Sabrina Schioppa

Sabrina was born in Naples, grew up in Verona and moved to London in 2018, and is described by her own family and friends as a know-it-all as well as a natural leader (or bossy). She picked up her first book when she was 6 (Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe) from her mother's bookcase. She is a freelance editor, occasional contributor of plot-ideas to friends and colleagues and a Copy Editor Volunteer for Qisetna. Her favourite authors include Jean Rhys, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde but she can’t say no to a good thriller. She's opinionated and ambitious  - no wonder she's a feminist in Publishing.

Panther
Image credit: Angel Luciano

The Mantelpiece

It’s hunting season.

It surely is our protagonist’s favourite. She waits for it the whole year – watching tutorials, sometimes on the commonly accessible web and some other times, for the more detailed stuff, on the dark web. She drives all over the country to get the best supplies, studying the area, the woods, the different species. She likes trophies. Sometimes she hangs them on her walls or decorates her shelves, her coffee table, or even gifts them. Her gifts are always so well received – she has a knack for gift-giving. She says that studying a person’s behaviour in relation to objects is the best way to figure out the perfect gift. Feelings are also important – one of the things she found out is that not many women actually like getting jewellery gifted. That is, as a matter of fact, quite a sexist stereotype and she is sensitive to identity – if women are not in need of any specific jewellery, stay away from it. If, on the contrary, they are looking for something extremely specific, and during your hunting season you’re lucky enough to come across it, by all means, please, gift it. Sometimes people are decorating their house, so you could gift them a picture frame, or a painting that matches the colour story rather than taking into consideration ‘their favourite colour’. It is that simple. Gadgets are always well-received – perhaps a Kindle, or an iPad if you have the money to spend. A watch! Watches are a great gift, especially for men … when it comes to women, sizes are important, so avoid anything that requires a size. Clothes are always a bad choice. Avoid clothes at all costs. Hell, even burn them. Acid gets rid of anything, doesn’t leave a trace. She is quite used to thinking about every single detail because details make the big picture … without them, the frame stays empty or half done, or worse, broken. Her popularity is justified – she is so charismatic; she could make a person do anything. Of course, she doesn’t use it as an advantage! She’s not that kind of person! She is aware of her charisma and she knows just the right time to turn it off and on. 

Nothing to worry about.

She hunts for personal gratification, also it is a little bit of a challenge – you wouldn’t think so, but hunting is heavily competitive. You wouldn’t believe the number of people out there hunting. 

She doesn’t care about what you do in your free time, why should you?

Her friends love her. Did I mention that already? If you talk to any of them, they will tell you that she is the best person they’ve ever met. So outgoing, so sociable, so lovable. They would trust her with their life. Not many of them agree with this hobby of hers, however, they respect it, as good friends do. As long as it’s swift, painless and doesn’t directly hurt anyone … why not? Anyway, she doesn’t particularly like talking about it. It is kind of a touchy subject for her – understandably! She is proud and she knows she is extremely good at it, almost the best! Just imagine that you like knitting and then someone comes along and says that they don’t agree with the practice and you should stop. You would get mad as well and it is very justified. People just love to run their mouths all the time, they never stop, they never shut up. No matter if what you are doing is right or wrong, they will always have an opinion, right? Anyway, people not agreeing isn’t a problem and they usually get taken care of (with a civil confrontation, of course).

“I admire the way you prepare for hunting season,” mumbles Rosemary, looking at her from the armchair. “But why the bleach?” she asks, glancing at a big bottle.

“Come again?” Our protagonist is stuffing her bag frantically. When the weather calls her name, she ignores whatever people are saying. Nothing is like supply time.

“I understand the torches and the black clothes… but what’s up with the bleach?” Rosemary stands up and straightens out her t-shirt. She looks around and touches the heads mounted on the walls with her fingertips. She makes sure she doesn’t apply too much pressure – her friend is incredibly anal about it. It’s a sentiment that comes with passion, Rosemary thinks, nothing to do but accept it.

“I hate stains, Rose.” She shoves the bottle in the backpack. “They ruin blades, carpets and everything”. Her friend nods while touching the nose of a particular piece she always liked as it is very weirdly shaped – nothing she has ever seen before. She understood why that might be a unique one.

“How did you get this one? I know you don’t use guns, but this one is quite big and you’re quite small.” She bends her knees slightly, to look at the neck decorated by a hole big enough to insert a probe.

“You know guns are so inelegant. I would never use one. That’s barbaric, to say the least. That’s what men use. They’re cowards. Do I look like a man to you?” Our protagonist runs a hand through her hair. “I just punctured the carotid and let it bleed. And that’s when the bleach comes in handy. I can clean my blade and my shoes. Do you think I should bring a torch?”

“Makes sense. What was it doing when you stabbed it?” Rosemary keeps nosing around ignoring her friend’s question, which makes our protagonist feel ignored. She wouldn’t mind a bit of attention every now and then. She works all day for the community after all. 

“Eating. Can you answer my question?”

“Don’t bring one.”

“Why?”

“Not necessary. The moon.”

“Good point.” She closes the backpack and then lets herself fall on the bed. She turns her head towards Rose who is rocking back and forth on the armchair, looking at her fingers. “Do you think I am good at what I do? People keep saying I shouldn’t be doing it.”

“I think you are just fine.”

She looks at the pieces decorating her room and cannot help but be proud of herself. She is good and she likes sharing her passion with her friends who are always impressed by her skills. She thinks everyone should have a friend like her, so empathic and caring. These are things that she likes to secretly think to herself. She isn’t one to brag or to think too highly of herself, however, she indulges in it from time to time, when she is alone, skinning her trophies. A little confidence never hurt anyone.

She is in her car, with her black clothes helping to conceal her in the night. She is excited. She’s found her new prey and getting to know them is a feeling which can’t be compared to any other. She breathes in the chilly air of the cold autumn. Her senses are heightened – she could have antennas instead of ears. She feels like an animal herself. Her skin is burning through the double layer of gloves, making her feel the wheel’s texture. Her excitement drops when she spots a black figure lurking by the trees. She already knows who it is. The other hunter. Todd. Competition, if she can call him that. They had sex once. Unremarkable. He is a man.

She takes the phone and dials swiftly, hiding underneath the steering wheel.

“Hello?” a sleepy voice whispers on the other side.

“Todd’s here.”

“Who?”

“Todd. Wear-socks-in-bed guy”. There is a moment of silence as Rosemary tries hard to recall whatever the hell she is talking about.

“Oh, you mean the very annoying one. The one with the slit in the eyebrow?”

“Yes, that one.”

“You should get rid of him. He’s everywhere.” Rosemary yawns. “Let me know how it goes. This could’ve been a text by the way”. Our protagonist snorts and hangs up. She places herself on the seat again and instead of looking at the prey, directs her attention to Todd. Eliminating competition is the fastest way to win – by outsmarting him, of course. She grabs on to the wheel again, her eyes barely blinking, looking at the shadow moving carefully in the woods. She takes a notebook and jots down every move he makes – the way he inspects the path, his position, the weaponry of choice. He is so careless, she thinks. He is such an amateur. He has no idea how to conceal himself. Who wears a neon yellow cap to hunt? She looks at her clothes and then raises her head towards the sky – a murder of crows has sweetly perched on the branch above and they share the same clothes. She feels prouder and prouder of herself. He can only dream of her technique. Once she gets the best prey, he will be sorry for standing her up last time they were supposed to see each other. She didn’t like that at all. And it’s not like he could afford to stand women up, she thinks. When she decides that what she’s seen is enough, she checks if there are any leaves underneath the car and very carefully removes the ones stuck to the tyres. She looks at the path and slowly picks up every leaf, making the way clear. She must be silent, swift and clean. Preys shouldn’t be able to hear any noise. She doesn’t wear shoes her own size. You must think that is a bit weird… well there’s method in madness. Who are you to judge, anyway?

Todd’s sighting ruined her plans. She wanted to, at least, do some assessment hunting, instead, she had to settle for just some observing. How lucky could she be, though! In one night, she got to observe both prey and competition. Her newfound knowledge stuck in her brain makes her feel like an earthquake – her destructive force will drag everyone to hell with her.

She slowly pulls back and tries not to shudder from the cold infiltrating the door – her left arm is completely frozen, but she is determined. She doesn’t want to make a sound. She changes her shoes very quickly and then she drives far enough to be able to close the door safely. She looks at the street, smiling. Rosemary always told her that she was such a great person and that her life was precious. It is indeed. She always tells her she is doing “God’s work”. Our protagonist likes to think of herself as a sort of fairy godmother for the children and a vigilante for the adults. They need her. She can see herself walking alongside God. 

These people need her.

The world isn’t divided into black and white, there is no such thing as good and evil. Grey exists, and it is right in the middle – it’s debatable, it’s very much ground for discussion, people are entitled to their choices as long as there is no judgement. She lives right in that middle, bombarded by people’s opinions from both sides, however, she truly believes that she is doing honest work, and she doesn’t need anyone else to validate her, especially men.

She has been called “emotional”, “bossy” and a “bitch” (usually preceded by “crazy”) first by her own father, then by her brother and finally by every boyfriend she can think of. She had to leave work for that reason – men being sexist pieces of trash. She quickly figured out that she was able to build something for herself, despite her being a woman. From the day that doctor said that she was a child who just had a different thought process, after she accidentally set the house cat on fire, she thought of herself as ‘less than’. Only recently something in herself clicked – she is not “less than”, she is special. She has something that other people don’t have – common sense.

She records details for six days, the days “of the Lord”, she says. On Sunday she rests.

It is Monday and, like an eager schoolgirl, she prepared her clothes and her backpack the night before. Her heart pumping in her chest, her smile lighting up her room before she has a chance to draw the blinds. She is a ray of sunshine! Of course, she won’t be in action until the night, but she cannot eat, sleep, speak or breathe without thinking how truly happy she feels. She is like the kind of god people need at the moment – one that is kind but unmerciful in the face of threat. She needs to protect her people; they’re all banking on her. She cannot let them down. No place for error. 

The night seeps through her blinds and a shiver runs down her spine.

It is time.

She checks her backpack one last time, wears her latex gloves first and then the woollen ones, wears a pair of shoes a couple of sizes bigger, stuffing them with extra pairs of socks. She hides behind a pair of black sunglasses and a black balaclava – however, she plans them to be easy to take off, as she enjoys showing her face to the prey as life is leaving them. She thinks it’s a kindness to show the prey who has decided that their life has come to an end so that they can pass on in peace. She is kind like that. She jumps childishly at the thought.

“Good luck.” Rosemary looks at her from the armchair. In this light, her figure looks angelic. Sometimes she wonders if she’s even real. Her voice is in the air but, every time she thinks about it, she cannot recall her face. They are always together, and people seem to never take notice of her when they walk down the streets. Incredibly odd since she is one of those people you cannot ignore. Even though, at times, the way she speaks is too much for our protagonist to handle. At times, she would ignore Rosemary’s texts and calls. Not answer the door when she knocks. But they always loved each other. Sometimes it was just too much for our protagonist and there is nothing wrong with that.

Her car slows down in front of the target, making the minimum noise possible. She looks outside the window and sees that the leaves have again covered the path set by her for six consecutive days, however it is still clearly recognisable as it has the least number of leaves covering it. She makes sure the car is in a dark spot and slowly slithers through, like a snake moving in the woods, as she clears up the path again. She scoffs at her slightly humid sweatshirt, but she is willing to get dirty for her job – that’s how much she likes it. She goes back to her car and takes her backpack, now significantly bigger than the one used during assessment. She carefully follows the now visible path, and places the backpack in a bush nearby, making sure it is slightly wet so the leaves wouldn’t make a sound. 

She crouches down.

“What is your plan of action?” Todd asks, coming up behind her, with a hammer tied around his back. He resembles the God of Thunder.  She shrugs. He is competition. “You can tell me. I am going to take the other one anyway. I know you’re just interested in the male. I want the female.”

She turns around to look at him sighing patiently. She takes a couple of seconds of silence to consider the pros and cons that would come out of this conversation. “While the children are upstairs, you take the wife, I take the husband. I reckon his face will look good on my mantelpiece.”

Todd turns around to look at the house, a sliver of pink neck visible under his neon cap. She weighs the blade in her hand.

What would her parents, currently displayed in her office, think of her now?

The Dancing face book cover
Image credit: Sabrina Schioppa

The Dancing Face and the Mission to Correct Historic Bias in British Publishing

One of the best books I’ve read this year is by Mike Phillips. He is a British writer and broadcast journalist. In 1991 he won the Silver Dagger Award by the Crime Writer’s Association for The Late Candidate, in 1996 he won the Arts Foundation Award for Thriller Writing and in 2007 he became an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List. Phillips graces the literary world this year with the republication of The Dancing Face, firstly published in 1997.

An engaging thriller, it is set in the London of the 90s and follows the story of two brothers, Gus and Danny, a Nigerian exile, Okgibo, and the clever Justine. Gus, with the help of two lowlifes, steals the ‘Dancing Face’, an inestimable Benin Mask, from the British Museum, in an attempt to gain an avalanche of attention regarding the British Empire’s thefts in Africa. At that point many characters come into play as they all have an interest for the mask – the millionaire Okgibo, the hopeful Justine, the mercenary Rodney and, finally, Gus’s brother Danny. The introduction is written by the amazing Bernardine Evaristo – she curated with her publisher, Hamish Hamilton, a new series called Black Britain: Writing Back which aim is to “correct historic bias in British publishing and bring a wealth of lost writing back into circulation” (p.vii). The Dancing Face is part of this series thanks to its preoccupation with Black culture being appropriated by the British.

I loved the way the character’s past is extremely relevant to the story – as soon as I got to know them better, I was inclined to understand their present actions rather than judge them. This point was brought up by Phillips himself in a recent interview I had with him – the importance of the past. However, the book has a lovely open ending which makes the reader miss the characters and, at the same time, leaves them satisfied with the story. When I asked him where he thinks his characters ended up after the book ended, he said that their future should be open and mysterious as it is in real life.

Regarding personal backgrounds, it is notable that the image of women is often related to sexual concepts and situations – when I confronted him with the subject, Phillips said that he would not want people to feel like he is sexualising women in his book, rather that the sexualisation is a product of the characters’ background, not the author’s. So, once again, the past plays a huge role. His book is for everyone to read and enjoy. This answer satisfied me greatly – as a feminist, I was taken aback from the objectification in the book. It is soothing to know that it is put in a context of personal background for each character rather than the whole hue of the book.

In conclusion, The Dancing Face is a book I highly recommend for everyone with interest in African culture and thrillers. It raises questions which we are not used to ask ourselves and situations with which we may be not familiar. The way the book never judges the character’s actions and doesn’t give a philosophical explanation of good and bad is comforting. Overall, a great read.

Author: Mike Phillips

Published by: Penguin Random House