Thursday, 18 October 2018

Spotlight & Extract: The Tissue Veil by Brenda Bannister

The Tissue Veil by Brenda Bannister

What if you discovered a hundred-year-old diary under your floorboards - and then found references in it to yourself? Or if you lived in 1901, yet kept seeing glimpses of a girl from modern times? And what if both of you had problems that only the other could really understand? Emily and Aysha live in the same Stepney house and an inexplicable link develops between them, fuelled by Aysha's discovery of a journal and Emily's sightings of a 'future ghost'. Each takes courage from the other's predicament - after all, what's a hundred years between friends?

When Aysha discovers a loose floorboard in her bedroom, she determines to use the cavity beneath the board to store her university application papers. Then she begins to clean the space and finds someone has used the hiding place before...

The vacuum cleaner gulps down the dust balls with satisfying voracity. Aysha removes the nozzle and feeds the end of the flexible hose into the under floor space to complete the task. Suddenly the machine’s noise changes as if something has blocked the tube. Carefully, she withdraws the hose, then reaches in to grasp a rectangular object, thickly encased in dust, but still recognisable as a book. Someone has used the hiding place before! She switches the vacuum power to the lowest setting to remove the dirt without damaging her find, then blows gently across it and finishes it off with tissues.
Now that it’s cleaner, the cover looks like leather, dark green and finely grained. The contents seem to be some kind of diary. Flicking through, she sees page after page of a neat, looping script written in blue ink. There are a couple of entries from 1899, but most pages are headed by dates in 1900 and 1901. Aysha turns to the inside front cover and reads an inscription: To dearest Emily from your mother, Christmas 1899. On the opposite page a name:
Emily Watts.
Emily Watts! It must be the girl in the census, who lived in this house!
“Aysha!” her mum calls. “You finish clean?”
Her first thoughts are that she can use this journal in her historical study of the square. Andy said not to get fixated with individuals, but surely this is a unique primary source? She can use Emily’s narrative to illustrate generalities. Reading further, she’s not sure. Whoever Emily Watts was, she wrote her story with such immediacy that Aysha almost believes the other girl is speaking directly to her. Submitting her words to the scrutiny of examiners would feel like a kind of betrayal. Perhaps she’ll just tell Andy about the journal. For now, she replaces the book under the floorboard and finishes vacuuming.
Later that night she takes it out again to read in bed. If only she could reach out to this girl who had lost her brother and mother and was trapped unwillingly at home... How would she feel if something happened to Sel? Or Dad? But the sympathy she feels is useless, a burden that can’t be delivered.
A few minutes later, shocked rigid, she sits upright in bed, frowning and staring at the page as she reads – her own name! She pushes the book away: this isn’t right, someone’s playing a trick on her. She looks again, but nothing’s been inserted or altered; the words are embedded in the text. Surely no-one would forge a whole journal as a joke? It must have been some other girl. Emily couldn’t have seen her, Aysha, back in 1901. Yet she has described her hair and clothes exactly: she’s wearing a sort of printed tunic over coarse blue trousers. Aysha looks at the stonewashed jeans slung over her chair, then at the cotton top, patterned in blues and greens, hanging from the back of her door. And the words Emily reports hearing sound like the argument she had with Sel yesterday, when they’d all come back from the hospital. That feeling she’d experienced, of being aware of a sudden, overwhelming sadness – was that Emily; was the grief hers? If she hid her book here, this must have been her room too. Aysha’s thoughts spiral and eddy like leaves caught in a whirlpool.
Now she definitely can’t use the journal in her study, or let anyone see it. If Mum could read it, she’d think it was dangerous, like bad magic or something. She’d want to know where Aysha found it and that would be the end of her hiding place. But Emily had been a real person, a girl of her own age. Aysha doesn’t understand yet, but she’s sure the journal is important – she was meant to find it.

Brenda studied English at university and later qualified as a librarian, working in various educational settings from schools to higher education. Moving from London to Frome in Somerset in 2010 proved a catalyst for her own writing as she joined local fiction and script writing groups. She has had a number of short stories published, plus short plays produced in local pub theatre, but all the while was incubating a story based in the area of Tower Hamlets where she had worked for eighteen years. This germ of a story became 'The Tissue Veil'.
Brenda is a founder member of Frome Writers' Collective, an organisation which has grown from a handful of members to over a hundred in the past four years, and helped set up its innovative Silver Crow Book Brand. She is also the current organiser of the annual Frome Festival Short Story Competition. A lifelong reader, Brenda rarely follows genres, but enjoys modern literary fiction, historical fiction, classics and the occasional detective novel. The latest Bernard Cornwell might be a guilty pleasure, but she'll be even more eager to get her hands on Hilary Mantel's final instalment of Thomas Cromwell's story.