Sunday, 10 January 2010

A Girl Named Grape - Guy Mankowski

We spent winter in the bath, the bed; any womb we could find. Lily visited late at night to give me candles and deicer. My fingers had split open through frostbite. I held my bloody stumps against the flame of the candle, hoping its warmth would heal them. Lily would laugh, and say that she was the only one sane enough to keep me alive. Then she’d talk to the swallows while making pastries out of snow.

The pain was so intense that it made me reluctant to lift my pen. But I had to. I found it strange that my surrounding environment inspired me while also preventing me from writing. Snow frothed out of the ground and clambered up the trees. Lily and I huddled together and watched it swing there like an errant child refusing to come down. She’d shout at it to fall on the grass and sleep. The ice lingered round my windowsill and also refused to go. I didn’t leave the house for the whole of the winter. I had only my clumsy words, my characters, and her visits to keep me company.

It scared us to watch the frost advancing. From my window, the houses of the town all seemed slanted and malformed. It was as if they were not of this world. They leaned in conspiratorially and I tried to ignore them and concentrate on writing.

Three characters came to my door that winter. The first was Albert. He arrived on the snow outside by unicorn. I couldn’t understand how he didn’t leave a footprint as he came to the door. He appeared quite literally out of the wilderness. He stamped off the snow on his shoulders and lit his pipe before making himself at home. He teased his white beard with grubby fingers, a brittle mane that remained there despite him having the face of a nine-year-old boy. It was hard to write with him in the corner, playing the harmonica and talking about how he would race unicorns in the summer derby.

Albert was sometimes interesting, but usually too restless to be good company. The problem was that I didn’t know where to send him. “Get out there.” I’d say. “You don’t live here, and this isn’t somewhere you should be staying.”
“But I don’t know where I live.” He’d answer, packing down his pipe. “I know I came from a harbor, and that I’m looking for a girl named Grape. You must know more than me.”

I’d eventually give up and return to my pen. To the demanding endlessness of those words, always knocking at my door craving to be let in and written down, sure they had come from somewhere that qualified them for consideration. “Okay, okay.” I’d say, Lily laughing at me as I addressed words that weren’t visible. “Form a queue. Prove that you’ve come from a credible place, and that you haven’t visited any other writers. Then we’ll talk business.” Then I’d pull up a futon and offer them fruit.

Lily was a godsend; she appeared to chime with my principles about colors when we met. She was wearing a green dress, which seemed honest in light of her name. I’d seen her fishing for frogs by the pond thick with moss during the summer. I’d heard statues singing lullabies to her, a little out of tune, and her trying to sing back to them. She’d intrigued me.

The creative process would have been all but impossible without her conjugal visits. When she’d come to the door, she’d shake off the crystals of snow that had formed on her head, and separate her scarlet cheeks into a smile. When she knocked, I’d feel scared to answer despite shivering in anticipation at the thought of her visiting. “I’ve brought a basket for you” she’d say. “Let me in so I can feed you.”

I’d be desperate to feel her clammy, tender flesh against my fingers, but she’d insist I wait. The pen would be upstairs, calling me, dancing all over my papers and leaving an inconsiderate mess. She’d lay jars out on the kitchen table, each clunking with pleasing honesty onto my work surfaces. I’d look at that glorious array of chutneys, jams and marmalade, and then smear some on a hunk of bread. Once I’d eaten something I felt less light-headed.

Lily would then let me take off her robe and charge into her while she checked her hair for split-ends. Without the freedom from anxiety she offered I’d have never been able to write. I think Lily decided she wanted to play that role the first time she met me, that without her I’d spiral into myself and never claw my way out.

Afterward, I’d attend to the fountain pen, now skipping all over Albert and dirtying his beard. The pen was unkind to Albert; it never represented him in a kind light. It barely mentioned his gentle nature. It was much more complimentary to Evelyn and Daphne though; perhaps because despite being a genderless object, it spent many hours in my feral grip.

Evelyn would dance, and never really stop dancing, even tiptoeing a little when she arranged atlases on my shelf. She’d pirouette and giggle, and giggle and pirouette. Daphne would tut at her, and then do more sit ups. When she’d exercised enough to make a wet sheen on her stomach, she’d go into the shower and stay there for hours. I could hear the water run straight down the plughole as if it wasn’t reverberating off her body at all. She would always add between ten and twenty pounds to the electricity bill.

I tore through reams of words, and when I ran out of paper I sent Lily out to find some more. She’d return with brittle leaves, and I’d scrawl on them and try to come up with a system to keep them in order. With no paper to write on, I had to make do with whatever I had. It made making revisions difficult.

We dreamed of glorious reams of unblemished ivory, like Egyptian sheets. “Imagine what you could do if you could roll in an avalanche of paper?” She’d say. “Imagine if you could toss and turn and burrow and twist in endless blank pages, scrawl it right out of you, untie all the knots and smooth out all the tensions, write Albert and Evelyn and Daphne right out you?” I liked her even more when she talked like that, abandoning her domestic instincts. “Go on, take it to the end.” She’d pester. “Make Albert tell Daphne she’s his daughter, and that she can take up her sports scholarship in Leicester. And, while you’re at it, tell Evelyn he thinks her name is Grape. She’ll never go for an old gimmer with a beard, but it will save him peeping in her window throughout the summer months.”

“Okay.” I’d respond, torn between gratefulness at having her with me, and annoyance at having a coach. I’d ravage a few more pages, throwing them behind me after each line was filled. Lily would drop her mixing bowl and leap into the air, guiding the scrawled-on leaves neatly down to the pile.

Having spent enough time with them to build the courage to write the inevitable, I joined them all together one night in an organic feast. Lily laid out a beautiful spread of candle-roasted chestnuts, pastry fancies made from snow, custards mixed from poisonous berries neutered by rustic charm, and reindeer meat cooked on roaring fires Albert had built from nowhere. All were laid out on unfurled plates of moist leaves, glistening with anticipation at hosting the feast. Albert got berry wine in his beard, and got a little sarcastic. Evelyn got flirty and giggly after a few mulled wines and had to be given Calpol to calm down. Daphne ran round every house in the block until Lily pulled her from the snow that had built up to her waist, begging her to keep it company. In the end Albert wrapped Evelyn up in bed, and seemed satisfied that their relationship would never amount to anything more. Daphne slept fitfully having met her target weight.

I lay on my back and felt warmed by the sound of Lily’s breathing, though I knew she’d leave for her own family once I settled to sleep. I thought of my enormous belly and felt warmth cascading through my weary limbs. I slept for what seemed like months.

As time passed we heard rumors that soon the snow was going back into its tunnels. By now Lily and I had had seven babies, and five of them had names. Albert became almost paternal towards them, though he seemed to be preparing for imminent departure. Matters had been settled between the characters. All that was required was the front door to be left open a while, and then I knew they’d soon depart. Lily insisted that Albert pack a blanket for the nights he’d sleep in the harbor. I could just see him dozing there as steamers bustled past. We knew Daphne one day too would cartwheel out of the door and never return; that we’d next see her muscular and glistening on some podium. Evelyn was the most reluctant to leave, or perhaps (as Lily jealousy remarked), I was reluctant for her to leave, as she “represented an unattainable feminine ideal” (her words, not mine). I tried to find Evelyn’s lips to kiss her goodbye, but of course was disappointed to find that as a character she had none. But she too eventually waved us farewell as the buds started to sleepily open. I don’t think it was my imagination that made me believe that she was just as reluctant to leave me as I was to see her go.

-After graduating with a Masters in Psychology, Guy Mankowski, formed ‘a Dickensian pop band’ called Alba Nova, who signed to Comfort Records before embarking on a tour of England’s most disreputable music venues. He then worked as a psychologist at The Royal Hospital in London, work which he now continues in Newcastle. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and his first novella was published by Legend Press in the collection ‘8 Rooms’. He counts F. Scott Fitzgerald, Francoise Sagan and David Bowie as his main influences.

-Photograph by Christopher Barrio