Pain is the Spur
Freda read the damning remarks written with the appraiser’s red pen, which had been applied — with a generosity akin to a banker’s pension — over her entire manuscript. Being so painful to read, it might as well have been written in her own blood. Cliché appeared to be written so many times that she wondered if Brent, the reviewer, could only write in clichés himself.
It seemed bizarre that normal conversation, engaged in day by day at her old workplace, could be regarded as cliché by someone who had never entered a factory, and likely had never had a pint at the local with a bog cleaner, or Sanitary Disposal Operative to be more PC. Was she supposed to search a dictionary to find obscure words, and make up poetic phrases for a character that could barely read and write?
She stood up from the kitchen table and threw the manuscript into the box for recycling, Brent’s humiliating conclusions, ringing death tolls to all literary ambition, could not be more negative:
“Even if you made substantial edits to correct these failings, the manuscript would never find a publisher. The storyline has no appeal, sagas are out of fashion and, quite frankly, you will never make a writer. You lack the essential gifts. Any supposed publishing professional who told you otherwise would be more interested in the fee, and hoping you would return for another appraisal.”
Four hundred pounds of her precious redundancy pay to have her manuscript torn apart, and far more effectively than the electric shredder could ever do. Anger and mortification, welled up tears in her eyes. An unseen hand held her throat in a tightening grip, accompanied by acid, painfully flaming her stomach and rising to burn its way up to her mouth. Freda knew she had to give in and let loose her tears of pain, or suffer the consequences — further erosion of her stomach lining. But instead, she reached for the Gaviscon bottle, shook it and swallowed down two full tablespoons of the horrid stuff.
“I will not cry, I will not,” she muttered, over and over, her balled fists gripping her pounding head. Action was needed, anything to halt the increasing tension.
She fished the manuscript out of the large padded packet, took it to the spare room, and sat in front of the shredder. Two pages at a time, she fed the child of her loins — the product of nine months labouring — into the shredder.
Through painful eyes, Freda looked around the poorly furnished room with its desk, table, computer, printer, piles of books, and all the accoutrements of a writer in the making. This room, with bare-boarded floor, oddments of furniture and tatty curtains, had been to her a nursery. But her babies would never be born to see the light of day. No bonny baby contests for her little ones — they were too malformed and ugly to live. They were not wanted. She was not wanted.
Tears burst from under her eyelids and streamed down her face, Wails of pain suddenly escaped her throat bringing relief to pent-up emotions.
Throughout her life, the niggling feeling of not being good enough for anything she attempted, haunted her like a demon from the cellar of her mind. Inferiority complex. Now there is a cliché she could use about herself. Tears turned to hysterical laughter.
“Are you all right, Freda?” Her neighbour Liz, a fellow redundant worker at the curtain factory, had just arrived. “I rang the bell, but no answer. I thought I heard you crying so I came straight in. Sorry…er… you’re laughing, not crying. What’s so funny?”
“Nothing really.” For sure, telling Liz anything meant informing the whole neighbourhood. Sniffing back tears that once again threatened to engulf her, Freda turned her head away to switch off the shredder, glad to have a few seconds to regain control. She wanted the nosy bitch to go away but instead she politely asked, “Do you want a cuppa?”
“I wouldn’t mind one, and one of your nice cup cakes. My stomach feels as if my throat’s been cut.”
Freda smiled ironically; that well-used phrase had been red-penned on her manuscript. The pain returned to her head and her throat muscles tightened again. She moved to the kitchen to prepare the snack, leaving the door open for Liz to keep up a monologue about Fred Bishby, their one time overseer.
Freda prepared the snack, taking freshly baked cakes from the cooling tray. Had Liz smelled them while they were cooking? Funny how she always turned up after a baking session.
Why had she mentally called Liz a nosy bitch? Not like her at all. What other horrid thoughts did she harbour but never said aloud? People always thought her a nice person but what she showed to the world could not possibly be her real self. People would not want to know the real Freda: Freda the nasty person; Freda the failure; Freda who thinks herself so clever, but is really a laughable clown who speaks and writes in clichés.
She caught her reflection in the kitchen window, now a mirror with the winter’s afternoon so dark and miserable matching her mood. Not a bad looking blond of fifty years, except for grey hairs determined to match her grey eyes, and a weight of ten stones too heavy for her five feet two inches of height. But who cares? Not Jo: her hubby’s only concern is to get his meals on time, and, of course, City winning the cup. It was different when they were first married, then—
“What’s up, luv?” Liz had come into the kitchen. “You don’t seem yourself today. Is it your usual? It won’t be for much longer. Huh, men should have to put up with what we women do. Maybe they would be more understanding.” She sat herself down at the kitchen table. “It’s warmer in here. Don’t the afternoons get dark and cold now? As I was saying…”
The kettle came up to the boil. Freda warmed the big brown pot with hot water, emptied it and dropped in two tea bags. The scent and taste of Earl Grey tea would have been nicer, but she couldn’t afford her little luxuries now; her writing hobby had made sure of that. She screamed inside her head. Writing, just a waste of money and time.
“Help yourself to milk and sugar,” she told Liz, while pouring out the tea.
“Oo, lovely cakes, can I have two?”
Fat pig, Freda said to herself, and instantly regretted it. She pushed the plate of cakes over the white Formica-topped table. “Help yourself.”
What was the matter with her? She wanted to cry: weep for her lost youth, for the love she once shared with Jo before football took over his life, for a home devoid of her two sons now they had left home to live with partners. And today, yes today, for her literary baby that would never be born. Useless that’s what I am, useless, she heard the words echoing in her head. I’m a first class loser.
“These cakes are lovely. Have they got caraway seeds in the sugar coating?”
“Yes, I like to eat them with Earl Grey tea. But I’m out of it.”
“I prefer P.G. Tips.” Liz munched on her second cake, and then slurped the second cup of tea Freda poured out for her. “Ugh! No sugar. She put in two spoonfuls. “How’s your writing coming on? I love reading your stories. I told Max about that latest one. You know, that saga. He wants to know if he’s in it.”
Freda burst into tears. She sat down and put her head in her hands.
A sleeve of a rough jumper touching her bare arm, and the sweet scent of caraway, told her that Liz had left her chair to console her. Two motherly arms wrapped her in a comforting embrace.
“What is it, Freda? I knew something was wrong as soon as I came in.”
Freda couldn’t speak. What would she say if she could? How could anyone understand her bereavement: her loss of what was, and what might have been? Never mind her utter humiliation. How could they? Even Jo thought she just played about on the computer filling in spare time.
“Is there anything I can do for you, luv?”
Freda shook her head. “I’m all right, just tired. I think I’ll go to bed for an hour before Jo gets in.”
“You do that. I’m just next door if you need me.”
“Thank you, Liz. You’re a true friend.” Freda said the words but her inner self yelled back, Hypocrite, hypocrite, you really think she’s a nosy bitch, A battle for truth and honesty ensued within Freda’s mind.
“I’ll be off then.”
“Thanks for coming. Good of you. You’re welcome any time.”
Freda felt a kiss on her cheek and heard footsteps going outside. A little voice inside her head was singing, Clichés, clichés, all clichés, Freda. Your whole life is a cliché. That’s why you can only write clichés. Give up writing and get yourself a life, woman.
Talking to herself? She must be going mad. Tired that’s all. She poured herself another tea and walked to the lounge. The room seemed cold and dark, in spite of the flickering flames of the coal-effect gas fire, illuminating the close-by cherry-red plush suite and beige sheepskin rugs. She put the cup on a small coffee table near her relaxing chair, switched on a glass Victorian table lamp, closed the rough-textured beige curtains against the winter’s chill, and finally clicked on the television.
Her mind drifted to words Liz had spoken. I love reading your stories. Liz was not the only one to compliment her on her writing. People often told her how much they enjoyed reading her little yarns in the parish magazine. Maybe, just maybe…
The sound of a baby crying turned her attention to the television screen. It seemed to be a programme about conditions in Darfur. Babies, skin clinging to bones and tummies swollen from hunger, stared at her wide-eyed, She sat down and listened to the commentary.
It had all been heard before. The facts were plain and stark. Mere words could not tell the full story. The reporter looked straight at the camera with tears in her eyes:
“We sit at home and read about the desperate plight of people like these, but not until I came here and experienced the situation with the whole of my senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and a kind of sixth sense of empathy — did I understand. But there is no way that I can truly know what these people have suffered, and are still suffering.” Her voice became shaky as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Please help them.”
A small, emaciated child, began screaming while a medical worker tried to find a vein to stick in a candular. Freda found herself in tears, her heart filled with pity, sorrow and remorse. Remorse for the money spent just to tell her that her writing is rubbish and her baby is a non-starter, when so much good could have been done with it.
Well, she will change that. She will take note of the useful criticisms and discard the rest. Lots of people had read her work and enjoyed it. She will show Mr bloody Brent that she can write. Never mind the clichés, just like the documentary had involved her whole being, she will show what her characters think and feel. Yes, show their actions in word pictures painted in colours, sounds and smells — involving her readers, moving them to read on and on. And when her first book is published, Brent will be the first to receive a copy. Royalties will go to relief programmes. She had a mission in life and she will succeed.
Wiping the tears from her eyes, Freda walked back to her computer and brought up the maligned manuscript. On the second page she typed:
Dedicated to the children whose cries we never hear.
Two years later, Freda received a letter from her publisher, Jocose Nouveau Publishing:
We are pleased to tell you that your novel, Trouble At Mill, is now one of our bestselling e-books. We would like to run a printed version. Do you still hold the rights?