800-WORD STORY ~ MARGARET’S LAST TERM

Here’s the second in a series of 800 word collaborative stories from Eden Baylee and myself. If it’s your first visit, you’ll find an explanation of the whole idea here as well as further examples of the form on both our blogs.

There was no prior discussion of plot, characters, situation or anything. The story’s starting point was a prompt; it had to include the two sentences ‘Margaret had this habit of spitting. It began to get on my nerves.’ It was chosen randomly by Eden’s husband John. For us, as with all the others we’ve written together, it was fun and satisfying. We hope you like it.

* * *

Prompt: Margaret had this habit of spitting. It began to get on my nerves.
Parts 1 and 3 and title: Eden
Parts 2 and 4: Bill

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Margaret’s Last Term

Margaret had this habit of spitting whenever she ate cheese. It began to get on my nerves. Even the tiniest morsel subjected me to her disgusting routine.

Before I knew she was lactose intolerant, it alarmed me whenever she started coughing. Her coughs were violent, as if she were choking. Not only did they shake her three-hundred pound body, they shook the table as well. I used to rush to her side and give her sharp blows to the back, or prise open her mouth to ensure she hadn’t swallowed her false teeth, or force her to drink water. Now, I did none of that. I just ignored her.

Eventually the coughing stopped, but it didn’t end there. The finale occurred when she was able to catch her breath again. That’s when she sucked air through her mouth louder than my vacuum cleaner to spit a thick, yellow glob of phlegm onto her plate.

And though she was sitting less than eight feet away from me, she’d yell when she spoke.

“Banana!” she called me.

“You know my name’s not Banana. It’s Amy,” I said.

“Whatever, help me up!”

Not only was Margaret revolting, she was racist as well.

+++

Yep. Hard to believe, I know. The sort of thing a hack would invent for one of those old-fashioned ‘penny dreadful’ stories – a character whose outward habits matched exactly her inner lack of morals.

Of course, I knew none of this when she answered my ad for a flatmate. We made all the arrangements by text, and we were both so desperate – me to get help with the rent, her because she’d been looking for a room for ages – that we didn’t get into full details, didn’t even meet before the contract was signed.

So when she first arrived and I opened the door it was a major shock for both of us. On the step there was this huge lump of a woman, looking years older than I expected, but the expression on her face made it pretty clear that I must have been as much of a shock to her.

She recovered pretty quickly, withdrawing her outstretched hand and closing her gaping mouth into a hasty, totally false smile. Being Chinese, I was used to it, of course. White and black ethnic clashes get all the headlines, but yellow’s well and truly in the mix, too. Hence, banana.

+++

“She’s a racist, Amy. You didn’t come to this country for that.”

“I know.” I sighed and sipped tea from my styrofoam cup. “I thought people were supposed to be more civilized in this part of the world.”

Jeanie and I sat on a bench outside the Pharmaceutical Sciences Building. We had a twenty-minute break before our favourite class. The Pharmacy program was dominated by Asian students, many of them international. Like me, Jeanie came from southern China. We immediately connected after I overheard her speaking on her cell in a regional dialect from Guangzhou.

It was poor timing, unfortunately.

Had I met Jeanie just a month earlier, we could’ve easily become flatmates.

Instead, she moved into a house with three other girls much farther from campus than she’d like, and I was stuck with Margaret.

Jeanie put her hand on my arm and turned to face me. “You say she’s allergic to milk products?”

“It would seem so. She gets deathly sick.”

“And she’s overweight?”

I raised a brow. “Grossly, what are you getting at?”

A slow smile stretched across Jeanie’s face. “Just thinking, that’s all.” She stood up. “We better go or we’ll be late for class.”

+++

As usual, the class was absorbing. Dr Ross is a great teacher – never rushes things, always happy to answer even the dumbest questions. Everybody likes her. But, for a change, my mind wandered occasionally – not through any failings on her part but because of Jeanie’s weird mood. After the lecture, she stayed behind but I got my things together and waited for her at the top of the steps that led down into the park. It was lovely walking home through the trees, and Jeanie’s bus stop was at the end of my street so she usually came with me.

She appeared at last, hurrying and a bit flustered.

“Sorted,” she said, with a smile.

“What?” I said.

“Next term’s living arrangements.”

She hitched her bag higher on her back and started down the steps. I had to hurry to catch up with her.

“What living arrangements?” I asked.

“Ours. Me sharing your flat,” she said.

“But…”

I got no further. She put her finger to my lips and said, “I’ve just signed us both up for Ross’s course next term.”

My expression must have shown my puzzlement because she smiled and said, “It’s ‘Atmospheric Particulate Matter and Pulmonary Toxicity’.”

* * *

We hope you enjoyed it. All comments are welcome. Come back for more in the coming months.

 

14 comments

  1. Me again! There is an Aussie poet named John Malone on my blog who has a comment about the story. I’d prefer for you to answer it since it refers to the ending. You can make a connection on my blog and direct him or answer him on my blog – whatever you prefer.
    Hope you’re enjoying your day. xox

  2. Good story. You work well together, leaving each other room to continue the story.
    Something occurred to me when I was reading this one. The roommate Margaret is a racist. Amy judges Margaret on her looks too, the way she mentions her weight. So they are both people who are often judged by their looks. That thought stuck with me.

    1. Thanks for the perceptive as ever comment, Anneke. You’re right, of course, about them both being judged by their looks (but isn’t that a function of the good old ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’ syndrome?). I’d also make the distinction between the fact that Margaret’s spitting and other nasty (i.e. unconventional, to put it mildly) habits would probably be judged distasteful by most ‘normal’ people, whereas one would hope that negative judgements based purely on racial features or characteristics are far from the ‘norm’. There’s a qualitative difference between the two.

      1. It was something I thought about, not a judgement of the story.
        Amy not only describes Margaret’s disgusting habits and her racism, she adds her weight as well. That makes me, as a reader, dislike her even more. I see the woman sitting there, the table shaking when she coughs. So what does that say about me? Is judging someone by his weight and/or disability fair when that person is a racist with disgusting eating habits? If the story was about a Chinese woman who was lactose intolerant and still ate cheese, who spat and called her room mate ‘Fatty’? Would I, and other readers call it a racist story?
        So, that was the thought that stayed with me after reading .

        1. Hi Anneke, I thought to respond to your question regarding race. A reader had made a similar comment on my blog regarding this story which said: “I’m dismayed that size-ism seems to still be an acceptable -ism in writing.”

          As I wrote the first 200 words which introduced the characters, let me respond to you here. Margaret’s character was obese. That is a fact. She had disgusting habits. These were also facts. I could have described her as a large woman, or grossly overweight, or mentioned she had 3 chins … but the idea was to provide a quick visual to the reader. Margaret was not a healthy woman. That was the main point I wanted to get across. Anybody can be a racist.

          If , as you say … the story was about a Chinese woman who was lactose intolerant and still ate cheese, who spat and called her room mate ‘Fatty’? Would it be a story about a racist?

          The answer is no. I’d say she is an awful person, but she is not a racist. It would be a story about a very nasty woman who makes fun of her roommate because she is overweight.

          That she is Chinese, Black, Dutch, German isn’t relevant.

          If she made fun of her roommate by calling her a fat (insert racist slur), then yes, that is a racist comment .

          Thanks for your thoughts, really appreciate your reading, eden

  3. You’re giving the story (or maybe releasing from it) perhaps unsuspected resonances, Anneke. But then, all good stories – certainly your own – have multiple meanings. Thank you.

  4. Thanks Bill and Eden,
    Eden, I didn’t mean to say that ‘if… the story was about a Chinese woman who was lactose intolerant and still ate cheese, who spat and called her room mate ‘Fatty’? Would it be a story about a racist? ‘
    I meant that in that case I, and maybe other readers, would call it a racist story.
    So it made me wonder which prejudices are acceptable for a reader.
    I realise that in this story, I find the character Margareth more interesting than the other girls. Why has she become this way? She might deserve another story. 🙂

    1. Hi Anneke, interesting observations, definitely! I think Margaret does deserve another story. I know Bill considers you a very thoughtful writer, and I’d love your spin on this. 😉

      eden

    2. Fascinating, Anneke. Once again you dig out the unsuspected layers in stories. Your comment’s very persuasive, so why don’t we just assume that Margaret dodges the pharmacological traps they set and you write the story about the new flat she finds (and the person with whom she shares it)? I’d be very happy to post it here.

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