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Staying Afloat by Sue Wilsea
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'Two of my friends have jumped
off the Humber Bridge now, so it’s
a kind of special place for me.'
B U Y   T H E   B O O K

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VP0030  //  Published: 2nd July 2012
Sue Wilsea was born in Portsmouth in 1952, and now lives in East Yorkshire. During the last
thirty years she has taught English in schools, colleges, libraries...  (read more)
Paper Flowers

The prison stood on a long, straight characterless road which ran alongside the estuary, past the now neglected docks and through a hinterland of abandoned warehouses, patches of windswept wasteland and boarded up shops. As she got off the bus, the image that always struck her was that of the giant’s castle in her nightmares as a child: the towering grey mass scraping against a grey canopy of sky, the rows of barred slits behind which she felt hundreds of hungry eyes devour her as she waited to cross the busy road; and looming ahead the huge wooden and iron gate which periodically slid open as if by magic to admit a police van, coach or delivery truck. The spiky whorls of barbed wire which spiralled along the tops of the unbroken flanks of brick were dragon’s trails. The diesel fumes and dust whipped up by the continuous stream of heavy traffic swirled around her feet like the mist of dreams.

Yet the flowers that bloomed in the beds at the front of the prison were real enough – polyanthus, crocuses and tulips in tarty reds, oranges, purples and yellows, small daubs of colour in an otherwise rinsed-out land and seascape. They never failed to lighten her spirit as she approached the main entrance. Who tended them she didn’t know. Maybe a trusted prisoner or a gardener, though she’d never seen anyone at work. It was as if they flourished to spite their grim environment and, although it was not a metaphor she had ever consciously articulated, they represented to her the freedom of the spirit, the refusal to be cowed that she’d encountered so often inside the walls. She was aware that this could be seen as naivety, a simplistic belief in the goodness of humanity that was perhaps particularly unsuited to her job as a prison teacher. She’d seen the look behind the eyes of some of the prison officers, the look that belied the pleasantries they exchanged with her, the look that said she was another silly middle-class bitch, coming in to this human muck-heap with her paper qualifications and paper ideals. To some extent she could appreciate their tacit disdain, knowing that the education she held out to the inmates as a possible escape for them was, for her and for so many like her, not a question of facts, figures and theories ingested and absorbed but part of her being, her membership of an overworld determined prenatally. Yet at the same time she could not give up her belief in the potential of education to transform and liberate. She returned their gaze defiantly.

She arrived at the entrance, pressed the buzzer and gave her name and identification number through the intercom. Instead of receiving the usual curt acknowledgement followed by the opening of the door, she was told to wait. It was April and the air and ground were hard. She was cold. Sheltering in the lee of the wall she watched as, with each suck and blow of wind that came from passing lorries, the flowers ached their slender stems over as if they must break and then struggled back upright. She huddled further into her duffle coat, pushing her hands deep into its pockets, and again fingered the folded pieces of foolscap that Connors had pushed at her at the end of the previous class. Since then she had read and reread their contents with mounting excitement. It was the breakthrough for which she had waited. To an outsider it might read like nothing more than a lucid, above average ‘A’ level literature essay. But she saw it as so much more. Connors had finally succeeded in casting himself free from the subjective, often idiosyncratic, perspective which had anchored him to his background, his origins, with such deadening effect. She started and involuntarily gripped the pieces of paper as a seagull rose and curved screeching across the blank canvas of the grey sky. With Connors latest bit of work it was as if finally his intellect and imaginative perception had been able to soar above the seemingly hopeless facts of his situation.

He was one of four in an English class that had originally numbered twelve. Serving ten years for armed robbery, he had first come to her two years ago with no aim beyond that of getting out of his cell for a few hours a week. She could now gently tease him about those first few months when he sat at the back of the room, arms tightly folded across his body like a bud afraid of frost, face expressionless, grudgingly producing a few lines of writing in his tiny cramped style. But somehow he’d managed to remain there amid the flux of prison life; his handwriting had become loose and sprawling and the small smelly classroom appeared to shrink as his gestures, voice and presence grew. He became a thirsty student, easily bored, passing quick judgements and demanding from her increasingly sophisticated reading matter. Through literature he sloughed off the dead skin of his past life and through his responses, like a two-way mirror, she saw reflected back certain aspects of herself. At times it distorted that self-image which she so cherished and for which she had worked so hard: that of someone rich in experiences, someone who had seen Life. Still single in her late thirties she’d travelled and read widely and was in the process of writing her second novel which took as its theme inner city deprivation and its effects on the working-class community. Free-wheeling in relationships and jobs, never offering full commitment to either, she had succeeded, she would frequently say, in liberating herself from both the shackles of domesticity and career ambition.

They’d spent the last week looking at T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. She’d extracted the main themes and sketched them out for him in her usual clear-sighted way. He stopped her in mid-sentence as she elaborated on the way Eliot used the Great European Tradition to underpin his work.

‘That’s a load of shit,’ he pronounced. There was no anger in his voice, just a complete and utter certainty.
She challenged him with raised eyebrows.

‘This poem isn’t about stupid tradition, it’s about now. It’s about out there where there won’t be nothing worth getting out for if we’re not careful. It’s about despair.’

‘What evidence is there in the text that...’ she began.

He leaned forward over the table, his knuckles clenched white, the tattoos on the back of his hands spreading like a web over the taut skin.

‘Despair, that’s what this Eliot fella’s on about. I know. Stop pretending you do.’

Looking at her watch she frowned in irritation. Ten minutes late. Possibly a cell search going on. Her feet felt damp and chilled. She started to walk to and fro under the shadow of the huge wall. She was impatient to complete the tedious and time-consuming business of being admitted into the prison and her way unlocked through it; of reaching the education block and signing herself in, checking materials out and liaising with duty officers over names and numbers until finally the door to the classroom could be closed and they could re-immerse themselves in the immediacy of the printed word. She walked more briskly now, feeling restricted, constrained, experiencing a sensation of tightness in her chest. The urge to introduce Connors to the idea of an Open University degree was strong but she knew the timing had to be right. She had nurtured him carefully, with delicacy, but it was important that she didn’t pre-empt his own sense of readiness for the next stage.

She stopped by the flowers, put down her bag of books and took out her old battered copy of Othello, the text on which they had just begun work. Frowning in concentration she leafed through the book for a reference she needed but had been unable to find the previous evening. She and Connors had been arguing about the nature of evil. He saw the play in political terms, as a class struggle, with Iago’s role as that of revolutionary. While not being out of sympathy with his general thesis, she had accused him of an interpretation which allowed Iago to be absolved of personal responsibility. Then she found the lines for which she’d been searching – so near the beginning of the play that she had overlooked them.

‘Tis in ourselves
that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our
gardens to the which our wills are gardeners;

She looked up, irritated because she had foolishly not remembered the words as spoken by Iago. She snapped the book shut and bent down to replace it in her bag, then crouched there for a few moments chafing her cold hands. She peered at the flowers, suddenly disappointed. Close to, she saw that they all were coated with a fine layer of dust, a shroud of grey gossamer which lodged in every minute crease, tuck and fold of their petals making them dry like tissue paper. Faded paper flowers. She remembered how, as a small child, she’d made some brightly coloured red and yellow paper flowers at school, had proudly bought them home and stood them on the window ledge in a jam jar of water to grow in the sun; how she had cried and then become angry as the paper faded and crinkled and how eventually, when her mother had threatened to put them in the bin because they collected dust, she had torn them up herself, ripping the paper off the wire stems and enjoying the destruction of all her painstaking efforts.

She didn’t approve of indulging in reminiscence. Savagely she plucked one of the red tulips, the stem breaking easily and cleanly. A drop of sap, milky like semen, oozed onto her finger. A voice behind her made her jump.

‘A lovely flower for a lovely lady, eh?’

The bantering tone failed to conceal the derision. Matthews was a senior officer, a burly florid-faced man who chewed gum continually and wore his cap to the back of his head in affectation of an American policeman. Their paths had crossed before, not always amicably, and she was immediately on her guard. Yet now she was at a disadvantage, struggling up from her squatting position, the flower hanging limply from one hand.

‘I was just...’

‘Nicking Her Majesty’s property – carries a heavy sentence, that. Mind you, you can be locked up with me any time,’ he drawled, grinning at her embarrassment.

With an effort she gave a twist of a smile aware that he had forced her into the situation of not being able either to challenge the offensive sexual innuendo without appearing pompous or to return the mood of the remark without appearing to encourage him.

‘How about a coffee in the officers canteen? It looks like rain and you won’t be working here today.’ He gave a slight ironic emphasis to the word ‘working’.

‘Why not?’  

Matthews scratched his large belly, sliding one finger in between the buttons of his shirt and rubbing it back and forth. She imagined his dark body hair rubbing against her smooth skin and felt a sudden and unexpected thrust of revulsion and desire.

‘You really don’t know?’

‘No,’ she snapped, impatient at his obvious pleasure in being in possession of information she wasn’t. ‘But I’m sure you’re going to tell me.’

He appeared oblivious to the sarcasm, waiting for her to fully straighten up before speaking in a voice that was heavy with self-importance.

‘Lot of trouble inside here last night. Been brewing for some time, we knew that, so it’s not as if we was unprepared. Some of the cons got just a little upset because visiting hours had been cut back. Started off with a sit-down when association time was over, then a few chairs got thrown and then the whole bloody balloon went up. Barricades. Demands. The usual few hard cases stirring up the rest of them. One wing more or less put out of action. Didn’t you see it on the news this morning?’

She shook her head. She’d spent the morning writing, revising an important chapter, locked in a world of her own creation. Matthews was savouring his moment of triumph. He spoke slowly and deliberately.

‘Trouble is, some of ‘em in here seem to think they’re in a holiday camp rather than a nick. Anyway, it gave us the opportunity to sort out the real troublemakers. You might say we made ‘em see things our way.’ He jangled the heavy loop of keys that hung from his belt and laughed. ‘In fact, if I remember rightly one of ‘em was your protegé, Connors isn’t it?’ His face darkened. ‘He was a right little bastard. Did a lot of damage before we got him cornered in his pad. He had a knife, tried to carve up one of our lads before he was overpowered. Pity the knife slipped in the struggle ‘cos it didn’t half cause a mess. Blood, papers, books all over the shop. They had to hose down the floor afterwards and ditch all his gear. Course he’s in the hospital wing now but once he’s able to walk we’ll have him shipped out. You’re on a loser offering education to scum like that.’

Again the slight stress on the word ‘education’ as if it was something not quite legitimate, like astrology or ESP, that was believed only by a gullible few. He was watching her closely.

She struggled to realign her sense of reality before reaching back, as she often did, for a foothold on conventional responses.

‘God, how dreadful... I had no idea... I never thought that... anyway, thanks for... for telling me. I suppose I might as well be off then. I presume there’s no classes running today?’

Matthews smirked and shook his head slowly as if communicating with a child. She avoided his gloating eyes, large and pink-rimmed like a pig’s.

‘Would you tell them at the gate that I’ve gone?’

‘Sure will, pretty lady.’

She felt a pure white flame of hatred towards the coarse, ignorant man leap inside her but immediately quenched it with a shower of vapid words. ‘I was just looking at the flowers. I’ve always admired them. Such lovely colours. Aren’t they wonderful, the way they’re always out.’

Her fingers closed around the one she held and crushed it.

Matthews laughed again. ‘Well, they would, wouldn’t they, being under them all the time.‘ He pointed upwards and following the direction of his finger she saw the spotlights punctuating the outside wall at regular intervals like inverted hooks. ‘Artificial light, see? They get it all the night through. Not one square inch of the outside here is left in dark. That’s why they do so well. In fact, you could say it’s a riot of colour. Yeah, a real riot of colour.’ He grinned and chewed on his gum furiously waiting for an acknowledgement of his wit.

Silently she picked up the bag and turned her back on him and the prison. Then she walked quickly away, head down against the wind, one hand holding her coat closed at the neck. The sky was heavy and slanting spikes of rain were beginning to jab the ground and blacken it. Glancing quickly to either side, she crossed over the road dropping the flower as she did so. It had stained her palm red. A few seconds later it disappeared under pounding wheels in a spray of dirt and grit.

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Sue Wilsea
Staying Afloat
Sue Wilsea's witty, devastating and resonant short stories have been delighting readers for two decades, and built her reputation as one of Hull's foremost modern storytellers. Staying Afloat collects nineteen of her finest tales, of men, women and children, as they attempt to count their blessings, find their way, and keep their heads above water...

Always heart-breakingly recognisable, Sue's characters (whatever their moral standing) are also endlessly fascinating; their inner selves established from line one, but frequently never fully understood until the story's end - sometimes, not even then.  Highlights include Stephen facing his mother's death, his father's insanity and 'Circle Time'; the unnamed narrator contemplating what led two of her friends to jump off the Humber Bridge; and Dick the Vic, whose unlikely adventures lead him from the ministry to a club known only as 'The Dirty Habit' - a story which must be read to be believed.

Sue's mastery of humour and drama will keep you entertained through every sentence, and with happy endings facing an equal team of less-than-happy, the book will keep you hooked until the very last word - which is, appropriately enough, 'maybe'.

Paperback page count: 158   /   ISBN: 9781908853127
Click here to hear Sue's story 'Paper Flowers' read by Dame Judi Dench.  'I think it's beautifully written, a very delicate story... I enjoyed it enormously,' said Dame Judi shortly after recording.  (Click here for the text, if you want to read along.)

'Sue’s sympathy for characters is, I think, to be found in some of the greatest short stories.'
Daphne Glazer, novelist

‘Sue Wilsea’s writing is always sharp and enjoyable... I am very glad to see her intriguing stories coming into print.’
Romesh Gunesekera, Booker-shortlisted novelist

'A tender journey into vulnerable yet beautiful lives... delicate stories that open up bright worlds.'
Martin Goodman, Professor of Creative Writing, University of Hull
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