by Jan Woolf
CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services), Islington, July 2016
Marjorie glances in her consulting room mirror. A strong face looks back, handsome rather than pretty, a face ready for compassion: for active listening, eyes softening for the right kind of contact with her first clients in her new job. She’d met Faye the mother and Poppy the daughter separately of course, as protocol required. But now for the pair of them, together. She’s nervous.
There’s a knock at the door, and Marjorie sits, smoothing her skirt with her hands.
‘Come in,’ she says.
A leggy girl stalks in, her mother just behind her. Sitting in adjacent chairs, they cross their legs simultaneously, opposite Marjorie.
‘So,’ says Marjorie, I understand that you, Poppy…’
‘Voted remain, yeah,’ snaps Poppy, folding her arms to disturb the embarrassing bodily symmetry with her mother.
‘OK,’ says Marjorie, then, turning to the whey faced mother, ‘and you, Faye…’
But Poppy interrupts, ‘she’s Leave innit. Fucked with my future she has.’
The mother’s eyes melt, ready for tears, but manages to say, ‘It’s the ultimate neo-liberal capitalist project, forcing people to leave their homes to take their chance in places where they can be exploited. Hard wired into the financialisation of course is austerity, and look what they did to…’ But Poppy’s wail drowns out Faye’s intended ‘Greece.’
Well attached, notes Marjorie, leaning forward into a space crackling with hostility. The girl feels in a safe enough space to rock the boat this early in the session, she thinks. ‘So you both need some mutual accommodation’ she says gently, ‘some coming together of understanding during this time of national unsettlement.’ She’d remembered her training; reflect back briefly and early, the shared difficulty.
‘Look,’ says the mother, ‘you will appreciate this one day. I actually voted FOR your future Poppy.’
Red rag to a bull.
Poppy for once is speechless, her jaw slack, eyes on stalks, you can almost hear the ring in her nose. The mother closes her eyes and they sit silently for nearly a minute – which is a long time in a consulting room. Marjorie hopes that they are each - owning the silence. ‘MY FUCKING FUTURE YOU STUPID…!’ yells Poppy.
‘Shut up’ snaps her mother, getting to her feet.
‘No, no, please don’t,’ says Marjorie, standing up, arms outstretched, as if warding off the mother’s slap. But Faye sits, shaking, tears leaking from her eyes. Marjorie notices the CND badge in her jacket. Not a violent women, and besides, this is the gentrified side of Islington. ‘Well done Faye,’ she says, hoping this isn’t patronising. And then, turning to Poppy.
‘Share with us both, in a calm way, how you are feeling.’
Poppy’s drawn breath is a well-strung bow, as she releases. ‘ EU fundin’ for my course the economy my boyfriend’s coffee start up AN’ he’s found a new bean – organic - cheap - air fares racism queuin’ more at airports racism cost of holidays racism - roamin’ on my mobile…’
‘…Me me me me me’ spits the mother, in a ricochet of outrage.
It’s Poppy’s turn to stand, ‘Racism! That’s not me me me. That’s…’
‘…it’s not racism, Pops, they’re all white. So please sit down,’ says the mother, her composure recovered.
‘Fear of the OTHER then,’ snarls Poppy, sitting down, some early version of herself obeying the parental command.
‘Where did you read that then Darling?’
‘Why you sayin’ right like that? Mum.’
‘Metro have an agenda Pops.’
Marjorie, her eyeballs flicking from mother to daughter leans forward again, but not in time to prevent a furious, ‘The old shouldn’t be allowed to vote,’ from Poppy.
‘I grew up in a Welfare State,’ replies Faye. There was no EU then. There’d just been a war.’
‘Zackly.’ Poppy punches the air, glowering at her mother. ‘I’m European. An’ now cos of Brexit we’ll go to war with Russia again,’ she shouts.
‘You’re British darling,’ coos her mother.
‘No it’s not. And we were on the same side as Russia in the war - which was then called the Soviet Union.’
‘Smart arse Mother, you really are.’
Another silence, but not as long as the last one.
Marjorie decides to risk an intervention. ‘Well, you ARE from the continent of Europe, so in that sense you are both European, whereas I’m…’
‘…West Indian innit,’ supplies Poppy.
‘Well no, I’m South African actually, but I’m a British national so I call myself British.’
‘But why?’ asks Poppy, starting on another tack. You should be proud to be African. You denyin’ your roots or summink’?’ Faye, glad of the breather sits back to listen to this new exchange, hoping it will reveal how difficult her daughter is.
‘No, not at all, we are all rooted somewhere, but let’s get back on track – to you.’
‘What did you vote?’ snaps Poppy.
‘I did not vote,’ Lies Marjorie.
‘Hah’, says Faye, abstention is a vote in default - a cop-out – a sop to the enemy.’
‘Why not?’ asks Poppy. ‘You’ve left it to people like her,’ she says, pointing at her mother.
Oh dear, thinks Marjorie. I’ve said too much, blown it. ‘We’re not here to talk about my vote or feelings around the referendum,’ she says, her discomfort building. She’d already lost a couple of Remainder friends and didn’t want her neutrality in the consulting room compromised. She should have been strong enough to say I’m not telling you. But she didn’t. But the subject had turned to racism, and she knew all about that. Another silence follows, in which Marjorie thinks of the shantytowns of her childhood. The softly ticking clock, the tissues nesting in the box, the aroma of fresh flowers picked that morning from her garden, bring her back into the room.
Faye speaks first. ‘At one time a king would have made a decision of such national importance, but now it’s the demos,’ she says.
‘Or queen’ snaps Poppy, ‘equal opportunities Mum. Please.’
‘Or queen’ corrects her mother, happy to concede this, her eyelids fluttering like moths.’
‘An’ what’s the demos when it’s at home, Mother?’
‘The people Darling. Most of them.’
‘Yuh mean those fat white Neanderthals up north who eat crisps all day.’
Marjorie, becoming uncomfortable in her neutral space, leans forward. ‘Describe them Poppy – how you FEEL about them. Who are THEY?’ A lost tribe? she thinks. The other.
‘Thick as shit,’ says Poppy.
Faye closes her eyes, thinking of her ‘thick as shit parents and grandparents struggling through the 1950s.
‘Anything else Poppy?’ Asks Marjorie calmly.
‘Narrow culcha, bad food, foreigner hating. Am I allowed to say foreigner?’
‘Of course you are.’
‘I don’t mean that just cos’ you’re one, just because you’re black.’
‘Do you feel British then Marjorie?’ asks Poppy, her voice a little lighter.
Sod it, thinks Marjorie. I’ll share.’ ‘I do now Poppy. I feel this country is a mother that sheltered me from a terrible situation in the country I was born. My family came here as political refugees.’
‘Free movement see?’ says Poppy flicking a look at her mother.
But Marjorie knows she’s already said too much. She’s entered the fray – set up diversions, been unprofessional.
‘That’s not free movement Darling, political asylum and immigration are not free movement. Poppy’s sigh set the tissues in the box a-flutter as she looks back at Marjorie. ‘There she goes again, know it all, poncy politics. She gets it all off leaflets at meetings you know.’
‘Which you never come to sweetheart,’ snaps Faye, ‘because you’re out clubbing, come, you might learn something. Especially at the Lexit ones.’
‘The left wing Brexit.’
‘Oh right, the mulitliberalneocapitalistconspiracy feary’
‘So call it Lexit an’ that makes it all right then? says Poppy, sarcastically.
‘Yes, it does. It’s a different analysis.’
‘It will be seen as a progressive thing,’ says the mother, ‘at least…’
‘Mother. Don’t you DARE say we’ve got our country back.’
‘That’s UKIP darling.’
Yes, thinks Marjorie, Chief Buthelezi and Mandela were strange bedfellows once.
‘An’ what’s this control crap? What’s fucking control when it’s at home?’ says Poppy.
‘Democracy,’ says her mother.
The word hangs in the air as Marjorie remembers holding her mother’s hand in the queue to vote in the first South African general election. Voting for Mandela. Having got their country back, would Madiba have allowed it to be run by a Pan-African bankers’ club? Would he ever have talked about the economy as more important than society? Would he…? But that was then, and Africa. This is now, and Europe and Poppy and her mother. And the next session should reveal the real reason that they are here.
Please come to our gig at the Marx Memorial Library on Monday February 18th. 7pm. We're the opening salvo in the Spark series of readings from fiction writers. Creative writing has always mirrored and energised our movement, from Shakespeare to AL Kennedy. Each month a fiction writer, dramatist or poet will read from current work and discuss their writing processes with the audience. First up;
Jan Woolf, currently writer in residence at the Marx Memorial Library. Her first collection of short stories Fugues on a Funny Bone was published in 2010 with Muswell Press, and many others with New River Press and International Times. Her short story Moving On was shortlisted for the Asham Prize, and Fixed for the SALT anthology. She is working on her first novel, Hannibal and the Masked Girl, set in Tate Modern in 2003, where a painter plans a citizen's arrest of Tony Blair. Her plays Sphinx and Porn Crackers were produced at the Hackney Empire, and You Don't Know What You Don't Know at the Royal Court in 2013 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Her latest play The Man With the Gold was started on an archaeological dig in Jordan 2013, and being prepared for a run in 2019, the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles that divided the Middle East. Jan also has a campaigning history: a leading member of the Free for All museums campaign, founder director of the recently re-launched Left Book Club and cultural coordinator at noglory.org where she has many articles and reviews.
Anne Aylor is a professional writer and teacher who has had short stories and poems published by the Arts Council of Great Britain, Oxford University Press, The Literary Review, London Magazine and Strand Magazine. Her first novel, No Angel Hotel, was republished in 2012 in a new revised edition. Her second novel, The Double Happiness Company, was published in 2011. She is 90,000 words into her third and is working on a fourth. A number of her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio. In 2008 she was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and in 2011 for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2014 she was the winner of the Historical Novel Society Short Story Award. Her stage play, Children of the Dust, won a playwrighting competition and was co-produced by the Soho Theatre and Theatre Warehouse, Croydon. She worked in post-war Bosnia where she practised Chinese medicine and taught ballet. She taught ballet at Morley College in London and is a member of PEN and 26. In 2007 she was a shortlist judge for the story competition held by the Wimbledon Book Fest and in 2011 she was the judge in the Peter Barry Short Story Competition.