By Sara Roberts

“Out back late”. The note was pinned to the fridge with the plastic magnet they got in Vegas, with glitter sparkles trapped inside. Amanda sighed and heaved the bags of shopping off the floor onto the Formica table with its mysterious patterns of coffee stains like corn circles. Might as well do the laundry then.

Zora appeared and started winding figure of eights around her feet. Amanda picked her up and cuddled her. Why do cats always seem to be smiling? Do they know something we don’t?

“No loyalty, cats,” Amanda could hear Karl saying. “Cold and calculating. Not like a dog.” He hadn’t wanted her to take Zora in when they had found her under the geraniums only a few weeks old and starving. She was blind from a pus-encrusted eye infection and being eaten by the ants. “We don’t need a pet. It’s an extra expense.”

“What, like your drinking, you mean?”

Amanda had kept the kitten, gory-faced and mewling, but Karl had not forgiven her.

She put Zora down and packed away the shopping, each thing in its place, tins facing the same way all along the back of the cupboard. A row of labels repeating themselves, insistent soldiers. Amanda grabbed the empty suitcase with the broken handle and carried it to the bathroom. Black hairs and cracks in the enamel were indistinguishable without her glasses, but after they had been broken she had decided she preferred to see things through a gentle haze. She perched on the edge of the bath and heaped their dirty clothes into the suitcase.

Outside, the telegraph pole supporting a fan of swooping telephone lines looked like a big top. At the end of the road, the sign for Seven Sisters station glowed dimly in the dark like a premonition. As Amanda pulled it behind her, the squealing wheel on the suitcase protested loud and rhythmically. She cringed and muttered “Sorry!” to the blank-faced houses she walked past. They squeaked down the litter-strewn terraced street, past syringes and empty crisp packets, Caribbean hairdressers, Western Union, Somalian Internet cafe and a sad bricked-up house with snowy-seeded dandelions. Then the Turkish kebab place with “Shukran” in yellow lights and a cylinder of meat rising from the counter like an altar. The Indian corner shops – though they were not on a corner – the Assembly of God Fire and Glory Ministry and the New Life Evangelical Centre. Tiny churches set up inside people’s front rooms. The last one was best – it had a sign with the paint peeling off: Power of Anointing Ministry Miracle Healing Thunder with Dr. Bishop ben Akosa. Next door was a photocopy shop with the Union Jack in the window and a poster for the BNP. Finally, Amanda’s favourite, the multi-coloured grocer’s with its mangos, papayas, avocados, coconuts, sweet potatoes, yams, ginger, oranges and limes immodestly laid on display outside.

She dragged the suitcase over the step into the launderette. The bald Ghanaian in the mustard shirt behind the counter nodded without a smile and handed over two red plastic counters in exchange for her coins. Why does that man never smile, in all the years I’ve been here? Amanda sat and watched the washing machine spinning round hysterically. A supersonic centrifuge. A spaceship ready to take off. Clothes tirelessly jumping up only to fall back down again in the dryer.

She opened the suitcase to put the clothes in, still warm from the dryer and folded. Next to her foot a rogue sock had made a bid for freedom and lay on the floor divorced from its pair. Amanda felt the sting of an electric shock as she bent down to pick it up and drew her hand back as if she’d been bitten. She pushed at it gingerly with her toe. Sitting beneath it was the strangest thing she had ever seen.

It was an imperfect dome, somewhere between an avocado and a mango, made out of plastic but heavy as a yam. Like one of those old-fashioned children’s paperweights with glitter inside. Each of its surfaces had a hundred facets throwing off a unique luminosity and colour, but the light, rather than being reflected from the outside, seemed to emanate from within. Amanda held it up to the sickly neon lighting of the launderette. On the other side, the bald man was transformed. He looked joyful and radiant, about to break into song. Amanda stared, transfixed at his sudden beauty. He eyed her suspiciously and looked over his shoulder. She felt a tap on the arm and realised that somebody was speaking to her.


Her eyes widened. “Of course!” She stared at the object in her hand.

The young man gave her a funny look.

“Have – you – finished – with – that – dryer – yet – love?”

“Oh! Yes. Yes! Thank you!!” She beamed. He stared and took a step back. She waved goodbye to the bald man and rushed off down the street.

For weeks, Amanda carried the prism around in her pocket like a secret pet mouse, patting it and smiling to herself. She talked to it in her head and sometimes out loud when she was at home or in the park. She looked at Zora through it, who turned into a slim dark-haired woman in a cocktail dress.

“Wow, you look good!”

“Thank you, purr.”

As for her plants, Amanda discovered that they all had names and liked nothing better than to sing in harmony and sway to the music. She felt uplifted, as if she were in one of those happy dreams where she could fly over the houses. It was like being in love again but better, because this time everything made her smile, not just one person, and everything she smiled at smiled back at her. Except the day she looked in the mirror. That was strange. She held the prism up in front of her and saw her reflection slowly change, not like with the plants or Zora. First it went all fuzzy, then the image came into focus and she saw herself glowing, happy, laughing, her hair shiny and her eyes bright as a teenager. Then it started to break up.

“No! No! Don’t go!”

Amanda reached out towards the mirror but the image was swarming with black and white dots. The girl became just an outline, like the shapes moving behind the static on a TV screen, then disappeared. Amanda shook the prism and held it up to her eyes but all she could see was a paperweight snowstorm, a thick fog of glitter. That night she had a dream that she grew like a balloon but her skin didn’t grow with her. It got so tight that she could hardly breathe, but when she thought she was about to choke, it cracked open and she felt a huge relief. Her skin fell away from her in long strips like bark and when she stepped out of it and looked in the mirror there was a different person staring back.

The next day, Karl was drunk again.

“Oh, do what you want,” she said, arguing about the rent. “I don’t care. I’ve found love.”

Karl’s body stiffened. “You what…?” He narrowed his eyes. “Oh, I see,” he said, slurring slightly and nodding.

“No, no,” Amanda managed before he made a grab at her. He hit the wall and knocked Samantha the geranium off the windowsill. There was a moment’s silence before Amanda heard her smash onto the path below.

Karl lurched. She dodged him and began bouncing around on the balls of her feet. A measured dance, well rehearsed. Keeping the kitchen table between them at all times.

“Who is it then? Go on! Who is it? It’s that guy from the shop you’re always smiling at, isn’t it? I knew it. You little slapper.”

“No, no! It’s not like –”

“Oh no, ’course it’s not! So what is it like, then?”

“A diamond.”

He stopped. Their dance halted, mid-step. She cleared her throat.

“Well, it’s… like a diamond… but made of plastic. Sort of like a prism.”

“A prison?”

“No, a prism. It shines, reflects the light. From the inside.”

He frowned, swaying slightly.

“I found it on the floor of the launderette.”

He stared. “You found it on the floor of the launderette.”


There was silence while he blinked. “Are you taking the piss?”

Amanda shook her head.

“You found love on the floor of the launderette and it’s a diamond made of plastic.” He frowned. “Are you on something?”

She shook her head again and put her hand in her pocket to stroke her friend.

“Then you are off your rocker!” He started to laugh. “You could at least have found a real one! I mean, what use is a plastic diamond?”

His body was heaving and gurgling with laughter that left him gasping for breath. You could hear fifteen years of Marlboro Reds rattling around his lungs. The laughter turned into coughing and he hit himself in the chest, bending over and holding onto the table for support. He was going red in the face and spurting saliva out of the sides of his mouth. He hocked up a good wodge and spat it into the sink.

“God, you nearly killed me there,” he said, straightening up and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “Found love, indeed!”

Amanda wanted to be sick. She wished with every fibre of her body, with a violence she did not recognise, that she could vomit all over him. She wanted to spit in his tea and smash all his bottles and throw his fags and beer down the toilet. She felt the blood rising to her head and realised with a strange sense of detachment that she hated him.

“Go on then, let’s see,” he said with a crinkle of amusement in his eyes. “Let’s see it, this thing you’ve found.”

“NO!” she shouted, clenching all her rage into her closed fists.

The smile fled from his lips and the humour from his eyes. He looked down at the floor. The top of his head was shiny and round like an egg. He seemed to be getting taller, expanding to fill the room. Soon he would touch the ceiling. Then what? Amanda giggled. Will he keep on growing, like Jack and the beanstalk, and crash through the floor of the flat upstairs? A giant head between the telly and the old couple sitting on the sofa in their slippers.

She could hear the blood pumping through the vein that ran down the middle of his forehead. For a moment they were both held immobile, as if someone had pressed the pause button and everything was suspended in thick, viscous, underwater silence. Then it was like a dam breaking and all the held-back waters falling in great tumbling arcs of sound. He lunged at her with all his weight and this time she went to meet him. It was a spectacular leap in a ballet; slow-motion, choreographed, symphonic.

They were on the floor, rolling and kicking and shouting and swearing and tearing and pulling and pushing and grabbing. He pulled the prism out of her pocket and she grabbed it back again. They struggled like this until, under the combined pressure of their clammy fists, it flew out of their grasp. The pair stopped and watched open-mouthed as it traced a perfect arc through the air. It sent an exquisite rainbow of colour up onto the ceiling before it hit the floor with a dull crack. For a moment, the quality of the light changed and Amanda felt infused with a new strength, like a character acquiring a superpower in a video game. She stood up and looked around her. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Find it at:

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Haque is Back!

East London Writers unite! 🙂

Hackney Writers

The second issue of Haque, the Hackney Writers Circle magazine is now available. There will be a launch party on the 28th of November, at the Mascara Bar (72 Stamford Hill, N16 6XS), watch this space for more details. For the next few weeks we will be publishing extracts from the magazine, starting with…

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A to Z of writing at Cafe Aphra: R is for Rewrite

R is for Rewrite

Yes, that’s right. Rewrite. What else is there to say? One must write, when one must, because – as we’ve clearly seen from this blog – there’s no other way for most of us and we’re just stuck with it I suppose. No, that’s ungrateful. I’m sure to live a “normal” life without stories constantly running through one’s head would be a dull and graceless experience. But yes, it has its problems too.

One of those problems is that, after the fleeting moment of magic has flit – that oh so rare and precious time when the words are flowing onto the page and one feels that one is flying – when that is past, as it usually is, then what is left is to cut, cut, cut, edit, edit, edit, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

We’ve all heard it: “A real writer doesn’t write, he (or she) rewrites.” (Well obviously they must write something first, one assumes, in order to have the raw material needed in order to then rewrite it.) But you know what I mean.

Sometimes rewriting takes so long that one wonders if it is ever going to end. If the story, finally, one day, will find its rightful resting place, whether you the author, will find the right ending, the one where you go: “Aha! I’ve got it!” and it just rings true. Everyone nods their heads and instinctively knows, yes, that’s the one. The right one.

In fact, as one of my fellow Aphraites has pointed out before me, very often the trick is to know when, indeed, to just “leave it”. When to stop, when to stop the tinkering. When to leave the rewriting and just say, “OK, it’s done now.” Because it never really is finished, is it? Apparently Picasso (or was it Pollock?) once said that a painting is never really finished – “it just stops in interesting places”. Surely true, but I tell myself that, in that case, some of my stories must have seen the seven wonders of the world and taken some damn fine photographs.

I actually feel embarrassed at times to find myself rewriting bits of material – stories, usually – that I originally wrote years ago and that have not been accepted into the writing competitions or magazines I sent them. (“Still that old piece? Oh God, not again, please…”) And yet something still tells me there is something to it, something worth saving, a kernel in there, at least. And so I open up the file once more, on what? Its 30th version perhaps, by now, and rewrite it again, according to a new competition’s guidelines, to see if this time it will hit the right note.

Perhaps I am wrong to do this. Perhaps I should just learn to leave it and let bygones be bygones. And yet…. there is still that itch, deep down inside of me, irresistible as the voice of temptation, hissing into my ear, “Go on – just one more time! Remember perseverance is all… this time might be the one.” It is a long process, the validity of which I frequently – and increasingly – question.

Yet it was recently confirmed to me by another, more experienced (screenplay) writer friend, who is also a film director. He made me feel much better – more than he could possibly know or imagine – by assuring me that everything I am doing is worth it, because it is all contributing somehow to the diaphanous process that is (apparently) happening in my head. The process of making the stroy, of finding the thread. He said to absolutely keep everything you have ever written, even the real shit stuff, and to always go back to pieces you wrote years ago, because they are like a kind of puzzle, he said, and in the meantime you never know – you may have found those pieces you were missing.

By Sara Roberts

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A to Z of writing at Cafe Aphra: J is for Joy

J is for Joy


J is for Joy. That’s what I decided. It could have been Julia Cameron, Jane Austen, Jabba the Hut or jetlag. But it wasn’t. It was joy.

Joy? Isn’t that a bit tree-huggy and misty eyed? Evangelical, even? The realm of New Agey self-help books teaching us how to get back in touch with our inner child? Yes! All of the above. And why not indeed. But there is one thing I have found to be true, and that is this – (insert pearl of wisdom here) – joy is fundamental to writing. Without joy, writing is just a mechanical act, a dead dance, a tired man dragging himself through a bog.

The joy of discovering new life, lives, worlds, stories, sounds through the happy combination of words is what keeps us going. They may be words that we combine or words that have been combined by others before us. But they bring us joy whenever we happen upon them, like the sweet delight of meeting an old friend on the street. When I am blocked or just feeling like I have lost sight of the way, the moment when I know I am okay again is when I rediscover that sense of joy.

How to explain it, how to describe?

When laughter or tears bubble up inside and I am moved to read a particular combination of words again and again for no reason I can rationally explain other than that they fit in a way so beautiful and unexpected that they have taught me a new way of seeing. When I wonder at how the light comes down through fresh new leaves and a couple of words arrive in my mind that captures it exactly! That is the joy. And as any writer will tell you, it is the purest kind of happiness there is.

Now for someone on the outside, it might appear quite mad – indeed, for anyone else (anyone who doesn’t themselves write) standing by and watching our muttering, smiling, laughing selves. But those moments of joy mark us; they sear an incandescent memory of perfection on our souls.

I remember, for example (since Google told me that yesterday was Maurice Sendak’s 85th birthday), one such moment came for me when I must have been, oh five? Six? Seven? To be honest I have no idea, but anyway I was small and it was a long time ago. And yet I still remember the image of Pierre pouring syrup on his hair. Yes, even at that age it struck me as so exquisitely gross a thing to do that it made me laugh and squeal in delight and remember it to this day. In case your memory of Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue is a little hazy, the dialogue between Pierre and his mother went something like this:

“What would you like to eat?” | “I don’t care!”
“Some lovely cream of wheat?” | “I don’t care!”
“Don’t sit backwards on your chair.” | “I don’t care!”
“Or pour syrup on your hair.” | “I don’t care!”

Today I even – unbelievably – found and dug out my old copy of Where the Wild Things Are (“Oh, please don’t go – we’ll eat you up – we love you so!”) and reminded myself of that wonderful smell of old books we have loved.

I often find sources of joy in children’s literature, I realise. As well as, of course, in many of the great classics, contemporary novels, nature, poetry, and the simple observation of tiny details. I started listing “a few” examples earlier before realising this blog could, quite easily, go on for ever.

So I offer you, instead, a few flashes of joy from Salman Rushdie’s wonderful Haroun and the Sea of Stories – another I remember my father reading to me at bedtime (ah the inestimable value of those bedtime stories!). In it, we learn about Alifbay, “the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy…”

And the Plentimaw Fishes, too, that Iff explains why he calls ‘hunger artists’:

“Because when they are hungry they swallow stories through every mouth, and in their innards miracles occur; a little bit of one story joins on to an idea from another, and hey presto, when they spew the stories out they are not the old tales but new ones. Nothing comes from nothing, Thieflet; no story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old – it is the new combinations that make them new.”

Finally, I leave you with a poem by Polish writer and Nobel prize-winner, Wislawa Szymborska, offering you her vision of joy.

The Joy of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?

For a drink of written water from a spring

Why does she lift her head; does she hear something? …

Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,

She pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.

Silence – this word also rustles across the page

And parts the boughs

That have sprouted from the word “woods”.

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,

Are letters up to no good,

Clutches of clauses so subordinate

They’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply

Of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,

Prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,

Surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.

Other laws, black on white, obtain.

The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,

And will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,

Full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.

Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.

Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,

Not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world

Where I rule absolutely on fate?

A time I bind with chains of signs?

An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.

The power of preserving.

Revenge of a mortal hand.

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A to Z of writing at Cafe Aphra: B is for Block

B is for Block

Yes, we’ve all been there. Staring at the blank screen of a computer that seems to mirror the blankness of our mind at that particular moment, unable to think of what to say next, the merciless white expanse of a new word document staring back at us. Anything we do write makes us immediately cringe and hold down the delete key.

This is not, perhaps, the most joyous of writing-related topics, but it is nonetheless an experience shared by most of us who dedicate time to the craft of writing. In my case, writer’s block seems to be a recurring illness or nightmare, but I am comforted by the fact that many of my fellow Aphraites and other writing friends share similar experiences. So, what causes it? Why do we get writer’s block? And how can we get out of it – how can we entice the words back again, get them flowing?

I have noticed that, for me, a number of things seem to be factors in triggering a bout of writer’s block. Fundamentally, though, they fall into two main categories: Loss of Motivation, and Loss of Momentum.

Regarding loss of momentum, one important factor is sustained interruption. If I am interrupted for a more or less prolonged period of time from a piece of writing I am working on – for example by a paid job coming along – this can distract me to the point where I get completely taken out of the ‘headspace’ of my novel (or screenplay, or short story, or whatever) and find it hard to find a way back in. It seems irrelevant, somehow, alien to me. I can barely remember why I thought it was so important and the characters no longer grip me in the same way.

This can turn out to be a problem for freelancers such as myself, as we often feel (rightly or not) that we cannot afford to turn down opportunities when they come along and we tend to prioritise paid work over our – usually unpaid – writing.

Similarly, if we put a piece of writing to one side to let it lie fallow for a while and come back to it later with fresh eyes (something I am a big believer in, especially for longer pieces such as novels), there is a danger of leaving it rest for too long and losing the momentum we all need to actually get it finished. How many of us have a completed first draft of something lying in a folder somewhere in the remote backwaters of our computer (or in a dusty shoe box in the bottom drawer of the desk in the attic)? Something we are going to finish editing, at some point. One day. Just as soon as we have…. done everything else we have to do. Except that, of course, that day never comes. Which ties into another factor I find causes loss of momentum (and of which I also have substantial personal experience): procrastination.

As for loss of motivation, on the whole in my experience it is caused either by our own infallible friend The Censor sitting on our shoulder and whispering foul things into our ear, or by somebody else doing the same. In short, the hurtful things we tell ourselves or the hurtful things other people tell us. These people can be teachers, critics, editors, friends, relatives or anyone else, and they often believe they are being kind and helpful. Similarly, continued rejection from literary magazines and competitions can discourage even the hardiest and most hopeful among us, leading to a loss of motivation. Personally, I find that reading too much – or indeed any more at all – on how difficult it is to get published also gives me a sense of “Oh what the hell’s the point?”. I get depressed and bam! Blocked again.

So what can we do about all this? For sure, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ remedy – because writing is, above all else, an intensely personal process – but here are some of my own suggestions:

Ø  To protect ourselves and our sacred space. However hard it may be, to draw a magic circle around ourselves in chalk when we sit down to write and to banish all Censors – internal and external – beyond its confines.

Ø  To turn off the phone, internet, door bell and family for the amount of time we have set aside, on any given occasion, for writing. Everything else will just have to wait.

Ø  To buy, beg, borrow or steal (well, okay, not the latter) a copy of Julia Cameron’s seminal text on how to ‘un-block’, The Artist’s Way, and actually follow it (and finish it). If you read no other ‘how-to’ book on writing, make this the one you read. (I also loved Stephen King’s On Writing, but Julia Cameron deals specifically with the problem of writer’s block.)

Ø  To write poetry, a diary, flash fiction, songs, or something completely different from what we are used to. To try automatic writing. Anything that we can just write without censoring ourselves, for even 10 or 15 minutes a day, to get those words flowing again. I find poetry works really well for me; it loosens up some part of my mind that gets stiff when I am blocked.

Ø  To read, read, read. To read the stuff we love – we really love – will make us want to write again.

Ø  To go back and re-read the last piece of writing we were working on before we got blocked. Often it’s not as unsalvageable as we remember.

Ø  To cling at straws – yes! Encouragement, victories (however small) and near-misses. To remember and re-read a piece of writing we felt quite happy with. To copy out on a piece of paper and stick up in clear view of where we work whatever nice things may have been said of our writing. For example: I had a fabulous English tutor at university who had very high standards. She once wrote of me in an end-of-year report, “She writes well.” Oh! I still thrill at it when I think of those words. I don’t think I have ever had such a good compliment from anyone, ever. Now, to somebody else that might seem nuts, but to me it actually means something. So yes, let’s cling at straws. If that’s all there is, goddamnit, let’s cling at straws.

Ø  And finally, to remember that we’re not alone in our blockedness. Hundreds of thousands – probably millions – of other people are feeling the same way as us. Having ‘dry’ periods is something that all creative artists have to deal with, whatever their field. Even the Greats. By uniting and seeking support from other writers, we can help each other get through to the other side. So, join a writing or reading group… or simply pay a visit to Cafe Aphra.

By Sara Roberts

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