Winner of the South China Morning Post Short Story Competition, 1999
By Martin Alexander - UK
It was a bitter street, with grey
houses cluttered along a sharp, dishevelled terrace, steep against the hill; but
Prudence's house was neat and bright and lovely. “We keep our house spick and
span, don't we, pet?” her mother would say; and when they'd finished their
housework, they would look cosily out of their gleaming windows at the drab
town. As a child, Prudence had loved that: standing waist-high next to her
mother's crisp apron, with her mother's firm, encircling arm gripping her
daughter's shoulder in tight satisfaction.
remembered, and looked with her own satisfaction at the careful disarray of her
college room: her spare coffee mug, with a tide mark above the evaporating
sludge; some ash still on the floor from the previous late night's smoke; crumbs
and cake and the ripped carcases of Christmas crackers; and clothes, carelessly
dumped and rumpled on the bed and over the back of the chair.
Her suitcase was
on the bed, and she began to pack, eager in spite of herself to return to her
home, her mother's home, after the breathless excitement of that first term.
There was so much to tell, and yet so much that her mother just wouldn't
understand. Prudence remembered the three telephone conversations, and the post
card she'd sent: all carefully composed, just like her mother's diary.
I'm sorry I
haven't phoned or written, but it's been ever so hectic. Lectures and meetings,
and getting to know the other students, and writing essays, and hours and hours
in the library! I've made friends with a girl on my corridor, and we're both
besotted with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who is a brilliant poet. Must go - I'm
meeting some friends at the Union to join the Literature Club! And I'm keeping
my room spick and span!!!
lots of love,
Most of what she
said was perfectly true, but it was all somehow made a lie by what she didn't
say. Somehow those bright, flat accounts of her life left out all the shading
that would have given them the depth of reality: the third dimension was
missing. She hadn't mentioned the bleary mornings and the late nights; the drink
and the smoke and climbing in through windows; and the smothered giggles in the
dark. She enjoyed using words like "besotted", and she did like Browning; but
her room had never been spick and span, not since the beginning of term, the day
she had first scattered her things around the small, spare room.
On the desk was
her diary, her most cherished possession, and she hesitated before putting it
carefully not into the suitcase, but into her shoulder bag. All her other
diaries waited in a neat row on her shelf at home, but this one was special;
and her mother had always kept meticulous diaries, and had always shared every
word, delighting in their sensible and systematic accumulation of detail.
"Perfectly plain - that's me," her mother used to say. "What you see is what you
get. I've no time for all that soul-searching and silly anguish. Sensible people
see things as they are." She would read out aloud her comfortable account of all
that day's events and, miraculously, all the haphazard turmoil, the uncertainty
and unpredictability, would be smoothed away, leaving a sensible skeleton of
incidents, each bone in the right place, picked dry and clean, spic and span.
look up at her mother, fascinated, reassured and worried: there was no
uncertainty in that smooth, dependable, inscrutable face. It made her feel safe,
but also guilty: she could never walk fast enough; her clothes got dirty too
quickly; jam and smudges appeared inexplicably on her face and in her hair.
There was always a vague and inarticulate catalogue of daydreams, frustrations
and anxieties that shifted and moved disconcertingly and uncomfortably beneath
the carefully organised, bright routine of her days, but somehow they weren't to
be written, and so weren't to be spoken. Of course, none of this was explicit in
her cloudy, wordless understanding: she just knew that she would never get it
right, and so she pretended that the diary told all her life, and she struggled
harder to please.
remembered herself as a little girl, before she could write, chewing her tight
braids as she sat next to her mother's tight perm, dutifully mimicking in
pencilled scribbles the neat script of her mother's hand. At the end of their
silent evening ritual, they would read to each other what they had written, and
Prudence's mother would laugh with pride as her daughter "read" those empty,
scribbled lines in the dry, tidy shorthand of her mother's diary voice:
Got up. Had
breakfast. Helped hang up the clothes in the garden. Went shopping with Mummy.
Saw a puppy in the window but they're messy. Mummy says I'm a good girl. Watched
television and then read my book.
The child would
look up, face glowing with the reflection of her mother's approval.
mornings, before she was swallowed by the junior school across the park, were
spent trailing after her mother: around the house, dusting and rubbing at the
glistening floors, and trudging with baskets into the garden to hang up the
precarious on a stool under the swaying prop, and was given responsibility for
socks and smalls. Prudence shivered in the wind and watched in awe as her mother
tamed the huge flapping sheets that threatened to slap her off her stool with
their wet, white wings.
with anxious love at her mother's beauty: her own pale freckles were an affront
to the smooth, rouged porcelain of her mother's cheeks, and her braids flapped
like the sheets in an unruly contrast to the perfect rigidity of her mother's
uniform waves and curls. Wobbling on her stool, she gazed at her mother's sturdy
legs, planted firm and steady in the grass, and winced at the raised hand as the
white socks slipped from her fingers and flopped to the ground, where they lay
speckled with dirt. She squeezed her eyes against the sudden slap that came from
her mother's hand, damp and stinging like the sheets that flapped against her
legs. Prudence's eyes squeezed tears, and when she opened them, her mother was
bending to lift the heavy twist of wet, wrung towel from the bright red of the
new plastic basket. Prudence swallowed her sobs, and neither of the two said a
Later, in the
High Street, Prudence helped with the bags, and the one she carried dragged
slightly, even though she leaned away from it as far as she could. In the cafe,
her eyes smarted again with the smoke of her mother's cigarette, and her feet
dangled above the floor, tapping rhythmically against the legs of the chair
until a tilted head and warning look stilled her legs and brought her hands into
passed the pet shop, and her mother walked on, unaware of the magnet of the
window. Prudence couldn't help it, and the bag sagged with her jaw at the sight
of the puppies. She sucked back her dribble as her mouth widened into a grin,
and she said, "Oh, mum, I would so love a puppy of my own!" Prudence turned, and
looked up, but her mother was gone, a distant figure at the corner in a brown
coat, talking to a woman in blue. In a panic, she hauled on the bag, and hobbled
desperately down the pavement. Her mother grew in size as she grew nearer, until
Prudence was next to her, looking up from the familiar perspective at the giant
that dwarfed her.
"Well, I can't
stay chatting all day. Must be off."
"Yes, and here's
Prudence. You mustn't wander off: a man will take you away and do dreadful
things if you don't stay close to your mum."
The woman in
blue receded, and Prudence's mother bent down to slap each of her daughter's
legs, hard, with a short, sharp swing of her hand.
"I was looking
at the puppies!" the child whined. "Oh, mum, can't we get one?"
"Don't be silly,
dear." Her mother's voice was firm, reasonable, implacable, and held no hint of
anger. "Dogs are dirty things. There would be mud and all sorts all over our
nice clean house. Come along, there's a good girl."
With her free
hand accepted by her mother's dry, warm grasp, Prudence trotted in silence,
leaning towards her mother against the weight of the bag that pulled against her
numb fingers. Her legs didn't sting much any more, and anyway, she was imagining
a soft and fluffy puppy held tight and warm in her arms.
Prudence learned to read, and started to write a real diary, just like her
mother's; and every night's ritual reading mirrored the words of the previous
day - a crisp catalogue of their familiar routine. The familiar phrases tidied
away the tears and swept up Prudence's scattered misdemeanours into a small and
almost invisible heap behind the comforting rearrangement of each repeated day.
However, as she
grew older, Prudence felt a vague sense of something missing: another audience,
things left unsaid; an uneasy feeling that she was being unfaithful to each day
by changing its emphasis and leaving out the messy details of which her mother
It was a shock
and a revelation to read Anne Frank, and find that she could write to an
imaginary friend, and share some of the innocent secrets that she began to want
to write about, but hesitated to show her mother. She started to write to Anne's
Kitty, and drifted out of the habit of sharing her diary with her mother. Her
mother said nothing, and they wrote separately, mother downstairs, and Prudence
up in her room. She knew her mother still read her diary - and expected to read
it - because once, when she'd taken it to school, her mother had casually asked
about it almost as soon as she returned.
"I couldn't find
your diary this morning when I was tidying your room. You're not keeping secrets
from me, are you?"
"No, mum, of
course not." And she'd felt herself stiffen, and her eyes moistened with a
helpless anger that was suddenly and inexplicably engulfed in guilt.
She had begun to
write about boys, about the friendships and jealousies of her classroom, but
disguised names, and developed a simple code to protect herself from an
intrusive reader. There was still a nagging dissatisfaction, though; an
awareness that there was so much left unwritten, so much that she dared not say.
commented only once, and it made things worse. "I saw your diary when I was
tidying your room this morning. It was most peculiar! All those initials and all
those silly phrases! Really! What sort of a diary is that? Why don't you keep a
proper diary, with a record of the day, of what happened and what you did?
Everything neatly in order! That's much more sensible! When you come to read it
again in years to come, all this muddle won't make any sense, and then you'll be
disappointed, mark my words!"
clenched her teeth in frustration: she wanted to write about her mother's
irritating tone of voice; she wanted to wake up early and write down her dreams;
she wanted to lay in bed late at night and tell Kitty the stories of her
romantic fantasies; she wanted to write down the words she'd never formed on
paper and hardly ever spoken aloud; she wanted to write about how her heart
thumped and her body tingled when that boy spoke to her, or when she saw him
across the road and through the crowd in the town centre. And she couldn't. Her
mother would tidy her room. She could picture her pausing to read aloud in the
empty house: those pursed lips putting a different voice to her daughter's
private words; the caked powder and the scattered rouge; and the frown under the
thinning, puffed-up hair.
college, there was a delicious freedom. When she unpacked her case in that bare
room, her own room, in the hall of residence, she had found a package, carefully
wrapped. It was a diary: a beautiful, leather-bound diary with a strap and a
clasp. Prudence smiled wryly: no lock. But her room was at last her own, and all
her thoughts and feelings, her impulses and urges, truths, lies and imaginings
could spill in sudden tumbles onto those magical pages, now bare with promise.
Sometimes she felt as though she was bursting with pages and poems of which she
hadn't the slightest inkling until her pen started to move across the bare page.
It was like that automatic writing she'd read about, except that it wasn't
anything to do with spirits: it was her own hidden self, full of the surprises
of her unsuspected imagination.
And once out,
there was the pleasure of reflection, of letting the words roll silently in her
head, or of reading them aloud and making them frighteningly, deliciously and
released, Prudence sat down at her bare desk, opened the diary and, leaving the
suitcase still open and full on the bed, held her pen poised to write. She
hesitated; then her mother's frown creased into a grin, and she wrote the first
momentous, blasphemous words: