The Hot House

I have been occupied with the fictional world of my novel. Some of it is inspired by my own experience as a child living abroad, but it is all fiction,  borrowing my own memories of a place, at time and a ‘micro-culture’, using it as a setting and social workshop. Stealing lives and experiences is something writers do all the time – the language of fiction is the lived human experience.

My novel is set in the Middle East  in 1965. A small colony of British families occupy a corner of a naval base, living in makeshift married quarters  amongst the working life of the armed services. Women, unused to foreign travel and the hot climate, try to make family life work in a restrictive setting with limited amenities.  There is little  contact with the local population and much ignorance about the culture of the society of their host nation. For teenagers especially, the restrictions and lack of social opportunities are frustrating and stultifying. My protagonist is a precocious teenage girl who is struggling in an environment that has no proper place for her.

I have written short stories and other pieces about this life, and find that I return to it; for me, it was an adventitious  social experiment that framed my perception of ordinary life.  Living in a confined environment brings out the essence of people. It requires them to think about what and who they are, and not simply fall into a  slot in a solidly-made social structure. It is possible to see your potential without the restraints of the expectations of your origins. Being de-contextualised can be good for a you!  Meeting strangers, one gets glimpses of the lives of those that you would not normally meet, and a chance see yourself reflected back without the safety net of home.

Some of my ‘Middle East’ writing is included in my Kindle ‘triplet’- This Heat – a short story collection of three stories , described in ‘News and Publications’. Also, you’ll find some more recent work in a recent vignette on this blog: ‘Beryl’.

I have been working with different perspectives to see what works best with the material.

Here are some extracts from my earlier stories, beginning with the one that was the title story of my collection ‘Familiar Possessions’.

Rose stood in the galvanised steel bungalow that rattled when it rained and creaked when it heated up and saw how flimsy all the furniture was and how ugly it all was and poured herself a proper drink. Then nothing here seemed to have any substance. Flimsy curtains, flimsy lampshades, flimsy shelves that fell down – all flimsy bloody flimsy. It all looked crooked, like it had been stuck on carelessly.

Peter was due in at six; he’d have a shower and change into shorts. She had collected them from the laundry yesterday with a pile of shirts and a couple of her dresses. Avril had told her about the Arab laundry when they first arrived. Rose was suspicious, never having used a laundry service before, and couldn’t believe it when it all came back beautifully washed, starched and pressed – better than she’d do it. Avril had a house-boy to clean for her too, and Rose had been tempted, but she wanted to feel that there was something worthwhile for her to do, so she polished the cheap veneer of the regulation sideboard and plumped the thin cushions on the wooden-framed suite to make it seem like she was making a home for her family.

Peter would be home in half an hour. There was a large tin of peas in the cupboard. They could have that, but the kids would probably want baked beans.

Rose went to the bathroom to freshen up. In the small mirror of the bathroom cabinet, her face looked red and puffy, her eyes swollen from crying. She took a flannel and plunged it into cold water in the sink and held it to her face, pressing the cloth into her eye sockets. She repeated this several times, until the skin of her face tingled and her vision was blurred. Then Laura started banging on the door wanting the toilet, and Rose came out from the bathroom with the wet flannel still in her hand. Fending off questions from the little girl she went into the bedroom and sat in front of the dressing table mirror seeing herself through blotchy eyesight. Her hair was sweaty and bedraggled and her clothes stained and rumpled. She found a clean dress and put it on over her slip, after applying roll-on deodorant and some scent. Taking her brush to her hair, she coiled it into a presentable chignon, fastening it with hairgrips. She went back into the bathroom and cleaned her teeth before making up her face. She cursed when her pink lipstick broke at the bottom, softened by the heat. Then she dabbed powder on her face. But in the six months she’d been here her skin had tanned and the light-coloured powder looked like a mask.

As a contrast in style, I include an extract from ‘Mrs Wetherby’, a story told from the perspective of a single man who teaches at the school for the ex-pat British kids.

Miss Penny is on playground duty. She has a clutch of little girls in her wake. She is very motherly, for all she is not married. Miss Penny is thirty and not married. It doesn’t seem to bother her.

In the staff room, Father Rattigan sprawls in the only comfortable chair. He is here to perform Mass for the Catholic children. The children like his impromptu conjuring tricks, where he takes a cigarette lighter or a comb from one of his long sleeves, or appears to remove the tip of his middle finger. He says it is a miracle; we know it is a trick. He must be hot in that black robe, but I notice his feet are bare in his sandals, but rather grimy.

‘Hello, Archibald,’ he says, leaning back into the squeaky plastic. I know what he will say next.

‘I’m sure that Miss Penny would go dancing with you if you’d give her the chance.’

‘Indeed, she might, Father.’

‘You’re not getting any younger, Archie. You should get yourself a wife.’ He has said this many times.

‘You manage well enough, Father,’ I say. ‘Chastity has done you no harm.’

‘But I’m protected and sustained by God,’ he replies, drinking out of a bottle of fizzy orange. He’s letting a draft rise up his soutane. I could wish for a draft up my trouser legs.

‘For a man like yourself, a wife’s the next best thing.’

I can hear crying from Mr Fleming’s office next door.

‘The priests believed in regular chastisement when I was at school,’ says Father Rattigan.

‘And did it encourage good behaviour, Father?’

‘Oh indeed, Archibald. But I learned that chastisement and chastity are not necessarily cause and effect.’

Father Rattigan belches slightly. ‘Oh, but the nuns could be worse, Archie, much worse. No children of their own to keep in order, they worked out their frustrations on small boys.’

There is the sound of sharp heels on the wooden veranda. In through the door from the bright outside comes Mrs Wetherby, gauzy-haloed in white linen and outlined in white corsetry beneath it. Mrs Wetherby seemingly has a solid chalk-white core.

‘You’ll be needing a drink after all that effort, Mrs Wetherby?’ Father Rattigan offers to open a bottle of mineral for her.

She flushes; I have never seen her flushed. ‘Thank you Father Rattigan, but I’ll just have water.’ She bends down to pick up a glass, and Father Rattigan is treated to a stockingless leg up to mid-thigh.

‘You’d have made a good nun, Mrs Wetherby.’ He winks at me and puts his empty bottle in a crate.

‘I’d better be off,’ he says, hauling himself to his feet. ‘Don’t forget what I said now, Archie.’

Then we are alone, and Mrs Wetherby asks, ‘Are you going to the staff meeting tomorrow, Mr Tupper?’ She sips her water.

‘Naturally,’ I say.

‘I wondered if I could ask you a favour, Archibald?’ She smiles at me, her teeth showing over her lip. They protrude slightly; just enough to stand out without it being obvious they protrude. Her light brown hair is tightly bound in a bun on top of her head. I imagine that her hair is long enough to reach halfway down her back.

‘Captain Wetherby is on duty tomorrow and I’ll not be able to get a lift as I hoped – I wondered if you’d be able to take me in your car?’

‘Of, course, Mrs Wetherby,’ I say, ‘I would gladly be of service…’

To finish, I paste on another vignette for the novel, featuring my protagonist, Catherine.

Dana

Rather than go to the Saturday matinee with the little kids, Catherine sits alone at one of the two metal tables at Shurida’s. Sally has gone to the beach with her family and Stephen. She wishes she could go somewhere, but there is nowhere on the base for a fourteen-year-old girl to go when she’s not with her family. She won’t go to the pool by herself. On the hot table top, she has a cold drink in a bottle with a scruffy label, something pink with the name ‘Dana’. There is Arabic writing too, Catherine doubts if it is the same thing in Arabic. The taste is odd, how she’d imagine lipstick should taste. Bubblegum and strawberry…? But she knows it is mostly water, she has seen the soft drinks being made at the factory. They went on a trip and saw the production line, and the Danish manager had shown them how it was done, leaving no mystery to the manufacture of ‘Dana’, ‘Lemon Zip’ and ‘Orange-O’. Just sugar and chemicals, in a spurt of coloured liquid, dashed into each empty bottle then filled up with fizzy water. Her ‘Dana’ is almost finished and the remaining portion is rapidly heating in the afternoon sun. Dana is far less appealing lukewarm. She hasn’t any more money, and the top of her head is getting hot. She thinks about going home, but does not want to. The sky is blue as her mother’s Wedgewood dish, but there is nothing for her to do, except wander around the base in places where she has no business. The sun reflects off the painted metal tabletop and she can’t rest her arms on it. She sits back in the chair, her arms in her lap. She can feel the sun penetrate the fine weave of her cotton dress.

A shadow falls across her shoulder, granting a brief shelter.

‘Hello.’

A deep voice from above, an accent she does not recognise. Looking up she sees the dark-haired man from the pool. He has clearly just been swimming – he wears shorts, but his hair is wet and he has the towel around his bare shoulders. He looks down at Catherine; she sees him shadowed against the background of the sun.

‘Can I get you another?’

Catherine looks at his face; he smiles at her, pointing at her drink. She does not speak, uncertain what response she should make. This man is not Vic. He does not look at her like she is something to eat. She opens her mouth, but her response comes out confused. Yes, no, what?

‘Catherine, isn’t it? Catherine the diver. Catherine, the girl who dives.’

His voice is melodic, attractive. She thinks he is Scottish – the ‘r’ sounds ripple on his lips.

He goes to the deep freeze and slides back the lid.

‘No more pink ones I’m afraid, will you have lemon and lime? That’s quite nice, not too sour.’

He looks at her sideways, holding up a bottle. Condensation on it drips onto the sandy soil. Catherine knows this drink as ‘Lime Pep’. It’s not one of her favourites, but she doesn’t want to say. The drink is bright green, like a wax crayon.

‘OK, thank you.’

He pays for the drinks, giving the Arab shopkeeper a note.

Catherine is not sure if it is polite for her to offer to pay for the drink. She offers to pay him back, and the man smiles.

‘I don’t expect a lady to pay for her own drink!’

Catherine feels herself blush. ‘I’m sorry, I have never had anyone buy me a drink before, except my Dad.’

The man laughs. ‘I’m Stuart, not just ‘anyone’.’

‘I’m Catherine, but you seem to know that…’

‘Your friend shouted your name loud enough for the world to hear.’

‘She can be pretty stupid.’

‘You’re a good swimmer, Catherine. Not many girls swim that well.’

The drink is sweet and sharp at the same time. She thinks of how the sweetness catches one off-guard, like the gin.

He looks at her. From the awning of the shop comes music. The notes slide around in a melody Catherine can’t fathom but finds compelling. She twiddles her tongue around the white straw in time with it.

‘Thanks, I like swimming.’

‘I could show you how to dive properly, if you’d like. I have cups for it.’ He sounds earnest, like her little brother does sometimes.

The drink catches the back of her throat, making her splutter. ‘I don’t know. People would think it funny.’

‘What people?’

‘Sally. She’s always teasing.’

‘Don’t bother over her, she’s just a kid.’

‘She’s older than me…’

‘But you’re more mature. Much more.’

He raises his drink to her, adding, ‘If you want to, that is…’

Catherine feels like something is rushing towards her, like she did when diving from the board. His irises are dark blue against the whites. He takes a long pull of his drink, practically emptying the bottle. His lips are firm and well-shaped, matching his voice.

A group of young men come towards the shop laughing and joshing. They are all in wet swimming trunks and their feet suck and flap the spongy soles of flip-flops. Some of them whistle at her and wink at Stuart. They open the freezer and clank their way through the stacked bottles of soft drinks. The Arab shopkeeper comes out and hands out cigarettes and change for crumpled notes. He looks towards Catherine. One of the other young men comes over, lighting a cigarette, and leans on Catherine’s table.

‘Trust Stuart to find the only pretty girl in town.’

He looks at Catherine, smiling and talking with the side of his mouth not occupied by the cigarette. He offers one to her but she shakes her head, he takes a sudden puff and clicks his tongue.

‘Don’t take any notice of Mitch, Catherine. He’s just teasing.’

The man laughs and says that Catherine should be careful of strange men. He goes over the freezer and chooses himself a drink. The other men are already dropping empty bottles into a crate.

Stuart gets up; placing his almost-empty bottle upon the table, the straw flattened. She can see his dark body hair curling over his skin, a small mole at his waist.

 ‘I’d better go.’

Catherine half rises, but the chair sticks to her legs and clatters to the ground, banging her ankle. She stands awkwardly, pulling her dress straight. From his position near the shop, Mitch watches her.

Catherine blurts, ‘I’d like you to show me – diving, that is… I’ll ask my mum and dad about it.’

‘Good… that’s good.’ His voice is far away, hesitant. ‘Yes, you’d better speak to your dad.’ He stands and, for a moment, he looks at her.

‘Go home, now Catherine.’

Catherine walks away – she can hear the men laughing.

The house is hot and empty when she returns. The air conditioners are not switched on.  Catherine fills a glass at the distilled water tap and washes down the residual taste of the fizzy drink. She knows that something has happened, but she isn’t sure what, and paces the living room, looking round at the everyday things. Her mother’s book, left open on the cushion, the clock they brought from England ticking on the sideboard, a thermometer set in a pottery windmill that reads 84 degrees. There is wooden bowl containing dried-up apples with ants running around the rim. On the bookshelf are the photographs of the children as babies, and a plastic tea-set of Catherine’s that she passed on to Amanda is abandoned on the coffee table.

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