Violet stopped in front of the shoe shop every day on her way to school and allowed herself exactly three minutes to gaze at the red shoes in the window. The shiny red leather. The silky red ribbons. The silver toe and heel taps. At school she pictured herself wearing the shoes and imagined how they would sound on the old wooden floor of her dancing class.
At the end of the month her mother said she’d saved a bit of money by buying all her cleaning products on special so there was enough left over to buy the shoes at the weekend. On Saturday morning Violet was up early, washed and dressed with her mother’s breakfast ready on a tray in the vain hope of hurrying her through the morning routines of polishing, vacuuming, cleaning the windows, washing the back of the oven and the vacuum cleaner cord, scrubbing the backdoor step and finally covering all the furniture with the old brown blankets. Violet no longer asked her mother why she did this every day when no one else’s mother did because the question made her mother look sad. She once made the mistake of saying how embarrassing it was when her friends came to play and saw all their furniture covered up with old blankets. Her mother’s response had been to curl up on the sofa and cry.
At last, her mother finished the cleaning. She was dressed and polished. They were on the bus. They were walking through the door of the shoe shop. Her mother was frowning. Violet was smiling. She was holding the shoes to her nose and sniffing the new leather smell. She was rubbing the red ribbons against her cheek. She was slipping her feet into the shoes and fastening the red ribbons into perfectly symmetrical bows. She was dancing on the shoe shop floor and thrilling to the tap tap tap.
The clicketty-clack of the silvery taps sounded so good on the floor of the dancing school that the teacher had to keep reminding Violet to stop staring at the shoes while doing the shuffle brush strike, and to lift her chin and smile. At the end of the class she put the shoes back in her brown paper bag. The other girls glanced at the bag and then at each other. Although they said nothing, Violet felt herself shrinking. On her way home she decided the best solution was to get an after school paper round and save up to buy a proper case to carry her shoes in. A brown paper bag was not a worthy receptacle for such beautiful shoes. They needed a proper case in imitation snake skin with red satin lining. Her mother had promised not to buy any more mould spray and bleach until they were on special so there’d be a little extra money to pay for pink ballet shoes with pink ribbons and then silver ballroom shoes. However, there was still detergent, disinfectant, oven cleaner, window cleaner and floor polish to replace soon, given the rate her mother went through cleaning fluids, so Violet knew it would be many months before she would get the shoes. She wondered if she could fit in a morning milk round before school and together with the money from the paper round she might have enough to buy the shoes herself. Once she had the right shoes and a proper case for them there might be enough money to enrol for dancing classes every evening and all day Saturday instead of just once a week. If not, she could spend Sundays weeding people’s gardens to pay for the extra classes. If she could just do all that, there would be nothing else in the whole world she would ever wish for again.
A thin slice of moon and a sprinkling of stars lit the empty street as Violet tap-danced her way home. Her head was full of music and dance steps and plans. She was humming her favourite tune as she opened the front door and saw her mother sticking tape around the sides, tops and bottoms of the doors and windows. She’d cleaned the whole house, her mother explained, and now she was sealing all the rooms to prevent dust sneaking in through the cracks. She turned and smiled at Violet. It was the first time Violet had seen her smile since her father left. She’d found a solution, her mother said. She had set up a tent in the back garden where they would live all through the summer. On cold wet days they would move into the garage. They would cook on the barbecue. They would only go into the house to use the bathroom. That way they could save a lot of money because only the bathroom would need cleaning. There would be enough for dancing shoes and dancing classes and pretty dresses for the end-of-year recital. The only thing was, she added, though it really wouldn’t be a hardship, Violet mustn’t tell anyone they were living in a tent. And she mustn’t bring anyone home.
Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She is a novelist, essayist, short story and flash-fiction writer with a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. Her work has been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally and has won several awards. Her flash fiction appears or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Blue Fifth Review and was selected for the UK 2017 National Flash Fiction Day international anthology, Sleep is a beautiful colour.
MY CREATIVE PROCESS
Why do you write?
My fiction often draws on environmental elements and their impact on people’s lives. Some of my short stories are set in the Arabian Gulf where I lived for a year and saw ancient buildings buried by the desert wind, and in Brazil, where I watched wind-fanned grass fires disfigure the Cerrado. In New Zealand, scorching nor’west winds rage across the Canterbury Plains in spring and summer, uprooting trees and sucking moisture out of the earth. During one such blistering wind, I saw, scored into a wooden plaque in the local butcher’s shop, the following quote from Gogol’s Dead Souls: ‘The air is torn and thundering as it turns to wind and everything on earth comes flying past.’ Soon after, I read Jan deBlieu’s book, Wind, where she describes the different names hot dry winds are given in various parts of the world and how they affect the inhabitants and the landscape. She relates advice from medical professionals about avoiding major decisions when wild winds blow. With all this in mind I wrote the short story that appears in Headland 8, "When the Wind Blows", which deals with the effect a prolonged nor’wester has on several families who live on the Canterbury Plains.
When I was 12 I watched a film on television about a herd of wild horses galloping through the surf. The film was in slow motion and I was mesmerised by the way the horses’ manes and tails caught the sunlight and sea spray, and the way light and shadow turned their eyes into dark hollows. As soon as the film finished I ran up to my room to write what I’d seen, thumbing through a dictionary to find new words to help me express my awe. I kept coming back to this story over several years, polishing and re-writing until eventually, six years later, I submitted it for a college assignment in creative writing and received a Distinction. That’s when the idea of becoming a writer seemed less nebulous.
My love of language grew from my father’s story-telling. He had been in the Merchant Navy and had travelled to exotic lands. When he exhausted his store of tales about the places he’d seen I gave him the titles and themes of stories I wanted him to make up. He also loved reciting the epic poems of Kipling and Longfellow. The books he gave me were of the adventure type that he had loved as a boy: Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines. Not surprising then that my first career choice was archaeologist. Though the career plans changed, my interest in what lay hidden beneath the surface remained. In my late teens I read my way through the Brontes, Austin, Elliot, Hardy, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Flaubert, Hugo, Colette, and Woolf. In my twenties, I taught, travelled, married and wrote, mostly poems I had no intention of showing anyone. In my early thirties, after moving from the UK to New Zealand, I began writing short stories for broadcast and publication, drawing on the landscape and interior/exterior worlds.
My first novel, A Distraction of Opposites, published in 1992, also excavates beneath the surface. What began as an image of a big black spider lurking in the centre of a web became a metaphor for how people can become trapped in sticky situations. The novel examines the world of the subconscious in parallel with the conscious and the story is narrated by the female protagonist trapped by the ‘spider’, a mentally unstable male. I completed this novel while holding the inaugural Louis Johnson New Writers’ Bursary. My second novel, Tomorrow’s Empire, explores the rise of a religious fundamentalist in Turkey and the culture clash between east and west. This novel took ten years to write, off and on, as I needed to do a great deal of research and travel through Turkey. It is narrated through the voice of the Turkish male protagonist and was published in New Zealand in 2000, two years after the Iranian President Khatami declared he no longer supported the killing of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, though the fatwa would remain in place. The previous ten years had seen book burnings in the UK and bombings and killings elsewhere. Sensitivities about Rushdie’s book still ran high. When my publisher tried to have Tomorrow’s Empire published in the UK, not surprisingly, he was unsuccessful.
The grieving process has been the focus of both your academic and creative writing.
A year after Tomorrow’s Empire was published my youngest daughter, Rebecca, was diagnosed with appendix cancer at the age of 22. She died 13 months later in 2002. In the year following her death I could no longer read or write or listen to music.
In 2003 my husband and I decided to change our environment and the opportunity came to live and work in Oman for a year. It was a good decision and I filled notebooks with the characters we met, the situations we found ourselves in and the beautiful lunar landscape of Oman. We returned to New Zealand via a short visit to Brazil, a country we’d lived in a few years earlier. Back in New Zealand I completed, with High Distinction, a Master’s degree in Creative Writing through CQ University in Australia. Some of the short stories which resulted from this, set in Brazil and Oman, were broadcast on Radio New Zealand and one, The Stone, was included in The Best New Zealand Fiction, vol 4. This story was inspired by finding a stone with our daughter’s initial on it as we swam in the Indian Ocean on the second anniversary of her death.
My reading at that stage consisted solely of books about grief and I found that although there was no shortage of literature on grieving young adult death from suicide or accident, young adult death from cancer was so rare that there was very little material available. I thought that writing my own book might go some way to filling that gap. Because of the amount of research necessary it made sense to tackle the subject as a doctorate. I completed my PhD in 2010. The creative non-fiction part of my thesis, which details my own experience of parental bereavement, was published in 2011 by Canterbury University Press as Sing No Sad Songs. After producing several papers from my exegesis and attending conferences delivering them I was finally able to move on from this topic. In 2013 I began writing a new novel and completed the first draft while I was the recipient of the Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writing Residency.
When I finished the final draft of this novel in mid-2016 I discovered the New Zealand flash fiction journal, Flash Frontier and its store of beautiful short narratives. I loved the use of language in many of these stories and the way so much could be implied in so few words. I decided to set myself the challenge of writing in very short forms. Flash fiction generates a continuous flow of ideas and I have found it to be excellent discipline for writing longer pieces too. Looking at the flash fiction and short stories I have written over the past few months I see that many of them deal with loss of various kinds, but also suggest new possibilities. The ideas for these stories come from diverse sources – newspapers articles, fragments of conversation, images, memories, but some appear perfectly formed, apparently out of nowhere. An example of this is The Gatherers in Headland 7. This appeared one day as I walked by the Selwyn River with my dog. The sky was vivid blue, the Southern Alps glittered with snow, the tracks were covered in wildflowers, and the only sounds were bees and birds and the dog splashing in the water. These things filled my mind. And The Gatherers arrived.
In your childhood, who in your family encouraged you to tell stories? Who were some of your formative influences?
My love of language grew from my father’s story-telling. He had been in the Merchant Navy and had travelled to exotic lands. When he exhausted his store of tales about the places he’d seen I gave him the titles and themes of stories I wanted him to make up. He also loved reciting the epic poems of Kipling and Longfellow. The books he gave me were of the adventure type that he had loved as a boy: Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines. Not surprising then that my first career choice was archaeologist. Though the career plans changed, my interest in what lay hidden beneath the surface remained. In my late teens I read my way through the Brontes, Austin, Elliot, Hardy, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Flaubert, Hugo, Colette and Woolf.
You’ve also been a teacher.
In my twenties, I taught, travelled, married and wrote, mostly poems I had no intention of showing anyone. In my early thirties, after moving from the UK to New Zealand, I began writing short stories for broadcast and publication, drawing on the landscape and interior/exterior worlds.
What other art forms and disciplines interest you?
I'm interested in music and art but literature is my primary focus.
What are you working on now?
I'm currently completing a book of flash fiction titled The Girl with Green Hair and other stories.
What are your views on the future of communication and how technology is changing the way we communicate, read, interact with the world and our imaginations?
Flash Fiction is a form which has interested me in the last eighteen months. Many people believe it appeals to the internet generation because it is easily accessed and read while multi-tasking. However, I believe the best flash fiction should be read like poetry and returned to again and again for the beauty of the words and hidden allusions.