Joan Taylor-Rowan (University of Chichester, UK)
In 1947, an unidentified object crashed on Foster Ranch in Roswell, New Mexico, leaving mysterious debris and “alien” casualties strewn across the desert. The Other Side of the Moon, a novel in progress by Joan Taylor-Rowan, tells the story of one of those “aliens”—Ellie—and her journey from a home for defective children in rural England, to Roswell, New Mexico.
In this extract, Ellie is adjusting to life as an “evacuee”. At the outbreak of WW2, many children in the U.K., including those in children’s homes, were evacuated from cities to rural locations. Ellie has been moved from the cosy Sisters of Mercy Children’s Home in the city of Portsmouth to a home for “defectives” in the English countryside, which is privately owned by the Forrester family. At this point in the story, it is managed by the elder daughter, a pious disciplinarian who calls herself Sister Margaret, but is not part of any religious order.
Ellie forms a close bond with another evacuee, Lottie, which helps them survive the home’s petty everyday cruelties.
Lottie’s withered leg is visible under a pinafore that’s far too short. Long, lean, limpy, Lottie. She’s been too slow to get to the cupboard and find one that fits, Ellie thinks. She’ll have to be more pushy. That’s one good thing about being tiny—Ellie gets more choice in the clothes box. Lottie has lots of things to learn about life at Forrester’s Home for Defectives. Ellie will have to help her. They smile at each other and exchange the secret five-finger-curl they’ve worked out which means, I’m okay.
Ellie’s sure she isn’t defective. She reads to the others when the teacher doesn’t come. She’s only seven, but she can write joined up and she doesn’t drool or limp. The Sisters of Mercy thought she was a real clever-clogs. She can speak and hear and see and walk: yet here she is, an evacuee and defective and living in the country. The middle of bloody nowhere, Lottie says. Ellie misses the whizzing of cars along Fawcett Road, the trips to Southsea Beach with the nuns and the bustle of the bakers and the grocers.
She rubs her hand across her head as she waits to file into the dining room. She has no hair. Does that make her defective? No eyebrows or eyelashes either. Like a rat, Miss Berne said when Ellie first arrived. A face that only a mother could love. Except maybe her mother didn’t love it, Ellie thinks, and then brushes those words away.
Everything about her is small. Her teeth hurt from trying to grow in her tiny mouth. Her voice is a squeak squeezed out through a crack in her throat. Well bless me! You’re bald as a coot. Just like a little old lady, you are, Miss Berne said on that first day. Must be a name for that disease but only God knows what it is. The doctors certainly don’t.
Now there is Lottie—another Portsmouth evacuee. She lived with her nan in The Silver Dolphin ‘til it got bombed. But her nan’s alright, she says. Her nan will come and get her. The other kids aren’t smart like Lottie and Ellie, but even they’re not convinced.
Ellie stares at the clock in the hall. The big hand is catching up with the small one. When they meet at 12.00 it’ll be lunchtime. The clock’s ticking is the only sound. Silence in the dining hall, in the bathroom and in the corridors. They are learning self-control, Sister Margaret says.
The door from the kitchen opens briefly and the smell hits Ellie’s nose. Her stomach shrinks. It’s meat day. The others babble excitedly until Miss Berne slaps the door with her hand. Ellie can’t chew meat. She looks like a rat and eats like a bird. Peck, peck, peck, Miss Berne says. The Sisters of Mercy never made her eat meat. But here she must eat everything on her plate, or be punished. Luckily they don’t get much meat because of rationing. She has to eat it once or twice a fortnight and it’s always tough. Sometimes a kind helper will slip her a plate without it, but the uncertainty squirms in her belly. Ellie presses her hand to her cheek. Her teeth throb under the pressure of her fingers.
They find their places and stand to attention until Miss Berne gives the signal to sit. Lunch helpers pass the plates along the tables. Ellie looks down at hers. A lump of meat, grey as a slug, floats in the watery soup like something drowned. She has just the one piece but she must eat it, or she will have to sit on her own in the dining hall until it is gone. Miss Berne is standing close by, so she can’t even attempt to give it away.
She stares across the table at Lottie. They must not speak. They must not smile. Smiling equals fun and that is forbidden at meal times. Ellie lowers her right eyelid with deliberate slowness. No, her eyelid says to Lottie, I can’t do this. Lottie responds with a lowered left eyelid. Yes, you can.
Ellie blows on the broth, watching the slick fat slide across the surface. Around her, other children crouch over their plates, slopping at the pallid gravy with lumps of bread, chasing scraps, steel scraping on tin. Ellie can stomach the bread, so the bread must be the last thing she eats. She has picked a small piece without a crust. She slides the slug onto her spoon. Lottie has a grey cube on hers. She glances down, then back up at Lottie. Lottie blinks twice—keep looking at me, she says.
The rancid odour of the meat curls up towards Ellie. Her belly constricts. She falters. She pleads with her right eyelid. Lottie makes an emphatic blink with her left, like a curtain dropping—you must. Ellie bites on the inside of her lip. She wants to cry. Lottie’s eyes widen a fraction, their black centres expanding. Unblinking, immobile, they hold each other.
Ellie lifts the spoon and opens her mouth, and the tepid, greasy liquid slides between her lips. She forces in the chunk and rolls it to her cheek with her reluctant tongue. Biting down, she feels the resistance of the gristle. A pain shoots through her jaw. Her stomach heaves but she persists. Yes! Lottie blinks with her right eyelid.
They chew in unison, each of them touching the fingertips of their left hand on the table as they grind their teeth. First finger: touch, chew. Second finger: touch, chew. As the masticated meat slithers into her gullet, she retches, her stomach pushing up into her chest, making her eyes water. She keeps her eyes on Lottie’s fingers, all five raised. She sees Lottie’s throat lift and then fall—a marble down a drain. She pushes her tongue against the back of her throat and the meat slides down. Lottie’s five fingers settle on the table together—done!
Ellie tears at the bread, stuffs it into her mouth, and gulps water from her cup. The bland slurry absorbs the taste of animal and death. She leans back in her chair. Her forehead and palms are clammy. She makes a starfish with her own hand on the table next to her plate. Done.
There will be no grey meat for at least a week. It’ll be soup and potatoes and mushy vegetables, all the things that are off the ration. Ellie doesn’t mind. Miss Berne says they should be grateful for God’s bounty, but God gave her a small body, weak jaws and a delicate stomach. Her body controls her with its aches and its pains and its tiny pleasures. But it’s the only thing she owns in Forrester’s Home for Defectives, and she will obey it.
Joan Taylor-Rowan is a writer of poignant, wry and sometimes acerbic short stories, living in Hastings, England. She is also the author of a novel The Birdskin Shoes, set in a Mexican Circus. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and been published in several anthologies including Stations, Five by Five, London Lies (Arachne Press) and Tales of the decongested (Foyles). Her stories have been selected for numerous literary events including The Liar’s League (in both New York and London), The Brixton Book Slam, and Short Fuse in Brighton. Most recently, two of her short stories were shortlisted in the 2020 Momaya Press international short story competition. She is currently completing an M.A. in creative Writing at Chichester University.