Our foundation is extremely excited to introduce you to the incredible work of our inaugural writer from our Bridging Literary Divides mentoring program: Kristina Stevens!
As part of the Scottish mentoring programme, Kristina has been mentored by accomplished editor Jim Dempsey, who together have worked on her novel ‘Outsider Complex’. The novel is a cathartic tale about a teenage girl in the 1980s struggling with identity and trying to find a sense of belonging. Kristina and Jim offered Arkbound an extract:
Monday morning was a rough introduction to the week, with chemistry burning through until lunchtime. I was sitting beside Fiona, waiting for our teacher to arrive. The room was laden with chatter from 30 bored students. The head of department had just been in to say that Miss Carruthers was running late and we should use the time to read the appropriate chapter of our textbooks. Fiona and I had become friendly on the first day, when she’d asked if it was ok to sit next to me and plopped her Indian patchwork bag on the desk. Although she was a mature student, she wore cheesecloth tops and had short spiky hair; her ripped jeans made her seem more like a peer than an adult. She was about the same age as Helen.
‘Did you see the news last night?’ was the first thing she’d said to me before I’d even sat down. ‘The Berlin Wall has fallen.’ Her eyes were bright and her voice was more high pitched than usual.
Although I knew this was a good thing and had a basic grasp of current affairs, I wasn’t as clued up politically as Fiona, so gave her my full attention as she explained its significance.
‘Anyway, what are you doing for lunch?’ she asked. The morning sun was working its way brighter into the classroom.
‘Going home. I live five minutes up the road. It’s cheaper than going to the canteen, and also I don’t have to lug around a whole day’s worth of books. I’m a vegetarian, so there’s not much in the canteen I can eat… except cheese sandwiches, which I can make myself.’
I’d expected Fiona to react in the way most people reacted when I said I was a vegetarian: by displaying confusion, distrust or even shock to the extreme, like the one or two who’d actually looked distressed whilst uttering the what do you eat, do you not miss bacon? refrain.
But instead of confused or shocked she looked surprised in a pleasant and – her eyebrows rising slightly – reaffirming way.
‘Ah, brilliant, how long you been a vegetarian for?’
‘Nearly two years.’
‘Yeah, Glenn, is passionate about animal rights. He’s been a vegan for about a year. Glenn’s my son. He’s about your age.’ She was turned towards me, head supported by her hand with an elbow on the desk.
‘What’s a vegan?” I was now the one with the puzzled look on my face. It was a word I’d never heard before. And right there, waiting for Miss Carruthers to arrive, Fiona opened up a whole new world to me, one that I hadn’t imagined could exist. She told me Glenn didn’t any eat dairy or eggs, that vegans didn’t eat honey or wear anything made from wool or silk and had to be careful of food with animals products in them.
‘He won’t even eat tomato soup,’ she explained, ‘as it has whey powder in it.’ It sounded extreme, way beyond the norms that I had grown up with. It spoke of invisible and hidden wrongs. How could there be cruelty and exploitation contained within a tin of tomato soup? Veganism was a belief system that was radical and subversive, but it was also captivating and encapsulated the essence of how I felt and how I wanted to be. There was a purity in structuring your life around the wellbeing of other creatures, true compassion and selflessness, anyone who took such lengths to protect other sentient beings must be good, genuine, honest. I wanted to meet the people that cared so much about animals, I wanted to be like them, be one of them.
‘Are you a vegan?’ I asked, slightly in awe.
‘No, but I try and eat as little meat as possible. Glenn is always on my case about it.’
She wrote her phone number on the corner of her notepad and tore it off.
‘Here, this is our number, give him a phone. He’ll be over the moon that you want to know more about it.’
I sat in the cramped basement office in Caskie Street, wedged between a table piled with leaflets and a filing cabinet, feeling like a complete outsider. The leaflets depicted monkeys with electrodes wired to their heads, rats pinned to dissection boards and rabbits with open sores. A donation can lay amongst the piles. ‘Animal Action Group’ was written in black marker on the white paper sellotaped around it.
The only window in the room was a strip of glass covered by an iron grid near the ceiling. It was at street level, and I watched snippets of legs swish by, pair after pair scissoring past each other.
It had taken me a few days to work up to phoning Glenn, but the conversation hadn’t been as awkward as I’d expected. His enthusiasm for animal rights and recruiting me had carried us on for a good 20 minutes.
We’d agreed to meet in the street outside the office and we described what we looked like to each other. Sorta longish black hair, black trousers, black jacket was his summary of himself, but he had the verve and duende of a singer in a band and looked different to everyone else on the street. I thought his hair was more dark brown than black.
We were early and, when we went in, the only other person there was a guy called John who was sitting at a card table near the door, throwing three 2p coins like dice and then consulting a book and scribbling complex looking patterns into a pocket sized notebook.
‘What do I need to know?’ He looked up at us.
‘I’m Joanne,’ I said, but immediately he was laughing, fine creases becoming visible.
‘That’s my question for the I Ching. It’s the only question I ever ask. Do you want to ask it anything?’ His eyes were intense, as if trying to read me, see into my soul.
‘No, no thanks,’ I said, glancing at Glenn whose attention had been caught by a couple of other members of the group coming in. I wanted to tone down my conspicuousness, to slip in without announcing to anyone else that I didn’t have a clue, so I drifted to the seat that was the least in the thick of things, one that would not consign a focal point upon me. The far corner was ideal.
Since our telephone call, I’d been looking forward to coming and meeting the like-minded people, the people who shared my anger at animal cruelty, but I was feeling completely at odds with the group vibe. The steady influx of seasoned activists was quickly highlighting my sartorial discord and therefore novice status in their world. As I was quickly learning, my fashion choices were indicators, symbols and signals of the music I listened to, the pubs and clubs I went to, the people I associated with, my political views or apathy, definitely my understanding of animal exploitation and it’s reach, my exposure or lack of to the esoteric, my world view, my future aspirations, my lexicon, which until now had been replete with mainly steaming and gigs and fuck as in did you fuck him and fuck you, the books I hadn’t read and the understanding I was yet to cultivate. I was now surrounded by mohawks, long flowing hair and braids with colourful beads. My Doc Martens looked too stiff and shiny next to the canvas boots and ragged plimsolls fanned around them. The guys wore mainly combat jackets and trousers; they were good looking and intimidating. The girls were swathed in long billowing skirts, each one a field of colourful cotton, silver bracelets and frayed jumpers. The air was so heavy with patchouli oil I could feel it settling into a silhouette around me. Despite the subterranean setting, the room could have benefited from a breeze.
One of the good looking guys was drinking a can of Special Brew. Another brought a Tupperware container and fork from his bag and munched on cold boiled rice and broccoli. I noticed that everyone’s hair was their natural colour, and my dyed black hair stained the room like an ink spill. Hair dye that had been tested on animals. No one was talking to me. I was the person with the dyed hair that no one wanted to speak to. I learned later that it was nothing to do with my dyed hair; several of the group would subsequently admit to having dyed their hair prior to joining. It was an initial reticence around strangers, of being unsure about their motives for joining. It took a few goes before I was accepted as a bone fide member.
Immediately I was thrust into a new ideology that talked about corporate greed, vivisection, environmental destruction, direct action, ethical choices and anti-consumerism. This wasn’t a case of choosing cheese over ham or avoiding beef stock in soup whilst maintaining an acceptable social veneer, it was a life on the margins, where everything was different to what had gone before; it was an all encompassing counter culture.
‘You talk about all these issues, but you’re failing to address the very thing that causes and enforces them… and until that’s overturned, nothing will change,’ a pale girl with a silver nose stud chipped in.
‘What’s that?’ asked John.
‘The patriarchy. Patriarchal thinking and oppression are at the heart of this, that’s the ideology that has to be defeated. It’s this authoritarian thirst for power and profit that sees animals exploited, nature decimated and woman oppressed. It objectifies animals and women. We’ve got a female prime minister and yet most women are still trying to peel back the wallpaper.’ And she waved a book in the air.
‘C’mon, Donna, one fight at a time… please.’
‘Yeah, that would suit you wouldn’t it?’ Another of the girls added, and an exchange about sexism in society and the patriarchal structure of the group ensued.
A lot of what they were saying went over my head, but I was absorbing it all, trying to assimilate as quickly as I could.
The guy with the Special Brew, Marcus, began to fuss and squirm about with his jacket, and then, with a bit of wriggling, he brought a white rat out of his pocket. This brought some light relief to the discussion and a few aws and ahs. With everyone’s focus on the rat, who most people seemed to know by name, talk of male supremacy dwindled away. Reg the rat climbed up Marcus’s shoulder and round his neck before retreating back into the jacket.
‘So, a show of hands of everyone that wants to volunteer for the stall on Saturday?’ John was the oldest, he looked about 35 and assumed the role of leader. Unlike the others, he wore a chunky Arran jumper and jeans with turn-ups and was the only other person in the room with short hair. He reminded me of Tom from The Good Life. I kept catching Glenn’s eye, but I was so out of context that I couldn’t decipher any meaning behind his look. Glenn put his hand up and I tentatively followed, wondering if I’d be allowed represent the group given my chemically enhanced hair. There wasn’t much in the way of disguising I could do; shaving the lot off or wearing a hat for the next two months were my only options.
‘Right you lot, be here at 10am sharp to collect the gear, ok? I’m not fucking waiting about all day cos some lazy shite can’t be arsed to get out their bed.’ He didn’t talk like Tom from The Good Life.
I was enthused with a sense of wanting to do something, to change something. I’d been fired up with talk of direct action and boycotts and protests. I felt an urgency, an anger. I wanted to rip apart societal norms, tear up the rules. I also wanted to know more about this new word: patriarchy, so I hung around to speak to Donna at the end of the meeting. Glenn was going to the pub with a few of the others and said he’d phone me during the week. They’d said come for a pint, but I didn’t want to be the misfit in the pub, keen instead to go home and start reinventing myself.
‘I’ll catch up with you in a minute,’ Donna told Marcus as they headed out the door and then filled my head with grand and exotic names: Simone de Beauvoir, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolf.
‘In addition to the writers, you could also read stuff by the activists like… you know… Betty Freidan and Andrea Dworkin.’ I didn’t know, but was determined that I would.
I sat on the train home thinking of ways I could take direct action and target the patriarchy.
I decided to lift the carpet in my room and take it outside to wash. It was looking a bit dirty and shabby. Over the years there had been too many cans and glasses knocked over by the clodhoppers my dad was always moaning about. It also retained the memory of scalding tea and coffee stains, layers of make-up and a crust of fag ash. It was time to wash it all away. If I couldn’t yet pull at the fabric of society, I could at least disrupt the domestic order slightly. I would prise the carpet from the grip of the floorboards, rip it from its pedestrian servitude – and an all over shampoo would be much easier to do in the garden than here with the furniture getting in the way.
I took the morning off college, telling mum it was study time. I’d been lying in bed, about to get up. My line of sight falling naturally to the floor and to an old gravy stain on the carpet. It was a mark, a blemish, that disrupted the absoluteness of the carpet. It drew your eye and kept the focus on the problem, the accident, the spillage. It had to go. In the spirit of direct action, I wanted to act immediately. After breakfast, I waited until everyone was out before getting started. I got my Dad’s claw hammer from the hall cupboard and then set about removing the carpet tacks.
I tried one and then another, but they had been beaten into the floor and the hammer couldn’t get leverage. I’d to go back downstairs and look for a screwdriver to loosen them enough to get a grip with the hammer claw and pull them out.
Now that I was committed to my project, I had to act fast before anyone came home. If my parents were following their usual routine, they’d probably be in the Co-op cafeteria having a cup of tea and a fruit scone about now. This job involved too much noise to be completed with my dad anywhere nearby; he would have been up in my room the minute the hammer touched the floor.
Eventually I had all the tacks assembled in a small circle on the window sill. Now it was time for the hard work. I moved all the furniture to one side of the room, the bed moved like had been nailed down too. I then rolled the carpet as far as it would go towards the furniture stack. As the carpet went from lying flat on the floor to curling into a tubular shape, I became aware of the space within it, the curve creating a small shielded emptiness where nothing would enter. I wanted to occupy and own such a place in the world. I imagined throwing myself down on the carpet and being rolled up inside, bound tightly and escaping into the ever decreasing spiral, to be lost inside that vast expanse of blue seemed so calming and sheltering. There were no patterns to the carpet, no hideous patterns to unpick and work out. Once inside that woven vortex, I could spin on and away from everyone and everything, escaping all the demands and expectations in this life.
The carpet was inanimate, it held no feelings or opinions or judgements. I would be safe there. To keep rolling ever closer and closer to the centre held the potential for me to vanish completely. Could I really cease to be simply by journeying to the epicentre of the carpet roll? But the thought of being coiled up with my hamstrings wrapped round my ears, my bones bent like a bow, didn’t seem very comfortable, especially if I was planning on staying there forever. I could, perhaps, lie on the floorboards instead and replace the carpet on top of myself. Then I would be below the surface. I could even lift a floorboard and look even deeper, beyond the carpet. I could lie there, hidden, peaceful, away from it all, suspended in a woollen no man’s land. I wouldn’t be curled up like a fortune fish, I’d be able to stretch out when need be, creep around whenever I wanted, yet still have vanished from everyday life.
All well and good, but it might get a bit uncomfortable when my dad trampled on me as he came in and out to clean the windows or look for dirty cups or adjust the curtains or whatever other disharmony upset his natural order. And what would I eat? I’d need to start chewing and gnawing on the carpet – eventually eating my own sanctuary. No that wouldn’t do, I would need to stay outside and above the carpet.
Once I’d secured it with the chair, to make sure it wouldn’t unravel, I moved the furniture to the opposite side of the room and completed the extraction of carpet from the floor. The next task was to drag it downstairs. It took an outbreak of sweat and a couple of torn fingernails. Going around corners was especially challenging, but I managed to pull it outside.
After unrolling it, I stood in the middle of the carpet, which covered most of the grass in the back garden.
‘Fuck sake, what have I done?’ I thought. ‘Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead and take it back inside.’ But I couldn’t, I’d gone too far to stop now. I went inside to get the blue bucket and filled it with warm water and soap powder, which I sloshed over the carpet. I then went back for another and another, taking delight in seeing the soap suds saturate the pile.
Filling the bucket was labour intensive, so I ditched it for the garden hose, its jet of cold water enabling me to target my cleansing more accurately. But after ten or fifteen minutes of trying to rinse out the detergent, I realised that it wasn’t much fun washing a carpet. And I now had the problem of what to do with it.
My first thought was to put it over the clothes line to allow it to drip dry, but it was too heavy and I couldn’t lift it. I then tried rolling it up again, but so much water had soaked through to the ground underneath that tangles of earth and grass were sticking to the carpet, making it dirtier than it’d been originally. And even if I could actually pull the waterlogged weight of it, I knew better than to take it back inside in that state. In the end, I folded it over as best I could and abandoned it.
I was in my room putting the afternoon’s textbooks into my bag when I heard my parents come home. Surprisingly, it took Dad a good 15 minutes to spot the goings on in the garden.
‘Get down here now!’ he thundered.
When I went in to the living room, his jaw was shaking, but he was so discombobulated by what I’d done that his ability to go completely off his nut had been temporarily stymied.
‘I was just washing it for you… trying to spruce it up.’ This didn’t help, and I sensed that his rage was building rather than dissipating. He was a thermobaric bomb on a short timer, and was getting started about my attitude of late.
Mum told me it’d probably be best if I went to college and let him calm down. I was keen to get going anyway, as I was hoping to see Fiona to find out if Glenn had mentioned me.
I don’t know how dad did it, but, after a couple of days, a few days – I suppose it depends how sunny it had been – the carpet appeared back in my room. Clean and dry. The only direct proof of my action was that the carpet had shrunk slightly, and so, where it didn’t quite make it to the skirting board, there was about an inch of bare floorboard and carpet gripper.’