Jess will be giving a reading at the Listowel Arms Ballroom on Thursday the 1st of June.
Posts by Jess Kidd:
In a great night for Irish literature Jess wins the 2016 Costa Short Story Award. Her winning story Dirty Little Fishes is about a young Irish girl in London who accompanies her mother on visits to a dying woman – with curious consequences.
The full story can be read on the Irish Times website.
Jess talks about all aspects of her writing practice, from the origins of Himself, to her love of Magic Realism and her plans for future novels.
‘We were in our Entirely Secret Bunker for at least fifteen years this morning,’ says Christina Caribou.
And I believe her. Because as I crawl out from under the stairs I have crab legs and mole eyes. Christina Caribou doesn’t suffer from the cramped conditions because she’s not real. She’s mostly invisible, although she looks a lot like me, but a bad version. Christina Caribou has a squint and some really dirty habits. She picks at her own imaginary knee scabs and eats them. She also steals things.
We’ve come out of our bunker because they are all far too quiet. They are taking my brother away today. There should be screaming.
‘It’s because the nuclear war happened when we were inside and everyone is dead now,’ says Christina Caribou and dances off down the corridor.
I stay near the fortified doorway of our bunker just in case.
We’ve stuck aluminium foil onto the walls to deflect radiation. We can survive inside our bunker for years. We have provisions in the deep hold, where the stairs make a lopsided V with the ground and where most of the underground spiders live. We have stolen some candles, a half-tin of soft biscuits and some garden cushions with a happy smell (outside and camping). We have made a bookcase out of cardboard boxes and display the things that Christina Caribou steals on it. On the top shelf we’ve put Mammy’s gold belt buckle and Mrs Gillibrand’s gnome.
We might ransom the gnome. We’re saving up to buy a torch. It’s difficult to read with candles because they won’t burn still. And Christina Caribou says it’s only a matter of time before they catch the hem of my nightie and then where will I be?
Burnt, buckled bones wrapped in melted nylon. No face, frizzled hair. That’s where I’ll be.
We have also drawn Keep Us Secret Spell Signs all over the walls. These are powerful Egyptian signs. They must be working because no one has discovered our bunker yet.
Christina Caribou has found signs of life. The bomb has not killed everyone. Mammy is outside standing at the front gate. We watch her from the lounge window. Christina Caribou hangs from the curtain rail by her toes like a bat. Her invisible ginger hair hangs down behind her like a rope. I tuck my head up under the net curtain. It smells of dust. I pull it around my head like a veil and look tragic. I am a bride who will die before her wedding day is even over.
Mammy is arguing with a fat man at the gate. He is wearing a vest and he has no socks on inside his shoes. I have to open the window to hear but Christina Caribou just pushes her face through the glass.
‘Your brother has stolen his daughter’s bike,’ whispers Christina Caribou. She shakes her head in dismay. ‘They haven’t had a moment’s peace since you lot moved into the neighbourhood.’
‘Don’t deny it,’ shouts the man with no socks. ‘He’s an evil little shit.’
Christina Caribou makes tutting noises. ‘This used to be such a nice part of London.’ She frowns. ‘You’ve lowered the tone. Arriving in that van like the fucking Clampetts.’
Mr No-Sock’s voice keeps rising, it gets higher and higher. ‘Him and his gang—’
Mammy has her hands on her hips and a dishcloth over her shoulder. I can’t see her face but I know she’s angry from the set of her shoulders.
‘—stealing, smoking, terrorizing the kiddies.’
Mammy can hardly get a word in.
‘—sniffing glue behind the swings. In the playground.’
Above me, Christina Caribou turns her head right round like an owl. She cups her hands over her nose and mouth and breathes in, making quick little sucking noises. Then she pretends to choke until she starts flickering like a broken telly and falls down from the window.
‘Cut it out Christina Caribou,’ I whisper. ‘Or you’ll go all faint again.’
Death by Glue is one of the deaths we haven’t cursed my brother with. We saw it on the telly. People who do solvent abuse die horribly but it’s a little on the quick side. Christina Caribou thinks a lingering death would be more fitting.
Mammy shakes her head at the man at the gate and says she will talk to my brother when she finds him. She tells Mr No-Socks that things are going to get better for the neighbours because my brother is leaving home today. As soon as they find out where he’s run off to.
My brother has eyes the colour of moss. Sometimes he turns his eyelids inside out. They are like slivers of meat. He’s a fox in a trap. He will gnaw off his own leg. He is fourteen. I can’t breathe when he’s in the room. He takes all the air. Try not to look at him directly. There is nothing at all in his eyes.
My brother has to go away to live in a home for Maladjusted Boys. He has to live there all the time, until he is older or cured of his criminal tendencies. They are taking him away today, when they find him. Me and Christina Caribou know exactly where he’s going. We overheard everything about the home for Maladjusted Boys. Gary Chapman’s cousin went there before prison. Gary Chapman has said:
‘The boys have pillow fights with bricks inside the pillowcases and they break each other’s noses and shit.’
‘The boys fight everyday for their dinner and the weakest ones live on scraps. They crawl around like animals and the other boys kick them in the nuts.’
Gary Chapman said that at the home for Maladjusted Boys they’ll stab you for a can of Tizer and glass you for a Mars bar.
My brother hasn’t been home since yesterday. When they find him they are taking him away from here. Mammy has done everything she can to help him. She has lit candles to St Martha and begged and pleaded for the saint to slay the dragon that lives inside my brother.
Mammy once showed me her prayer card. St Martha stands on the head of a snake-monster. She has a long white dress and little pointy feet and her eyes are rolled up towards heaven and God. She stabs at the monster with a long cross. The monster seems to be under control but I can see that it has one yellow eye open a tiny little slit and a grin on its face. St Martha ought to look down, because that monster is about to turn.
Mammy is coming back down the path. Mr No-Socks walks away. It looks as if he is going home to his daughter with no bicycle. Me and Christina Caribou hide behind the sofa.
Mammy comes into the room and sits down on the sofa, right in front of us. I hear the sound of a match being struck and the pop of a cigarette being sucked to life and smell the bitter match smell. Mammy is so near I could touch her if I could put my hand through things like Christina Caribou can. I touch the back of the sofa instead.
I hear Mammy’s voice, low and quiet. She pushes words out with her breath and without stopping she sucks the words back in again. She breathes words in and out for a long time and although I can’t hear them properly I know the words are making a prayer for my brother.
‘There is no point in her praying,’ mouths Christina Caribou, stabbing her finger deep into the sofa. ‘He has to come to a sticky end because we have cursed him so many times.’
We wrote my brother’s name out and burnt it with along with some hair I got from his comb. We have also made a Possible Death List, with a spell for each death in Egyptian. Our top favourite is Slow Death by Piranha Fish (they gnaw his limbs off first so he can’t swim, so he drowns). I think me and Christina Caribou could go to hell for doing magic, except she might not, because she’s not even alive.
She doesn’t mind not being alive because her favourite game is Guess My Death. We try to decide how Christina Caribou actually died, if she ever was alive, and she re-enacts it. Of course this helps us with our Possible Death List too.
We mostly re-enact death by drowning, we can both do that just by lying face down in the paddling pool with our hair pulled out all round us. Or suicide by hanging, using an elastic noose made from my Brownie uniform belt. With this I hold my breath and try and push my eyes out until I go red. Then I stick my tongue as far out as I can, until it lolls a bit. Sometimes we leave a note sometimes we don’t. If we do leave a note then we list all the people we hate and why we hate them and all the things they’ve done to us to make us hate them.
Sometimes Christina Caribou does death by catapulting over the handlebars of a bike. She acts a double somersault then models her broken neck by putting her head in impossible positions. I don’t like it. It makes me think of the blackbird my brother broke.
Uncle Mervin is at the front door. Uncle Mervin isn’t my real Uncle. He gives me 50p if I go to bed early on a Friday night so that he can make farm noises with Mammy. He has watery eyes that look like the pickled eggs swimming in the jar on the chip shop counter. Soft pickled eyes. He has a sweaty top lip. He has fat fingers.
‘He has a few quid for himself,’ says Christina Caribou, jumping out from behind the sofa. She leans against the door frame, picking her invisible nose.
I send her a withering look.
‘He buys all the shopping you know.’ She hops onto one foot and inspects the sole of her shoe on the other foot. ‘He should buy us new shoes sometime.’
‘You don’t need them,’ I whisper, half out from behind the sofa, ready to back up quickly if they come into the room. ‘You’re not bloody real.’
My brother found the blackbird in the park. He said that it had been pushed out of its nest by its greedy fat sister and it had fallen onto the hedge below. He held it in his fist, it was a baby bird. It didn’t look finished yet.
The baby bird’s feathers were pale grey and baldy-looking where they were stuck down with the sweat from his hands. Its beak was long and turned down making it look cross and sad at the same time. Its black eyes were huge and filmy. When it closed its eyes its eyelids were curved and plump. It breathed very quickly.
He let me hold it. Its feet were like tiny sticks. Its claws were little trembling points on the palm of my hand.My brother wrapped the little bird in a tea-towel and went to find it worms. He called it Tommo.
When Gary Chapman called round he found my brother trying to feed Tommo water with a cotton bud. Barry leant very close to my brother and said something. My brother pushed Barry away, drop-kicked Tommo and walked out of the room.
I saw it.
The little bird fell lightly from his hand onto the toe of his shoe. Flick. Up. Then it hit the wall and fell down into the corner of the room just behind the sofa.
When I picked it up the bird’s tiny head hung loose. One wing was snapped right back and its little stick feet were all still and bent up. I stroked its poor half-bald head and kissed it very gently.
Uncle Mervin has gone out in his car to look for my brother (his car has brown leather seats and a cassette player but I’ve not been in it). Mammy is sitting on the front door step smoking and waiting for everyone to come home. She holds her knees and she sways a bit, sometimes she rolls her eyes up to the heavens like St Martha. I must be gaining stealth because she doesn’t hear me even though I’m standing right behind her. Christina Caribou cartwheels along the path pulling faces, even though this is wasted on Mammy.
Mammy has been sewing labels on my brother’s new-pants-socks-shirt-vests-flannelette-pyjamas for days. When she sews a name on she puts the thing into the trunk that sits in the middle of the lounge. My brother will take the trunk with him to the home for Maladjusted Boys. Fat bundles of bright white socks and flat piles of grey vests sit waiting.
Mammy says, ‘I don’t want them to think that he comes from a bad home. That he’s not looked after.’ She bites the thread with her teeth with her head on one side.
She has put memories into the trunk with every ironed shirt.
‘He had platinum blond hair as a baby.’
‘His hair was as fine as silk. Then it went dark.’
‘His eyes were the most beautiful bright slate grey. Then they changed.’
Mammy rocks slowly on the doorstep and I wonder if she’s thinking of my brother’s baby hair again because she has her needle lifted to sew another name label onto a jumper but all she’s really doing is stroking the wool between her fingers. Her eyes are all red and she is looking at nothing.
‘Will I put that in the trunk for you, Mammy?’
She looks past me but she lets me take the jumper.
‘Neatly,’ she says.
The trunk stands in the middle of the lounge. We have started using it as a coffee table because it is the right height. It has rings from Mammy’s wine glasses and coffee cups on one corner of the lid.
It is all buckled up. I open one side and squash the jumper in.
Tucked under the clothes, in neat rows, are jars and jars of peanut butter with red and blue lids. Peanut butter is the only thing that my brother likes in the world. Me and Christina Caribou have already opened each one in turn and spat in them. I ease a jar with a red lid out of the trunk and stick my finger inside it.
‘They are for his afterlife,’ says Christina Caribou, tapping the jar noiselessly with her fingernail. She opens her eyes wide. ‘Just like the Egyptians we read about when we did our spells. They collected stuff to eat or wear or keep them company.’
She picks at her knee and thinks. I know from the look on her face that something bad is brewing. A bad idea.
‘We should give your brother something to remember us by when he reaches his new life,’ she says. ‘A little goodbye present he can find in his trunk when he gets to the place of no return.’
‘He will return, though. He’ll be back at Christmas,’ I say, pushing the peanut butter jar back into the trunk and wiping my finger under the sofa. I hate peanut butter.
‘You don’t know that for sure.’ Christina Caribou leers at me from behind the lid of the trunk.
I frown at her.
She bites the end of her ginger plait, her grin widening. ‘We could give him back Tommo, he could be his little afterlife friend. For when he’s lonely, in the school for Maladjusted Boys.’
‘If he comes back he’d kill me.’ I whisper.
‘Coward,’ shouts Christina Caribou, jumping into the case and slamming the lid closed.
When I manage to open it again she is lying as still as a corpse with her pale arms folded. If she was real she would have messed up all the clothes underneath her but I can see them through her tummy and legs, they are still in neat piles. She opens her eyes and looks at me.
‘Go and dig the bird up.’
‘I bloody won’t.’
‘I’ll help you. Then we’ll put Tommo in his trunk. Surprise!’
‘No bloody way.’
Her eyes go dreamy, she’s staring right through me, as if she’s watching a brilliant film on the ceiling. ‘Just imagine his face,’ she murmurs.
And I do.
We all have our faults and these are the crosses that other people have to bear. Mrs Gillibrand from Number 5 has bunions the size of doorknobs which resist all but the most giving shoe and put her visitors off their food. Mammy drops fag ash into the dinner when she’s not paying attention and drinks wine every night until she falls asleep on the sofa. My hair has knots that have to be cut out like hairy red spiders. Christina Caribou can’t feel the skin of a peach or remember what rain smells like any more. And she can’t leave me alone during the day.
But at night she just isn’t there.
It’s not that I can’t see her, because she’s not always easy to see (especially on sunny days). I always know when she’s with me, even if I can’t see her.
I know that Christina Caribou is not with me in the dark.
I know that Christina Caribou is nowhere near when I watch the doorway until I fall asleep. I know she’s long gone as I wait for his step outside in the hallway, imagining I am twenty and I live in a castle with guards and dogs and a shotgun.
My brother says he’ll get me at night. When I’m least expecting it. When I don’t see him coming. Me first, then Mammy. I’ll wake with a gurgle and a splutter but it will be too late, his blade will already be halfway down my throat.
He’ll look me straight in the eyes, he says, as he twists it right in.
Every night Christina Caribou watches me ruefully as I get ready for bed. As I put on my flammable nightie and drag the bedside table, the pile of overdue library books and a bucket full of marbles in front of the door. Then she just disappears, drifting off with a frown and a shrug through the wall. For after all, Christina Caribou can’t even move a snowflake. She is just a girl who has never really been alive.
She is absolutely no help. Christina Caribou won’t even come down to the bottom of the garden with me. She is sitting up on the roof of the house plaiting her invisible ginger hair and pushing her tongue into the imaginary gap in her teeth.
It has started to rain. I look back to where Christina Caribou was but I can’t see her, she must have drifted back in through the roof tiles. The rain bounces on my eyelashes and turns my eyes into kaleidoscopes. I blink and blink but I still can’t see.
I buried the blackbird underneath the runner beans in my lunch box so that the plastic could keep him nice. I wiggle under the beans and the wet-earth smell rises up to me. The beans make a green archway above me. Some fat raindrops get through and land on my legs and arms as I scrabble in the earth. I find the box quickly because I didn’t bury it very deeply and I’d marked the grave carefully with a circle of flat round stones. I push it up inside my jumper and as the rain falls down in a big sad rush I run into the shed to look inside the box.
It is dark inside the shed and it smells like autumn; damp wood and peaty ground, bonfires and dark days. I sit down next to the open door, just out of the rain so that I can still smell the air. I notice that plants have started to grow in through cracks in the door frame. I carefully pull at a stalk and a leaf that has been wedged behind the door hinge. It is weaker and paler looking than the other leaves because it has had no sun.
The box is inside my jumper. I pull it out and look inside.
The baby blackbird is wrapped in a handkerchief and tied with a pink ribbon. Badness must have seeped through the material once upon a time because the handkerchief is stained in places. But it is dry and hard now, just like a mummy. As I undo the knot I hear a noise.
My brother is behind the lawnmower and a sack of peat. He is propped against the back wall of the shed in a sleeping bag. He is surrounded by dented beer cans. He has knocked over one of the cans at his feet. The ground beside him is covered with twisted cigarette ends.
His face is a blur of dirt and snot and his eyes are dim and half-closed with crying. Holding my breath I crouch down and reach out to touch his foot.
He kicks, hard.
Spit comes out with each word.
Mammy is in the kitchen with Uncle Mervin. He’s rubbing her back with his fat fingers. Mammy turns around and looks at me as if she is trying to remember my name. My face is wet and I am holding a dead blackbird, one hand over the other, with my fingers like the bars of little cage.
‘He’s in the shed,’ I say.
Writing prompts can be anything from a photograph, a line of overheard conversation, or in the context of creative writing workshops and classes, an exercise designed to get learners writing, producing ideas, experimenting. Such exercises might expand upon or consolidate a learnt technique or introduce the writer to new ways of writing (or, equally important, new ways of looking and seeing).
All writing prompts provide a peg to hang ideas on, a framework of sorts when you are daunted by the idea that you could write anything or nothing when faced with that empty screen or blank sheet of paper. Writing prompts have their place if they can offer you a jumpstart on the days when you are considering doing anything but writing. These are the days when you expect fully formed, lively prose to fall flapping at your feet and when you forget that a big part of the early stage in writing is allowing yourself the freedom to string strange ideas together in a blithe kind of a way before the serious work starts (the testing and prodding and sucking air in through your teeth stage).
The best writing prompts I’ve come across are playful, random and encourage writers to have fun with words and images. They also counteract that urge to clean the windows, do the ironing, or reorder your cutlery drawer – whatever feels more pressing (and enjoyable) than sitting down to write.
Anything that might lead you tiptoeing past your internal critic for long enough to get a few words down is worth trying. My internal critic is like a sour dowager, she loves earnest and grave and pessimistic thoughts. Playtime tires her, so that she gives up and shuffles off to have a lie down. Ironically, without her critical glare, I’ve found that what starts off in jest can sometimes lead to a serious and satisfying piece of writing.
For this reason, I like writing prompts that are not too prescriptive but rather feel a bit like a scrawled map to an odd destination. The best prompts encourage detours. Sorting through my old creative writing teaching class notes I found the following list of prompts. I sincerely apologise to the members of my long-suffering adult education class for setting them. There were better prompts, I’m sure, based on inspiring texts and important theories. However, I seem to remember my class’s response to these prompts was great – a diverse range of flash fiction and short stories, populated by well-sketched, vivid characters. The outcome was funny, inventive and unique (just like my learners) and every one of them deviated, thankfully. Now do I really need to reorder my teaspoons…?
Choose one of the following and write a short story, piece of flash fiction or a poem.
Setting – An oil rig
Objects – A mirror, a bucket and a fire hose
Setting – A Georgian brothel
Objects – A shoe with a broken heel, a fingernail and a diary
Setting – A Wild West saloon bar
Objects – A gun, a turnip and a bible
Setting – Victorian London
Objects – A meat pie, a shawl and a diamond ring
Setting – A space station
Objects – A glowing stone, a vial of liquid and a handful of human hair
Setting – A 1950s kitchen
Objects – A bottle, a coil of rope and a ripped dress
Louisa Joyner, editorial director of fiction, bought UK and Commonwealth rights to two books by Jess Kidd from Susan Armstrong at Conville & Walsh.
The first book is Himself, described as “by turns blackly humorous, mysterious and darkly chilling”.