I had the privilege of reading a proof copy of Duck Feet, and I was not disappointed. Duck Feet is a episodic novel, a coming of age novel, a working class novel, and a damn brave novel.
The story follows the life of Kirsty Campbell from the start of high school until she leaves in 6th year. Set in Renfrewshire, and told in the regional tongue, the reader is transported right to Kirsty’s doorstep. The short episodes delve into the trials and tribulations of working class teenage lives, with humour and frustration.
It’s the real mundanity of school life that make this book stand out and Ely has the gift of observation. They have highlighted issues such as ableism, racism, homophobia, bullying, teenage pregnancy and crime, and many more issues, but in a way that doesn’t seem forced They also highlight the little things that would have felt enormous for a teenager such as boy bands breaking up, periods, friendships, and first kisses.
Duck Feet is quite a long book, not one you’ll devour in one sitting, but it is a book that you can pick up and read between hoovering and making the dinner and I promise it’ll make you laugh. The book is quite heavy though, so lying on the couch for a read can be a bit of a work out, but thats one of the few things that I disliked.
The characters are fun, well fleshed out, and everyone had a Charlene in their life. It is a character driven novel, a delve into the ordinary where even the most irritating characters are lovable. Something shocking happens near to the end of the book, I thought it was arresting, well managed and probably the reason I’ll remember this novel for a long time.
Finally, from an Edinburgh lass, the dialect was a slow starter for me, not because it didn’t work or that it was badly written, it was just hard to get the voice in my head. But dialect is the reason that the character are so real, and it was brave to write the full novel in that way.
There’s a house that sits in the corner of our street, except it isn’t actually in our street. It’s across the road and three doors to the left, which means it belongs to the street around the corner. I’m not sure it should be there, or in our scheme, or anywhere that is – well here. It’s not a real house. It’s one of those kit houses that you buy from Ikea that gets delivered flat pack, in a huge cardboard box with plastic ties around it that you have to cut open with a blade. The instruction leaflet must have been massive and I wonder if they had to pin it to one of the huge oak trees in the field behind the house. It must have taken twenty folk to hold up the walls of the kit house while they bashed in all the rawl plugs to hold it together and I can’t even imagine how many packets of wood glue they used to make it stick good and proper. I didn’t notice it when we first moved here. It just appeared one day; all shiny and new with pink coloured pebbles all stuck to the walls and shiny brown roof tiles. I think all of the rain must fall on the kit house and wash it clean because all of the other houses in our street look orange and brown next to it. Since I noticed it there, I can’t stop looking at it. I’ve been watching it for months now. I want to lean against it and see if it rocks to the side. And there’s always the temptation to pick at the pretty pink pebbles that kind of look like the pink woodchip we had in our last house, and after picking that, I got into heaps of trouble – but that’s a whole different story. I think it must have come all the from Ikea in Texas because it has a porch, kind of like the ones you see on the telly where the front door juts right out; like it’s shouting to the postman that this is the door that you need to shove your letters through. I think if I was a kit house, I’d be embarrassed. It’s not polite to be on show like that and it not polite to shout and scream at the postman either.
I’ve started polishing my shoes since I noticed the kit house, and I make sure my socks are pulled right up over my knees so you can’t see the scabs that are starting to peel off from when we played the Grand National along the back gardens in Randolph Crescent. I tripped over an empty booze bottle and my knees got grazed on some plastic grass. Plastic grass, what’s that all about? I bet the kit house has plastic grass in the back garden, it means you don’t have to borrow a lawnmower from one of your neighbours when the council say that they won’t cut it anymore. I saw a program on the telly last week about a woman who was buying a big old house, a real one, and it had a big old back garden, full of weeds and trees and old bricks and stuff. The man on the telly said she should get rid of it all and put some plastic grass down instead. I don’t get it. Why get rid of all the real stuff and replace it with fake?
I’m watching the kit house right now. I’m hiding in the grass in the front garden just behind the bit of the fence that Bert fixed by nailing the gate to it. This is where I always hide. Bert is ninety-one and lives on the top floor of our flat. He doesn’t fix fences anymore. The council cut his side of the grass because he’s proper old. Ours has to grow. We can’t afford a lawnmower and Mum says you can’t be going and asking people for their lawnmower in this day and age, it’s not like the old days when all our front door where open – whatever that means. I bet in the auld days they didn’t have houses that came on the back of an Ikea motor all the way from Texas. I like the grass to be long any way. Long grass means I can hide. I’m the perfect spy you know, best in Hillpark. I can lie in this grass all afternoon and no one can see me. But I see everything. Like the time Peter’s dog ran away, she came into the garden and lay beside me and I tickled her belly then fed her some of my brown sauce sandwich. I told her to stay quiet and she fell asleep curled up beside me. Peter has four dogs so I didn’t think he would be too bothered because he’d be busy doing all the feeding and cuddling with the other dogs. It was only when he started shouting on her that I started to worry. Then some of the neighbours started talking to him and I heard him saying he was worried ‘cause she isn’t well. She looked fine to me except for the big lumps on her leg that made the fur fall off. Anyway, I took her back a wee while later and said I found her down at the stream. I’m good at telling fibs, all spies are. Peter looked well pleased and Elaine – that’s his wife, she cried a little bit. I got fifty pence for bringing her home and that’s not bad for a day’s work. Another time I was peeping out through the grass and I saw Jimmy kissing a woman in the back of a taxi. Jimmy stays over the hall from us and is well old, and he looks like Santa. It was gross really, because old folk can’t have girlfriends or boyfriends because old people aren’t meant to kiss. My mate Benjamin said it’s because they haven’t got teeth and when you kiss without teeth, you could suck someone’s face off. Jimmy must have had his falsers in because the woman still had a face when the taxi went away. But I did see Jimmy looking all around for the Police or something. The kit house is the best thing ever for spying on though. I heard Marion over the road telling my Mum that it used to be a Bookies, which I think means library because that’s where you get books from. They must have built the kit house on top of the library. I’ve been watching the kit house very closely for days now and I’ve got a rash on my knees from all the midge bites. So far, I’ve seen three people leave the kit house with big heavy bags. And the other day, a weird thing happened, I saw someone go in with a brief- case, he was in there for ages, and when he came back out, he was shaking his head and there was a woman at the door crying. Then the next day after that I got out just in time to see an ambulance drive away. Mum had made me sit on the couch for ages while she rubbed nippy stuff into my midge bites so I missed the good stuff. I wonder if a whole pile of books fell off the shelves and onto someone’s head.
I’m glad it’s the weekend again so i can get back to business. The Red Cross van has just parked outside the kit house and there are two men going inside and coming out with boxes and boxes and black bin bags full of stuff and filling up the van. I wonder if the boxes are full of books because the bookies have so many that they keep falling off the shelves and landing on people’s heads or something. Now the woman who was crying the other day is on the porch, she’s looking over at my garden and I’m worried she has seen my orange cagoule through the grass. I bury my head under the hood, lie flat, and wait. It’s raining today and it feels all wet and sticky, even under my hood. My breath is proper loud, and I have to gulp it back because I can hear the clickity click of high heels close by the fence and I’m scared I’ll blow my cover. The clicking stops but I’m in disguise under here. I can hear a rustle in the grass beside me and I hope it’s not Peter’s dog or she’ll give the game away. But then it stops. I hold my breath. The clicking starts again and it’s further away now. I lift the corner of my hood up just in time to see the door of the kit house closing. There’s a box beside me. It’s just a brown box and it has little rain drops all over it. I look all around and even though my cover is still safe, I don’t know how it got there. I leave it on the grass and open the flap, slowly. My belly is all nervous and it makes me want to pee. Inside the box is dark and my fingers touch cold metal, curved and smooth. I’m scared to open the box right up. I put the lid back down and get on my feet. Carefully, very carefully. I pick the box up and hold it in the palms of my hands. I walk through the grass, slowly, letting it brush against my legs. I carry the box up the two steps and into the hall. It feels heavy and dangerous and I can hear my breath, louder that in my cagoule hood. I have prickles in my hair. I walk into my house. Mum is on the big chair watching the telly.
“Mum, someone left thus in the garden.” I lay the box on the coffee table and stand in front of her.
“What?” her mouth is full of muesli and some of it sprays onto the box lid.
We both stare at it. I watch Mum’s fingers as she lifts the lid. Slow as anything and I grab my hood and pull it up and over so my eyes are covered. Mum starts laughing.
“You’re a donut,” she said, “Look.”
Inside the box is a pair of binoculars. Black metal ones with red lenses. Mum takes out a little card and hands it to me.
To the little spy over the road, I hope you enjoy these as much as I did. From the old spy over the road.
When I think of food, I think of full bellies, and clean plates. I think of empty pots with sticky ladles, and big belly burps. I think laughter. I think love. But I haven’t always thought of food in this way. I was a hungry bairn you see, not starving by any means, but never quite satisfied. My wee Ma’ did her best though, and with a lack of money and a cooking education that barely stretched further than tin opener – you could count her recipes on one hand. But she did make a mean cheese and potato pie, and on a good week, she was a dab hand at a savoury flan – although my wee Ma’s definition of savoury is another story.
Being a hungry bairn meant that wherever I went, food was always on my mind. So, it’s no wonder that when I think of it now, my thoughts take me back to my hometown of Bonnyrigg. It’s the late 1970’s, we are off school for the summer, and its market day. The sun is unusually yellow, the pavements are packed, and my jelly bean sandals are stuck to the tar that’s melting like treacle beneath my feet. And I Am Ravenous. The air is thick and warm with a mishmash of flavours; sweet and salty, sticky and burnt, the kind of smells that clings to your soft pallet. I imagine it’s like dusting your tongue with icing sugar then dipping it into beef dripping. But for a hungry bairn, that wasn’t quite starving, but never quite full, market day was like a disco on my taste buds.
‘You could spread a piece wae yon smell,’ I can imagine my wee Ma’ saying, ‘thick as the potted meat you get o’er the counter in Campbell’s.’
Reaching the high street was always a thrill for me, the thrum of the sidewalks, the rhythm of the market trader’s, ‘Twenty-four eggs for-a-pound. Get your eggs here.’ And it was hard to miss the beatboxing butcher with his ‘Back bacon, shoulder bacon, any bacon here.’ My feet would skip, passing the gathering crowd, who were anxious to ‘pick two packs for-a-pound,’ and with my nose to the sky, I’d suck the smells of the market, deep into my belly. That was nourishment! Whenever my wee Ma’ stopped to talk, I would look up and see arms in the air, waving and reaching, bidding for shoulders, legs, thighs. In a decade when ‘what was on the dinner table that night’ was of such high importance, it was no wonder that the butchers had to auction their meat.
But the market wasn’t just a place to buy and sell, it was a meeting place for grownups, filled with chittering and chattering. It was the weekly news update in a pre-Facebook era; the who married who, and the who got who pregnant; and the biggest scandal on everybody’s lips, was the waiting times at the doctor’s surgery. I loved seeing my wee Ma’, surrounded by friends, super animated and smiling; this, I guess, was how she nourished her mind.
My Nana has a jewelry stall right in the back corner of the market – she used to make her own costume jewelry, and because I didn’t see her very often, I’d get a free bracelet or a beaded necklace. On a good day though, I’d get shiny fifty pence pressed firmly into the palm of my hand.
“Buy yourself a wee sweetie hen, but dinnae be greedy. Share them with your brother and sister.”
I would nod and trot off with my riches, the unlikelihood of sibling generosity dwindling, the louder my belly growled.
There were several sweetie stalls at the market, but I preferred Cathy’s sweetie shop on the high street. Cathy was oldest looking person I had ever seen. She had short purple curly hair and a face as soft as pudding. She would sit on a wooden chair behind the counter and read the local newspaper over the top of her half-moon glasses. I remember leaving my wee Ma’ outside the shop while, like a big girl, I went in on my own. The doorbell chimed as I entered, and Cathy stood up straight. She coughed, smoothed down her gingham pinny and smiled. The sweetie shop smelled glorious, like even the air was tinged with sugar. It’s neither wonder the customers often left with a smile and a bounce in their step.
“What’ll it be the day hen?” Cathy clicked her falsers together while she waited for an answer. My eyes trailed over the wall of plastic tubs, filled with multi coloured shapes resting on a thick sugary layer. There were cola cubes, sour plooms, sweet peanuts, jazzies, pear drops, lucky tatties, Chelsea whoppers, pineapple cubes, bubblies, and sherbet.
“Sour Plooms please.” I pointed to the tub filled with dark green balls.
“I’ve got fifty pence,” I held out my hand, “is that enough for Chelsea whoppers tae?”
“Aye, plooms and whoppers.” I held out two paper pokes, one in each hand. “Dae ye want one?”
On the corner of the counter was a huge silver weighing scale. Cathy poured my sweeties into the dish, added an extra two, then popped one in her mouth. She rolled it around then held it in her cheek. I could see it there, like a massive pluke ready to pop. She poured my sweeties into a brown paper poke and folded my whoppers into another. Then she took my fifty pence. I don’t think she thanked me for the stolen ploom, but I must have let her off for being nice.
“Did you buy something guid?” Ma was sitting on the wall waiting for me.
“No hen. I’m saving myself for soup.”
I stuffed my sweeties deep into my cardigan pockets ‘cause it was a sure thing I’d need them later on if it was soup day.
We walked up the coal road hand in hand. I turned, just once to sniff the air, but market day had been packed up, loaded into vans, and driven off to somewhere new.
Nasty Women, published by 404 ink, is a collection of essays about what it is, and how it feels to be a woman in the 21st century. When I first picked up the book, I assumed, like I think most readers would, that it would be an easy book to just pick up and put down whenever I had a spare ten minutes. Wrong, I was sucked into this book right from the beginning, and read it all in a day. That doesn’t mean it was an easy read, or perhaps easy is the wrong word – it isn’t a comfortable read – and it isn’t meant to be. Nasty women is hard-hitting, eye-opening, and unashamedly honest.
The book opens with ‘Independence Day’ by Katie Muriel. A story of mixed race and identity in Trump’s America, Muriel discusses her experience of inter-family racism, heightened by political differences, ‘This is not the first, nor is it the last family divide Trump will leave in his wake, but I refuse to think of him as some deity who stands around shifting pieces on a board in his golden war room.’ The anger in this piece is clear, but it is the rationalism and clarity of the writer that speaks volumes. Race, racism and xenophobia, is a prominent feature in these stories. Claire L. Heuchan, for example, talks about ‘Othering’ a term that readers will see repeatedly in this book, ‘Scotland,’ she writes, ‘is a fairly isolating place to be a black woman.’
Survival is a key trope in Nasty Women. Mel Reeve, in ‘The Nastiness of Survival,’ talks about being a survivor of rape and emotional abuse, ‘I do not fit the ‘right’ definition of someone who has been raped.’ This statement alone is filled with irony.
I was particularly drawn to Laura Waddell’s essay, ‘Against Stereotypes: Working Class Girls and Working Class Art.’ Laura talks about the difficulty of both gender and class inequality, and, in particular, the lack of working class writers and working class fiction being published, ‘I have read a lot of fiction’ she says, ‘I have read almost none from housing estates such as the one I grew up on. These stories are missing, from shelves, and from the record.’ As a Scottish fiction writer from a working-class background myself, these words resonate deeply.
Alice Tarbuck’s ‘Foraging and Feminism: Hedge-Witchcraft in the 21st Century’, is almost fun to read in a deeply devastating way. There is a desperate tone in this piece, and a desperate need to escape society. ‘There is beauty and bounty around us if we look for it, and perhaps that is all the magic we need. Or perhaps, what we need is real magic, whether that comes in the form of resistance and community or the form of blackthorn charms and skullcap tinctures, and howling to the moon.
I loved this book. This book gives women a voice. And it is loud! Well done 404 Ink, and all the contributors, for bravely breaking the silence.