Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Declaration

We get a babysitter. We visit a public toilet. We go into the unisex disabled one so we don’t get into trouble and lock the door, check it’s secure. We’ve bought a new knife; a fancy penknife like Bear Grylls has. We’ve brought some fizzy wine. The door is busy with names, declarations, some swear words. I sit on the edge of the closed toilet lid and go to place the small cool bag containing the wine and the glasses on the floor. There are damp, discoloured patches there spreading into each other and I keep it on my lap. I can smell an abrasive mix of bleach and urine but take a sip of the wine and let the sharp fizz on my tongue distract me. He leans against the wall, takes out the knife and pokes at his fingertips with the point. We drink a glass of wine whilst we discuss what we will do. The bubbles make me feel dreamy. I’d like something meaningful, significant. Finally we decide.

I pour another glass and sip. He begins to scrape. He looks strong and manly, his handsome face focused on his task and I blush, almost swoon. I realise the wine has gone to my head and giggle. He looks at me, rolls his eyes and laughs softly. The paint flakes off onto the floor and I feel bad. Maybe we should have used one of the children’s felt-tips instead? He finishes, it looks good, though the letters are a little uneven to avoid the others already there. I stand up, he pockets the knife and puts his arm around me. We gaze at our names scratched on the toilet door. We smile and finish our bottle. I brush up the paint dust with a paper towel and he rinses our glasses in the sink. I place the bottle in the bin. We wash our hands with the antibacterial handwash that I brought and we leave.

We walk home, hand in hand, knowing that our love is sure because it is carved on a toilet door. 

 by Diane Scott

Monday, October 28, 2013

Poetry, Life and Death

I don’t have a poem for you this week.  I have only my reflections on a feature in the ‘BBC 100  Women’  series about poets in Afghanistan which captured my imagination , roused my admiration and humbled me in a single heartbeat.

You see, my confession is that I too like to dabble with poetry.  I have a complex relationship with poetry.  I have little control over my reaction to it. In various moods, at different times, I can love it, be indifferent to it, or even mock it.  I have actually been afraid of poems (particularly during literature exams) and nursed a shameful fear of not interpreting poems intelligently.   But I have never, EVER, questioned my right to attempt to write poetry, short stories or anything else.  I have never questioned my right to education or even to literacy itself. But as an aspiring writer and poet in Scotland I can afford the luxury of ambivalence. For me poetry has never been a matter of life and death.

Not so for the women in Kabul, the surrounding villages and other Afghan cities who risk their lives to meet and share poetry. For them, poetry is their sword.  A form of resistance and,  therefore, highly dangerous.   

As a result of editing poetry for Cafe Aphra for the last few months I have had the opportunity to read a huge number of poems sent to us from many countries in the world.  I have lived in an intense poetry bubble thanks to your wide-ranging contributions.  It has been a great privilege. But consider this. The biggest danger any contributor faced was having a poem edited, being asked to re-submit, or, at worst ,having a poem rejected.  Imagine how it would be if the act of writing, speaking or sharing a poem was more terrifying than having your poem accepted or published.  Imagine how it would be to share your life in words knowing that you could be hurt, forced to leave your home, or killed?  Imagine the courage it would take. Imagine the need to express which drives these utterances? I stand in awe of the women of Afghanistan who risk their lives for poetry, for the right to express themselves.

Hundreds of women write poems against overwhelming odds in Afghanistan.  A few attend weekly meetings in secret or share poems via telephone. We all know that poetry flourishes in emotionally charged situations, people turn to it almost by instinct. So, it is little wonder that women who have struggled through 30 years of war will be driven to express their experiences, truths or thoughts in this way. But would I risk injury to myself or my family for an imperfect string of words?  Would I risk exile or death for one beautiful line?  One perfect stanza?  I suspect not.  Would you?
For inspiration follow this link

Yvonne Stevenson-Robb

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Alternative NaNoWriMo

My brother-in-law is a runner: a proper runner. He looks like a runner, thinks like a runner, and doesn't make a sound as he glides along the tarmac training for his next marathon. He tells me that he uses target-setting software to motivate him and maintain his commitment to training. In contrast to my brother-in-law, I'm not a "runner". I have old running shoes which look brand new due to lack of use and my physique is (ahem) not that of a "runner" - when I thunder jog down our street it seems as though the neighboring houses quiver upon their foundations. In fairness, the world's greatest optimist would refuse a bet upon me ever completing a marathon. But, I've started using the same target-setting software and I like it. I've set my own running targets for the next month. Small, achievable targets, which might not seem like very much to a "runner", but which give me a real sense of achievement. I won't be running in any races any day soon, but I've got my own goals set out for me.

There's an analogy here, I think, with the National Novel Writing Month of November. For those of you who aren't familiar with the scheme, it's an exciting and increasingly popular project! Since 2000, November has been allocated as the month when people around the world commit to completing the first draft of a novel. With the focus on quantity rather than quality, participants share the same goal of writing 50,000 words by the end of the month. Friends who have done this talk about how it reinvigorated their writing, placed a greater focus upon the role of writing within their lives, and made them feel part of a community of writers.

It's a fantastic scheme, but it is equally fantastical that I will write 50,000 words next month or run alongside my brother-in-law in the Paris marathon. I could list out the reasons why both targets are unrealistic, but when I do they begin to seem like feeble excuses and overshadow the other things that I do do. So, instead, I want to suggest something different. Smaller, yes. More modest, perhaps. But worthy of celebration nonetheless.

Let's dedicate this little corner of Cafe Aphra to celebrating our own targets. A few of us did this last year - whether the commitment was to writing the first three pages of the memoir we had always intended to begin, producing three poems, or free-writing for five minutes every morning  - and we're keen to do this again. So, dust off your notebook, make yourself a coffee, post your name and target in the comments section at the bottom of this page or on our facebook page, and keep us updated through the month as you work towards achieving that target you've set yourself. We'll share your journeys towards them, commiserate with you when life interrupts your progress, and celebrate your successes.

I have nothing but admiration for those who have the grist, grit and determination to run a marathon or to write a novel in a month. Way to go, guys! But this year, I''ll be sharing the more achievable target of writing the opening chapter to my next novel. To get there I'll be sifting through various notebooks and firming up my ideas on the main character. It might not seem much to some, but at the end of November, I'll be sitting in Cafe Aphra reflecting upon how far I've come and celebrating the achievements of those around me.

Monday, October 21, 2013

UFOs Arrive To Save Us All

Unpasted but still glued to us, kindergarten spooks
On white construction paper. They are not us;
They are no longer us; they are different from us:
Pakistan, Lithuania, New Guinea, driving cabs in New York City,
Anyone who doesn’t hail from Hollywood, and isn’t blonde and pretty,
Pretty skinny.

They are danger, monster-us. Not like us. We’re good.
They are vampires, banshees, Martians. The night wood.
They fly inhumanly divergent from our scissors
And our sketchpads and our Elmer’s glue.
Crayola-green little men. Paper tigers, Kleenex ghosts and witches.

Animals. Those pointy-hatted bitches bleed. Those girls are animals.
But still like us, alas; love is blind; our old blind spot.
They are the animal part of us that we forgot;
Like a cancer tumour, the part of us now extraterrestrial.
The dreaded diagnosis inconclusive.  It will be a close encounter.

They will come from Planet 9 from outer space; they will attack from Mars,
And from even angrier red planets; they will all come,
It will ultimately be proved, from the third rock from the sun.

They will make contact and will look like ET; they will look like Barbarella;
They will look like Harrison Ford; they will have pointy eyebrows and cool logic;
They will look like grumpy robots; they will look like apes; they will look like us.

by Kathleen Bryson

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Function of Fiction

More than a decade after completing my undergraduate degree, I’ve recently started a full time MSc. This is a challenge, both in mental capacity and logistics as I also have a part time job, two children, two dogs and a spouse whose domestic skills have atrophied after years of having an obsessive and compulsive house wife.

I am enjoying it; the course is stimulating, fascinating and opening up my eyes to a myriad of potential futures. Having always lived in small, rural villages, the campus is the most multicultural environment I have ever been in and my course mates are a varied and inspiring group.

However, last week one of our tutors advised that, due to the immense workload, we should forget about trying to read any fiction until after Christmas. As I was nearing the end of a gripping sci-fi novel, I understood what he meant. I knew that I was reading it when I should have been reading a set text but I couldn’t put it down and when I did it occupied my thoughts throughout the day. I worried about the protagonist’s future as I was meant to be contributing to a group discussion in a tutorial and wondered how the characters were going to escape from their predicament as I sat in a lecture. I googled the author’s other works during a computer lab based class. I know that it would be safer to just not pick up another piece of fiction until this busy semester was finished so that I can focus fully on the topics I need to. But I can’t. Fiction, to me, is a break. An escape, a release, a liberation from the stresses and trials of the day. I cannot function without some fiction in my life. I need that magic, that sharing of other lives, thoughts and words. I need to experience the imagination and vision of the author; to rest, for a moment, inside their head and not my own.

Fair enough, I won’t write any fiction until I am a Master of Science. I promise will only write assignments, reports, occasional blogs and a colossal dissertation. If any characters, plotlines or dialogue pops into my head (which is unlikely, it’s fit to burst as it is) I’ll put them in a pot marked ‘Do not touch until late 2014’ and leave them to soak. But I cannot stop reading. I would shrivel, wither and fade.  

So, as a compromise, I have lifted a piece of ‘chick lit’ from my bedside table. Something light, easy and requiring no further thought after I have laid it back down. That piece of fiction is functioning as the most basic level of escape, but right now that is all I need.
Diane Scott

Friday, October 18, 2013

After the Fall

 Anne sprays a mist of Chanel over her shoulders. She glances at her watch. Joe will be here in less than half hour. She runs the brush through her hair. She looks in the mirror and doesn’t recognize the woman there. Her hands and her brush are full of strands of hair gently moving in the breeze. Dark brown threads stick in the fresh perfume drying on her skin. She runs her hands through her hair again. More clumps lift out by the roots. She sees but does not feel them as they pull away from what had been a respectable blunt cut. She thinks why doesn’t it hurt? She thought she would feel something.
            She remembers when she was a child. She fell asleep with Double Bubble gum in her mouth. In the morning the sugary pink bubbles were tangled mats in her hair. Her first haircut happened when her mother chopped off all the gummy hanks. Anne never chewed Double Bubble again. The little pink bricks hardened on her bedside table as she read all the Joe Bazooka comic wrappers.
            Joe likes to stroke her silky hair. He says what he loves most about her is her hair. Sometimes she feels like a pet cat. Her hand itches to slap his hand away. Beside the mirror is a photograph of her mother. Same eyes. Same silky brown hair. Her mother is tossing her head back laughing. Before the cancer.           
Anne opens the cabinet, takes out the nail scissors and begins carefully, methodically to cut off all the hair left at the scalp. Her skull emerges shapely and shorn. The bell rings. Joe. But Anne doesn’t go to the door. Her hair falls like feathers onto her scented skin and fills the basin like autumn leaves. 

by Pamela Herron 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Surface of a Rhyme

You pull into the drive and the free spirit

I’ve exercised all day folds, abruptly, into itself.

I greet you at the door with a pasted smile.

Ask how your day was, expecting no reply yet,

Feeling the sting when I get none.

Supper is served. You take yours into the

Living room, plopping yourself on the couch,

Balancing the plate and the remote with the finesse

Of a kerbside juggler.

I remain at the table, staring at you, staring at the TV,

Staring at you staring at the TV.

A crooked rhyme plays in my head,

Nobody likes me, everybody hates me.

by Betty Bleen

Thursday, October 10, 2013


She looked like a valentine; her favourite colour was pink. In fact, she only ate heart-shaped boiled sweets. When she went out walking with her ruffled parasol, her fingernails were painted in ascending shades of pink from light salmon to hot-whore fuchsia, never so saturated to hit violet or red. 
        Her hair she wore in thoroughly-combed ringlets and regularly looked out in advance to avoid puddles or dogshit or anything, indeed, that might make her walk feel unplanned or less than perfect. She only dated girls. She only went walking at sunsets or dawn, when the sky was appropriately tinted. She was a white girl, therefore her skin was close to pink. Her labia were also an appropriate colour.

         She neared the lake in the middle of the park. She enjoyed asphalt and, of course, the roses that municipal gardeners worthy of the name had planted. There was a bush to her left; every little blossom on it was a papery heart, flowers shaped like valentines. The more mature ones had grown doilies around their edges; pink lettering was developing to read I LOVE YOU or BE MINE.
          She blinked. When she opened her eyes, she saw gutted dirty hearts on the bushes, not pink but red beating lumps, blood and purple muscle, alive and far too many per pale-green bush.
          She reached the lake.
          She set down her parasol; plunged it into the soggy earth. Unlike the asphalt, there was a give to it. She saw a stray thread on the parasol, and pulled it until an entire ruffle unravelled. She wore a dainty curled earring of pink-enamelled silver. She took it off and twisted it into a very wrong shape, then spun the thread around the hook and cast it into the manicured artificial lake. 
         Immediately there was an answering tug on the other end of her heartstring and she reeled in a silver salmon. She got down on her knees in the mud; the stains made Pangaea shapes on her frock; she bit into the fish and tore her teeth through its head, chomping right through the gullet. She used her longest fingernail, which sometimes she used to sniff up piles of pink cocaine, to slit the fish from neck to tail.
          Her hands were red. Ruby at her elbow-laces. She reached in and grabbed the fish’s guts and pulled slime out in one smooth piece. She’d hoped for pale pink pearls, but the salmon was male and she fetched a slick white testes clump, like a banana. She threw the innards on the wet, messy grass and fingernail-slit the bloodline remaining. She rubbed the flesh in the water, so that the salmon, seen from the inside, was pink and nearly clean and pink; a pale and drained pink.

by Kathleen Bryson

Illustration by Jessica Cheeseman

Sunday, October 6, 2013

When nights cool

When nights cool

Dying day in grey light 
hued sky on bruised lips,
enlightened by a flicker-
finger traced around lines of laughter.

Pause, anticipation of steady breath,
in moment post-heat,
where words are void
but silence sings vividly  
sending shivers down supine spine.

Darkness undresses, gets into bed
warming buried bones,
languidly the lips brush, explore, 
rekindle a phoenix flame 
in these ashen nights, that grew so cold.

Shan Williams

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Between two mountains, amid forests as green as imperial jade, rises the sacred city of Karthal.

When a traveler sets his eyes on Karthal for the first time, he is immediately impressed by its unearthly, feminine beauty, which can be described as moon-like and is further enhanced by an azure mist hanging over its narrow streets on late afternoons like a veil of blue cloud.
He will admire the city’s buildings, made from a smooth, pale stone. Most likely, he will praise its technological inventiveness: its telescopes, hydraulic engineering and waterwheels, and will come to learn from a friendly market vendor – selling wares from flutes to carpets to necklaces of phantom quartz – that the name of that blue river over there, running through the city until it reaches the terraced rice fields, is the River of Crystals.
Our traveler will find clues which speak only to the city’s charm: shy women with amber skin and waist-length hair, strong houses built by great stonecutters, two libraries, an open-air theatre, public gardens with fountains, sundials and endless trees carrying fruit free to be picked by anyone.
Yet for the pensive observer, the city has a peculiar atmosphere, as if its story were half-revealed. And if one happened to stay there for more than five days, one would realize that it was an illusion, a disappointment, and be overcome by an urgent need to leave. Indeed, Karthal is a sad city, and its citizens live in a kind of quiet fear inexplicably different from that of other cities nearby, where living conditions are much harsher and there are armies of rats.
You still recall when you first walked through its streets and overheard the music of a lyre floating from an open window on the breeze. It seemed so utopian that morning when you glimpsed it from afar, like a half-hidden lunar jewel, glinting amid cloud and pine.
But beyond the picturesque stone buildings built in the style of “the architecture of the moon” and “the architecture of the sun” – both inspired by the aesthetics of sacred geometry – there is something that you feel is quite wrong. Perhaps it is because it is only six o’ clock and the streets are silent and deserted, except for an owl or two.
Perhaps, you think, you should return to that friendly market vendor tomorrow and, in a low whisper, ask her some questions. But you would be wasting your time, for you will not find her again. And were you to ask another of her beautiful neighbors, no matter how kind and smiling, she would not give you the knowledge you crave. She would not tell you what she thinks or feels, nor share with you the mysteries of her city, for she herself has never dared to question the ways of Karthal and the “Vigilence”, maintained by the secret Guides – the one hundred and twenty rulers of Karthal – for more than a hundred years.

by Zeina Hechme