Broadwater Farm was a working farm going all the way back to the nineteenth century. Stables, carts, cattle and harvests. Perhaps teachers hope that knowing this local history will give us some kind of pride, remind us of the industry that once took place here and make us think that we have some of that in us, that we belong.
Jac Shreeves-Lee’s debut collection, Broadwater: short stories grounded in Tottenham, is comprised of 14 short stories and a brief introduction narrated by Ricky, the protagonist in the final story. These gritty stories about love and loss, race and belonging, ageing and hope are interlinked, to lesser and greater degrees, creating a strong feeling of cohesion, of community, which is precisely what the collection is about: the community of Broadwater Farm.
There is a feeling of inevitability about love and loss within these stories, as if its coming or going is totally out of the characters’ control. One example is when Ruth ‘can’t ask what the point is and tell [Dave] that love can only ever hurtle towards its own end.’ Or when ‘Winston doesn’t expect Karen to understand; they often miss one another’s meaning and he’s learned to push down the hurt of her cool dismissals.’ And whereas Binty, Ruth’s sister, once thought ‘love cancelled out everything’ now feels she has no control over the fact that her relationship with Dan has ended; she is Dan’s victim, Dan’s prey’ and has ‘OLD, obsessive love disorder, which affects about 0.1% of adults.’
Race and a sense of belonging feature heavily within the lives of these characters. When it was suggested that Winston, who dresses up as Santa every year to commemorate the loss of his son, form part of an ethnic group and stay ‘at the back, in front of the wheelchair users, to make a “statement”,’ his wife, Karen, responded, with the following:
‘I know about racism in a way you couldn’t possibly know,’ Karen said. ‘You know about how racism is received, but I know how racism works, how it’s done. I can beat the organisers at the own game. Watch me; I know how they think. I’m white, Winston, and I know what that means. A lot of white people don’t recognise their whiteness much less accept the privilege that comes with it.’
In ‘Michelle’s Story,’ Michelle starts a relationship with Gladys – a white woman much older than her and is upset when Gladys bites her while lovemaking. ‘[I]t’s weird but white women always bite me in bed. […] I read somewhere that biting’s a form of ownership, marking one’s territory, branding.’ Gladys doesn’t feel it’s important, or sinister, saying, ‘[p]erhaps it’s not about ethnicity or race at all.’ To which Michelle replies: ‘Not about race, Glad? When isn’t anything about race when you boil it down?’
Ageing and a lack of control over our bodies is a theme that runs throughout the collection. ‘For Norma bodies are mysteries. They commit mutiny every day but are never held to account.’ Norma, who had a stroke before she turned forty, is now in a wheelchair and has lost the ability to walk or talk, feels ‘gaoled’ by her body and ‘is convinced God takes away those gifts we don’t use.’
‘Olivia’s Story’ spans an entire lifetime, with particular focus on her early days, and her final ones which were spent at Belleview House, a nursing home. Subsequently, in ‘Seb’s Story’, Olivia tells Seb she’s ‘not frightened of death […] It’s the way of all living things.’
Talking to his best friend, Paula, Sebs asks, ‘Do you think we’ll mess up when we’re older?’ and Paula replies: ‘Probably. Looks like that’s all adults do, and then they get dementia and die.’ What seems like a throwaway comment from one young person to another, on reflection carries significant weight; not only for the lives within the stories of this collection, but for real life, the one we as readers are living and breathing and just trying to get through as best we can, messing up as little as possible, before we slip into old age and beyond.
Despite all the darkness and desolation, there are lighter moments and stories of hope, particularly Ricky’s story which mirrors the introduction; looking at not just his life, but the community of Broadwater Farm. Ricky’s friend, Tiny, belittles the redevelopment of the area, complaining that ‘[t]he stadium is just another Trojan horse’ and ‘[b]ig money don’t trickle down’, but Ricky refuses to be pulled into the negativity of his friend and is convinced ‘[c]hange is coming.’
The stories in Broadwater are all highly enjoyable. They do that wondrous thing of breaking open a world, just a fraction, to allow readers a glimpse of what it would be like to live it, to live in ‘Glorious technicolour Tottenham.’
Laura Besley is the author of micro fiction collection, 100neHundred (Arachne Press, 2021), and flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers (Dahlia Books, 2020). She has been listed by TSS Publishing as one of the top 50 British and Irish Flash Fiction writers. Her work has been nominated for Best Micro Fiction and her story, To Cut a Long Story Short, appears in the 2021 Best Small Fiction anthology. Having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong, she now lives in land-locked central England and misses the sea. She tweets @laurabesley