Flash Fiction Workshop, The Word Festival 2017, South Tyneside

I’m happy to be running a flash fiction workshop at The Word this year. There’s an excellent line up of writers and events, so do have a look. There will also be a flash fiction competition run in conjunction with the festival, so do keep your eyes peeled for that. Getting to the workshop will be good practice for the competition (just saying…)

You can book tickets and find out more information here!

 

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Find out more about the The Word and what’s on here : http://theworduk.org/

Got a bit draughty…

Next draft of the novel.

I’ve had a nice window to read after completing the last draft of Return to Me. Having a very last pass (she says) where I’m trying to really sort the voice. Reading helps. Anyone else seriously struggle to read when actually writing?!

Return to Me

Sarah Dobbs

Abduct: to carry off or lead away (a person) illegally and in secret or by force, especially to kidnap.

Let’s talk about beginnings. Let’s put on this memory as an old, adored record. Sit within this envelope of time, hear the static prickle and that bubble of sound widen. It incorporates you. You feel the breath of this memory whiskering over all your insides, a lover’s playful, trailing finger. And your skin? It will tickle, from the inside out. You hear the distant tractor, like an afterthought, the wash of further traffic that leads back to the arteries of north east road networks, that huge Sainsburys and to do lists, ‘I shoulds’ and Monday mornings.

But for now you are here, where we were, before it all began.You see a brilliant autumn sun soak and star the dark behind our closed lids. Its light feather of warmth on waiting skin.

Here is the place we will always choose to rereat to, squeeze out all our guilt, expect the memory to be as pure, as anticipatory.

We are banked within a sloping farmer’s field, dense with the scent of grass that is almost hay. We’ve taken pictures of ourselves lolling in the sun. Neither of us looks our best – we are scratchy-eyed and dehydrated, there are tightening sore throats and yet we are jubilant; there has been too much sex. Our limbs are plaited, the bones jelly within, our eyelids will struggle to raise. You could bake us like this. We’ve attempted a crossword and laughed at our competitiveness, the paper rustles, a restless flicker.

‘Newton’s God,’ one of us murmurs.

At the time, though you can spot it, it does not occur to us to imagine that we will never get time like this again.

The day is blue and gold. Let’s say this is where we begin.

*

Hold onto that, the thought of a child so straightforward and kind. She scared me sometimes, with that dark-eyed observation. But you’re not supposed to think that, and this wasn’t one of those days.

That cookies not gonna eat itself, Muna says. Sunflowers are heel-ee-oh-trop-ic. Cornstarch is a polly-mer. That’s cornflour in English, mummy. Not flower like the rose. Remember who toad ya. Are you eating your cookie, mummy. I want some pop. Can I have a mermaid when I’m six?

Iain Rowan, author of ‘One of Us’, Free Culture Research Seminar

New Approaches To Storytelling In The Digital Age

From poetry on Instagram to Twitter short stories, moving graphic novels on Vine and seeing who reads your guerilla stories…social media offers new opportunities to get your prose, poetry and other work in front of new readers. This workshop will explore the possibilities and get you creating.

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Free event but please email sarah.dobbs@sunderland.ac.uk to register interest.

Iain Rowan is the author of One of Us and the director of the creative writing strand of the Sunderland Literature and Creative Writing Festival.

http://iainrowan.com

When: February 10th, 2017, 12pm-1pm

Where: Priestman Building, 115

Recapitulation

Return to Me –

I’ve split the novel into three (potentially four) sections that, thanks to help, follow a sonata pattern. This is the second draft of the third section, trying to use the italics as a refrain through the piece, but will see how that works. Or if when I step back it all cracks and you paint over and start again!

Recapitulation

We can see the truck below the angled field, the route we have come and where we need to go. ‘I see it all. Before we met, us now now, how we will be. All of it. It’s all there already.’

‘What do you see? Is it good?’

‘Would you stop if it wasn’t?

‘What do you mean?’

‘Us, this? If you knew what was to come? If you knew how bad it would be.’

We look for the blue and gold and meet with angry sky.

*

The dark-haired girl is following me, long hair a wagging finger, a cautionary tale. We have the same-sized feet. Her mustard dress and aubergine scarf, remind me of items I’ve tumbled into charity shops, belonging to another era.

I turn. Our same-sized feet do not stop at the same time. She advances.

Her smug stare meets my question.

Panic swells and amplifies. I turn, run, her shadow clings to me like spider’s webs.

*

We can see a woman in a salon sipping peppermint tea. Her arms cross on her lap, the thumb tucked in, she angles her head as the stylist displays what the woman already knows to be there. Nodding. Things are taken, shaken, dusted, a polite refusal and subsequent acquiescence of a tip and the woman reveals herself to a golden morning that matches her golden hair, is welcomed to a high street populated with florists and boutique cake shops, cafes that will glitter as the day coasts to dusk with sprinkled fairy lights, a town with a shoreline possessing a rainbow of beach huts and a throng of energy, liquorice allsorts of people to be unique within, a brighter echo of a place she once knew, but which is some three hundred and thirty nine miles away. And here, in this money-honeyed beach town not far from Orchard Grove, there is all the time in the world.

The door chimes to the Treacle Cafe. ‘Lucia.’

She smiles and her red dress swishes through tables and beyond grand glass cake displays, dainty English china and assortment of every kind of tea you could think of.

‘Mummy!’

‘What a beautiful picture. Is that for me?’

The child, blonde, checks with the gentleman. ‘It was for Michael, but you can share?’

‘We’ll let Michael have it.’

Michael who is standing up to give an order to the waitress who already knows, ‘large cappuccino.’ She winks.

The woman scoops the child in a hug who is already glued back to her colouring and leans in towards the man, the man who is smartly dressed, refined. The type to carry a tasteful golf umbrella. Indeed, there is such an umbrella, raven with discreet mulberry stripes and a wooden handle. Her mother would approve of such a man.

‘You’re looking beautiful,’ he says, folding a broadsheet and taking her hand. ‘But you don’t need to pay someone for that to happen.’

She rolls her eyes and catches a dark movement in the glass. The smile is smeared and an illusion, a dark girl with long hair, a mustard cardigan and aubergine scarf. Her hair flicks as she escapes the window.

‘Lucia? Are you alright? You look…’

Two French polished fingernails steeple between her eyebrows. She squints and widens her eyes. ‘A migraine, maybe. It’ll pass. Too much peppermint tea in the salon.’

The waitress hurries a tray over. ‘Here, I brought water as well.’

‘Thank you, Lindsey,’ Michael says, still holding Lucia’s hand and we can see the glitter of two wedding rings, one smooth and grey, the other bold and brightly attractive. The family talk and drink water and tea and Michael returns to the paper, reading out sections and shaking his head while the woman nods and the child draws.

The door chime to the Treacle Cafe sends a tingling shiver through the warmth and familiarity of the cafe, we are confronted by a tall man, lean, leaner than we might anticipate, as though his skin has somewhat shrunk. The waitress takes a beat; he is unfamiliar, and slips over, smiling. The man is beautiful. He has a Viking’s face and his eyes, swimming-pool-blue, are glassy but nevertheless mesmeric. His alien tones order cappuccino to go.

When Lucia glances over her shoulder and out from family, every minute tension in her face, the slight tautness that creates a smile, that interested look, is smudged.

The man with the Viking face and swimming-pool-blue eyes is staring at her daughter.

 

*

If you put your hand over your eyes and squint, and you imagine hard, really hard now, see how you have sprung into a future not too far from now. You will see a bridge atop a slim road that ribbons below. Below the bridge you will see a body. The body will be naked from the waist up, the muscles baring the effect of a diminished warrior. Someone who has had to, or been able, to fight. The day will explode, golden, burning. It’s already positioned that way. Those who haven’t risen, already know. It’s a feeling that talks of Spring and chance. The warm riddles of an unfolding life. A day in which most people will chance a look at the sea, its yawning beach and skipping dogs, the bent kneed swivel of fathers skimming stones for daughters, they will breathe in and think: yes.

A runner presses on, muscles flexing and flashing, fists in gloves, breath an almost completed cyclic route that will lead almost inevitably to a body beneath the bridge, though it is not yet there. She will encounter a dark quick shape on the way down, too quick to decipher what she has seen as she is seeing it. It will all happen as if in an instant. As if we are experiencing Newton’s God.

Panting, the runner unplucks her earphones to examine the shape. On investigation, the shape will reveal itself as limbs, limbs arranged in such a fashion, that her stomach will contract. You see her turn away, make the call.

Muna, I asked the glass. Muna, I asked February 21st, overcast. Muna?

I heard only the whoosh of cars, the reversing of a lorry. Somewhere, recycling bottles are emptied into the blue crates the council make you pay for – one misses, strikes concrete, smashes.

*

The particulars of it all will always be out of focus, but there are some things a man cannot forget. When you go to a room to show you the body of a dead child, you actually want it to be someone else’s. Another father’s. With their kaleidoscope of memories and all the ways in which they’ve changed. Confrontational-cock-sure to conservative. Careful getting up the slide, Chimp. As a guy, no, as a man, you’re supposed to defend. That is your job. Fuck that office, that suit, all those guys under your say-so, that expense account. Whatever. None of it counts when you’re a dad. Careful going down, Monkey. Don’t wanna get splinters (the familiar ripple of irritation you feel towards Clare reddens; Clare who would shrug and say, so what if she breaks a bone, it’ll mend, it’ll learn her, I’m not wrapping her in cotton wool and, the last flicked dig, so light you wonder if you imagine it, not when you’ve got that so well covered). You wrap things up that are precious. Muna was precious. You should not be waiting for a room to be readied, your hands should not be sweaty and cupping your knee caps like a chess geek in the bleachers, your every movement surreal as you force yourself to contemplate it, what will it be like if they’re right – you are that man, you are that father? How the hell do you tell Clare?

‘Mr Munroe?’

You get up. You’ve left Clare in bed. You’ve not told her where you’re going, not like she cares. She’ll get up to smoke a couple of times. Something she does in pyjamas and boots at the bottom of the garden, staring out into the fields. Peering for the shape of their daughter in the distance where they lost her.

What you see of that girl who was uncovered, as you decipher the dead white static, is only this: she is not Muna. And, somehow, her wet brown hair looks like gravy.

Grayveh? Muna is talking to me from a time long ago.

‘Gravy,’ I say. ‘Why’re you talking like that?’

‘Grayveh grayveh graaaaaayveh. Ha ha ha!’

‘Mr Munroe?’

You blink. You’re in another room, a cupboard.

‘Muna says “grayveh”.’ I challenge the looks I get.

‘Mr Munroe, why did you lie about your whereabouts the evening before Muna’s disappearance?

‘Have you looked for someone with an accent? Look, I’m – that poor kid in there, her hair was – alright yeah. Okay yeah, sounds insane. But it looked like gravy, that thing you guys like spilled all over, anyway and it reminded me – well Muna said it just like that. “Grayveh.” Why would she do that?’

One of them fiddles with the button on their shirt; its thread is unravelling. ‘Friend from school. Could be anything. Can you answer the question, Mr Munroe?’

You’re nodding. ‘Could be the guy who was creeping into our house at night.’

‘Because you didn’t fix the window?’

I hear the white clock on the white wall add the time. ‘Mr Munroe – ‘

‘Fine. Because I fucked that girl who sold that story about me and I didn’t want Clare to have to go through that too. You all know that, can we -‘

‘Nice guy.’ The officers nod to each other.

I settle back into the chair, sieving through all the faces in our street, replaying their voices, our meetings. Neighbours, their visitors, grandkids. Who was I missing?

*

Muna?’ I asked the cotton of the duvet that reflected my breath in the static, navy nights in Orchard Grove, the house so chill I felt as though someone had ran ice over me in the night, that I glistened with it like slug trails.

Yes, mummy?’

Are you alright? Muna?’

*

‘I think that would be lovely with your complexion,’ I say. ‘The orange-red over the russet works better with your skin tone. It looks quite rocky.’

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ David says. His figure, even thin as he is now, always a confrontation.

The young woman looks as though she’s about to leave.

‘Will you take this one?’

‘I – ‘

‘This isn’t you.’ Hands on hips. He shrugs.

‘What do you want?’ I hiss.

‘What do you think?’

‘Where have you been?’

‘You know that, Clare.’

Do I? I had not wanted to look into what I know, I had not wanted to hear everything I missed. I was her mother. That man – that –

‘Lucia?’ The manager is bright and red-lipped herself. It’s our best seller.

I know, of course I do and I am already pulling at the threads of my life. Unravelling my new, perfect family. It is thrilling to walk out of the store, to coast down the street to the same truck.

We drive in silence. I think of my manager’s gaze, watching me to the door. I think of the gaze of whoever took Muna, how they must have watched and measured. Of Niamh’s observation of us, in obsessive and then discreet ways, how she must have felt some bizarre gratification that life had been so cruel to us as we had been so cruel to her. I think of the dark-haired girl in the rear view mirror, the one behind my eyelids, whose expression I cannot read.

‘Where are we going?’ I say and David glances at me and then back to the road. Because of course I know.

What do you want?

The dark-haired girl’s stare meets mine, smug.

*

They stop along a services at a country road. It has a black cat winking in the slanted afternoon light. They part to pump gas, to dab their faces with hospital-blue paper towels. To check with themselves: what are they doing? They call people who might be concerned, pacing orbits enough distance from the other for these conversations to just be inaudible.

She . .. will you?

I’m sorry…

not too long.

I just . . .

love you too.

Their doors a tap-danced flourish percussive, the truck shut up, the two of them inside, which grits up, spits dust, smooths up towards a living myth, their old lives. Muna, still lost, still waiting. And the clinging dark-haired girl, invisibly watches.

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