Return to Me

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

**

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

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

Police hypnotist: Why are you fighting?

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

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

David: I –

*

Did you hear me, mummy?

I did, angel.

What grade is this now?

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

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

What does it feel like, when you play?

Like … I am being myself.

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

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

Yes, I suppose it does.

What have you done, mummy?

I – I let you go.

Mummy?

Yes angel?

I think my fingers are rusting.

*

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

*

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

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

‘Thorassic’, ‘cardioid’.

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

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

*

Rash-red ears, white fingers.

Sure and steady arpeggios, triplets in A minor.

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

*

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

‘I’m going to go.’

*

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

*

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

We were meant to be

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

*

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

‘Thank you, but, if we could…’

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

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

‘Sweetheart’.

*

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

*

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

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

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

‘It’s busy.’

‘You could at least –‘

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

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

‘Missed you, baby.’

*

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

*

‘It crossed my mind.’

‘Oh? And?’

‘I just – it’s…’

‘I know.’

‘If we were both…’

‘We should probably…’

‘We should.’

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

‘How long’s it been?’

‘A year.’

‘You should try.’

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

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

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

*

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

‘Hello.’

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

‘Top up?’

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

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

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

*

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

‘It’ll wake Mu.’

‘Excuses.’ My hands whisper over your thigh.

You flinch.

I roll away.

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

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

‘I do?’

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

‘Fine, I’ll go.’

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

We pull her door and rest against the wall.

‘That is such a weird thing to say?’

‘I think it’s amazing.’

‘Oh?’

‘She’s thinking ahead.’

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

‘But –‘

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

‘Well…no.’

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

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

I choke. A half-sob.

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

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

*

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

*

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

And the snow crowds as the days deepen.

You getting dragged to the next mess?

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

Should be quiet.

Should be invisible.

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

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

There’s a beat – laughter.

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

*

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

‘You are quackers, mummy.’

And I wonder where she has heard this.

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

‘You’re not –‘

‘You –‘

‘Why me?’

‘Because she –‘

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

‘What?’

‘She –‘

‘What?’

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

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

‘What?’ she says, over her knuckles.

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

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

‘You fucking…’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Our child…’

‘So you fucked her?’

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

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

‘How do we fix this?’

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

*

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

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

Well done again and thanks to everyone who entered.

 

Highly Commended:

 

Overs

A Random Act of Kindness – Robert Bage

Blackbirds and Broccoli – Joanna Bales

Resolutions – Simon Holloway

On this Day – Aaron Wright

The Woman who Shrank in the Wash – Glenda Young

 

Unders

Memories – Sianna Hughes

I Cried a River for You – Shannon Pack

 

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

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

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

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

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