hotdogs and cola for tea and when his father gets home he will carry his youngest son up to bed and tuck him into freshly laundered sheets as sleep takes him instantly and he floats on the conscience-free clouds of a child lucky enough to be born into a privileged family.

The plush room in the white house is silent. The assembled hold their breath in anticipation. When the old orange man opens his eyes, the tears collected behind his eyelids spill over and fall onto his cheeks, streaking his tan. He knows in his heart that he has felt the hand of God; the universe has spoken to him and told him that all men feel water drops through dappled sunlight in the same way. He sighs, brushes away the tears with the back of his hand and signs the order anyway. Blinded by the staccato flurry of camera flashes he feels his jaw tighten.

In the white room in the city the leader tells you to relax your concentration and, when you are ready, to open your eyes. The room is filled with sighs and clicking neck bones. Everyone is smiling. Some people hug each other.

‘Thank you,’ you say to the teacher as you leave. ‘I really feel like I made a connection there.’

Namaste,’ she replies, bringing her hands together and bowing her head.

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Last Chance To Enter The Brighton Prize!

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As a director of The Brighton Prize I have the good fortune to act as one of the judges every year. The prize is open for international entries of short stories (between 1,000 and 2,000 words) and flash fiction (up to 350 words). It’s always exciting to see what stories arrive through the inbox and there are always some truly world class entries. We like to see stories that are a little bit out of the ordinary, that look at the world in a different way, through different eyes. We also love a laugh and rarely get sent anything funny so if you have something that will make us guffaw it might be worth sending it – comedy is a difficult write though.

This year my fellow judges are author Alison MacLeod (previously long-listed for the Man Booker and currently shortlisted for The Edge Hill Prize) and literary agent Sarah Manning

On what she looks for as a judge Alison says: ‘In a great story, I love to see a writer’s understanding that seemingly small dramas can reveal the profound stuff of life; that ordinary events can reveal the extraordinary.  Melodrama swamps a short story of course. If a story is about the extraordinary or the fantastical, I want to be shown the ordinary human truth within those events. I love a confident prose style. whether the language of the story is gritty and stark, or lucid and clear, or rich and rhythmic. I want the voice of a story to draw me in with its quiet force or alternatively, to grab me and say, ‘Listen… This story matters.’

Sarah says: ‘I am excited to be a judge for the Brighton Prize and am looking forward to discovering new voices. If the main character jumps off the page and has a clear goal which keeps me reading, then I am hooked no matter the genre!’.

And me? ‘I want to see stories that linger long after reading. There has to be something new and original, an authentic voice, a subject no-one has thought of before. Be as ‘out there’ as possible but keep it simple. The story should be suitable for a public reading and should therefore be easy to follow. I love cinematic writing; I want to be immersed in new worlds. Writers need to show that they have paid attention to detail too. I don’t want to see any silly mistakes as I’ve got to edit the stories for publication!’

The winners and short-listees of last year’s prize were all offered publication. There was a prize-giving in Brighton in November, a launch at Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh, an event at Brighton Fringe Festival and our Flash Fiction winner Haleh Agar was published in Viva Brighton a local magazine with a circulation of 26,000.

All this AND big cash prizes!

You’d be silly not to enter. www.brightonprize.com

Brighton Prize Poster 18

 

Hip Dysplasia Awareness Month

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June is Hip Dysplasia Awareness Month. I was born with double hip dysplasia. Around one in a thousand babies have some degree of hip dysplasia at birth. Some cases are related to breech birth and other physical factors, some are genetic.  The standard tests at birth are based on a manual rotation of the baby’s hips, if there’s an audible clunk the hip is unstable and it is an indication of possible dysplasia. The tests originated in the 1950s and are still used today. However it’s a bit hit and miss, it depends on the practitioner and the nature of the dysplasia, bi-lateral is often missed because there is no discrepancy in leg length to complement the click test. Put it this way, mine didn’t show up and there was no click with my son either who had the test in 2002.

I often wonder what my life would have been like if that test had been positive. Infant dysplasia can usually be cured by the wearing of a harness (The Pavlik Harness) in the first few months of life when the bones are soft. This painlessly holds the hips in place, deepening the socket, and most people need no further treatment once this is completed. Yes the baby screams when it’s first put on but then they scream when they have their nappy changed so you can cope with it. Believe me this minor and short lived discomfort is nothing compared to what happens if the condition isn’t caught early.

My dysplasia was diagnosed at the age of three. My mother noticed that I ran everywhere on tiptoes rather than walking and fell over a lot. There was a trip to the GP.  I was told to walk across the surgery waiting room after hours so he could see me walk. This is probably my earliest memory; I can still see the spider plants in the sunshine on the window and smell the plastic chairs and my Mum’s perfume. From here it was referral to the hospital, almost immediate double surgery and six months in a half body cast. This was the 1970s, parents weren’t allowed to stay with children in hospital, it was strictly visiting time only – imagine how traumatic that is for a three-year-old. They let me out still encased in plaster, I had to crawl to get around. It was summer, I was often overheated, and the cast itched unimaginably. I had to be held over the toilet whenever I wanted to go. My Dad made a ‘concord’ out of wood on wheels that I used to propel myself around the house and garden. I remember going really fast and flying of it a few times. When it was time to remove the cast I screamed my head off. It was terrifying, the technician tried to use and electric tool which to me it felt like torture, the noise was unimaginable and it was coming for me and my legs.  Thankfully someone suggested cutting it away with shears and I could handle that with lots of soothing from Mum and Dad. My legs were withered and scaly. I had to learn to walk again. The treatment didn’t work and by the age of five I had to have more surgery.

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This was the drill for the next twelve years, surgery, learn to walk, hips dislocate, surgery, traction, learn to walk… I had my last childhood surgery at seventeen. As you can imagine I had a lot of scars and not a lot of self-esteem. School sports were a nightmare. Intimate relationships were difficult. I was not alright. Luckily I had a very supportive family and I met my husband at a young and he has been amazing. I’ve had therapy though, to work through some of the childhood traumas. This month of awareness has been very difficult for me because it has brought a lot to the surface.

As an adult I had a fairly normal life until I reached my late twenties, then came the arthritic pain. It was almost overnight. Remember how one minute Andy Murray was playing world class tennis and the next he was limping off court? That’s what it was like. One day fine, the next not. I struggled on for a few years but then I had a baby. A big bouncy baby boy. The pregnancy was really hard. I could barely walk by the end. The birth even harder, you can’t get into many positions when your hips don’t work. I had my first Total Hip Replacement at the age of thirty-four when my son was eight months old. The arthritis was ‘about as bad as it can be’. Two years later I had another, then another baby. You can do almost anything with this condition but it is very hard work. People don’t know you are suffering and most ‘hippies’ pretend they are okay because they just want to be like everyone else. I’m at the stage now where the original replacements have loosened and need redoing. I suffered a severe break around the implant a few years ago and that leg has never been the same. I am tired almost all the time. Sometimes something as simple as standing in the same place for ten minutes results in the need to lie down. I envy people who can easily do sport, who can go for long walks in the countryside without feeling it for days afterwards, people who are thin and lithe and straight-backed. I do what I can, I swim and use the static bike but I have very weak muscles in my pelvis so everything is a struggle.

My oldest son, Noah, didn’t have a positive clunk test but I knew he had it. I took him to a cranial osteopath for gripe and he told me the left hip was out. We went back to the hospital and demanded an ultrasound based on family history. It came back positive. Noah went kicking and screaming into the Pavlik Harness. After crying himself to sleep the first day he slept for 24 hours. The second day he was his normal self. He learned to crawl with the harness on and when it came off it didn’t stop him walking at the normal age. What it did do was ensure that the socket formed properly. After three months he didn’t have to wear it anymore.

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Noah with his Dad, Pavlik Harness visible.

I’m writing this for two reasons. When I posted about June being hip dysplasia awareness month on Facebook, two friends said they’d had it as a baby and one said one of their children had it, add to this the three people I knew already with the condition. It’s a lot more common than current levels of awareness would suggest. If you are about to be a parent or have just had a child and have any hip dysplasia in your family insist on an ultra-sound for your new-born, even if they pass the manual test. You might not even know there is familial dysplasia; it might just be an Uncle who limps because one leg is shorter than the other, a grandparent who had a hip replacement at a young age, whatever doubts you have act on them. An early ultrasound is much better than years of surgery. Secondly, many adults have slight dysplasia that hasn’t been diagnosed; problems only arise in later life. If you have deep hip pain after walking or sporting activities get it checked. There are lots of things you can do to slow the arthritis caused by dysplasia, there are special exercises, diets and supplements, aids like knee braces, footware. Don’t ignore it because that way lies years of crippling pain and inevitable replacement surgery. If in doubt – check it out.

For further information on hip dysplasia visit http://livingwithhipdysplasia.com/ and https://hipdysplasia.org/

Sign the petition to improve child screening in the UK https://www.change.org/p/implement-scanning-for-all-uk-newborns-babies-for-hip-dysplasia 

I’ll be blogging throughout the month about this.

Starlings Reborn

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I’m on Brighton Pier in the half term holidays. The skies are white with low cloud and there’s a sea mist blowing in but it’s warm enough to be outside so I’m sitting at one of the tucked away tables by Horatio’s Bar. Their playlist is quiet enough to ignore as are the distant screams of children as they hurtle through the air on the twirling aeroplanes of the nearest ride. My youngest and his friend are finally old enough to go on rides on their own so I’ve got them all areas wristbands and have settled down for a couple of hours of writing.

Brighton Pier has a lot of memories for me. I came here as a kid then brought my kids and since I started writing it has always inspired me and often features as a setting in my work. It’s a haven for detail; competing, smells, sounds, lights, people of all types from babies in prams to pensioners with walking sticks, smiling children hopped up on sugar, hungover stags and hens, parents, grandparents, teenagers trying to be cool. I had a little walk around the hidden bits, the alleyways between the rides, the end behind the Turbo, because that’s what I did when I was writing my first book, Starlings. I’m feeling nostalgic. Starlings is entirely set in Brighton. I wrote it when I first moved here and it helped me get a handle on my new home, I wanted to really get into the nitty gritty of the lesser-seen aspects of a British seaside town, to explore it as I would a character. Brighton has a personality that changes day to day, very different in the height of summer to a rainy day in December. I spent a lot of time seeking out the more unusual locations or looking at the well-known ones from a different angle. One of my proudest moments was at an event when a Brightonian reader exclaimed surprise that I wasn’t born and bred because I’d got it spot on.

The reason for all this nostalgia is that Starlings will very shortly be out of print. I bought the remainder paperbacks from my publisher and I’ll be getting all the rights back very soon. This makes me both sad and hopeful. Starlings was my first book and I had no idea what had to be done to market it to readers. For me it was a huge achievement that it was published at all but I’ve always thought it didn’t live up to its full potential. I’d like to give it a re-edit and a cover make-over. I have plans to publish a new edition paperback and release it on ebook and I know a lot more about publishing now than I did then. It’s seven years since it came out, my publisher, Revenge Ink, was a gutsy little maverick trying to showcase the type of books being ignored by the mainstream (if anything this situation has got worse and the industry has got more blinkered in what it chooses to publish). I am forever grateful to Revenge Ink for trying, for taking on my little book because they really understood and believed in it and we part on very good terms.

People still buy Starlings, they come up to me at readings and say they’ve just discovered it and ask why I was so mean to Barney. I’m asked to local book groups on a regular basis and it’s still in the Brighton books section of the city’s bookstores. I’ll be peddling the ‘limited edition’ originals at book fairs and market stalls until I run out (or hell freezes over). If you want a signed copy, personally dedicated by the author email me at erinnamettler@gmail.com or look out for me at car boot sales, a copy is yours at the knockdown price of £5 plus p & p.

This is the last bench in Brighton. To the left of it are the rickety legs of the Mousetrap. At the height of summer they rattle constantly under the weight of the mouse-shaped cars that whizz along to the screams of happy tourists. On this day they only shudder slightly in the wind.’ 

Now we’re off for fish n chips.

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The Playboy And The Bog Man

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My essay on Margaret Atwood’s short story The Bog Man was a runner-up in the Threshold’s Feature Writing Competition. I am very happy with this – I specifically set aside some time to write for this competition this year and it really paid off. The story was published in Playboy in 1991 and I speculate on why Atwood would have accepted the invitation to do so. You can read  it here

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I’ve got a busy week. There is a wonderful Rattle Tales show at Brighton Fringe on Wednesday, hosted by brilliant poet Deborah Turnbull and featuring a fantastic line-up of authors. If you’ve not been before you should go – like bedtime stories for adults in a candle-lit bar with wine!

On Saturday I will be at Wordstock at Brighton Open Market. A free all day literary event with publishers, authors, spoken words groups and workshops. I’ll be wearing my Brighton Prize and Unbound hats on the day and it looks set to be a great event.

On Saturday evening it’s the Saboteur Awards. The awards got a great write up in The Independent a couple of days ago and were described as, ‘here to shake up the literary establishment’. It certainly needs a shake. I am very excited to have been shortlisted and want to thank anyone who voted for 15 Minutes! Producing this book was one the hardest things I’ve ever done and it’s very nice to see it getting some recognition. I’ll keep you posted!

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/sabotuer-awards-literary-prize-festival-poetry-spoken-word-indie-publishing-sabotage-reviews-a8345536.html

Vote For Fifteen Minutes!

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I’m having a great week! After many months of plugging away at promoting Fifteen Minutes things are finally starting to happen. It’s quite difficult to promote a short story collection, generally bloggers don’t want to know and short story journals want finished reviews. This week I found out I had been shortlisted for a Saboteur Award, a big deal in short story circles. I am beyond thrilled that people took the time to vote for my book, thank you to anyone who did so. I now have another favour to ask – the shortlist is open to the public to decide the winner so even if you voted to nominate me you have to vote again. It’s really easy though, just click on the link below, you don’t need to vote in every category but you every vote counts.

https://www.saboteurawards.org/

Awards like this ensure that short story collections get a much needed publicity boost.

I got back from a lovely holiday in Lyme Regis to find that I’d been longlisted for The Thresholds Feature Writing Competition. I try to enter this every year but failed to do so for the last couple because I’ve been so busy with Fifteen Minutes. This year I specifically set aside some time. I do think that if you practice any craft you should examine the way the masters work. If you were studying art you’d look at Picasso’s methods or DaVinci or Monet as a short story practitioner I find it extremely helpful to look at great writers in depth and try to work out how they do it. I really enjoyed researching and writing my feature for Thresholds and it certainly paid off – the shortlist is published on April 23rd so fingers crossed, I’m in very good company on the longlist.

Last night I was part of a panel event at Brighton Waterstones on crowdfunding with Unbound. Editor In Chief Mathew Clayton chaired and also on the panel were fellow Unbounders Lulu Allison and Pierre Hollins. It was a lovely evening, not least because it was about the books rather than funding or promoting them, Mathew got us all to talk about how and why we’d written them, the audience asked questions and bought books and there was a little wine. Brighton Waterstones are brilliant at events, they host loads of different authors so keep an eye out for what’s on next. A big thank you to Richard and the team there even if we don’t agree on The Dry!

Also this week three excellent reviews for Fifteen Minutes. It’s so nice when people like your work but it’s even more rewarding when the reviews show that they know exactly what you are aiming for and fully appreciate it. Please have a look at them here.

http://thresholds.chi.ac.uk/when-will-i-be-famous/

https://www.theshortstory.co.uk/the-short-story-review-fifteen-minutes-by-erinna-mettler/

https://storgy.com/2018/04/07/book-review-fifteen-minutes-by-erinna-mettler/

Don’t forget to vote!

Saboteur

 

 

The Problem With The Frida Doll

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The sun sets on International Women’s Day with the news that when toy maker Mattel launched their set of inspiring women dolls on Tuesday they hadn’t asked the Kahlo family for permission to use the painter’s image. The Frida doll was authorized by the Frida Kahlo Corporation. Mattel issued the following statement;

Mattel has worked in close partnership with the Frida Kahlo Corporation, the owner of all rights related to the name and identity of Frida Kahlo, on the creation of this doll. In addition to the Frida Kahlo Corporation being an important part of the doll development process, we have their permission and a legally binding agreement to make a doll in the likeness of the great Frida Kahlo.”

There has long been an ongoing argument between the corporation and the family about the commercialization of the Kahlo image. While there is no suggestion here that Mattel have done anything illegal, it might have been politic to ask Kahlo’s descendants what they thought about it.

When I first heard about the doll I thought, ‘great, where can I get one?’ I am the proud owner of a pair of Frida Kahlo socks after all. The range, which also has the sub-branding ‘Shero’ (cringe), includes snowboarder Chloe Kim, Amelia Earhart and British boxer Nicola Adams. All the dolls in the range are skinny armed, even Adams who is very evidently muscled in reality. This is my problem with the Frida doll, putting aside the fact that she was a Communist and would not take kindly to being commoditised in this way, it looks nothing like her!

frida socks

I am a disabled woman. I have had numerous surgeries and had to learn to walk over and over, my body is scarred; Kahlo has always been an inspiration to me. She was a woman who rejoiced in her difference through her art. She painted the casts she had to wear to straighten her back; she revisited the tram accident and the spearing handrail hundreds of times in her paintings. Many photographs of Kahlo show her seated, sometimes in a wheelchair, sometimes lying in bed undergoing one of the long periods of rest that were part of her recovery before the next surgery. In the photographs where she is standing, she is often leaning against something, a wall, Diego, her face is impassive, a look I know well because what she is doing is holding back the pain in order to stand. This anorexic prettified plastic is an affront. Kahlo’s great niece, Mara Romero had this to say;

“I would have liked the doll to have traits more like Frida’s, not this doll with light-coloured eyes.”

If the Kahlo Foundation was as involved as they say they were they should be ashamed; this doll is about as far removed from Kahlo as it is possible to be. I cannot comment on the ethnicity of the doll, there are many women far more qualified than I am to do so, but anyone who paints out Frida’s mono-brow is surely missing the point of her strength entirely.

The BBC article on the row with a picture of the doll is here, the relevant page on the Mattel website is down.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-43339428

 

A Story For International Women’s Day

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I wrote this story some time ago and a version of it is included in my new collection, 15 Minutes. The premise of 15 Minutes is to look at ordinary people in the midst of a world of celebrity. Ruby is the sort of woman who is overlooked in age, who used to be noticed because of her looks but is now almost invisible. A woman who works hard in spite of misfortune. Also, I really want the Lego diner pictured here because it is basically this story in brick form! Happy International Women’s Day everyone.

RUBY OF THE DESERT

Ruby was just 16 when Mr Simms built the Coyote Diner on the edge of town, where Main Street seamlessly transforms into Route 58. The town was small and perpetually covered with a thin layer of pale desert dust, as if it had been kept in storage for a long, long time. Entertainment was one bar on the outskirts, frequented by drunks and farmhands, and no place for kids or women. The excitement among the bored backyard teenagers grew with the building site, as out-of-town workmen levelled the one-pump gas station and erected eatery Eden. The kids watched its progress from porches and pushbikes, standing in huddles to gawp at the passing trucks and rising walls and speculate on how the place would look when it was finished. It was 1962, and those workmen left behind more than just a building, they left the tiny dirt-track town the much-needed hope of rock ’n’ roll glamour (and more than one illegitimate child).

Ruby went to see Mr Simms before the work was completed, the main shell having been constructed but the inside not yet beautified. She peered through the glass door, still with its protective plastic, and watched him scan the local paper and slurp back coffee. He was a big, grey-haired Texan, complete with the regulation Stetson and spurs, even though his Chevrolet Impala was parked outside.

Men were a mystery to Ruby. Her daddy had left when she was nine – preferring hard liquor and gambling to providing for a family – and then it was just her and her momma, who spent her life sitting silently on the porch in her rocking chair, mending the town’s clothes for a meagre living. From this spot Ruby’s momma squinted at the desert, which stretched out between the peaks punctuating the town, as if she were waiting for somebody to ride over the horizon. Somebody she knew, deep down, would never come. Money was tight. Sometimes Ruby dreamt of going to Vegas and winning big on the gaming tables she’d seen in the movies so that she and her momma wouldn’t want for anything. Whenever she mentioned this, her momma would reply that ‘money was better when it was earned’ and that Ruby should ‘concentrate on her studies instead of spending her time daydreaming about things she’d never have.’ Ruby never was one for schooling. Her momma was right, she did spend most of her time in the classroom gazing out of the window, the teachers’ words getting lost in the mist of her daydreams. She wouldn’t ever be college material, but she did have the savvy to walk up to the Coyote’s door before any of the other girls in town and ask for a job. She stood a good while at that door before Mr Simms got the feeling he was being watched and spilt his coffee on himself as he started up and beckoned her in. As soon as she stepped over the threshold she knew she belonged.

In 1962 the Coyote seated a hundred and fifty. It had the smooth chrome lines of an express train complemented by deep red leather booths and bar stools. Each table had a mini jukebox, ensuring that the music was always on. When Ruby arrived for her first day, in her short pink uniform and regulation lipstick, the Tornados blasted through the outdoor speakers and grease monkeys in newly pressed overalls tuned up cars on the parking lot. They stopped and whistled as she passed and she felt more like she was in an Elvis movie than starting work in her home town.

In the back room, in a fog of competing perfumes, the girls fixed their make-up and hair for the grand opening. Ruby knew a couple of them – Cherry, Marlene – but mostly they were from out of town, and Ruby blushed with pride when they complimented her on her legs as she tied the laces of her roller skates. They became the sisters she never had and Chet, the grill cook with movie-star looks, became her first husband, though none of them knew what they would mean to each other on that first day. Back then, they shared an unconscious immortality, certain only that the next day would be better than the last.

The Coyote’s fame spread. The last stop before the desert, it drew customers from far and wide on their way to the natural wonders of the valley. It was also the place to hang out if you were young and looking for love. Ruby was its star, a whizz on roller skates, Mr Simms’s favourite girl, popular with customers and co-workers alike. It was no wonder; she was very striking, tall and thin with the friendliest of ice-cream smiles. Her hair flowed in unruly auburn curls that kept coming loose from the bobby pins she used to keep them up. She considered it her best feature, even if it did smell of burger grease.

 

All that was nearly 50 years ago; and on almost every day since – barring the few taken for funerals, childbirth and holidays – Ruby has looked out across the parking lot to the desert at sunset. There is a particular moment she likes best, when dusk begins to dissolve into night and the sun tucks itself beneath the covers of the horizon. She always takes a minute to stand and watch its progress, awestruck as the orange light casts lengthening cactus shadows across the plain. The Coyote’s vast windows give her the full Panavision experience. In these moments, she feels at one with the world. Today is the last day she will witness this spectacle as a waitress and she has a lump in her throat as she watches a lone car move slowly away towards the infinite.

From her first day at the Coyote, Ruby remembered everybody’s name. It came naturally to her, as if the brainpower needed to retain all the arithmetic and fancy words in school was just waiting for a purpose. She added up cheques in her head and remembered the favourite dishes of her customers, even if they had only visited once or twice. If folks were new to town, she greeted them warmly as they settled into a booth and made sure to ask how they were doing. Sometimes it was hard. Sometimes her heart felt like it would break. In her time at the Coyote, she has gone through two husbands (and her fair share of lovers). Chet ran off with another waitress after 10 years together. Her second husband, a refined older man named Mitch, died of lung cancer a few years after they wed. Each left her a son, Eddie and little Mitchell. Even when they were babies she managed to work full time, night shifts and afternoons, leaving them with their gramma until they were old enough for school. Later, they came to the diner after class and Mr Simms always gave them a jawbreaker while they picked something from the menu for supper and did their homework in the back room. Mr Simms was a sympathetic boss, more like a grandaddy to her boys. He said they were as cute as pie with their mother’s red hair and Opie Griffith freckles and he taught them their first magic tricks, and then poker, over the counter as Ruby worked.

Mitchell was killed in Iraq. He was 29. They flew him home in a coffin wrapped in the stars and stripes. The army presented her with the flag at the funeral. A young man with a straight back and a square jaw placed it on her upturned hands and then saluted her. She had no tears left to cry. She keeps Mitchell’s flag folded in her dresser drawer, out of sight but never quite out of mind.

 

Eddie didn’t cope too well. He got deep into to drugs, and the crimes that go with them, and ended up with a 15-year prison sentence for armed robbery. Neither son had married. There are no grandkiddies to dote on. Eddie isn’t young any more; his red hair was shaved to the skin last time she visited and his face was puffy and grey. Ruby wishes she could visit him more often but he’s in a cross-state penitentiary and the bus fare is more than she can afford. That’s her business though. The customers don’t need to know about her personal dramas. For them, she has only a smile and a few words of encouragement when it looks like they might be suffering.

In the 1970s the music changed. Approaching 30, Ruby adapted her roller-skating technique, swishing in time to heavy disco beats with a tray poised preternaturally on one hand. The diner still buzzed and Ruby still wore her smile. Mr Simms bought a new sign; as well as the original roller-skating coyote he had the words Ruby of the Desert added in flashing red neon. He said he wanted people to see the place as they drove across the plain at night. He said that Ruby deserved recognition for all the years’ service she’d put in. Ruby was speechless. She stood below the sign and squeezed Mr Simms’s arm as the electrician flicked the switch for the first time and bathed them in a scarlet glow. Sometimes (and this was one of those times) she wondered if Mr Simms wanted more from her than friendship, but if he did, he never said anything about it. He watched her work her way through a few of the Coyote’s regulars, and some of those passing through, and he never judged her, never told her to stop. He was more than 20 years older than her and she didn’t want to offend him by suggesting his motives were anything but honourable. When she looked back on her life in the cold, lonely nights of old age she figured that if Mr Simms had wanted more it would have been below that neon sign that he would’ve told her.

The sands seemed to shift under Ruby’s feet in the 1970s. Most of the original Coyote girls had left, married or gone South to seek fame and fortune. Ruby was older than the new girls and more like a mother than a sister. She gave them advice when they had man trouble – God knows she’d had enough herself – and provided a shoulder to cry on when they needed it. Mr Simms looked after her; made sure she was eating right and had enough shifts to pay the rent. She thought of him as the father she never had, another bond unspoken but acknowledged in the cheery ‘Mornin’, how are you?’ they exchanged each day. When Ruby’s momma passed he paid for the funeral and afterwards sat with her until dawn sharing bourbon and memories.

***

Another decade passed under the unforgiving desert sun and Ruby’s skin began to wrinkle. She had good genes but the laughter lines ran deep, turning her mouth down at the edges so, unless she was fully smiling, she carried an air of sadness about her. She still loved her job, though it wasn’t the same after Mr Simms had his heart attack. Right there in the spot she’d first seen him, almost 30 years to the day. He slumped to the floor and his coffee spilt on the table, seeping into his newspaper and blurring all the stories into one. The Coyote passed to a nephew, who never came near, and the management of the place was taken over by a young man called Gregory, who had a sour face and a silent manner. A Starbucks opened on Main Street and a drive-thru McDonald’s across the road. People wanted their food fast. Custom dwindled quickly and within a year of Mr Simms death half of the booth space in the Coyote was given over to slot machines. The music was turned way down.

***

Today, Ruby shows her replacement the ropes. Carmine is her name; it doesn’t suit her. She is a tiny, mousy thing with glasses and acne, just out of school. She has to be shown how the staff lockers work several times. God knows how she’ll cope out front, but that’s not Ruby’s problem any more. At least the roller skates have long been replaced by sensible sneakers, rubber-soled so as not to mark the floor. As Carmine stows her outdoor shoes in her locker, Ruby looks at herself in the back-room mirror. She smoothes her hands over her belly, noting how her uniform stretches across her bulging middle, and then touches the tight grey perm peeking from under her hat. The auburn curls are gone. For some time now she has been squinting at her order pad through bifocal lenses. Her smile is the same though, a little puckered around the edges maybe, but still as radiant as a desert morning.

 

Ruby’s last order is a rush. At 6.30 the door is opened by a stranger wearing blue jeans and a pressed white shirt. She saw his pick-up drive in from the valley, sunlight reflecting off the wing mirrors like fallen stars. It’s unusual to see an unfamiliar face at the Coyote these days. He carries a Stetson and, though he bears no physical resemblance to Mr Simms (he’s too short and dark), he reminds Ruby a great deal of her former boss – perhaps it’s his soft Texan accent and twinkling eyes. He orders coffee and blueberry pancakes with canned cream and, as she pours, Ruby asks on the off chance if he is related to Mr Simms. ‘Wouldn’t that be something on my last day?’ she says. But the stranger smiles and tells her he’s just passing through and there’s no connection at all. Ruby is as attentive as ever but her co-workers spring a Happy Retirement cake on her so she doesn’t have as much time to talk to him as she would like. Gregory – now middle-aged but no more communicative – makes a short, embarrassed speech about her being their longest-serving employee. There is applause and tears and they present her with their gift – a china model of a cowgirl riding bareback. It’s pretty, hand-painted, with fine detail on the long red curls sticking out under the cowgirl’s hat. Perhaps they thought it looked like her in the old photographs that now adorn the Coyote’s walls. It’s a lovely gift, planned, thoughtful and completely useless. Ruby hides her disappointment under her usual enormous smile. A Greyhound pass was what she wanted, so she could visit Eddie more often. She was sure she had dropped enough hints.

After the party, she places her cowgirl safely under the counter and insists on clearing her last table. The Texan is long gone. He smiled and tipped his hat to her during the celebrations. She watched him walk to his car as the waitresses set off party poppers and sang ‘For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow’. Ruby pocketed his tip with barely a glance, assuming from his smile that it was a more than generous note. She goes out for a farewell beer with her colleagues, knowing she will see them rarely. She doesn’t think she could bear to come back as a customer. The Coyote is as much her diner as it is anyone’s; it wouldn’t be right to be waited on.

It is only when she is home, sitting alone in front of the TV rubbing her stockinged feet,  that her mind returns to the tip. She sits up and fishes into her coverall pocket. She is surprised to find that the folded paper in her palm isn’t the twenty-dollar bill she was expecting but a lottery ticket for that night’s county draw. She thinks about her momma, sitting on the porch mending clothes, telling her that money is better when it’s earned. She remembers her teenage dream of winning big in Vegas, a city her momma never got to visit. A smile crosses her lips as she reaches for the TV remote and changes the channel just in time to catch the jackpot draw.

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Snowmageddon!

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As we’re all snowed in, well in Brighton there is less than a centimetre but it still counts, I thought I’d post my short story about snow, Footprints. I wanted to write a traditional English ghost story and it really works best read aloud in a warm candle-lit pub – but as none of you can get out…

FOOTPRINTS by Erinna Mettler

The blizzard resulted in a lock-in. The Druid’s Head was at the edge of the village, a good half a mile away from the first houses. At eleven Ryan, its landlord, looked out of the window at the thickly falling snow and declared we’d all freeze to death if we tried to walk home.  Settled by the fire with freshly poured pints, someone said we should pass the time telling ghost stories. And so, as the blizzard rattled at the windows, five grown men set about trying to scare each other silly.

Most of the tales were bad movies re-located to the Devon countryside, deaths foreseen, cannibal farmers, The Dartmoor Witch Project and Ryan’s nonsense about the poltergeist that drinks all his profits. No-one was in the slightest bit frightened, but it was fun and even as the snow stopped, we lingered, reluctant to leave the cosy camaraderie and trudge home in deep snow. The hours passed with each story. Beer flowed, heads became fuzzy, words slurred. Alex, our local teacher, went last. He’d been reluctant to join in when normally you couldn’t shut him up.

‘There is one story I could tell,’ he said when pressed, ‘it happened right here in this pub, well outside anyhow.’  He looked over at Ryan who was tidying the bar. ‘Years before you took it over.’

‘Go on then Alex,’ said Ryan sceptically, ‘do your worst.’

Alex put down his pint and began his tale with an earnest expression.

‘I was eighteen. I worked here then for the owners, Marianne and Valentin Fomitch. They were a bit weird. He was Russian, if you can believe it, and she was a hippy. Valentin always wore purple – cords and a poncho usually – and he had piercing green eyes, long grey hair, a pointy beard and a pentagram tattooed on his neck. Marianne floated around him in diaphanous dresses and hardly spoke. Valentin was so brusque he quickly alienated himself from the village. He refused to pay bills for honest work, barred regular customers and was generally as rude as he could be, so hardly anyone came in here in those days. They probably didn’t need me here at all but Valentin was always taking off for days at a time and said he wanted a man around.’

‘But you’d do, eh?’ interrupted Ryan.

We shushed him crossly, eager for Alex to go on, for as you can see he had a way of telling tales.

‘There was a lot of gossip about where Valentin went and what he did when he got there. My brother Denny, who was prone to a little night wandering himself, said he’d seen Valentin in the woods at full moon carrying out some sort of naked ritual with a dead deer and a hunting knife. He’d heard the deer’s squeals and hidden in the trees to watch. He said he was sure Valentin had seen him, that he stopped mid stab with the knife held high and turned to look in his direction. It creeped him out so much he didn’t go poaching again for months – not until he was sure he wouldn’t run into our Russian friend again.

This one night, Valentin came back almost as soon as he’d set off because a blizzard had suddenly blown up, much like this one.  At 10 o’clock, when the snow had stopped and there still weren’t any customers he said I could go. As I went to the door it crashed open and a man ran inside. He rushed up to the bar and looked over his shoulder as if he expected someone to follow him inside, but all that came in was the wind and a cloud of powdery snow.  He was young man, trendy and not at all dressed for a blizzard. He wore a thin suit jacket, jeans and sneakers not even gloves or a scarf. He was soaked through. Snow clung to his clothes in clumps that he began to brush away as if it were alive. He was jittery alright; when I shut the door he nearly jumped out of his skin then held his hand to his heart. His upper-class voice shook as he spoke to Valentin.

‘Do you have a phone? Damn car’s broken down – a couple of miles back.  Completely dead.’

Valentin nodded tersely at the pay phone by the window but when the man saw what he meant, he hesitated.

‘Don’t suppose I could have a drink first?’ he said glancing nervously at the door. ‘Had a bit of a shock, need something to steady the nerves.’

Valentin made no attempt to serve him so I went back behind the bar and poured him a brandy. He downed it in one, his hand quivering as he put down the glass.

‘What happened,’ I asked, ‘did you hit something?’

I figured he must have run over an animal in the snow, you know what mess a deer can make.

He shook his head.

‘Damnedest thing. I’m lost. Must’ve taken a wrong turn and then couldn’t find my way back to the main road, drove through the snow for an hour at least. The car gave out in the middle of a wood.’

Marianne moved over to Valentin and hung onto his arm, pale and wide-eyed like a frightened child.

Our guest went on, words rattling from him like hailstones.

‘Everything died instantly. Engine. Lights. Radio. The snow had stopped so I decided to walk up the road, thought I must be near a village, or a house at least, and that I’d freeze if I stayed in the car. City boy you see, no food or blanket in the boot. The clouds had cleared and moon was bright so I knew I’d be able to see the way. I stepped out onto snow a foot deep. I hadn’t passed any houses for miles so I decided to go on into new territory and walked away from the car.

A few yards along the road, I realised there was another set of prints beside me. I don’t mean that someone had walked up there before I had – I mean another set of footprints was being made next to mine as I walked. I could see the snow depress as my feet sank into it just as if someone were walking along with me but – there was no one there.’

He shook his head again and frowned.

‘I stopped and they stopped.  It sounds crazy I know. There was nothing special about them. They looked like human footprints; a man’s shoes but with a long pointed toe. I looked behind me and saw that they started by the car as if someone else had got out of it when I did. I stood for a while trying to make sense of it and then I heard the breathing – quick, and in time with my own but very definitely not mine. Then I saw the vapour.

Well, I didn’t hang about, practically ran the all the way here, fell over a few times – that’s why I’m covered in snow. My ‘companion’ matched my pace right up to your door.’

At this point Ryan knocked over a half empty glass, splattering its contents over the bar onto the stone floor. We all turned to him and tutted, but he just laughed and came to our side of the bar with a mop and started to dab away at the mess.

‘If I may?’ said Alex.

‘Don’t mind me,’ Ryan smirked, squelching the tiles with the mop.

Alex sighed and carried on.

‘I poured the stranger another drink and this time he sipped it. Valentin and Marianne didn’t move.

The man laughed softly. ‘Must have snow fever,’ he said.

Warmed and fortified by the brandy he called the AA from the payphone, taking care not to look out of the window while he talked.

They took a couple of hours to reach us. I sat with him while he waited. He was a nice chap. His name was Sebastian and he was a record producer down to work at some pop star’s country house. I played bass in a band back then so we talked about music. By the end of the wait we’d decided that his mind must have been playing tricks on him, that logically there couldn’t have been another set of footprints, that the woods and the full moon on the snow must have worked their magic on his imagination. I even went outside to look, just to make sure. I looked up and down the road as he stood in the doorway – there was only one set of prints in the snow. Sebastian seemed to relax after that, put the whole incident down to tiredness and the effects of the blizzard. I told him I was going to study in London the following year and he gave me his number; said he’d show me around his studio when I got there.

Valentin and Marianne didn’t speak to him once. Barely even looked at him. But they didn’t go to bed either – they just sat in a booth away from the fire whispering to each other.

The AA phoned back and said they were waiting by Sebastian’s car.  I left with him and Valentin closed the door behind us. As he bolted it I thought I’d heard Marianne say,

‘Valentin, for pity’s sake.’

Outside, the snow seemed to reflect the stars above, glowing like diamonds in the moonlight. I shook Sebastian’s hand in farewell as I was going right into the village and he was going in the other direction – back towards the wood.

For a moment I wondered if I should go with him, but it would have been silly to walk him to his car and then to have to walk all the way back again. I looked over my shoulder at him when he was on his way, and for a second I could’ve sworn I saw another set of footprints beside his own and heard the double creak of decompressing snow.’

Ryan rubbed a glass quickly with his tea-towel so it squeaked and everyone looked in his direction and laughed nervously.

‘What happened to Valentin and Marianne?’

‘Never saw them again – they did a moon-light flit. The pub was locked up for months until the new owners arrived. The estate agent said there was all sorts of weird stuff left in here, black candles and voodoo dolls, symbols drawn on the floors upstairs. Funny,’ he said looking at Ryan, ‘but people don’t seem to stay here long – maybe there’s something in your poltergeist story after all.’

We looked at each other as they clock ticked loudly and the hairs raised on my forearms despite the heat of the fire.

‘What about the guy,’ I asked. ‘Sebastian? Was he okay?’

‘As far as I know he met the AA and went back to London. They didn’t fix the car though; my brother saw it the next day and it stayed by the roadside for a week before someone towed it away. It was odd, but there was no story in the local paper, no missing person reports or police investigation so, after a while, I just forgot about it.’

‘You called him though, when you got to London?’

Alex looked at the floor.

‘No, No I didn’t.’ He mumbled. ‘I never dared to.’

‘Even though he was a record producer and you were in a band?’

‘I thought about it a lot but was I scared. What if I called and found out he was missing, last seen in Devon? But I have always wondered…’ he swigged at his beer, ‘if there was another set of footprints in the snow, what kind of being was it that could have made them?’

Everyone was silent for a while, the only noise the spitting of the fire and the wind shaking the windows.

Clyde, the policeman, spoke first. He quickly finished his drink and said, ‘that’s me done.’

‘Yeah, me to‘And me.’

‘And me.’

And in a flurry of coats and downed drinks we all said goodnight to Ryan – who bolted the door quickly behind us – and were soon standing outside on the thick glistening snow as the wind wailed up the lane. We turned right to walk into the village and I pulled my coat around me, surreptitiously looking back over my shoulder so the boys wouldn’t see me do it and take the piss. What I saw stopped me in my tracks. I pulled at Clyde’s sleeve and we stood and watched them moving after the others through the snow – footprints with no owner.

THE END

snow Feb 2018

A Short Story Thread

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