Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Neck by Anne Goodwin

Tamsin wakes up on her wedding day to find her neck has grown a few feet overnight in this fantastic story by Anne Goodwin.

With a nod to tradition, Tamsin and Craig elected to spend the night before their wedding apart. He moved out to take his chances on his best man's sofa; she stayed home to luxuriate in a double bed to herself, while her bridesmaid snored in the spare room.

She awoke to find herself cuddling the far edge of the mattress, as if she'd been chasing Craig's memory across the bed in her dreams, and opened her eyes to check the time. Tamsin's alarm clock was a much-loved souvenir of childhood, its face nestling in the belly of a lurid plastic clown. Most mornings it made her laugh. But not today. It was the sight of the clock she had treasured since she was eight years old that made her realise something was wrong. She shouldn't have been able to see it from Craig's side of the bed. She should have been face-to-face with the LCD display of her husband-to-be's clock-radio. But while her body had strayed over to Craig's side of the bed, her head had been left behind with the kitsch alarm on her own side, a whole pillow-length away.

Her first thought was to call out to Craig, who was rather adept at fixing things, until she remembered he'd be sleeping off his hangover at Lawrence's place. She didn't want to face Donna just yet, so she kept quiet - apart from a whimper too soft to penetrate the partition wall - while she tried to assess the situation.

Gingerly, she reached up to touch her collarbone. Reassured by its solidity, she ventured further, cradling her neck with her palm and gradually unbending her arm. It was more or less straight when she ran out of neck and bumped into her chin.

Think positive, she told herself. Your neck might have grown as long as your arm, but at least it's still doing its job of keeping your head attached to your body. It could be worse. Much worse.

It could be better, though, she thought. If her head and her body were going to go their separate ways, they could at least have waited until after the wedding. Until she'd had what her Gran always said would be the happiest day of her life. Her eyes filled with tears. However much she stretched, she couldn't reach to wipe them. She had to wait for the tears to roll down her cheeks and catch them with her tongue.

Something would have to be done. She pushed the duvet up to her chin and screeched at the partition wall: "Donna! Get your arse in here! We've got an emergency!"

Tamsin waited until Donna was in position, standing expectantly in her baggy T-shirt with her hair sticking out from her head at odd angles and yesterday's mascara smudged around her eyes. Then she kicked off the duvet to reveal the giraffe-neck she had grown overnight.

Donna sprang back. "Tamsin, you're a freak!"

One thing I've always admired about Donna, Tamsin thought. She tells it like it is. She found it strangely reassuring. She flapped her arm in the general direction of her bedside table. "Pass me my mobile! I need Craig."

Donna loitered in the doorway, holding back as if afraid elongated necks might be contagious. "It's a trick, isn't it? Like on those magic shows when some bimbo gets sawn in half."

Tamsin was laboriously shuffling her body along towards the side of the bed where her head was. If it was a trick she certainly wasn't in on it. "I want Craig!"

Donna swallowed hard and drew nearer. She knelt beside her friend's bed as if preparing to say her prayers. "Better not. It's bad luck for the bride and groom to see each other before the wedding."

"There's not going to be a wedding. I'll probably be dead by the end of the day."

"Such a drama queen! It's just nerves. You'll be okay in a little while."

"You were the one who called me a freak."

Donna took her hand. "That was just the initial shock. Now I've got used to it, I think you look rather chic."

"But it's not natural, is it?"

"I wouldn't know."

"How many people have you seen walking around with a neck like this? Humans, I mean. It's all very well when I'm lying down but what's going to happen when I try to get up? How do I know my head isn't going to fall off?"

Donna stood up and walked round to Craig's side of the bed. "If we can find out how it got like this, we can put it back. Perhaps your neck's like a spring that's just stretched itself too much. Like one of those old-fashioned toys. A jack in the box or whatever." She climbed onto the bed and put her hands on the top of Tamsin's head, one at each side. "If I can just swivel it into place ..."

"Ouch!" Tamsin's head remained on the pillow, an arm's-length away from her shoulders. "You're making it worse. And I need to pee."

Donna stopped pushing. "Maybe it'll go back itself when it's ready."

Tamsin hoped she was right. But now the pressure on her bladder was the main thing on her mind. "If I stay here any longer I'm going to wet myself."

"It might be risky to move."

"I'll have to. I'm desperate."

"I could bring you the washing-up bowl to pee in. Like in hospitals."

Tamsin wasn't having that. Not on what was supposed to be her wedding day. "You hold my head steady and I'll shuffle along on my knees."

Tamsin had grown tall, freakishly tall. Even on her knees she stood taller than her friend. Donna had to raise her arms to support her head. They edged across the hallway, their caution giving way to laughter as they realised the bizarre arrangement could actually work. Tamsin even had to stop for a moment and cross her legs, which isn't easy from a kneeling position.

In the bathroom, Tamsin crouched on the toilet seat. She wasn't embarrassed to use the loo with her friend alongside her supporting her head; hadn't she had to do as much for Donna many a time after a drunken night out on the town? And it was such a relief not to have to pee in a washing-up bowl in bed.

But there were other indignities to come. She attempted to clean her teeth by holding on to her toothbrush at the very end - which was the only way for the bristles to reach her molars - but it didn't give her enough control to do more than tickle her gums. She'd have to go back to the toddler stage and let Donna take over.

"I can't hold your head and do your teeth," said Donna. "You'll have to lie on the floor."

"No chance!"

"You'll have to. I've only got one pair of hands. And it's bloody tiring keeping my arms up like this."

Furious, Tamsin jerked away. "Tell you what, why don't we swap places? Why don't you have the giraffe neck and I'll stop your head from falling off? See how bloody tiring you find that."

Donna grabbed her head. "Don't do that! Of course I don't mind holding you."

It was only now that Donna had taken hold of her again, that Tamsin realised that her head had been momentarily unsupported. And it hadn't dropped off. Indeed, she hadn't noticed any difference. "Don't you see? My neck can support itself." She pulled away.

Donna held on. "That was just for a split-second. It might not be safe to do it for longer."

Tamsin was determined to recapture that moment of independence. "It's my head. Just let go!"

"If that's what you want." Donna released the pressure but kept her hands at each side of Tamsin's head, ready to catch it if it should wobble.

Tamsin flexed her neck. Her head moved gracefully at the far end. Like a swan. Feeling more adventurous, she toddled around the bathroom on her knees, with Donna close behind like the parent of a child learning to ride a bicycle. "It feels fine. It's just like a normal neck, only longer." She tilted it forward about thirty degrees, and was able to touch her cheek without straining. "I think I can do my own teeth."

Donna's hands hovered around her head as Tamsin scrubbed away at the overnight build-up of plaque. Never had supermarket own-brand toothpaste tasted so refreshing. Such was her joy at so simple an activity, she could have been in an advert.

She spat. A splodge of white landed on the hot tap.

"You just need more target practice," said Donna.

Tamsin turned to give her friend a hug. She had to wrap her arms around Donna's legs rather than her chest, but it meant the same. "I think it's going to be okay."

Donna cuddled Tamsin's neck. "Of course it is, you idiot."

"Now leave me alone. I want to have a shower in private."

Once Donna had gone to make the coffee, Tamsin felt her vulnerability return like an autumn chill. But it was exciting, too, to be alone again. She stepped into the cubicle and turned on the water.

Her head towered above the shower-spray, but there was still plenty of space between it and the ceiling. It wouldn't be easy to wash her hair, but she didn't have to. She had a hairdresser's appointment at ten-thirty.

Now that she knew that her neck could bend without breaking, things didn't feel so bad. If her neck should give way, she could catch her head herself once it reached the appropriate angle. She sang as she soaped her body, one of those old songs her Gran liked about getting married in a smoochy chapel. She refused to think about her own wedding, however. She refused to think beyond her hair appointment at ten-thirty.

She dried herself briskly, marvelling at how quickly she seemed to have adapted to her new shape, although she still felt safer on her knees. She pulled on the cotton robe she kept on the hook on the bathroom door and shuffled along to the kitchen.

Donna sat at the breakfast-bar, turning the pages of the local free newspaper. "Okay?"

"Will be when I've had some coffee."

"Sit down." Donna indicated the sunshine-yellow bean-bag that she must have dragged from the spare room to the kitchen. She poured coffee from the cafetiere into two hand-painted mugs.

It felt good to get the pressure off her knees. Squatting on the old bean-bag, Tamsin now found herself looking up to Donna on the high stool. She wondered if they'd ever be on the same level again.

"Listen," said Donna. "I've called Lawrence and we've agreed ..."

"What? I'm the one who should tell Craig."

"No one's told Craig anything. Can't the bridesmaid and the best man have a confab to decide what to do?"

"So what did you two great minds decide?"

"We should carry on getting ready. Then, if your neck shrinks back into place we'll be all set for the wedding. If it doesn't, we'll cancel."

Tamsin bent to sip her coffee. She waited for the caffeine to do its thing and put her mind straight. It didn't. Instead she missed her mouth and the coffee dribbled down her chin.

"You'd find it easier with a straw," said Donna.

"I think there's some in the cutlery drawer."

Donna riffled through the drawer and plonked a bendy party-straw in Tamsin's mug. Tamsin sipped. She was lucky to have a friend like Donna, someone who would attend to her needs even before she recognised them herself. But was she right about the wedding? Surely it would be better to cancel now rather than wait till the last minute? "What about all those people? Some of Craig's family are coming from Scotland."

"Then they'll already have set off, won't they? Think about it, Tamsin. People are going to be disappointed anyway, whether we cancel now or at half-past three. But the longer we leave it the more chance there is we won't have to. I'm pretty sure your neck will go back to normal before long."

"I'd better warn Craig, though."

"No! You don't want to bring any more bad luck on yourself. Just leave it to Lawrence, okay?"

Tamsin shrugged. She wondered if it looked daft with her shoulders so far away from her head. She didn't care. "You'd better go and have your shower. My dad'll be here soon to take us to the hairdresser's."



Alone again, Tamsin pondered the sensation of drinking hot liquid through a straw. How different it felt from drinking orange juice or Coke or Bacardi Breezers. She thought about this because she didn't want to think about the fact that today might not be her wedding day.

When the entryphone buzzed, she jumped. She shifted her weight onto her knees and lumbered out into the hallway to pick up.

"You took your time." Her mother's voice. Anxious. Resentful. Just what Tamsin needed that morning. Not. "You haven't just got up, have you?"

"We've been up ages, actually."

"Aren't you going to let us in?"

Tamsin wished Donna would hurry up in the shower. "I need to tell you something first."

"What is it?"

"We might have to cancel."

Her mother gasped. "I said it was irresponsible to have his stag night right before the wedding."

"It's not Craig. It's me."

"If you've changed your mind ..."

"Of course I haven't."

A grumble of static and then her dad's voice. "Listen, love, whatever's happened we're on your side. Just let us come up and discuss it face-to-face."

You'll be lucky, thought Tamsin as she pressed the button on the entryphone. She opened the front door to the flat and waited, listening to the footfalls of her parents ascending the stairs. She watched as their expressions flipped from mild irritation to horror. Then confusion, as if their brains refused to register what their eyes could plainly see. She knelt in her cotton bathrobe with her hand on the doorknob, watching them watching her. Watching them trying to decipher how this strange creature could possibly be related to them. As, in her turn, she had many a time wondered how this pair of ancient hippies with their floppy hair and floppy clothes could have any connection to her.

"What on earth ..." said her mother, dropping her canvas shoulder-bag onto the carpet and kneeling down to hug her.

Her dad quietly closed the flat door. He scratched his beard. "What have you taken?"

"Nothing. Unless you mean two glasses of wine and a pepperoni pizza."

"Put some clothes on," he said. "We're going to A&E."

"I'm fine, honestly. It just looks strange."

"Nevertheless, we'd better get you checked out."

"Donna said it would go back of its own accord when it's ready."

Her mother unwrapped herself from the embrace and stood up to meet her daughter eye to eye. "Donna? What did she give you?"

"I told you. I haven't taken anything. I don't do drugs these days."

"Where is Donna, anyway?" said her father.

"She's in the shower."

Her dad shook his head. "How could she leave you on your own in this state? Anything could happen."

"Well we're here now." Her mother bent down to take her hand. "Let's get you dressed and Dad can drive us to A&E."

Tamsin pulled her hand away. "There isn't time. We're supposed to be at the hairdresser's in half an hour."

"Love," said her mother, "you don't think we can still have the wedding? You're in no fit state."

"Not right now. But at half-past three I might be. Donna and Lawrence thought we should keep on with the preparations, in case my neck goes back to normal."

"Donna and Lawrence don't always know what's best, darling," said her mother.

"Better be on the safe side, eh?" said her dad.

Tamsin had had enough. They were treating her like a little kid. "What do you care if I miss my wedding? You never wanted me to get married anyway. You'll both be glad if I'm stuck at the hospital all day." She burst into tears.

Her dad blinked hard. "Tamsin, precious, I know you were looking forward to it. But surely your health's more important than a wedding?"

Tamsin took some consolation from the fact that now she'd figured out how to flex her neck she could manage to wipe away her tears. But not much. "You'll just be relieved at not having to stand up and make a speech." She turned away and glowered at her mother. Looked her up and down from the mop of grey hair that had never been properly styled, through her shapeless but comfy kaftan to her chiropody-friendly sandals. "And you, you'll be glad to get out of wearing that mother-of-the-bride outfit you've been moaning about."

Her mother winced and turned to her dad. "Howard, have you any idea what this is about?"

"It's the stress talking," said her dad. "Take no notice."

Tamsin felt the rage burning in her chest. She felt it shoot right the way up her long neck to her mouth. "How dare you! I'm going to have my dream wedding whether you like it or not. I'm going to have a wedding like Gran had."

"Shhh, precious, course you are. As soon as the doctor gives you the all clear."

"Like Gran?" said her mother. "Who does she mean?"

"Gran! Your mother."

"You're modelling your wedding day on my mother's?"

"Why not? With you two so anti-marriage you didn't even get hitched in a registry office, what else did I have to go by? You've seen those black-and-white photos. I want a perfect day like she had."

Her dad reached out to take her mother's hand. Tamsin refused to notice.

"Perfect day?" said her mother. "She told you it was a perfect day? She was fourteen weeks pregnant. Your grandad had to be frogmarched to the altar. And he never forgave her, nor she him. Forty years of arguments. Until he died. Don't tell me that's what you're looking for from marriage, Tamsin."

"You're making it up. Trying to put me off again."

"I know that my birthday falls just over four months after her wedding anniversary."

"But she was always telling me what a wonderful day it was. Why would she lie to me?"

Her mother stroked her cheek. "You know what an old romantic your Gran is. She blots out anything that doesn't fit with her fairytale fantasies."

There are lots of ways of blotting out the truth, Tamsin thought. She noticed now how heavy her head felt, how tired her neck muscles were with the effort of supporting it. It wasn't going to get back to normal for half-past three. Perhaps it never would.

"Hey, what are you all doing skulking in the hallway?" Donna, pink from the shower, her voice way too bright, like a full-beam head-lamp on a busy road. "Would you like a coffee before we set off for the hairdresser's?"

"There's no point in going to the hairdresser's." Tamsin's voice was like a solitary birthday-cake candle too feeble to stay alight. "There's not going to be a wedding."

"Let's see what they say at A&E, shall we?" said her dad.

"Whatever."

"Let's have coffee first," said her mother.

Her dad stroked his beard. "But the sooner we get there ..."

"I'd really appreciate a cup of coffee, Donna," said Tamsin's mother.

They squeezed into the kitchen. Tamsin flopped onto her beanbag and rested her head against the wall. Her parents perched on the high stools at the breakfast bar while Donna filled the kettle. "Don't you think she looks kind of elegant? Like one of those Cluedo pieces."

"Or those tribal women with rings round their necks," said Tamsin's dad.

Tamsin's mother scowled at him. She turned to her daughter. "Why did you want to get married?"

Tamsin stared down at her engagement ring. At this distance the diamond appeared small and insignificant.

Donna spooned coffee into the cafetiere. "What a question! She's in love, of course."

"Maybe," said Tamsin's mother, "but why are you young women so obsessed with marriage? My generation considered it bourgeois. Patriarchal. We felt it our duty to rebel. Whereas you lot are prepared to bankrupt yourselves for the perfect white wedding. It baffles me."

Donna laid out the mugs on the breakfast bar. "Maybe we're just shallow. All we want is an excuse for a party."

"No one liked to party as much as we did."

"I suppose you'd say we've been ruined by celebrity culture," said Donna. "All fighting for our fifteen minutes of fame."

Tamsin's mother poured the coffee. "You could still have that, Tamsin, if that's what you want. What the hell, let's have the bloody wedding. You can go to A&E when it's over."

"That's what I said," said Donna. "Her neck will probably be back to normal by half-past three."

"It's not going to go back to normal, is it?" said Tamsin. "I'm going to be a freak for the rest of my life."

"Let's just get it checked out," said her dad.

"You've been planning this wedding for months," said her mother. "Why give it up just because your neck's got longer?"

"It's going to look great on the photos," said Tamsin.

"Talk some sense into her, Howard," said her mother.

Her dad stirred his coffee. "Remember when you were a little girl and you lost your two front teeth just before your birthday party? Remember what I told you then?"

"I'm grown up now. I don't believe in the tooth fairy."

"Remember what I said?"

Tamsin sighed. "That it's not what's on the outside that counts, it's what's on the inside. And that whatever I looked like to others, to you I'd always be one of the two most beautiful people in the world. But you're my dad, you've got to say that. What's Craig going to think when he sees me?"

"If he loves you, he'll think exactly the same as me and your mother."

"It's a lot to ask," said Tamsin. "If I could meet up with him first ..."

"It's bad luck," said Donna.

"If he loves you," said her dad.

"And you love him," said her mother.

"Oh, Tamsin, let's go for it," said Donna. "It'll be so romantic. You'll walk down the aisle in that gorgeous white dress. Craig will turn round and, okay, he's going to be shocked, but Lawrence can drop him a hint that you've changed. He'll look up into your eyes and you'll know, the way he looks at you at that point, you'll know for certain he's going to love you for the rest of your life."

"What do you think, darling? It's almost worth the fuss of a wedding to find that out."

"Okay," said Tamsin. "On one condition."

"What?"

"You're going to have to help me practise walking. I'm not going down the aisle in a five-hundred-pound dress on my knees."



They were late for their hair appointments. Donna went ahead to explain, while her dad helped Tamsin out of the car.

The salon staff took the cushions from the sofas in the waiting area and piled them up on the floor so that her head was at the right height for the hairdresser to work on. Through the mirror, Tamsin could see the other customers ogling her, but with Donna on one side and her mother - having unexpectedly volunteered for her first professional haircut in years - on the other to intercept any hurtful remarks, she was able to brazen it out. Isn't it exciting, said Donna each time someone new came into the salon. She's getting married this afternoon. When Tamsin got up from the cushions with her tiara in place they gave her a round of applause.

By the time Donna had done her makeup and she'd mastered walking in her satin shoes - remembering to duck to go through doorways - Tamsin was looking forward to the ceremony. Her neck was still as long as it had been when she had woken up that morning with her head and body on opposite sides of the bed, but when her bridesmaid zipped up her dress at the back she knew she was beautiful.

The guests were seated in rows in the ballroom when their taxi pulled up at the hotel. Tamsin held her dad's arm and Donna stood behind holding the train of her magnificent dress, while the photographer experimented with different angles to fit them all in the frame. She looked down at her dad in his hired suit and beamed.

The registrar and her assistant stood at the front of the hall. Facing them, with their backs to the guests, Craig and Lawrence waited. They must have heard the gasp as the bride stepped into the room, but whether this was at the radiance of her smile, or the splendour of her dress, or the length of the neck between them, they were in no position to judge.

Towering above the gawping guests, Tamsin didn't flinch at the flashes of horror and disgust that their faces couldn't help but betray. It was natural that people should recoil initially at her extraordinary appearance. She smiled in encouragement as they settled their expressions into something more befitting the solemnity of the occasion.

The wedding march was approaching the climax that would take her to Craig. Like everyone else, he'd be disturbed by her transformation, but Tamsin prayed he'd recognise the woman he loved underneath.

Two opposing memories played in her mind: Craig's joy when she surprised him at his office at the end of a frustrating day; his rage when she drove his car into a gatepost. Love and hate; both were within Craig's repertoire. Mostly, he had shown her love, but now? And for the rest of their lives?

Lawrence edged towards the vacant seat alongside Craig's mother on the front row. Tamsin's dad slipped his arm from hers and motioned her forward, making for his seat next to her mother.

The registrar smiled. Tamsin stood at the front beside her husband-to-be. The music stopped. She felt Craig's hand reach for hers.

Holding her breath, Tamsin looked down at Craig. She saw him raise his eyes, tip back his head and step away until he could take in her full height. She watched his face crumple in revulsion. His feet in their shiny brogues took another step away.

She allowed herself to exhale. So now she knew: the man who was supposed to give her the perfect marriage cared more for looks than personality. Better to find out when there was still the chance to say I don't than two pregnancies later when some pert eighteen-year-old grabbed him by the midlife crisis.

The groom turned towards the best man. The registrar lowered her book of promises. Donna's hand touched her shoulder.

She thrust her bouquet into her bridesmaid's hands, and stepped towards Craig. She chucked his chin, yanked it upwards, forcing him to look. When their eyes met, she kept on pushing, tilting back his neck as far as it would go. And still she kept pushing at his chin, pressing her fist hard against his lower jaw. Pushing with all her strength until, little by little, his neck began to grow.

6 comments:

  1. Just wanted to acknowledge that my story was first published in a Bridge House anthology In the Shadow of the Red Queen. Thanks for giving it another go on the web, Charlie.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Now that was different! Nicely done, Anne.

    ReplyDelete
  3. something completely different and really well written
    well done

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete
  4. Nice twist to the wedding. I really wondered how the story would evolve. Whether it would have a happy ending or not, whether her neck would return to its normal state... but the ending really got me (in a good way).

    Thanks for the refreshing read.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. You might be interested in my new blog post on embodying characters inspired by the writing of this story.
    http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/1/post/2013/09/writerly-kinesthesia.html

    ReplyDelete
  6. Liked this story a lot. Sort of Kafkaesque in its theme. Crisp writing and memorable ending.

    ReplyDelete