Finding Muna / Return to Me

Still undecided on the title, but have cleaved one off at least.

#progress.

Locked in the house tonight writing, though many interruptions of people looking for 3A. Pizza and clothes delivery, of which I’ve ordered neither, though it’s becoming tempting to a) stick sign on door: Not 3A b) just accept the inevitable (and the pizza)

This sort of thing has been happening:

 

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Anyway, trying to cultivate more shape, more of the police bits and pieces.

Return to Me

‘A reward raises the profile, Ms Williamson. But it could jeopardise Muna’s safety. It’s a good idea to gather some advice before we get back to those who’ve pledged donations. But it’s a bit of a turnaround and a big ask, given the decision you’re making.’

‘Wait – just – how?’ My fingers span out. How does a £2 million reward make things any more dangerous?’

The officer looks to David and David presses his chin onto the dining table. I remember thinking it was a curiously boyish thing to do.

*

We thank the benefactors and kindly turn them down. And a day later, we are squinting at microphones and into lights and questions.

They’ll call me poker-faced.

*

The car stops at a crossing on the way home. A woman in grey with blonde hair. I lean forward. ‘Isn’t -? ’ Niamh holds the weight of her belly, or maybe, as I used to, is just reminding herself of the future. She looks into our windows and I shrink, ashamed.

David looks at his knees. ‘She can’t see,’ he mumbles. The lights change.

*

Monday. Christmas hits and the world went out of sync with its own time again. In those first days that Muna was missing, I was reminded oddly of the sense of holiday, where time doesn’t follow regulation.

And our days had been given new habits and structures. The police had gradually drifted. David placed a plate before me. The bread was a little rigid. I could see it was a turkey sandwich.

‘Got it in the Tesco Extra when I went for the milk.’

‘They still out there?’

He peered at the closed curtains, as if that would help him see through the front room window. I suppose the question was rhetorical anyway. We kept forgetting to switch lights on and the dark had jellied around us.

His palm smoothed my hair at the crown. ‘Light?’

‘Uh-huh.’ I push up my glasses. I’d printed out all my mobile records, I’m searching blindly for a break in the patterns of all these circles and lines. The police had been digitally logging all the house phone calls. I almost don’t want to ask. ‘But could you do yours when you get chance?’

The smallest stutter in his movements. ‘Agh – damn. Damn bulb must be broken.’ He tries the far lamp, nothing, clicks the switch at the wall, but the stereo banks. It’s maybe just curiosity, why he does it. I hear the little wink as David presses play, a mechanical swish as the disc swirls, the parenthesis before. And then – the cool pooling of the piano solo, that small, murmuring query which would reach for and crash into the charging violin that destroyed all my doubts and where I finally let myself fell in love with a man I wasn’t supposed to have. All that muscled, supple beauty streaks into our house, congeals like fat around our current, interminable terror.

I clip the disc from the player and leave David to wonder, if he has the energy to. Upstairs, I secret the CD into one of Muna’s favourite books, Bear and Rabbit, smooth my skirt and fit myself at Muna’s tiny desk as David clinks about downstairs. In the light, I notice a footprint on her floor. Not ours, Muna’s, just the heel of her wellingtons. Her sneaky disregard for our rules. I remember the time David woke sobbing, or was it me, and I held him so tight to show how much I loved him. So tight I could have broken his neck. I rested my chin on the desk.

There will never be music in this house again.

 

 

Life Support (how to fight oppression with stories)

I’m developing a new project called Life Support, which has a very Waltonsesque pay-it-forward notion of empowering us all to impact change, feel useful, understand our own power to invest in our own and others’ lives, in a myriad of ways. It’s always struck me that narratives can create conrete actions, but in quite a dislocated and disenchanted world, this can feel impossible.

But I’ve noticed lots of people wanting to do good, such as writers like AJ Ashworth, Vanessa Gebbie, Paul McVeigh. And yesterday I watched A Streetcat Named Bob and again was struck by people’s fundamental generosity and kindness and desire to better themselves in the face of extremely difficult situations. I suppose this is where Blake’s Auguries of Innocence and Experience actually start to make sense. We can see the best of people and ourselves in the darkest of situations. Last time I checked, 2016 is a pretty dark situation.

So how can we make actually just make stuff a bit better with words?

 

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My suggestion is we share a link to a story / pic / poem, or record your words as I’ve done, about something or someone that’s dear to you, use the hashtag #LifeSupport, tag a charity / interest of your choice & what you’ve done e.g. I donated. I retweeted. I favourited. All of it matters.

Here’s mine: Steven https://youtu.be/MI5DkVItUoE  @mariecurieuk I donated #LifeSupport

Yours could simply be: #LifeSupport – I retweeted

Or: My friend’s art site @evwellsart #LifeSupport – I shared

 

It’s not particularly about the money, but a gathering sense of force. You can do something incredible with a simple retweet – you never know who’s paying attention. Buy someone a hot drink, or just simply be a bit nicer to people. Give your time. Collectively, who knows…

 

I sort of hope in the long run the project will enable people to share stories about loved ones or the things in life we’d like to change. It would be nice if we could all feel, even fleetingly, more connected to people and the idea that we can make life better for each other (whatever your skill might be) as well as raising awareness of the inspirational people who already do this everyday. So why not be one of those people?

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A Housecat Named Beau

 

Drumroll please…Announcing the winners of our first University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award 2016

And here are our winners…

Thanks again to all entrants and attendees and everyone who supported our first University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Award. We will be in touch with all winners and highly commended entrants shortly to transfer prizes and vouchers. There will also be lots of pictures from our wonderful photographer David K Newton. If you have any from the event yourself, please feel free to share! (And PS we open for submissions again in January…)

Adults – Winners
DRD Bruton
1st prize
in the University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award, 2016 with Lust for Life.

Alex Barr
2nd prize
in the University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award, 2016 with The Hills of Ffostrasol.

KL Jefford
3rd prize
in the University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award, 2016 with Paul Newman Eyes.

Adults – Highly Commended shortlisted (regional)
Pam Plumb
in the University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award, 2016 with Clem.

Kristien Potgieter – Highly Commended shortlisted
in the University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award, 2016 with Dead Man Walking.

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Photography David K Newton

Under 17’s – Winners
Megan Hill
1st prize
in the under 17’s category of the University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award, 2016 with One Last Time.

Jenny Hurnell
2nd prize
in the under 17’s category of the University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award, 2016 with Two Lives as One.

Ruby Eastwood
3rd prize (joint)
in the under 17’s category of the University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award, 2016 with A glimpse through Blue Glass.

Claudia Jeffers
3rd prize (joint)
in the under 17’s category of the University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award, 2016 with The Beauties of War.

Highly Commended shortlisted
Rowan Mathilda Todd
in the under 17’s category of the University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award, 2016 with The Unusual Princess Story.

Harry Anderson Highly Commended shortlisted (regional)
in the under 17’s category of the University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award, 2016 with The Witherhorn.

The End book launch at the Sunderland Literature and Creative Writing Festival

Last Thursday I was privileged to be able to take part in the Sunderland launch of The End collection, published by Unthank Books and inspired by artwork rom Nicolas Ruston. Launches are funny things, I think. And I’ve somewhat noticed that not many people are that enthused by them unless there is the opportunity to have their own small moment of glory, which makes sense and is all fair and fine.

I read from Burning the Ants, Andrea Ashworth from Harbour Lights and Ailsa Cox from Coup d’etat. There was a time when reading terrified me, but now it is mostly a pleasure and the best part can be that discussion and thought about the literature afterwards. They’re places where you get to explore your process’s and sometimes this will resonate with other people, sometimes it will be completely different.

We were asked essentially how much truth is in the writing and I’ve been exploring thoughts about the stories before and after the event. It was interesting to read Ailsa’s interview on the publishers website about how that moment where you take the leap from fact to fiction, the story then becomes something else. While it might have started closely to you, it becomes about the family in the fiction you create,the loss if their dog, whilst retaining the notions and explorations of love and mortality that Ailsa indicated she had wanted to explore. Equally, Andrea talks about the moment she encountered a very poetic, Gallic man in a fish and chip shop and the questions as to how and why he was there triggered a emotional story of life and love, a relationship that contained so much yet was cut brutally short.

I cant now imagine not having written Burning the Ants. I wonder if other writers feel that the stories they have written contribute to how they recognise themselves, that without this particular piece, I would not now feel quite so whole. Something would be missing. Because I would not have thought about my reasons for writing the story and it would still be swirling within me, untethered and unprocessed. I am stronger with it.

Burning the Ants is Joanie and Emma’s story, twin sisters, 17, one of their lives is stopped by a horrible motorbike accident that leaves Emma, the bolder twin, with locked in syndrome. Joanie is left to try and finally live her own life, but is also faced with that awful question, who are you without your other? This story started from an obvious point, my own brothers cancer and the question he asked, because he did not want to die in the pain he did, and our guilt for not being able to carry out that wish. The thing is, the way my brother wanted his life to end changed throughout his illness and this is why the debate of assisted suicide I think will continue to rage, and it was interesting to watch Me before You, as it explored similar issues in an emotional but perhaps fairly sanitised way. I don’t know the answer, I never expected to be faced with the question but it is a question we need to continue to have as a society.

In the story, the suggestion is that Joanie does end Emmas life and this piece is their story, but it also allowed me to consider mine. Very interesting that the launch provoked such questions and I feel resolved, from the process of writing this fiction, to get involved in that debate more.

So thanks to everyone who made this collection happen.

Return to Me

okay, it’s a Minnie Driver film, but I’m playing with this as the title of the next novel. The first draft finally got there and I’m looking forward to edits (honest)

**

Police hypnotist: Can you describe, and try to use present tense, David, I think that would be easier, what happened the afternoon you were meant to be looking after Muna?

David: Clare and I were – Clare and I are fighting.

Police hypnotist: Why are you fighting?

David: She knows about the affair. But she will never ask about it. So she’ll pick a fight about something else. It’s so typical.

Police hypnotist: Is it possible that Muna could have heard you arguing? David? David, are you okay? Would you like to stop?

David: I –

*

Did you hear me, mummy?

I did, angel.

What grade is this now?

It’s beautiful whatever. Don’t you feel it, when you play?

But what is it? I want to catch up to you.

What does it feel like, when you play?

Like … I am being myself.

It’s about grade 4, my love. I’m so proud of you. Can you ever forgive me, Muna?

Hm. I guess this depends actually on what you have done bad.

Yes, I suppose it does.

What have you done, mummy?

I – I let you go.

Mummy?

Yes angel?

I think my fingers are rusting.

*

Headlines, these are things that happen to other people’s families. They give ages and towns of address and sensationalised facts to sell papers. They invite us to make implicit judgements about innocent people, guilty people, to tut at bus stops and count ourselves lucky. To nestle back in the warmth of our homes and rest easy, like at the end of a horror movie when the killer has been uncovered. Ernest Burrows would never stand trial for Muna, my husband made quite sure of that. But what about me? What was my punishment?

*

We don’t consider that it all happens simply because one of us is just beautiful enough to turn heads and one so quietly charismatic to be beautiful, or indeed that we both were brought to the doctors mess like pushy parents volunteer children and that, apart from our friends, we dislike doctors for our own reasons, ones that we will unfold to each other, pulling out admissions, sombre, silent clowns revealing an endless line of bright flags – no, we are convinced, when we turn our meeting over like a souveneir, to ourselves, to friends, to our daughter, that it was meant to be.

But we are tag-alongs at the mess. One of us had been stood up and lined up for a doctor with an unpronounceable name. Time and union has blurred what that was. Doctors, we think, even in street clothes, in civs, just-like-you-and-me-jeans, carry that same surveying look. We stand opposite each other and Tony Hadley’s Gold shouts as our friends shout louder, replaced by a melody, a curious track we have forgotten, but with a repeating pattern that will spiral throughout our lifetime.

‘Thorassic’, ‘cardioid’.

The words reach us, clarity in a storm, our friends check their pagers. We are content to let it extend, the time before it would all begin, before we are even introduced. The space between us is the static atop old tv screens. You stoop close, a cheek to bubble, ready to invade the magnetic field, and crackle. One of our friends says, ‘not twenty five hours in a day’ and another says ‘anyway’ as they shake their heads and share a colluding look. They haven’t noticed it, that around us the bar-chatter is muted, our actions pronounced, we’re waiting though we know the future already. Later, much later, we will wonder, under covers together, fixed, as if holding tight enough could brace the pain, was what happened punishment for what we did? We may spend our lives staring over the wheel in a white tunnel of snow, one of us turned out to the passing cars, flashcards of families – camping gear and bikes on roof racks – a brother and sister sharing crisps – a baby in a car seat peered over by grandma. And we will no longer want to ask, or wish to be asked, what’s wrong?
Our friends say, ‘so this – sorry, ridiculous day, my friend from uni I was telling you about. I told you, I’m sure? Ridiculous day. This is Meena’s friend – Niamph’s husband, John, you know. They used to work together. So we’re thinking Jamesons, yeah?’
We did not hear the ticking.

*
When we kiss there will be that spatter of static which makes us suck our breath and blink and laugh. On mornings there will be that snap-snap as hair detaches from skin. Our daughter will have that hair, the kind that reaches up to touch the brush. Ghostly already. One of us will think, on some occasion when we’re brushing her hair before bed, are we like that? Is that it? Always reaching for each other if only ever so slightly apart?

*

Rash-red ears, white fingers.

Sure and steady arpeggios, triplets in A minor.

The winter we started to detach, when we moved just outside the gravity of our three, we try a picnic in the park and watch twin girls picking petals from a daisy ‘He loves me…!’

*

It is the date before our real date, the one we should not have had because we both, in different ways, belonged to someone else.We’re both thinking it- if you were mine…

‘I’m going to go.’

*

Now, I come back to the house, long after everyone has vacated. Ghosts in the walls. In every item I touch, the kettle, cupboard door, fridge for milk. They all contain us. Once I came back to that shattering feeling, when you just know you have been burgaled, that someone has run their fingers through your things, surmising value. When I saw what they’d written – after you were questioned the first time – daubed across the walls we’d painted when music filled the house, so long ago now – I went first to make a cup of tea.

*

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.

*

‘Tea? We have all kinds. Coffee? Decaff, I’m afraid.’

‘Thank you, but, if we could…’

‘Nor me either, thanks. Okay. So have you or any of your neighbours seen anyone unfamiliar in the park? Especially someone who’s frequented – returned to the park – on a number of occasions?’

‘Not me – no. You? When will you – ? I mean… when can you…when…um. I. We need her, do you understand – I.’

‘Sweetheart’.

*

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

*

It is new, this we. Our girl. And we each want her all for ourselves. To devour her. To be the best. To be the most. We watch each other, a doctor’s look, from opposite ends of the kitchen. One boiling the kettle, drumming fingers, the other reaching overhead for two mugs. We swap places, one in the fridge getting the sliced chicken, the other flipping the bread bin.

‘If you just try leaving her on the potty.’

‘It creates too much tension. Haven’t you read anything I forwarded you?’

‘It’s busy.’

‘You could at least –‘

We jump at the shriek. Wait. She breathes into it, louder, repeating. It’s one of those. ‘I’ll go,’ we both say at the same time, and squeeze each other.

This is something. This we hold to when people try to engage us – about the weather about that guy, you know, oh my God, who does he think he is, about drinks after work. We apologise, in our separate spaces, a café, a shared bathroom: We have to get back. A pleasant smile after us, an easy see you next week. And we wonder on our journeys, the bus the car the corner shop for milk the driveway the obligatory chat with Mrs Margarets whose nostrils are flaring because that Hyundai is parked just over her driveway again – about the chance, possibilities. We wonder too, whether we the other thinks about cheating and this provides a brief caesura, suckered with closeness. We meet with a kiss, the lilac-Sunday-warmth-and-baby-milk of our house.

‘Missed you, baby.’

*

The whirl of silent blue and white. That certain knock. The police. happens, police.

*

‘It crossed my mind.’

‘Oh? And?’

‘I just – it’s…’

‘I know.’

‘If we were both…’

‘We should probably…’

‘We should.’

We grimace, the best smile we can manage. ‘I’m not a total dick, just so you know. I – her kid sister died. Triple-bypass, but it didn’t – totally out of the blue. Some freak, I don’t know, aberration they’d never caught. Since then…I know I should. We’re – I’ve been trying.’

‘How long’s it been?’

‘A year.’

‘You should try.’

The bar is emptying and we should go or it will be noticed.

‘My dad, it took years, and that was, well, natural. The shock of that.’

We watch each other, careful, experimenting with the maybe, joining dots.

*

Tonight I shed my skin. I have not shaved my legs, or my arms or anywhere else. I step into heat and music. My hair is shorter than a boy’s. I force myself to the bar. No one cares, Lucia. Nobody minds.

‘Hello.’

And she is more beautiful than me. It is such a curious feeling, the press of softness against my body. How easily my body wakes. How wet I am.

*

It happened before Muna was taken. Of course it did. Was happening. Not like I just woke up and thought, I’m going to fuck the secretary. I’m going to commit the biggest cliché and justify my wife’s slow-burning disappointment in me. Once, her name is Kim, she says, ‘I was a bit disappointed you didn’t call me back Saturday.’ Pouts. She’s at the age where it’s still, supposedly, hot. I feel sick, like I’ve been thinking of all the porn I’ve been watching to try and get it up. Been thinking of all the gym and lycra and tight tight asses when I only took it up to squeeze it all, these thoughts, out of my idiot head. It was a bad patch. Everyone has bad patches. That’s what I’d said.

*

We are sat on a wall eating chips in a strange Welsh town, the supermarket has a black cat. We put down a chip and take a picture of it licking the salt. Someone asks if we want one of us. It will sit on the bedroom dressing table, in every house, misty twenty-somethings, wrapped in each other, both hands on the large and swollen stomach. And the confidence in our gazes. In five weeks, we’ll knit our arms around our daughter in an apple-coloured room after flying to the hospital in the new neighbour’s removal van when the cold had deadened our car, in voices scratchy with exhaustion, we’ll anoint her: Muna, we’ll say. Hi. Hi.

*

‘I think they just – you know, they just – really get on.’

It’s a relative from a family event on our first venture as couple. We’ve been respectful, we’ve taken adequate time. Niamh is dating again, Italian guy in computers. Tall. People make an effort to be nice about it.

‘Well you both look well, don’t you? Beautiful dress.’

‘Cold down there – I saw on the forecast?’

‘Top up?’

A bubble forming at the top of each conversation, where people would say, if they were going to, and how’s Niamh, do you know? Do you still speak?

Because they don’t, we nod and hold hands behind our backs, as though crossing fingers.

When we get home, a starter house full of boxes, ornaments and tastes that do not match, that will be filtered and homogenised, we pin each other down and it is as though we are furious. We will never delve into some of those boxes, we’d promised this, because it was insecurity that had rotted all other loves, until much later, when we want it to hurt. When hurting will make sense.

*

‘You go,’ I say and try to do it cutely.

‘It’ll wake Mu.’

‘Excuses.’ My hands whisper over your thigh.

You flinch.

I roll away.

‘Your hands are fucking cold that’s all.’

‘That’s why you need to put the heating on! And she’s not a cow, you know.’

‘I do?’

But your arms around my waist. Your hands heating my fingers. I twist. Try a kiss.

‘Fine, I’ll go.’

Your leaving sucks out all the warmth. It’s a fury I’ve known once since, a fist of a thing that knuckles my stomach. I would sit and frown at it, the fury. Say it under my breath: I’m furious. I’m furious. Long to say it to you, a longing like my desire in those first days, to be allowed to want you, to be allowed to have you. I look at us, the photograph on the dresser, furious. I fling it against the closed over door. It springs, quivers, into the wood. And I blink at the physicality, the ugliness, of my fury.

Your face gets larger. My arms hang by my sides like a self-conscious actor.

*

For her fourth birthday, Muna has a bouncy castle and a jelly cake, or jelly made in the shape of cake, because everybody has cake and you have to be new or people don’t come to parties.

When we’re putting her to bed, she says, mummy, what happens if you die and daddy has to move?

‘What’s made you think of that, sweetheart?’

‘I just donno how Father Christmas would find me.’

‘Oh he’d find you, sweetheart. He’s magic!’

We pull her door and rest against the wall.

‘That is such a weird thing to say?’

‘I think it’s amazing.’

‘Oh?’

‘She’s thinking ahead.’

We hear a twinge of metal and something collapsing. This time it’s us taking the neighbour, his name is Jim, to the hospital. We have to bundle Muna in with us.

‘This is where you both first met me,’ Muna says in an apple green waiting room and smiles.

*

We get work done to the house. Now is the time to get the ever-dripping shower fixed, to get a new toilet and the smallest sink in the second toilet. If we were selling we could say ‘one and a half baths’. Workmen chatter lots. We find things to do outside of the house.

‘Everything will be okay,’ we say to each other.

*

He has theories of her. That she walked and walked and a couple, an old couple, took her in and she is growing, young enough to forget us. He will say this eating toast jellied with marmalade and my stomach will revolt. I will sip tea and shake the biscuit packet.

*

She thinks Muna’s already buried, first under snow – she’d slipped and fallen, or has been used and snapped – and now she’s rotting. She’ll think these things over and over at night. She won’t say, but I know it. I see her thinking and then the horror of it, too bright to look at for too long, is smudged away. ‘You get some sleep,’ and the door will buffet, our air tugging out. I’ll hear her downstairs, brewing tea, switching on lights, the mutter of some chat show. I read the last message and force myself not to reply. I imagine this is what it’s like when women are on diets, where binge eating comes from.

*

There is a picture of us that betrays too much of me. It’s taken on a day that wasn’t sunny enough, but where we snatched the heat and called it Summer. I move it from the bedside table to my own bathroom, the one you never use. It gives me hope.

*

I would have liked to be friends with Niamh. I could have said – it definitely gets … different. To say, I know, you want to go, Got a minute while I sit you down and tell you what it’s like to watch somebody die? What it’s like to not be the two of you. She’d agree, it’s over cappuccino, this. In a café with a boutique in the back, the harbour bleak, ocean near-black. You can hear the wind sucking at the eaves. I would have understood whereas David couldn’t. Their gap widened, and I slipped in. And now Muna. My God –

*

I am embarrassed when we have sex now. I see the parts of my body I have not attended to. I notice the new things you do and try to stop the wondering. My skin is floury, dry. I wonder where I’ve left the moisturiser. On the bath, which needs cleaning. But we’re out of spray. Short stretchmarks stitch over my belly, they are red today. I notice that you don’t come. A wet kiss on my forehead. ‘That was good.’

‘But –‘

‘Don’t have to come to be close, do we? Do you?’

‘Well…no.’

And soon I can hear the weight of sleep in his breathing. Outside, the wooden wind chimes knock-knock like a child tapping at a glockenspiel.

In school, I had been good at music. The teacher, with her strained red cheeks and silver crop, always wore neckerchiefs as if she wanted to be an air hostess but was too grand, not sweetly-pretty enough, put me in choir. I tutor. I make money at it. She once called me Mary by mistake.

I choke. A half-sob.

It’s automatic, the reaching out in your sleep.

‘I know,’ your breath is aimed at my neck.

*

The now without her is like the before. When you were still with Niamh and I would wonder, in your kitchen with the neatly arranged jars and utensils, your quiet meals (I can only envision them this way but I expect I could be wrong) smartly-wiped astringent worktops, the hefty pestle and mortar I wanted to push to the back of the counter, or the neck of an under-sink shelf, near the bleach and the bin-bags, to gather the dust of dead moth wings. Do you think of me, do you argue, do you argue because you think of me, because you know about us, because you want me? Or is it all just smoke and mirrors, make-believe, a far-away-tree?

*

They drift, the messages, bright coats on a snowscape. Close, closer.

And the snow crowds as the days deepen.

You getting dragged to the next mess?

We meet in that time, with ploughing buses and cancelled trains, cars at 10mph, no clear line of where the pavement meets the road. We toothpick-walk to the gallery coffee shop. The only thing open in the small village we’d aimed at.

Should be quiet.

Should be invisible.

The café has a licence. We watch snow darken each other’s hair, sitting across from each other, a reflection of the positions we were in when we first met. A stand-off.

‘Well you look like shit,’ one of us says.

There’s a beat – laughter.

Someone smacks their daughter. ‘Naughty!’ A pointed finger and alarmed eyebrows.

*

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.

*

Some nights, we wake sweating and someone makes a joke about menopause. I am sure, just for a second, that the melody from the mess, the one Muna practises – without knowing or being taught – is playing downstairs, as if she has sleepwalked there.

*

From left to right: the una corda (soft pedal), sostenuto and damper (sustaining pedal). The pedals were unknown to me for some time as a child. I looked forward to them as I grew and my body began to fit the instrument. I depressed them mechanically to gage effect, or when the music indicated it – Sost. Ped. I read up on this pedal and find that it is relatively new, as technology improved I presumed. The middle pedal is also different depending on your piano. On mine, you press it when you want to soften notes beyond the capabilities of the una corda. It will virtually mute all the notes depressed when you tap it, no others, as you continue to play, would be affected.

*

This is what we’re like. A DH Lawrence novel. The one with the men wrestling. There is hatred and love and we are gripped.

‘You fucking…’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Our child…’

‘So you fucked her?’

There is force and force replied to. And again, until we’re hitting and gripping each other and our brains spiralling – we cannot fix this, we cannot fix this.

Eventually, we’re sat apart and panting. Withered athletes. ‘I missed you, that’s why.’ We look at each other, across the space.

‘How do we fix this?’

I shake my head. My head is dull, I can’t move my right arm at the elbow. Pricks of blood – the dots of colour on snowscape – and whenever he speaks metal sounds grate against the words.

*

And those we struggled to let go of, the Highly commended…

As promised, here are the stories that very nearly made our shortlist. Please remember (once again!) that there are various judges working on this prize and our final lists will be the result of what resonates with these judges. That’s a small handful individuals with individual perspectives, trying to come to some sort of unanimous and overall decision about work that resonates with them. These stories that were highly commended are strong pieces of fiction that said something interesting but perhaps did not resonate quite so strongly with the readers as those that progressed. We know plenty of cases were work that has been submitted to other prizes and rejected can end up being  a winner.

Well done again and thanks to everyone who entered.

 

Highly Commended:

 

Overs

A Random Act of Kindness – Robert Bage

Blackbirds and Broccoli – Joanna Bales

Resolutions – Simon Holloway

On this Day – Aaron Wright

The Woman who Shrank in the Wash – Glenda Young

 

Unders

Memories – Sianna Hughes

I Cried a River for You – Shannon Pack

 

The Shortlist – University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award

The shortlist is here! As with the longlist, focusing the names down and down to a much smaller list was both rewarding but very challenging and it was very hard to let some stories that felt very dear – go. When you hear other competitions say, the quality of stories was so high… it often seems a bit fluffy, but it honestly was.

Congratulations to those listed, to those who missed out – firstly, please try again next year! but also, think about those little tweaks you could have made. In some cases, it was simply that in a competition as opposed to an editorial, you don’t have the relationship with the writer to say, ‘that ending feels forced’ and so on. Here, the writer might be asked to redraft and resubmit but with a competition (note to self, we could all learn from this!) we’re looking for the absolute finished product. So that thing we already know – one extra draft – is something to keep in mind.

Well done everyone and the final results will be announced during the Sunderland Literature and Creative Writing festival at the end of October.

Overs
A Child of Dust – Sandra Morgan
A Clump of Nsenene – Farah Ahamed
A Technical Hitch – Felicity King
Aubergine – Jennifer Harvey
Big Bones – Harriett Springbett
Bottled Up – Richard Lakin
Clem – Pam Plumb
Collar’d – Helen Bridgett
Dead Man Walking – Kristien Potgieter
Embarrassment of Riches – Dan Brotzel
From Hull to the Hooghly – Sally Jubb
Grandmother’s Footsteps – Julie Hayman
His Dead Wife – Frances Gapper
In Chamonix – Sally Jubb
Intimations – Padraic Walsh
Lust for Life – DRD Bruton
Morphine – Ann Butler Rowlands
Paul Newman Eyes – KL Jefford
Silent Retreat – Alan McCormick
The Hills of Ffostrasol – Alex Barr
The Last Firework – Philippa Holloway
This Time – Elizabeth Ottoson
Unders
A glimpse through Blue Glass – Ruby Eastwood
The Tiny Big Difference – Helena Sinai
The Beauties of War – Claudia Jeffers
If Only – Nupur Doshi
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 Li
One Last Time – Megan Hill
————————
Keep checking here for news of the festival and for our Honourable Mentions – those stories that didn’t quite make the shortlist but were exceptionally hard to let go.

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.

*