The story did not describe her appearance. It was written in the first person without a discernible plot, a series of encounters with her family and lovers and her husband. She sounded willowy, vulnerable, a slight figure, addressed by her husband as ‘little’, followed by some rancorous label. That was about the only clue. It read like a personal narrative, a biography, but it was fiction. As a biography the girl would be maudlin, introspective; being fictional made her vivid. The blurred boundary between fiction and reality created tension in the narration. She was a plausible victim, ensnared by unwholesome family, a dismal husband and exploitative lovers. A victim and a lover, choosing options, if she chose them, which made her unhappy. Wanting independence, made elusive by the dysfunction of the relationships she sustained, she drew the reader in.
Much of the time she was frightened. Her husband constantly criticised her, manipulated things she said to him, blamed her for anything he could contrive and was violent to objects, but not to her. Occasionally she escaped to her eccentric mother or old boy friends. Whenever an old boyfriend appeared they got drunk, went back to his flat and slept together. The story does not say whether sex happened with her husband. It must have at some point. Whenever she tried to explain to her husband that he frightened her, made her unhappy, he threw it back at her, told her she had brought it on herself. It was part of his manipulative, controlling approach to her. He knew she had nowhere else to go, no work and no money; he also knew she loved him despite the acrimony which mired the marriage. She loved him because she pitied him. There was nothing endearing about him.
Her mother’s eccentricity made her impervious to anything other than her own obsessions and preoccupations; her daughter’s abusive marriage did not trouble her. Unwittingly, she provided a sanctuary for her daughter. Her parents separated long ago. Ill, overweight and selfish, her father communicated with her mainly to find fault; she suffered his company because she could not escape him. Once at university, and feeling independent, she resolved to ignore him until he died, which he did.
The other person in this story is the girl who read it; Catherine was twenty-three years old, tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed and single; uncomprehending that anyone, even a fictional woman, could live like the girl in the story, or that men could be so vile. She was undecided whether the story might be true, or at least drawn from the life of the author, also a woman, and fictionalised, so graphic were the characters and lurid their behaviour towards the girl. Catherine immersed herself in the unplotted encounters, each one an obstacle to the girl’s independence; she persevered, incredulously absorbed by the unembellished prose. The story stayed in her head—she imagined that if she met the girl in the street there would be no trace of the wretchedness in her life; she would carry it inside her like an invisible stigma.
Catherine worked as a receptionist for the local surgery trained to handle impatient, anxious people. It was badly paid but the interaction with the public made a difficult job rewarding. She knew many people, none of them well, but well enough to anticipate most of their needs. Unable to stop ruminating about the girl in the story, she looked at the people she encountered at work through the prism of the girl’s sadness. The context of every life she saw over the reception counter assumed a shade of darkness; something hidden, unspoken. Catherine had been trained to recognise signs of dysfunction in people’s lives; mums who swore at their disobedient children, non-verbal behaviour betraying lack of sympathy between partners. The disquiet the girl in the story evoked in Catherine’s perception tinged everyone’s life with concealed fear and filled her with uncertainty.
She reflected on her own circumstances. An only child, precious to her parents, Catherine had a cloistered childhood, protected from harsh realities. Loved by her parents, she loved them back. Nothing derailed the calm security of home. Paradoxically she grew up an anxious adult, irrational concerns beset her, often about the welfare of others, to whom she seemed thoughtful, kind and considerate. The serenity of her own life made the turmoil she perceived in the lives of others hard to understand.
Catherine had a boyfriend, called Alex, seven years older. Gentle and loving, he liked to tease her about her anxieties, but never unkindly. Alex tried to persuade her that the girl in the story was just fiction; reality was a kinder place. But the girl in the story had lodged herself in Catherine’s sensitive mind, like a parasite, and changed the way she saw the lives of others. Uncertainty nagged. She did not know what to do with it. Alex did not help; his story was as uncluttered as Catherine’s—neither had experienced hardship. Their complacency made her uneasy, as if they should take on a share of the collective misery nestling in the lives she encountered. Alex observed a change in his lover; it changed him, provoking a desire to protect her. He asked her to marry him.
The idea of marriage took Catherine by surprise. She was deeply preoccupied with altruistic ambition and at a loss to know how to help people she was certain were in need. Marriage corroded the life of the girl in the story. She reread it, and persuaded Alex to read it for the first time, to be sure he understood why it affected her so deeply. Discerningly he admired the author’s style, but dismissed as implausible the characters who made the girl’s life dejected. If Catherine married him he promised to devote the rest of his life to her happiness. The allure of life-long happiness distracted her from pondering the lives of others, diluted her altruistic intentions; she began to wonder why the girl in the story did not remove herself from the hurtful husband. Catherine’s own daemons were an obstacle to the pursuit of happiness; imagination and reality conspired against her.
All her life Catherine made her own rules. She met Alex when she was twenty-one and still a virgin. Catherine frustrated his attempts at seduction by her insistence on believing she needed to know him better, an unquantifiable ambition. With great integrity, Alex persevered. By the time Catherine agreed to sleep with him they were deeply in love. She explained the rules—the only bed she slept in was her own. Alex might join her, if he wished. Catherine’s long leanness excited Alex passionately. He went about making love to her with great care and gentleness. She decided she liked sex but it had to be in her own bed. Nothing had changed by the time Alex asked her to marry him.
Alex wanted Catherine to live with him. She had her own small flat; the rent consumed most of her wages, but it symbolised her independence. The night after Alex asked her to marry him he was not with her. She lay in bed relishing the freshness of clean sheets. Washing sheets was an obsession, particularly after sex. Damp sheets filled the tiny living space most of the time. Before she fell asleep Catherine lay in her favourite meditative position—lying on her back, hands behind her head, eyes closed, her long lean body caressed by the warmth beneath the duvet, and reflected. Being in love was fine; so was sex with Alex, every weekend and sometimes in the week; her job was interesting despite the meagre pay—it gave her independence. She was too young to become a wife. Marriage represented entrapment, however empathetic her lover. Liberty and autonomy allowed her independence. It was priceless.
Alex’s conventional expectation that his proposal would be accepted, followed by a long ecstatic engagement and a romantic wedding, evaporated. Catherine explained:
‘I love you. I want to go on sleeping with you. I want us to go on doing all the things we do. But…’ she hesitated. ‘I don’t want to be a wife. I need independence’. Her rejection was dispassionate, laconic. It did not invite negotiation. Thwarted, undermined, Alex went home alone, perplexed,the solid stability of his seamless relationship destroyed by his lover’s unyielding determination in two short sentences. He blamed the girl in the story.
Alex left without a word. Not expecting the desolation which met her announcement, Catherine became alarmed. She phoned, texted, consumed by anxiety. The punitive silence unsettled her, sapped her desire to offer help, feel compassion for the queue of needy people at her counter. Her focus was the vacuum in her life which had been filled by Alex. His absence added to her uncertainty; she had not rejected him as her lover, only as fiancé. Something unspoken stopped him accepting her rational decision. The reality that he wanted to hurt her seeped into her persecuted conscience, ensnared by silence and the love she felt for him. Day after silent day the sense of persecution smouldered until, like the girl in the story, she harboured an invisible stigma; she had become a victim. She wondered what unsaid thing made her lover want to manipulate her feelings; before the proposal Alex showed no sign of spite, no sense that he would seek reprisal if he had to capitulate to her principles. Catherine’s love faltered; she needed to understand, share in whatever hurt made her lover want to hurt her. Her principled independence prevented her from running after him. If he loved her he must come back to her.
The day Alex left was the last time Catherine saw him. He disappeared like a wounded animal. The vestige of love she kept for him dwindled and vanished. If his love for her was so fragile, so capricious, she refused to value it. She nursed the hurt he inflicted by his disappearance with renewed attention to the needs of the people who queued day after day for her attention. Alex had been her first and only lover. Catherine chastised herself for her naivety and resolved to broaden her experience of men, learn to understand what motivated them apart from sex, how they nurtured their self-esteem.
The way men looked at her puzzled Catherine. Aware that she was attractive, her sense of professionalism stopped her from doing anything to enhance her appearance at work. She wanted to be the ordinary girl at reception, eager to help. However plain she thought she made her appearance, she felt the eyes of men searching her face, her breasts, her pelvis. If she had to turn her back on the queue she was certain men’s eyes followed her denim clad bum. People, of either sex, greeted her patronisingly:
‘How’s the gorgeous Catherine this morning?’
‘You’re looking lovely today, my dear.’
These observations did not trouble her. It was the non-verbal attention that discomfited her, made her feel victimised, objectified, always by men, older than herself, many in poor health. These were the people whose lives concerned her; the suffering that lay behind their ruined complexions, their dead eyes that did not meet her blue-eyed gaze, but undressed her in silence. She wondered if her attractiveness was a visible stigma which made men desire and judge her, as if she no longer owned her body, as if she became a public exhibit. On display in her workplace, Catherine had to bear the lascivious scrutiny of the people she was paid to help; her victimhood grew until she wore it like sadness. The sadness sapped her self-esteem; she wanted to be ugly, undesirable. She wrapped her dark hair in a scarf, like the Muslim women who brought their infants to the clinic, leaving just her face visible. On a website she found a shapeless, all in one, garment, made of plain brown cotton which engulfed her slimness, disguising her feminine attributes, projecting sexless tawdriness. She resolved to stop smiling at work to convey the sadness that consumed her. Catherine trapped herself in a charade of her own making; the lewd stares were cast elsewhere.
The practice manager, an efficient, bespectacled, middle-aged woman, summoned her:
‘Catherine, please explain why you’re dressed like a clown?’
‘I’m not,’ replied Catherine.
‘Then kindly come to work in ordinary clothes. Jeans, tee-shirts that sort of thing, like your colleagues.’
‘No. I can’t.’ The manager looked perplexed behind her spectacles. Catherine went on: ‘There’s loads of sexist men out there and I get harassed.’ She plucked at the loose brown material of her garment. ‘This is a disguise. It makes me feel less vulnerable.’
‘Have you been assaulted?’
‘Only by their eyes.’
The manager hesitated.
‘Then please wear something more colourful. Try to look cheerful when you’re dealing with the patients.’
‘I’m not an ornament and there’s nothing to be cheerful about. The people who come here are miserable.’ The manager, who rarely encountered the public, looked even more confused.
Catherine continued to scowl at the public and bought a second baggy garment, this time orange, which made her look like a terrorist suspect in Guantanamo Bay. She thought about the girl in the story. Why did she not rebel, see more of her old boyfriends, do something hostile to the bullying husband?
Living between the life of the girl in the story, a charade of unsmilingness and the hurt afflicted by Alex, Catherine felt worse about herself day after day. The precious independence that she nurtured came at a price; she understood the helplessness of the girl in the story. She had not had to suffer the abuse to which the girl was subject; most of her melancholy was self-imposed, conflicted by the intrusive gaze of men and her desire to help. The girl had lovers; perhaps lovers could provide a solution, a source of comfort. She remembered her resolve to learn about men.
Impulsively Catherine handed in her notice, gave up her flat and moved her possessions to her parent’s loft, (including many carefully laundered white sheets), packed a rucksack with a minimum of clothes and set off. Because her appearance contributed to her discomfort, she decided to change it. Before she departed her hair-dresser cut her hair short; she looked like a boy. Something new beckoned, respite from her unhappiness and the suffering of the girl in the story. She took a train to the South coast and a ferry to the North of France. Her savings did not amount to much but enough to afford a bed in back-packer hostels.
The people she met in the hostels made a cohesive community, supportive of each other, ready with their own stories. Everyone wanted new experiences but were secretly escaping from something—family, lovers, their lives at home. Like a chameleon, Catherine merged with her new friends and travelled southward, mostly alone, sometimes with other meandering travellers. France was full of uncluttered space, quiet villages and tree-lined squares.
Her desire to learn about men was easily satisfied; her new boyish looks were a magnet to boys and girls alike. She chose carefully whose company she kept and the men with whom she occasionally slept. Sometimes it worked and other times it all went wrong. Blame was not helpful; she persuaded herself that hazard, as well as joy, was part of gaining experience. It was all in the pursuit of independence. As her funds shrank she turned northwards again, knowing that reality waited for her at home. She was content with her experience; certain that independence was a corner-stone of happiness. That was the wisdom that guided her life and she had what she wanted. In her head she befriended the girl in the story. From time to time she offered her the benefit of her wisdom but the girl was stuck in her helpless fictional disempowerment.
Catherine’s independence was reality.
Andrew Dicker has written short fiction for the past three years as a retirement project following a long career in medicine. Having enjoyed writing papers and articles professionally he decided to learn about creative writing with the Open University. He self- published two volumes of short stories in 2016, The Seduction of Celia (Austin Macaulay) and Overlapping Lives (Matador). The Girl in the Story is the second short story he has had accepted for publication. He lives in Buckinghamshire, UK.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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