If success can be judged by being placed in competition with other writers, then Running Away is one of my successful stories. Written in 2011, sent out into the competitive world of international short story competitions in 2012, it was placed on two longlists, highly commended in 2013, shortlisted in both 2016 and 2019, and published on Fairlight Books website in May of that year. I had hoped it might have made a top ten en route, and therefore publication in an anthology, but no. And so, since a writer writes to be read, in October 2019 it was self-published in my debut collection Appetites: stories of love, sex and death.
I wrote a story on Lukey’s back once. I can see my brown finger now, moving across the sweaty whiteness of his parchment skin . . .
This the first line that came to me, and the first line of the first draft. From those two sentences I knew that Lukey’s story would be told by the female narrator who had ‘dictated’ them. Knew Arlene (known to her father as Lennie, Lennie-girl or Coffee Bean) was Lukey’s older sister. Knew her skin was brown, but a lighter brown than her Grenadian father; and that Lukey’s whiteness was not that of his English mother, but of albinism.
Thanks to Lennie’s ‘dictation’, the first draft was soon completed. However, on reaching the end I realised the beginning needed reworking and took just as long getting the mood of the retrospective introduction to the story right.
By 2020, I thought Running Away had run its course: it was in print, and might be read by a few unknown people who bought Appetites, but that was about it for Lennie’s family.
Then, at the end of April 2021, I received a brief email from a schoolteacher, thanking me for the beautiful story that had been a huge success with her Year 8 class. To which I sent a grateful thanks. Soon receiving a long reply, in which I discovered this enterprising teacher, coming upon the story on Fairlight Books website, had thought it suitable for her class. And so it proved to be. In part, because of the concise sentence structure, and, she wrote, the short lines of text, so poetic that each line is easily pondered over. That and the diverse but deeply connected characters meant it was loved by her pupils as well as other teachers – who loved blasting Bob Marley in the classroom to brighten the dull spring days.
Cultural appropriation a hot topic, and the sensitivity reader now as important as the proof reader, prior to online publication, Fairlight had asked what research was done for the story. I had to admit, no sun-soaked Caribbean holiday was taken in order to authenticate my words, all research done online; though decades before – my London life far more multicultural than my life now – I did have one Grenadian friend. I also have a writer’s imagination. And thanks to that, to the sensitivity of one teacher, to her enthusiastic pupils, having conversations about empathy, family, love, loss, [and] rum!, thanks to their being moved by my words, Running Away had won the best prize of all: the appreciation of a classroom of East London girls, many of whom [with] roots in Grenada, the island neither I, nor poor Lukey, had visited.
Here is a short extract from the story:
Our father came from Grenada.
Do they have snow there, Daddy?
It was Lukey’s first summer.
Do they have rivers of milk?
No, crazy chil. Grenada she have sunshine, she have blue sky, she have nutmeg an cinnamon, an ginger . . . looking out at the grey July day, then turning to beam down at me, and with an enthusiasm that made me want to taste it, And she have rum!
Had it been just me, my father and my mother, had Lukey not been lying in his white cot, I might have said, Can we go there, Daddy? Can we go live in Grin-nay-dah, with its blue sky, its sinner-man and rum? But somehow I knew, before I knew why, that my mother would not sanction Lukey going there.
Dad must have known it too, because, sitting on the nursing chair beside Lukey’s cot, he said, Come ere, Coffee Bean (I was either Coffee Bean or Lennie. Never Arlene). These locks is comin undone. What’s your mother doin these days? Not plaitin that boy’s hair, for sure. And I stood between my father’s legs, my hands on his knobbly knees, as his bony fingers deftly plaited my unruly hair, feeling safe in the pincer grip of his long-limbed presence. Y’know, Lennie, he said, blue sky can get a bit borin day after day. And a man can have too much rum.
Even a sinner-man?
Specially a sinner man. Those sinner-men would ave done well not to ave touched it in de first place. But men is weak, Lennie-girl. Men is weak.
But Lukey won’t be weak!
His big hands gripping my small shoulders, my father turned me round to face him. Lennie. Your brother is special, like any chile is special, an he’ll need to be strong, for sure, but that boy won’t be no saint, an I hope he won’t be no sinner-man either.
He won’t be, I said, with all the certainty of the innocent. He can’t be. Lukey’s extra special.
Listen to a longer extract, in Episode 1 of On the Shelf: the oxymoronic life of an underpublished writer on my podcast page.
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