Barbara Smith

 

Celebrity Critique by Wendy SoLiman

The short story competition in Writing Magazine had bravery as its theme, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross.  The winning story came from Barbara Smith and here is what Wendy Soliman had to say about Barbara's story:

 'Few of us, I suspect, have had reason to dwell upon the debilitating effects agoraphobia has on the quality of life its sufferers must endure.

'Barbara Smith's heart-warming story on the subject, handled with compassion and sensitivity, gives us an insight into the struggles that its subject, Lizzie, must grapple with on a daily basis.  The author uses her impressive descriptive powers to bring alive the terrors which Lizzie must struggle to overcome. I found that I was living Lizzie's fears with her, willing her to take that first step, a step that seemed "more like a mile" beyond the realms of the safe and familiar.

'Barbara likens Lizzie donning her outdoor fleece to becoming ensconced in "a straightjacket of apprehension", and finding the courage to traverse the front garden path as akin to "climbing half-way up Everest".

'That she feared for the welfare of her aged cat more than she feared the illness itself was an original manner in which to galvanise Lizzie into taking that all-important first step and I, for one, am pulling for her to get "as far as the bus stop" tomorrow.'

Wendy Soliman’s novels have been romantic mysteries set in what she calls: ‘that most fascinating of historical periods, the English Regency.’

 

The Crocodile Under the Bed.

by Barbara O. Smith

Lizzie promised herself that today was going to be different.  Today was going to be her new beginning.  She put the kettle on and while waiting for it to boil she hung the calendar for 2006 on the back of the kitchen door.  Above the lines of black and white dates and days, it portrayed a winter garden in all its crisp white beauty.  She thought the snow looked like a freshly laundered tablecloth, which was more than could be said of the roads and pavements outside.  She could see from an upstairs window that they were banked by grey slush left by passing cars and pedestrians.

She put the usual three spoonfuls of muesli into a bowl, sliced a banana on the top and covered it with milk.  Her daily routine.  She opened a tin of cat food and emptied it into a shallow dish.  George brushed against her ankles with feline cupboard-love affection as she put it on the floor for him.

She switched on the radio in time for the news and listened to the announcer giving details of last night’s festive goings-on in Trafalgar Square.  She’d seen the New Year in on television, far away from the crowds and hubbub, but today...what of today?  Lizzie frowned.  The one thing that could really make the New Year special for her was to escape from this prison.  Admittedly it was warm and secure, and it contained everything she needed except the company of those people going about their business beyond her garden gate.  They talked and laughed and got on with life.  They didn’t lock themselves away and stagnate.

When the breakfast things were washed and put away, Lizzie stood by the French windows and looked out into the garden.  It was a masterpiece even in the middle of winter, and had been her source of therapy for five long years.  She dug, planted, weeded and watered.  She mowed the grass, pruned the roses, trained them to twine round the trellis and talked to them like friends.  But now she hankered for a new beginning beyond the confines of her own patch.  She longed for the ordinariness that other people enjoyed.  She wanted to experience the joy of walking down the path, throwing open the gate and calling out ‘Happy New Year’ to everyone she met.  A mundane wish that would make most people scoff.  A win on the lottery would be more welcome for them.  But not for Lizzie.

She went into the hall and took down the expensive fleece jacket her son had given her for Christmas.  She held it against her cheek and felt its softness, its warmth.  When he gave it to her, Paul had said: ‘It’s too good just for wearing in the garden, Mum,’ and she knew exactly what he was getting at.  He was giving her a gentle prod.  She shrugged herself into it, but its warmth did nothing to stem the chill in the pit of her stomach.  It became a straitjacket of apprehension.  A jacket of this quality was, in itself, a prediction.  To wear it meant that she had to steel herself to venture outside.  Properly outside, not just into the garden to sweep up a few leaves or to see if the slugs were snacking on the sprouts in the vegetable patch.

To gain time, she made a pretence of losing her gloves; her shoes were upstairs but the fur-lined boots standing like sentries at the side of the old-fashioned umbrella stand, struck a new sense of guilt into her marrow.  Unworn for so long, they must surely be out of fashion. Lizzie fingered them, remembering the last time she’d worn them.  It had been in the park on bonfire night five years ago when she had been jostled and elbowed by the excited crowd as she had gasped for breath, and panic built like a live thing inside her chest.  The only fireworks she had seen since then had been from her bedroom window as she gazed across at her neighbour’s garden or on the screen of her television.  She glanced at herself in the hall mirror.  Her face was white, strained.  She tried to smile reassurance at the woman staring back at her.  ‘Just go as far as the bus stop, then you’re away,’ she told her.  She frowned.  Was there any sense in putting herself through this ordeal? Couldn’t she put it off until the spring?

A few weeks ago she had watched a hedgehog scuttle away in the beam of light from her torch.  He’d buried himself in the mountain of leaves stacked against the garden wall ready for the compost heap.  Why shouldn’t she hibernate? Did it matter if it was for years rather than months, like the hedgehog?  Frustration brought a deep sigh.  Go and make yourself a cup of coffee, she told herself; start the crossword, be normal.  But normal didn’t come into it.

Still stalling for time, Lizzie pulled the kitchen curtain aside and looked out.  There you are, everything’s the same as usual, nothing’s changed.

All the more reason for you to change, her conscience challenged.

But why?  She answered.  Where is the point?

Because nothing stands still, time least of all, so get on with it, and stop being a cowardly wimp.  There’s nothing brave about it – a child could do it.

But that’s not fair, I’m grown up, she argued, children are not mature enough to be attacked by unreasonable fears like mine.

Come off it, kids are afraid of the dark, afraid of the crocodile hiding under the bed.

She let the curtain drop and looked round for some other diversion that would allow her to opt out, to stay cloistered, isolated in this prison of her own choosing.  But the voice inside her shouted: you did not choose this quarantine.

Bolstering her nerves, Lizzie left the safe embrace of her house like an animal venturing from its lair, leaving the front door wide open behind her, an emergency bolt-hole in case the usual panic overtook her and sent her scuttling back.

The path towards the gate appeared a mile long. Lizzie paused in her slow progress, still making excuses, pulling out tufts of grass and weeds that had the temerity to sneak between the flagstones, scuffing at a pincushion of moss with the toe of her boot. Her throat was dry, and she swallowed time and time again to relieve the brittle dry-leaf feeling. Her hands were wet as if she had worn rubber gloves for too long, and her ankles ached; she had already climbed halfway up Everest. As she reached the gate, her breath showed in little white puffs, issuing faster and faster as her heart hammered against her rib-cage. She clung to the ice­coated metal, listening to the protesting hinges as she turned the handle, breathing deeply, remembering what they had told her at the clinic, bracing her shoulders, concentrating on keeping upright, trying to control the tremor in her hands. Suddenly she was in the middle of a safari park with wild animals all around her, hemming her in, stalking, coming in for the kill. Her nerves, her black fear, her phobia, clutched at her, closed in on her.

Defeated, she blindly half-turned, stumbling in her dash for safety.

A plaintive miaow pricked her bubble of terror and she turned back to see George sitting in the middle of the road. George was old and nearly blind. George was deaf and in danger, as a car came speeding down the road towards him. The garden gate flew open, Lizzie leapt out and grabbed the cat as the car sped by. She sat, crumpled in the used snow on the edge of the pavement and held him close to her chest. He purred as she buried her face in his thick fur, rocking him back and forth as if he were a child until, with the haughty arrogance of his species, he jumped from her arms and trotted up the path and into the warmth of the house, leaving his saviour marooned.

Bereft of her anchor, Lizzie looked up and down the road, frantic that someone would spy her sitting in the slush. The road was deserted. She stood up and brushed the compacted grey snow from the seat of her jeans. Her heart sang. I’m out! I’ve done it! She walked slowly to the end of the road. Each step was a mile. Each step took an eternity as the old band of dread began to tighten round her head. Her hands clenched and unclenched round nothing except her fear. When she reached the corner, she turned, prepared to make a dash for the sanctuary of home, but George appeared at her side, ready to escort her with the measured dignity bestowed on him by some proud ancestor owned, perhaps, by an Egyptian princess.

Psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, tranquillisers, worry beads and the rest of the caboodle went into Lizzie’s mental dustbin as she closed the front door behind her, leaving her fear to dissipate with the grey slush. She sat on the bottom step of the stairs and eased a boot off, then the other. She didn’t care if they were no longer in fashion. It didn’t matter. She had seen off her crocodile. Today she had made a giant step, not for mankind, but just for Lizzie Brown. Today to the end of the road tomorrow, who knows... to the end of the world? At least, she promised herself, with a small smile of triumph, I’ll get as far as the bus stop.

 

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