Saturday 22nd August
Alison was the eight reader at Story Shop 2015, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.
Her appearance was on Sat 22nd August 2015 at 4 pm in the Spiegeltent. Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
Alison Gibson works as a heritage photographer for the National Library of Scotland and Story Shop is her first public outing as a writer. You can follow her on Twitter @algifoto and take a look at her website alisongibsonphotography.co.uk.
You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
The Short Story she read
extract from a story by Alison Gibson
Dinner had been served and eaten, and all the girls had completed their allotted 45 minutes of study for the evening. They were now free to do as they pleased until bath time.
Marie was sitting at her dressing table, brushing her hair up and attempting to pin it into a chignon, while Emilie watched, sometimes helping when a stubby lock fell loose, as they chatted amongst themselves. Yvonne and Annette were playing a spirited game of cards.
Cecile was outside in exercise area where she had come to escape the noise. She perched in her usual spot, on the top bar of the rickety old wooden climbing frame. Swinging her legs, she considered the view; from up here, she could see right over the high wall, out across the flat farm land which spread out around them for as far as the eye could see.
Ahead of her, some distance away, stood the barn, the only building visible from this side of the house. Its red roof glowed in the evening sunlight. Cecile was happy to see the flock of birds, perched as they often were, along the barn room, their silhouettes sharp against the cloudless sky. Sometimes she saw them swooping in great arcs, soaring together as one body, before coming in to settle again. Tonight they were still.
Sadly she knew that the barn was not home to any animals; she would have liked to be able to watch horses from here. Cecile loved animals, though she’d never really had any contact with them. A couple of years ago, she’s began a campaign of pestering Miss Daphne for a pet. She knew a puppy would be too much to ask for, but a kitten, a rabbit, even a budgie would’ve been acceptable, although the thought of a cage didn’t sit well with her.
‘Don’t be ridiculous Cecile. A kitten! And what would we do with five cats running about the place?’
‘I don’t want five. I just want one.’
‘If she’s getting one, then I want one.’ Yvonne had piped up.
‘And me, I want one too.’ from Annette.
‘Well of course, you’d all have to have one. It’s out of the question.’
Cecile had begun to feel the injustice of the situation; she couldn’t remember any of her sisters mentioning an interest in having a pet before.
‘Well, it doesn’t have to be five kittens Miss Daphne. I could have the kitten, and then maybe Annette could have the rabbit and Yvonne could have the bird-‘
‘Cecile, I suggest you drop this right now.’ Miss Daphne had said, an eyebrow rose in warning. ‘What would Dr Dafoe make of this talk? Just stop it.’
So Cecile had not received the only thing she’d ever asked for and truly desired. With no kitten, she has consoled herself with other tokens of the natural world. A buttercup, pressed between the pages of her bible, a rock worn smooth, almost like a beach pebble, found miraculously amongst the neglected flower beds. A feather, perhaps fallen from the wing of one of her barn birds, as she thought of them.
She had kept this collection on her dressing table, vibrant against the sickly pale purple of the chipped, painted wood, the colour lending itself for once, where it usually left her cold with indifference. They each had a colour; as small children, it had been sold to them by Dr Dafoe as something special and unique to each of them, something they could call their own. Of course, they’d had no choice in which colour was assigned to them, they had been babies when that had happened, and it was fairly obvious that it was just a simple way for the adults to be able to tell them apart at a glance.
That chipped old dressing table had gradually become her shrine to the outside world, trinkets sprinkled amongst the usual items, and she added to her collection diligently. Then several weeks ago, on the morning of what they were told was ‘an important visit from the men from the University’, her collection had disappeared.
‘All that rubbish couldn’t stay there in plain view. None of your sisters collect bits of tat and scatter it around your room. Probably covered in germs, Dr Dafoe would be horrified!’ Miss Daphne had said, distractedly folding away towels in the bathroom.
‘But where did you put them? Even if everything has to match today, I could’ve put them away until the men have gone!’
‘Everything should match every day Cecile. I threw all that rubbish away, and I don’t want to see it again.’
That afternoon, the girls had lined up in the school room, dressed in their smart dark blue Sunday dresses. Marie and Emilie had made a great deal of fuss of insisting they all part their hair to the left. The pair had decorated their hair with small they hair clips they each owned a pair of; pink for Emilie, pale orange for Marie. They had sat admiring themselves, turning their heads this way in that in front of the mirror. Marie had eventually declared the style as ‘sophisticated’.
Yvonne and Annette had opted for the little heart-shaped pendants, always so cheap looking to Cecile, who disliked plastic things. Mint green for Yvonne, baby blue for Annette. Always the same.
Cecile always wore the same accessory, having no desire to switch between the selection accumulated over the years; her purple hair clips, necklaces, bracelets and ribbons lay forgotten at the bottom of the musical box on her dressing table. She preferred to wear the glass ring, so small now, since they received them so long ago, that it only fitted on her pinkie.
They had watched the men from the University enter the chamber through the Viewing Rooms glass. They stood in a small group and talked, though the girls couldn’t hear their words through the glass. They rarely used the room for this purpose nowadays, though in the past they had spent the majority of their time here. Visits were rare now, and usually took the same form as this one; stern, serious men, conferring with furrowed brows, sometimes gesturing in their direction. Dr Dafoe, always talking the most, appearing calm and self-assured, but a hand tremor betrayed some unease. Miss Daphne, upright and prissy in her starched nurse’s uniform, perhaps answering the occasional question from one of the men.
It was the girl’s job to sit neatly, concentrating on their school work. The sat in a specific order around the large table, so that Annette’s left-handedness wouldn’t be immediately apparent, orchestrated many years ago by Dr Dafoe. Later they were supposed to move to the exercise yard for a short physical education lesson, dressed in their matching vests and gym skirts. But actually that hadn’t happened. Cecile had supposed that the university men had seen enough, and that no amount of synchronised star jumps would make them say what Dr Dafoe wanted them to say.
‘Cecile, come in now. We must wash your hair for tomorrow.’ Miss Daphne was calling from the doorway.
Tomorrow was to be a special day; it was the girls 13th birthday. Preparations were under way. On slowly making her way inside, she found the others to be in a heated debate, with Marie at the centre.
‘But why does it have to be ringlets? They’re so childish!‘
Marie’s cheeks were flushed with agitation. There, on her pale orange dressing table lay her most prized possession, in plain view. It was an old copy of Vogue magazine, its corners all curled. Marie had acquired it from one of the younger nurse’s months ago, and had attached herself thoroughly to it. She had probably memorised every page since then. She and Emilie would lie on their fronts, their legs kicking behind them, flicking through the familiar pages with avid concentration, pausing every so often on a particularly admired model, hat, or dress.
Two weeks ago Dr Dafoe had visited them, and reminded them of their yearly birthday gift – a decision which fell with the girls themselves.
Every year since the privilege of choosing their own present had been bestowed upon them, arguments had ensued amongst the sisters, this year being the worst so far. The problem was always the same; how do five girls all agree to the same present?
Yvonne, with her vivid imagination and artistic skill, had wanted new, better art supplies. Annette didn’t care so much for an object, but did want a large party, with games and music. Emilie wanted nail varnish, or if she could possibly swing it, lipstick.
‘Fine for you, you’ll get pink. What am I going to do with orange lipstick?’ Marie had said. Marie had been adamant they should all have a training bra.
Cecile still wanted a pet, but she knew better than to ask again. And she knew the chances of Marie and Emilie’s wishes coming true were highly unlikely. They’d already been presented with their new party dresses, made of lace and flared to the knee. They were undeniably the clothes of children. Marie may long for an elegant gown, fit for a young woman, but they were yet to see anything which signalled their burgeoning maturity.
Miss Daphne stood, arms crossed, in the doorway of the big bathroom. Cecile could hear water running, the sound of the five baths being filled.
‘Why is it, Marie, that you suddenly don’t like ringlets? Every night, for years, we curled your hair-‘
‘That was before! When there were people every day, when we were little kids!’
‘Nobody will see us anyway.’ said Emilie form her dressing table stool. She was filing her nails with what looked like a wooden lollipop stick.
Miss Daphne seemed to take a calming breath, an effort to control her exasperation. ‘Dr Dafoe will see you. And so will Mr and Mrs Dionne.’
At the mention of their parents, fission ran between the girls. Annette and Yvonne exchanged an unhappy look.
‘And the photographer will be there, as you well know. It’s a very important day.’
‘For who? Not for me.’ Cecile said quietly.
‘Enough!’ Miss Daphne looked levelly at Cecile, then at Marie. ‘You must be presentable for tomorrow. No excuses.’ She began to shepherd the girls into the bathroom, her arms wide. ‘Let’s remind the world how special you are, together.’
Bath time ensued. Cecile sat in the water, her knees drawn up to her chest, legs to long now to stretch out in the too-small bath. As one of the junior nurses rigorously washed her hair, she felt a familiar misery descend. I hate them all, she thought. The five lace dresses, oddly cheap looking in the electric light, hung in a row from the picture rail. She eyed them with distaste. Always the same.
In bed later, Cecile couldn’t sleep. She shifted hear head from side to side, attempting to find a position which lessened the discomfort of the rags tied up in her hair. Ringlets had won out again. Although the lights had been turned out promptly at 8.30pm, there were the usual whispered conversations between the five beds.
‘I like the dress. It’s quite pretty.’ Annette was saying.
‘It looks like something a little girl would wear. And I hate pale yellow. It does nothing for my complexion.’ Marie was met with a snort of derision from the furthest bed, containing Yvonne.
‘What? Well anyway, we could have had something really elegant, like a pencil skirt. We could’ve looked really good.’
‘Why do they all have to be the same?’
Groans from all the beds.
‘Oh not this again Cecile! You sound like an idiot.’
‘Yes, just shut up. It makes them all so angry.’
‘So? I don’t care if it does make Miss Daphne and the Doctor and the rest of them angry. I just want to know why it always has to be the same! Even when no one’s here to see us, it doesn’t make any sense!’
The shape of Yvonne sitting up in bed. ‘Just shut up Cecile! What do you want them to do, split us all up? Send us to live with them? In a horrible little farmhouse with everyone, remember what Dr Dafoe told us…the germs, we’d get sick and we’d probably die.’
‘I don’t think that’s true.’
‘Fine. Well hopefully you die first. Like you should’ve done.’
With that, the dark outline of Yvonne turned to the wall.
Cecile stared up at the dark ceiling. She was going to do something.
Cecile was up with the sun as per usual the next morning. She preferred to dress in the privacy of a small room off the bathroom, nothing more than a large cupboard, where their seasonal clothes were kept. She had moved her dress there already.
‘Girls, what are you doing? Hurry up for goodness sake, we have to take the rags out your hair. Marie? Is your sister up? Come along now, there’s a lot to do. Cecile?’
‘I’m getting dressed.’
Cecile felt quite sick. She began to put on her dress.
‘Cecile, what are you doing? Come out here, now.’
Cecile stood in the bedroom doorway. A thick silence descended over the room. Her sisters, sat in a row at their dressing tables, stared, their faces giving her a choice of reflections; wide eyed, blank confusion, the edge of a hysterical laugh.
The junior nurse tending to the hair of one of her sisters stood, mouth open, one ringleted lock held between her fingers.
Miss Daphne slowly took a few steps towards Cecile, an expression of outraged disbelief spreading across her features.
Cecile was aware of the damp material clinging to her shoulder blades. The paint could never have dried in such a short amount of time, she knew that. There were even smudges of purple-black on the skin of her arms, like bruises emerging from the wet cloth. In the cold air of the bedroom, she felt goosebumps rise on her legs, now exposed to midway up her thighs, the material she had hacked away with the small art room scissors now missing. She had considered hacking off the cursed hair which simply had to be ringleted too, however, after her frenzied homemade alteration and dye job on the dress, she had felt spent. She’d simply hung up the attacked dress in the cupboard, and gone to sleep.
The silence was broken by a growl from Miss Daphne, who strode forward and grabbed Cecile roughly by the upper arm. She pulled her around and marched through the bathroom, through the quiet area, through the art room, to the door which they never used, which she only remembered passing through a handful of times. Miss Daphne yanked the keys from the chain at her waist and unlocked the door, dragging Cecile through it after her. Marching down the corridor, they reached a door at the far end, and Miss Daphne stopped, rapping her knuckles smartly it, all the while keeping a vice like grip on Cecile. A brass plate gleamed on the door.
Miss Daphne promptly opened the door and dragged Cecile inside, positioning her in front of the wide gleaming desk. Dr Dafoe sat behind it, perfectly still for a moment.
‘Look. Look at this!’ Miss Daphne sounded beside herself with rage.
Dr Dafoe regarded Cecile, then slowly removed his little half-moon reading glasses.
‘Well, Cecile. Why don’t you take a seat. Thank you Daphne, I’ll call you when I need you.’
Cecile heard Miss Daphne pause for a moment, and then turn on her heel. The door clicked behind her. She didn’t dare drag her gaze from the Doctor.
Dr Dafoe closed his eyes for a moment. Cecile thought he looked very tired. He continued to sit silently, now regarding Cecile with an almost quizzical look. The damp material of her dress was sticking uncomfortably to the skin of her legs.
‘So, Cecile. You appear to have ruined your pretty dress.’
‘Are you going to send me away?’
‘Away? Do you want to be sent away?’
Cecile sat in silence.
‘You’ve had a very privileged life, you know. Everything you need has been given to you;
good food, plenty of space, an education. All the specialist medical staff to look after you.’
‘I’m not sick. None of us are.’
‘Because you’re here. There are lots of diseases out there, germs which can make you very sick indeed. But you five are safe from all that.’
He sighed, and stood up, walking to the window. The view was of the flat land, just as it was from the excercise yard; however, there was no wall to block Dr Dafoe’s view.
‘It pains me to see you unhappy, especially as there is very little reason for you to be. You are part of a miracle, you know that don’t you? You and your sisters. Perfectly identical. It’s never been seen before.’
He turned to look at her.
‘You’ve always been a little different haven’t you Cecile.’
He continued to look at her for a moment longer before returning to his chair.
‘Of course, you five are actually a set of pairs. And you lost your partner, oh, before you were born. Did you know that?’
Cecile did know, in an abstract way. It was apparent from her life with her sisters.
‘I’ve always been interested in you in particular, how you differ from your sisters. It’s been very interesting.’
‘But this sort of behaviour is unacceptable. I know there have been acts of dissent in the past. It’s hard to explain to children, but you must accept that you are in the best situation you can possibly be in. And there’s still so much to learn. Do you know who the men were who came to see you before?’
‘They were from the university.’
‘That’s right. We have to show them what an extraordinary study we have here. But we need funding to do that. Where do you think the money comes from to buy all your things?’
She knew very little about money. But she remembered how many people used to come and see her and her sisters in that viewing room. At that time, they’d had new things constantly, and many more nurses to dress them and curl their hair. The two had to be connected.
‘But what do the university men want to study? I don’t really understand.’
Dr Dafoe sighed again. ‘No, they didn’t seem to understand either.’
He looked at his watch, and reached across to press the buzzer on his desk.
‘Now Cecile, you’ve put us behind schedule. You must be ready for the photographs.’
‘But I don’t want-‘
The door opened and Miss Daphne entered her mouth a grim line. Dr Dafoe stood up and ushered Cecile out into the corridor, speaking in low tones to Miss Daphne as Cecile waited. Miss Daphne appeared after a moment. The doctor stood in his doorway.
‘And Cecile. Happy Birthday.’
Without a word Miss Daphne began to march back down the corridor, a firm hand on Cecile’s back.
Back in the bathroom, Miss Daphne wordlessly stripped Cecile of the ruined dress. She scrubbed her arms with a rough towel, and handed her the navy blue Sunday dress to put on. Cecile did so, a strange inertia descending on her – she was powerless. Miss Daphne began to roughly remove the rags which were still noted in Cecile’s hair, snagging them on her fingers in her speed.
In the viewing room, her sisters were sat in a row on the large sofa, all now wearing the Sunday dresses. They stared at her mutely as she was steered towards her place at the end of the couch.
The photographer was already there, setting up his big bellowed camera, as were Mr and Mrs Dionne, who stood silently against the furthest wall, looking uncomfortable and out of place. They were dressed in their best clothes, but they still looked plain and shabby in these surroundings. Mrs Dionne looked particularly unhappy.
‘Ah, there we go, a full set of five!’ The photographer said, smiling widely. ‘Now all we need is the good Doctor and the proud parents!’
Dr Dafoe entered from the side door. He had changed his tie, Cecile noticed, and put on his white doctors coat. He approached Mr and Mrs Dionne, and shook their hands briefly.
The photographer began positioning the adults behind the sofa, and one of the nurses came in carrying a large white cake, which she put down on a small table in front of the girls. The cake seemed to have their names written in icing, but there were no candles, and no mention of how old they were.
‘There we go! Now, big smiles from everyone!’
The flashbulb, held aloft by the photographer, went off with a burst. Cecile could imagine exactly how the photo would look, even before a print arrived in a few days for them to see. The cake, the couch, the parents, the doctor, and the sisters. The official birthday photo was the same every year. Always the same.
(c) Alison Gibson, 2015
Story Shop 2015
Part of Story Shop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
Story Shop 2015
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at Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015
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