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Poetry & Art

Thirty-five

images click up, like an old slide show on a projector screen: grainy snapshots encased in a flicker of light

there’s a little girl, must be about five or six, half-naked and kneeling on a kitchen chair, blowing out yellow and white candles on a triceratops cake covered in that thick, sickly icing; her younger brother is trying to blow them out with her

the same girl a year or two later, wavy chestnut hair down to her backside; she’s opening presents on the floor dressed in a jewel green dress with puffy sleeves trimmed with white lace, the one that makes her feel like a princess

fast forward another few years, she’s a teenager with awkward brace smiles and round glasses that don’t suit her face and make her huge brown eyes look a lot smaller than they are

here’s another memory, at twenty: she’s had her hair cropped and gelled spiky after a disastrous incident at the hairdresser’s but it’ll grow back quickly; she wears contacts now and she’s with her friends at the bus stop waiting to go on the lash in town; it’s raining but they’ll have fun anyway

five years later she’s in Girona, somewhere she hadn’t even heard of before her year abroad, and she’s very tanned; she’s blowing out candles again, a big fat red two and a big fat red five, on a birthday tart – not a cake – made with apple and caramelised sugar and there are many people around, her adopted family, because when you’re abroad and lonely and don’t fully speak the language you need support so you become very close with friends until they become people you don’t know how you made it through life without them

for her thirtieth she invites her family to celebrate it in Girona, so they can see her life here, her friends, her local watering holes, the relaxed chattering atmosphere of dinner on a terrace even in October; when her aunt and father have gone back home for the night, she and her younger brother (her older one couldn’t make it, he was in Montreal) demolish kebabs in the middle of the old town then go have cocktails in a dingy jazz club overly fond of red velvet cushions

the following year she forgets it’s her birthday until the messages flood in – it’s referendum day and the Spanish government have sent in armed forces to beat up citizens wanting to put a piece of paper in a ballot box (and they say Spain is a democracy) and there’s a hell of a lotta noise outside at the schools she’s sandwiched between, there’s chanting and shouting and screaming, so she leaps up to go take pictures and videos of history in motion; there’s blood on the streets and on people’s faces: Rajoy, you inhuman fuckwit

then she turns thirty-four in the middle of the covid pandemic and she’s lucky to even be able to go out at all – sensibly, mind, following all precautions – and chooses to go to a restaurant with her partner who spends his time on his phone, which makes her feel inadequate and dull and unloved; the night after, she goes out with her friends and they knock back tequila shots and she has a splendid time dancing to records in David’s flat in front of his collection of skateboards hung carefully on the wall

and during all these birthdays not once did she feel such a feeling of dread as she feels today

 

 

Cora

wakes up before her alarm

stares up at the ceiling as she registers a heavy lump squatting in her stomach, the lump of turning thirty-five and the lump of feeling inconsequential and invisible as a single droplet of rain, in short, the lump of being a nobody

she can’t see anything – she’s practically blind until she puts on her glasses, plus only a dim greyish light enters the bedroom – but she knows there’s a small crack up in the corner and a stain where she squashed a mosquito that was clearly going to suck her blood and make her skin itch like crazy; she heaves herself onto one elbow and reaches over with the other hand to slide her glasses onto her face

now she can see

but what she sees in the mirror opposite is a tangle of sheets and a mess of bleached hair falling out of its plait

mess mess mess everything’s a mess

her alarm startles her with its upbeat tinkling cajoling her to wake up, time to get your ass ready for work, but she already booked a day off because she didn’t want anyone finding out this year it’s her birthday, can’t deal with the well wishes and the surprise and comments of why didn’t you say anything?

it’s a new job

she just started a month ago but the company is young and modern and didn’t seem to mind her taking a day off so soon – she’s worked hard to learn everything quickly, even though she doesn’t have a Marketing background; why would she?

she’s been an English teacher for the past decade, teaching lovely retired folk who want to improve their conversation, young students who need it for their degrees, and kids who would rather be running around outside than learning about the third person singular; it’s just the parents need them to be kept somewhere until iaia and avi can pick them up (mama and papa are working till eight, carinyo) and has the added benefit that English is a language they all need to know

Cora

swings her legs out of bed and swipes the alarm off

her phone, when she unlocks it, notifies her that she already has four WhatsApp messages and seven birthday wishes on Facebook

she ignores them

or better said she tosses her phone onto the bed as she gets up to pee

it’s still the routine of every day; it’s the first thing she has do before then padding through into the kitchen, on the mottled cream tiles, to stick the kettle on for a cup of instant coffee, which most people find disgusting but to her it’s just a caffeine dose to wake her up

after flushing the ridiculously noisy toilet, she does exactly this and plonks herself down on the sofa next to a pile of best-selling novels and a balled up cardigan she just dumped after work yesterday

the translation work isn’t making her as happy as she’d hoped: eight hours a day sitting at a computer screen is killing her, slowly killing her from the inside out, surrounded by constantly ringing phones and clacking keys and messages popping up on the internal messenger service with new tasks – always under pressure, never moving, sometimes not even going to the bathroom because something needs doing asap, like videos posted to YouTube or the reels for Instagram (not part of the deal, nor was customer service) – and it’s already wreaking havoc on her health

not even the walks or yoga do much to help

anxiety stalks her like a hungry predator, coiling up through the cables connecting her laptop (no, not hers, the work laptop) to the screens and in through her pupils

plugged in, trapped

at her desk – she wants to scream and tear them all out and run into the outside world where there’s at least natural light and greenery

now, she stares out the huge windows that overlook the schools and the mountains in the distance and sips her milky coffee from a mug her next-door neighbour bought her, a mug which has in swirly black letters: Good coffee is a pleasure, good friends are a treasure

normally, this sort of stuff irritates her – it’s so trite – but because it was a gift from someone special, she doesn’t mind it

Cora

picks at the skin around her flaky nails, wondering how she’s going to get through the day, the weekend, life; there are moments when she wishes she could sleep for days at a time, never moving from bed, just protected by warm fug and partial oblivion

or that time would stop so she can regain strength

or for some kind of light accident to put her in hospital for a week, just so she can be looked after for once

or sometimes even worse ideas that make her feel horribly guilty and ashamed

she’s learned to let these thoughts come and go – stopping them is too draining and, quite frankly, futile, so it’s best to let them swim through her mind like a dark slithering sea creature through murky water, take a little nibble of her rather than great chunks, before it disappears into the depths for an indeterminate length of time

who knows when it will surface again?

she drains her cup, places it on the coaster that her niece made her and watches a lone milky brown droplet dribble its way down the side

lone

alone

there’s no one else in the flat now

Dani moved out about two months ago when they had a discussion about where their lives were going – she wanted marriage and kids; he was adamant that neither was an option for him

no compromise

she was at least prepared to give up one of those

so that was that

back to a life of singledom, which admittedly does have its perks: no one waking her up in the middle of the night for sex; being able to arrange her coloured plastic glasses the way she wants; having her own artwork on the walls; pictures from her niece and nephew on the fridge; not having to do the washing up immediately after cooking while the food grows cold…

but she did love him, does still, and after three years it’s a bit of a step backwards in her life plan

and – something which is horribly unfair – her body will now start to rapidly go downhill, in terms of reproduction

biology’s a fucking bitch

society even more so

and she can’t afford to freeze her eggs (something she has actually looked into, an attempt to save a piece of youth, a piece of herself, for the future)

it isn’t helping that tomorrow she’s got a wedding to go to – she’s delighted for Mireia and Pol, of course she is; but she can’t help wondering what’s wrong with her, why hasn’t she even been able to manage one of the things she so badly wants?

it all looms over her, swells inside her like a nightmare pregnancy of failure: a job she’s desperately unhappy in, no partner, no immediate chance of having a baby

while most of the people in her group of friends seem to have good fucking lives with all she ever wanted; what exactly is the point of her?

and something

inside her

snaps

 

 

Becca sends a cute GIF to Cora once she’s dropped Eric off at nursery, who doesn’t even look back anymore but toddles off to play with the other kids quite happily

she’s glad but at the same time it tugs at her heartstrings to think he doesn’t seem to miss her at all when she goes off to work; it must mean he’s perfectly content, which is a relief

only one more day then tomorrow they’ll drive up to Girona for Mireia and Pol’s wedding; well, Ricard will drive and she’ll be in the back trying to keep Eric entertained for the two-hour journey because he doesn’t nap much any more

and she’s knackered, especially when he doesn’t sleep well, like last night and she was up for almost three hours with him because when he’s like this he only wants mummy – she doesn’t even know what ‘this’ means, Eric can sleep through the night for weeks then suddenly have a bad night and she doesn’t know if it’s bad dreams or pain or sickness or a full nappy, but she always checks his temperature and his bum, and they’re usually fine

she just hopes tonight will be a good night of sleeping, otherwise the wedding will be more of a trial than a party

yet, her heart could sing when she thinks of seeing all her friends: she misses her colla so much and there’s no one in the village here that she has such close relationships with, no one here who understands what it is to be a guiri – she sometimes feels so lonely despite being totally fluent in Catalan and Spanish

most of her friends are, she realises, the ones back in Girona

it’s a brilliant group and they were very lucky to have found each other and forged the links they did because now they’re solid, mates for life

it’s what being a foreigner in a different country does, really: your friends become your family because you don’t have your blood family with you

so who else do you turn to when you’re sick or lonely or want to celebrate something important or need help moving flat or simply want company and chat over a coffee and xuixo?

blood may well be thicker than water but it isn’t necessarily available on tap

she pulls into the driveway of the school she teaches at, queueing behind the cars already belching out parents and children from the ages of three to eleven

she loves her job: the kids are sweet and mostly well-behaved, and even if they aren’t, it’s because they’re still learning how to share, how to play, how to be with other children; perhaps one or two need more guidance than others, but usually because there’s a medical reason or some hardship is being experienced

like Guillem, whose mother died last year and now he’s very much changed from the chirpy, confident little boy he was to a withdrawn and uber shy one

Becca’s heart breaks for him and is determined to give as much guidance and help as possible

as she parks her car, she remembers telling Cora about him, she remembers the emotion on her face that screamed with compassion and grief at the thought of a child without a mother – the subject always resonates with Cora, who lost her own mother eight years ago

it’s no secret Cora yearns for a partner and child, but she’s had such bad luck with men over the years; it’s a real shame because she’s one of the most generous, wonderful, funny, intelligent, thoughtful people Becca knows, and she’s desperate for Cora to find someone worthy – Dani was the closest but he didn’t treat her as well as she deserved, so she’s quite glad they’ve split up; it will give Cora a chance of meeting a man with the same life goals who’ll truly love her and hopefully have a child together

leading her thoughts back to Guillem and

Becca shudders as the terrifying thought of something happening to herself, leaving her son without her, creeps into her head; a nightmare all parents must have

squeezing the thought out of her mind, she leaves it locked in the car so she can focus on the day

which passes in a blur of maths books, sticky fingers, rattling crayons, missing hair clips, and invented games until the bell rings and the trickle of cars turns into a stream as parents or grandparents arrive en masse to pick up their little ones

finally, Becca checks her messages and sees that Cora hasn’t seen her wishes of happy birthday

that’s odd, she thinks, frowning, Cora’s usually pretty quick at responding to messages

but perhaps she’s got plans

she heads off to pick up Eric, thinking of his peach fuzz baby skin and cheeky monkey smile as she drives the twenty minutes from the school

she misses him

 

 

the next day

Mireia wakes up full of bounce and fizz

at last, after a three-year engagement (stupid pandemic) the day has arrived: months and months of planning, of designing, of painting, of crying (with delight and frustration) because she had to change her wedding dress when she discovered she was pregnant with Celia, of sorting out tedious paperwork, of choosing wine which she can no longer drink, of tasting food, of making wedding favours with handwritten personalised notes, of staying up late at night to complete all this, have all come to fruition

and everything is perfect

from the stunning casa rural to the second-hand dried flower bouquet she’s using; even the weather is warm and golden sunny with just a light breeze

she isn’t at all superstitious but Mireia takes this as a good omen

she whispers to the little one growing inside her (and pressing on her bladder) that today will be a good day

her family in the other rooms have all come to help out and soon there’s a frantic scurrying of feet going to and fro, cousins hanging up decorations last-minute, her sister armed with hair curlers and makeup, nieces and nephews charging around in pyjamas until the last possible moment unless their parents want dirty dresses and grass-stained trousers

the caterers outside are setting up tables for a makeshift bar and clinking glasses onto trays

the dining tables and chairs were put up yesterday but now waiters are forming regimented squares with cutlery on the perfectly white table linen

favours are being placed next to the nametags

the photocall booth is arranged next to the thick swathe of trees

and the antigen station is being set up by the main gate – fingers crossed no one tests positive, otherwise they’ll have to go home

Mireia is glad that Becca has already sent her a message this morning to say they are all negative and are getting ready; attached is a photo of Eric in a shirt and clip-on bow tie – he looks adorable

the hours are sucked up into a time tornado and spat out at midday

as far as Mireia’s aware, all the guests are here, even Becca and Ricard (who have a habit of showing up late), with only one cancellation due to a stomach bug

it could have been worse

she takes her father’s arm to support herself going down the shallow stairs and allows herself a minute’s pause at the threshold of the door, taking in the buttery October sunshine

music begins to thrum from the speaker, soft guitar sounds gently threading through the whishing breeze

she takes a breath

looks at her father, who smiles proudly and sadly,

and together they step across the path to the lush green area with medlar trees where all the guests are seated or standing or, in the case of very young children, sleeping

there are whispers then whoops and cheers as Mireia walks down the grass aisle marked by rose petals and family and friends all gathered in one place to celebrate her union with the love of her life; well, one of the two loves of her life, but the other is still nestled in her belly

she places her free hand beneath the swelling

radiant

scans the faces briefly before focussing on Pol, who is gazing at her with the fullest love which now slides down his face in the form of tears – her rock when she needs steadying, her wings when she needs to fly, not her everything but the best part of everything she’s ever experienced

as Pol kisses her lips, she realises her own cheeks are wet

 

 

it takes a while for Becca to speak to Mireia, who’s now constantly surrounded by a huddle of bright colours and congratulations

but she needs to ask her if she’s had word from Cora

who seems to have

gone totally

AWOL

‘hey, congratulations!’ she says, ‘you look stunning’ and she loops her arms around the bride, careful not to squeeze too hard

‘thank you, amor, I’m so glad you could make it’

they start making their way over to the bar where Ricard has ordered himself a beer and an apple juice for Eric, who is running around a tree trunk with another boy about the same age

‘how are you feeling?’

‘like a whale and a princess in one’ Mireia laughs her distinctive laugh, hearty and infectious, ‘but no, I’m super happy’

Becca smiles

‘you look happy, and I can’t wait to meet Celia’

a group of the cousins appear from behind the curtain of photos hanging from one of the trees, giggling towards them; they look as if they want to steal away the bride for more photos so before she misses the opportunity, Becca asks

‘have you heard from Cora?’

the soft tone betrays anxiety

Mireia frowns

‘I thought I hadn’t seen her yet. No, no, I’ve not heard anything’ and inside she’s slightly annoyed because Cora also missed her hen party – a bit rude, not to mention the food that’s been ordered for her

‘she’s not picking up her phone,’ continues Becca, ‘and hasn’t been on WhatsApp for two days now.  I thought she might have said something to you; I’m getting worried’

the group has now reached them, smartphones in hands, pleas for snaps with the bride

ara vinc’ Mireia promises them

she squeezes Becca’s hand, transmitting concern and comfort

‘let’s not panic; I’m sure she’s ok but maybe she didn’t fancy coming today, with all the people’

with that, she leaves Becca in order to do the rounds

inwardly, Mireia thinks she must seem very cruel, swanning off with her family to take pictures, as if she doesn’t care; of course she does, she cares a great deal, but she also has a host’s duty to see to everyone and make sure they have a good time and aren’t in want of anything – they’ve even placed tampons, bobbles, hairspray, individual mints, and deodorant in little baskets by the sinks in the toilets

besides, how can she be on her phone when this is the one day in her life when she doesn’t have to worry about taking photos?

 

 

Cora,

meanwhile, has slipped away

hidden from the world’s eyes

even if just for a little while

now she stands barefoot on the terrace of her neighbour’s apartment in a coastal town where the family sometimes spends weekends and most of the summer; the tiles are warm from the sunshine that has been glowing down all morning

she took the train up yesterday, after stuffing some clothes in a rucksack – as long as she has clean underpants for a few days, she doesn’t care what else she puts on – and rummaging for the key in the drawer full of papers, chargers, sunglasses, and Bulgarian coins from a holiday four years ago, the spare key which was given to her because her neighbour trusts her absolutely but which she’s never used till now because she’s always gone with her neighbour

this is an emergency though

and she knows that her neighbour won’t mind at all as long as she leaves everything neat and tidy

there hadn’t been many people on the train yesterday; everyone was at work or at school so the only passengers she’d seen were two American boys, probably on their gap year if their baby faces and optimistic semi-philosophical conversations were anything to go by – the world hasn’t pummelled their dreams and high spirits to dust yet

all she did was stare out the window at the forests and buildings and mountains in the distance that melted by and try to avoid thinking too much about what was bothering her, otherwise a well of choking sorrow threatened to spill out of her eyes and onto her mask

Cora

finds herself crying a lot these days

the flat she’s staying in is very small but cosy, light, clean; it’s full of artificial plants, candles, and the works of local artists: small watercolours in soft blues and browns of Girona and a large abstract oil painting of shells (she thinks it could also be the pages of a book being flipped)

on the glass table below sits her phone full of unread messages (thirty-two on WhatsApp and fifty-seven on Facebook)

along the opposite wall is a cuboid bookcase filled with books in English, German, Spanish; above them stands a decent alcohol collection elegantly arranged across three blocks – perhaps later on she’ll have a gin and tonic

then another one

and another

keep drinking till she passes out

a way to forget that she didn’t do anything to celebrate her birthday this year

a way to forget her soul-grinding, creativity-blunting job

a way to forget her womb has a sell-by-date

a way to forget she’s alone

again

Cora

sinks

down

onto the outdoor sofa

tired with the weight of emptiness

and stares at the leaves of the lemon tree rustling in the soft breeze

the simple quivering motion a beautiful dance in nature

sunlight flickering on the soft green skin

no forced movement

 

later on arrives and she decides not to make a gin and tonic but to take a walk down to the sea

what a joy to be just ten minutes from the pebbly sand dashed across by Mediterranean waves, gulls crying out overhead, cormorants drying their wings in the late afternoon sun – they look a little like black coat-hangers, with their heads and beaks turned to one side

Cora

scrunches her toes in the sand – tiny granules of eroded rock, shells, pebbles all mixed together to create a stretch of land she now stands on

everything at war with time

what is the history of those little granules? were they a part of a huge monolith, once mighty and as one? time the enemy, time the weakener and destroyer, time and the patience of the waves created this, from huge to tiny

she felt so much bigger as a child, excited about birthday cake and parties with friends, dreams of conquering the world, but now she feels small, so small, lost amongst all the other grains of sand, slowly becoming buried

she can’t even conquer herself; how can she deal with the world?

she gazes out at the sea, the sun dipping behind her

and wonders if she walks in far enough, stays there long enough, will the sea eventually erode her until her bones also become sand on this very beach, countless people covering her with towels, lying on her, treading on her, brushing her off their skin?

Cora

takes several steps onto the damp sand and pauses

surf whooshes up the beach, swirling around her heels before curling back to the body of water

the gritty sand sucks slightly at her soles as she lifts them one at a time, an impression left for just a second, and – fully dressed – steps into the racing surf then the rolling waves

up to her thighs

up to her waist

a chill travelling all over her body

 

Cora

in the shadows

the horizon

still in the light

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by Abigail Jones

I'm currently based in Girona, Catalunya, teaching English to pay the bills. Fortunately, it's not all present simple and phrasal verbs; I got to design my own course so I can share my passion for literature by haphazardly flinging Austen, du Maurier and Zusak around the classroom to Catalan students.

When I'm not reading or scribbling, I love watching old films, painting the weird and wonderful conjurings of my brain, testing out various cheesecake recipes, and being competitive at games evenings.

My goal is to nurture this passion for writing, put it out into world, and hopefully connect with readers enough for them to say: "That's exactly how I feel."


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