First Chapter, For Writers

First Chapter Competition 2022: Finalist Emma Zipfel

Meet Emma Zipfel, a finalist in the 2022 Women’s Prize x Grazia First Chapter competition. Emma, 43, is a writer, mother, teacher and life-long Londoner. She is passionate about writing that explores diverse voices and experiences. This is reflected in Emma’s own writing as well as her roles as an Inclusion Ambassador for Inclusive Minds and as a freelance sensitivity reader. Emma is currently working on her first novel but also enjoys writing short stories and poetry. When she is not reading or writing, Emma is probably drinking a strong coffee, running with friends or trying not to fall over on her rollerskates.  

Tayari Jones started the chapter…

I’d lost my job at the start of the pandemic and there really wasn’t much to fill my afternoons, so you can’t blame me for day-drinking. Returning home for a nap, I found a tall woman sprawled inelegantly on the front stairs, surrounded by candy wrappers. 

She didn’t recognize me. To be fair, I had changed a lot in the last twelve years; it’s called growing up. Still, having planned the encounter, she should have been prepared.

As I opened the gate, she smiled and asked if I knew a girl called Teresa. 

“It’s me,” I sighed. “Mother, it’s me.”

Emma continues the story…

“Terri!” She scrambled to her feet, all tangled heels and flippy weave, “Darlin’!” beaming at me through brightly-painted lips, the remnants of a lemon Maoam chew stuck to her gums. I tried to look away but she was tottering down the steps, arms reaching towards me like tentacles. I didn’t want to be sucked back in.

“You look so…” Her eyes travelled from last night’s chunky twists down over my unmade-up face, the smile contorting into something else as she took in the oversized sweatshirt and over-stretched leggings all the way down to the sports socks ‘n’ Crocs combo that had become a life-staple. Slowly, her gaze crawled back up again, as if she were hoping that her presence might have magically transformed me, like a modern-day east London Cinderella, into something appropriately on-trend and suitably uncomfortable to pass as ‘aspirational’.

I watched her visibly searching for the right word to describe the disappointment that I had never failed to summon in her. “You look so…different,” she smoothed her neon-check pencil skirt over her lean thighs as though this would somehow make me more presentable, her glossy tangerine lips twisting and unable to hide her obvious distaste.

“It’s Rees, Mother. Everyone calls me Rees now.” I could feel the fur of that last glass of rose coating my tongue and dulling my irritation, grateful that Casey had convinced me to knock back one more before she returned to the monotony of her home office and another decidedly uninteresting Zoom meeting. I’d sympathised while harbouring a secret longing for the days when I too could moan about being bored by virtual meetings in my pyjama bottoms.

It wasn’t only my rapidly diminishing savings that were gnawing away at the sober portions of each day, it was also that the days were just. So. Long. In my bag, I felt the cool weight of the chilled bottle of white I’d picked up at the Tesco Metro ‘round the corner to help the rest of the afternoon melt into evening and decided it’d be best saved until Mother had left. No doubt I was going to need it.

“Rees?” her nose wrinkled, “That’s not even a name, is it, hon?” she dipped her hand into her tiny Chanel handbag and pulled out an orange sweet, deftly untwisting the wrapper with one hand and slipping it between her Tangoed lips, chewing loudly, waiting for me to admit that in fact, no, my name was not even actually a name and I’d go back to being Terri. I’d go back to being who she wanted me to be.

“I like it.”

“Hmmm. Maoam?”

“What?”

“I mean, why are you here? After all of this time? Why did you come back?”

She dipped her hand back into her Chanel and pulled out a strawberry flavour this time, holding it out to me like an olive branch. “No…You’re supposed to be thousands of miles away across an ocean. Mother, what is this about?”

“You won’t believe it, hon, but my flight was a week earlier than I thought – I almost missed it completely!” She laughed, shaking her head and holding her palms up to the sky as if to say, ‘What am I like? I went out for milk and bought everything except the milk!’ “In the end, I just didn’t get a chance to let you know I was coming.”

“That’s ridiculous, Mother, but that’s not what I’m asking. I mean, why are you here? After all of this time? Why did you come back?” I noticed a small shiny faux-alligator wheelie case hiding behind the bins like it was preparing to spring out and snap up an unsuspecting bin man. Definitely Mother’s. I wondered why she had tucked it back there.

“Well, hon, since your dad, you know, passed on, I didn’t want you to be alone, I thought you would need someone. To be there for you?”

In twelve years she hadn’t cared enough to visit, even a Christmas card wasn’t a dead cert each December, and I was supposed to believe that she was here for me?

“Mother, Dad didn’t die. He moved on, not passed on: got remarried. It’s not the same thing; he’s still here for me when I need him. And Letitia is actually lovely – really makes an effort to make me feel like family.”

At the mention of Letitia, the sour twist had returned to her lips reminding me of the garnish on an overpriced whiskey cocktail. She sniffed deliberately and flipped her ice-brown weave behind her shoulders. Her eyes flitted judgementally over my ringless fingers and I became aware that I was picking at my cuticles – I hadn’t done that since I was a teenager. “I see you haven’t found anyone yet. It must be very lonely for you – seeing your father move on and find happiness when it should be your own wedding that you’re planning…”

“No, not really. I’m happy for him. He deserves to be happy.”

“Well.” Her eyes flickered towards the alligator behind the bins. “Are you planning to catch up on ten years right here on the doorstep, or are you going to invite me in?”

“Twelve years. Where are you staying? A hotel?”

“Shall we go inside and I’ll fill you in? Grab my case will you, hon? I don’t think I can manage it in these heels.” She teetered back up the stairs, ignoring the candy wrappers crushed beneath each step; the sugary smell of synthetic fruits wafting behind her. I sighed, picking up the suitcase and heaving it up the five stairs to the front door, praying to any god who might be listening that this case did not mean what I thought it meant.

To read the chapter as completed by finalist Estefania Cortes Harker click here, or to meet the 2022 First Chapter winner Carmel Boyhan Irvine, click here.

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