Belgium based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, and blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy. Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.
There it is, reflected back in the mirror at Scarlett, like kneaded bread dough, dimpled and grey. She runs her fingers over her left cheek, feeling the crumpled uneven patch of skin. She turns her face to her perfect profile, aquiline nose, blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair. ‘You ready Scar?’ Her sister Maude shouts. ‘Give me two minutes!’ Scarlett shouts back and thinks to herself how did her parents know to call her Scarlett and that the diminutive of her name would one day describe her appearance? Her mother swears it was the shock of red hair she was born with that was the inspiration for her name. Maude waits at the bus stop, deep in conversation with Leo, who glances at Scarlett from time to time and smiles. Scarlett blushes and touches her cheek before stepping into the shade of a tree, away from the oppressive heat of the sun. Sunlight dapples a pattern through the leaves onto the pavement; she watches the shadows tremble in the breeze. On the bus, Maude grabs the last free seat. Scarlett stands, her knuckles turning white from grasping the handgrip. Her heavy tote bag digs into her shoulder. Maude always asks her why she has to take her laptop everywhere with her anyway? A faint odour of perspiration permeates the air. Maude talks. Leo listens, a dark flop of fringe bounces over his forehead in time with the bus’s jerky stop, start movements. A group of teenagers sit at the front of the bus, all hormones, fake nails and makeup. Scarlett overhears them, ‘Don’t you think she’d cover it up?’ ‘Yeah, like get it lasered or something.’ It’s nothing new, she’s been called Frankenstein before. She sighs and tries to look above their heads out of the window. Saturday shopping traffic delays the bus in spite of the bus lane. Cyclists flit in and out of the bus lane and around double-parked cars like metal balls in a pinball machine. Scarlett, Maude and Leo get off the bus at the bottom of North Road to join the crowds of day trippers trickling through the North Laines. Maude leads Leo and Scarlett into a trendy clothes shop and up winding, creaky stairs to a plant shop spread over two floors above. A miniature jungle of hanging ferns and ivy intertwine overhead, shading the more grounded rubber plants and cactus. A musty, forest-like smell lingers in the air. On the way out, as Leo passes Scarlett on the stairs, their hands touch. ‘Sorry,’ Leo says. Scarlett smiles, ‘I thought you preferred Maude.’ ‘Come on you two!’ Maude waits outside, the fronds from a potted fern reach out of its plastic bag to passers-by. Maude grabs Leo’s arm and drags him into the second-hand shop ‘Nosey Parkers.’ Old bric-a-brac lines the oddment of shelves scattered across the ground floor room. Tattered old rugs cover the exposed dirty floorboards. Tiny stalls display wigs, antique jewellery and retro clothing. Maude pulls out a hanger with a pale green silk 1950s ballgown, with yards of taffeta petticoats plumping up the skirt. The tiny waist is highlighted with a thin matching belt and fake diamond brooch at its centre. A Marilyn Monroe like bodice for ample bosoms finishes it off. ‘Wow!’ Maude shouts. ‘I gotta try this one.’ Before she disappears into the tiny changing cubicle and tugs the curtain across in several attempts as it catches on the rusty rail. ‘Here, Scarlett come and look at this,’ Leo calls to her from the corner of the room. Scarlett winds her way through browsing shoppers to reach him. ‘What?’ Then she realises that he’s staring at the old-fashioned bevelled mirror in front of him. ‘My gran used to have one of these above her fireplace,’ he says. ‘It’s cool.’ ‘Yeah,’ she replies, but doesn’t move closer to him. ‘What do you think? Will we get it for the house share?’ Leo says. ‘Do what you like,’ Scarlett mutters, glaring at him. Suddenly, she feels his breath on her cheek, his hands cradle her face. She blinks back tears. ‘Scarlett, I didn’t mean to upset you,’ Leo says. ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘Stop it Leo,’ she pulls his wrists away from her, but he takes her hands in his. ‘No,’ Leo says, ‘I’m insensitive.’ Scarlett looks back to the cubicle and sees Maude waving and shouting for them. She can’t help but laugh. ‘Oh my god, she looks like one of those knitted ladies that cover toilet rolls!’ ‘ Great change of subject,’ Leo laughs. ‘We’d better go to her,’ Scarlett says. ‘Well, what do you think?’ Maude’s voice carries so well that almost the entire population of the shop turn to look. ‘Seriously?’ Scarlett looks at her. Maude eyeballs Scarlett and turns her eyes on Leo. ‘Hey, I know nothing about fashion,’ Leo interjects. ‘When and where would you wear it?’ Scarlett, always the sensible one, replies. ‘Graduation Day!’ Maude frowns and retreats into the cubicle. ‘Hey Maude, look I’ve got some studying to catch up on. I’ll catch you guys later.’ Scarlett rushes away, merging with the rabble outside, leaving Leo to deal with the fall out of Maude’s black mood. He stares after her until he sees her no more. In the summer sunshine, beer drinkers spill out on to the narrow streets as Scarlett passes the pub, almost tripping over a scruffy Jack Russell running around in circles, yapping. She’s biting her nails again, shredding off the ragged skin around them. She must escape the noise of the North Laines. Her usual quiet café in Hove is a good twenty-five-minute walk away. She waits to cross a busy road. Hydraulic brakes burp buses to a halt as the beeping sound of the green man interrupts the traffic. Double decker buses bump along nose to tail. The crowds start to dissipate, a sign that Scarlett is nearer to Hove than Brighton. Leafy avenues, high end supermarkets and book shops begin to appear. The taupe and cream painted façade of the Tinpot café stands out amid the white painted terraced houses. When Scarlett opens the door the smell of home-baked sourdough bread is tantalising. She orders an iced latte and is reassured to find her usual corner seat by the window free. Twentieth Century English Literature is Scarlett’s current module on her BA at Sussex university. She loves the reading part of the course but find the analysis tedious. So engrossed is she in reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, that she doesn’t look up for a good while. ‘Hi Scarlett,’ Leo sits down in front of her. Scarlett looks up but returns to her reading. When Leo places his tea on the table, it spills, creating a small puddle on the table. ‘Oops,’ Leo uses a napkin to mop it up. ‘Scarlett,’ Leo places his hand on her arm. ‘Where’s Maude?’ She closes the book and puts it in her bag. ‘Maude?’ Leo says. ‘She bumped into some mates from uni and buggered off with them.’ Scarlett leans her head on her left hand, ‘That’s Maude for you.’ ‘Look,’ Leo’s hand squeezes her arm. ‘It’s you I want to talk to.’ She doesn’t react. ‘It’s you I want to get to know.’ Leo says. ‘Can you stop putting up walls?’ ‘Walls?’ Scarlett says. Without warning, Leo pulls of his t-shirt. Etched diagonally from his left shoulder to under his armpit and around to his back, are the scars of stitches resembling patchwork embroidery. Scarlett gasps. ‘I didn’t know.’ ‘I know they’re not visible unless I undress, but they are still there.’ Leo replies. The café is sparsely frequented at this time of day, apart from a couple of old ladies who stare in a bemused way. Leo puts his t-shirt back on. ‘Well you wouldn’t, would you?’ ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘You don’t need to be sorry. You need to understand.’ ‘Understand what?’ Scarlett asks. ‘That you are unique. I am unique,’ Leo says. Scarlett gazes out of the window and back at Leo. ‘In so much as Odysseus’ scar made his housekeeper know that it is him, that he was unique, then so are you.’ Leo says. Scarlett sips her latte. ‘Good analogy. Classical studies huh.’ ‘Scarlett, it doesn’t matter. It may matter to you now, in this moment, but in the long term. In real life, for the future. You are you. I am me. We are now.’ Leo finishes his monologue. She puts her fingers under his chin - just enough to tilt his face towards her and kisses him. Shocked, Leo smiles. ‘You’re beautiful.’ He closes his eyes and kisses her gently on her lips, all the time holding her hand. She looks at him and thinks, I can get through this, with you.