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.


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.’



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.


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.’


‘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?’


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.


‘She –‘


‘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:



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



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.

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
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.


‘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 – ’



‘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)



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



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.




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.’


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.



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.


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.



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.



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.”


“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.


“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.


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.