Fiction - The Wormwood Collective, Absinthe Literary Review

a short story by
Alexandra Fox

I watch you, pink slipper flipper thing, waiting for the bell-jar, longing for a giant white cotton puff with its yellow slick of chloroform. Tip the bottle, tip the jar, slide it in, let it fall. You just lie there on the broad white bench bed, pinned in four corners, but not struggling because you’re not there where the pins are.

We’re on our own now.

A life for a life for a life.

Let her go. Be a mummy dear not a mommy dearest.

Weren’t you brave today, Helen? There she was, unloading the van, her and her mate. TV, PC, big box of crockery, duvet, mum-in-a-chair, books, kettle, clothes, shoes. Cramming it all in the artexed, steel-mirrored lift with its intellectually scatological graffiti, and her mate said, “There, it says it takes eight people … well, there’s only two of us and a load of stuff. That should be all right.” And you were part of that load of stuff.

Birmingham Uni halls of residence, and that cabbage stink, that communal gym-shoe mildew sour-milk all pervading under the fingernails stench, that outward and olfactory manifestation of inner and spiritual learning. You’re still steeped in it. Let it go. Oh, sorry. Oops. Sally’s not here to wash you any more.

Being driven back home, down the M6. Galaxy Radio, Atomic Kitten. You Can Make Me Whole Again. Yeah.

Did you know you’ve got red nail varnish on your front tooth? Didn’t she tell you? Didn’t she even notice?

All that effort with the slippery glass bottle clenched between your teeth, squirming it into your hand, gripping, turning, trying to open it without the polish pouring. Holding the brush with your drooling lips and frantically dabbing, gagging. Aren’t you so attractive now, with your three smudges on one side, four on the other, dragged across the cuticles, anointed to the knuckles, slavered to the shoulders with Ruby Seduction?

Will she miss you? Will she, Hel. You’ve unhinged that heavy wooden yoke and let her take her head out. Sally will be boozing, snogging, reading, dancing, smoking, fucking, Smoking. She’ll be living for the first time, reveling in upside-down, whirling, learning, drunken unimagined unimaginable careless freedom.

Yes, weep, Helen, weep. Lick the proffered chocolate. Let that hot salt self-pity wick across the weave of the red-ruined bed sheets. Cry the crusts off your eyelids and sob the phlegm thick from your throat. Those who are paid to hear, let them hear. Nobody else will.




Phocomelia. Limbs like a seal. Flip, Helen.

Remember in the woods that day, where the rank air cools on the oil-ringed pools and the sociopath whistles her mate? Your friends from normal school? You were their sea-lion. They pushed you down in the sucking stinking mud and said clap handies clap handies. But you couldn’t clap because your handies wouldn’t reach. You were in the way of yourself. They made you honk. And they took that ball, that sphere of rainbow silken plastic – soft, so childish soft – why must it be so hard? – and forced it onto your nose, smashed it, mashed it into your forehead. But it didn’t want to stay. It wouldn’t balance.

Hold. Enough.

They got bored and left you there, floundering. You wriggled your way through the sour mud, over the cans and the condoms up to the willow tree, and lay back against the green-grey of its ridged trunk, and blissfully scratched away the itching flakes from among your sparse hair against that ancient trammeled bark. You tasted metal from your bleeding nose, now caked with scabbing clots. Your forehead swelled with an aching bridge between one deep eyebrow and the other.

The willow branches dipped and soared in the breeze, bending to the water, then rising, throwing shaggy drops that ringed across the surface. Looking up, you saw the sun filtered green, undulating reeds in the waters of the air, balm for your eyes.

Why do they call you a trunk? A trunk is strong, upright; its girth increases with the seasons; it’s protected by a tough fiber, tap-rooted. You’d been bonsai-treated in the womb; had your roots trimmed. Your trunk had no branches. You’d been lopped, pollarded, knobs on each corner. Your trunk was soft and supine, pink, patted and powdered, vulnerable, mud-streaked, blood-streaked, wholly, but never wholly, repulsive.




You’re on my icing turntable. You’re centered on the pin. I can spin you around on the glass, paint you, decorate you with frosting, rosettes and spiral birthday candles. I can study you, smooth you with a hot knife, comb you, raise you into peaks. Helen.




Who was your father then, Helen? Who was the motherfucker? Did he drive your mother to it, make her nervous, make her quiver, bring the hot gorge into her throat at the thought of his coming home in the evenings? Did he make her sick? Why did she swallow that chemical shrapnel then, those packed white dum-dum bullets? Was it because of him?

In the fullness of his life, does he know that he’s missing a daughter?

Would he want to know?




You thought you didn’t need an omniscient narrator, didn’t you, Helen? Did you think you could get away from the commentary, you who were born to be defiled, born to be spied, born to be splayed? You’re nothing but an examination question waiting to happen.

Did you think you could escape me, me the Teratogene? I am Grünenthal, the Mengelean experimenter with his riding crop. I am Distiller, with my dropper of corrosion. I am Dai Nippon with my Samurai sword. And I see you, oh yes I see you.

Oh, how you ache. I’d ache with you if it weren’t so funny.

You thought I was the ultimate grim reaper with my congenital secateurs. You couldn’t hurdle so you limbo danced. You learnt to wriggle wiggle, flip flop, round round get around, slip-sliding away.

Not now, though, not now. A pustular fistula, ultimate irony, blossoming red on your spine, limiting, immobilizing, stopping.

And I didn’t put it there. No not me. Not this one, no sirree.

You did this one for yourselves.




Where’s your momma gone, where’s your momma gone? Far, far away.

How did your mother feel, at her antenatal classes? Did they even have them then? Rows of bellies on the floor, leg-lifting, deep breathing to the music. Smooth arched bowl bellies with a sudden bump and a thump and an “Oh, it must be a boy, look at his little foot kick. He’ll play football for England.” What did your mummy’s tummy do, Helen my dear? Did it billow, did it ripple, did it shake with a grand tsunami? And did she ever once think, “My, that’s strange”?

Put yourself in her place, the poor cow. Imagine birthing a slug. That’s what it must have felt like, but not as smooth and slippery. Not eel eeesy.

Visualize yourself under those hot bright hospital bulbs, on a cold metal trolley, half-gowned, rough-sheeted. Under the eyes. All those eyes, male eyes, hungry eyes, student eyes. You know. You’ve been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, cut the sleeves off.

Her legs were bent, feet forced into the leather stirrups, hairy gash open, stretched, red to the world. They used a ventouse, a unicorn horn, sucking at your head, compressing it, elongating, drawing your skull through a ten-centimeter stretched dilation which they called four inches then.

Her labor was long. She gasped on gas and air, clinging to the mask, clamping the tube with the pressure of her fingers, longing for oblivion. Her thighs cramped, spasmed in unnatural tightness. Her cervix screamed with each contraction. She shouted, swore, gasped, grunted. Her belly rippled and squeezed faster, closer. She needed to push, she needed to, wanted to expel the pain, squeeze now, now, end the labor, rest.

A sucking sound as the lavatory plunger dragged the body out.

Then probably silence.

“It’s a girl!” Yippee! “Well, sort of.”

I expect she needed a sedative. They should have given her Valgis, Tensival, Valgrain, Asmavel–the rolling incantation that names the devil’s potion. It wouldn’t have mattered any more.

Did she stay long enough to name you Helen, or was that a joke perpetuated by the nurses? Hags all, staring into future fires. Helen Earth.

Helen Sherri Kelsey, your who-chose-you-chose name. Sherri for your heroine–Sherri Finkbine–she flew all the way to Sweden to abort her armless child. Kelsey’s for the whistle-blower.




It’s airless under the solid bubbled glass of that paper-weight pleasure dome.

Remember the first time, worst time? Twelve years old or so, still lying in a cot. Starched white sheets with indigo laundry initials. Dwelling in a valley of shadowy indrawn breaths, gasping in unison at the sight of the sweeper groper creeping, of the smell of his dribbling lust.

See that wide mouth, lips thinned below the sketched stretched moustache, bristling, tickling. The eyes drinking in the feverish liquor of anticipation. That hand as it moved, molded, massaged. Breast buds tensing. That touch. How did you know where you needed that touch? You needed his extension, his reach, his cruel fondling. You saw the disgust in his mirrored eyes. You moaned and moved in supplication, reaching, rising for the hot authority of that never-before-felt man’s middle finger. The heat rose, flushed.

And he withdrew. He watched. Fascinated. Intent.

He watched your desperation, your frustration. He saw you throw yourself over, doglike rubbing on the mattress, needing friction, seeking the surcease, wanting completion, wholeness, tiny like-death.

And he giggled. And came. And went.

You folded in upon yourself, created me from origami creases. And I became.

Thank him, thank him, all ye little children. He is love.




Lighten up, Helen. Laugh for me. I love your smile. Amuse me, Helen.

Think of last Christmas, with Wallace and Gromit on the telly–you and Sally rolling on the floor laughing, watching The Wrong Trousers. You knew you’d got a pair upstairs–National Health rocking legs, stand-alone, stiff, metallic. They had a perch inside for your little feet to claw onto, like a wingless parrot. They expected you to sit inside that giant metal arse and rock yourself from side to side, throwing one foot forward, then the other. Munster Raving Loony dancing. Ministry of Silly Walks. They called it freedom.

You’ve got scarecrow arms somewhere, too, that stuffed jacket you’re meant to wear when you go out in your chair, so you don’t frighten the children. Très à la mode you are, with your adjustable shoulder pads. Move the flippers up an inch, and you could be in Dynasty or Dallas.

Little children don’t care anyway. They ask you in the openness of their innocence where your arms and legs have gone, and look surprised that you can speak. “I was born without any,” you tell them, and they ask how you manage to eat, or to write or (with a naughty fascination) go to the toilet.




Rainbow shadows reflect up into my eyes. You’re sitting in the middle of a pyramidal prism, bright, glassy clear, sun saturated. You’re perched on your little flipper feet, a penguin surrounded by paperbacks. The mummy wall and daddy wall are behind you, and you’re gazing out at dreaming spires.

“St. Hilda’s–course you’ll get in. It’s easy for you. They have to take a quota.”

Easy. So eel eeesy. You’d birthed yourself a life with your mini-ventouse, sucking at your page-turner. Your brain was swollen with words, chapters, books in their wholeness, series in their completeness. You welcomed your labor. You were ecstatic. You bent over your typewriter, stylus in your mouth like a wooden woody-woodpecker on a pole, knocking its way down to the water, slaking your thirst.

You’d got there, girl.

You’d passed the fat foster-fuckers with their sweat-soaked armpits and their grasping pudgy hands. You’d sidled past the adoptive soul-suckers who had no sense of irony, wanting a reflection of their own straightness.

You had conquered school. You’d taken what you needed and discarded the crap. You never won a sports day ribbon, but nobody ever got past you in a thinking competition. You’d found your meant-to-be mentor, drank of her, screwed your top on tight.

Write, Helen, write on.

You spun your webs. You concocted woven intricacies reeking of the lamp. You had your M.A. all planned out–the disabled in Victorian literature, Dickens, Collins–freaks and blindness.

You forgot yourself in it. Ain’t life just grand ...

And then, the whammy of whammies … door wide open … fields of cloth of gold stretching endlessly ahead, rolling ramp ready, Oxford knocking on your door … and you have to go and do a normal, do the teenage slag bit, join the club. Wow.

Wow. I just love surprises. Even I didn’t count on that.

Ernie, the bearded weirdo … helper to the helpless, aid to the armless. He was the original mercy fucker; he only liked it that way, couldn’t handle the whole thing, wanked off to a centerfold of the Venus de Milo.

That’s why you fell for him. You were doing him a favor. How kind of you to let him come.




Helen. I heard the news today. Oh boy.

Do you know what they’re using it for now? Leprosy.

People with noses falling off, fingers missing, toes rotted away; they’re being given it.

Do you think it would help if they gave you a bit more?




Roll up. Roll up. See the first ever living rucksack.

Pay your quid.

Here you are. Look. A giant pink bag, a swollen hold-all, knotted at all four corners. We’ve taken the straps off for now.

The authorities couldn’t be more worried if it were a terrorist alert at Heathrow. Never was a bag so prodded and poked, x-rayed and scanned, listened to in its ticking, weighed and measured. Oh, the slavering of that cold green gel and the tickle of the running mouse.

You were a punk-rock handbag, covered with zippers, rows and rows of white crosses. Patent ductus arteriosus, pyloric stenosis, hydronephrosis, horseshoe bladder. Haven’t the surgeons had fun. Why didn’t they use Velcro and be done with it?

Your belly-button stuck out like a cherry on a cupcake and you were full to bursting, ready to split like a tomato in the sunshine, scalpel keen. Contractions rippled over you like the slats on a concertina roll-top bread bin, so they hit you on the head with an intravenous hammer …

… and, well, you’ll have to take a bit of license here with the timescale. It took a while to zip you up again and bring you round, and you can’t trust old Stevie completely–after all, he’s blind–but …

Isn’t she lovely. Isn’t she wonderful. Isn’t she precious. Less than one minute old.

Yeah. Baby.




Why aren’t you crying, Helen? I’m so sorry for your loss. Take a square of dairy milk. Let it melt on your tongue. Weep sweet sadness.

It’s all twisted up in that convoluted brainstem of yours.

Eat and your tear ducts flood open; sadness only makes you dribble.

Have to get another plumber in, but they’re hard to come by these days, and so expensive.

Ever tried starving yourself?




Remember Sally propped up in the pillow corner? You were dripping thin milk from a rock-hard blue tit. You’d snail trail wriggle wiggle across the bed, lean forward and bung it in her mouth. Sally sucked, you squirted like a fine-holed hosepipe, and milk dribbled from the other boob in sympathetic secretion, soaking her babygro. You burped her by winding her, thumping her in the diaphragm with the top of your head.

It was a matter of days before she reached for your breast, her own two hands outstretched, grabbing with sweet starfish fingers, pulling, kneading, directing the ducting.

You couldn’t do that. She was in control. Already.

She carried you through the fosters, the reluctant slapping hard-handed helpers, the jealousies, the cut-your-heart-out babes in the wood covered up with leaves.

Straight limbed, straight haired, straight talking Sally. Sally and Helen contra mundi.

Sally has enfolding arms. She wraps. She presses her skin to ours and it doesn’t shrink away.

You think you gave it to her eeesy. How could you discipline that toddler thrashing on the floor, head-banging, limb beating? How could you reprimand that teenager stamping up the stairs, slamming her door, shaking the ceiling with her unmusical bass? How, when it’s all you ever wanted for yourself?

Have you any idea, Helen? Have you the least inkling of what that girl put up with for you?

“Your mum’s a freak.”

“Do you have to change her nappy, then?”

“I’m not going to tea at your house. It’d make me sick, looking at her while I ate.”

She was your Aunt Sally, standing right in front of you, as the rainbow plastic balls bounced off her body. And still she sat with you; she shared a life outside with you. She asked your brain for help and countered it by offering her body’s aid. She never knew you otherwise; you were familiar. She read with you; she opened word windows; you drank together but from different glasses. She saw you in a hall of mirrors that unwarped the twisted.

She’ll be glad you’ve let her go, Helen. You’ve unhinged that prism wall and let her fly, fly in trails of wreathing mist around the spires you could only dream of.

There are whispers, now, whispers about the Big T. Whispers softly whisper that the sins of the mother might be visited on the daughter’s daughter, and maybe on the daughter’s daughter’s daughter. Who knows?

Should I get the steel out, just in case? Shall I sharpen up the lopping shears?

I blunted them when I cut the cord.




I’m worried, Helen. You’re starting to get boring.

Don’t you even think of shutting down on me.

We need our mutual masturbation, that necessary friction, the rub, the squeeze, the slide, the lubricated glide, our rhythmic spurts of mental stimulation.

Think you can reach orgasm on your own? You might get near a shadow of a shadow of a shade.

But it’s sure as fuck not the real thing.

Talk to me.




What are you thinking, Helen?

Come on, woman. You’ve got this far.

All that crap you told Sally about learning to cope without her, getting used to other carers. I saw through it. It wasn’t just to make it easier when she left, easier on both of you. You were hiding your back-sac, that blossoming bag of cerebrospinal fluid. She’d have noticed right away. She knew you. She knew every inch of you.

She left the brake off, didn’t she, hurrying to meet her boyfriend? There you were, wriggling from bed to chair and suddenly the chair wasn’t there. You had a night on the tiles, flipping like a gingerbread man. That lumbar punch, you felt it vertebreak. You knew you’d cracked it.

Helen. Wait. It’s only the end of the movement, the recapitulation. We’re not at the final coda yet. So, you won’t be able to wriggle any more. You can still lie there and wave. You’re not drowning yet. You can still read from a single page, still listen to music, hear words. You can still argue with me.

Paralysis. That’s a new one. Will they give you another disabled badge, or just a bar to pin under the ones you’ve got? You could put them on a totem pole and lie there and admire them.

You’ve got this planned. Don’t think I didn’t see you drooping over the computer, typing hidden files, writing, deleting, writing, deleting, drooling your grief’s saliva out upon the keyboard, trickling its trails of viscosity between the i and the u.

You’re going to tell her all about it, are you? Give her the real poop … about her greasy, filthy father still in jail … about her dear old gran and granddad and how very much they loved you? You going to fill in the blanks, shoot her with real bullets?

You going to go away and leave her bleeding?




You’re curled in a concavity, that round depression in the middle of the microscope slide. The square slip cover is on top of you, fine, fragile, crumbling, aslant. It’s such fine glass, friable between the rub of fingertip and non-opposing thumb, lying between us.

You’re under my magnifying glass. I can see every one of our disgusting features, each crookedness, each deformity made enormous, emphasized in its freak-show grotesqueness.

I’m going to aim that lens, angle it, point it at your clit, let the sun burn through, warm you up.

Relight your fire.

Speak to me, Helen.




You’re sly, you’re oh so sly, Helen, or is Nursey getting careless with her little helpless crip? Where did that magic bottle come from, square brown plastic, with its printed label and its child-proof top?

It doesn’t look much like a magic genie lamp to me. Give it a rub, there’s a love.

So you think you’re worth crucifying? Put you on the cross-piece, hammer in those nails, one two three four and they’d all miss. Nothing there, you see. Up goes the cross and you go splat, splat into the wall like a squash ball from a racquet.

How can you think of giving up, when you’re willing to struggle so hard to do it?

You grasp the white-ridged top in your teeth and press the bottle into the pillow. You squeeze, press tight with your perfect, straight, brace-adjusted teeth, carefully aligning the notches, waiting for the click. Now – the hard part. You keep up the pressure and turn, turn the bottle into the pillow, turn your whole not-whole body, spiraling upon yourself, rubbing frantically against the sheet like an ill-trained puppy dog. And hey presto, there they are, white discs of oblivion spilled out upon the pillow, wound in your hair.

Then you cry. Tears duct deep into your mouth; you give yourself a spit drink.

That’s how you wash the buggers down.



You’re lying in that coolness, Helen, aren’t you?

You’re killing your pain with willow bark, scratching the itch, scraping off the scales.

You’re leaning against the weeping tree, with the branches dipping in the breeze, leafy tendrils waving green and yellow, filtering the heat, dropping hungry tears into the water.

What am I meant to do without you, for fuck’s sake?

Move into a leper head, squatting in the rainforest?

Speak to me.




© 2005 Alex Fox

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