My name’s Rachel and I’m an award-winning writer with five years’ experience in theatre.
My writing projects also include memoir writing, musical theatre, short fiction (for print and radio), fiction, editorial, and features.
When writing creatively, I write about what I see around me – the things which unite us all and the things which make a moment different from the next. The joy of writing, for me, is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, and stories which celebrate the everyday echoes of our limitations, successes, fears and ambitions. So much of a story goes unsaid, unnoticed, unseen or unheard. The challenge I like to give myself is to reveal the story buried in the moments which by-pass us all, every single day. I try and write as if it hasn’t been written, but instead overheard.
When I take my creative hat off, I also work professionally in digital content creation, copywriting, proof reading and content management. Essentially, I like words.
Author Website: www.racheljarmy.com
Helen Is Sitting Beside Me By Rachel Jarmy
Helen is sitting beside me. She’s eating a bacon sandwich. I can smell how salty it is. Almost like being beside the sea only with more cholesterol and less serenity. The salt is mixed with the smell of her hair. I can feel the air moving around my cheeks as she flings it over her left shoulder. If I’m lucky, it’ll flick me in the eye. It’s thick, yet soft and smells of Helen. I’ve never smelt that smell anywhere else before. She’s wearing the soft jumper today. I felt it as she hugged me this morning. It’s not the woollen one with the buttons on the cuff, or the stiff cotton mix one with the v-neck, or the fluffy acrylic one that gives me a static shock. It’s cashmere. She’s wearing her leather boots too. If she’d been wearing her high heels I’d have heard her clicking as she walked into the cafe before she said hello. She has three pairs of shoes; her high heels, her trainers and her boots. But the trainers squeak on the floor, especially on floor like this. It’s lino and slippery. This is how I know she’s wearing her boots.
Helen is sitting beside me. I love her, even though I have never seen her. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone. Because I can’t see at all.
I had never wanted to see before the day I heard Helen’s voice. I didn’t mind being different. After all, we are all different from one another in some way. There seemed to me many more things I should concern myself with beyond not being able to see. Becoming a good person is far more important when your appearance is not only superficial but impossible to judge. Whether or not my hair looked like the boys in Take That was a somewhat redundant question for a teenager who could only assess such a band by their music. Right and wrong become vital in the race away from becoming the bitter blind man. And so you meander through, hoping these ideas are intrinsic and not dependent on such a fragile bodily function.
But the importance of having functioning retinas seemed more monumental than I could ever have imagined the first time she kissed me on the left cheek and said hello at my sister’s 21st birthday party. Hello. That was it. In a deliciously generic accent, as if she’d lived in Guildford all her life. Nothing sympathetic or important even. People say hello to me all the time. With the inability to be able to smile and nod, comes the abundance of words. But her hello sounded completely different. And people rarely kiss me. I think people assume it’s an unpleasant experience if you can’t see the person kissing you, as if the act is only judged pleasant by the attractiveness of the person so kind as to give their kisses. Hers was the first kiss I’d ever felt. I could feel her lips, rather than just her cheek. They were soft yet dry, and she smelt sweet, like lilacs. But all these feelings aside, I wanted to see her. And for the first time, began to imagine what sight must feel like. What sight looked like. And what she looked like.
She was the only one of my sister’s friends I ever met again. As far as I know. Perhaps they may have walked silently past in the street on a sunny afternoon. It’s always a possibility. But I heard Helen’s voice on dreary and sunny afternoons alike. She’d take out her phone in the park and we’d listen to obscure audio plays she’d managed to get hold of. Sometimes new writers that she’d studied at Drama school, but I’d never heard of. And sometimes scenes I did recognise, like Oscar Wilde. She’d sometimes bring music. Or she would just bring herself, and I’d be happier than ever. The actress beside me would re-enact whole scenes from films or plays and perfect every voice. I could tell instantly when Algy Moncrieff left and Lady Bracknell entered. She must have looked ridiculous, sitting on a bench next to a blind man, who was probably facing the wrong direction, exclaiming ‘A Handbag?’ at the peak of her vocal range. But every piercing word gave me a clearer view of her. That description of beauty flooded me; how I’d heard every princess in every fairytale described; the fairest of blonde hair, flowing to her waist, with eyes as blue as the sky itself. Wearing white, this beauty was pure and untouchable. Of course, all of this was more words to try to imagine for me. And yet I knew this was what she looked like. It was there on the bench, with the wind punching my ears, that I realised I loved the girl sitting next to me who I’d never seen. And never would. The only word I ever hated hearing next to my ear on the bench, or in the cafe, or in the shopping centre, was goodbye.
She got her first professional role three months after I met her. She was in a Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I’d never been to a production or listened to it. And it was one she hadn’t chosen to read to me either. But from her retelling of the rehearsal period, it sounded like one of those moments in life that would lead from a fantastic opportunity to ultimately, her dream career. I hoped it would and yet dreaded the day I might hear her say goodbye for good. That thought got pushed aside every time she talked about it, which unfortunately, wasn’t as often as I’d initially thought it might be.
By the time the show opened, I was curious about her part in the play, but following advice from my father, decided not to press her for information. He claimed there must be a reason for her secrecy and whatever it was I probably didn’t want to know. His limited knowledge of the female sex applied only to my mother, and yet his opinion was self-judged to be gospel. This was the case for virtually all things. The less he knew, the more he felt it necessary to impart his thoughts. Watching the news had become an impossible task, unless we were willing to hear him shout ignorantly whenever the subject of wages or immigration were raised. But the fear of Helen’s secrecy drove me to listen to him. For the first time.
I took her out for late dinner after the opening night. I took her out, in the sense that I paid with my office-boy wages, despite the fact that she led me to the table and pulled out the seat for me, rather than the other way around. I had bought her roses, which I had sent to the stage door, and which I could now smell as she thanked me for them. I became silent at dinner as I wondered why the aesthetic of roses was so synonymous with love. Did they look like how love felt? And if they did, they must truly be the most beautiful things on earth. Aside from Helen. I returned to the table just as she was retelling a funny anecdote about a cast member corpsing onstage that night. And for some unknown and unpleasant reason, a thought that had started to be increasingly present decided to reappear. Why was Helen sitting opposite me?
I spent the evening berating myself and allowing self-pity to seep in like a viscous fluid hitting water. A woman such as Helen, with the endless potential she had before her in all aspects of life, deserved to be with someone of a similar….type. For want of a better word. My potential is exceeded every time I leave the house and make it to work by myself. How could she believe me when I told her she was beautiful? Didn’t she feel like a carer who was paid in compliments and flowers rather than measly wages? And why….why on earth would anyone chose an existence parallel to mine? It must seem so bleak to others, despite being acceptable to me. The idea of ever asking her to be mine in any real or meaningful capacity seemed absurd now. But I had to hear her voice. I had to smell her still. The initial flattery had faded but I still needed to be near her. And so, one dreary Sunday afternoon, I met her in the park again.
She hadn’t brought any music or any audio plays. Just herself. I tried to sound like me, whilst I imagined the pity she must be feeling. I thought of all the reasons that could explain why Helen was sitting beside me, as she told me what the clouds looked like and how she thought it was going to rain. She took a breath so deep it seemed to drown her before she told me that the show was getting good reviews and that the critics were hailing the all black cast. She said she was glad casting agents were showing an interest and that she hadn’t been typecast as so many young black women are.
And it was after those two sentences that I could hear nothing but silence. It wasn’t windy that day, and I wished my ears were being abused by the weather again, as all I was aware of was my inability to speak. A sense I rely on. And yet it was failing me too.
Speech also seemed to be a struggle for her. Until the sentence I was dreading passed her soft lips. She asked me if I’d realised she was black. I didn’t answer her. I was faced with being untruthful or revealing that I was a lesser version of what I’d always imagined myself to be. I hadn’t ever questioned the assumptions I’d made of her. Her voice. Her accent. Her interests. She knew about British playwrights, and could quote their work verbatim. She liked cream tea. But now, somehow, it no longer made sense. I could hear now how preposterous these silent assumptions had been, and yet judging myself for them was a fruitless exercise. My silence alerted her to the fact that I hadn’t realised. And it made her believe it was a problem for the blind man sitting next to her. And so, I didn’t hear her. I didn’t smell her again. For three years.
My father was the first of my family to speak on the subject. I heard my mother sigh and leave the dinner table before he cleared his throat in preparation for his keynote speech. The smell of our meal clung to the air and yet I knew it was about to become mustier still. I was told she was a liar and a deceptive young woman. He said he could see this coming. He acknowledged this unfortunate problem of hers wasn’t her fault. Entirely, he later added. But that I was completely justified in wanting to end all communication with her as a result. I didn’t reveal that it was the other way around. But I did begin to ponder whether blindness was hereditary.
Listening to anything became laborious and numbing after she told me. Everything seemed to be about appearance. About colour. About a colour’s meaning. It was the anniversary of the formation of the Black Panther movement in the sixties. My friend’s brother saw a Black Widow spider whilst on holiday somewhere exotic. I don’t remember where. My stomach lurched with guilt after I heard the word ‘black’. My cousin got married. I was told she wore white. And looked beautiful. Of course. It snowed many times during that three years too. The world was always described as a purer place on those icy days. White covered all the world’s black. But not mine.
And so, an issue that had always seemed obsolete to me was suddenly all I could consider. How could I be discriminatory against someone based on the colour of their skin when the visual of colour, or even skin, was something I’d never begin to see? I’d avoided becoming the bitter blind man with expert precision and yet had reached a destination I didn’t even know I could travel to. The racist blind man seemed to be a paradox I wasn’t eager to prove valid. And yet with every second I sat in silence that day, I had done just that. The princess that I had never seen was swallowed up. She knew I didn’t know. And worst still, she didn’t want me to find out. I cursed my father’s cowardly silence that had screamed from my mouth, and the hypocrisy which reduced my sight even more.
When my mother suggested a walk one sunny afternoon, the thought made me instantly weary. The tediousness of her holding my arm painfully tight for hours was something I tried to avoid, despite knowing her intentions were good. But it was when her grip loosened that I began to be concerned. She had stopped walking altogether and forced me to jolt in my stride. I asked what was wrong. She told me nothing was wrong. My mother had always been an appalling liar. When I heard clicking footsteps approaching, my mouth instantly dried. I could smell something sweet, like lilacs, in the air that was moving around my cheeks. And I knew who had just walked past me in the street. Her silence was even louder than mine had been. The air pressed against my head with unbearable force. The wind boxed my ears and swept away the smell too quickly. Her smell. My mother’s arm had tightened once more as the shadow of sightless senses had passed me by. My mother’s nails tore at my skin. But I showed no signs of pain, and started to walk once again, with no idea which direction I was travelling in.
Helen isn’t sitting beside me. She hasn’t finished her bacon sandwich, and the air doesn’t smell of her. She didn’t hug me. I have no idea what jumper she’s wearing, because the person sitting next to me isn’t Helen. I don’t even know her. And evidently, I never did.
By Rachel Jarmy
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us Rachel. Please come back soon to the blog. If you have any comments for Rachel please leave them below. Thanks for reading. Happy day to you.
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