Thanks for all the positive comments on the other day’s story – it is now waiting to be sent off for the Mslexia short story competition. In the meantime I’ve sent off another short story to a magazine. It’s all go round here, especially with yesterday’s Spring! workshops still buzzing around in my brain. It was a good day, on the whole, though with some ups and downs. First, I didn’t get many takers for my workshop which caused a fit of paranoia for a while (‘what am I doing wrong? Why don’t people like my workshops?’) although that faded once we got into working with the poems. I thought we got a lot out of the two poems we worked with, which were my ‘Spike’ poem on homelessness, and a poem about Christmas by a homeless man called Paul. We wove them together in a choral narrative called Voices of the Streets, in which we all spoke different parts. It was very Greek – though not tragic as it was very well-received.
I did not enjoy the final performance as much as I’d hoped though, because I was struck by fatigue and hunger. I’d had lunch but the performance went on about an hour longer than it was supposed to and of course I’d brought with me neither money nor food. In the end a lovely fellow-performer stumped up and bought me a chocolate bar – and Graham offered me a lift home. So all was well.
Here’s another story now, which I’d really like your comments on. Or, on which I’d really like your comments – it’s about a jigsaw I used to have as a child.
The Past is A Whole-Nother Country
Leuka had once been given a jigsaw for Christmas. It wasn’t like her other puzzles, where most of the pieces were similar: in this one they were completely different, but together they made up an entire country. Jigsaw Map of Great Britain, proclaimed the box proudly, and was still proclaiming it years later when she discovered it up in the attic, though muffled by a thick layer of dust. She was amazed the puzzle had survived all those years, though sadly, the box had not: its corners had collapsed, leaving two flat squares of cardboard just about holding onto the pieces.
Leuka had forgotten this puzzle. But as soon as she saw it, all her Sunday afternoons came back to her; the hours she’d spent sitting on the floor putting the picture together while the clock ticked and her parents slept off their early start. So, ignoring all the boxes waiting to be sorted, she blew off the dust and tipped it out. The pieces felt at home in her hands.
The counties of Britain had been a mystery to the young Leuka, but she had liked learning them. They were all so different: Sussex was a huge umbrella sliced in two, Middlesex was like a big thumbs-up; and Rutland, the smallest county of all, was a tiny jewel in the belly of the country. Before long she knew where each of them belonged, how they slotted into their neighbours and most importantly, how far they stood from the coast. Distance from the coast was a crucial factor for the childhood Leuka, who considered it a tragedy to live too far from the sea. Odd, then, that she should have ended up in Leicester…
Each piece of the puzzle had a picture on it, and these pictures had formed her image of an as-yet-undiscovered country. In her child’s mind, Scotland was filled with fish and Kent covered with apple-trees. But memory was fickle: she’d been convinced that each of the Ridings of Yorkshire – East, West and North – had a person on horseback charging in the appropriate direction. But in reality the horsemen were in the Home Counties (and, disappointingly, the word meant thirdings and had nothing to do with riding anyway.) The past, it seemed, was an imaginary country.
Rutland had gone missing: that tiny jewel in the heart of the Midlands was nowhere to be seen. She turned the box upside-down and searched the floor, but was forced to conclude that the smallest piece was lost forever. In the end she decided it was appropriate, since the county itself was no more. Since moving to Leicester she had travelled East and found a people who were proud of their tiny status and refused to acknowledge the wider fiefdom of Leicestershire.
She began to build the puzzle, placing pieces as she came across them with no system in mind. The old counties were so small! Where there used to be three or four there would now just be one large piece. She felt she was returning to an ancient world of small fiefdoms, a place of self-contained body-parts which together made up the larger corpus of Britain. Wales was like a big fat hand, full of tiny bones, Kent was the rump and Scotland was the head of the country, looking out into the ocean like a scout. In the far North, the hairy Shetlands sat on the same piece of wood as the Orkneys, the ferry-routes shown as threads of grey in the blue water. But soon Scotland might be cast adrift – and then what would become of Great Britain? She would be broken up; half her pieces missing, bobbing like a cork in a vast global ocean.
Leon came to see how she was doing, and she felt a stab of guilt. She was supposed to be clearing out: in two weeks they would have to be gone.
‘I just found this from when I was a kid,’ she said sheepishly. She didn’t dare ask how he was getting on with his papers – he was probably slinging them all into a box just as they were.
He looked over her shoulder. ‘I see you’ve lost Rutland,’ he said. ‘That’s appropriate.’
‘Just what I thought!’ she laughed.
‘But you’ve still got Middlesex.’
‘I know. All the others are there. This must have been made way before the reorganisation.’
‘1974,’ he said. It was typical of him to know the date, though he would have been seven at the time.
‘I used to love this jigsaw,’ she said fondly, ‘I learned loads from it.’
‘Probably what your parents were hoping.’
Leuka laughed again, and then she felt sad at the memory of all those afternoons spent working on the puzzle while her parents slept; all the time it had spent gathering dust in the attic. There were plenty of boxes waiting to be sorted, yet it seemed important to finish the jigsaw.
‘Can you make me a cup of tea?’ she pleaded.
It was like him not to argue.
She carried on putting the counties in their places. Since 1974, so much had been lost! All the tiny bones of Wales; Radnorshire and Flintshire and Denbighshire and Camaerthenshire; then the Lakes – Cumberland and Westmorland and Northumberland – the patchwork coat of the Midlands, and London where three counties met and touched in the centre – they were all gone; all subsumed in a greater bureaucracy; a rational vision. Leuka hated rational things. She wanted them at the bottom of the sea.
She had almost finished; she just had to make up the West Country: the long, slim foot of Cornwall joined to the fatter, richer calf of Devon, then Somerset and Dorset making knee-cap and knee-joint. She thought of the holidays they’d had as children; those long, long car-journeys down the blue vein of the motorway.
The past really is another country, she thought. And where would these places be in the future? But now Leon was coming in with the tea. He’d made a proper pot: Leuka despised tea-bags almost as much as she despised bureaucracy.
He put the tray down: she thanked him. It was one of the habits they’d got into; not taking each other for granted. Bad habits could break up the jigsaw of a marriage. He looked at the almost-finished puzzle. ‘Wow,’ he said. ‘The past really is a whole-nother country.’
Leuka laughed, then became serious again. ‘What I’m wondering is, what will it look like in the future?’
‘After the referendum. Will your folks make a break for it, d’you think?’
That was ironic: Leon was only a quarter Scottish, and not entitled to vote.
‘Looks like a yes – don’t you think?’ she insisted.
He peered at the counties of Scotland as though they might show the answer. ‘You never know,’ he said.
She sipped her tea. ‘And then what about the rest of us?’
‘What about us?’
‘They say we’ll never have a Labour government again.’
Leon snorted. His view of the Labour party was like Leuka’s view of tea-bags: inauthentic, ersatz. Fake.
She found the last piece – one of the three parts of Lincolnshire – and slotted it in. As she drank her tea she contemplated the finished puzzle, sad and out of date as a pink world. Then she put it away in its box and carried on packing up the attic.