Jessica E. Wragg

Tag: authors

Where were we then?

Where were we then? Not your back garden on dull coloured deck chairs, the polyester making static against the cotton on my dress. Flocks of birds scattered above us, diving left and right and then disappearing behind the canopy of red tile roofing. I had never been here before.

Where were we then? Not in your kitchen, rich herbs and spices stacked on a metal shelf near the door, my talcum powder footprints on the wood of your floor. Leant against your kitchen counter, condensation on the gin glass, sweat on my upper lip, your tiny dog sniffing at my shins. You said sorry, and I said it’s okay.

Where was I then? Not in your bathroom, naked and damp on the toilet, as I pulled wet hairs from my head and dropped them in the bathtub in the hope she might find them. The window was open, and I could see your neighbours eating bread and olives on their porch. I shuddered when I remembered, pulled an earring out and threw it behind her toiletries, and they were same ones that I had tricked myself into believing were mine.

Where were we then? Not in the bedroom that you share with her. I fingered the material of her clothes and wondered will they fit me, thought about leaving something in the pocket of her jacket – perhaps a ring. We found each other in the dark sweat marks of our bodies on your sheets, on the bruises you left on my hips. You blared smooth piano music from the speaker in the corner, and it did nothing to drown out the quiet between us, awkward conversation, pauses between full stops. The taste of you, bitter in my mouth, brittle on my face, and the white streak in my underwear. The feel of you, those moles on your shoulder like small bubbles of skin. The thought of you leaping up at the sound of the front door, leaving me cowering in your ensuite.

Where were we then? Smoking roll up cigarettes in silence, my expectation twisting our tongues, ready for you. When I asked you where I fit you said you didn’t know. It has been six months.

I found myself at last when I stop it. Tip of my tongue I stop it, stopped it before it slid from my tongue.

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We Need the Forest – Revised

The tracks of the underground train from the carriage window. Hot breeze of the last act of summer whistling beneath my blouse. Barbed wire like thumbprints and fingers and outstretched palms. No, the jungle is not the same as Streatham Hill, but the birds are just as loud.

Jealous of our travelling friends in Thailand and South America we did the best we could. Tooting Bec Common was our wilderness, that place in which we searched for things un-done, never tried, never seen. You wanted mountain-scapes, thick cities rich in colour, but instead the horizon was tower blocks behind Bedford Hill and the same church building; a thick tapestry of brown brick and a canopy of tile rooves.

We blew smoke rings, propped up by our elbows until the room filled with the thin mist of mid-morning, searched the internet for the cheapest flights to the furthest distance. We visited the aquarium and spent hours in the tropics, in the pacific, in the mangroves. We fought through the thickets of commuters going south as we travelled north and hiked the Parliament Hill. In Richmond Park we got as close to the red deer as we dared, ignored the twenty others around us snapping pictures on their smartphones, throwing a peace sign to the buck. The zoo was as close as I came to the SavaWritennah desert, or the outback of Australia.

Car exhaust on our tongues, pigeon shit, stagnant water; we turned them to spices and incense, salt water and red dry dust. Our flat was our cabin; pale floral wallpaper faded to brown, overrun by damp. We looked out onto a neat row of garages; grey, brown, black doors, blue beneath as the paint cracked off. Ten, perhaps twelve angular hatchbacks parked in front but to us they are rocks in a stream. At night, sirens turned to the chirping of crickets, and the headlamps of passing cars illuminated our window like torches. Cars that scraped their bumper on the road taking a speedbump too quickly sounded like the cracking of branches. I worried sometimes that the longing would drive us mad, you wondered if we already were. Me and you, we both fitted in quite well.

And then one night you woke me when the sun hadn’t risen yet. My eyes searched for you in the dark and found you, a figure crouched at the end of the bed. Your body bent double and your back hunched with urgency, the cool side of your hand brushed my ankle. In the black I found your face and felt the damp contours and the rolling tears. The shuffle of your canvas rucksack was soft and quiet, and when you put it on your back I could tell it was heavy from the sound you made. You kissed my hair and opened the door of the bedroom and yellow light drowned the room, blinding me. The last thing I saw was the rubber heel of your boot as your closed it again.

I lay on my back until the sun came up and waited for the birds to signal morning, climbed the tree down from the upstairs window to the forest floor. The soft gravel branches crunched beneath me and the mist hung low by the very ground. I caught a sparrow by the wing and plucked feathers from its breast, hung it by the limp feet and bit into it with a frenzy appetite until the guts dropped onto my chin. I bounced from the rocks in the stream, dipped my toe in cool water of the puddled pavement and ran barefoot over broken glass and the speedbumps. The ground shook with an underground train but to me it was the earth sighing, and when the rain fell thick it got caught in the canopy. I spoke a strange language that I didn’t understand, walked upon my hands and lost my fingernails digging in the dirt.

Wildness is a strange word, but I understand it to be me. We did our best there, in the city. Yet still, the feeling that I needed the forest and the mountains, the beaches of an island and the tongue of natives won me in the end. A life without me seemed to have won you.

Upon my body.

Take me in your hands of sugar
and kiss the tepid light, sweet
to the tongue and rhythmic on my tastebuds
like a samba dance.
Read my laughter lines and my love
lines and then tell me I’m going to die.
My life line disappears, somewhere
around my thumb.
Tell me honestly if I am sunburnt,
and I’ll let you know if I think that
you spend too much money on jeans
and beer and fast food. Peel back
the dead skin, make way for new life
upon my ankles.
Heal the scar on my kneecap with
your mouth, leave a kiss print in spit
on the joint.
My lips are dry.
My skin has stubble.
My nails are bitten.
My hands are rough, but with you
they glide softly across your back.

Origins

I wrote this piece as part of a larger project, imagining the origins of London and some of the world’s other biggest cities and the effect that human emotion could have taken on it. The environment and its decline, to me, is one of the biggest issues facing our civilisation at the moment in time, and it’s influenced a lot of my writing recently. 

————————————————————————————————————-

There is an ocean, which laps at my shoulders
softly. Prodding me, sending foam sailing across
my skin with every wave. Dull green weeds clamour
the base of my neck like a crowd at the gates.

Forcefully treading water, gently paddling the surface
for four feet deep in ten, my toes curled so as to
not catch the snuggle-tooth coral below, or perhaps the church
spire pushed from the sand like straight, proud shoulders.

And yet, for all the salt, I still taste the dead city.
The sea took it, replaced it with nothing, built water
on its rooftops, covered its head with a bed of sand hidden
between the kelp that travelled here by accident on a current.

The smell is not salt water and plastic and scum it is
saffron, jasmine, myrrh floating through the water on
a bubble of air from the deep. With every shift of
earth comes the perfume of a lost civilisation.

There is an ocean, which laps at my shoulders,
whispering a secret that I already knew. The stories
of children climbing buildings to escape the water,
their fingers scrambling on smooth marble to get higher.

Of the elderly women, so taken by the flood that they
took cups from their kitchens, scooped them up in their hands
and tried to drink it away, expectant and wrinkled fingers
grasping at the china, realising when it was too late.

It did not take minutes for the water to rise, it took
weeks, months – so long that the King himself
did not see it until he got out of bed one morning to find
his slippers not where he left them, but floating by his dresser.

Thin like matchsticks, thick like fists, buildings toppled down
like pins against a giant ball. My father told me the stories whilst
my mother hushed him through the violence. I came here first
looking for survivors but found only schools of fish. My brother

had told me that they were the people – turned into creatures
by the Gods for disobeying them but I know that they are just fish.
I know the stories too well; of a city up in flames, rotting from
the inside outwards, crumbling slowly into pieces like Sodom.

I know the stories of a city which did not see the flood until the
King had lost his rabbit fur slippers. I sometimes see them
on the horizon, still floating on the surface,
heading out in search of a new pair of feet to keep warm.

Rations

I have said ‘I love you’ seven times.

Sometimes I feel like a green glass bottle; thick, sharp, hard. A white and red label wrapped tightly around my midriff, a lot of pseudo-French words and then LOVE RESPONSIBLY stamped on the back. A red picture of a pregnant lady, a warning sign; LIMIT, DO NOT, PER DAY.

I ration myself like alcohol, like the sweet nectar of white wine enjoyed in the kissing sunlight of summer. I talk myself into extra helpings of you, savour the bites until they grow fur and mould whilst still clinging to my tongue.

I am sick of comparisons.

But you, you kiss me with your hands around the back of my neck like the brace position. Like a tumbling aircraft and a steep descent; gasping on borrowed oxygen and feeling my heart plummet into the chasm of my ribs.

You told me that you love me on the top deck of the 453 to Deptford, surrounded by Spanish schoolchildren who got on at Piccadilly and off at Trafalgar. They were loud whilst they were there, and then the silence was unbearable thereafter. I feel like you said it to fill the void. You apologised afterwards.

I looked around at the bus lamps, the orange plastic handles and the threading of the polyester seats. There was chewing gum on the floor, empty cola bottles, a Subway rapper with marinara sauce streamed across the linoleum. I was suddenly hungry and thought about dinner. I was somewhere, anywhere else but there and I could not hold your hand because my palms were too sweaty to take a grip.

You could force my face to look at you, but not my eyes. But like you’d grasped them with your fingers I couldn’t help it.

It was the second time anyone had said it back, and the first time I wanted you to have meant it.

There’s Your Problem

When you leave the hospital, the air is metallic in your mouth; on your tongue you can taste the car exhaust, the cigarette smoke, the stale rubbish rotting away in industrial sized bins. You, yourself, feel like a motor engine with cogs and gears whirring inside of you and some turn in the wrong direction with no way to fix them. The doctor talked to you as if you owned a car. There’s your problem, he said. Only one works.

Once, years ago, you saw the skeleton of the Elephant man in a museum around here and where you expected to see smooth bone you saw what looked like jagged coral on the mandible and the femur and the ulna. Your boyfriend sat down, half watching a grainy film about keyhole surgery, half listening when you told him to come and look. Look at this, you said; you wanted him to see the fifteen inch metal pole that was used as a catheter and you wanted to laugh as he, like everyone else, imagined it getting inserted into the end of their own penis.

The thought of a penis makes you scrunch up your eyes. Reproductive organs and eggs and fallopian tubes and wombs and lining and ovaries and only one works.

Over the road, as you walk past the Post Office collection point, a small boy crawls along the floor outside the underground station. You watch as his mother, phone lodged underneath her chin, stumbles frantically after him with her arms stretched outwards and her fingers just about managing to hook him from the armpits. As if flying, he is in the air, feet flailing five inches above the ground. He enjoys the feeling of hovering. When you were small, your father would put your small body in a blanket and gather up the corners in his fist. You would be in darkness for a second, making a peephole for yourself, the rough cotton smothering your skin and swaddling you like you remember as a baby. In the blanket, he would pick you up, and swing you around and you feel weightless, flying past the light wooden cupboards in the kitchen and narrowly avoiding the flat stool that rested against the ‘breakfast bar’. Your heart would feel like it was being tickled on the inside, you know now that what you felt was adrenaline and it was the same adrenaline that you felt when you found you were swinging too high and you couldn’t get back quick enough to the ground.

It is only through a younger memory that you can remember an older one; like you remember remembering.

Do you want children? He had asked you.

You thought of your mother. You thought of lying on her chest in the morning after crawling in from your own bedroom. She was warm, her nightdress a soft cotton. Her heart beat was slow, peaceful, timely. Her small eyes scrunched up in the daylight after a heavy night’s sleep, and you would often wonder how she could recognise you so early in the morning. She held you tight to her chest, and you drifted away again. When she got dressed, she would hoist on her underwear as if strapping on a parachute. Deep, straight veins of pink skin from the rubbing of her bra strap developed after a few hours; she would constantly adjust it. She told you that before you were born, her breasts had been much smaller. Your first bra fitting was with a woman who felt too handsy and gave you something you didn’t want. Young ladies wear cotton t-shirt bras, she had said, but you wanted one with a strap that would rub just like your mother’s. Somehow it signified to you what being a woman was like. Opposite the doctor you realised this was not the case.

On the way down the steps to the underground, you are met with a disgruntled rumbling of a train.

CHESHAM (Metropolitan line) 1 min.

Your oyster card does not have enough money to board. By adding five pounds you have missed your train. You feel the inside of your handbag, the photocopies. Dr Mann had printed off six sheets on a black and white printer for you; they were detailed, with diagrams and flowcharts and the first one he had handed to you was a quiz; get mostly As and you should freeze your eggs now.

Now, the platform is rumbling with the sound of two trains arriving at the same time. The breaks hiss and screech, and you watch as the doors open simultaneously, a familiar jingle as they do.

EDGWARE ROAD via VICTORIA (Circle) 3 min.

This is not your train. The doors jam shut, lock themselves. You breathe. You hate to spend time down here, in the pit right at the bottom of a staircase that ascends to the summit. You can’t stop thinking. Then, you are nervous and your heart skips a beat and it reminds you of when you used to get panic attacks. You went to therapy and you didn’t do your exercises at home. You couldn’t ride the tube because somehow it set you off. You couldn’t drink or get drunk because you didn’t feel in control and then you would go again. Therapy didn’t work. You grew out of it. Your mum bought you something from Boots. It came in a bottle with a pipette and you dropped a few drops onto your tongue and it was meant to calm you.

Princess Diana used it, your mum said.

What good did it do her, you asked. She’s dead, now.

Sssh, your mum said and scolded you. Don’t speak about her that way.

And then you wondered why all older people, mostly women, are obsessed with Princess Diana.

EDGWARE ROAD via VICTORIA (Circle line) 4 min.

This is not your train.

You pull out the leaflets in your bag; all six of them, and shift through them slowly. When someone drags their suitcase by your feet, you pull the papers away from view and wonder why you are looking through them in a train station. The colour is off; this is not black and white, this is grey. You wonder if you should call your doctor, tell him to invest in some more ink, in some office toner, in something to fix his shit printouts. You wonder how long it has been since he printed in colour.

A carriage roars in to the platform next to you, and it is only when the train begin to warn its departure that you realise that this, this is your train. You run, get your bag caught in the hungry doors, they chomp; open and close until you manage to snatch it free. As you pull away, one of your printouts flutters on the platform in the breeze. ‘FREEZE YOUR EGGS’.

The train pulls you away as though you are hovering, and you can feel yourself loosening. The carpeted seats scratch at your back through the shirt, and you cannot put your arm upon the rest because of the broad man sat beside you, but still you are easing. You are melting into the metal, re-moulding into another person on another train. You pick up the newspaper, slot your printouts into the middle in between the television guide and fold it away under your seat. The train grinds to a halt.

‘I’m sorry about the delay ladies and gentlemen, but we’re just waiting in the tunnel whilst they fix something on the train ahead. We should be on the move shortly’, he says.

And then:

‘Ah, there’s your problem! There’s a signal failure up ahead. We might be here for some time.’

Life tracks

It is not early. It is not her first.

She walks barefoot across the train tracks; the oval pads of her toes hug each jagged edge and smooth line of the pebbles that lie underneath the metal. Every so often she feels the rumble of earth as a high speed train takes the connection half a mile away. The vibrations begin softly in her feet, jiggle the fat of her calves. It careers eastwards. She is standing north.

She trembles, takes a deep breath, and begins the wait again.

She sees herself above, watching the train snake the bend, gliding quickly on rolling wheels, cutting through vast stretches of beige farmland and brown thicket, splicing the country with chrome steel and iron. Away from something, away from her.

Reluctantly, she takes the bank and heads south, crouching low in the bushes at a level crossing. The barriers are up, splayed and pointing at the sky. A single SUV with tinted windows and tired paintwork thunders through the gates and over the line, bumping up and down on hydraulic springs. She cowers in the hedgerow, hands gripped tightly around a thorned branch; smooth, glossy spikes sliding easily into her skin. Letting go, her palms speckle the white cotton of her dress.

The tracks hum lowly. In the soft light of the day, blurred in spring sunshine, small stones beneath the wires jump and kick. Her nightdress blows quickly around her legs, whipping her knobbly and boney ankles. The grasses in the field flatten, the wind picks them back up again. Somewhere, on a breeze, the song of a platform announcement sails gently in.

The 11.46 to Bedford is late. It is 12.05.

Even as a child she was surprised at the speed at which cross country trains move. There had been afternoons in the standard coach carriage; shooting through empty stations and grassland her eyes had struggled to keep up. Her tiny, sweaty palms pressed against the glass. Her mother asleep, a can of Smirnoff and lemonade crushed empty on the fold down table.

The 11.46 is slow. It creeps, crawls through the bend and northbound. Then, with a mighty whistle that she feels shake her bones the trains sprints towards her lights blazing, even in the day; one long, dark window seating two people in navy blue shirt.

She takes the moment. She turns to the wind, and she runs.

As the train careers near, she begins to run in front of it, begging it to give chase. She is dreaming, sprinting faster than she ever has, her heels bashing the backs of her thighs, kicking as much ground as possible between her and the locomotive. She hears the driver apply the breaks, pistons hissing. It is just a matter of time before the train grinds to a halt.

For now, she runs just ahead. Her breath is heavy, blood pounding within the quickening sweeps of her arms.

She has never run faster than the train. Usually it is a case of giving up, of jumping down from the tracks when she knew there was no chance of carrying on.

The train screams in protest. She can no longer feels her legs.

An ambitious leap. Her body falls on the gravel. It scrapes the skin from her calves and forearms.

Carriage A. People staring, fingers against glass, men in white shirts.

Carriage B. The buffet. A pair of train staff bookending a food cart.

Carriage C. Nothing. A whirring generator painted light blue and green.

Carriage D. Missing.

Carriage E. First class, sooty windows and a toilet spilling out on to the ground.

Carriage F. The train stops. A child stares from the lap of his mother, eyes pale and wide.

The door slams and the operator starts towards her. She scrambles to her feet and darts through the thicket. There is blood on her chest and arms. At least she knows she is alive.

The Chill Room

I can see the airs of my own breath as they spirals upwards, past my nose and in front of my face, towards the white plastic ceiling. I have never really, looked up before. In fact, to me the chill room, twenty feet by twenty feet, has no ceiling at all, but opens upwards towards the sky where the meat hangs down and the clouds sail past like twigs caught in a stream. But the ceiling is pristine; glossy white. The rails that spent their time hanging from wall to wall are five inches below it, and except for the odd stray trotter, nothing has touched the above. The opaque cream fat on the rumps of beef have started to peel away as they dry, crumbling to reveal a layer of purple meat below. As the generator whirrs thoughtlessly in the background I think of being younger; PVA glue on my fingers. Sticking drawings of bones and skulls and hearts and lungs in bright greens and blues to a board in my room, the glue would cover my fingers. I spent hours picking the dried glue off my shiny, white skin in long, thin strands, until all that was left was that beneath my nails that I couldn’t quite reach. It would stay there for days sometimes, until the cycle repeated itself and the new glue peeled off the old.

I’ve found that it is much easier for vegetarians to explain why they don’t eat meat than it is for you and me to explain why we do. A vegan companion once asked me if it mattered to me if these things used to be animals. Well yes, of course it matters, but the point is that they’re not anymore. They are upside down carcasses, loins hung from railings on thick metal hooks, headless and featherless chickens in boxes, stacked to my right and ready to be de-boned. I had discovered, a few years ago, that pushing down on the back of a chicken sent a squeaking noise out through its cavity. I would press my palm into the backbone, squealing with delight at the sound until its bones gave in and the back snapped. Then, with a swift move of the knife the breasts and the legs would be removed, and the hollow yellow carcass tossed into the top of a large blue bin.

The meat fridge is an odd place to find sanctuary. Loins of beef hang in rows like soldiers, burgundy and black, dry and mouldy. There are always appreciative coos and aahs when they see a girl with a loin of beef on her shoulder, her fingers wrapped around the bones for grip. I heard a remark once that this wasn’t a job for a woman. I kept it with me ever since, strived to be better, showed off my knowledge, used my knife as an extension of my arm, lifted things that I knew I couldn’t, did things that I did not know how.

In the summer, we came inside to cool off, put our hot faces against cry-vacked bags of chicken leg and pork schnitzel. In the past winters, we came inside to warm up.

At seven years old, my grandfather gave to me a book on human anatomy. I spent hours studying our bodies through colourful and childish illustrations, tracing them, cutting them out, learning everything by name. It is the same child that obsesses over this room.

I feel more alive here than I have ever felt. Surrounded by dead things, parts of things; ribs, legs, spines, shoulders, necks. It is here that I find myself looking at everything, ignoring nothing. Legs of pork, some salted, some not, are stacked on the shelving unit behind the deafening generator. The grey blush of their meat is pale in comparison to others, with soft lines of muscle hidden beneath thick and fatty skin. A bone, marrow exposed, in the centre of it all like earth in the universe; in a fleshy, delicate system.

Beef, when dried, grows a heavy green mould on the outside and the meat blackens. This is called ageing, and as the osmosis begins and the water from the fresh meat evaporates, the proteins break down and the meat darkens. This increases the tenderness and flavour, and the fat yellows like old teeth. There is beauty to be found in it, the grass having done its job; beauty to be found also in the maroon of lamb meat, of finding ribs that will allow the scraping of the meat away easily. I find myself appreciating skin, and the silver membranes between muscles that glint in the spotlights of the butchery, and hearts, livers, kidneys which were plucked from the body of a living thing. I suppose to find beauty in raw meat is to find beauty in the body, in the creation of it all.

And then, there are the parts that disgust me, that tighten my throat and twist my stomach – the grey tongues of oxen, pickled and left wrapped in their juices in plastic crates. They are thick set and stubborn to move, made of all muscle but cold and wet and rough. Uncovered by parting the tissues with a sharp knife; broken bones and bruised hind legs of cattle and lambs, swollen beneath the fat of the meat from a boot or a kick or a stomp.

Moving past the boxes of chicken, pushing aside a piglet hanging limp from a hook, I take a sharp knife to the pig hanging upside down from the ceiling, ribs exposed, kidneys attached. It has been cut clean down the middle, with the head removed, and still might be taller than I am when stretched out. On the fourth bone from the shoulder, holding my knife in a fist, I cut through the soft cartilage that connects the spinal column, separating the loin and the belly. With a great heave, I lift it onto my shoulder and grip the ribs for support. My fingers sink into the cold, wet muscle, and I begin my way up the stairs to the real world. My breath is faster now, spiraling upwards in clouds towards the ceiling, upwards towards the sky.

Grapefruit.

I am lying on your table; all chrome, steel, polished metal. My back is cold, slipping downstairs in my hospital gown of turquoise polyester; like a child in their mother’s clothing. Your eyes are cased behind thick lenses, magnified, large and questioning. Thick rimmed glasses. All the while I am watching your hands.

They are soft and ageing badly, tanned on the back and pale palms with yellow cuticles. You’re patting my forehead beneath the hair that I did not push away.

It is a strong blade, a sharp one. Cutting slowly you slice me in two, straight down the middle, and open me up like a grapefruit. I am glistening; my pink, red, purple innards looking upwards towards the ceiling of styrofoam squares and oddly placed light bulbs. I blink madly in the false light.

My middle is off-centre, my legs splayed outwards like the thrown down toys of a child, my stomach is a round thing. Peel back my skin – the shrill sound of cutting echoing back and forth against the plexiglass. I watch, you reach inside. Past the wet warmth of my liver and stomach, which spit like a spoon bursting the sweet flesh of an orange; bitter rind and sweet insides. You are smiling behind the cotton face mask, I am waiting for you to lick the juice from your chin.

Your Vase on my Mantlepiece

Thin like toothpicks
Thick like fists

You came from fire,
“Time are changing.”
A baby, staring up at a cotton
canopy, the centre of everything,
the beginning
of nothing. The ceaseless
stars of lightbulbs, leaves
of stitching and wood and

unforgiving photographs.
You smashed pottery on the ground,
smiling as it fell
to pieces before it landed.
You ground it by hand like
spices in a pestle. To dust.
It was so easy.

You never mentioned it again.
You would do the same
with wood if you could but
you say you can’t because of
splinters.

After 10 years of waiting
you scatter it like ashes and
make me pick it up again
piece by piece until I have
something that looks like
it could have been
might have been a vase.

The colour red, a kiss on
my hair; two cups of tea, a new
pair of jeans, a terrible
homesickness;
finding someone with my
birthday; scraping hair from
my carpet, wood
like chocolate, smooth lines
straight lines, blood from a
cut; letterpress greeting
cards, my new
winter coat.

Your vase on my mantelpiece.
I take it down during storms.