Wednesday, 27 June 2018

The Best of Luck

A new story! I always promised myself that once the baby either hit six months or started sleeping better - whichever came later - I'd start writing again. Well, she's about six-and-a-half months now and has been sleeping 7.30pm-6am - so here we are!

Once, when the baby was about six months old, we took the bus into town. I forget where we were going – some group or other, there were so many, I could hardly keep track – but it was viciously hot and there was barely room for us, what with the stroller and the diaper bag. I remember I pushed back her sun shade so that she could look around. She liked to look around. So she looked around, and I squeezed into the jump seat beside her, sweat clinging greasily to my forehead, my neck, my shoulders. 

We were maybe two stops from where we needed to get off when it happened. There was a long line of people waiting to get on – lord knows how they all fit, it was so crowded – and at first, everything seemed normal. Everyone was hot and fractious, sighing and wiping their faces with the backs of their hands as they crammed into every available space. It wasn’t until the bus set off that I realised something was amiss. The chatter and the overheated grumbling had stopped. Suddenly everything was quiet. Something in the air had changed. It was as if everyone had decided to hold their breath, all at the same time. 

I didn’t know what was going on at first – just that something was wrong. Very wrong. I looked over at the baby, and she grinned at me, blissfully unaware. Then I heard it. Somewhere near the back of the bus, someone was shouting. It wasn’t the shouting, in and of itself, that was worrying. I’d heard plenty of rows on public transport before. You fucking slut this. You ungrateful bastard that. No, it was the nature of it this time – the words, and who was speaking them. It wasn’t a row, or even a conversation. It was just one man, sitting next to a terrified-looking old woman, and he was yelling at everyone and no one. 

“It’s all fucking garbage!” he hollered. “Not fit to wipe your ass with!” I tried not to stare. We all did. No one wanted to make eye contact. “And you know they’re all in on it! Best of goddamn luck to you, I suppose.”

I didn’t want to be afraid of him. I wanted to be compassionate. I wanted to treat him with the respect and dignity he obviously lacked. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t, however much I hated myself for it. I had the baby to think about – this tiny, helpless, precious, oblivious thing. I could see another mother across the aisle, thinking along the same lines, fearful eyes fixed intently on her little boy, who went on playing with his toy truck without even looking up. 

“What a fucking joke!” the man went on. “A fucking joke! Off with their heads, that’s what’s right. It’ll all be over before you know it.”

The minutes ticked painfully by and still, no one breathed. We didn’t dare. We were sitting on a heap of explosives and the slightest twitch would blow us all to kingdom come. 

“They’ll get what’s coming! A fucking joke!” the man shouted. “Off with their heads!” 

He shouted, and the children played. The baby kicked at her plastic keys, and the little boy made engine noises as he drove his truck up and down his leg. I envied them that – that pure, innocent fearlessness – and then the bus stopped. A chunk of the crowd clustered at the back of the bus broke away, preparing to get off, and I realised the man was among them. Finally, I let myself look at him. He looked so… normal. The word felt empty as I let it roll around in my mind but there it was. Shameful as it was, I’d been imagining this monster – wild-eyed, unkempt, inhuman – but that wasn’t him. He was clean-shaven, fingernails trimmed, hair neatly combed, wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Just like everyone else. I almost resented him for it. 

I kept my eye on him as he moved towards the front of the bus. He was staring all around, unseeing, while his fellow passengers kept their gaze studiously out of the windows. As he approached the stroller space, he leaned down towards the baby – not especially close, but too close for my comfort – and however illogical it might have been, I felt myself readying to fling myself over her, preparing to cover her body with my body if I had to. 

“The best of luck,” he said. And then he was gone.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

A new Unbound project

It's cards on the table time: I need you. I've become involved in another Unbound project, and to get it out into the world, I need your help, whether that's through pledging or simply sharing the project with people.

Why, you may quite reasonably ask, am I subjecting myself to this again?

Firstly, it's a whole different kettle of fish this time: instead of working solo, I've contributed a short story to an anthology, which means it's not solely up to me to raise the funds needed. There are eight of us all working towards the same goal.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it's in an extremely good cause: royalties after publication will go to the World Literacy Foundation ( to help support projects aimed at ending illiteracy around the world. All of the writers have contributed their work for free.

Thirdly, it is an excellent, not to mention diverse collection of stories, with writers including fantasy novelist (and editor of the collection) Shona Kinsella and some time QI elf Stevyn Colgan. Plus, you know, me.

The stories are all set in and around the same library in the fictional Scottish town of Finlay. Some are funny, some are sad, some are fantastical. All of them are great.

To find out more and pledge, go to

As always, any support you can give will be hugely appreciated. Visit the link, read about the project, pledge, share.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Baseball Game

It was a scratch game. There was a field behind the high school and they’d get together and play a little ball after class sometimes. Nothing special mostly. But it was different that day. It was raining and a bunch of the guys said let’s come back tomorrow. It’s gonna be nice tomorrow. But the others said no, we said were gonna play, let’s play. There were seven of them and they needed one more guy to make the teams even. 

Kelvin was waiting for Lacey. She was supposed to show up a half hour before with a burned copy of Kannon. He didn’t hang out with guys like them. They were other. Separate. There was an understanding that they should ignore each other and that would be best for everybody. Kelvin was ok with that. He was quiet and tall and weird and he wore shirts with bands nobody had ever heard of on them. Those guys, Chuck, Scotty, Johnno, their buddies, they all played baseball together and went to parties and didn’t have to think too hard about anything. 

Kelvin eyed them. There was no sign of Lacey. They’d made out that one time, but he’d thought they were over that. He was starting to feel nervous. They were deep in conference, and they kept looking back at him a few seconds at a time. Probably deciding whether to ditch the baseball game and stuff him in a dumpster. They did that kind of thing. Not to Kelvin usually – they let him slide because he didn’t suck at sports and maybe one or two of them were afraid of him because of his dad and all – but to guys he knew, guys he considered friends. Kelvin knew he could’ve done something, could’ve helped them, but he never did. It was easier to stay off the radar. Except now he was on the radar. 

Hey, you, somebody yelled. Kelvin squinted through the rain. It was Scotty. They’d been friendly in grade school, before his dad, before the sentencing, but then Scotty’s mom, like so many others, told him to stop talking to Kelvin. You don’t want to get mixed up with people like that, she said. He heard her. She was in the playground after school and he was standing right there. He knew she saw him because she blushed and hurried Scotty away, but nothing was ever said about it again. Kelvin looked over at Scotty.

Me? Yeah, you, Scotty yelled back. We need a pitcher. Wanna? Kelvin shrugged and ambled towards them. Why not? Scotty grinned and threw him the ball. He looked down at it and tossed it from hand to hand. He thought about what his life might have been like if he and Scotty Dunsmere had stayed friends, about what it could be like now if he got this right, about what it might be like to be one of them. He thought about his dad. Then he wound up for the pitch.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Thoughts on feminism, femininity and being female in the 21st century

On International Women's Day, here's another very personal essay, this time on what it is to be a woman and how to be a feminist in the modern world. Be warned, it's a long 'un. 

It’s International Women’s Day today. To me, that includes all women, of whatever skin colour or belief system, whether they were born with vaginas or not. It also includes people whose gender doesn’t neatly fit at one end of the spectrum or the other, yet still possess vaginas and want to continue possessing them. It also includes men, with or without penises at birth. Importantly, men have to be included in dialogue in order to promote understanding and support on both sides.

Let’s be honest: your nads are your business. You can be feminist if you have a vagina, if you have a penis, if you have neither or both, if you get your tits out in an international fashion magazine, if you keep yourself covered fully in public. We’re 17 years into the 21st century, for crying out loud. It’s who you are and how you treat people that should count. 

Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll be upfront. I have a specific issue I’d like to talk about, and about which I’ve spent a long time thinking and wondering whether to shove my oar in. So here goes nothing:

Too much has been written recently about how trans women (the area seems to be a bit greyer where genderqueer or agender people are concerned) shouldn’t be included in today’s festivities, shouldn’t be included in feminism, and shouldn’t even be considered women. The thinking, according to at least some of the writing I’ve read, seems to be that these are men who, almost on a whim, decided they quite fancied being women – as if they’re just playing dress up, playacting at being female.

A lot of the rhetoric seems to exclude the personal torment, the mental health issues, and the stigma they will have faced in coming out and beginning the process of transitioning. It also ignores the fact that transitioning is never done lightly – it can’t be, because there are too many barriers, legal, medical and otherwise.

For many trans people, it might have taken a lifetime to get there. They might be treated like freaks, shunned by their families and their communities. For some, too, at the very best, it might mean facing ostracism and scorn, and the very worst, violence and death, just as so-called “real” women have in other circumstances. 

The people who engage in the kind of thinking that treats trans women as “fake” women would do well to remember that trans women most assuredly have their own struggles, equally real and even equally painful. What’s more, if you’ve lived most of your life as a man, of course it’s going to take time to learn the realities of being a woman. Of course you’ll see things through a male gaze. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn, or that they should be forbidden from trying. 

These people would also do well to remember that, just as there are people who are physically male and want to become female, there are those for whom the reverse is true, who will have endured many, if not all, of the same struggles, and who also deserve a place at the table. Would you devote as many column inches to saying trans men aren’t “real” men? I doubt it. Why do it to trans women?

While I don’t agree with it, I admit I can see where this exclusionary mentality comes from. At least to an extent, men who transition must have enjoyed the privileges that go along with being male. They haven’t had to suffer the same knock backs and discrimination and dangers as those assigned female at birth and who’ve grown up in a world that tells them they’re inferior because of their sex.

They are, however, prepared to drop all their male privilege in exchange for ridicule and condemnation, so that they can stop hiding.

The problem, really, is that this mentality speaks of a mindset that is in fact extremely outdated: women are this, men are that, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Whether intentionally or not, it actually seems to support the very rigid definitions of gender that created the dangerous divisions between the treatment of men and women in the first place. 

The fact is, the idea of being transgender simply hasn’t been part of the mainstream consciousness for long enough to have generated the same levels of oppression. The issues around it are still being unpacked. But that doesn’t mean trans women shouldn’t be included in the discussion of feminism and on how to go forward. Why can’t we add their struggle to the existing one, and work together? Why can’t we all be on the same page? All people should be treated equally. Can’t we agree on that at least?

Here’s my thought process: it’s not about eroding the position of either women or men, or the hard-won rights that feminists have fought for over the centuries. In fact, at a fundamental level, I’d argue there must be a definition of what a woman or man is, physically, mentally and emotionally, for someone to identify as one or the other. You can’t have trans women without women, or trans men without men. But being born with the “wrong” genitalia doesn’t exclude you from aligning yourself with one gender or the other. It doesn’t mean you have to be one thing or the other. Male is not the opposite of female. You can sit at either end of the spectrum, whether you were born there or not, and anywhere in between. 

Of course, it’s perfectly possible to be masculine without being male, and feminine without being female, and that, I’d argue, is another great example of the strides humanity has made. You have that choice now. I’m a (cis) woman, married to a (cis) man, but that doesn’t mean I have to wear frilly frocks and stay at home and make his dinner every night. I could choose to, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone else making that choice. But at the same time, we’re equal partners and neither of us is lessened by not fitting into a “traditional” role.

I admit, I do wonder about the validity of labelling children as transgender at very young ages, as I think there has to be a certain amount of maturity, a certain amount of understanding present before one’s identity is fully formed. Kids do go through phases – I myself wore my hair short and liked being mistaken for a boy between the ages of about nine and eleven – and sometimes, they stick, but sometimes they don’t. In my opinion, it’s better to let kids figure things out for themselves and make up their own minds about their identities. It’s better to let them know it’s ok for them to go against the “norm”, and help them understand gender identity, but don’t prejudge them or force them into a pigeonhole. Then, if they themselves feel their gender doesn’t match their sex, support them and stick by them if they decide to transition. 

(Let me interject here that being transracial is not a thing. The constructs around race and ethnicity are wholly different to those around gender and sex. Let’s leave that alone for now, but read this, by someone much cleverer than me, if you still can’t grasp it.)

I also concede that it’s totally daft to stop putting on productions of The Vagina Monologues, or stop talking about issues that pertain solely to women who were born with female genitalia, such as reproductive rights, because it supposedly excludes trans women. 

The point here is that there will be issues that affect trans women only, issues that affect cis women only, issues that affect black women, Indian women, Muslim women, Christian women, small groups of women, large groups, medium groups, all of the above, some of the above, and varying combinations. We don’t have to exclude one for the benefit of another, and nor should we: it risks derailing feminist discourse altogether. 

Instead, we need to be as aware of all these issues as we can, and to take stock of the intersections and the differences that make us so amazing and diverse and cool. We all need to be part of the discussion, and we all need to be thinking about ways to make things better. We need to stop saying, “you’re excluded because you don’t have this” or “you’re only included if you do have that”.

Feminism is not the exclusive domain of a single group. Everyone can be a feminist, and everyone should be. As I’ve said before, we need to use whatever privilege we have to help those who don’t have it. 

Full disclosure: I admit, I don’t understand what it is to be transgender and never fully could, for the simple reason that I’m not transgender. My personal privilege is largely attached to my skin colour, but also to the fact I’m (more or less) cisgender. I don’t have that experience and never will. 

But I also accept that it’s not for me to decide how someone else presents themselves. It’s not for me to tell them they can’t be who they are because it doesn’t sit neatly within an outdated definition of manhood or womanhood. If you’re not hurting anybody, you do you. What’s going on under your clothes is really none of my business. Now let me welcome you to the table, and let’s start talking.