Karen McLeod

Karen McLeod is a published author and comic performer. Her debut novel, In Search of the Missing Eyelash, won a Betty Trask award and was translated into four languages. As a performer she works with art co-operative DUCKIE and London Southbank’s LGBTQ+ Literary Salon, POLARI.  She presents her theatre nationally and in 2018 her Arts Council England funded show ran at Edinburgh Fringe.

HOLDING PATTERNS is a work of auto-fiction which spans Karen’s childhood through to when she worked as a long-haul air hostess.

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It was one of those lucky cardigan-free July Saturdays. The street air was as soft as cloth and Karen’s arms bare and swinging free. Thunder was forecast but she had refused to take an umbrella to dance class because no one her age carried an umbrella. Ahead of her was the mammoth space of the six-week school holidays with only five days at Camber Sands Caravan Park to make a dent in it. There was to be no Spanish holiday this year – Karen’s annual harvesting of airline drinks napkins, salt and pepper sachets, miniature foil bags of nuts and cocktail swizzle sticks would have to wait – her mother had said something about money for a new boiler and paying off Tammy dog’s womb operation.

Now that she was eleven years old she was allowed to walk some of the distance back from dance class on her own. At the corner of Avenue Road she waved goodbye to her best friend Cheryl. As she left her, Cheryl popped a coiled section of her white blonde hair in her mouth to suck. They hadn’t wanted to stop waving but Karen dropped her hand first and started the final three minutes to number forty-seven Clevedon Road. This distance between leaving Cheryl and arriving at her own front door was so short, so suburban; it was unthinkable that anything unusual would ever happen.

She knew she was not the best dancer in the class, but she was good at art and had just won a Blue Peter badge, so she figured she was better at drawing than Cheryl. This pleased her though she knew it shouldn’t, because it was mean. They had both learnt the disco routine to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ at Peggy Spencer’s dance studio in preparation for the Halloween disco. Cheryl had got the dance steps correct after the first demonstration and Karen knew, if she copied her just a bit more, she too could get the hand clap to go with the shimmy. After all, she let Cheryl follow her fingers in recorder class, so it was only fair.

Karen ambled along, the dancing fresh in her hips and the clicks of her fingers. Small buds, the swelling of fat building as soon-to-be breasts, were making ground in her t-shirt and as she brushed her arm against them she thought to herself, these are mine and they are growing and it is all ahead of me. I feel sexy, like Dallas the soap opera sexy. Though mum wouldn’t want me to use the word, I know what it means because Cheryl and me are this when we kiss on mum and dad’s bed after spreading open dad’s shiny lady magazines.

She walked tall because she was getting taller. Height was becoming her thing. Some mornings, after her mother yanked back the curtains to wake her with the painful daylight, she stretched her legs down the mattress and would feel them lengthen. She had got used to this daily feeling of vertigo, of the floor being a tad further away from her nose than the day before, but she didn’t want to become a giant who had to duck in doorways.

Nearing the end of Percy Road, Karen stopped outside Peggy Spencer’s house. The famous dance teacher was often on the telly judging ballroom competitions and Karen found it hard to match the person on the screen with the one who lived behind a chipped faded blue front door. She wished she knew what went on in the champion dancer’s front room and imagined pirouettes and champagne in small glinting glasses with mini sausages on sticks. Not everyone knew where the teacher of the dance school lived and she felt a special pride in being in on the secret.

She was just past the bungalow on the corner of her road when she noticed a man was striding hurriedly towards her. He must have come from the alleyway that ran across the top of the road. From his speed it was clear he was off someplace important. It was then that she decided to do something she hadn’t ever tried before. ‘I’ll stick out my chest’ she thought, ‘and if I get a glance from the stranger it means I am attractive.’ So she stood up straight, pulled back her shoulders and the sun shone brightly as if in agreement.

‘Do you have the time?’ the man asked, as he got close.

‘No, sorry, I don’t,’ she said, lifting up her bare wrists as evidence of no watch.

‘This is nice,’ he said, pinching her breast hard.

His fingers were long. She followed the way his thick gingery hairs ran all the way up his arms thinning just before his t-shirt sleeves. She lifted her head and stared at his bristly ginger beard and the patchy dry spots on his chin. He had something like a white dried paste at the corners of his mouth. She remembered how Cheryl had eczema and how she was jealous of the special cream Cheryl got prescribed by the chemist, as if she was the chosen one.

‘Thanks,’ he said.

She waited: surely he was going to say something else? But instead he hurried off. A white rectangular line of a cigarette packet was worn into his jean’s back pocket. The street was remarkably silent. No traffic, it was as odd and still as Christmas Day. She examined how the side of her little finger travelled down to meet the bone on the side of her wrist and realised she had never noticed the way it stuck out before.

She had made it obvious there was no watch.

She had pointed to the skin where one would be and tapped it.

She had not known the time.

But then she remembered she had shown him something else and in turn he had revealed how the world was going to treat her disco-dancing, step turn hop of a body. How her skin was going to be, and yet wasn’t going to be hers.

At the front gate of her house she turned to see how far the man had got to but he had disappeared. A tall plane tree stood from a square cut in the pavement. The tree must have been in front of her house since she was a baby, but she had never noticed it before. The mud at the base of the trunk was dry and a dog had left a chunky mess, like fat fingers overlaying each other. She tucked her dirty blonde fringe behind her ear but it fell out again. Too short, she had asked Cheryl’s mother to just trim it but she never listened. She shivered as she noticed a breeze moving through the branches of the tree. The leaves were turning this way and that, waving hello and goodbye. Most were green, but some were yellowing. It was summer; it was supposed to be summer.

A few hours later, while waiting for the Police, Karen sat on the good sofa in the front room sipping orange squash. She had balanced a second peppermint club biscuit on the arm for when she’d finished the first. There would be no TV cameras coming to film her for the news she was sure, but she knew she would have to appear upset when the officers arrived. She was worried whether she had any water left in the tear store tank which she imagined was somewhere in her stomach. For the past three hours she had been crying on and off as she’d tried to find the words to tell mum what had happened. All the while, mum had patiently repeated the same question while sporadically trying to flatten her tight perm against her neck with her hand.

‘So you’ve had one of your fallings out again with Cheryl?’ mum had said.

‘No,’ she’d kept saying. ‘No, it’s not that. Me and Cheryl are OK. It’s…’

‘So what is it then? I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.’ Mum said. She had started to get that snippy sound to her voice.

In the end, she managed to spill it out with short sentences:

‘A man. On the corner. Close to here. Touched me. There.’


Tea was laid out ceremoniously on the coffee table with a choice of chocolate or plain digestive biscuits. The Police were going to get the same treatment that mum laid on for the grandparents. When the two officers arrived they brought in the smell of the outside air on their white starched shirts. One was female with hair cut short around her ears. She hesitated in the lounge doorway before being led by mum over to an armchair. The other, a short male with a stomach that pulled at his shirt buttons, followed right behind with his helmet in his hand. As they shifted in their seats Karen couldn’t help notice how the room appeared more real than usual: the stacked plates gleamed on the table, the velvet curtains glowed vividly in their crushed olive green and the yellow bananas sat too bright balanced on the carroty red oranges. It all appeared so precise, so extraordinary, it was as if the lounge had become a department store mock-up of a show front room.

The female officer held out her notepad and pulled out the pen slotted in the loop, licking the nib. The male one brushed a finger against his nose to itch it. Karen noticed they had not parked their police car outside the house and wondered where it was. As they began chatting with her mother about her job as a dinner lady mum recognised the policeman as being the same Danny Roberts from his primary school days.

‘My, you’ve not changed a bit!’ she said.

‘Well maybe a little, Mrs McLeod,’ he replied, his cheeks reddening as he dipped his head showing the boy he once was. Karen studied her mother wondering when the interview was going to properly begin. She couldn’t decide whether she would like the police car to be outside in case Cheryl’s mum drove by. She hoped the police hadn’t come on bicycles because that would have taken away all sense of importance. Bicycles were funny, everyone knew that.

It was at this point that the Police brought a new word into the house: molestation.


Mole station.

‘So? Tell me a bit about today,’ the lady officer said.

‘I was walking home from Peggy Spencer’s dance school,’ Karen said, noticing her mother clasp her hands so tight her knuckles went white.

‘Yes, please go on, take your time,’ said the officer.

‘My friend had gone into her flats,’ she said. ‘When I reached the corner of our road, a man was there in front of me. He asked me the time, that’s all. Then he touched me here and said it was nice and sped off. He was ginger. He had a bit of stuff around his mouth, like he’d been eating something. No one was there.’

There was a lot of nodding after Karen described him. But she had not seen his eye colour and couldn’t be sure if he wore glasses. When they were finished with their questioning the officers packed up and took a biscuit at her mother’s insistence. They left imprints of their bottoms on the armchairs. The last words they said were that they hoped to find the man and if they did he would be punished in a court of law.

As she listened to mum making phone calls, retelling her story but without any mention of the squeezing, she felt like she did when Christmas was all over; the front room had lost its decoration. It appeared empty, wide and terribly sad.  So she played the game she often did when bored and listening to mum on the phone: guess which person mum was speaking to by the accent she adopted. For this particular call she could tell it was Grandma Rose because of the Welsh elongations mum inserted into her vowels.

‘A man touched Karen you see,’ mum went on. ‘In the street. Noooo, she’s fine. She’s in the lounge having a Choc dip.’

Later, Dad came home early from the insurance company in Croydon where he worked. He usually liked to tickle Karen and wind her up and Tammy dog would get bothered and start barking, but when he got in he didn’t do this. Instead he kissed her on the top of her head as if she was poorly then left the house. He said he was going to search out the ginger man. She waited and waited, expecting him to return at any moment and say he had punched the man in the teeth, but still, by bed-time, he had not returned.

Karen was reading by the light of her desk lamp when she heard the front door open. She pushed back the sheet and crept to the top of the stairs, sitting down in order to get a good view of the hall. By the telephone table she saw her father bend over, pulling off his work shoes. He lost his balance and grabbed hold of the radiator. When steadied he lifted his ruddy-face to the mirror and smoothed down his hair. Then he opened a black carrier bag and slipped out cans of lager into his briefcase, which he then buckled up and placed by the front door. The lounge door opened and the sound of voices from the TV crowded up the stairs. Dad went in and in the half-light she heard the raised voice of her mother and the muffled bass murmuring of her father until there was a violent click shut of the front room door. With her nightie stretched tightly over her knees there was hardly a sound left to hook her hearing onto. It was as if they sensed her listening and so had decided to make the house motionless.


A week later, Cheryl’s mum rang her mum. A ginger man, their ginger man, had been caught by the police. He had attacked an old woman in her basement flat. She overheard her mother on the phone whispering ‘raped?’ but when her mum came into the lounge to pass on the news she used different words; ones much softer, like she was slowly folding creases into napkins.

‘The man got into the old lady’s flat by pretending his car had broken down,’ she said. ‘He asked to use her phone which must have been in her front room, because that is where he went. His ploy all along was to ask innocent people for help. To disarm them. Nasty piece of work. But the police have him. So he’s going to get his comeuppance and you’re not to worry anymore. He’s gone.’

Karen thought how it could have been her Grandma whose breasts the man had groped through the layers of her clothes. Then she realised that she had never thought of her grandmother as having breasts before. She got down on the carpet and lifted one of the dog’s long curly ears to peer past the tendrils of fur into the shadowy pink lobe. It was difficult for her to think about the man’s attack on the old woman and her mole station in the same way. Tears began to fizz in her nose. Anybody, young or old would do for the man. It proved he had not found her attractive after all, not if he found old ladies sexy-looking too. Tammy dog rolled over on her back and she brushed the golden hair of her belly. She examined the small pink teats and counted eight and wondered whether the man also touched dogs because they had lots of breasts? Did he touch everything and anything? Would he run his hand over a hill if he fancied some of that?

‘Get up,’ she said to Tammy, pushing the dog’s side until she rolled back.

‘And don’t show your tummy again.’

The dog twitched her eyebrows up and, sensing no more playtimes, sighed then lowered her head to her paws.


When Karen started the all girl’s comprehensive school that autumn, it was a sweltering hot September. The windows frames were freshly painted shut so the wasps trapped in the classrooms. With the ginger man safely locked up, she’d convinced her mother that she should be able to walk the twenty minutes to and from school with Cheryl. However on this particular Wednesday, Cheryl left school at lunchtime to go on one of the holidays her parents liked to take during term-time. Karen had not told mum she planned to walk home alone that day as she knew that she needed to try her road alone again. She was not going to be the type of girl who avoided streets because of sudden men.

Apart from seeing a squirrel jump in the air between trees, the journey to the end of Clevedon Road had been uneventful. She’d followed a group of older girls in the same navy uniform until they headed off to the high street. As she passed the end house she saw that a lone man was walking on the same path towards her. She felt her stomach lurch. Over the road there was a cream painted house with a buggy parked out front which meant the mother would be in if she needed to knock. By crossing she could avoid him while still appearing not scared of him. She touched the metal clasp of the Seiko watch on her wrist to check it was still there. A gift from Grandma Rose for her bravery, she now had the time in case anyone asked. As the man got closer she could make out his blond crew cut, stone-washed jeans with turn ups and a stripy t-shirt. Surely he was too fashionable to be like the other man?

She stepped quickly into the road, threw her bag over her shoulder in order to appear relaxed. It wasn’t odd, people cross the road all the time. But what she hadn’t expected was as she reached the kerb that he began to saunter across too. Was this a new type of ‘what’s the time?’ game that men played? Had she sent out a magnetic message like a radio signal? Too obvious to go back, she stopped still and reached into her bag to pull out one of her school books from the library: A History of the Second World War. In class she was bored by the musty smell of the subject, but now in her hand, it had a good throwable weight to it.

The pages of the book fell open on a black and white photograph. Underneath it read: Man with Trench Foot. She focused on the missing toes of the poor soldier and told herself to keep her eyes on it as if she was studying diseases. After all she might be a really bookish student who liked to read on her way home. There was no law against it she was sure. As he drew nearer she felt his eyes running over the collar of her baggy blouse. She delved into her bag to pull out her ink pen and formed a dagger by placing her thumb over the end. Resisting the urge to guard her breasts with the history book she felt his presence all down her back until, at last, he had passed. She waited until he reached the garage on the corner before she looked up. Her pen was shaking a little, but still, she had done it; she had made Clevedon Road her way home again.

She crossed back over and sped along, brushing the tops of the brick walls with her fingers. Never had the odd-numbered terraced houses of Anne’s, Pat’s, Pauline’s, then Caroline’s, Joyce’s, Flo’s and Alf Thwaite’s BNP headquarters all appeared so united. The pampas grass swayed and the peach roses turned their heads up at her shouting out their colour, she was convinced, as if she had walked right in on exactly her moment. The neighbour’s cat ran to her with its love-me-do cry and she stroked the long guitar strings of its whiskers and ruffled the white flaked-fish fur of its stomach. It wasn’t until she was back in front of the red bricks of Mr and Mrs Saunders’ house next door and through the well-oiled swing of her own front gate, that she realised she was still clutching the book and pen. She dropped them inside her bag so they landed with a good punch and leant her shoulder against the bevelled glass of her door. Jumping into the hall, she kicked off her shoes so they flew in the air. Tammy dog ran from the lounge, shaking her cocker spaniel ears violently so her chops flapped against her teeth.

Karen was cured. And she believed it.

‘Hello love,’ mum shouted. ‘Stewed meat and chips for tea. Do you want boiled carrots?’

‘No thanks,’ Karen said, making a face at Tammy.

While mum lowered the wire basket of chipped potatoes into the sizzle of hot oil, Karen headed upstairs to the bathroom to check on the medicine cabinet. Since swallowing a few pills when she was four and ending up in hospital having her stomach pumped – something which Karen did not remember – no tablets were ever kept at arm’s reach again. Only perfume, dad’s Old Spice aftershave, talc and razors, plasters and pile cream were lined up along the top shelf, but on the bottom shelf, there was a bottle of cough medicine sat next to the family-sized jar of Vaseline. She took hold of the brown container and held the glass up to the light to examine its ruby red contents. About a thumb-full sat thickly at the bottom. It would do fine. She unscrewed the lid, licked the dried sugary residue around the lip and took a sip. Then she had another one for luck. And another for luck’s sake. The heat warmed her chest and as the liquid reached her stomach it gave off that hot fluttery feeling she knew well – lift off. It was the same as when the swings in the playground reached the highest point before pausing mid-air to fall down, and the same as when she kissed Cheryl on the bed and it was the same as collecting the airline napkins and fastening your seat belt and the stewardess pointing out the emergency exits with her fingers. It was life.

The bottle was now empty. She must have finished it by mistake. She wanted more. Returning the bottle to its shelf she went downstairs to the lounge where Tammy dog was asleep in the armchair. Quietly she opened the door to the drinks cabinet housed under the record player. There was a whole party of bottles: Malibu, Cinzano, Sherry. The serious labels belonged to dad: brandy, whiskey and vodka. There were often parties on Saturday nights when her parent’s friends came round and made the house smell of cigar smoke. She had watched them turn puce with drinking and laughing. Carefully she lifted each bottle to see which had the most in. The sherry had been hardly touched.

Just as she began to unscrew the lid the dog swung her head round.

‘Dinner’s ready,’ mum bellowed. She heard the creak of the hallway floorboard and got the lid back on the bottle and in the cupboard with enough time to sit next to Tammy. The door to the lounge opened and Mum flicked her glare at Karen and then around the room. But Tammy could often be a traitor, and she pulled away from Karen in search of the promising smells coming from the kitchen. After all, it was tea-time. Again. And the best Karen could hope for now was garlic bread and the meat to have no gristle.