Finding Muna / Static

Today’s Waterstones, coffee-imbibed, writer does the café thing draftage.

Have finally got over a little bit of inertia with the novel. Deadlines help. The Waterstones in Newcastle has such a lovely café – like things are a little bit different and fresh and cute. All highly important instruments to have to hand when writing.

Anyway, this is what I’ve been doing lately. The novel (still can’t decide on the name is coming to a close, returning to an opening, an echoing refrain maybe). I possibly don’t want to finish it, which is my excuse for the 4 year wait on the second novel. It’ll be a while longer yet, too. Argh!

****************************************************************************

I play Einaudi’s Nuvole Bianchi into the night – he composes such simple and beautiful pieces. Any hack could play them. They’re the soundtrack to every suburban aspiration. I bend into the arpeggios and wonder what romance is, the music seems to know, and why I still need David to want me. Why him? What does it, what would it, even prove?

*

My wife is sitting across from another man in a very cool coffee shop that she’s just a bit too old for. But Clare has that thing about her, the little web of complexity that makes it okay. Whatever.

I know this guy too. Fucker.

The effort of getting here was immense and it intrigued me, in the same way a problem would at work. A knot of tests and results to order and get passed. What’s he want from her?

I see the middle age slough from Clare as she’s sat in front of this dude. That toughening of the face just half a stone does to a woman. And there’s the illusion of girlishness again. I can just see it; like a prism of light refracting through glass. Poppy is in the back of the car being good. Poppy is always good. Poppy is a straightforward loving child. She’s like me. And that’s probably why I hate her. Who wants to look at themselves and be repulsed every damn day? She’s chewing her hair. Maybe I would always love Muna more because she was so extraordinary, so curious and thoughtful. It was a borrowed glow and we both knew it had all really come from Clare anyway.

They’ve gone to the fucking seaside. Like it’s a holiday.

The wipers claw and stop, claw and stop.

‘When – when -’ Poppy is sucking her hair, she spits it out and pats it like a cat. ‘When can we build hamcastles, daddy?’

‘Sandcastles, Poppy. I was only joking.’

A beat.

‘When – When can sancastles, daddy?’

I rub my knee. Stuffing it into a car and sitting in it for hours is doubtfully what the physio would recommend (when you shattered it jumping off a bridge, you dick).

‘It’s raining.’

‘But – but – so why are – want to play hamcastles.’

I rolled my eyes. The journalist is handing Clare some material. She leans in a little too close. There is a look; I remember that look. Maybe she just likes to complicate things, yeah? Maybe she just likes men she can’t have (fucking idiot). I think of all the non-affairs I’ve had over the years. The bit of fun. The don’t counts cos I don’t feel owt. There are always slippery young women looking up with big eyes and playing their roles. All I want is for my wife to look at me like that again. Like I counted for something.

‘Daddy!’

‘Jesus, Poppy! Shut – up.’

She frowns at me before the sobs shake her little chest. I unclip and grab her from the back. She is instantly quiet – that good girl thing that Clare likes so much. For me I’m thinking, no football-injuries here. She’s not milking it, just happy.

Just happy, what’s that like.

I flick another glance to my wife and the man who is supposedly going to help us, finally, discover what happened to our dead child. Praise be, hallelujah, man. What a fucking caht-up line. He’s got up in a flourish to get her sugar. He’s got that floppy, sweet glasses schtick that women like. You know, corduroy jacket. Blazer. Whatever. I loved that about her. The sugar thing. No weird sweetener complan only beige foods on Thursdays eating disorder bullshit that you have to navigate with so many women. And that’s the thing that ticks me off most; him liking the same things about her. That can’t be right. The repetition. It being a thing between them. Or something.

Something is hot and loud in my gut.

‘Let’s go and play hamcastles, Poppy.’

And this kid that’s somehow mine sucks up all the breath in the car and is staring up at me with big eyes, checking. I’ve barely said much to her since she was born except, don’t do that, not now Pops, daddy has a headache, Clare can you do this? I don’t know her favourite books, I can’t remember reading to her in the way I would with Muna who always had questions questions. And yet here she is, with all her hair frothy as surf, boggly blue eyes that are sometimes crazy but are now still and looking at me with pure hope and – okay I’ve seen this on young women around the office but you know, obviously, in a different way – with absolute adulation. Because of hamcastles?

‘Really, daddy? Even in the rain?’

It’s odd but I’m grinning and that feels – well it just feels. As opposed to all the blankness.

I swing the car around, draw an ever-increasing gap between my wife and the man who is supposedly going to help us find Mina.

Yeah. Like fuck.

*

(section from Poppy)

*

*

There is a theory that physicists have, of the universe and its expansion. How it will eventually collapse in on itself. Apparently, they’ve found dark energy to suggest that this might already be happening.

David has just announced this as I let myself in. I hate his voice these days. The assuredness he had when we met that made me raise an eyebrow, to appraise him, all this has been weakened like a bike chain that must be replaced. Now I just catch myself thinking, too often – cock. Where’s your 60 mile cycles now? Cock. Get out of the house. Fix yourself. But he’s been couched in the darkness by the French doors, the blinds drawn, the garden’s shadow leaking in, since what we’re calling an accident, it would seem.

‘Hello to you too,’ I mutter, hitching upstairs.

‘You what?’

‘Dying for the loo!’

My stamped footsteps. My hand on the small bathroom door, as if he was going to try and push it open. As if he ever moved. That quick slick of heat across my forehead. Is this how you felt, David? when you were doing this to me? Anger spills and grins inside me; darkens the lick of lust as I remember what I’ve done today. I remember that thing I did today. I remember what I let someone do today. I remember what I invited – today, in that place that is David’s and mine, that should not be violated. I used to be so black and white, so this is good, this is bad. So moralistic. But there has been so much pain, who really cares anymore, what does it matter? And this memory – it is delicious flickering sunshine over closed eyelids.

Even now, I want to tell David what we’ve discovered from the phone records. He will always be the person I want to share the news with. He should know what we have found out about Muna.

I snag tissue. What was he on about anyway, universe folding in on itself? I think of space in the only way I can – black, confusing, saturated with maths and mystery. And if the world collapsed, would it all just gather and trigger and begin again? So, could Muna begin again?

*

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Well because she’s at nursery. I’m due to pick her up in 45 minutes.’

‘I’m sorry, you mean Poppy? What do you mean she’s not there? How can she not be there? But I’m picking her up, so. I’m sorry, I – ’

‘Okay.’

‘Okay.’

‘Yes, yes I’ll come right now. We’re coming.’

*

When we’re sat in a police station, the second time in our lives, yet 14 years apart, with another missing daughter, I think of David’s announcement.

There is a theory that physicists have, of the universe and its expansion. How it will eventually collapse in on itself. Apparently, they’ve found dark energy to suggest that this might already be happening.

It’s as if he knew.
*

University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award 2016 – longlist

Phew! As you can see we have a very very long long-list for the adults. It was incredibly difficult distilling all of the entries into these groups. If you don’t see your name below, please don’t be put off. Remember, all readers will have different perspectives. You may have written an incredible story but perhaps the ending didn’t quite hit the right note. There were some stories here that I thought, if only you’d done that… and given such a strong field there were stories that we reluctantly put to one side for such reasons. So a ‘no’ is really a case for a redraft,a rethink and a re-submission. As is the case with all writing.

Thanks to everyone who participated. It’s been a pleasure and congratulations to those on the long-list.

The shortlist will be out at the end of August.

(technical-formal-jargonry: Please note, due to the sheer volume of submissions we cannot comment on work on an individual basis, as much as we would like to)

 

Overs

Taking Control – Tony Oswick

A Child of Dust – Sandra Morgan

A Clump of Nsenene – Farah Ahmed

A Fate that’s Fallen – Hannah Smith

A Kiss – Maeve Henry

A Random Act of Kindness – Robert Bage

A Short Timeline of Enemies and Friends – Shirley Day

A Technical Hitch – Felicity King

A Thirst for Freedom – Anne O’Connor

After the Butcher – Rob Walton

All the Young Dudes – Glenda Young

Anyone Can Explode – Pia Ghosh-Roy

Aubergine – Jennifer Harvey

Available Data – Natalie Poyser

Big Bones – Harriett Springbett

Blackbirds and Broccoli – Joanne Bales

Blackie Boy – Janet H Swinney

Box Boy – Martin Nathan

Bottled Up – Richard Lakin

Can you Smell Chips, Mam? – Debz Hobbs-Wyatt

Clean Slate – Hilary Slade

Clem – Pam Plumb

Collar’d – Helen Bridgett

Daddy – Ann Butler-Rowland

Dead Man Walking – Kristien Potgieter

Dear Me – Rob Keeley

Death Calls – Stephanie Gallon

Der Zug – Samuel Marlow-Stevens

The Diary of Amil Nazaar – JRJ Richmond

Difficult Feet – Paul Attmere

Embarrassment of Riches – Dan Brotzel

Epilogues – Dave Wakeley

Everybody Wants Baby Girls – Kate Jefford

Feathers – Fiona Ritchie-Walker

From Hull to the Hooghly – Sally Jubb

Grandmother’s Footsteps – Julie Hayman

Hero – RV Jones

His Dead Wife – Frances Gapper

Iris Nilson – I Once Remember a Story

In Chamonix – Sally Jubb

Intimations – Padraic Walsh

The Architect – James Hodgson

Killing Coldplay – Marc Owen Jones

Lust for Life – DRD Bruton

Magical Mood Swings – Dan Brotzel

The Moor – Mark Hillsdon

Matador – Melanie Whipman

Mermaids – Catherine Edmunds

Morpheus’ World – Maria Fotiadou

Morphine – Ann Butler Rowlands

My father was a lighthouse keeper – Martin Nathan

No Good Deed – James Whitman

Not Because we Will – Evan Guildford-Blake

On the Seventh Day – Lynne Voyce

On this Day – Aaron Wright

Paul Newman Eyes – KL Jefford

Plane-spotting – Dan Brotzel

Pun and Mrs Why – Cath Nichols

Resolutions – Simon Holloway

Rita’s Decision – Lisa Reily

Second Sight – Heather Parry

Silent Retreat – Alan McCormick

Someone Else’s Shoes – Lyndsey Darcy

Sonnets of the Broken Girl – David R Ford

Four Runny Fried Eggs – Anne Colledge

Simmer on the Ward – Rebecca Burns

Milan’s Box – Karen Alderman

Performance – Viccy Adams

The Hills of Ffostrasol – Alex Barr

The Lost Boys Club – Stephen Howard

The Luna Council – Lynn Voyce

The Neverborn – Ray Hopkins

The Night I Killed a Man – Sarah Evans

The Romance of Scorpions – Katherine Orton

The Songs of Selby Twigg – Kathy Hoyle

The Woman who Shrank in the Wash – Glenda Young

The Last Firework – Philippa Holloway

Thin Air – Ingrid Jendrzejewski

This Time – Elizabeth Ottoson

To be a pill, grim – Dan Brotzel

Tombstoning – Emily Bullock

Twenty-Seven Masks – Laura Steven

Two Sentences of Turkish – Shirley Muir

Victim Impact – Marilyn Appleby

 

Unders

A glimpse through Blue Grass – Ruby Eastwood

The Tiny Big Difference – Helena Sinai

Ensnared – Leah Palmer

Fighting for Freedom – Abby Moore

I Cried a River for You – Shannon Pack

The Beauties of War – Claudia Jeffers

If Only – Nupur Doshi

Memories – Sianna Hughes

Red Knight – Savinay Pavneet Sood

Returning – Josie Astin

Speechless – Emily Tubbs

Crimson Downpour – Amelia Chadwick

The Unusual Princess Story – Rowan Mathilda

The Witherhorn – Harry Anderson

Two Lives as One – Jenny Hurnell

Vanilla – Amber Slade

Letter from a Brother – Lu Jia Lee

One Last Time – Megan Hill

More in progress… ‘Finding Muna’

Been to Scotland to hoop masterclass, been on my bike, been up Arthur’s Seat which makes me think of David Nicholls’ lovely novel, One Day. Such a good, accessible, well-written book. And all about the notion of the Death Day (I think). That we should not live with the notion of one day one day, it’s now that matters (and other hippy starry-eyed notions). Is true though. Been writing too. It’s all a little messy at the moment but making a little progress with the pathway of this novel. I know where I want to end up. David and Clare have sort of come full circle, after Muna’s disappearance. They have another child and they should be alright. So I’m playing with why they’re not (and whether I want them to ever be).

*

‘Daddy,’ Muna said one day when she was helping me in the garden.

So hot you’d think the paint’d blister from the fences. I was digging a pond. I could hear neighbours being actual families. The clink of ice cubes and couple-whispers about projected DIY or when the kids’re in bed shall we – . Kind of thing.

Clare as usual was sequestered in the study with her students. She would emerge at times, oh-so weary. The reality is; did we need the money? Nah. Clare needed her brain to tick over and I couldn’t do that. Never liked that feeling, there being something I couldn’t provide. She loved my bigness, the blokeness, the fact there was a brain in there somewhere. I was self-sufficient. She admired me for that. The company. But we both knew there was a part of her brain that I couldn’t peek at. And I think that’s why I was always cheating.

‘Are you happy?’ Muna said one day.

‘Are you?’ I rested on a shovel. She straightened out a worm. There were 5 lined up. ‘What’re you going to do with them?’

She angled her head like a puppy hoping for walkies. I was expecting a serious worm-related answer. ‘Mummy knows you’re not, ya know. You went through such a lot to get to each other. I see all you two in colours. Good colours and bad colours, but,’ one of the worms is tucking into itself and she picks it up and dangles it long again. ‘They’re always fighting with each other.’

‘What are?’

‘The colours.’

Sweat needles my upper lip. I flash hot. ‘Your yellow and mummy’s yellow could go together but you put yourself in little plastic bags and tie a bow.’ She wipes worm-yuck on her dungarees. ‘It’s really childish.’

Emotion thickens my throat. I love Muna more than Clare sometimes. Are you supposed to feel bad about that too?

Then she says, ‘You need to be a bit more gooder, daddy.’

*

He always says it’s work. When he’s burrowed in a corner with the screen away from me. When surprise brightens his face and he quashes a smile. And after, I always get a kiss on the head. Or something more amorous. I want to say, why do you need that, David? Why aren’t enough? But I feel enough, I don’t think anyone would ever understand that. His vulnerability, this little need he kept upholstering, which frayed when uncared for, it made me love him more. It made him human.

*

Poppy is not that bright. I know this. It’s okay. But I love her like you love a wriggly  puppy, all bambi-eyed and sloppy. (Is this mean?) The one that’s the runt of the litter. She has allergies. We had tests done. There was a long list. Things I must protect her from.

Grass

Milk

Wheat…

When she must take medicine, I deliver it with importance, she accepts with relish.

She has an inhaler that needs to be taken three times a day. We are trying to expand her lungs.

Poppy has none of the still intelligence that characterised Muna. She is all warmth and love and no questions. Quiet. She likes having her hair brushed. She always slept through the night, whereas Muna exhausted us for years. David does not enjoy her. I know that too.

He scythes through the kitchen and my warm and yellow breakfast time with Poppy, boots on and heavy.

‘You going already?’

‘Meeting at ten.’

‘Isn’t it only about seven?’

Poppy is sat at the table, crunching on her coco puffs. She has a game with herself to see how many she can stuff into her cheeks without swallowing. She looks like a little hamster. All fluff and blonde.

My mother would have called her a buffoon. My father would have adored her.

There is some truth to the former – is that a terrible thing to admit? But her development is fine. We’ve – I’ve – had that checked too.

David leaves.

‘Stay there, Pops.’

My little hamster nods her head.

I grab David’s wrist and stall him at the doorstep. ‘Not today you don’t.’

‘I’ll be late.’

‘So?’

He sort of folds. I imagine him putting his cards on the table in our little poker game. Waiting to see my next move. ‘Look at us.’ I flap my arms and know I must look ridiculous. But this pall, this thing we live under, it’s gone on for too long. ‘We should be happy, David. After everything, didn’t we get each other back? Don’t we get this new chance? Our little girl.’

‘Our little girl is dead.’

He slams the door and a splinter of wood prickles my nose. My hair, that has rushed back, settled around me.

‘Jesus.’ I whisper to the wood, heart fast. A sheen of sweat fastens the space between my shoulders.

*

When I was a girl I did a module about the holocaust. Well, I would have been at uni but that is another lifetime now. So I do feel girlish and embryonic in that memory. We looked at Primo Levi, we looked at art designed to mimic the gas chamber, to incite cultural and collective memory – generations that will not, have not, forgotten. We looked at Maus, the dark unfunny comic strip. We heard accounts of those who survived such trials, such fear, such trauma. Where the sheer desire to live got them through the daily nightmare. And then, when the war closed and the sun shone and life returned to them, they took their life. I think of my husband and his interminable grief. If he ever speaks to me now it’s in conditionals: if only this…then that.

*

Biology

Had a biology/careers teacher (teachers, you know that feeling) who I mentioned I wanted to be a writer to. She said, what are you interested in? I said, writing. She said, if you want to be a writer you have to be interested in everything. I suspected she was right way back when in Hawkley Hall science lab but did nothing real about it until the last year.

Having a facebook brownout at the moment and really enjoying my own company. I get a bit sick and tired of being nice about other people’s suggestions/organisation/planning and there is that bit of me screaming, but I just want to be free! But I do this: Oh yeah that sounds ace (I don’t want to do it) and when do you want picking up? I’m sure I’ll get sick of myself soon enough (though possibly not, think am awesome🙂 ). Been spending a lot of time with my mum and dad. We’ve got a mountain to climb with my brother’s friend, Peter (in Wales, not being metaphoric) and there is a sneaky part of me trying to resist taking off on my own to do it. It will be a nice day. Need to ‘master’ a salchow (skating jump) and there is an intensive circus training thing in August I need to do. Also, buy a spinning pole (quit job and teach this??!) whilst trying not to let students see any of the pictures (this is an unusually monumental effort)

A couple of summers ago I took piano lessons for a few months, just to have a little window of time that was purely mine. I was shit. So I bought a digital one this Christmas and played a bit everyday and it’s like a little anchor. You get to think through puzzles and all the hours blur (I have told my new neighbours to hammer if they get frustrated). I used to need to be amazing at anything I would attempt but all that has diffused. I just want to enjoy myself, to progress, to feel. And it all trickles into your life in intriguing ways.

So here is a little snippet of what I have been enjoying. Like I say, loads of mistakes,  have figured out what the pedal does, but it’s fun and it’s a good feeling not to ignore my careers/biology teacher’s advice…

 

I haven’t been writing at all lately (zero time, zero inclination) and have noticed this has turned me into a complete cow. So I went to Neros and whizzed myself up on those nice dark chocolate espresso balls and have managed to do some of that thing that makes me feel a little bit more myself. Can feel my shoulders unlatch a little and my brain align. Deep breath. It’s still not particularly joined up but suits the work I think (I hope). The novel goes back and forth in time and points of view, between Clare and David.

Finding Muna (extract)

‘I love that rainbow!’

Sometimes Muna could be effervescent too.

I thought of these times like the title of a storybook: Muna and her Mother.

‘I love that earring!’

And bend down to pick it up, or to stroke the oil that had made the rainbow in the road. Always me wenching her up and down, closer when she stretched away. Even before Ernest Burrows and his notebook, the dizzying calendar of times and notes and sketches of our child in dynamic action. As if she was always trying to leave me.

‘I do not want to wear that sparkly dress! I have better sparkly dresses. Do not make me wear the blue sparkle!’

I would chase her, naked, thundering downstairs, to the backdoor, wrest her off the handle.

‘Muna!’

David would call down, hand over a work phone call before he even set out on the day to go-and-be-important. ‘Sweetheart, you know how beautiful daddy thinks you look in the blue dress.’

I would wonder how it had ended up like this, me the Oxford-educated parent, David: 42, Tyneside College, HNC Building Studies.

‘Mummy,’ Muna drawled from the back door. ‘Can you go and get my O-ber-jeen coat and my O-ber-jeen scarf with the yellow ducks?’

 

We’d go to a café in the day and she’d inform me about what she was colouring, why, how it represented (not her word) the songs we were learning that week on the piano. A strong coffee for me, some garlic bread for Muna.

‘That’s lovely, sweetheart.’

She’d shake her head. ‘It doesn’t look like the music, mummy.’

I’d watch her, my curious girl, and fall in love.

Once, when I went to pay I turned back and she was stood at a deaf man’s table, leaning against the edge, one hand on her hip. ‘Well I’m off this week,’ I could hear her saying. ‘School has been very hard, sometimes enough is enough isn’t it?’

The disquiet sat in my stomach. Where does a four year old hear something like that. A teacher? Had David said it? Was he talking about me?

She sang the whole way home. I told her she could choose whether she held my hand over the field we walked or not, if she would stop singing. She narrowed her eyes and I watched the cogs turn in her brain, the melody stuck in her throat for a beat, and carried on singing.

‘I love that doggy!’

‘Yes, Muna, it’s a lovely doggy.’

*

I suppose it was when I started saying things like ‘lovely’ in my messages. Hope you had a lovely day. Have eaten a lovely meal in the Wheatsheaf in Corbridge. Lemon meringue. Lovely. You’d love the church I had to visit today – it was lovely. We should go sometime? And not, I so want to fuck you. Where the fuck are you and why is that not in my fucking bed?!! Magnets. The lovely-thing happened, not over sex or owt, but on one particular trip. I can’t remember where. I don’t remember how to date anyway, so all we’d had is a collection of nights, pushy and passionate, and surfaced craving fresh air, strapped on walking boots and gloves and all that. Some good routes up around Hexham.

*

The squish and thump of my baby’s heartbeat, the tick of her pulse in the hot skin of her forehead against mine in the night, how I imagined her heart racing when Ernest Burrows would not let her go. I was not there to warm circles on her back, to soften her tension, to ease taut limbs. There, there, baby. It’s okay, don’t be afraid, mummy’s here.

*

Before Muna, David quashed flies between his palms. Clap! Mr Miyogi. Daniel-San. Etc etc. Though he wasn’t remotely dexterous enough for chopsticks. The man who, when we were first meeting – just a drink just a drink – would say, fuck it, let’s take off and see where the road takes us. Got your passport, lass? He should have been Christoper Columbus. No, he should have been Leif Erikson, the Icelandic explorer purported to have landed in North America long before his Italian counterpart. My Viking. With all his straight bloody angles and man shrugs and sexiness. The shrugs at my worries over small things – my difficult students – kid’s a bastard, get rid. But his mother would be so disappointed, I’d say. Shrug. David who made my fingers catch my throat when he’d kick a snail off the path. Shake spiders out the bathroom window for me, because I used to be daft about these things. Even before Muna, I would always think of its legs sprawling, its silk trying to catch. It would have seconds, if that.

Even when Muna was born, David’s luggage for our holidays was always just a backpack. And, of course, it would have everything he required (the he being the point here, an  attribute I’d accepted long ago. If I was honest, it was a strength of self, an independence that I’d admired anyway.

After Muna, David flung the front door open one day, my day off, no students. A few weeks ago, he’d decided we needed a pond and when he would get in after his long days, he’d change his boots and clothes to similar boots and clothes and disappear until dark and the last of my students had been collected. ‘Clare!’

I rushed to the stairs, stomach tight. ‘What?’

‘There’s a bee in the garage!’

I narrowed my eyes. I couldn’t see, but could feel him waiting. The door slamming (my demonstrated uselessness). I’d crept down and hovered, to watch. It was spitting. I could smell the earth – petrichor it’s called – David had told me this. I’m embarrassed that I remember when, exactly. What are his memories of me? How are they laid out? Does he walk through them as I do?

Petrichor. When rain hits soil.

‘You could leave it?’

Stone (petra).

Blood of the Gods (ichor).

When it rains, you smell blood, David had said, on one of our trips. The window creaked as he unwound it, a manual tick.

It had been raining, soft and summery, blurring the windscreen and the view of the fields, iridescent gold and green. The air tacky on my bare shoulders. A need for him cinched my body. I gritted my teeth. I slipped onto his lap.

‘You could just leave it,’ I say now.

He turned to me, as I blinked through quiet rain, this man who quashed flies and kicked snails and liked his steak sky fucking blue if you will, love. ‘But it’ll die.’

I rolled my lips together. I took a deep breath. Ventured into his space and dithered near tools and things greasy with the scent of oil. I picked up a bucket with cigarette butts in that I didn’t comment on. Wafted the bucket after the bee. Watched it, heavy-bottomed, struggle out below the door and up to sky.

David nodded and turned his back. I wanted to apply myself to him, rest my cheek against his back and feel the heat of skin through cotton. For his chest to tighten and slacken against my arms, buckled around him. And I would whisper, I’m sorry, but I’ve got this. I’ve got you.

‘Time’s tea?’

‘Should I know?’

He swore and something metal clattered against metal. I still loved his voice, whatever he said. The timbre of it. I wanted him to say nice things to me. You’re beautiful. It’s not your fault. Of course I still love you.

I hadn’t conceived, really, perhaps in light of everything we’d gone through, that there could be an end point. Where one of us said, enough is enough.

A good while after he’d left me, I was in the bathroom cleaning the windows. I watched a spider fingering the window with its legs. It could fall off, I thought. I stretched and it found my thumb, ticking up and onto the back of my hand. I brought it inside, let it find its way onto the tiles. Let it have some purchase. I put my chin on my fists (potato potato) and watched. It’s raining. I cannot smell blood.

 

Wonderland

Well this is pretty odd. I seem to be writing a novel about a couple who’s child is abducted. And I came across this story that was published in Swamp while I was still completing my PhD – anyone at the point where they forget things they’ve written?! It’s quite nice to look at it though and think, oh, I’m a bit of a better writer than that now, but have similar conceits, things I want to do with the work. Anyway, sharing it as it prickled a few ideas for my new novel back into the forefront.

Wonderland (first published in SWAMP journal 2000 and fricking something – 11?)

I find her in the snow, my little girl. Her limbs are stiff and straight, the pretty pinkness about her feet that I love still making a faint blush of rose in the white. As the neighbour’s children pat-pat-patted a snow Buddha, serenely erecting a portly monolith on the area that was once the road, I scoop out the white in my garden, and try to dig a place for her in the earth. But it is too hard. The trowel bit the ground. She is so frozen that I am afraid I will break her. And that I will.

And this is how my husband finds us. And I have not yet made supper.

.

Grief makes you a pariah. Look at them. Lived in this fucking village for decades, and my family before me, and they’ve suddenly forgotten who the hell I am. I get it though, course I do. How can he stand by her? What do we say? Oh, so sorry your wife’s a murderer. There’s an offer on the bananas if you’re interested. Or maybe they just think there’s nothing they can say that would help. But fuck me, grief is lonely. These are people’s cars I’ve started, borrowed sugar from. Knowing people give a damn, some words, even if they are just the hammy So-sorry-for-your-loss variety, they matter. Just say it.

The assistant in the grocery store is new. I haven’t seen her around before, don’t know where I’ve been looking. A new family? She’s all youth and bad make-up, lots of sparkly things to offset the plant pot-brown overall. “I’m meant to say the Christmas trees are on special.” She shrugs.

“Thanks, no.”

“Oh well, Merry Christmas.”

I bag up the loo roll and soy milk and bits I’ve never had to think about before, let alone locate.

In the car, I grip the wheel and ride out that heart attack feeling. Amy is dead.

When it passes, I set the bags on the back seat. There are two stray dummies in the back. There are two of everything at home. Things in pink and things in blue. I can’t look at my boy any more without seeing Amy. His face is hers. His face will change and hers will not. I love him and hate him all at once, and I have to stop. My baby in the snow, frozen.

I cap my thoughts and put the car in gear, shunting quickly into third and coasting, whispering, through the slush. I head down the familiar winding roads, past the church and the snowmen. The competition had gone up a level this year. There were a collection of little snow-devils on the cemetery.

I chuckle and turn up the radio. Amy is dead. I close my eyes against the images. My baby in the snow. Had she felt herself freezing? How long had she screamed for her mother? When I hold her she likes to nuzzle my face like a cat. She clings to me, like an adhesive, leaching affection. Clung.

I can’t hold her again. I wait for the vice to let me loose.

“Jesus.”

.

My mother has moved in. She’s been on her own a while now.

“Do you want me to make you a sandwich, pet?”

“I’ve eaten.”

“Really?”

“When I was out.”

“Cup of tea?”

“No thanks.”

“You’ve got to keep your strength up, pet.”

“With a cup of fucking tea?” I put the bags down on the island counter. The house is a shit tip, despite the fact my mother has been cleaning for days. I grip the roots of my hair briefly. I want to break every door and every thing in this place.

A baby cries. For a second, I let myself think it might be Amy, but I can tell the difference.

My mother pads up the stairs. The sounds of her shushing him, the happiness in her voice.

Adrenalin burns my insides. I hurl the nearest thing.

My mother comes down with Matthew’s head cupped in her wedding ring hand. She hands him to me and sweeps up the pieces. I hold him the same way, reminded that I’ve removed my own ring.

“You need to go and see her, pet.”

I put the soy milk in the fridge and lift the bread-bin lid. Out the corner of my eye I’m aware of the glare of the white garden. I hate the neighbourhood kids who could build the snowmen and tuck themselves back into their clean, unbroken families.

.

The day I let my baby die I had some bad news. All I could feel was the pain of my husband’s betrayal. Which would I prefer to change? The drugs are sweet-coloured and plasticky. Amy’s pink feet, her little pink, kitten paw’s feet, pale in the snow. I’d been showing the babies their first snowfall. I’d had orange juice that morning that didn’t taste like anything. I’d washed the nappies because David was eco-and-vegan-everything and felt blank blank blank. My eyeballs were furry because I forgot to blink. My muscles stung after twisting the nappies before laying them over the radiators. If it was summer they’d have to go outside. Another job. I liked it when the post came, but it was always disappointing, always for David. Nothing to say I existed. My wonderful husband whose name was on every bill, who paid for everything and made my life perfect.

When the snow dotted the sky it was new. I gathered the babies, wanting them to feel it on their peach cheeks. Wanting to watch them seeing the brilliance of first-time snow.

I had forgotten their coats. I went inside, still holding Matthew’s carrier. David had left his phone that day. It rang when I was inside. When I remembered Amy again, it was dark and freezing and I unearthed her from a sheaf of pure snow. I dug because I didn’t want it to be real. If I could bury this it wouldn’t be true. I didn’t dig because I didn’t want to be discovered. Did I?

.

My wife has come home today. I feel like she has been delivered from the hospital, a new wife. New-born, her faulty chemistry corrected with bloody pill popping.

I put my wedding ring on this morning, before I went to collect her. I keep shaking my fingers, trying to get the circulation back.

My wife looks at the floor.

My mother is getting her things together. The doctors, contrary to what I would expect, seem to think it is better with just us four. Three. She hands over the baby to me as a taxi glides up. The snow is grey and sullied. Those ice drinks you get at the cinema. The last time we went to the cinema Amy wasn’t born. She was still the subject of conversations smiled under the covers late at night.

.

The park is boggy. My boots are leaking and my spine is tight as I hold the buggy’s handles. It is one of those dual ones with room for another baby underneath. We have filled the empty space with our son’s spare nappies and general stuff. It’s lighter, easier to move. Life is easier, with just one. God.

As I play the loving mother, pointing at ducks and making my voice lively, I feel my husband’s gaze. Am I going to push the buggy into the pond?

I turn. But his eyes are on the Cleggs’ family as they amble past in a blur of kids, colour and raised voices. They pretend to tsk-tsk at the kids who are being loud but not particularly rowdy, so they don’t have to say hello. My husband’s shoulders slope where they used to be level and strong.

Is he thinking, why couldn’t it have been their family? Why mine? Why my wife? Because you fucked her. You fuckedher. But that’s not it, that’s not why. Is it?

My husband turns, hands in pockets. His smile just a twist of the mouth.

I nod.

.

David is due to return to work in two days. I am trying to fight the rising panic. I think of the bland furniture and fuzzy silence.

The pan boils, whiting the windows. My husband is watching football. Crowd roaring, screeching whistles. Matthew is asleep in his arms. Jealousy. I cannot hold Matthew like that. The one we are left with.

It is creeping towards New Year. I have this feeling that when the year turns, my little girl will be lost forever. I have only a few hours left. And then? And then we will be expected to be shiny and new. Fresh skin after a burn. Pull yourself together.

He picks up his mobile.

Is he texting her? Are they continuing this thing? Even now?

My stomach flips. The things I think about in that brief second shock me. The violence I want to inflict. Is this me? I did kill my baby. No, no I didn’t.

The pan bubbles over.

“Damn.” I pull it off the heat.

My husband is suddenly in the kitchen space, with the other baby. I see Matthew’s nostrils twitch and hear a thick click in his throat.

“Is he sick?” I ask.

My husband navigates around me to the fridge and pulls out a beer.

“Feel his forehead,” he says.

“I’m sorting tea.”

David looks at me.

“What?”

“Just feel his head. I’ve got my hands full.”

“You’ve got a baby and a bottle of beer.”

He sighs.

I sigh.

“What now?” he says.

I look at him, frowning.

He goes back to the TV, head shaking.

“Were you texting her?”

Over the opening and closing of cupboards, “What?”

I breathe out.

“What did you say?”

My pulse ticks off beat. “You left your phone that day.”

I brave a look, hoping to see something that would knit the divide between us. I want him to hold me, but then I remember that woman’s voice on the phone, my little girl in the snow.

“It’s over.”

I sink to the ground.

David stands over me, Matthew is waking up. “Get up.”

“Or what, you’ll go back to her?”

I hear the hot plate hiss. I should mention it’s still on.

As David looks at me, I look at my feet, drawn up close. There is a hole in one of my socks. My toe is peachy, not pink.

My little girl’s pink toes in the snow.

“Didn’t mean it. Sweetheart.”

I squeeze my eyes shut against the endearment.

Her limbs straight and stiff.

David leans against the counter top and jerks. Matthew slips down his body. David bends his legs to cushion the fall, grabs an arm. Matthew’s mouth tugs but he doesn’t cry. His hands find the hole in my sock, tiny nails pricking my skin. I jerk away.

Matthew’s eyes close and the cry erupts.

“Rachel?”

I want to reach for Matthew. But he is not right without her.

David stays upstairs with Matthew. I hear the wave of football noise, the bathroom tap and the clunking pipe. The fizz and settle of the toilet. David’s footsteps as he creaks over the landing, putting our child down for the night.

I sit on the kitchen floor, staring at my feet, and make a resolution.

.

It is a relief that she knows. If I’m honest, I wanted her to know. I wish I could explain how I’d missed her after the babies were born.

I roll over in bed; it’s a quarter to midnight. In a moment, I’ll go down and see when she’s coming to bed.

My wife was always the up and downer. Me the soother. The flatness after the twins were born I initially mistook for calm. Motherhood had tamed her moods.

I stayed late for a few drinks after work. One night to begin with, then two.

I’d worked with Marnie for years, yet I still had no idea what the name was short for. She was not more beautiful nor more interesting than my wife, just more interested.

One night I came home full of stories, pulling off my tie in the kitchen as my wife juggled pans and switches.

“She actually said,” I started, head in the fridge, “that I looked like I worked out.”

“Potatoes,” my wife said. “I didn’t get chance to get anything livelier.”

“D’you hear what I said?”

“Do you have to raise your voice?”

I frowned.

“Great. They’re crying.”

She disappeared.

Fireworks whiz and pop outside, dragging me back. I creep downstairs.

Rachel’s still on the floor.

“That can’t be comfortable.” I extend my hand.

We go to bed. She fits in my arms as she always did and I hold her tight.

“We could try again,” I whisper.

I ache for her to say yes. But her breathing is long and deep.

.

I draw a kiss from my husband and creep past my child’s room. My other child is alone in the dark, lost. Matthew will be just fine.

I leave the warmth of the bed, plant my palm on the twins’ room. The familiar sadness does not swell. I’m excited.

The snow is falling, my child calling.

David’s arms had been tight around me when I woke. I’d turned towards his sleeping face, then looked to the window. Glimpsed the gentle sieve of snow.

He had whispered to me in the night, about love and children and future.

I see my child in the snowfall, I hear her voice in its quiet descent; she fills the sky. I pull off my nightgown. While the world sleeps, I step out into the night.

I smile.

Standing in the garden, the snow feathers my shoulders, lashes, breasts. They’re swollen because I have not expressed today. It ices my hips, melting over still-pink stretch marks, winking in the moonlight. The cold fills my lungs.

As I sit down on the grass against the back wall, the snow covers my arms and knees, my feet and nipples. I watch it knitting together patches of white. Keeping me warm.

I stay, closer than ever to my daughter.

 

Rob Young – new writer in residence

Well this is exciting. South Shields-born writer Rob Young is returning to the NE to take on our brand new writer in residence post. Everybody wave hello.

rob

Here’s a few of the things he’s done:

Miranda, starring Christina Ricci                                    Midsummer Night’s Dream

Official selection, Sundance                                             (Royal Shakespeare Company / Google)

Audience award, Raindance

Here’s a few of the things he will do:

student masterclass

public masterclass

a new creative project anchored in the NE, shedding light and shaping understanding of attitudes to sex and love

 

What’s certain is he’ll add a real warmth and expertise to the project and we can’t wait to see what happens next…

Find out more here.

Static

So I have been playing with plural first person and a collage narrative, to write a new novel about a couple whose child goes missing. The idea is that any of the sections can be read in any order and that the overall narrative creates an effect that perhaps replicates how events trigger memory and so on. Anyway, I like it. Needs much work.

 

Static

 

the copper hexagonal kettle where you put your arms around me and

Muna laughing at the rabbit

Muna being sick, late-night exhaustion with reflux

our twilight whispers sewed me together

The snow                                          the snow

the snow

purple on the landscape

the snow

fingers stabbing at white keys and then joining up like handwriting, rippling, tripling, our wall of us

me at school, what is your favourite colour? I drew a purple sun I on sugar paper and got a sweetie

masturbating to the idea of the popular boy at school

how we sat our dolls up on chairs at the dinner table, my own mother, grim after dad. Grey. I stopped calling                                                     she was sick

smacking my legs on the way to the dentist

my mother, my mother the time my own could-have-been-baby that just would not grow and then you and then us and Muna and the squeak of wiping glasses together at the kitchen sink

My stomach tight with sadness every time I wake up. My whole body misses us.

she was just there, just clear, our girl with the mermaid hair, which curled at the bottom like perfect hooks cold hands

socks and toes and purple coat in

the snow         the snow

 

*

The 4th and 5th fingers are narturally weak. It is the purpose of this exercise and those up to No. 31 to make them as strong and adile as the 2nd and 3rd.

*

tO mumny

muna

 

a violent blue heart on the yellow sugar paper

*

Paint – okra – has dripped on the floor and we’ve decided to let it dry to pick off clean. A Turkish song haunts the background, a repeated left hand melody, almost off-key with flats, matched with a sitar. A spiralling hum from the singer. She’s our favourite and we’d nodded, unsurprised, when we’d discovered this fact:

We were meant to be

One of us stripes paint over our cheek. We grin and the stairs pinch our bodies when we seize each other and watch skin flower and whiten and pink. It’s when we make our child, probably, though we can’t have known, though both of us pretend to have done. The lies bind. We’ve eating halvas through the decorating, that one of our friends has sent over from Istanbul. We have that in-the-moment feeling. Of sex and living and sugar and fat. We suck cheese from our thumbs and check it is gone. A pat on the bum. Desire stings again. But we bend to roll more paint –it slicks and sucks. The song playing is called Muna – Turkish for unreachable wishes. We had both so longed for children.

*

Anger, like our daughter’s favourite: aubergine colour. Her cheeks like the silk of that vegetable. Her hands in carrot-coloured gloves and sweet-potato boots. Her little vegetable fingers and little vegetable toes. Bright against the snow. I hear the triplets, as if she’s sat at the piano practicing, stripy socks dangling from the stool and the blue corduroy of her dress with the yellow duck buttons. We – and it strikes me this – that I never included him in the we of our daughter. We. Me and Muna. Muna and I. So maybe it is all my fault after all. He thinks I don’t hear the body shift when I leave the bedroom. The strained silence as he does things he shouldn’t. Check phone, send a text. I can almost feel the electrons charge the air from the mobile screen blueing the dark. But anyway, when dressing, we – Muna and I – we press the duck buttons and make them quack.

‘You are quackers, mummy.’

And I wonder where she has heard this.

In this image I have of Muna, this visual of her bright coat picked out within Christmas-icing snow, the ripple of piano overlays it. When she played, the same deliberate intervals, when distracted, we would tuck against a wall, hiding from our child, to complain. Anger has played through our we like a refrain, or our daughter’s ascending and descending scales. That we had to wait, that what we had waited for was spoiled by this girl we adored, yet how it made us judges when we’d loved before.

‘You’re not –‘

‘You –‘

‘Why me?’

‘Because she –‘

‘Sometimes,’ one of us says, rubbing our arms, the fire sputters to bleach the cold.

‘What?’

‘She –‘

‘What?’

‘Come on,’ one of us says, ‘we don’t have forever.’

‘She – ’ A frown, the music’s not stopped, I’m sure but when I think – it is – but Clare stands, stripy footed, fingers glistening in her mouth.

‘What?’ she says, over her knuckles.

But at that point, we’d been checking, there is the dot. There is the dot. Muna, Muna.

Mummy, wave. Wave to mummy. And the last time we’d looked – because this is how I wanted to remember it – after we’d cracked a tension and he’d kissed me and I felt an echo of that climbing thrill, of how perfect those hands and how lovely that mouth, and mine and mine, finally, and how could I complain when I knew his nature anyway – Muna was gone.

 

*

Tick.

Tick.

Tick

Tick

‘Mummy?’

*

She would keep her hair long till she went to university – a red brick, but not Oxbridge – too stuffy, and wave it at boys and men. Be cut by love and cut it all away into a pixie crop and dare them. Fall in love in her thirties after the richness of time and experience and travel and postcards – Mum! At the Guggenheim today – have eased the knots in her heart and let her hair fall, fall again, for someone’s fingers to comb lovingly, half-asleep, in a decent house in a nice suburb, someone to make plans with and hold back in the well of night.

*

Was she always there? That still face when we were laughing? That shake of the head when Muna was up on your shoulders, giggling? Peering at the new underwear I’d bought, with that Myra Hindley stare, the one I’d tiptoed to, imposed on giant canvas in the Royal as a girl, dreaming how one day I’d find a man who fit what I thought of love. Those eyes, daring us: look up. I know what you’ve done. I know what you’ve done.

*

 

Inhospitable, the doctor said. Scarring. Endemetriosis. Her laced fingers. Her nod. Her name on a small black plaque.

*

Once, we went to Venice and it rained solid. Everyone was walking around in what are essentially carrier bags that you can get for your feet. You roll the plastic up to your knees and wade bravely through the alleyways. Everything is open for business still. I went to visit Murano island to look at all the glass while you went to the Guggenheim. The day’s separation like a hot bath. So I could look forward to you again. So I could be miserable in the rain and not pretend we were okay for all the other happy families, thickening in number. All their others joining on. We would never be one and the fault was mine. On the way back, I stared at the retreating island through the spots of rain on the water boat. Bright even in darkness.

*

It is best not to look at the comments on a news article.

We decide this when there is a new appeal, a new fragment of evidence. One of Muna’s stripy socks.

‘I keep thinking of how cold her feet would have been in the snow. She should have been in tights.’

In one of our narratives, Muna is given replacement socks by the elderly couple who have taken her in.

In another, Muna is undressed.

We spoon the froth atop our cappuccinos as though it’s pudding. The air is wet, the window is wet, a pretty, curly-haired woman enters with her own daughter. We glance over as she sits close. They have their heads together, conspiring. ‘And then and she and daddy is like…and daddy…’

We squeeze each other’s fingers under the table.

*

They never asked me. They never brought me to a windowless room and pressed record. Never introduced themselves and asked me to verify details. Never wrote things under headings when I’d finished speaking. I’d never had to comb through and through the events of that day, sifting for the information through the emotion. Never had to boil it down to facts that would verify I hadn’t . Never lied when they asked me who was I really with when I said I’d nipped to Kwikfit to get the tyres balanced. Never asked back for a second interview to do it all again.

*

Message request accepted:

I hope you don’t mind my getting in touch. I just wanted to say that nothing happened after Muna was taken. I just wanted you to know that. I just hope you’re okay. We just – I don’t know? – we just sort of clicked.

*

Through it all, I imagined Niamh’s observation of us focusing in. I saw my face in newsprint, slack, mid-30s, a snap of the appeal that went onto TV. I wanted to be happy so she wouldn’t be vindicated. So she couldn’t say, see. But how could that be? I felt the seeping low cold of shame.

*

Sometimes I find you on a memory. I know all the different shades of you. The dense, meaty wetness of your hair after a shower, the chlorine on your skin after swimming, the bright cleanness of the shampoo, the thick sweet warmth of you when you’ve just woken up. I pull my arms through the water, back, back, turn the elbows, form palms into paddles, propel, back, back. Water crashes to tiles in the shower. In the cubicle, I cream my knees and elbows. Smell my chlorine-skin in supermarkets when reaching to test grapefruit, for the milk in the fridge, when I lean my fist on my cheek, poring over music sheets to mark, when I take you to bed at night.

*

The officer addresses me by my married name. The wind is blowing through the yard. I’ve been staring at the piano. Everything still takes an age to do. I am supposed to write a homework for one of my private pupils.

This has happened before, of course. But you can’t help how your body hopes, even though your brain is saying, stay calm, stay calm, ride it out, wait. It’s weird, that it crosses my mind, even as the focussed part of my brain is noting down everything that’s being said, that I relate this feeling to hearing from David. How are you? I miss you? I would collect all these things and put them in my pocket like a child collects seashells. Let them jangle as I walked, striding through life with hope.

‘There’s been a sighting in Nottingham.’

‘Nottingham?’

‘Yes,’ I’m saying to David later. I can hear a drill at the other end. The type that attacks concrete.

‘Should we go for coffee?’ he’s saying.

*

We sit. Four of us in the café. It has a different name to the one we used to meet in. And it’s come over all Italian. Now, we’re sat opposite, straight. Then, we’re pointing towards each other.

‘They seem… I don’t know. I want to say convinced?’

‘When will we know more?’

‘You know, what it’s – just when they get in touch.’

We shake our heads and lean against the rests of our chairs.

We watch a couple sit down out of the rain, the girl has cropped white hair, the man is dressing to try and keep up with a natural charm that she has.

The other we holds hand under the table.

*

My mother was a mother before. She reached 40 when I was already 11. It is an evening when I’m sure it has all finished with David and I. When he was so suddenly available yet still unreachable to me. I have shopping. Curiously flavoured popcorn. I wonder if he and Niamh have reconciled. It’s midnight on a Saturday. There is nothing waiting for me in the house, which is pretty and disorderly. My heels click like my mothers. What a figure she’d cut with me by her side. Her implacable face, elegant cheeks, her tomato-red lipstick that she called pillar-box-red. I am still waiting.

*

His feet don’t reach the pedals but his fingers are elegant. He has taken naturally to the piano. Maybe he is good at maths. Some people find the patterns easy to read, some people need to name all the notes. His fingers progress the A flat major scale and the old schoolroom is suddenly Russia, just with that twist of A flat, how it resists the notes either side.

David and I at the piano, naked. He left a glass of wine nearby – I got up to move it. The idea of that, sticky and congealing inside my music, horrifying. Admiration as my fingers dug and tricked the keys. I remember wondering whether that counted as love, and yet I loved it, this.

*

You could hear her thinking, that was the thing. When I was working late and finally drew in, the easy kiss, the cup of tea. The turned attention back to a student arriving at 7 but was here already. I would fit myself into part of the house so as not to disrupt things. She would never tell me what. I could have done anything. I’d read the paper and have a beer until the last pupil was goodbyed out of the door, with a Much better. Bye! Bye! Muna was the same. I was making eggs, freshly twisted black pepper, butter from the farmer’s market (Clare’s middle classness showing through) and she would drift in like snow. And I could tell you know, that she was thinking, you’re doing it all wrong, daddy. But she would never tell me so. I wondered if my first little girl, mine and Niamh’s, whether she would have been effervescent with love, just bloody volatile with it. A hugger. Messy. Chaos. I’d expected, when we finally got together, Clare’s restraint would have popped.

*

Like a daisy chain breaking. The ones I used to make, cross-legged with girls I didn’t like at school. It was as easy as that. One day, David didn’t love me anymore and I couldn’t put it back. The links, the stems, were broken, leaking green life.

We are at the police station. Our knees close. I want him to hold my hand. I had never allowed my mind to open to him, my body yes, my heart definitely, but he didn’t have access there. I would wake in the night sometimes and he would ask, what’s wrong? A sweet kiss, and I would fasten back to sleep.

But he does it anyway. His fingers over mine. His hand like backing paper. We watch people walking in and out. We keep watching.

*

In that breadth of time, perhaps only just a week, when I could feel David returning to Niamh, or questioning what he wanted, we breathed in and held our breath. I’d hurt my head, slipping on ice – it was that awful winter where nothing grew the spring after – in heel boots (my own fault then) pigeon-stepping to the petrol station to get milk and my ears would sing even when I was on my own. I’d juddered my head so badly on the ice that I – me – took pain killers three days straight. I struck up conversations with other men. Jamie from the train station bar who was down from an unpronounceable place in Scotland who called me lassie because he couldn’t remember my name. The surfer from Saltburn-by-the-sea who was on the dating site I occasionally logged into. I gave him the youthful me. I love Saltburn! Come and visit! I may! Etcetera. The black man with the impeccable accent.

Because of Dad, I had spent too much time in hospitals and the illogical side of me would not get the hearing loss checked.

So it lived in me, spreading.

At first, I didn’t even notice it until I sat at my piano. I flicked through music sheets for something I needed practice on. I held down the G minor chord and went to play with a riff on the bass. I frowned. I unstuck my fingers, as though burned. Tried again. The sound hurt. I tested a few more chords, always that metallic jarring. For a second I wondered if my vision had gone and I was depressing the wrong keys, but my fingers knew the fit. Still, I rechecked. No. I called the tuner and booked in an appointment for that evening. I had lessons booked all week.

So when did you last go to Saltburn!?

I went to have a surfing lesson! It was so good!

I surf! Did you stand up!?

For all of 2 seconds!

That’s good!

I may be exaggerating!

When you coming to visit me?!?!?!

My hearing got worse. Some days I would wake up and hope. Oh. It feels better, less stuck. But the block had just transferred from one ear to the other. It picked its side each day. I googled hearing loss from fall, perforated ear drum. I have spent my life hoping.

The tuner came and the piano sounded the same. I sat, sore, in lessons whilst trying to be encouraging, That’s good, Samuel, most people wait at the end of the bar but you carried straight on, the poor playing making the discord worse.

When dad finally died, I began to be an observer. When my hearing changed – it wasn’t lost, in many cases, it dialled other sounds up, I noticed the quick sound of my strides as a deep burr, voices down the street chaotically close, voices wriggled electronically, a mingling alien whistle in my brain – some, depending on the pitch were alarming, some almost too soft to register – but I had more of a reason to secret myself away. It was allowed. I stopped rubbing my ears as if to pop them. I drove to Settle for an interview, just thinking to get on with life, as this is all you can do, keep moving, and the pressure blinked and for a second I hoped.

David was a blank.

I googled trains to Saltburn. I didn’t like driving anymore.

Saturday?!

We can go on the mountain ride!

The one that goes all the way from the bottom of the hill to the top?

I’ll take you on a ride😉

But yes, it was easy to retreat, to fold away like a cardigan for the attic. ‘Sorry, I can’t hear very well.’ People would try for a while but it became easier to look away and watch what was going on outside the café. The last conversation I caught of my friends, who were younger anyway, was about children and how it was all getting too late. Like, oh my god, I’m twenty five. I didn’t try to smile.

O   N   I   C   C   U   P   P   A   C

Through the letters in the café, a woman with pink hair short as a boy. She has a caramel puppy and an elaborate fan of smoke sprawling beyond her pink hair and I think of a white geisha. I had my hairdresser shear all mine away and felt my neck for days, I needed scarves even when it was warm as the cold snuck down my tops. This is why women with short hair wear polo necks, I thought.

Nobody, unless they were a musician, could comprehend the feeling. How the sadness coats you. To sit down to play was to be gratefully lost in the beauty of sound. If I remember back to when I was first learning, I could see the evolution of my joy with the piano. Of getting things right. Of understanding a new rhythm. Of breaking rules, to tip in a little feeling and see-what-that-did. Of riding your intuition and being rewarded. And then the warmth that comes from the echoes and complexities, the interactions of all the notes, the question and the answer, the sense of completion.

I would still play, of course I would. There was still pleasure in the memory, the physical mechanics, the gist of the right sounds. But they were not pure.

If I played now, it was to remember a beauty I could no longer experience, and to see other people find that beauty.

I have cleared away awards and certificates, the photograph of a young me with honey hair and a velvet dress, the navy bow my mother put in, playing in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall. I am eleven and serious.

But. I see things. Yes, I see the man sat with his back to me, the perfect hexagon of his shoulders and back in the chair. It’s 20 degree slump forward. The woman who sits opposite me and her unusual wedding ring. How her gaze trails the tall man striding past. The old woman in aubergine who stared at me with eyes like a Margaret Keane painting and the torture of a Francis Bacon. The way you look at me when you’re lying. Not away as some might, but at me, to check.

You sent me a message.

You, who went from woman to woman, love to love, without a breath. Take a breath, my love. Breathe.

I wonder if you would ever know quite how long I waited for you, David. I wonder if you would ever know why.

*

We are knotted together in bed, but she is in between. It is as good as it has ever been. I have not cried for you. I will not. When we fall to sleep, I know she will be gone in the morning but that I will look her up from time to time. See youth, the option that I was once for you. That sometimes she likes your updates  on Facebook. The enigmatic pictures you take on morning runs. The stray one of us that makes the grade, her approval blank.

I could have been that person, the don’t you dare talk to her again ever, girl. Move jobs, fire her, delete everything.

*

And even after all that, she never asked. Never made me apologise. Which made it all the easier to hate myself. But – well – Clare was so fucking smart, it registered that she was just being like this to make me feel worse. She made my brain dizzy. In the morning, before our alarms, she made me a cup of tea and came back to bed. She burrowed under my arm and tucked in. I always liked that. She was a hugger. It made up for the other stuff. Shit, did I just even think that?

‘I love you,’ she said.

I didn’t answer.

*

We’re in the interview room. We’re gripping each other. ‘Mr and – Clare, David, I’m so sorry,’ the officer is explaining. This is Penny, she has dealt with us a few times now. A snappy sort of woman. Sharp, thorough, late nights and overtime. ‘The girl – her name is Alice. She’s been identified by her parents and reunited. It seemed -’

Because of my hearing, another thing I never told David, I was worried about him finding me old when I was supposed to represent the younger, more vivacious Niamh, but anyway I became able to turn things down. I did this then.

I don’t know how to feel. I’m ashamed that I pick up where I left off from this morning. There are crates that need signing for, testing that needs to be ordered and done. We are late with a job for one of our biggest clients and this costs. Per day, this costs. No, fucked off is how I feel. And I just can’t fucking deal with it anymore.

We’re not holding hands as we leave, twisting through cars to our own.

‘I could drive you back?’

‘Thank you, no.’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I’m – take care.’

‘Take care.’

We kiss each other’s cheeks and stare at each other as cars seek spaces around us.

 

*

I have been caught out. Gazing at a mother and a child in the retail park. The mother hoisting a bright pink back pack and then her own elegant teal shopper. The girl’s hair fluttering like ribbons. I liked Muna’s hair best when she had it cropped. I loved to see her ears, the little tips, and to see through them like little windows of stained glass. The back of her neck. My thoughtful, clever girl. What was going on in her mind? How was she puzzling the pieces of life and making them fit with our adult ways?

*

*

‘Oh Muna. Muna,’ I say.

I have conversations with my girl on overcast days.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Yes, mummy.’

‘Are they treating you well?’

‘Yes, mummy.’

‘Do you miss us?’

The conversations have shifted with the seasons, arcing as a gull cuts through clear blue sky.

‘What do you think of mummy talking to herself – to you – in the supermarket.’

‘Well you always were a trifle odd – I love trifle!’

I smile near the Charlotte potatoes.

*

Sometimes, when you are at work and I am texting, booking lessons with my students’ parents, we would both login to whatsapp. I would click on your picture, careful not to call by accident, reread your last message and see something different in it each time. Last seen 16:53. And then the numbers would wink to online. You’d stay for a few seconds and then blank. Were you watching me watching you? Were we watching each other? Last seen 16: 57. Who were you talking to? And I would wonder, are we both wondering the same thing?

*

My father was good with his hands. It is raining-wet-damp in the shed. He is fashioning something. Shaving. I watch my mother in the bath. The opposite strokes, the razor up her legs, my father down the wood. I ask her, ‘Why’d you do that, mummy?’ I could swear she said, ‘Because daddy likes it. Now shoo, give mummy some privacy. I don’t come in the room when you’re bathing.’ You used to, I think, but I became oh-so-clever oh-so-good at knowing what not to say.

*

Anger, like our daughter’s favourite: aubergine colour. Her cheeks like the silk of that vegetable. Her hands in carrot-coloured gloves and sweet-potato boots. Her little vegetable fingers and little vegetable toes. Bright against the snow. I hear the triplets, as if she’s sat at the piano practicing, stripy socks dangling from the stool and the blue corduroy of her dress with the yellow duck buttons. We – and it strikes me this – that I never included him in the we of our daughter. We. Me and Muna. Muna and I. So maybe it is all my fault after all. He thinks I don’t hear the body shift when I leave the bedroom. The strained silence as he does things he shouldn’t. Check phone, send a text. I can almost feel the electrons charge the air from the mobile screen blueing the dark. But anyway, when dressing, we – Muna and I – we press the duck buttons and make them quack.

‘You are quackers, mummy.’

And I wonder where she has heard this.

In this image I have of Muna, this visual of her bright coat picked out within Christmas-icing snow, the ripple of piano overlays it. When she played, the same deliberate intervals, when distracted, we would tuck against a wall, hiding from our child, to complain. Anger has played through our we like a refrain, or our daughter’s ascending and descending scales. That we had to wait, that what we had waited for was spoiled by this girl we adored, yet how it made us judges when we’d loved before.

‘You’re not –‘

‘You –‘

‘Why me?’

‘Because she –‘

‘Sometimes,’ one of us says, rubbing our arms, the fire sputters to bleach the cold.

‘What?’

‘She –‘

‘What?’

‘Come on,’ one of us says, ‘we don’t have forever.’

‘She – ’ A frown, the music’s not stopped, I’m sure but when I think – it is – but Clare stands, stripy footed, fingers glistening in her mouth.

‘What?’ she says, over her knuckles.

But at that point, we’d been checking, there is the dot. There is the dot. Muna, Muna.

Mummy, wave. Wave to mummy. And the last time we’d looked – because this is how I wanted to remember it – after we’d cracked a tension and he’d kissed me and I felt an echo of that climbing thrill, of how perfect those hands and how lovely that mouth, and mine and mine, finally, and how could I complain when I knew his nature anyway – Muna was gone.

*

We are sweetly drunk, walking apart, as if none of us have considered the carnality of it all of the savage tight things we have imagined. Red paper lanterns are strewn within the city in which we’ve met. A Chinese New Year. Monkey, someone once said, Nother monkey, in another city with another man and hieroglyphed my name onto bubblegum paper. I kept it on my rented fridge in my rented flat that was just on the wrong side of the city and felt, whenever I opened the door for milk or butter, that I had finally landed, was finally exploring. And in the night on the street in which we first hold hands and in which we first fuck, that song is playing, we’re sure. ‘Shhhhh,’ a finger to lip. A finger to point. ‘Shhusssssh!’ A couple go by and we both pretend not to notice the blood on knuckles.

*

 

You do this a lot. Pause before windows, wait the extra beat before closing the door. You peer. You strain to hear – mummy, wait! You can’t help but still hope. You like the lies you tell yourself: don’t worry, hey, you okay? No, so look, This isn’t real. The lies change shape as the days drip drip together elongate into teardrops of seasons changing, but they keep you safe. Muna isn’t just late, delayed, a step behind, she has been deleted from all of your life and past and future. If you spot a picture of her somewhere, a photo of you and her smiling on a friend’s Facebook page on one of those gutsy, blustery days out, beach, ice-cream, crane machines, iPhone games to amuse her in the chip shop, though they rarely did, you simply frown for a moment, puzzled. Maybe sometimes you expand the view and go back to checking emails. She talked to strangers, Muna did. You would find her, if you ever lost track, and you did, be honest, chin up nodding to grand-dad types, asking questions that made maiden aunts nervous and check with each other first – do you knit to keep your bones from dying? Yes, she liked to talk to strangers, or even just to stand and watch – honey, come on, that’s rude. A pulled hand to cloak your own embarrassment, their stares. Her defiant intimation – I can walk myself, you know. You have also removed the socks the police showed you in evidence bags from the memories also. You move away from the window and hear movement upstairs, forgetting your husband was working from home today. You have never told him what happened, that she did this – the independent insistence – that day. I can walk myself! Never told him that you sighed, you rolled your eyes, you let her go.

PPS…

No, not a PPS on the end of your girl messages in high school (And PS I hate you and PPS so does Jonny!) Poetry Prose and Script.

I’ve been doing a bit of all of these things and some of them seem to be going alright. That’s quite nice. And useful.

I went to do a reading at Lancaster’s Waterstones with super-author Dennison Smith. I love the inappropriate aunt. Get Eye of the Day and see what I mean.

We’re running Sunderland’s first Slam! (one of many we hope) – a night of poetry and performance at the excellent Holmeside Coffee on March 9th. There’ll be music and a bar, so that’s a couple of things you generally want for a good night out. If you’d like to be on the waitlist (the open mic is full already) just send me a lovely message (sarah.dobbs@sunderland.ac.uk) and twill be done.

Please come (it’s free)! Here’s our Facebook group:

https://www.facebook.com/events/564510033727387/

I keep telling my students – you must record yourself, you must read, your must perform, you must try out your words in your mouth and on your voice and that. And this is only the second video I’ve done but anyway, following own advice.

(PPS

Do, think, write.

x)

Sunderland Short Story Award

http://www.sunderland.ac.uk/shortstoryaward/

 

Do you have the flair to take us on a journey around the world, to take us to universes previously unexplored, or to take us on an emotional rollercoaster as you describe the society around you – all in 2500 words? Then Sunderland University’s inaugural Sunderland Short Story Award is the perfect place to showcase your talent!

Short Story Award poster 350

Running as part of the Sunderland Literature and Creative Writing Festival, the Award is split into two age categories; 11-16 (where the word limit is 1500 words) and Adults.

You can write about any theme, andamazing cash prizes are on offer for both categories – £500 for the winning adult and £200 for the winning 11-16 year-old.

But that’s not all:

Shortlisted work from the Adult section will be read by London agent Susan Yearwood and publisher Unthank Books, where outstanding work may be considered for publication in Unthank’s Unthology series, so where could your imagination take you?

Winners from the 11-16 section will see their work published in the local Waterstones.

Entry for 11-16s is free, a small charge of £3 is required for adults, and you can submit your work from Monday January 25 2016.

The deadline is Wednesday June 1 2016, and all work must be submitted to sarah.dobbs@sunderland.ac.uk, together with the payment receipt, if applicable.

Visit the University’s Online Store for more information and details on how to pay.

Good luck with your entry!

Rules

Download this PDF file for a full list of competition rules.

Short Story rules

Full list of prizes

Adults: 1st prize £500 2nd prize £125 3rd prize £75

(16 and over) In addition to the prize money, all shortlisted entries will be read by London agent Susan Yearwood http://www.susanyearwood.com and publisher Unthank Books http://unthankbooks.com. Outstanding work may be considered for Unthank’s unthology series. http://www.unthankbooks.com/unthology.html

 

Under 16s: 1st prize £200 2nd prize £75 3rd prize £30

(12-16) Winning entries will be published in a small pamphlet with non-profit copies available in the local Watersones.

 

The award ceremony will be held at the Sunderland Waterstones in late Oct /early Nov to coincide with the Sunderland Literature and Creative Writing Festival

Pop out in new window