Rebecca Burns writes short stories and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her stories have been published in online and print journals. Her work can be read at www.rebecca-burns.co.uk
Rebecca was born in a Midlands mining town and drifted to Scotland to attend University, where she felt more English than ever. The concept of place and travelling has always fascinated her, leading to a Ph.D. in English Literature, where she researched the lives and writing of non-Maori female settlers in New Zealand. Almost two centuries ago, women would give up life and extended families in Britain to travel to a distant land at the bottom of the world. Rebecca's writing frequently explores the concept of taking a leap into the unknown.
During and after university Rebecca worked for a variety of supermarkets, department stores and a funding body. She now lives with her husband and children in Coalville, Leicestershire, and works at the University of Nottingham in a field completely unconnected to literature, but which gives her the space to think creatively. She sits on the Steering Committee of the Grace Dieu Writer’s Circle which is based in Coalville. On some days, she thinks of herself as an emerging writer; mainly, though, she thinks of herself as a mother of three exhilarating and exhausting children.
Philip Turpin Gets a Girl
They are hard men, living in terraced houses with tools in the bathroom and half a motorcycle in the spare room. They work down the pit, in the lace factory, at Metal Box; nine, ten hours straight most days, barely speaking to their fellows except at lunch when they might talk, redundantly, about sport. But they take their shoes off before opening the front door to their house. The terraces belong to them, paid for with a monthly regularity that their sisters envy. Yet, key in the door leading directly into the lounge, they remove their shoes. Not because they are particularly clean and careful of the carpet, but because they remember their mothers’ shouts and ready slaps. Prising off trainers on the doorstep is atavistic, unconscious. It is as familiar to them as the way they take their tea - white, two sugars. Should they be asked how they drank their PG Tips, they would not remember and so they are not asked. They drink what is placed into their calloused hands.
One of these men is called Philip Turpin. He hates his name. Not even his mates could avoid calling him “Dick”. He has thought about changing his surname to something safer, but knows it would hurt his father. Of course Dad wouldn’t say. He would just drink deeply from his pint at the Miner’s Welfare, staring at the snooker.
So Phil “Dick” Turpin didn’t bother with a trip to County Hall. He tramped on, his surname swinging round his neck like a clown’s nose. He never got close enough to getting married to be concerned about what his wife might think, or his kids for that matter. The nearest he got to sharing his narrow terrace on Cycle Row was touching the freckles that dusted Beverley Outhwaite’s breasts after the Christmas social.
Until, one day, a stranger came to town. She didn’t know the rules, obviously, for she walked right up to the factory reception and handed in an application form. This wasn’t the way it was done. Dads took their childrens’ forms to the office lasses during the Easter break, so they could start as soon as exams were over in the summer. Nobody expected them to work just for the holidays; university for the posh lot who went to the grammar school. But this woman seemed to either not know or not care. Philip sat by the lunch room window and watched her march up to the main entrance. It was summer and the windows were open; she had an accent.
“Polish. Family in Cracow,” she said, two weeks later in his bed. Magda could drink a pint like a man and had ferocious strength in her thin arms. She wasn’t afraid of the noisy, chumping machinery. “Back home this is nothing,” and Philip succumbed to the easy shrug of her shoulders. She came to the Welfare club on a Wednesday night, alone, wanting to drink and play pool. The other women, who only joined the men on Friday nights, hated her.
Philip found himself saying the strangest things, making himself wince. “You have too much beauty for one body,” and he pressed his lips against the white flesh of Magda’s back. Beverley Outhwaite might have called him soft and told her mother, but Magda liked that kind of talk. “Tell me again,” she commanded, and rolled him in her hands like putty.
She dug up his rooty potatoes in the small garden and planted beets, cucumbers. When Philip’s parents came round for tea to meet this odd woman, Magda served cold beetroot soup and cucumber in yogurt. Mavis Turpin drew her lips into a tight dogs-bottom and nibbled the accompanying brown bread. Andrew Turpin ate the lot, winking proudly at his son; he hummed all the way home. Mavis strode alongside him.
“They hate me,” Magda said comfortably as she stared at the ceiling, Philip’s heavy fingers on her breast. “Maybe it was the soup. Get me rabbit next week.”
At Christmas, Magda’s parents sent Philip a wooden backgammon set. Magda was embarrassed but Philip adored it. He stroked the walnut casing and bounced the red and black pieces in his palms. No one had ever given him something so exquisite. He imagined Magda’s father, sitting in his cold apartment shaping the soft wood into decorative form, and could see Magda’s mother in the background, stirring something warm and scented. Magda sniffed and wrapped up boxes of noisy, plastic toys for her sisters, running to catch the last post.
In spring they went to Cleethorpes, by the sea. They sat beside pensioners on the coach, eating the cheese and horseradish sandwiches Magda had carved in the kitchen that morning. She screamed on the waltzers and held him tightly, and Philip felt his heart soar as she clung to him. They ate welks and cockles doused in vinegar, and strolled hand in hand along the pier. Philip, hard man, owner of half a motorbike spilling its guts in his spare room, wondered when he had last felt so whole.
Two months later Magda’s grandmother died. “I go for three weeks and then back,” Magda said. There was no question of Philip going with her. He took her to the airport and bought her a magazine. She waved goodbye at the gates and, ashamed, Philip had to pull over on the motorway on the way back.
After six weeks, he realized she was not coming back. She called after the funeral; there was a throaty male voice in the background and a wariness to her tone that he could not place. “Another week,” she said. “Family are all together.” But she did not phone again. On the forty-eighth midnight spent alone, Philip sat outside in Magda’s overgrown beetroots, letting his skin cool in the summer air and the moonlight whiten his skin. He plucked at the hairs on the backs of his hands, feeling the pain gather at the surface. When he returned from the factory the following day he kicked off his trainers at the door and warmed oxtail soup in the kitchen.
First published in Foundling Review, August 2011 (http://www.foundlingreview.com/Aug2011Issue2Burns.html)
"Philip Turpin Gets a Girl” explores the tumultuous, unrestrained disorder wrought by an outsider on a fixed, grounded Northern life. Some aspects of that Northern life are drawn from my own experiences. The landscape of my childhood was familiar and unchanging; potatoes with most meals, baths on a Sunday night, a plump lap of a grandparent beside a gas fire. When my parents worked late, my sister and I were hugged into my maternal grandparents’ council house and entertained with brown-paper kites and gypsy caravans made from old toilet rolls.
It was later, after leaving for university and becoming part of a diverse group of friends where the rules of home did not apply, that I became intrigued by the point of crossover between cultures, and the marks of attraction and difference; what could I – a comprehensive-educated girl with a Socialist background – possibly find attractive in poshly-spoken, privately-educated new friends? There must have been something, for I became part of a tight-knit group at University. But, always a writer, the transcultural theme filtered into my work, and I began to write about the integration of an outsider into the warm bubble of a fixed way of life. This is the driving theme of “Philip Turpin”, which follows the experience of two very different people who fall in love, and rub against a lifetime of routine and rigidity.
Ten years before writing the story, my doctoral research had left me intrigued by those brave settler women, emigrating to New Zealand one-hundred-and-fifty years ago, and their efforts to write their experiences into the new landscape. The cultural baggage they carried with them was particularly heavy, forcing them to negotiate being “other” or “Pakeha” (non-Maori) in a place where they were – according to contemporary Eurocentric ideology – supposed to be racially superior. The diaries and letters they left behind, and later their fiction, were rich seams to mine for doctoral work. But, ultimately, the legacy of their experience lingered in my own creative fiction and my stories explore a point of departure or cultural clash in a variety of locations.
I work best in the short story form. Making each word count, creating an illusion of a world beyond the text are the techniques of writing a good short story that I find appealing. I like looking at the surfaces of things and suggesting a greater depth beneath. Like the pitted colliery landscape of my childhood, the surface is only a facade.
A Pickled Egg, The London Magazine, Aug/Sep 2008
Mr William Sanderson Strikes for Home, The New Storyteller, May 2009, http://newstoryteller.com/mrwilliamsandersonstrikesforhome.html - in First Steps Press, July 2010, Short Story winner, http://fspressonline.org/SSM/mr-william-sanderson-strikes-for-home/
Miss Swainson’s Girl, Random Acts of Writing, July 2009
Dottie, Halfway Down the Stairs, Sept 2009, http://www.halfwaydownthestairs.net/index.php?action=viewHYPERLINK
Snails on the Road, Foundling Review, July 2009, http://www.foundlingreview.com/July2009Issue2burns.html
The Farmhouse, Cantaraville, July 2010
Catching the Barramundi, Menda City Press, Nov 2009
The Last Game, August 1914, Foundling Review, Jan 2010, http://www.foundlingreview.com/Dec2010Issue3Burns.html
The Night of the Fox, Bartleby Stopes, Dec 2010
Island Honeymoon, Per Contra, Apr 2011
Painting the Hay Bales, Controlled Burn, June 2011
Loving Enid, Halfway Down the Stairs, June 2011
The Mirror Man, Glasschord, July 2011
Philip Turpin Gets a Girl, Foundling Review, Aug 2011
Slipper Socks, Eunoia Review, Aug 2011, http://eunoiareview.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/slipper-socks/
The Intruder, 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, Nov 2011
Hades Landing, Halfway Down the Stairs, Dec 2011
The Butterfly, Milk Sugar, Dec 2011, http://www.milksugarliterature.com/rebeccab1.html
On This Day, published online by Halfway Down the Stairs
At the Hotel El Loro, published online by Halfway Down the Stairs
Catching the Barramundi, debut collection of short stories, published by Odyssey Books, 2012; longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award 2013. http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/192220000X?ie=UTF8&tag=thworuthit-21&linkCode=as2&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=192220000X
Tide, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition, May 2013, http://www.foweyfestival.com/uncategorized/calling-all-writers-enter-our-short-story-competition/
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