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Jelly Fish have Tentacles

by M Farquharson 

Posted: 18 February 2011
Word Count: 2179
Summary: This is an earlier piece that I've reworked quite a bit; I'd be so grateful for comments. Sorry it's long.

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Jelly Fish Have Tentacles

It was paradise. There was sun on her body, the sound of idle waves on the beach and the promise of peppermint ice-cream at the end of the afternoon. Through half-open eyes, Helen saw a hermit crab emerge from a hole in the sand and rush towards her, carrying his borrowed house on his back. She stretched out her hand but he scuttled off, as if he’d heard the electric bell that was ringing through Helen’s head. She sat up and looked at her watch. The crab had disappeared. She was alone, in a cold, picture-less room with six iron beds and a washstand. There was no sun and no sand. Helen walked over to the window, breathed onto the frozen glass and then rubbed it with her fingers.

Outside everything was dark. Helen walked back towards her bed and picked up a Bible that was lying on the floor. She marked a page with an envelope addressed to her at St. Catherine’s Girls School, Wereham, Lancs. She looked briefly at the Hong Kong stamp and her mother’s handwriting, before closing the book.

Helen heard the scuffle of feet and voices of girls heading towards the First Year Common Room, where the drama mistress was holding auditions for the Christmas carol service. She walked into the room and stood at the back, waiting to be called. When it was her turn, she handed the Bible to Miss Evans. “Read from here to here,” the teacher said. Since Helen knew the text by heart, she just bellowed out the words without looking down. Even the girls chatting in the corner looked up in surprise. “Good,” said the drama mistress and closed her notebook.

As she approached the notice board the next morning, she heard whispers: “Helen’s got it,” “Helen?”
“Chinky chonky four eyes?”
“Yes, her!”

She was about to creep away when one of the girls turned round and saw her. “Oh, here’s Helen,” said Sally Smith with a half smile. “They chose you.” Helen didn’t need Sally’s good wishes or a pat on the back; that could come later. She took off her Buddy Holly glasses and walked away.

On the evening of the carol service, Helen tied her long, thin hair in plaits and rehearsed the reading once more in her head. She cleaned her glasses and then looked at herself in the mirror. Her coat was too big and her Sunday dress came down over her knees, but otherwise she felt quite good. She put on her grey straw boater and gloves and walked towards the chapel. As she passed the oak tree, she kicked stones with a few other girls so they wouldn’t think she was nervous or conceited. Holly Brown wished her luck.

She’d rehearsed this well. As the first carol was finishing, she moved away from her pew, stood in the aisle for two counts and then walked slowly towards the raised pulpit. Everyone was looking at her, watching as she climbed up the steps and waiting as she breathed deeply, like Miss Evans had told her. She was just tall enough to see over the top of the pulpit. “It’s me up here,” she said to herself; “Four-eyes or not, I’m the one who’s up here.” She smiled. For the first time since she’d arrived at the school, she was happy.

Helen calmly surveyed the crowd: at the back of the chapel were the choir – en elite corps distinguished by their long red gowns-- then rows of other people’s parents; then the older girls and finally, right at the front, her classmates in their grey straw boaters. She felt 500 pairs of eyes staring at her: a few girls giggled, but not many. Next Sunday, she could be sitting between Sally Smith and Holly Brown, whispering or sharing scribbled notes with them. Everything was going to be fine. She heard someone in the chapel cough; Helen took her time; she was almost ready to start.

Helen’s lips began to move. It no longer mattered that she had freckles on her nose, legs like matchsticks and glasses that were too big for her face. She was speaking and everyone was listening. “And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die...” she took a breath and then bellowed even louder, laughing to herself with pleasure: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Her eyes were wide open and she was looking down at her classmates. God, she was enjoying herself.

"And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat…" Yes! Eat! She loved that word: eat, treat, tree: she remembered running to the kitchen table at home in Hong Kong and choosing the ripest mango to eat under the click, click of the overhead fan. She’d cut the fruit in half, twist it round like a doll and pull away the dripping yellow meat from the bone. Soft, sweet mango flesh that she ate with a spoon till the cups were empty and then there was still the stone, dangling with yellow promise. She’d put it in her mouth when no one was looking.

Helen recited the verses one after the other. And the eyes of them both were opened… Reading was smooth and exciting, like deep water swimming. Like the day she’d invited her best friend out on the fishing boat her dad had rebuilt with such care. It was her eleventh birthday and there was chow fan, curry puffs and an ice cream cake preserved in dry ice. They chugged out through the harbour towards a deserted beach by the Chinese border.

The two girls were sitting at the front of the boat, their legs dangling into the spray, soaking up views of the island that changed slowly as they moved through the water.

Right at the edge of the harbour were the towering banks and the trading office where Helen’s father worked. This was the business centre where everything started and finished, like the top of the clock that marked the middle of the day and the middle of the night. Then came the ‘go-down’ warehouses and, just behind was Wanchai, a chaos of bars, sweat shops and markets tucked down narrow streets. By day it looked drab but by night it was a dance hall of neon lights and smells and people shouting and the sound of mahjong tiles being slammed down onto busy tables.

As the boat pulled away from the island, the scene changed. There were ferries, fishing boats and thousands of people on the water; they were eating, shouting, selling, working, or -- like Helen-- waiting to move on.
The harbour was behind them now and they could see the forbidden hills of China, a country that was mentioned in whispers-- so close, so far-- bypassed by the international liners heading out of the harbour towards Europe and America.

Helen felt Nicky’s hand on her shoulder and she moved a little closer to her friend. “Look at that ship,” Nicky was saying, “over there.”
“It’s going to Liberia,” Helen had replied.
“Let’s go to Liberia!” Nicky said and they laughed because it sounded so mysterious and far away.
“Liberia then London,” Helen had added.
“No, it’s just you who’s going to London. My mum said you’re growing up and going away. She says you won’t be back.”
“Not true.”
“You’ll see Twiggy and go to Carnaby Street and you’ll forget about me and swimming and everything we’ve always done together.”
“No I won’t.”
“Stay here!”
“You know I can’t. It’s all planned. The school’s expecting me.”
There was a heavy silence.
“Want a 7-UP?” Helen asked Nicky.

Helen moved to the back of the boat with the others. She wouldn’t let Nicky spoil her birthday, even if it meant swimming on her own. She was more mature than her friend and had better marks at school. She was going to study on the other side of the world, in the country her parents called ‘home’.

A week after her birthday, Helen was taking the plane to London. Nicky hadn’t gone to the airport and Helen had been too proud to call before she left.

"Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman..." Helen had reached her favorite part of the Lesson but when she looked down at the Bible she saw Nicky’s face transposed onto the text. Although Helen blinked, the face was still there, looking at her and whispering, “Stay here!”

Helen only had four more lines to read. She knew them off by heart, but when she opened her mouth no sound came out. A few adults coughed. Sally Smith laughed and Holly Brown looked down at her feet. At the back of the chapel the choir girls hunched their red shoulders like a flock of bloodied crows.

She was stuck in the pulpit, unable to move her lips or her head or any part of her body. She couldn’t go forward or backwards or anywhere at all. She just stood there: dumb, unblinking, while all those strangers stared at her in fascination.

The click of court shoes on the stone floor broke into Helen’s silence and she saw the drama mistress walking towards the pulpit. Miss Evans was tall and slightly hunched and her white hair was pulled harshly back off her face. With her black teacher’s gown billowing behind her, she looked like a vulture. Helen turned and walked down the wooden steps of the pulpit, towards her fate.
The teacher took her arm and led her through a side door, out into the freezing December night.

“What happened?” Helen wanted to explain but she was numbed by the cold and the anger in the teacher’s voice. She stood hunched against the red brick wall and stared out across the playing fields; in the darkness she couldn’t see the white lines that ruled the positions of play.

The teacher began to shake Helen by the shoulders. “Tell me what happened. You owe me an explanation. You knew the words, why didn’t you say them? Why did you just stand there, doing nothing?” As the teacher spoke, a white vapor emerged from her mouth and hung in front of Helen’s eyes, before dissolving into the frozen night.

“What happened, Helen?” The drama mistress was trying a softer tone of voice.

“It’s just that, up there, when I was reading the lesson, I realised that..
“That what?”
“That it’s all true.”
“Of course it’s true, girl. It’s the Bible.”
“But … it wasn’t a snake. It was…”

Helen noticed the teacher sigh and look at her watch. If only she wasn’t so cross, Helen might have told her the rest of the story about the day she and Nicky had gone on that boat trip. As soon as they’d anchored, Helen had dived off the top deck of the boat, leaving Nicky behind. “Wait…” she could hear someone shout, but she was busy swimming out towards the rocks at the edge of the bay. She moved sleekly through the water like a soft-skinned reptile. The sea was yellow from the reflection of the burning sun and Helen turned over onto her back, closed her eyes and stretched out her arms. Her hair floated in long dark strands behind her.

Helen felt something brush gently against one hand and then a pain burst through her arm. She opened her eyes. By the time she saw the carpet of jelly fish around her, the tentacles had whipped her stomach and were tearing at her legs.

The fish felt soft and slimy on top but the tentacles beneath the surface-- those innocent looking threads-- cut into her skin like tiny knives. Unable to scream, she lifted one arm and someone on the boat must have seen her because her father came rowing towards her in the dingy and he pulled her out of the water. Her mother spoke gently to her and covered her stings with chamomile lotion. On the journey back to the harbour she left Nicky to sit alone at the front of the boat, sulking.

A week later, Helen had left Hong Kong on a ‘plane bound for England. “Stay here,” Nicky had said and she hadn’t listened. The tentacles were pulling her down into the dungeon of the sea. It was dark and lonely. Silent night, holy night. All is calm… The voices on the other side of the wall sounded distant. Helen would grow up here, in this cold corner of a foreign country, and every day the image of where she came from would become weaker and weaker until it no longer existed.

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Comments by other Members

euclid at 23:15 on 18 February 2011  Report this post
That was interesting.

A couple of typos, I think.

And the eyes of them both were opened…

Should this be in quotes? (part of the bible reading?)

Quotation marks missing here:

"It’s just that, up there, when I was reading the lesson, I realised that..

Where you mention the name of the school is a bit clunky, like an info-dump. Is it necessary that we know the name of the school? If so, maybe you could work it in somewhere else?

Helen was taking a plane to London

This doesn't work for me. Helen took a plane to London
or Helen was on her way to London, maybe, might be better.

Hoping you find these 'umble comments helpful.

M Farquharson at 01:08 on 19 February 2011  Report this post
Yes, thanks, Mary

Cornelia at 09:25 on 19 February 2011  Report this post
I remember this from before and I think this more dramatic treatments reads very well. The mango part was lovely but I wonder if the boat intrusion part was too long -I wondered how she would get back to waht she was supposed to be doing: reading the biblical text. I like the way expectations were built towards an inevitable denouement as Helen's hopes of integration were dashed.

I also like the methods used to suggested Helen is headed for a mental breakdown -the frightening hermit crab dream at the start and memories of the jellyfish tentacles.


Becca at 09:27 on 19 February 2011  Report this post
Hi Mary,
There is some good imagery in this piece, but I don't think the story holds together, and it could be that you're trying to include too much ...not sure. I think that everything before 'On the evening of the carol service' could be edited out. But really, a refreshing and more dramatic starting place would be outside with the drama teacher, and let the story unfold forwards and backwards from there.
This passage would make a good place to start:- “What happened?” Helen wanted to explain but she was numbed by the cold and the anger in the teacher’s voice. She stood hunched against the red brick wall and stared out across the playing fields; in the darkness she couldn’t see the white lines that ruled the positions of play.

I have to say though that I'm not convinced by the drama teacher's anger, and I don't see the point of her being angry. I think you should use her as a conduit through which the story flows. You're good with dialogue sections, and I reckon you could tell this story from Helen's POV as she stands with the teacher, but with twice as much dialogue than you have now.

I didn't feel the relationship between Helen and Nicky was properly examined. The one big problem with it is that these girls are somewhere around twelve or thirteen, and Nicky would've known full well that Helen can't make the decision herself about staying in Honk Kong, so when Helen sees Nicky's face on the bible, I mean, she might miss her, but she can't logically feel she'd let her down.

Then at the end with the reference from snake to jellyfish ... I don't understand it.

Overall there isn't a central conflict and/or resolution in the story, as reader, I'm not sure which of all the things that happen is the more important. I'm tempted now to ask you what exactly the story is about..
This is not a story about betrayal because Helen can't help what happens to her. It was a story in an earlier version about ugly aspects of Englishness, it's not anymore. I think the comparison between life in Honk Kong and life in an English boarding school is interesting in its own right, but that can't be what the story is actually about,it can only be the setting[s]. Now you need the other two elements of a short story - plot/storyline and characterisation to work for you in the context of that background.

euclid at 10:15 on 19 February 2011  Report this post
I agree with most of what Becca said.

When I read the piece, I thought it wasn't yet a story. The title should have been a clue as to how the jellyfish episode pulled it all together, but I didn't get it.

(Isn't jellyfish one word btw?)

I do think it's fine to write about a 13 year old feeling she has let her friend down, even though the decsision to leave HK was out of her hands. It's a long time since I was a thirteen year old girl, but I'm pretty sure they do think like that. And in fact I feel this could be a core strength of the story - that feeling which, in reality, makes no sense.

I remember Frank O'Connor's story about a small boy who was told that girls had engines (with buffers) for making babies and boys had starting handles. The boy was miserable about this. Not entirely apposite, I suppose, but something similar.

M Farquharson at 15:13 on 19 February 2011  Report this post
Thank you all very much, these comments are very helpful; I got myself into wanting to tell a rights of passage story using the biblical references to give the idea of a young girl who, in taking the socially accepted steps of being shipped off to England, realises that she has left behind the idyll of her childhood, has been thrown out of paradise. But, you are right, Becca, for this to work there would have be a betrayal or a more conscious decision on her part (which she's too young to take), otherwise it's all too watery. I think the story line and the characters have been neglected in the desire to talk about loss (loss of childhood, loss of country). I need to rethink the whole thing and loosen up a bit!

Many thanks


bjlangley at 08:44 on 25 February 2011  Report this post
Hi Mary, I think your writing is effective, but the story is a little muddled. Nicky's introduction felt too late if Helen's issues are centralised around her. The opening paragraph does a good job of introducing a conflict between where she is and another place though, but then for a large part we lose this conflict between where she is now and what she has left behind. Like Becca, I think you can lose the audition and begin on the day of the carol service.

"And the eyes of them both were opened…" seems out of place, unless as was asked earlier is it's part of the quotation?

missing " here:
“It’s just that, up there, when I was reading the lesson, I realised that..

All the best,


M Farquharson at 12:53 on 25 February 2011  Report this post
Thanks Ben, yes all these comments have really helped; I can see very clearly what you are all saying. I will rework it and try to strengthen the story.

Many thanks

Indira at 19:52 on 25 March 2011  Report this post
Hi Mary

For me, what comes through strongly in this story, is how deeply Helen misses all she has left behind. And how, despite being so young, she recognises that she has lost it in an irretrievable way. The device of her losing her voice was powerful - the fact that she is moving triumphantly through her reading when she is struck. The writing is evocative and description of place are strong. Good luck with it.


M Farquharson at 20:21 on 25 March 2011  Report this post
Thanks Indira, your comments are very encouraging. As soon as I get a chance to get back to it, I will look for the story, which is what came through strongly in the other comments but this note will help me not to give up on it!!
Best wishes

Gerry at 14:20 on 26 March 2011  Report this post

There are some very nice bits here, but I did get a bit lost at times.

I feel that maybe you don't need the audition at all. I'm not sure that it added anything.

Like Becca, I was a bit confused about what the story was about. I suppose it doesn't need to be about anything, but it felt like there were a number of themes here, but none of them were explored in any depth.

I liked the beginning, but like some of the commentators above, I thought it might be better to start with something a bit more dramatic.

But, as I said, some very nice writing.

Indira at 19:30 on 26 March 2011  Report this post
Oh - don't lose the audition. I think its brilliant.
Forgot to add, I love this line:
�Of course it�s true, girl. It�s the Bible.�

Gerry at 21:50 on 26 March 2011  Report this post

Having read the story again, Indira may very well be right, but I though maybe the result of the audition could be given more weight, with the girl fretting or worrying over it more perhaps. At present, I'm not sure how much it matters to her in the beginning - even though she is later pleased that she is getting recognition by being part of the service.

M Farquharson at 01:00 on 27 March 2011  Report this post
Thanks Indira, I was worried that the line didn't work because noone had picked up on it so I really appreciate your comment! Thank you very much Gerry, I know I need to work this right from the beginning but at least I am motivated now!

best wishes


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