Jessica E. Wragg

Tag: experimental

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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My best friend and I, in the bathroom.

An ode to the best friendship that I have ever had. 

I am lying upon your bathroom floor, all cold stone and grouted tile, stray hairs of your flatmates caught in my fingertips and your bedroom pillow beneath my head. Staring into the spotlights my eyes well slowly, blinded by the brightness and you dim them, light a wilted candle in a vase which flickers in the movement of your towelled dressing gown.

“Don’t put your fucking foot in it.” You say, and I don’t, I move myself a few inches away and turn over whilst you get into the bath. You are a slim, small outline in the mirror. I am not supposed to see you naked, but I have, and you are wonderful.

As you lower yourself down your shoulders shiver and you grimace from the hot water and make me turn on the cold tap. I stretch to reach, I am not looking, but my face ends up dangerously close to the toilet and then to the plughole and so I roll over on to my back and let you figure it out.

And then there were are, listening to music from my phone using the grubby white bidet as an amplifier, and the bond between us seems tangible and touchable somehow as you bathe yourself and I listen to trivial details about your day, hanging on your every word as though I depended upon in, upon you, upon us. We talk about him, about her, about them, about that, and somewhere within the wet steam rising from the tub I think: how lucky I am, to be here with you.

We hold hands in the cinema, cuddle in front of the television, re-enact the sex we had with the men the night before using the cushions from your sofa, binge eat fifty pieces of fried chicken and wallow with our gorged stomachs. There is no subject too much, no small piece of stone that we would leave unturned for fear of shame or judgement.

We are two best friends, two sisters in the bathroom. Your body is my body, and my voice is your voice, and I am writing about it now only as a writer can, propelled by love and admiration, fearful that things will ever change. If I could only choose you for life, know that I would.

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. 

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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.

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.

Soup

The mincemeat was missing. Sarah searched through her bag with an outstretched hand, feeling around in the pockets, the corners, the bottom for the thing. She pulled out her scuffed leather diary, gym trainers and sanitary towels to no avail. The mincemeat had gone, along with her purse, but in that moment all that seemed to matter was the former.

Frantically, she retraced her steps back to the bus stop, scanning the floor with impatient, eager eyes for the bright supermarket carrier bag. If it had fallen, Sarah was certain that she would have heard the sound of plastic on gravel. She reached for her phone, but was was she to do? Call the bus company? Call the police? Call her mother?

In her head, she wondered if it was better to go back to Brixton and see if someone had found it, but she thought against it, bile rising in her throat at the thought of pushing through the bodies in her funeral suit, not that anyone would give up her ground beef, anyway. She was sure of it; there was nothing for her at home, nothing but the the dregs of a batch of vegetable soup in a dirty pan, still on the hob from yesterday afternoon.

She had spent too long boiling vegetables in salt water, peppering leeks, skimming the film from the top of the water every ten minutes, filling a kettle, trying to make nothing taste like something. She was sick of using the potato masher to cream the mush into a finer paste because her mother didn’t own a blender. Tired of the sickly taste of swede and carrot; wet in her mouth, the stench of cooking cabbage.  

She had bought the mincemeat at a supermarket next to the train station. It was swaddled in bland plastic casing, a pale and pallid pink the colour of too much fat, a limp and bloody piece of paper stuck to the bottom of the curled strings of meat like spaghetti or braided hair or tubes. It had been picked over by everyone’s hands but hers. A feeling had come over her not unlike that of a carnivore, and ashamed at the bloodlust she could not help but imagine the dark taste, chewing the inevitable gristle between her front teeth.

Even when the cashier scanned the barcode, Sarah did not take her hands away. She was ready, flushed of face and tense; ready to run if it proved that her maths was wrong and she did not have enough. The cashier, rough and dirty stubble beginning to appear on his thin face, illuminated by the strobe lights of the cigarette counter, seemed to anticipate Sarah’s move, and for a moment the two of them were locked in an awkward embrace via the packet of value mine until he let go at the sight of her purse. She emptied it into the palm of his hand and darted out of the doors.

She wanted something to chew. She wanted to feel textures and solids and fat and flesh and all that comes in between. She could not hear her mother, choking on the thin soup, slurping it from the spoon any more.

Avoiding the small Godly woman with a megaphone parked outside of the pharmacist, she bumped into a group of men dancing to accordion music, steaming cups of coffee on the floor by their feet. They laughed, and so did she, enamoured with the shrill shrieks of their instruments and the soft soles of their trainers bouncing on the floor. With a yank on her hand, they made her dance. She did it half-heartedly with embarrassment, swinging her handbag from side to side, whacking the hoards of passers by who were struggling to get away from the spectacle. She thought of the relief of it all, the preacher’s hands on hers, her uncle’s tears at the sight of the coffin, the pathetic flowers that lined an old and blurry photograph on a mount. She felt nothing but relief.

When she finally pulled away, Sarah stalked towards the bus stop, patting down flyaway hairs with the palms of her hands. The woman with the megaphone was louder now.

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…”

Sarah winced at the analogy, and sidled toward a group of commuters so that she could vanish amongst them. It was difficult not to make eye contact when she could not stop staring. She had put her hands over her ears to drown out the tinny voice.

`The vomit on her mother’s last day had looked just like the soup, plastered across the carpet of the bedroom floor, dripping down her chin, orange stains on her cream nightgown. She had done her very best to wipe it away, to clean up the stains, but there was very little she could have done.

The house was silent. Sarah turned on the kettle, found the last of the vegetables in the fridge and threw them into a pan. Salt, pepper, garlic. When they had boiled, she took the potato masher and did her very best. Her mother’s chair was empty, the cushions indented with the outline of her hips and legs. Sarah took the soup to it and sat down, her hands cupped around the curve of the bowl. After an hour of silence, she realised that she had let it go cold.