issue 38

September story: 15 September 2004

 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. 

Women Who Changed the World: Annette Kellerman

words: frances ambler

illustration: maria martini

 

Our cover girl for issue 38 is Annette Kellerman – the swimming star who challenged Victorian perceptions about women’s bodies by ditching pantaloons and skirts and daring to bare her flesh while swimming. It’s Annette who is responsible for the swimming costume as we know it today

Record-breaking swimmer, the highest paid women in vaudeville, a health and fitness pioneer, the first major actress to both appear nude and to wear a moveable mermaid costume on film – out of all of Annette Kellerman’s notable achievements, it was her own line of one piece costumes, the foundation of modern swimwear, of which she was most proud,for it helped liberate women, allowing them – for the first time – to really swim.

Born in Australia in 1887, Annette wore steel braces as a child and took swimming lessons to strengthen her weak legs. She took to the sport like the proverbial duck to water. To help her family's finances, she became a professional swimmer. As a record breaker, Annette travelled the world raising publicity, in London swimming in the polluted Thames; in Paris, racing men in the Seine. She was one of the first women to attempt to swim the Channel.

While for most of the western world, pantaloons, skirts, even corsets, were still the norm for women’s ‘bathing’, Annette wore a short legged, non-skirted costume to compete for Australia. Invited to perform for British royalty in 1905, she sewed a pair of black stockings onto her men's swimsuit, creating a full-length one-piece “figure suit”. “I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline,” she sniffed. Such an ensemble saw her being arrested on a beach in Massachusetts for indecency. From the subsequent publicity, she designed and sold her suits worldwide, one step towards liberating the female body.

Annette also challenged Victorian perceptions of women’s physicality. Her performances combined a kind of underwater ballet with high dives, her choreographed moves with her ‘Kellerman girls’ an early form of synchronised swimming. She starred in highly successful films too, appearing unashamedly nude in the 1916 film, A Daughter of the Gods.

“I insist that swimming is not only a splendid sport for women, but that it is the sport for women,” Annette said, benefits ranging from the physical to the psychological. “If more girls would swim and dance, instead of rushing into matrimony as the only joy in the world, there would be fewer divorces.” She encouraged women to throw aside their corsets and penned books on health and fitness. A lifelong vegetarian, she even opened her own health food shop.

Annette died in 1975, at 89, having swum well into her eighties. Her swimwear got a generation of women into the water for the first time, allowing them to experience what she described as this “clean, cool, beautiful, cheap thing we all from cats to kings can enjoy". 

Order a copy of issue 38 from our shop

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

Issue 38 playlist: Passages

illustration: ellie walker

words: marta bausells

It takes skill to accept the passage of time with grace. Perhaps it takes a lifetime. That invisible, abstract force we hear of but don’t fully grasp as kids. "Time” seems so elastic, huge and slow during childhood, but suddenly speeds up like a slingshot that’s suddenly let go, and it can and will catch you off guard.

The passage of time can mean ageing, or regret, wisdom or wonderment. It means Angel Olsen singing about memories, upon a love ending, wondering whether it was real at all or just a wildcard in waiting for something better. And it means the literal – but for that no less sublime – coming of age depicted in Boyhood, soundtracked so memorably by Family of the Year. The sitting inside, paralysed by your own thoughts, of Youth Lagoon. The existential Let the Mystery Be from the title credits for post-apocalyptic show The Leftovers (which we strongly recommend). The watching of someone's death, like in Death Cab’s classic I Will Follow You Into The Dark. Or, yet, asking a new city, or country, to be kind to us as we make changes and life shifts under our feet getting us ready for the new.

The playlist for issue 38 compiles artists talking about time passing in their own ways; and it is a good soundtrack, we hope, for time-passing on many a rosé-tinted summer evening.

Take your time over the playlist here.

Issue 38 of Oh Comely is on sale now! 

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!