Nativity

Here was a solar system that spun without joy. For years, fitful sunlight had starved the planets of their bounty.

The Angel came at a bad time.

“You’ve been long wanted,” the Council broadcast on all wavelengths, and the thing that spanned horizons said in its echoing many-voice

CELESTIAL MATTERS HAVE BEEN FRAUGHT.

for all the planet to hear, right from the assembled authorities in the Council chamber right down to the outskirts of humanity’s influence on this recently settled planet. Here Shep was keeping an eye on the herds of machines tending her crops. She had never heard an Angel’s voice before. It made her skin flush warm.

“What do you propose we do?” asked the Council.

I WOULD SPEAK WITH ADMIRAL MARIAM ALONE,

the Angel told them, and so she was except for the Chancellors and Generals and Ministers who crowded round the door, of course not to hear the Angel’s voice (now perceptible only to Mariam) but instead to hear her replies.

“A son?”

Then, “Who will care for it?”

And Shep, far away where the country threatened to become wild, sat bolt upright, because now in her mind and only hers was and Angel’s call.

Shep stared when it came flaming through the sky and thudded like a fallen star steaming in her westmost field; she stared when the Admiral came to inspect it, to equip her and to brief her on her duties; she stared when she was left alone with it, this thing not yet quite alive but filled with thrumming energy.

It was the size of a boulder, misshapenly oval. She couldn’t tell how much was flesh and how much was machine, but the skin of the Angel-seed that was visible was furred like a peach, as if when bitten into it would yield soft and sweet.

She tried to speak to it to no avail, but when she curled up next to it to sleep (the best chance of warmth she could find as the days grew shorter and the sun got dimmer), her dreams were permeated with an all-encompassing voice and an alien authority. What Mariam hadn’t told came to her eventually in rumours, so she wondered if the machine-creature had anything like parents warping from star to star in the far reaches of foreign space. Would there be two or many?

Two months in, crazy with questions, Shep approached it with a wrench and a mouth like a knife-edge. It could be put back together again if it could be taken apart.

The flesh writhed with discomfort when touched. She dug her fingers in, searching for she didn’t know what until she found something smooth and cold. The flesh clenched around her touch, metal within the thing shrieking as it ground against itself in a desperate attempt to escape. She tugged and cursed and swore, a mad fit of desire for whatever she had found in this mechanocreature’s skin, and she was going to explode if she had to pull it any harder-

And in her hand was a little nub of circuitry, but the Angel-seed was going mad, because there was blood all over everything glistening and red and more human than Shep could bear. She yelped and scrambled away, dropped her treasure on the floor, then full of remorse came back again and tried to fit the piece where it had come from but the gash was already sealed over.

The blood, though, that stayed, no matter how hard she tried to wash it off, and though over days it slowly faded from her home, her clothes, her hands, it never faded from the plastic backing of the chip she had dug out.

The navigators had not been called on in a long time. Two grandsons and a granddaughter of the ship’s navigator who had steered the original colonisers to this ripe unoccupied planet, they read charts and plotted orbits and consulted textbooks on long-dusty tablets until they were certain.

“On the winter solstice we launch,” said the first grandson.

“If we’re to go where the angel sends us,” said the second.

“Which we must,” said the granddaughter.

So the vessel was made ready. The coloniser ship had long ago been broken down for parts, but its lifecraft remained for infrequent small forays beyond the upper atmosphere. Mariam, Shep and the navigators squeezed in, two piloting and one calling instructions as the tiny vessel took off and powered out of gravity’s reach.

“You’ve kept the Angel-seed safe?” the Admiral had asked Shep.

The chip lay against her skin, on a thin chain around her neck. “Yes,” she had said.

Now the seed pulsed in the ship’s hold, grown larger and more carnal in the months that Shep had kept it. The navigators steered them delicately around the prescribed coordinates in a wide arc. Their Earth spun green and specklike, behind and then ahead as the ship turned.

“Prepare for release,” said the granddaughter.

The Angel-seed fell. Shep watched as it tumbled. As it met the vacuum the flesh began to churn and seethe. Metal sprung from deep within the thing and enveloped its tenderness, and though they were speeding away the Angel-seed in the window grew larger and larger as it built itself into being.

“What an honour,” the Admiral breathed, “to be present for the birth of an Angel.”

The chip on Shep’s neck pulsed, and deep within the Angel a gap that remained unfilled began to eat itself up.

There was no boom that could carry in space. No sound of destruction could penetrate the vacuum. The ship’s passengers and crew held their silence too, as if to show horrified respect, and watched as the Angel was engulfed in flame.

When somebody finally spoke, it was the granddaughter, looking up wildly from a page of calculations. “A new sun,” she said. “It’s in the right place. It’ll drag the planet onto a new orbit.”

“Hot enough? And light enough? And will it last?” The grandsons had their noses pressed to the window, eyes wide.

Shep glanced at the Admiral, made eye contact, couldn’t keep it. Her face was sharp with loss, and the struggle to comprehend it. “I don’t understand,” she murmured. “How can an Angel account for death?”

The chip was cold, now, and hung heavier than before. Shep couldn’t answer the Admiral’s question. All she could do was stare out into space at the flesh becoming light.

The Party

They’d laid out the map and character sheets before they realised they didn’t have enough. Sophie, the smallest, came up first, into a haze of the others’ emotions.

“Yan,” she said, but by this time the others were coming up too into a vague fug of her nervousness and didn’t need her to spell out the problem.

Continue reading “The Party”

Melodrama and the Universal Sad Girl

When Lorde was writing Melodrama, she colour coded themes for her songs and stuck them up on her wall to track patterns and imbalances, shuffling lyrics around on her kitchen table until she was satisfied. Writing about Melodrama has felt like a reverse of that process, dissecting the album to break it down into its constituent parts.

Brand new sounds in my mind

The album has a tactility to it often lacking in pop, which tends to avoid anything that might snag the listener. Lorde’s voice is a percussive instrument, from Homemade “D-d-d-dynamite” and its whispered “boom” to the stutter on “puh-punctuation” in The Louvre. Lorde has said that she worked the album to something that would fit the shape of somebody’s life, curling up with them as they ride the subway, and this attention to detail is evident in a rattle that vibrates behind the chorus of Perfect Places so that even when listening at normal volume the track has the faint sense of being blasted through speakers or tinny earphones.

She means it when she tells us she “can’t let go”; many of the songs on the album fade rather than coming to a sharp end. In Perfect Places the weak cadence at the end underscores the question mark that closes the album, while Supercut reprises the chord progression from Green Light so that we, too, are caught up in the act of memorialising the moment soon after it’s passed.

She’s so hard to please, but she’s a forest fire

The sad girl is sarcastic, witty and self-deprecating,” says a Toast article The Rise Of The Sad Girl. It links interested initiates to the Sad Girls Guide Twitter, but the account that has come to dominate the Sad Girl discussion is not the Guide but SoSadToday. Sample tweet: “if you won’t reject me i’ll do it for you”. It’s a barrage of abject misery tempered with wry self-deprecation, making it just about humourous enough for the average Jill to fav and retweet as #relatablecontent. 

It’s no accident that so many of Melodrama’s lyrics work well isolated as aphorisms. “You could write that on a poster,” my friend Hannah said, and I agreed automatically without being able to pinpoint what kind of poster I was thinking of before I remembered Jenny Holzer’s Truisms; “boredom makes you do crazy things” could easily slot into any of the songs on the album. 

The Sad Girl found her way into fashion last year, an aesthetic that relished the dissonance of bright, peppy colours or delicate pastels with downtrodden slogans like “mixed emotions club” (the mood is now closer to #girlboss, with the Zara’s current offering bearing lines like “too genius” and “be incredible”). Much of the merchandise for the album fits the aesthetic well.

Musically, dour evocations of female sadness such as Lana Del Rey stand as a counterpoint to the emo scene, where “boy sadness was accepted, normalized, and aestheticized; the girls’ perspective was absent.”

“I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not”, SoSadToday retweeted from a Sylvia Plath bot. This is the key to the gendered politics of the Sad Girl – she has to be a woman because the impurity of emotion is a gendered thing. Audrey Wollen explains Sad Girl Theory as the idea that “the sadness of girls should be recognised as an act of resistance”, referencing John Berger’s description of women in art as objects rather than subject. “I don’t think we really grasp the implications of that kind of representation. When you are an object, you are incapable of your own actions, and you are vulnerable to anyone’s actions upon you. You are a hollow receptacle for other people’s desires and movements.”

Continue reading “Melodrama and the Universal Sad Girl”

The Five Best Places In Oxford To Scream!

Screaming is a natural response to the manifold pressures of Oxford student life. Your first time might have been on a Wednesday night when a friend got off with someone fitter and posher than you to the Taylor Swift song they know you love, while others find it occurring in unexpected bursts during everyday life: in the Tesco’s queue, for example, or walking down Cornmarket Street.

Like any other seemingly enjoyable Oxford activity, screaming is subject to intense competitive pressure and debilitating anxiety. If you too worry that your regular agonised howls of despair somehow don’t measure up to those of your peers, fret no longer. This list will help you to have an existential breakdown worth bragging about.

5: Exam Schools

A hub of activity, this architecturally imposing building makes for a tempting location to simply let rip. Your audience could be the innocent youth at Fresher’s Fair, tourists who just wanted a photo of your Harry Potter gown, or a range of panicked exam invigilators plus 150-odd finalists. With such fine stonework, your scream can’t help but be picturesque. Instagram-ability is not a negligible factor in this location’s placing on the list.

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Fantastic Beats: An Alternative Review

“Yeah, that sounds fine,” I said to my housemate Hannah. “I don’t mind a few In The Pink girls staying in our house for rehearsals.” Acapella? More like aca-hell-a. If only I had known what dulcet doom I was getting myself into.

They arrived on a Sunday afternoon, full of cheery “hello”s, melodically reeling off their names before settling into our kitchen. There was discussion of the script. There was talk of marketing. I had always thought acapella a relatively relaxing pastime, on a level with teapot making or shearing very placid sheep. Now it was exposed for the fraught anxiety-fest it really was.

“I could do a review of Fantastic Beats,” I offered in the pub. “For your marketing.”

They give me a long look. “You haven’t seen the show. You can’t review a show you haven’t seen.”

“A review based on stuff I’ve heard in the house while you’re rehearsing. It’s like, viral content. Clickbait.” The optimism is wearing off.

“That could be funny,” one says in a neutral tone. I have heard this tone before, when they were brainstorming the script, in response to a punchline which was resolutely not funny and was dropped with no further discussion.

I’m writing it anyway. That’s just the kind of rebellious attitude their girl power mashup inspires.

Continue reading “Fantastic Beats: An Alternative Review”

Water Lilies

Henry has been waiting by Water Lilies for a very long time. Every time he thinks the woman standing in front of it might be finished, she adopts a new pose and looks commandingly at her travelling companion. The man holds up his phone, tap tap tap, and she smiles.

The two have clearly mistaken the artwork for a monument. Henry viciously imagines their day playing out as a series of backgrounds, Notre Dame and Sacre Couer pinned innocently behind this woman, Monet just another frame for her head. He can’t get a good shot with them in the way.

He attempts to share an exasperated glance with the old woman to his left. She’s probably just as bored as he is, waiting here for Woman (and Water Lilies) to be completed.

They’re done. The two move on. Before anyone else can get in there, Henry strides forwards and points his camera head-on at the painting, click click click, and he smiles, and marches on to the next one. Soon he’s got all eight on his camera roll.

He flicks through them as he strolls down the steps to the rest of the collection. Not bad photos, not at all.

When the news of the space bombardment breaks, he’s at the airport, trying to find something good in the gift shop. Luckily, the complex algorithms of interplanetary humanitarian aid have determined Charles de Gaulle as a major evacuation centre. Henry is among the few million to be teleported up to the peace ships before Earth is caught in the crossfire of a war it didn’t know about.

They scan and poke and prod him, poor bewildered man, and then he’s all alone.

A vast window runs along one side of the room. Outside, Earth hangs pendulously in space. As the ship pulls away the planet shivers and then bursts, like a flower, blossoming red and green and brown.

Click click click. There’s nothing else to do.

They want to reconstruct the masterpieces. There’s a call for photographs. There is talk of Caravaggios and Bruegels.

Henry duly digs out his camera. It’s in a box in the attic, dusty and forgotten, but nobody throws away the things they had with them when Earth was destroyed, even in all the excitement of Earth II.  He hands the photos over and is thanked for his valuable contribution.

Months later he’s invited to the opening of the Earth Gallery. He takes his husband. They drink champagne. It doesn’t taste quite the same as it used to – something to do with the grapes – but they’ve all got used to it now.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” His husband’s enraptured.

“I don’t know.” Henry scrutinises Water Lilies once more. They’ve made a good effort, right down to the texture.  “It’s just not like I remember.”


Originally published in The Isis TT17.

Two Months by the Calanques

EARTH

Spend long enough in Marseille and someone will ask you if you’ve done the Calanques yet. The one advantage of living in a remote ghost town of a campus for two months was that the path to the most accessible of these dramatic rocky inlets started somewhere near my doorstep.

Luminy is nestled into craggy limestone that glows rosy pink at dusk and luminous white in the day. About halfway through my stay I fell while running, leaving grazes that ran from my knee in parallel thin lines to mark the trajectory of a short, decisive skid. People still occasionally comment on the fading pink scars. The ground here is unforgiving; it leaves its mark.

The limestone rises just behind the campus then plunges down to sea level. It’s a short, easy walk along a dusty path before you’re climbing down jagged stone paths, clinging to plant roots for balance, dust on your hands. I’m no mountain goat and have little trust for the grip on my well-worn running shoes, so I descended in slow drips and drabs, wedging my feet resolutely in the most solid-looking crannies I could find.

There’s a small beach at the end of the descent to Sugiton, but we always went a little further along to climb down to a large, flat rock jutting out into the sea. It was often empty in the evenings, and something about the sharp cliff behind and the sea in front made it feel like our own Famous Five island, complete with picnic.

Continue reading “Two Months by the Calanques”

Bloodletting

Anyone could do it in theory. Once you get past the rust and the pain you can taste all kinds of things in blood. God knows where he learned and he’s certainly not sharing, but he’ll tell you how it tastes for the price of the clot.

Mostly he feeds off junkies and teenagers on batshit silly dares. “Don’t get the 73 next Tuesday,” he tells George, and next Tuesday there’s a bus crash that makes national news and from then on everyone treats him with a little more respect.

Word gets round and his clientele goes upmarket. Sometimes women come and eye him up warily – blood is a claimed territory, really – but they still bare their skin for the slice and the fortune.

She’s one of the first of them, trying to look miserable as if it’ll make her less vulnerable. She makes the cut neatly and lets it bleed for longer than most. He gets a good mouthful of her, and he has respect for that, so he’s not surprised when he tastes in her future power and success. He tells her so and she pretends to think he’s a crank but walks away with her shoulders set firmer.

A few years later her face plasters the constituency and of course she gets it. Meteoric rise through the ranks; he hears it all from repeat customers. “Wasn’t she one of yours? And look how she’s done.” They’re not happy when he can’t taste the same in them but blood is blood, what can anyone do about it?

He tastes pregnancy in a girl who looks at him with a flinching kind of hope. When she comes back after the miscarriage he tastes her again. Again and again, a string of tasted children. Eventually she stops coming. Years later he sees her walk past with her boy. He wonders how the kid tastes, but she doesn’t stop.

Cancers are one of his favourites. Remission: he likes to swill it around his mouth, swallow, spit out the prediction like a curse. They always cry when they thank him. He’s tried tasting the tears but they’re not the same; you can’t take anything from them. Of course the tumour comes back, grows big and hungry. They die before they learn to stop coming to him.

Eventually everyone’s favourite MP gets drawn into the kind of filthy scandal she’ll never really be able to wipe. There’s drugs and money and sex and just a little bit of blood. She ends up being one of the only people he refuses a second reading. He knows from one look that her blood will be thinner than water.

She doesn’t argue with him, and perhaps it’s because she’s learned. There’s more to blood than taste; he’s only giving them half the story.

Originally published in The Isis MT16.

Each To Each

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

At first Celantho thinks the mermaid is just another dead body. She is spread-eagled on a rock, dripping with water, and it’s only when Celantho picks her way over the shingle and the crags that she realises that this is the first living, breathing body – person – she’s seen in years. She realises this because, at the sound of her approach, the mermaid’s eyes snap open and she rolls over in surprise, slipping back into the sea with barely a splash.

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The Princess and the Knight

There was once a princess who was everything a princess is expected to be. She was sweet and gentle and kind, with soft, delicate hands. When she smiled she looked like the kind of girl who could charm animals into doing household tasks. Everyone said she was destined to rule with grace and elegance.

Her name was Rose, and she did not want to be a princess. She wanted to be a knight. Continue reading “The Princess and the Knight”