Sunday, 13 November 2011

Coathanger Abbey

Janet O'Steen, Ireland's foremost logodisciplinarian, made angry tea.  The reviews of her latest book were out, and they seemed to mostly fixate on what they referred to as her Electra-complex.  Not only did it annoy her that they were ignoring the subtle nuances of plot and the delicacies of character creation, but it annoyed her all the more that she had no idea what an Electra-complex was.  Having reached fever pitch, she was now refusing to do anything to find out, petulantly insisting that if her critics couldn't be clear, she certainly wasn't abetting them in their character assassination.  Tea leaves spilled across the floor in a fragrant spray like confetti on a disastrous wedding day, and hot water jumped from the cup to splash across the counter top.
When she'd finally got enough tea in the cup to be worth drinking she retreated to the living room and put the newspaper under the couch cushions.  Perhaps if she punished it enough it would start behaving, retract its foolish review and produce something more acceptable.  More in favour of her work.
She looked over at the typewriter sitting on the ceramic-topped table and felt a brief stab of pain.  Using it at the moment would only bring forth the wrong kind of story; something that wanted to please her critics, to beg their forgiveness and beseech kind words from them.  And there was no way she was giving in, letting her words become slack and undisciplined, yielding to the critics' scourge.  Instead, she picked up her pad of paper and continued making long-hand notes on her next novel.
Coathanger Abbey would be her first novel in which nobody's mother died.  Her critics seemed obsessed with matricide and its presence, however necessary for the plot (as in Bride of Prejudice and Sense and Sensitivity), in her books, so she would show them all and write a book without a mother-murder.  It wasn't easy; she'd already had to scrub out fourteen pages of ideas that ultimately revolved around the death of someone's mother, but at last she thought she had an idea that would work.
The eponymous Coathanger Abbey was the first legal government brothel after the government legalised prostitution and criminalised abortion.  By night, it was a brothel catering to slightly unusual tastes, and by day it was an illegal abortion clinic, though masquering as the brothel of its night-times.  Women would arrive, dressed in clothes that concealed their gravidity, and perhaps made them appear a little more masculine, and they would leave looking drawn and haggard, perhaps with scratch marks on their face or whip marks on their wrists.  They would be thinner, and no longer pregnant, but this would be less interesting than the notion that they were attending a lesbian dominatrix brothel.
The story would really begin when a young woman called Judy arrived at the brothel, scarred both physically and emotionally, and in the late second trimester of pregnancy.  Her malnutrition and general unawareness of her health would put her at risk of death if the child was aborted, so she'd scraped together the money for Coathanger Abbey and its skilled doctors and nurses.  Janet intended to spend a hundred pages or so building the back-story for her character, her courage in the face of extreme adversity, and describing the strange society that had produced Coathanger Abbey.  She might have ten or twenty pages in there as well describing some of the more interesting acts the lesbians got up to at night, but only in the interests of verisimilitude.  She told herself.  Then the story would get interesting.
One of the doctors attending Judy would recognise her.  She would question her, puzzled that someone working there would know someone like her, and he would reveal that he'd treated her mother.  As she puzzled over what he could mean, he would reluctantly explain that her mother had been one of the first to arrive for abortion, but was too far gone in the pregnancy and so they'd induced labour and delivered the baby.  To everyone's astonishment, the baby survived.
"You mean my mother never loved me?" asked Judy, her eyes wide, too astonished to cry.
"Well... I don't know if I could honestly say that," said the doctor, feeling trapped in revelations he could no longer control.  His pulse beat erratically as he measured it with two fingers on his wrist.  "When she heard you'd survived she was inconsolable, she cried for days.  Her eyes were so red you could calibrate a printing press from her.  Eventually we fostered you out and told her that we'd given you to the alcoholic janitor as a little gift to abuse, and then she cheered up enough that we could discharge her and send her home.  Obviously we spanked her a little first and shaved her head so that people would believe she'd been visiting a brothel."
"But... my scars!" said Judy.
"Yes," said the doctor.  "We think she'd tried to abort you a couple of times herself before she came to us."
There, thought Janet, a thin, satisfied smile curling her lips.  Not a single mother dying anywhere.  Let's see what my critics have to say about that!
She laid down her notepad, wondering how the story would end – no revenge killing, as the mother mustn't die – but perhaps Judy could have a daughter of her own and give her up for adoption, only to find out years later that her mother, in a fit of guilt, had adopted Judy's daughter and raised her as her own.  Then she pulled the newspaper out from under the couch cushions again and began to methodically tear it into small squares.

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