Jessica E. Wragg

Tag: new writers

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.

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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.

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.