Kate Whitehead

Kate has been living in Porthleven since 2009. She is still a city lover after many years living in London and periods of time living and working in Prague and Barcelona.

 She is particularly interested in fiction which conveys an atmosphere through poetic and sometimes experimental language rather than conventional story narrative. Her own fiction often has a strong sense of place. She has published her writing in fanzines, online literary journals, an online anthology and the print magazine Confluence. She has abandoned the idea of being a commercially successful writer but as a voracious reader aspires to write high quality creative fiction. She is also greatly inspired by film and art. In 2013 she collaborated with artist Morwenna Morrison in The Art of Writing Exhibiton CMR gallery Redruth. Hale End Library LONDON.{entitled the Consolation of Words}

Lisbon Limbo.

Morning sunbeams bounce off the white pension walls; thirty-four red half spent candles lie on top of the suitcase, twisted remnants of yesterday’s solitary Birthday celebration.

Iris, a poet without purpose, crouches on the cool mosaic tiles paralysed with melancholy at the prospect of departure from her bright Iberian seclusion; a temporary sanctuary from the precarious monotony of zero-hour inner-city life. She thinks about the celluloid afternoons ahead, debt and darkness, acceptance and rejection pushes her fingers through straw peroxide hair.

Fernando Pessoa, already dressed for winter isn’t smiling either, his downcast eyes gaze into her messy modern malaise.

Just outside the glass revolving doors, Iris imbibes a final gulp of the warm scented air; checks that it’s gate eight for London.

Passengers lurch forward at the summons, collide in their eagerness. Iris watches the  silver bullet shrink and disappear bathed in a cloud of serenity.

“No problem Iris call me when you’re ready we’ll fit you in somewhere.” Tom the ebullient cinema manager shouts from his bustling box office lair.

Sleep comes quickly in Lounge One swaddled in the soft embrace of a down-filled sleeping bag.

“Senhora!” a woman’s voice implores and  Iris ascends from a deep chasm of tangled subterranean dreams.

Through half-open eyes, she looks up at the blue nylon clad figure.

“Senhora I must clean why are you sleeping here early for your flight is you?”

“No my flight has gone, I can’t go to London yet,” Iris replies.

“Do you know Café Pico its south of the city, Pedro my son works there, Portugal’s bad nothing to do, they like our food there,” she shouts and swishes the mop back and forth, round and round at the same time.. She wipes away the sweat from her brow bangs the metal mop bucket on the floor triumphantly.

A soapy lemon aroma clings to the stagnant lounge air.

In the shiny white tiled washroom, Iris splashes cold water on her face scowling in the mirror. Yesterday’s clothes are crumpled, stained with spilt coffee and chocolate crumbs. She wonders if Tom’s cheerful nonchalance masked relief.

“You again!” the cleaning woman exclaims holding her mop aloft in the half-open doorway.

“Agueda pleased to meet you and your name?”

She clasps Iris right hand tightly with a pensive expression.

“You know what Pedro told me, Agueda means kind in your language, his room is empty, my husband died you can stay till you know about going to London.”

Agueda’s apartment on the top floor of faded yellow dwelling, .seven steep flights of stairs up there isn’t an elevator.

Breathless at the top Iris presses the buzzer and waits.

A stooped wizened man appears in the opposite doorway.

“Agueda no”, he says fading into the darkness of his hallway.

Crouched on the top step Iris is lulled to sleep by the lights chiaroscuro rhythm and the faint plaintive warbles of a lonely canary.

The soft thump of Agueda’s bag wakes her up.

“Always asleep.” She says chuckling.

Early morning sunshine filters through the latticed shutter, a bitter aroma of fresh coffee seeps through the cracks in the door mingles with the sharp enervating scent of lemon cologne in her turquoise room.

Iris sips the coffee Agueda has left her in the tiny blue kitchen, stares through the window at balconies crammed with over-bleached washing and bird cages. Yellow trams shriek and career round the steep bend almost close enough to touch and the kitchen shudders and shakes the crockery.

It’s nearly noon when Iris ventures out with her crumpled map, disorientated in the unfamiliar zone she walks in circles, reencounters a jauntier metal Fernando Pessoa cross limbed on the mosaic tiles.

A grand bibliophile’s paradise saves her from collapse. She falls into a capacious chair in the basement, soothed by the cool calm emanating from the book-lined walls.

A patchwork collage of postcards covers the noticeboard on the wall by the door.

“Well, what about today?” Agueda asks.

“I found a job could I give you rent next week?  Iris replies.

“I invite you her no rent just help me with my English and our foodbank”

Arcol antiques are five stops down the yellow line sandwiched between a florist and a pharmacy, the shabby façade accentuated by their modest neatness.

Iris lingers outside waits for Amanda who totters slowly out of the shut up cavern: a woman around sixty she’s wearing white linen trousers and a red silk shirt. Her chunky bangles chime when she moves her arms.

The shop is a cramped and musty square enlivened by the blue-yellow swirled floor tiles. Amanda shows Iris the kitchen at the back and the toilet without a light bulb her heels click-clacking over the shiny squares.

She hands Iris a small cup of coffee, points to a raffia chair.

Iris listens to an over-elaborate account of her business history: three failed ventures and a bankruptcy her prospective employment a brief footnote to the solipsistic monologue.

“Sorry I can only pay you five euros a day, there’s commission if you sell one of the expensive pieces,” Amanda announces breathlessly.

There isn’t a lot to do in her new job, Iris twists the key in the unyielding splintered lock, checks the float and turns on the lights, people scurry to the florist and pharmacy without a glance at Arcol.

Dust drifts over the precious glass clog the antique wood lamp tables and the slender chairs. Iris pushes the waxy cloth, waits for someone to arrive.

Just before lunch, she thinks she’s in luck. Two German tourists linger by the glass cabinets transfixed by the delicate perfection of the Millefiori paperweights.

“You must work harder on your sales techniques,” Amanda drawls her former bonhomie tinged with ill humour.

Her daily phone calls just before five delays Iris’ exit from the claustrophobic solitude of the shop.

Wednesday offers an antidote, a welcome break from the fusty emptiness of Arcol, a walk in the neighbourhood.

There isn’t time for conversation in the lofty warehouse amidst the perpetual busyness: some visitors arrive dressed in smart

suits, shiny polished shoes, others in threadbare clothes, battered slippers .

.

Stiff limbed Iris leaves the hubbub behind, walks home slowly past buildings smattered with bold incomplete graffiti the red

black letters worn away by time. Iris imagines the many passers-by adding their own words to the gaps the fragments

cascade down the side of the building in a chaotic melange of mutinous messages.

There’s an unpleasant steeliness in Amanda’s voice when Iris gives her the week’s sales figures on their Friday call.

Grudgingly Iris begins to act on Amanda’s advice.

Today, a trio of tourists linger hesitantly in the doorway. Iris lures them in with a wide inviting smile.

“How beautiful!” the white-haired woman exclaims running her hand over the carved mahogany of the French armoire door. She turns the key in the silver lock, disappears inside the woody darkness, her head reappears, she marvels at its spaciousness and ideal proportions. Her companion nods and smiles raise his thumb.

Exultant at her sales success Iris phones Amanda who brusquely informs her just for the moment commission is out of the question and regretfully her wages might be a little delayed.

Wanton vandalism isn’t the solution for her impotent rage Iris decides: she stuffs the Armoire money into her trouser pocket grateful that Amanda only has the cinema number for a reference.

A florist in white overalls hands her the pot of lavender and a spray of crimson roses with a sympathetic smile.

Outside the shop, she inhales the combined floral fragrances and instantly feels lighter, calmer freshly liberated from the squalid arrangement.

Agueda is home from work. She greets Iris excitedly.

“Oh well, it was terrible in every way that job.” She says unruffled when Iris tells her about the theft.

“Pedro comes at the weekend for a break you can stay ay my friend’s house.”

“It’s time for London,” Iris replies.

Agueda tugs open the oak drawer hands, Iris, the café Pico card.

“You know you are very welcome again and I need your letters for my English.”

From the doorway of the warehouse, Iris watches Amelia walk towards her cardboard box balanced on one hip.

“Please take this it’s for your foodbank,” Iris mutters.

She pushes the roll of notes into a pocket of her floral apron, glances over her shoulder and kisses Agnes lightly on both cheeks.

Iris views the early afternoon activity through the smeared taxi window: men play bowls in the dusty park, school children career abandoned round the spray of the fountains, her holiday and temporary sojourn vividly distinct separate worlds.

Tom laughs when he hears her voice.

“So you’re coming back to us, looking forward to it and don’t worry about your ex-employer. Amanda rang last night, of course, I praised you highly.”

Iris passes through the energetic thrum of the airport joining the loose gaggle of passengers at gate eight, propelled forward by a fresh vigour, ready to press play on her paused city life.

                                                         Arrival.

Agnes struggles slowly out of fitful sleep, views the city lights through half-open eyes, silver fireworks leaping out of the muffled darkness. Relieved at the prospect of imminent release from their twenty-five hour cramped captivity her taciturn travelling companion finally acknowledges her with a small ironic twist of a smile brushing the travel crumpled arm of his suave suit jacket.

One behind the other they clamber stiff-limbed down the coach steps, stepping into the freezing acrid fog. Agnes hovers uncertainly in the middle of the Spartan bus station watching his purposeful stride over to the tram stop. Lighter now she’s free of his uneasy presence she heads for the muted glow of the buffet window dragging the heavy suitcase behind her.

 Early morning workers chew on white bread rolls staring mutely through the misty glass half-drunk cups of thick brown treacle in front of them on the plastic ledge. Agnes swills the bitter mixture around her mouth examines the thick brown sludge at the bottom of the cup. 

Clutching a square of paper in hand she approaches a trio of elegant women who are sitting around the small metal table conversing in mumbled conspiratorial tones.

“Tram no 8,” the one in the bright red coat says curtly pointing a leather-clad finger towards the tram stop in the middle.

Dazzled by the opulent grandeur of the tall city centre address Agnes throws her head back, gazes up at the oblong shuttered windows below the red-tiled roof and imagines a future where she is behind one of the blank squares a citizen. Its upmarket splendour only confirms the dubious nature of her new employment.

With a shiver of trepidation, she raps her knuckles four times on the heavy brown door and nervously waits. A squat bespectacled woman wearing an apron and slippers pokes her head around the half-open door, greets her with an affirmative nod and ushers her into the dimly lit hallway.

“Magda,” she says wiping her right hand on the front of her apron before extending it towards Agnes.

She takes the key from the hook next to the long row of uniform brown letterboxes. 

“No it doesn’t work now” she exclaims watching Agnes vainly tug at the elevator door.

The discordant clatter of her plastic suitcase bump bumping up the five flights to the attic is the only noise in the muffled building.

 Crouched on the hard edge of the fold-out bed Agnes eats the bread and cheese on the small plate that has Magda has clambered up all those stairs to bring to her. Five hours of fractured sleep on the coach have clouded her brain; it doesn’t feel right going to bed when the day’s unfurling outside.  She tugs open the twisted shutters lets the morning sun spill into the attic and struggles to remember the precise details of the arrangement.  Tearful now defeated by exhaustion and fear an irrational sense of impending doom and desolation crushes all her initial excitement. She unzips the side pocket of her case, pulls out the small carefully selected bundle of correspondence from distant friends. Words and images mingle subtle intertwined threads, a comforting blanket of consolation. Pinned on the lurid orange-brown wallpaper above her fold-out bed the Absinthe Drinkers gaze into the attic room, their subdued presence strangely calming. 

“Telephone,” Magda yells through the closed door.

“How’s it going?” a booming voice shouts above the other conversation on the party line.

“Well bit more information would be welcome|” Agnes mumbles hesitantly, swamped by his overpowering ebullience.

“Ha information stop worrying Listener that’s your title for now. “New economy new jobs. My colleague Marek will deliver the documents tonight. Meanwhile, have fun, enjoy the city!”  

On the juddering tram, Agnes decides that’s good advice. She lays aside her present worries, abandons herself to the melancholy beauty of the snow strewn city, and imagines an artistic soul living in a tiny fin de siècle garret room not a twentieth-century woman of thirty-five on the run from the tenacious torpor of unemployment and creative failure.

An overpowering smell of fresh emulsion in the doorway of the bar doesn’t erase residual traces of its more sombre history.

“Come in come in “the man in the lumberjack shirt shouts leaping over the narrow slice of wood.

She’s the first visitor of the night yet Agnes isn’t forlorn or ill at ease on her corner stool in front of the black-barred window, luxuriates in the strangeness.

“Yeah it used to be a prison than a beer hall, now we are absinthe “the barman shouts enthusiastically.

“We sort of like those windows they remind us that things are much better these days and we’ve survived the hardest times.”

Fascinated by its radiant verdant brightness Agnes examines the liquid twirling the thick cold stem of the sturdy glass for a long time before taking a small sip reflecting on how generous the barman has been with his measure. She doesn’t know what to do with the spoon, lays it on the edge of the table.

He drops a coin into the jukebox near the door, and amplified Waterloo Sunset floods the bar. Using the names of imagined lovers meeting on the bridge she’s just crossed Agnes rewrites the song in her head. Transfixed by the rectangular heads atop the spindly figures on the theatrical posters Agnes glances down at the giant glasses they are holding in their stick fingers, half full with yellowish wine.

Stumbling through the door behind the bar Agnes enters the sparkling gleaming whiteness of the luxurious toilets. There’s a long mirror down one wall and a smaller circular one above the shiny porcelain sink. She’s transfixed by the blurred outline of a dishevelled stranger. It’s like being in the hall of mirrors at the fair.

Back in the bar, everything’s changed.  Small groups of people cluster around the tables in an animated post-work bubble.

“Sorry thought you left” the barman shouts across to her.

 There’s a stocky man with sandy brown hair and small gold glasses sitting on her stool.

“So sorry” he drawls insincerely watching Agnes reach across for her absinthe glass.

“No problem time for me to go anyway,” Agnes replies.

“Huh, your English now let me guess it’s your first night.” He booms.

“Plans?” he barks brusquely his overbearing stridency a heavyweight cloche shattering the fleeting idyll. He’s the kind of person she never meets back home, an overblown caricature.

Reluctantly Agnes tells him about the new job.

“No, it doesn’t sound right to me.” He exclaims

“What’ve you got education-wise?” He continues.

He listens thoughtfully to Agnes reply head cocked to one side.

“Well if you’re reliable I can help you. You might think it’s very boring being a receptionist I tell you one thing you will be safe with us.”

Agnes is warming to the pompous idiot now he’s offered her a job, detects something avuncular and solicitous in his manner.

It’s much quieter now outside in the freezing star-studded street. On the bridge a small group of tourists linger, chattering in loud admiring tones. At the other end, a tall thin figure leans on the parapet his right elbow pressed on a small pile of thick cardboard files. He’s smoking a cheap cigarette gripped between two fingers of his left hand. A noxious waft of the cigarette smoke drifts over, catches Agnes in the back of the throat, she coughs a loud strangulated choking. He throws the cigarette into the river, turns and glances at her. His mocking half-smile is simultaneously sinister and familiar.  They are walking at different speeds in the same direction back to the centre of the city Agnes a little way behind the long woollen scarf covering her mouth.

Drunken revellers spill out here and there their raucous shrieks briefly shattering the almost deserted streets.

“Surely he’s going to turn off sometime soon,” she thinks as they get nearer and nearer her new abode curious rather than scared, there’s a vivid clarity to everything tonight.

She’s a sleepwalking spectator trapped in someone else’s dream.

He comes to a halt outside the building lights another cigarette and raps authoritatively on the door.

Grateful of the sparse illumination Agnes lingers in front of the twisted metal shutter at the back of the linen shop doorway thumping her mittens together and waiting for Marek the delivery man to pass.

She knows what’s he’s like after their twenty five hour journey cramped uncomfortably together in a tacit hostile silence.

“He’s trouble the organisation’s corrupt she mumbles to herself closing the heavy door carefully behind her.

Fully dressed she falls instantly into a  dreamless chasm of sleep under the thin starched sheets.

“For you,” Magda says placing the black tea on the ledge next to the bed, the edges of the brown files sticking out of her capacious apron pocket.

“Can I ask you a question?” Agnes mutters.

“Yes why not” Magda replies with an ironic shrug.

“That man who delivered these do you think he’s a good man/?”

“Not only because I was asleep when he came but something else He’s a bad person how would you say in your language a gangster mafia man.”

The unopened documents in the brown folders sit on the edge of the cuckrana table next to the small creamy coffee and swirly gateaux. There’s a comforting aura of innocence in the cake shop children and elderly couples brightly coloured confections.

“What can they do to me Alice ponders trapped in her vacillations. Should she ring them up to say she’s found another job or walk away? Walking away is easy; she’s an expert in that field in safer situations where the worse that can happen is gossipy slander.

In a narrow back street, she jettisons the unopened documents in a rubbish bin on top of the broken dolls and cardboard cartons.

Agnes suitcase knocks the back of the repair man’s ankle, she smiles apologetically squeezing awkwardly past.

“You go well now” Magda shouts from the open doorway.

 “And give a lot of love to my cousin”

It’s the way things work here, word of mouth. Leaving the city grandeur behind the tram rattles through the drabber greyer more downtrodden outskirts whisking her to the modest basement abode in the prefabricated suburbs

  She scatters her orange raffia room with personal belongings and rings the number on the business card to check it’s still all on for Monday. In the early evening consoled by the enthusiastic tones of her new employer and a stomach full of creamy goulash she strolls up the grassy hill to the observatory lingers in the empty grounds and calmly waits for dusk to slip over her   Central European suburban home. There’s no going back to the crushing overload of her other city life.  Heartened by the random kindnesses here, brilliant beacons eradicating her fears of the criminal business she feels a faint optimism imagines a new life of possibility and adventure.

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