Strange things keep coming out of Nadia’s pockets. Not her things. Not things that might accidentally have found their way into the wrong coat. Not things that should, by rights, physically fit in the space afforded by the pockets in question. But they keep coming out. Pockets is the World Fantasy Award-nominated short story by Amal El-Mohtar.
As you’ve probably gathered from previous bite-size book reviews, I typically like my short fiction dark and ominous. I gravitate towards stories that will make me think or make me uncomfortable; my favourites tend to sucker punch me at the end. But Pockets is easily the warmest, fuzziest story to clamber into my affections this year.
It all starts with a stray bit of fudge. Pretty innocuous for some people’s pockets, but Nadia doesn’t like fudge. Besides, she was fishing for some change to give to a busker. Confused, on the spot, she drops the fudge into the busker’s case, because she’s committed and there’s no way to snatch back her hand without it being even worse. Her queries of her friends – are you putting things in my pockets? – are quickly abandoned when they laugh at her.
I can’t help but read – and relate – to her reactions in terms of embarrassment. I’m English.
Of course, the fudge is only the beginning, and it doesn’t matter what Nadia’s wearing – she finds things in any pocket. It’s definitely her, not her coat. When it starts to get a bit worrying, steps need to be taken. The obvious solution? No more pockets. That’s either common sense or meeting the problem head on or escalating to professional levels of avoidance depending on your point of view. Hats off to Nadia (and actually, that’s a thought – I wonder if Nadia wore hats? I know it’s not technically a pocket, but when it comes to clothing you pull things out of… I’m guessing Nadia stopped wearing hats, too).
Unfortunately, a lack of pockets can catch you out in cold weather, and once again caught on the spot, Nadia lies to a bemused friend about why she’s sewn shut her pockets. Her lies are as clumsy as her shame. I’m embarrassed in sympathy by this point.
Thankfully, Nadia has good friends.
Tessa’s rigorous scientific approach to trying to solve the mystery is somewhat undermined by the quantity of things that Nadia finds in her pockets (I was laughing out loud by this point) – but at least those really do belong to Tessa. In fact, I get that Nadia’s new ability is disturbing if you’re Nadia (who knows what will come out of those pockets next), but I can’t help but find this whole story delightful. It’s the sort of story that plasters a smile on your face as you read.
Then just when I thought I’d hit the high point, the introduction of Warda moves the story on from being a fabulous, whimsical riff on the critical lack of pockets on women’s clothing (perhaps it’s a blessing, ladies. Imagine what we might find in them) to big thoughts about compassion and making the most of unlikely things.
What Nadia needs is perspective; what she gets is friendship, and a reassurance that – in so many ways – she is not alone. There’s a whole heap of threads woven into a careful little cat’s cradle to catch Nadia from her free-fall (and to snare my heart in passing) – Warda has fled terrible context in her past; she more than anyone understands the need for a little bit of love in the world and understands what a big difference it can make. It’s a philosophy I can get behind; a philosophy the world sorely needs right now.
Yes, yes – I cried on the train again. And put my hands in my pockets on the walk home from the station.
Pockets can be read online at Uncanny.
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