MARMALADE AND MAYHEM
By Bruce Costello
go around the circle
clockwise. Say who you are and a few words about yourself,” says Hal. He reminds
Jocelyn of a garden gnome. “You must all be keen, coming out on such a stormy
“Some people find it’s hard to speak up in a group,” says
co-leader Fenella, smiling around the circle. “But do try.” She is young with a
tousled haircut and ethnic beads.
One by one, the group members introduce themselves. A timid
technician, an anxious lawyer, an exhausted mother, an emotionally abused
husband, a recently divorced policewoman, an elderly man with a bald head, a
young fellow in a wheelchair, a burned-out social worker and a down-in-the
mouth dentist. Most speak hesitantly. Some appear close to tears.
“I’m not so bad after all,” Jocelyn thinks, her tongue moving
over the L’Oréal Gilded Pink lipstick she’d applied in the car.
“I’m a preschool teacher,” she says, when her turn comes around.
“I’m twenty-five and tonight I’m wearing lipstick for the first time in my
life!” She tosses her head, brushing aside a wisp of auburn hair. “I live with
my bossy-boots aunty who treats me like a child and I want to be assertive and
stand up to her.”
Fenella beams. “Well done! And that shade of lipstick suits you
“It’s great to have a clear goal, Jocelyn,” says Hal, stroking
his beard. “You’re off to a flying start.”
“Over the five weekly sessions, we’ll be teaching you skills,”
says Fenella, “like using ‘I’ statements to express feelings, and we’ll have
role plays so you can practise using them.”
“Then,” says Hal, still stroking his beard, “three months after
the last weekly session, we’ll have a review session to see how you’ve got on.”
Down-in-the-mouth Dentist clears his throat with a rasping sound
that startles Jocelyn. “I let my wife boss me about for years, till someone
said I should stop being a doormat.” He pulls a face. “But when I started
sticking up for myself, all hell broke loose. It got very bloody. Now I’m on my
“Family and friends often prefer us to remain passive,” answers Hal.
“Over the sessions, we’ll be looking at ways to handle this.”
“However,” Fenella says, “do consider, that if you find yourself
in a relationship where you can’t be
yourself, you might be better off
to be by yourself.”
“Assuming you don’t end up with a knife in your guts,” snorts
Recently Divorced Policewoman, short-haired and broad-shouldered.
“But surely there is a not insignificant, even serious, risk of
things going awry, when you start being assertive,” says Anxious Lawyer,
crossing his arms. He speaks ponderously, as if choosing his words one by one.
“Yes,” replies Fenella. “But there’s also a risk in not living
while you’re alive.
Young Fellow in a Wheelchair laughs. “I think most people are
more afraid of living than of dying.”
Elderly Man nods his bald head. It makes Jocelyn think of a
boiled egg. “It’s living that’s the hard part,” he says, in a crackly voice.
Jocelyn pulls a tissue from her purse. “Fenella, you said that
if you can’t be yourself in
a relationship, you might be better off by
Fenella leans forward. “This is very emotional for you, isn’t
it, Jocelyn, but keep going. I can see you’ve got guts.”
“Me?” says Jocelyn. “That’s just it! I haven’t. I couldn’t
if I ended up by myself. I don’t think I’ve got a self to be by.”
Hail begins to beat against the windows and a thunderclap shakes
The lights of oncoming
traffic are dazzling against the rain that bounces from the tar seal. Jocelyn
squints to make out the white road markings.
Arriving home as
the storm strikes, she presses shoulder and hip against the front door and just
manages to push it shut.
frenzied and desperately unhappy flings itself against the house. It bellows
and paws, then charges headlong at the door, but
locks and hinges hold firm. The beast
batters all night, sobbing and cajoling, until its power is spent and it ambles
long-necked and flat-chested. She leaves the house only on Sundays to go to
church, and spends hours every day vacuuming the carpet or abusing the piano in
the lounge, poking the keys like the eyes of a discarded husband. She always
stomps about the place in podgy black shoes, her upper body thrust forward.
“You were such a
stupid girl, Jocelyn,” she growls, crunching down on toast over breakfast,
“dressing up like a tart and going to that ridiculous group thing after I told
you there was a storm coming! This assertiveness nonsense just teaches people
to be selfish and breaks up families. God
first, others second and self last, that’s
what I say. Where would you be today, eh, if I hadn’t sacrificed my own life to
raise you when your parents were killed?” She thrusts her chin forward,
pouting. “Is there any marmalade left or have you scoffed the lot?”
her chair back and goes to the pantry.
“I feel... angry
when you call me stupid, Aunty,” she blurts out, plonking a jar on the table.
“Angry? Why on earth? You’re such a sensitive girl. I’m only
trying to be helpful.”
“Yes, Aunty. Sorry, Aunty.”
“That’s all right, dear. You must be tired.” The corners of
Aunty’s lips straighten into a smile like a stretched rubber band.
When Jocelyn arrives
Rainbow Pre-school that morning, her colleague Deborah, a young woman with
curly dark hair, is nestled in a beanbag, reading Rumpelstiltskin to a medley
of toddlers. A child in a thick, tawny-coloured jersey is perched beside her
like a baby owl in a tree.
horrid man got really angry,”
Deborah reads “and stomped his foot so
hard it made a hole in the ground, then he spun around and around and the hole
got so big, he disappeared down it and was never seen again!” The children
clap and cheer.
“Thanks for stepping in, Deborah,” says Jocelyn, when the noise
subsides. “Sorry I was late.” She turns to the children. “I think nasty old
Rumpelstiltskin got what he deserved, don’t you, children?”
“How did the
Deborah asks Jocelyn later, over lunch.
“Sort of okay, I think.”
“You’ll keep going?”
“I’d better. I nearly lost it with Aunty this morning. She
didn’t even ask how I got on! Just spouted her own opinions!”
“It’s all about her, isn’t it?”
“Is it that
“To an outsider,
it sticks out like a boy bulldog’s bits. What’re the others like in the group?”
“Well, it’s the
first therapy type of group I’ve ever been in,” Jocelyn muses. “The male leader
Hal strokes his beard all the time and I find that really irritating. The other
leader, Fenella, keeps looking hard at me. And some of the people on the course
are sort of...odd.” She pauses. “Maybe I’m just too quick to judge.”
At the start of the
session, Hal asks the participants how their week has been.
Abused Husband speaks up. He’s a stocky man with a hairline that makes Jocelyn
think of Friar Tuck, and a white polar neck only heightens the effect. “I’ve
been feeling...really angry inside.”
“Angry,” repeats Hal, stroking his beard. “Anything else?”
“Ah, frightened, I guess.”
“Uhuh. Tell us about your anger first.”
“Well, my wife’s easy to get on with, as long as you keep
agreeing with her.”
“And if you don’t...?”
“I gave up disagreeing years ago. For a peaceful life.”
“And your anger?”
“I keep the lid on it.”
“Is that what you’re frightened of? What could happen if you let
the lid off?”
Emotionally Abused Husband shifts uneasily on his chair.
Hal smoothes his whiskers. “Anger’s like the pressure in a steam
boiler. If it’s not vented regularly, it builds up and explodes.” He stops
talking and lets silence fills the room.
“Anybody else want to talk about suppressed anger?” asks
Fenella, after a while, gazing around. “What’s happening with you, Jocelyn?”
One of Jocelyn’s sneakers, resting on the other, is tapping
audibly. Pressing her stomach with one hand, she balls the other into a fist,
which slides down her jeans to rest on her knee.
“What are you feeling, Jocelyn?”
Jocelyn takes a deep breath. “I used to think my aunty was like
Rumpelstiltskin, that she’d fly into a rage if I stood up to her, and then die.
But now I think ...”
The others in the room lean forward as her voice fades to a
whisper. “It’s about me being the steam boiler. I feel I could so easily
explode and God knows what I’d do.”
Exhausted Mother exhales noisily, raises a finger and then lets
it drop. She crosses and uncrosses her legs.
“Do you want to say something to Jocelyn?” Fenella asks her.
Exhausted Mother runs fingers through greying hair, long and
straggly, as if she’s just got out of bed. “I dream about throttling my
husband. He gets into such shitty moods, treats me like crap, but he can switch
on a good mood just like that,” she
says, clicking her fingers, “when his
mates come round.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“Like a puppet. As if he’s toying with me.”
Burned Out Social Worker twists in her chair, which makes a
screeching noise on the floor. “Controlling you, I’d say! No wonder you’d like
to throttle the bugger!”
“It’s normal to have these types of thoughts and good to
acknowledge them,” says Hal, his blue eye twinkling. “but possibly not a good
idea to act them out. I think throttling is still rather illegal in this
Piano playing greets
when she arrives home that night. She tiptoes to the kitchen. The music breaks
off, and she hears stomping in the hall.
Aunty’s face appears in the kitchen doorway.
“Making yourself a coffee, are you? The only
person you think about is yourself!”
“Trying not to disturb you, Aunty.”
“Totally selfish, that’s your trouble!”
The phone rings and Aunty runs to answer it. “Hullo? Oh, how are
you?” she says, jovially. “Fit as a fiddler’s elbows, I hope?” A lively
conversation begins and Jocelyn sneaks off to her bedroom.
today,” remarks Debbie, next day. “That course must be doing you some good.”
They are sitting
on an old railway sleeper alongside the sandpit, watching children play.
“The people on
the course are ...I don’t know what it is,” Jocelyn replies. “A strange
feeling...we’re all so different, some a bit irritating, but it’s as if...we’re
together in the same boat... being tossed about by a storm...all different, but
alike in how we feel. There’s a sense of belonging I’ve not had....since...”
She chokes back tears.
your parents died?”
dream is like a video in which she herself is the main
character. She knows she’s dreaming but can’t stop watching.
Fenella speaks. “We’re
plays tonight. Who’d like to go first?”
Jocelyn sees herself
perched on the edge of her chair. She sees her hand shoot up, punching the air.
“Me!” she calls out. “I want to practise telling Aunty I’m leaving home.”
Who’d you like to play the part of Aunty?”
Jocelyn turns to
Burned Out Social Worker. “Would you mind?”
They rearrange chairs
and face each other inside the circle.
“Well, Aunty,” Jocelyn
says to Burned Out Social Worker, “I’m twenty-five now and ready to leave home.
I’m going to look for a flat.”
Burned Out Social
Worker glares at Jocelyn through narrowed eyes. “I’ll be pleased to be rid of
you,” she shrieks. “And you know damn well you haven’t the guts to stick it out
on your own!”
herself crouch lower in the seat, sees her own face contort with rage and her
lips hiss hate. She watches herself spring into the air, bellowing like a wild
beast, and charge headlong at Burned Out Social Worker. She hears a scream and
sees Burned Out Social Worker writhing on the floor, a carving knife protruding
from her neck.
“I had a nightmare,”
says to the group at the third session, “and I don’t remember much about it,
except it was something to do with being assertive, and I woke up screaming.” She
looks wildly around the room and half stands, reaching for her handbag, but
bursts into sobs and slumps back into her seat, covering her face with her
broken down like
that before,” Jocelyn tells Deborah next day. “But somehow it was alright.”
melt-down. How did the others react?”
“They all rallied
around. When I really needed them, they were there.”
“They came to the
“Warts and all.”
It’s a hot humid
three months later. The windows are wide open. A thrush sings nearby.
“Welcome to the
review session,” says Hal, stroking his beard. “It’s great you’ve all turned
up. Let’s go round the circle, and each say how you’ve been doing and what you
got from the course.”
“Who’d like to go
first?” says Fenella, gazing around. “Jocelyn, you look excited. How’ve you
been? I’m dying to know!”
“I’ve been pretty
good, thanks. I had a talk to Aunty.”
“You did? How did
“Well, I was a
bit apprehensive. We’d both just sat
down to watch the news. I said to Aunty, very calmly: I’m twenty-five now and
ready to leave home. I’m going to look for a
pauses to clear her throat.
did she react to that,” Burned Out Social Worker asks.
“Not too well, actually,” Jocelyn says
quietly, frowning a little. “Aunty’s face went all funny. Then she leapt up
from her seat, howling like a mad thing and charged at me. Luckily, I happened
to be holding a carving
knife at the time, so I just held it out in front of me.”
around the circle, smiling oddly. “It made a strange sharp sort of a noise as
it went through her jacket and into her chest. Blood squirted out where the knife
went in and then it started gushing out of her throat.” Her voice rises an
octave or two, but remains calm. “It was really odd. And her eyes started rolling
around. Her tongue poked out of her mouth, all twisted like, as if she was
having a fit or something. It was weird. Anyway, she crashed to the floor, kicked
about for, oh, a few minutes or so, and then stopped moving and just lay there,
looking like a dead person.”
talking, Silence fills the room.
After a minute or
two, Fenella asks in a strange voice: “When did this happen?”
“Just before I
came here tonight. I’m on my way now to
tell the Police about it. Just thought I’d drop into the meeting on the way to
the station. And you’re such a supportive group, I was thinking some of you might
like to come along.”
Fenella’s eyes open
wide and her mouth drops open. Hal lets out a little cry and faints.
New Zealander Bruce Costello retired from work and city life, retreated to the
seaside village of Hampden, joined the Waitaki Writers’ Group, and took up
writing as a pastime. Since then, he has had 135 short story successes –
publications in literary journals (including Yellow Mama) anthologies
and popular magazines, and contest places and wins.
is a multi-award-winning writer in both fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her stories appear in Hardboiled magazine,
Yellow Mama, A Shot of Ink, Shotgun Honey, Black Petals,
Einstein’s Pocket Watch, All Due Respect, and in the anthologies Deadly
Dames and More Whodunits. Among her numerous writing awards over the years,
she has award-winning stories in Felons, Flames, and Ambulance Rides,
Battling Boxing Stories, and her published short story collection, Crawlspace.
Broken won first place and is her 4th published novel. Her first novel Deranged
won the PSWA First Place award for best published novel. Her next novel, The Mosaic
Murder, was followed with a sequel, The Corpse in the Cactus,
which won First Place and was published in the U.S. and UK. She won several other
writing awards for her short stories, including Grand Prize.
She received both art and a nonfiction Creative Writing Awards
from NLAPW, California South branch, an organization of women writers, artists, and
composers, and she served as President from 1982–1984. She is a current member of
Sisters in Crime, PSWA, and Arizona Mystery Writers, where she was the first writer to
win two consecutive awards in their annual short story contest.
Lonni was selected as Writer-in-Residence at Hedgebrook, a writer’s retreat on
Whidbey Island. After living in four states and visiting many countries, she’s
settled in Tucson, AZ. She fills her spare time showing her art at WomanKraft Gallery,
reminiscing on all her travel adventures, illustrating stories for online magazines, and
dreaming up new tales to tell.