My shade of red

In our midsummer issue, five writers tell us about the personal beauty rituals that have become part of who they are. Here, Amy Abrahams describes her shade of red. 

On the landscape of my face sit two mountain peaks: the twin pink summits of my top lip. They rise sharply, creating a defiant Cupid’s bow; they make a mouth more suited to a bygone era. 

I hated my lips when I was younger. Too pointy, too small, too neat. An austere companion to my rounded cheeks, un-angled nose and unruly curls tumbling around my face. Early make-up experiments avoided the mouth because I struggled to respect its geometry and like a child I could not keep in the lines. Glosses and lipsticks slid out and over, lipliners only made those peaks more severe. Lipstick was not for me, I decided, lipstick was not my thing. 

But when I was 21, that all changed. It was the early 2000s and a friend had introduced me to London’s alternative gay scene, where we danced at club nights named Nag Nag Nag and The Cock at now-long-gone Soho hotspot The Ghetto. Dress-up was encouraged and make-up was another portal to express ourselves. 

So it was that one afternoon, before a big night out, we walked through the hallowed doors of Mac’s Soho store and I found my lipstick soulmate. Her name was Ruby Woo. She was the perfect shade – a blue-hued red that balanced my rosy cheeks and popped against my pale complexion. Best of all, Ruby Woo was matte. It did not slide. The colour stayed put. It did not creep outside the lines. 

Putting it on for the first time was transformative – and its power has not waned since. A slick of bright red jolts you back to iconic old Hollywood, yet it's undisputedly modern too – this is a shade that refuses to let you hide away. My lipstick is warpaint and luxury and comfort and magic in one – it is a benevolent bullet of red-hot confidence I can carry wherever I go. I have worn Ruby Woo most weeks since that inaugural outing in Soho. She’s come with me to job interviews and meetings, to birthdays and dinner parties. I wore Ruby Woo to my wedding, even though someone told me brides “should wear pink”. And when  a best friend died, I wore it for his funeral – I knew he would have wanted me that way.

Yes, I flirt with different shades: a berry tint here, a fuchsia gloss there. But Ruby Woo will always be The One. As age changes the map of my face, these peaked lips of mine morph slowly into something softer, but I shall never turn my back on lipstick.

A smear of rouge taught me to highlight what is unique, it helped me subvert the “flaws”. Lipstick might seem frivolous to some, but to me, it really can set you free. 

 

Read four other 'made-up' stories in the midsummer issue of Oh Comely, out now. 

Print! Tearing it Up: celebrating independent magazine publishing

 Happy birthday to us! Our first issue was published eight years ago this month. Look how we've grown...

Happy birthday to us! Our first issue was published eight years ago this month. Look how we've grown...

It should come as no surprise, but we’re print lovers through and through. Oh Comely was created in response to the disappointing options of women’s magazines available, seemingly focused on celebrity, diets, money – and with the habit of making their readers feel worse about their lives. We certainly weren’t alone. Since our first issue, eight years ago this very month, we’ve enjoyed seeing the number of independent magazines being made grow and grow: bringing fresh voices and perspectives to our reading habits.

The current strength of independent publishing is being celebrated in a free exhibition, Print! Tearing it Up, at London’s Somerset House, bringing together some of the most influential and innovative British print magazines of the past, with titles of today. We spoke to co-curators Paul Gorman and Claire Catterall to find out more about the exhibition. 

 

 Somerset House PRINT! Tearing It Up © Doug Peters_PA 

Somerset House PRINT! Tearing It Up © Doug Peters_PA 

What do you think is behind the current revival of independent print? 

PG: Producing and consuming print offers a more permanent means of expression than a here-now-gone-in-a-minute Tweet or Instagram post. 

Committing to print, whether as a reader or writer/designer/photographer, takes care and consideration, and magazines are the perfect medium for announcing personal and sometimes oppositional views. Indie publishers have also settled on financial formulae for producing magazines independently, making such work one platform of their activities and producing when they are able – quarterly, biannually, annually. 

There is an alignment with the revival of interest in vinyl, but the resurgence of print is more political; that’s why, I think, minority voices and those from the female, queer, trans and non-binary communities have gravitated to magazines and produced excellent titles which deal with identity such as Accentgal-dem and Ladybeard.

It’s a reality that alt-right views and fake news exist almost exclusively online, the preserve of white heterosexual (with the exception of token people such as Milo Yiannopoulos) men. It’s interesting that they balk at producing their own print publications. That’s because that would be a commitment to clearly stating their hateful, unrepresentative views, which could then be easily challenged. These people prefer the hectoring and permanently shifting sands of digital media to cogent argument as set out in cold, hard print. 

  gal-dem  issue 2 © gal-dem

gal-dem issue 2 © gal-dem

What do you hope a visitor will take away from a visit to the show?

PG: Inspiration to do it themselves. If one person leaves with the encouragement to produce their own magazine – for however small an audience – we will have done our job. Also, an understanding that the current resurgence has roots going back through magazines such as The Face in the 80s and 90s, punk fanzines and feminist press such as Sniffin’ Glue and Spare Rib in the 70s, the 60s underground and satirical press from Oz and Time Out to Private Eye in the 60s all the way back to Peace News in the 30s and Wyndham Lewis’s modernist manifesto Blast on the cusp of the First World War.

What magazines, on display, past and present, mean the most to you personally?

PG: It’s great to feature an issue of Graham Greene’s “British New Yorker” Night And Day which was published for six months in 1937 before being closed by a libel suit from the child actor Shirley Temple’s Hollywood studio. Night And Day – whose reviewers included other greats of 20th-century literature such as Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh – set out to examine high and low culture with the same critical eye. In this way, later magazines such as Time Out and The Face and many current publications are part of its lineage.

One of my favourite contemporary titles is British Values, edited by Kieran Yates, who is second generation Punjabi and took the title from a statement by David Cameron to show that, in fact, immigrants to this country express the finest aspects of so-called “British values”. It’s also very funny with a six-pack pin-up of Sadiq Khan and a cover of Teresa May when she was Home Secretary in a hijab with the speech bubble: “Must admit, my cheekbones look banging in this.”

   Oz , No. 29, FEMALE ENERGY © Paul Gorman Archive

 Oz, No. 29, FEMALE ENERGY © Paul Gorman Archive

What notable rarities and curiosities are included in the display?

PG: There are many, including an original copy of the second and final issue of Blast, which was produced in 1915 as the First World War raged; it is packed full of polemic and wonderful graphics and artworks; the Sex Pistols designer Jamie Reid loaned us precious copies of Suburban Press, his fanzine which railed against the depredations of urban developers in his home town of Croydon in the early 70s; the countercultural historian John May has loaned such ephemera as flyers circulated outside the Old Bailey when the Oz editors were on trial for contravening obscenity laws; and artist Scott King loaned copies of his late 90s publication Crash! which took on the consumer spectacle of Brit Pop, Britart and Blairite politics.

What can looking at independent magazines from the past teach us today? 

CC: In many ways it’s difficult to gauge the impact of magazines from the past without understanding the context of the times they were produced. You can’t fully appreciate the seismic impact a magazine such as Blast would have on England in the 1910s without fully appreciating how stuck in Victorian times society was.

  Spare Rib  1972 © Angela Phillips

Spare Rib 1972 © Angela Phillips

Similarly, I think it’s difficult for us now to truly appreciate just how radical a magazine such as Spare Rib was. Women in the 60s were very much still ‘seen but not heard’. To read about women’s issues from a woman’s point of view was hugely important and liberating for many women.

Having said that, you can still get a powerful sense of just how radical these magazines and others like them – Peace News, Private Eye, Black Dwarf ­– were by how fresh and relevant many of the articles still seem today. They don’t seem ‘old-fashioned’ at all, and in some cases read like they could have been published yesterday. So, I think magazines from the past teach us lessons about the power of oppositional thinking and demonstrate, simply by saying things that had never been heard before, how important they were in bringing quite radical ideas into the mainstream and changing our point of view.

Print! Tearing it Up is on at Somerset House, London, until 22 August. Go visit and be inspired – and if you do decide to set up your own magazine, don't forget to tell us about it! 

 

 

Train by Sharlene Teo

 photo: ceren kilic  words: sharlene teo   

photo: ceren kilic

words: sharlene teo

 

"I relished the forward momentum, when I felt so stuck in my own bad habits, my anxieties and frustrations"

In 2012, I moved to Norwich for my Master’s degree in Creative Writing. My memories of that time are tempered with a mixture of joy and desperation. On one hand, I was ecstatic because I’d always dreamt of being a writer, and now I found my place and community. Yet I felt simultaneously grateful for and overwhelmed by this lifeline. 

I commuted back to London every weekend in an attempt to resuscitate my ailing relationship. The journey takes one hour and 50 minutes: long enough to sink into a book, short enough to be endurable. I always booked the early evening train out, as a thin blue patina settled over the steeple of Norwich Cathedral and the East Anglian countryside softened and blurred.  

I favoured the quiet carriage, typically Coach B. Front-facing window seat: I relished the sensation of forward momentum, when I felt so stuck in my own bad habits, my anxieties and frustrations. I fretted constantly about my irascible, enthralling boyfriend and my non-existent writing career, as well as what I’d do after my student visa ended. 

I read many interviews where successful writers mentioned getting their best writing done on trains. But I am too self-conscious and skittish to invent things in public. I typed and deleted, watched the blinking cursor questioning my veracity. 

When my thoughts got too loud I listened to music on my headphones. I only allowed a certain kind of music to soundtrack those grey hours in the Quiet Zone: ambient electronica, or some passionately discordant woman or sad-voiced American man, cooing refrains in my ear about time gone, gone, gone. 

I bought the same meal for these train rides: one messy baguette, a bag of crisps, a large black coffee, and sometimes something very sweet and small, like a Freddo.

That year I read Teju Cole, Yiyun Li, Anna Kavan, W.G. Sebald, Helen Oyeyemi and Deborah Levy, bending their paperback spines like a greedy monster trying to devour genius. I scattered crumbs and underlined achingly beautiful phrases. I chewed with bovine abandon, as I daydreamed impossible solutions for my doomed relationship. In every scenario either or both of us had the same faces, but were different people. Kinder, intrinsically happier, unrestricted by immigration law, more confident. 

The train rattled through Norfolk; and if I focused on the world outside, I’d see a rush of trees, cow fields, parks, laundry-lines. The overhead lights of the Quiet Zone flickered in synchrony to my anxious, crazy heartbeats. I felt a sullen resentment every time someone sat opposite me on a near-empty carriage, denying me of the opportunity to scoff the butt of my baguette in peace. 

All that year I felt wound up like a spring, fraught and withholding. I learnt the word “liminal” in a seminar and it fit my feelings with a certainty few other things seemed to hold. I was an in-between sick of other in-betweens. I was a migrant, about to get ejected from the UK; I was a writer, published career uncertain; I was a graduate student, further employment unknown; my boyfriend and I kept arguing and eventually broke up. I loved him so apocalyptically. We had no fight left in us. 

Then 2012 became 2013. New habit became routine. Travelling between two places I didn’t quite belong to, my heart sped up every time the train approached Stratford: the monolith ArcelorMittal tower maroon and desolate, a reminder of the gloriously sunny Olympic summer come and done. Pulling into the stark lights of Liverpool Street, I’d feel both a comfortable pain, and a temporary comfort. 

 

Sharlene Teo's debut novel Ponti is out now. 'Train' was published in our midwinter issue. You can read another story by Sharlene – 'Spring clean' – in our spring issue. Order your copy here

Sunday Reading: Thread

Cacti.jpeg

words lydia higginson

photo janina fleckhaus

 

My inner seamstress has a way of putting the world to rights. Although I didn’t know it at the time, she was there, helping me carve out shapes and stitches as I sat in my freezing cold studio making a coat from heavy herringbone wool. It took me five days to cut and sew that coat and cover it in rich embellishment. In threads of forest green and maroon, shimmering ochre and gold, embroidery spans the length of my spine. At its centre is a golden cross. That cross marks the place behind my heart where fertile veins of creativity run deep. It also marks the point where the end of a gun was pressed up against my back during a brutal assault.

I made that coat in the depths of winter. Being stripped and sexually assaulted made me completely disconnect from my body – I wanted to re-dress myself. Over the cold days and nights, I created quilted jumpers, turquoise silk lingerie and jumpers from cashmere. When the spring came, I started making flowing skirts, denim jeans and softly tailored shirts. As spring turned to summer, I wanted to wear wild printed jumpsuits and sporty silk bomber jackets, so I made some of those too.

Then leaves started to fall and my sewing slowed down but never completely ground to a halt. I continued to create lace knickers, simple camisoles and wideleg culottes. As the year drew to a close and winter once again set in, I hunkered down in front of my sewing machine and made floral cords, a furry gilet, leggings printed with the beauty of the cosmos and another embroidered coat, this time with a dusty pink, cosy velvet hood. Over the year, my inner seamstress spent over 1,000 hours designing and creating the clothes I’ve always wanted to wear – over 60 garments. All the clothes I’d ever bought from shops have been given away and the only ones I wear are ones that I have made myself.

Making my own clothes was my way of feeling strong and alive again. It allowed my body to heal from five years of holding on to trauma. After being assaulted, I was desperately seeking a way to breathe colour, movement, texture and sensuality back in to my life and, when I wear garments that I have stitched from scratch, my body feels realigned on its natural creative compass. My healing armour made of silk and lace and cashmere.

Creating my wardrobe afresh – sleeves, collars, cuffs – wasn’t only a process of recovery. It was also one of discovery. Of my seamstress inside who had just been waiting to be given a needle and thread. Passionate, creative and tactile, I need my seamstress to face life. It feels like she has been stitching away since the beginning of time – I just drop into her rhythm for a while when I’m sat at my machine or have a thimble on my finger. She’s helped me to create beauty from brutality. When I’m in touch with my seamstress, I feel able to be the woman I want to be – dressed in a wardrobe I’ve stitched from energy, time and golden thread. 

 

Lydia has recently launched Threadworks in London – a space for fashion and textile artists in the week and a place to learn new sewing skills at the weekend. You can support their Crowdfunding project here. If you're a print designer, pattern cutter, embroiderer, weaver, seamstress, tailor, costume designer or small fashion brand that might be looking for space, get in touch via the Threadworks website

 

'Thread' was originally published in Oh Comely issue 37, featuring three more personal stories of touch. Pick up a copy here

How you feel about your mothers: your responses

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In our early spring issue, we explored our relationship with our mothers – and we invited you to respond to our survey. We were overwhelmed by your response, and the personal stories that you shared with us. 

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More than half of you said that your relationship with your mother couldn’t be better and 65% of you are in contact with your mum several times a week, with over a third in daily contact.

Only 7% felt your mums would be disappointed if you didn’t pursue a career, kids, marriage and owning a home. In fact, almost half of you said that your mother’s biggest expectation was having a career. However, a fifth said that you felt that your mothers expect you to dress and look a certain way.

expectations.jpg

"I'm one of the lucky ones. My mum doesn't put pressure on me to live up to expectations."

"She is already disappointed."   

"I was never pressured to live a certain way but I think my mam is proud of how my life has turned out."

"I hope I make her proud. That is my goal in honouring her life!"

"She has no expectations, but would prefer me to stay single."

 

More than half of mums let boyfriends/girlfriends stay over, two thirds were allowed to drink at home, while 6% were allowed to try drugs. Less than a quarter were allowed to party without their parents around.

 

"I think I’ll do a lot of things differently, partly because I have a little boy. I want to give him a much better understanding of relationships and boundaries than I had."

"Mum was really easy going but because I was ill it didn't really affect me because I didn't really drink or party. When I got better I did and the impression I get even now is that she feels relieved when I talk about drinking and going out because she knows it means I'm well. I'm probably the only person who can say their mum reacted to me coming home drunk with "you look happy".

"My mum is in her 70s so it was a very different time for her as a young woman/mother. I am much more open minded and have experienced a lot more that I look forward to educating my little boy about"

sex and periods.jpg

 

However there are some indications that there are certain subjects that mothers and daughters don’t talk about. More than a third’s mothers told them nothing about sex or periods, half never discussed sexism. 75% of those daughters felt this was a mistake.

 

"Sexism is a really important social issue and as a woman, I feel like it should have been addressed further."

"She just seemed to accept it, which I disagree with. It's something that should be confronted and fought."

"She saw my interest in feminism from a young age and fuelled it with literature."

 "She took it as just the way things were"

"Her opinions changed as I was growing up and experiencing it myself. Her attitude to catcalling turned from, 'it's harmless and best to ignore it' to anger at hearing the things that were shouted at me on the street. We grew our understanding together in a way."

"I've always been able to talk to my mum about anything. I've always been very grateful for that as I have friends who can't speak to their Mum like I can. Even at times when she didn't want to listen, I knew I could say it anyway. Ask her anything." 

 

Thank you for your honesty and thoughtfulness in sharing your thoughts and memories on this topic – they showed how close, complicated and ever-changing our relationships with our mothers can be. We hope to further explore the ideas and subjects raised in future issues of Oh Comely

 

"Whilst a strong capable women in many ways, she was crippingly shy and would not stand up for herself in work situations or with my dad. I never learnt how to defend myself in situations because I didn't know how. It's made me vunerable in my adult life, although finally I'm much better at standing up for myself now – but it's taken therapy to learn that."

"As my mom passed away so recently she has been on my mind. She had Alzheimer's and was in long term care for the past year. It is indeed a long goodbye. She is a precious treasure, my best friend, my biggest cheerleader and confidant. I will miss her every day."

"I think my mum treated my older brothers like 'adults' when they were 21, but she doesn't treat me the same. My body is her business, in way that theirs aren't. I love her, and she is simply a different generation but I find it so frustrating."

"I absolutely hope to be at least HALF the woman that my mother is. She is an amazing, courageous, smart woman, and I am so lucky to have her as my mother and my best friend & mentor <3"

"She's also the one person in my life who has consistently told me I don't have to have children if I don't want to. Whilst my boyfriends mum is so pushy about it. My Mum has given me the strength to say I'm not where I want to be in my career yet and even admit I'm not sure kids are in my future."

"My mother died in 2013 when the phone rings on a Sunday morning, when I'm still in bed, I still think it's her. We had a very close relationship and she was always there when I needed her. Although I miss her a lot I feel a part of me hadn't grown-up when she was around, maybe because I still lived locally. I do see her some days when I look in the mirror and occasionally when I'm with my boys I feel I'm channelling her, not always in a good way."

"My Mum is the most beautiful woman in world but has always worried about her weight.  This used to upset me as a child and still does.  To all the Mum's out there, you are beautiful."

"Not all mums are good at being mums, some are really abusive and neglectful. Mothers' Day means so many websites and magazines covering schmaltzy stories about how great mums are, how not just for once cover the stories of people who've grown up without a mum? Not all mums are great, mine wasn't and for that reason I work hard at being the best mum I can, I have that to thank her for."

"My mum is so tender and treats me like I am precious to her, even while she champions my independence and strength of character. I will never be as wonderful a person as her.

 

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For our press release about our Mother's Day survey, click here. Read Oh Comely writer's reflections on our relationships with our mums in our early spring issue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contribute to Oh Comely issue 42

 Photo: Orlova Maria&nbsp;

Photo: Orlova Maria 

Issue 42 is out in April and we’re looking for your contributions.

Last year, we published a series of first person 'September stories' (you can read one example here or pick up issue 38 to read all four) and for our next issue we want to hear your personal stories relating to spring – a season traditionally associated with new beginnings.

Got a 'spring story' that you'd like to write? To be considered, email a 100-word outline of your idea to ohcomely@icebergpress.co.uk, along with two samples of your work by Monday 12 February. Please state 'Issue 42 contributions' in the subject header.

Unfortunately we don't accept fiction or poetry samples. We do try and get back to everyone but we're a really small team so we're sorry if we don't get a chance.

We look forward to hearing your ideas!

Contribute to issue 41 of Oh Comely

 Photo:&nbsp;Isa Gelb  @punkroyaltiger

Photo: Isa Gelb @punkroyaltiger

Issue 41 is out in February and we’re looking for your contributions.

For this issue, the theme of our first person stories is loss. This could be huge and life-changing or perhaps something small and seemingly inconsequentially that has impacted your life in a meaningful way. Maybe you've said goodbye to a loved one or an address, or perhaps you've had to come to terms with losing a part of yourself or your body, we want to hear about your experiences. 

To be considered, email a 100-word outline of your idea for a first person story to ohcomely@icebergpress.co.uk, along with two samples of your work by Monday 11 December. Please state 'Issue 41 contributions' in the subject header.

Unfortunately we don't accept fiction or poetry samples. We do try and get back to everyone but we're a really small team so we're sorry if we don't get a chance.

We look forward to hearing your ideas!

 

The car

 photo  betül vargün    

photo betül vargün

 

words rebecca tantony

In the beating heart of an engine unused, I wait

She tells me she will wait opposite the pub. Tells me the registration number and that I need to climb in the back seat. The front’s piled with books, she says, water-bottles, maps. I open the door, squeeze in beside a suitcase and two sleeping bags. She turns around, says, “Great to met you Aisha. I tried to pack light but it's three months on the road, you know, It’s like I need to bring it all in case I never came back”.

It’s strange how a stranger can wear the face of familiarity, remind you something about home.

“Good to meet you too Josiane.” I reply. Take it all in; the smell of cumin, the roof covered in postcards – hams and flamenco dancers in Seville, ornate temples in Oaxaca, snapshots of friends strung up like rosaries. I take her in too. Late twenties perhaps. Heavy smile, light voice. 

I was only going as far as France. A month before I had fallen for a man and wanted to try and recreate the weekend of romance we’d first found. Those melted evenings – cheese and wine on the balcony, our mouths speaking in tongues. A friend said she knew someone driving through Paris, so I thought I would catch a ride with Josiane into that unknown future.

“A road trip. Exciting”, she says, clips in her seat belt, sets the wipers back and forth. I think we’re about to pull away so I try find my belt too, then see she wants to catch my reflection in the mirror, so I stop fumbling. “Nervous too”, she adds, “I just listened to a news report about The Jungle. Apparently loads of Eritrean teenagers are trying to rebuild it, and I was like shit we’re gonna be driving past there. Maybe we’ll never leave. Just keep helping them, brick after brick, rebuild something from the rubble”. I shuffle. “How long will you be in France?”

“I’m not sure,” I say. Sometimes it’s a few days, in other moments I never leave. My French lover and I make children, I learn to cook foods fried in butter, how to say expensive words. “It’s a strange time to be leaving, with Brexit and all. Maybe they won’t let us back in”. I smile weakly.

“Yeah, more than ever. I wonder how many times I can go and come back again with nothing to offer on my return. I’m always leaving. It’s like there is a version of me out there who laughs louder than  I do here”. 

Recognition: that feeling of home again. A place. A person. A room. A moment. Your own skin. I point to the postcard, “But we, you, have all these memories”.

She turns back to the front, clips her seat belt in again, “Yeah we have so many memories”. Flips on the indicator. “Let’s have a road-trip song, something to remind us of the moment we left”. She shuffles through her CDs, “This is the one, it was playing in a cafe when I met this woman in Marrakech”. Some Arabic pop music speeds through the speakers. We listen. After a while she says, “Her name was Asha. She was from Palestine originally, had only been in Morocco for two months”. She taps the wheel, I stare into the mirror, watch her eyes steer between mine and the road ahead. “She left. Because she had to”.

I’d like to say that next we opened up like windows, stories of ourselves filling the few empty spaces of that car. That our leaky-exhaust-pipe-mouths talked through the length of that journey. That we arrived in Paris. I kissed her farewell, twice, because I was a continental woman now, with a French lover famous for his “little deaths”. But it didn't happen like that. In fact, two days later my French lover texted to say he’d met someone new.

Instead, just as the music stops, she sits staring out in front of her, as if looking at this unworn world – this new place just noticed, or perhaps an old place never before seen. After a while she unclips the belt, grabs her backpack, opens the door, gets out the car, and with the key still in the ignition, leaves. Just walks, into the buzz of our electric city. And I sit there, stunned, watch her go like I’ve just lost part of my own being. Who knows what had brought us here together? All the trips taken, all those left behind. I sit in the hum of that car, the beating heart of an engine unused. I wait. But she never returns. In fact, I think I am still there now. In-between places, like at an airport, neither leaving or arriving anywhere. Just a memory for us both to keep, formed and lost, somewhere along the way. 

 

Rebecca Tantony is a poet and writer of flash non-fiction, who loves hanging out with her cat Chicken and radio singing at traffic lights. @rebeccatantony, website: www.rebecca-tantony.com

 

Fear and pigeons

 illustration:  ester garcia

illustration: ester garcia

Be afraid, be very afraid. To mark Halloween, we asked our writers to confess what scares them the most. For Alice Snape it's pigeons that are her biggest fear...

The one fear that has remained constant throughout my life is my fear of pigeons. In fact, all birds really, but pigeons are the ones that are always there, lurking in front of my every step, unwilling to move out of my way – why don’t they creep and coo near someone else? Why aren’t they scared of me?

Pigeons constantly reinforce my terror on a daily basis, so it can’t possibly be irrational. Even back when I was revising for my GCSEs, one flew into the conservatory through an open window. I had my revision desk all set up and was convinced the bird was out to get me. It flapped around all over my notes, until my dad had to come home from work, and let it out. All I could do was close the sliding doors and cry in a ball on the floor.

And now, I see them everywhere. I don’t understand how other people can brazenly walk through a group of the flappy, grey rodents as if there is nothing in front of them. When I see one, I scuttle around, cross over the road, stamp my feet loudly – avoidance tactics. Occasionally, I scream out loud. Over the course of my life so far, four pigeons – yes four – have even flown into my head. My head! Flapping around with their grubby little claws tangling into my hair. I have been pooed on more times than I can count, and I don’t care that it might be lucky. I don’t feel lucky. 

I guess the fear is born out of anxiety, I am an anxious person. I was an apprehensive child, always fretting and worried about the unknown. And in this changeable, unrecognisable world that we currently reside, those worried concerns flood back to me, all embodied in the physicality of that horrid pigeon form. Who will deny climate change next? Who’s responsible for Irma? How will I meet by next work deadline withouthaving a panic attack?

It doesn’t matter if they are the flying, dirty rats with one foot that seem to outnumber humans in London, or the big fat wood pigeons that live a life of luxury in the countryside or the pigeon fancier’s variety. Because I hate them all. I hate them, because I don’t know what a pigeon is about to do, it can’t communicate with me in a way that I understand. I can’t control where it steps. The pigeon has no regard for my personal space. It just coos that horrid  that horrid sound, flapping with no direction. One could sneak up on me at any moment with its flailing wings, beady eyes and sharp beak. And I would never be ready for it, even though I am forever dreading its appearance. 

See what our other Oh Comely writers are afraid of in issue 39

Sunday Reading: What I tasted

tasted copy.jpg

words: olivia potts

photo: deborah dewbury-langley

When my mother died, I lost a recipe.

Her death was sudden and unexpected. The day before, we talked normally, knowing nothing of what lay ahead. We talked about her library books, my job, Emmerdale

If I’d known she was going to die, I might have asked the important questions: what do I need to know about childbirth? How do you get curry stains out of a white shirt? How do you make your chilli con carne?

But I never asked those questions. I found myself – 25, motherless, heartbroken – not knowing things I never knew I wanted to know. Amongst those were her dishes. Losing her meant losing her food; I had never once asked for a recipe, and now it was too late.

Until it ended, I hadn’t realised how important food was to our relationship. Now, I can see it was her main way of conveying sympathy and care. She was not obsessive about food, like I am; she didn’t derive any joy from standing over a stove, or hosting a dinner party. The food she made was just for her family, for us. But every mouthful was carefully and meticulously prepared.

Whenever I was poorly – I was a sickly child, and an even sicklier teenager – my mother made minestrone soup. She would sit opposite me at the kitchen table, watching quietly as slowly, spoonful by spoonful, I ate it, and then she would walk me slowly, quietly around the garden. All soups are nourishing, but this soup was special. It was made with care in both senses. It was full of love, patience and effort. But it was also careful; everything chopped meticulously, placed in neat piles, and then one by one, dropped in a big pot in a preordained order. I needed to recreate this soup. The entirety of my mother’s cooking and love seemed bound up in minestrone. So I began trying to make it from memory. I knew it involved tiny pasta, and bacon and a lot of vegetables. 

I knew that those vegetables were diced precisely. I bought pasta and bacon, and I diced vegetables precisely. I threw them in a pot and thought good thoughts.

My first attempt was wrong. So was my hundredth. I drowned in soups, unable to replicate the taste. I could get close, but it was never quite right. It was never my mother’s soup. I turned to the internet, and spent nights gazing at search results for soup recipes, eliminating possibilities: no, no, no. Of all dishes, minestrone must be one of the hardest to recreate. There is no such thing as an authentic recipe; it has as many variations as it has cooks. 

Years passed, measured in failed soups. The grief eased, or at least changed: it became quieter. A looming adversary became a stolid, bitter companion. I could see past it, but it was always there.

A few months ago, when my father decided to move out of our old house, he offloaded most of my mother’s books on me. Among them were her cookbooks. In truth, I could never remember her actually using a cookbook. But here they were.

I flicked idly through them. I almost didn’t spot the minestrone soup. But as soon as I began reading, I realised: this was the recipe. This was my mother’s minestrone soup. I studied the method, line by line, and pictured my mum dicing, frying, stirring, the intricate ballet of her perfect soup. I closed the book and looked at the front cover. 

It was Delia’s Complete Cookery Course. My mother’s minestrone soup was Delia’s minestrone soup. I had been searching for this recipe, experimenting, testing this recipe for three years only for it to be in one of the most famous cookery books ever published.

But now I have it. I make this soup in the pot that my mother used – and finally, I make it as she did. And it tastes like home.

 

This story originally appeared as one of our 'stories of the senses' in issue 33 of Oh Comely. We were delighted to hear that Olivia won the category of Fresh Voices in Food Writing at this year's The YBFs with an edited version of this piece. You can see read more of Olivia's writing on her blog and follow her on Twitter

Sunday Reading: Eight Eight Eight

words: jess morgan

photo: katie silvester

 

 

The best thing about the CD player was the punching in and skipping straight to the best songs without all the clumsy rewinding and tape-turning to cue up. The clever machine knew exactly where to find it. Our silver separates hi-fi had glossy dials for the volume which twisted silently and weightlessly and were always cold to the touch. The horizontal sliver in the tuner was gently backlit. A red needle would slide back and across the number line with the turn of another beautiful dial. Dad still talks about those dials.

That morning, I made a plan to get up early. I was going to get my Cher album from where it was in the rack, press the first clicky button and watch as the faithful little motor offered up a wobbly looking tray from the front of the unit. Nose to nose with the grid of numbered buttons, I’d punch in track eight and just listen to it.

The lights were still off in the living room, curtains still drawn, no scuffs of footsteps from the floor above and no bedside radio. I wanted to go straight for track eight – every word, every bass thump and every scrunch of the straggling guitar solo. It’d always feel like an exercise in restraint when there were people around – a fight to hold the corners of my mouth steady. I was up and dressed now though, secretly supercharged with all those complicated little electrons ricocheting against each other, while everyone else was asleep.

The sound wasn’t coming out. Anxious little fingers started pressing eight and hitting play, on, off, carefully inviting another increment of volume with the cool dials. Eight... eight... eight... eight, but still nothing came. Nothing. For an age, nothing. Then, the percussive clack of a dozen curtain rings smacking together as light burst into the room. Dad, surprised to see me up and dressed so early, wandered curiously over. It was lucky he’d not been a minute or so earlier and seen me pummelling the buttons with an eight year old’s untamed frustration.

“It’s a bit early," Dad said.

He reached to the back under the tuner and pulled out a set of headphones. They weren’t like the flimsy ones we had for our Walkmans that we’d always get our hair caught in. These ones were heavy and felt as if they’d slide off at any minute without a careful balancing act to keep them in place. The ear pads covered my ears entirely and Dad adjusted the headband from the sides, making them as small as they would go ­ though they’d never get quite small enough. They came with a string cable attached that was ruffled with wear and soft. At the very end, there was a quarter inch jack –­ the kind reserved for something more serious than our homemade radio shows.

Dad plugged the headphones into the amp, put the volume down low and flicked the one switch that I’d omitted to find in the grand plan. The opening bars to track one blared out of the cans. I returned Dad’s thumbs up and let it play. Piano keys pounding, a string section rising and crunching electric guitar signalled, as with many plays before, the unfolding of my favourite record and same mission to appear aloof ­– between euphoria and bewildering self-consciousness. It’s tight grip, and the precarious positioning of the headphones seemed to keep me from skipping forward or dialling in that later part of the record that I so wanted to hear.

As soon as Dad was gone with the tray of tea and toast, I slid the smooth fake leather ear-pads backwards off my ears. The sound of the radio had kicked in upstairs – footsteps and running water would soon follow. I put the headphones back where they had been and returned the CD back to its plastic case and its space in the rack. I never tried that again.

Twenty-two years on, I still play that album – on the same system of separates that was handed down to me – speakers, cables and the units with all of those complicated buttons. Track one still gives me the jitters but I rarely make it as far as track eight. When Dad comes round, we enthuse over those dials. They still twist and turn as silkily as ever, even though I keep the volume low, in a terraced house with its walls as thin as Bible paper. I can stand there any day, in front of the display, heart beating, burning up with the memories of growing up with so much music in our house. Somehow the metal always stays so cool. 

Jess Morgan is a singer-songwriter living in Norwich. Her first love will always be Cher in the film Moonstruck. Listen to ‘Come To The Opera With Me, Loretta’ and follow Jess on instagram.

 

 

 

September story: 15 September 2004

  &nbsp;illustration  maggie chiang

 illustration maggie chiang

 words aimee-lee abraham

 

You were a child this morning. This morning is a world away.

You’re ten, and you’re in the cloakroom when it happens. Of course you’re in the cloakroom when it happens. I’m sorry to tell you that this kind of twisted inconvenience will become a hallmark. Better get used to it, kid.

Right now, though, you’re not used to it. Not one bit. That’s okay. How could you be? You’re ten, and you’re not even sure if you’ve crossed the line. No one else has crossed the line in your class, not that you know of.

All you have is an instinct, an inkling founded upon the sun-stained leaflets you’ve seen stacked up in the GP’s office, their pages full of clip-art girls, all of them clutching hot water bottles and chocolate bars. All you know is that you just felt a hot trickle, followed closely by cold shock. All you know is that you want your Mum. What now?

There’s excitement, dread, the kind of adrenaline you’ll experience only a handful of times since. It feels like a requited glance. It feels like the delicious unravelling that comes when you’re getting to truly know another person. It feels like jumping off a cliff. More of that later. Let’s deal with this one step at a time.

The walk home from school that day is no different to any other, not really. Except this time it’s less of a stroll, more of a casual run. There’s no time to stop for penny sweets.

As you half-jog, you try to be sympathetic about whatever melodrama unfolded at lunch, to fill all the right spaces with sighs, but every syllable that runs from Jennifer’s mouth is unintelligible, like she’s dribbling hot glue down her uniform. What does she know, anyway? She’s just a child. You were a child this morning. This morning is a world away.

Suddenly, you’re something else, something grey and in-between. A little woman. All you can hear is the rush of blood – to your head, and perhaps to the other place, too. You are melting, and so is Jennifer, and so is the pavement. Your soles are sinking like quicksand. Your limbs are dead weights. Your skirt is too tight; your collar is a Boa constrictor.

When you wave goodbye, you crumble and stumble up the garden path as fast as you can. You’ll see Jennifer tomorrow, if the sky can hold up until then, if you make it. Double maths and a spelling test, first thing. You’ll later call this pathetic fallacy. Right now you call it lame.

When you finally put the key in the door, you pretend not to hear your mother when she asks how your day has been, even though you want nothing more than to collapse into her, and plead for a bedtime story.

You retreat, run to the bathroom, lock the door. You see the stain, a suspicion confirmed in cloth. You recoil at the suddenness, at the sadness. This is a loss, as well as a gain.

No one told you about how complex this act would be, how loaded a bodily function could feel. It will represent so much over the years. You will bleed relief. You will bleed grief. You will panic when you bleed, and panic even harder when you don’t. Your ovaries will torment you, and cause you extreme pain. You’ll love them anyway, thank them for doing their job. It’s funny because nothing has changed yet, not really, but these four walls feel less solid, somehow. The ground: gelatinous. The relics of childhood are suddenly stark, inappropriate, out of context.

You thought you’d be happy about this transition, or at least less bothered. You’ve seen the moment play out countless times, in vanilla-scented advertisements where the women laugh over salad and cartwheel because they can. You’ve had 'The Talk'. You’ve read about it by torchlight, in Sugar and Mizz, in Danielle Steel novels stolen from your aunt’s shelf. You’re prepped, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready.

And so you steady yourself, lean against the cold plastic panelling of the tub your mother bathed you in, back when we were shiny and new. What use do you have for rubber ducks now, what use for the mermaid Barbie with her kaleidoscopic tail and Rapunzel hair, what use for the no-more-tears shampoo? They’re all designed for screaming children, not for you.

Tomorrow you’ll feign a different sickness, take three steps at once. When you borrow your mother’s razor without asking, you’ll seek out legs smooth as silk, and plan to go without tights. Instead, you’ll bleed even more. You’ll immediately take out a whole chunk of your ankle, and your skin will become effervescent, the wound fizzing like a soluble vitamin you’ll later drop into water when you’re hungover. It’ll scar, and you’ll look at it and laugh when you’re 23. It marks how far you've come. 

Aimee-lee Abraham is a London-based writer and editor who dreams of running back to the Welsh hills. Instagram @aimlee.abraham

Discover three more 'September stories' in issue 38 of Oh Comely, out now. 

Falling cat problem

words: polly dickson

illustration: maggie chiang

 

A black cat traces the passage from balcony to ground. We hear her yowls before we see her. A cat, in German, is always she, die Katze. The word for a tomcat, Kater, is also the word for a hangover — a lexical coincidence, an accidental collision, but one that sticks. Her yowls throb. A cat falling from a height of greater than six stories is less likely to sustain serious injuries than a cat falling from a height of less than six stories. At the greater height, the cat, having righted herself by virtue of her lack of collarbone and flexible spine, reaches terminal velocity, after which she stops accelerating, spreads and relaxes her body. This means that there is an optimal height range from which a cat can fall and survive. A brief passage of time and air, bookended by balcony and ground.

The black cat in front of us lopes to a low window ledge, keeling, and curls herself onto it like a comma.

When I run, no matter what else I think about, I think, too, about the passing of time. Bookending the exertion with a start and finish — knowing how far or how long I have to go — can make the difference between finishing and turning back. Once, when running up a hill with C, feeling my legs giving out, he started counting down from ten and as he counted, in brief, half-conscious thoughts, I counted with him and felt the passage of time shorten, felt its horizon curve and dip to slowly let me over. I think of races, fasts, other travails of the mind and body made bearable by the knowledge of their limited duration, the knowledge of their ending. I think of books, too, the piquancy of the short story, the slow engulfment of the novel — narratives that make sense only when they’re over, and how any pleasure I feel in reading is tied together with my feeling that it will come, inevitably, to an end. I mark my way through books, leaving a path of folded corners, examining how many volumes, chapters, pages I have left. I note the bakery at one kilometre, smelling of butter, the bridge at the third, the water fountain at the sixth, then the turning point, then the fountain, the bridge, and the rich smell of butter again, on the home stretch.

A woman emerges flushed from the ground-floor apartment door and scoops a pile of black cat into her arms. Landing on her feet, of course, doesn’t mean she goes uninjured, and with her guttural yowls circling through my head, I can’t help but think she might be dying.

Something that never fails to astound me is the range of wild and lucid thoughts I can have when reading a paper aloud to an audience. Reading aloud, for a limited portion of time, things feel unendurable. My voice, unsteady, sounds like it could be someone else’s, my face flushes, my eyes barely register the blank faces in the audience as I dutifully read one word after another. But that’s the thing: one word inevitably folds into the next, and then into a stream of others, one paragraph into another paragraph as the writing propels itself forward into an inevitable conclusion. I’ll move on, in any case. Pick myself up. From passage to passage, thinking of falling cats and hangovers and running, I read, and wait for the ending, the conclusion, the final sentence, final clause, final words, and the unknown white space that comes afterward.

 

Polly Dickson is a writer and researcher based in Berlin. She tweets at @pollyletitia.

Falling cat problem was inspired by the theme of the latest issue – Passages. Order your copy here

Sunday Reading: The Birthday

words: aimee keeble

photo: katie silvester

What an odd thing time is. Going through boxes in my parents’ garage in North Carolina the other day I found the pictures from our family holiday in Norfolk when I was 12. It’s my birthday and I am on a rise of dune, bent at the waist, grinning with eyes squinted shut, my dad’s mustard windbreaker draped over my small frame like a cloak. No trousers, no shoes. My face and body is thin with youth. My hair is patterned with thick, yellow tiger stripe highlights. There is a sign behind me alerting beachgoers to watch out for seals.

Nearly 20 years later and I am at the same beach for my 31st birthday, with friends who I’ve met in the three years I’ve spent living in Norwich. Two girls, three boys. I’m in love with one of them but he won’t know. It’s August and preciously hot for England. We pull at the tight stretch of our swimsuits, laughing when our bottom cheeks spring back from the fabric when we move, we blame chips and beer. We take photos of the boys doing handstands by the water. A group of seals pop their heads from the shallows, following us as we toss a ball back and forth. Further along the beach we come across the perfect dead body of a baby seal. Dappled and round it gently rolls with each push of the tide. The smell is shocking. That’s what they wanted! Not our ball. We debate pushing the body back into the water, to deliver it back to the sea, to the seal family. We are nervous and hot and someone suggests building sandcastles. Other people start to wander over to see what we are looking at.

Back by the towels, everyone tosses a ball except me. I lie on my back and nudge myself further into a gritty embrace of sand, scrunching it through my fingers and toes. And she didn’t know, the little me, that she would be here in the future, in love and lost, laughing at the skateboard and cheese she unwrapped earlier in her friend’s house before they all drove to the coast. If I had told her, she couldn’t have imagined it. She wouldn’t have wanted it. She wanted big hot pink lights of the West End and an urban walk and a voice hoarse from projecting Shakespeare on the banks of the Thames. Now all is quiet, country yellow and green and cobbled medieval grey. We’re drunk most nights, we hold each other’s hands a lot. And dance in kitchens, knocking over plastic chairs to get to each other’s waists. I roll cigarettes badly and shoot whiskey and worry about the length of my hair.

We go to a country pub after the beach and drank clear gold shandies that chase out the tang of salt and share bowls of chips and prawns. In the evening, back in the city, we dance at the top of a roof bar until 3am. The luminosity of strobe lights and voodoo blues songs turns us whirling as dervishes, as raging and as surefooted as mustangs. In the dark, outside in the cold that pricks my bare skin, I kiss him and laugh at him, slap his face gently and tell him never again and hold his chin and kiss him harder. The drunk bold of me; the soft tired exhaustion that booze can choke you slowly with show his eyes half blue, half there. Goodnight! We all say as we part to walk home in the electric black of pre-dawn. I support my friend, him stronger and smaller than me. We stumble over wet cobbles the size of watermelons, past graffiti loud tunnels and the slim greasy back roads to our house. Did you have a good birthday? I think of the strong taste of sea, always dark blue in my mouth, the slippery hard rush of sand against skin, my eyes closed to the wind that skitters off the North Sea. I’ll never forget it, is my reply, always. 

Aimée Keeble is currently completing her MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. Take a look at her website to read more of her work.

Contribute your personal stories to issue 39

  illustration: Jisun Lee for issue 37

illustration: Jisun Lee for issue 37

We're looking for your contributions for issue 39, out in October.  

Writers, we have a challenge for you this issue. We're looking for original first person stories that take place within one room. 

We're intrigued by the possibilities and hope that you will be too. 

To be considered, email a 100-word outline of your idea to ohcomely@icebergpress.co.uk, along with two samples of your work by Friday 14 July. Please state 'Issue 39 contributions' in the subject header. 

Unfortunately we don't accept fiction or poetry samples. We do try and get back to everyone but we're a really small team so it might take us a while. 

We look forward to hearing your ideas! 

We're always interested in your personal writing. If you have a story that you'd like to share with us, regardless of theme, email us at the address above with your outline and samples. 

Contribute to our 'Passage' issue

 Photo: Liz Seabrook for  Oh Comely   issue 32 , showing the collection of Julia of  Choosing Keeping

Photo: Liz Seabrook for Oh Comely issue 32, showing the collection of Julia of Choosing Keeping

Issue 38 - out in August - will be themed 'Passage' and we're looking for your contributions. 

For this issue, we're especially interested in your first person tales of 'September stories' - although it’s a while since we’ve been in school yet September still seems to always mark major events and transitions in our lives.

Whether back to school, a new beginning, or another life-shifting event, we’d love to hear stories based on significant experiences in your life that just so happen to have taken place in September… 

To be considered, email a 100-word outline of your idea to ohcomely@icebergpress.co.uk, along with two samples of your work by Friday 26 May. Please state 'Issue 38 contributions' in the subject header. 

Unfortunately we don't accept fiction or poetry samples. We do try and get back to everyone but we're a really small team so it might take us a while. 

We look forward to hearing your ideas! 

Women who changed the world: Kathrine Switzer

 Illustration:  Will Jarvis

Illustration: Will Jarvis

“Running always made me feel powerful, free and fearless,” says Kathrine Switzer, a woman who has devoted her life to making other women feel the same. The first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon – a race that changed her life forever – defeated presumptions about the limits of female strength.

As anyone who has attempted it knows, the marathon tests will as much as endurance. For female runners in the 1960s, however, there was an additional challenge – it was generally believed they simply couldn’t run that far, that they would hurt themselves or become too ‘masculine’. So, when Kathrine entered the 1967 Boston Marathon (using her gender-neutral pen-name ‘K.W. Switzer’ on the form), she was breaking unwritten protocol, rather than anything in the official rules. Even her University coach had suggested that women were too ‘fragile’ to undertake that distance – she proved him wrong by running 31 miles in training.

However, rather than Kathrine finishing the Marathon, it was an infuriated official forcibly trying to remove her from the race that became the catalyst for change. With the intervention of her then boyfriend, Kathrine escaped and kept running. Captured on camera, the incident was circulated around the world, and later named one of Time-Life’s ‘100 Photos that Changed the World’. But the photograph alone didn’t change the world, it’s what Kathrine did next. Over her subsequent 24 miles, Kathrine realised she now had a mission. By the time she limped across the line at 4hrs 20, she had vowed to “become a better athlete” and to “create opportunities for other women in running”.

True to her vow, Kathrine created a circuit of women’s only races, spanning 27 countries and including over a million participants, debunking myths about running’s negative effect on women’s health. Thanks to her campaigning, the women’s marathon was finally introduced into the Olympics in 1984. To date, Kathrine has run 39 marathons – including, in 1972, the Boston Marathon, the first year women were officially admitted.

This year, 50 years after the event changed her life, Kathrine will be running it again, this time alongside women from her ‘261 Fearless’ project. Named after the bib number she wore that day, it promotes women’s running as a route to social change.

Today, that women can run alongside men, push our bodies, our will, feel the elation of crossing the finish line – but don’t have to fight simply to participate – is thanks, in part, to Kathrine. Little wonder that when she goes to the Boston marathon now, she describes how women approach her, crying: “They’re weeping for joy because running has changed their lives. They feel they can do anything”.

 

Further reading

Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports by Kathrine Switzer

kathrineswitzer.com

 

We include a 'Woman who changed the world' in every issue of Oh Comely. Pick up your back issues here

Sunday Reading: Awakening

words: Katie Antoniou

photo: Aloha Bonser Shaw

 

 

In the 20 years I’ve had narcolepsy, I’ve tried everything you can imagine to stay awake. Caffeine, prescription drugs, acupuncture; you name it, I’ve tried it.

But when people talk about awakenings, it’s what my mother said to me soon after I was diagnosed that comes to mind.

“We’re not going to let this change your life.”

As a frightened 14 year old, this was probably exactly what I needed to hear. But, over the coming years, I would experience a gradual awakening; a realisation that actually, I would never really be the same again.

The first symptom I experienced was extreme sleepiness. I had trouble getting up in the mornings, found myself nodding off in class and fell asleep the second I got in a car. But it wasn’t until I started exhibiting symptoms of cataplexy, the sister illness most narcoleptics also suffer from, that my parents became really worried. Cataplexy involves your muscles going into a state of sleep whenever you feel any strong emotion – prime triggers are laughter, crying or any real adrenaline rush. I started to feel my legs give way beneath me whenever I found something funny; sometimes it was only so bad that I’d get double vision, or wouldn’t be able to hold my head up; other times I’d hit the floor and it would look like I’d fallen asleep or fainted. I was, however, still completely awake and able to hear everything that was going on, but unable to move a muscle. It’s kind of like sleep paralysis, when you wake up unable to move, which I also began to experience, along with horrific night terrors and waking hallucinations. In a way I was lucky because my symptoms were so severe that I was diagnosed almost immediately – many narcoleptics go years without treatment, often being misdiagnosed with ME, iron deficiencies or simply labelled lazy.

At first I was told there was medication that would treat my illness and everything should get back to normal. However, over the coming months and years I began to realise it wasn’t quite that simple. The drugs definitely improved my symptoms, but my life was a far cry from what it once was and my teenage years were very difficult – sleeping through my GCSEs and only slightly better A Levels at a more understanding school that let me nap in the medical centre during free periods. What was harder to control was the cataplexy attacks, which were still triggered largely by laughter and nerves. I went from being an outgoing joker, a keen actress and member of my school debating team to a shell of my former self. I could no longer play any competitive sport, and this lack of exercise led to extreme weight gain. I stopped taking leadership positions in anything really, and just struggled to get by, delivering the bare minimum in terms of academic output. My dreams of becoming an actress were no longer viable – for a while, I found it hard to imagine how I’d ever even hold down a job, or have a family of my own.

Luckily, a few things changed when I was around 19. A new drug arrived in the UK from the US which worked much better. I also saw a cranial osteopath which really helped my cataplexy.  I went to university, which was wonderful. For the first time in ages, I didn’t feel like an outsider. Yes, I still fell asleep in lectures, but I was hardly ever the only one. Able to sleep in late, take naps whenever I needed them and work at night meant a student’s schedule suited me perfectly. Little did I know this would predict my career as a freelance writer. Before that though, came a series of internships, essential for this industry and highly competitive, where I had to hide my condition. I napped everyday on the floor of a toilet cubicle during lunch breaks at one particular women’s glossy HQ. After a few years of complete exhaustion – constantly falling asleep in meetings or at my computer – I realised that a 9 to 5 couldn’t work for me.

I took a leap of faith and went freelance. That way, I could nap before scheduled meetings with clients or interviewees. I could work remotely, able to sleep when I needed to at home and still deliver work on time, so that editors got to know my work as a writer before they even found out about my condition. It’s a lot easier to get people to take you seriously if they’ve never seen you slumped over at your desk or nodding off during a meeting.

My condition has also improved as I’ve got older. How much of this is just me learning to manage it better and how much is my body actually changing, I can’t be sure, but whatever it is, three years ago I was brave enough to try coming off my medication with a view to starting a family. I’d tried coming off my pills many times before, but the hallucinations and night terrors had always come back within days. This time, they didn’t.

I was lucky enough to conceive very quickly, and as soon as the pregnancy hormones kicked in, most of my remaining symptoms dissipated. After my daughter was born, I kept those hormones going by breastfeeding until she was just over a year, but even when I stopped, fearful that my cataplexy would come back with a vengeance, I was pleasantly surprised to find how mild my symptoms were. Having said that, I’m still experiencing the odd ‘awakening.’

Narcoleptics typically have very disturbed nights – sleeping for only three or four hours at at time before waking. So, in a way, I was ideally prepared for motherhood. My daughter is nearly two now and still has a lunchtime nap; the second she’s down, I’m in bed, napping too. I still couldn’t get through the day without a nap, which means that as my friends are starting to plan their second child, I’m coming to terms with the fact that this is probably it for me, that I don’t think I can manage more than one.

Even now, when I think of all the years I’ve had to come to terms with how this illness has changed my life, I’m still surprised by the odd realisation that I’m never going to be the person my 13-year-old self imagined I’d be. From simple things like not being able to drive; (much more of a nuisance now I’m a mother and no longer live in London), to my lack of ambition, which I’ve only really acknowledged in recent years. I used to want fame, success, wealth; the whole package. But what a life changing medical condition will teach you is, you can do without all of that. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to achieve what I have, largely thanks to the support of my parents when I was younger and my husband later in life. And as I see my fellow mothers planning their growing families or my former colleagues getting book deals, it may be hard not to feel at all envious, but I’m mostly just grateful for how my life has turned out and proud that I’m still here, still staying awake.

 

Katie Antoniou is a freelance writer currently living in California, connect with her on twitter @katieantoniou

 

There are more stories of Awakening in Oh Comely issue 36, out 13 April.  

 

Sunday Reading: Moments for us

rachelsmekalova

words: Ráchel Smekalova
photo: Daniela Malá

Curing the restless mind with self-navigated breathing is one of the things I do when my mind all of a sudden starts screaming in waves of uncategorised thoughts about nothing and everything. It is late at night and even distant street lights look dark through generic Swedish curtains. My boyfriend's heavy breath and sweaty naked back leans against my pale Slavic shapes. I think about my friends with whom I've lost contact. About how much of a hypochondriac my grandmother can be. Will I be the same? Maybe I should have asked about how to do taxes before I'd signed that job contract last year? What do I potentially owe now to the Czech government, one year later? Also, why has my Christmas gift never arrived? Did it get lost? Who wears my classy dioptre glasses, if it's not me? And do those people even need glasses to see? I wonder about the Syrian kids and their drowned siblings. Will Tom Ford dress Mélania Trump? I hope not, honestly. But what do I care. I start thinking about all the women that inspired me in the past and how hard they must have worked to be where they are. It is a true spiral of nonsensical thoughts.

Breathe! Take it slow, calm your mind. I can feel the oxygen going from my frozen toes up to shivering thighs and arriving to my soft belly. It seems much easier going from the bottom upwards. The mind is a powerful tool. One, two, three. Four hundred. I am slowly drifting away from the chaos to a synchronised sleep. It's almost like a night performance, an underwater dance aquabelles would do. I am now breathing heavily with him next to me and living in a new reality under the umbrella of my dreams.

When I wake up, it's Saturday and we're going on a road trip. Mind is clear as the blue sky. I can see through the train window. We have three hours to just sit back and relax. I am only hoping my mind doesn't get so out of control like yesterday night. I could read, but I always feel sick after a while.

Letters start jumping on a paper and it gives me a headache. Boyfriend sleeps again, dropping saliva on his linen shirt as if the world around didn't exist. He allows me to be alone with my thoughts. But this time, I'm in control.

We're back in Berlin, having an early beer and the best kebab in town. The night is still waiting for us. Dominika wears a yellow fluffy jumper and tells me about her unfinished dissertation, boy troubles, future prospects and amazing bands she's seen live. We're going to see one tonight. We're standing in a crowded venue, and colourful sparkles fall on our dancing bodies. Somebody spilled a beer on my suede jacket, but I didn't care. And as the night ends, we give each other a promise of endless friendship.

How did we get so far from each other? I am now living thousands of kilometres away and we barely talk. Is her bachelor thesis finished now and what happened to the guy she really wanted to date? I am suddenly just feeling empty and distant. My thoughts are taking over again. I will try to read a bit. Not the book, it's too Russian and too heavy. I grab a magazine I'd bought, funnily, for the first time with Dominika back in Berlin. Suddenly every story reminds me of our once so vibrant and true friendship. So I make notes throughout every page I see. Connecting my life back to hers, gluing my new memories to the ones we've made together. It starts making sense. This is the best letter and gift I can send her. So I draw, write, laugh silently and feel very much as if we were the only people on the train. Having another adventurous day filled with stories and promises. When she reads this, she feels the warmth of my words and hears the sound of my voice as if distance and time never existed.

Dominika sits back in her childhood room, facing an inspirational teenage wall with rainbow stickers, a photo of young Kate Moss torn out from an old issue of French Vogue, favourite handwritten quotes from Letters to a Young Poet, naked new born baby sister polaroid pic from 1996 and a couple of letters I've sent her since the day I went to the countryside. She reads the newest one. I am telling her I got a new job. It's an editorial job in the magazine that brought us back together. Her still dry lips suddenly shape into the form of a long U and a silent sigh comes out. She is always going to be a part of my story and I will be part of hers.

Ráchel is a freelance journalist and editor, seeking out new adventures in London. She loves the feeling of time slowing down, tastes of undiscovered places and the weight of print magazines in her hands. She keeps Instagram as her everyday visual diary and shares memories of the past on her website

 Issue 35 of Oh Comely explores strength in all its forms. Pick up a copy here

 

 

Sunday Reading: Green, Green Grass of Home

words: Becky MacNaughton
photo: Liz Seabrook
 

I’ve lived in the same house for over 20 years, but it’s still thousands of miles from home. My second home, I should say – the one I reach for when it gets too much.

In moments of crises I often think about a yellow piece of paper. It bears a name and a date and a birth weight, and it lists a place an entire ocean away – a town which is sandwiched somewhere between a lake and a harbour. But what it doesn’t say in ink it says in hope: that there’s a second chance and a fresh start, and a right to both.

I left Canada at the age of five, in the murk and the muddiness of my parent’s divorce. There are things I remember from this time and things I do not. Enough moments to span a day, maybe, but they are not the things that adults usually recall. I lined up boxes in the basement of our house like a train, for example, and ate grape bubble gum from a roll, wedging it in the pocket of my hand luggage. It was a backpack shaped like a cow. I carried that thing around with me for years.

I remember other days, too, but sometimes memories blur with dreams and I wonder, really, what I’m remembering at all. We went fishing once and we played basketball and there was an outdoor pool that I briefly jumped into, my brother catching me in his arms. But did I really watch the glass of a vending machine implode? Did candy explode across the floor and we take it home, like loot, shoving as much and as many as we could into a paper bag?

That’s where they stop, more or less, the snippets of things. They’re merely photographic – flat and glossy, they struggle to reveal the real weight of things.

Yet I tell myself almost every year that I’ll buy a ticket home. When people leave or die or fall out of love, it seems like the only thing to do: green grass is a better thing to look at than heartbreak. Sometimes I even pick the time of the year to go – Fall always looks best, I think, nestled under leaves of auburn and amber and gold, just before the snow rolls in. Because that is also something I remember: the banks of it, the bitterness, the need for hats and scarves and matching mittens.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it would look and feel and smell like. It’s a type of wanderlust, but it straddles the line between going somewhere new and returning home. The house and the library and the play park will not be the same. Twenty years changes a place, least of all a person – it reshuffles the bricks and reforms the land. But on bad days, I still look at flights and I plan routes and I wonder, at the back of my mind, just how long it would take. To settle in, to carve a life, to make it feel like home.

On good days, though, it’s a different story. The thought doesn’t cross my mind. On these days, I realise that it’s the promise and the pull of it that matters to me most. And then I wonder: settled there, would I need another place to go? Another ocean to cross and another route to plan? It seems so simple then, barely even a question: I’d return here, to the really green fields.



Becky is a reader, a writer and a constant work in progress. She keeps a blog, here, which is about being all three. Discover more tales of return in issue 34 of Oh Comely