Josephine

I wrote the piece below during a creative writing course I attended at the Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts. The inspiration came from an exhibition called ‘Magnificent Obsessions’. I was interested in the psychology of collecting and what happens when a collection is destroyed.

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The scissors lay open on the kitchen table, waiting. Sylvia had put them there that morning before leaving for work. They would be the first thing she would see when she walked into the kitchen and the first thing she would pick up. She had made up her mind.

Their cat, who was called Josephine, had noticed the scissors when she came in from the garden. Apart from the end of her tail that was white, Josephine was completely blue-black. A witches cat, Anne often described her whenever something unexplained happened in the house. This irritated Sylvia who adored Josephine.

After eating and washing herself, it was Josephine’s routine to pick her way along the kitchen work surfaces, weaving between the kettle, tea pot, toaster and cookie jar before leaping onto the kitchen table. At this time in the morning, the sun had warmed the wood nicely and it was a good vantage point to survey the garden for birds, her favourite daytime occupation. Josephine saw the scissors when she was in mid-flight between the work surface and the table. The sun glinting off their blades was momentarily blinding, but instinct told Josephine to elongate her body and she landed safely. She placed her nose against one of the black plastic handles before swiping at it with her paw. Josephine watched the scissors spin before turning away and with a languid arch of her spine, she curled around herself and settled down to sleep. Her tail continued to flick like a wagging finger before eventually slowing and tucking itself between her front paws.

Whilst Josephine slept, Sylvia was at the office running through her plan. It was fortunate that work had been quiet and she’d been able to make the phone call to her sister to let her know she was definitely coming to stay as arranged. In the preceding weeks, she had considered carefully all options before making her decision and now she had everything mapped out. She wasn’t a person to react quickly, she couldn’t afford to do that, not with her daughter to consider. Although she no longer lived at home and rarely visited, Sylvia’s thoughts were always for her welfare. Sylvia’s other worry was for Josephine but, she reminded herself, Anne would take care of her and it was best for Josephine to stay where things were familiar.

When Sylvia first found out about Anne, it was like a spike had been driven into her side and she cried secret tears that were full and flowing. They rolled down her cheeks and dripped into her upturned hands as she sat with her sister’s letter on her knee. Her sister was sorry she had written, at having to give her the news of Anne’s infidelity, but she felt it her duty to let her know before people started talking behind her back and besides, wasn’t it better to find out from family, rather than be gossiped about at work, or down at the club? Sylvia wasn’t sure, but she thanked her sister anyway. In the following days as her tears dried, a rage began to flow in Sylvia’s veins. She had patiently bided her time and now she was ready to act.

As she left the office and climbed into her car, Sylvia felt her chest tighten like a drum. With knuckles of white stones on the steering wheel, she drove down familiar streets, but saw nothing. Pulling into the driveway, she cut the engine, stepped out of the car and took a steadying breath as she opened the front door and headed for the kitchen.  As she approached the table Josephine stood up to greet her, pushing persistently against her arm as Sylvia curled her fingers and thumb into the handles of the scissors and lifted them her face. They seemed alarmingly large and menacing, out of place held in her small hand with slender fingers and nails painted red. Sylvia flexed her fingers and watched as the scissor blades slid together smoothly and sweetly. She repeated the motion several more times until holding the scissors felt natural and easy.

 

In their bedroom she stood in front of the mirrored doors with Josephine warm against her leg. Sylvia knew she would want to remember this moment forever so paused to look at herself. Her dark hair was shiny and perfectly coiffured, her eyes, framed by arched brows and rouged cheeks, were hazel with flecks of moss – Josephine’s eyes Anne had told her many times. Her lips were pursed together in a tight red pucker and a flush from way beneath had crept up her neck and found its fullness on her forehead. Sylvia stared back at her reflection, but could not see the vibrant, fashionable woman in heels, tight skirt and roll-necked jumper. All she saw was somebody holding regret and a deep shame in her heart. She had seen enough.

Nudging Josephine away with her ankle, she stepped forward and slid open the wardrobe doors and was at once engulfed by the smell of Anne; a concoction of cigarettes, musky scent, and spent alcohol. It snuck around, enveloped and smothered her. It threatened to take her back to the club, to that place of excitement and treachery. Clenching her fist, the scissor blades sliced together and as Sylvia’s resolve expanded, her hesitation fell backwards. She would do this thing. She would do it now.

Anne’s jackets hanging in front of her were like Sylvia’s silent witnesses. She felt assaulted by their defiance, their array of colour, texture and style. Tweed, corduroy, satin, velvet, blue, black, red, violet, wide lapel, narrow waist, long lined, striped and checked. These jackets were Anne’s passion. Her collection had been acquired over many years and lovingly sourced from antique markets and auctions. Anne wore her jackets with a rigorous defiance of her gayness. They were her signature and her armour.

Cutting off the sleeves was simple, a rhythmic task that soothed Sylvia as she worked her way along the rails, taking up each sleeve in turn. Snip. Snip. She was rigorous and precise with her cutting, like a dressmaker preparing fabric. She didn’t rush, rather she savoured her time spent with each jacket, each cut and slice of the blades. There was no hurry. The floor soon became a carpet of colour and texture as each sleeve floated down to its resting place. When Sylvia arrived at the last jacket, she paused. It was of dark blue velvet, sumptuous and beguiling. Releasing her grip, she dropped the scissors and took up handfuls of material in her fists. She buried her face into the cool, soft fabric folds as a guttural sound burbled from her throat. Josephine, rubbing persistently against her legs, purred with pleasure.

Sylvia didn’t say goodbye to Josephine. This was her only regret. She just picked up her case and left without a backward glance. It was later when she arrived at her sister’s house that Sylvia started to shake. It began at her fingers. They trembled as she took a cigarette out of the packet and put it to her lips but it was only when she tried to light it did her sister notice. The flame from the lighter wavered alarmingly as she brought it up to meet her lipsticked mouth. Sylvia was never able to draw comfort from that cigarette. The trembling turned into shaking and then became violent spasms that racked her body. She was put to bed with a hot water bottle and several blankets. Sylvia’s sister sat and watched over her as her body convulsed, sometimes soothing her brow, sometimes lying with her on the bed, cupping her like a spoon, just as she did when they were small children.

The next morning the shaking had stopped. It was as if it had never happened. Sylvia sat resting in the sun by the window looking out onto her sister’s immaculately kept garden. The leaves were falling, the colours were gentle and winter was on the horizon. A magazine lay open on her knees. Sylvia gazed out over the lawn, noticing the birds on the feeder and thinking of Josephine.  She flicked over the pages of her magazine without seeing, occasionally wetting her index finger against the inside of her bottom lip. An ashtray on the table by her side overflowed with partly smoked cigarettes. There was fresh lipstick on the coffee cup.

As Sylvia reached for her cigarette burning in the ashtray, she noticed the parcel that had arrived for her that morning. It had been put there by her sister. She picked it up and immediately recognised the writing, just the one word – Sylvia. Fear rained down on her body like a shower of arrows. She held the parcel in both upturned palms to gauge its weight. She assessed its shape. She frowned. Her heart began to stammer. She felt moist in her arm pits. She slid a finger nail under the lip of the fold and teased the parcel open. She tipped the contents onto the magazine. The scissors and a small packet wrapped in kitchen paper lay in her lap. She picked the packet up and turned it over. Underneath, the paper was stained a dirty pink-brown. Her heart was hammering now, beating from within the confines of her chest like a wild bird restrained in a cage. Sylvia understood before she peeled away the paper wrapping. Gently she held the white bloodied end of Josephine’s tail to her cheek and howled.

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