Creatives in profile: interview with Anna Saunders

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Are there any sights more cheering than crowds of readers tramping across a field carrying books, or sitting under canopies discussing the minutiae of a single line of poetry, or a page of fiction? Increasingly, we live in such a fast-paced world that leaves precious little room for these acts of literary activity (for ‘activity’, may we read instead, ‘rebellion’?). Instead of thinking about Tennyson, or Eliot or Woolf or Plath, we must spend our days flicking through the endless annals of social media; while corporations pipe endless Muzak into our ears and other orifices, and we slave away for 80 hours a week for stagnating wages, just so we can afford the shiny and colourful things advertising billboards and signs on every public surface insist we must purchase immediately.

In such a world, events that enable literary conversations and communion to flourish are, therefore, to be cherished. It is an honour, therefore, to bring you the following interview with Anna Saunders – founder of the Cheltenham Poetry Festival.

Anna is the author of Communion, (Wild Conversations Press), Struck, (Pindrop Press) Kissing the She Bear, (Wild Conversations Press), Burne Jones and the Fox ( Indigo Dreams) and the Ghosting for Beginners ( Indigo Dreams, Spring 2018 ) described as ‘ a beautifully evocative read’ by Fiona Sampson.

She  has had poems published in journals and anthologies, which include Ambit, The North, New Walk Magazine, Amaryllis, Iota, Caduceus, Envoi, The Wenlock Anthology, Eyeflash,  and The Museum of Light.

Described as ‘a poet who surely can do anything’ by The North, ‘a modern myth maker’ by Paul Stephenson and as  ‘a poet of quite remarkable gifts’ by Bernard O’Donoghue, Anna founded the Cheltenham Poetry Festival in 2010 as an all-singing, all-dancing festival – one that fuses poetry and music, film, drama and visual art. Most importantly of all – it helps brings creatives together (which is where they belong, if you ask us).

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

SAUNDERS

I live in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire though originally come from Hoylake – a coastal town not far from Liverpool. I am lucky to be able to go ‘home’ often and enjoy the vibrant cultural life of Liverpool, and walks along the shore, as well as having a home in the heart of the Cotswolds.

I come from a family of journalists and writers – one boss said I had ‘ink in my blood’. Most of my life has revolved around the literary arts; consuming or producing them. I am a poet, author of 5 collections of poetry and the Founding Director of Cheltenham Poetry Festival, I also teach creative writing.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

SAUNDERS

I love any immersive experience – walking by the sea, watching live music, reading, going to the theatre, spending time with people who inspire me.

Running a poetry festival is a great joy too – it’s exhilarating to have a creative vision and see it come to fruition. I really enjoy ‘poet shopping’ when I am building the programme. It’s always a thrill to bring your literary idols to town. Last year for example I booked Matthew Sweeney, whose work I’ve always greatly admired;I programmed Kathy Towers, Sasha Dugdale, Fiona Sampson and Wayne Holloway Smith, too. It was a thrill to meet them all and I felt a little star struck.

INTERVIEWER

When you write – be it poetry or fiction – how much of the finished manuscript is in your mind when you start out?

SAUNDERS

When I started writing my last two collections, I had some idea of the shape of the books, or at least their driving themes.

Burne Jones and the Fox (Indigo Dreams) was inspired by a love affair between Maria Zambaco and the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne Jones, I tell the story of their intensive and destructive love affair through a series of poems, the collection also explores what I see as the duality within us – between the feral and the civilized, the artist and the fox.  Ghosting for Beginners also has a consistent theme – i.e. what ‘haunts’ us for good or bad.  I guess both these books are like concept albums!

INTERVIEWER

Joyce Carol Oates once said that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out “are they as crazy as I am?” Do you have any particularly crazy writing habits?

SAUNDERS

I usually have to write first drafts on rough scrappy paper – ideally without lines! I do a lot of walking around, muttering to myself – is that crazy enough?

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. What voice does Anna Saunders, poet, speak with?

SAUNDERS

I have been told I ‘write like an American’ –perhaps that’s because of my direct, ostensibly conversational voice. Rory Waterman said my work was ‘superbly imagistic’ which was a huge compliment – I aim to empower my work with the use of potent images, and of course I use legend, and classic narratives.Paul Stephenson called me a ‘modern myth maker’.

INTERVIEWER

Does your reading affect what you write?

SAUNDERS

Yes – absolutely. I read a lot of poetry and while I am writing I keep dipping into books. It’s impossible for me to write well without reading, it’s like needing to hear the music before you start to dance.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in poetry, what are your thoughts and feelings on the ‘poetry industry’. If we can define it thus. And how would you advise aspiring poets to break out onto the ‘poetry scene’?

SAUNDERS

I think the poetry scene is thriving.  We’ve seen a huge increase in audiences at Cheltenham Poetry Festival and poetry book buying has surged too. There seem to be some incredibly talented spoken word artists and poets emerging daily and I am completely in awe of the work being published by Nine Arches, Indigo Dreams, Bloodaxe, V Press, Seren and other publishers. It is, however, a really competitive industry – and the route to publication can be a convoluted one! I’d advise aspiring poets to read copious amounts, study craft, write every day and keep their eye on journals and on line publications, keep submitting and build up that CV so they can meet the requirements of the publishing houses.

Though having said all that – it should be all about the creative act really, rather than public success. As Virginia Woolf said ‘writing is the most profound pleasure, being read the superficial!’

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk to us about the ethos behind the Cheltenham Poetry Festival – is it important, do you feel, to bring writers and creatives together?

SAUNDERS

I think the Guardian put it perfectly when they described the Festival as ‘a poetry party with a healthy dose of anarchy’ – we try to have a punk spirit; and be questioning, free thinking and speak out against the system from time to time.

We are serious about poetry, but like to have a good time too.  There is a great buzz when the festival runs – with audiences getting the chance to hang with some of our greatest living writers. Since the festival kicked off in 2011 we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy performances by some stellar names– they include John Cooper Clarke, Fiona Sampson, Owen Sheers, John Hegley, Hollie McNish, Don Patterson, Clare Pollard, Matthew Sweeney, Murray Lachlan Young, Jacob Polley– to name just a few. And yes, it’s incredibly inspiring for creatives to meet the writers they admire.

INTERVIEWER

James Joyce argued poetry was “always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.” In the modern world, ‘actuality’ is increasingly hard to define – with reality often seeming more fictitious than fiction and beyond the imagination of mainstream culture. How does poetry revolt against actuality in a reality increasingly ‘false’? And what role can poetry play in protest and activism – specifically protest and revolt against current dictats of ‘reality’?

SAUNDERS

My recent work has been inspired by events on the world stage, politics and the crisis of austerity – but I try use dark humour and some aesthetic beauty to address these subjects.

I have found it increasingly difficult to turn away from some of the horrors we are experiencing due to governmental decisions.

I am working on a new book which uses figures from Greek and Roman myth to explore contemporary issues – in one of the poems Persephone goes on Question Time to interrogate Hades, who has abducted her and taken her into the underworld to starve – a great metaphor for the punitive measures of austerity.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give us your top ten writing tips for writers?

SAUNDERS

  1. Read widely and copiously – not just the poets you admire but the ones you find challenging, even dislike. Study the craft. We can learn so much from the writers we love or even loathe.
  2. Ignore the Inner Critic – give yourself time to free write – set a timer and just let your ink flow for 10, 15 minutes – let your imagination have free reign, don’t stop to correct spelling or punctuation. Write wild.  Your most exciting ideas can emerge this way.
  3. Write regularly. Keep your appointment with the page and the muse will know when to show up.
  4. Keep a journal, or a writers notebook – open your eyes and ears to what is around you. Get in the habit of being a word magpie and steal conversations, quotes, scenes from around you and get them on the page.
  5. Use a mixture of Latinate and Anglo Saxon language. Too much of the first and your work may seem overwritten and too much of the latter, and it may not sing.
  6. Edit. As Hemingway said ‘first drafts are shit’. Revise, redraft again and again.
  7. Avoid clichés and tired expressions. Avoid abstract nouns and excessive use of adjectives.
  8. Listen to feedback and accept intelligent critiques of your work if they help your hone your craft.  Embrace any opportunities to learn ( I studied for a Masters in Creative Writing).
  9. Take risks, believe in your vision, keep going.
  10.  Ignore all advice. Except this advice.

 

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Creatives in profile: interview with Michael Caines, co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books

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It increasingly appears as though we live in an era where the biggest publishing companies and media organisations are only concerned with stabilising profits for shareholders – and are prioritising making money over supporting originality and new creative ideas.

With the largest corporations influencing so much of the culture we consume, this has the potential to limit us to a devastating cycle of reboots, sequels, prequels and franchises; where the only novels we read are copies of novels that are themselves copies of commercially successful novels. This risk-averse and profit-focussed approach in turn risks homogenising our culture; and limiting our exposure to new ways of thinking.

Yet there are reasons to hope. Across the world, new creative ideas are being put to seed – supported by groups of energetic and enthusiastic individuals.

We caught up with the team behind one such creative endeavour: the Brixton Review of Books, a new literary quarterly magazine – published by a team of creative volunteers who help ensure the magazine remains completely free to readers (though you can also have four copies delivered straight to your door for a tenner).

It’s an honour to bring you this detailed interview with Michael Caines, co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books. Caines also works at the Times Literary Supplement, and is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century and a founder member of the Liars League.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

CAINES

I’m an editor on the Times Literary Supplement by day and a layabout by night. I write the odd review, and the odder poem as a private distraction, and have made limited forays into academia, such as writing a book about Shakespeare and the eighteenth century, and editing some plays by female dramatists of the same period. Brigid Brophy and T. F. Powys are among my more recherché hobbyhorses, although I’d argue, of course, with the tedious fervor of the true acolyte, that both should be more widely known that they are at present.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

CAINES

Brigid Brophy and T. F. Powys. Jane Austen. William Makepeace Thackeray. Anne Thackeray Ritchie. Vernon Lee. Sylvia Townsend Warner. Ronald Firbank. Italo Calvino. Alberto Moravia. Christine Brooke-Rose. The Oulipians. Marguerite Youcenar. Penelope Fitzgerald. Michael Haslam. Lorrie Moore. Peter Reading. Weldon Kees. Elizabeth Bowen. Elizabeth Bishop. Henry Green. Nicholas Mosley. Stewart Home. It’s an incoherent set of influences, I grant you. Yes, they are, some of them, names off the top of my head. There are others who will come to me later. More seriously, there are others who are mainly TLS editors, of infernally greater mental powers than me – damn their eyes.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Brixton Review of Books – how was it borne into existence?

CAINES

It’s an experiment, you might say:  people take all kinds of free newspapers and magazines at tube stations around London, but might some of them take a free literary paper made up of long reads rather than short ones? There are some obvious and quite brilliant models – such as the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the TLS itself – to which I suppose the BRB pays the impudent homage of imitation, while paradoxically trying to do its own thing at the same time. I hope for some readers the BRB will serve merely as a suggestion of what’s to come if they aren’t already readers of one of those other, infinitely more prestigious publications. This particular literary newspaper is free, though, and available to all who pass a tube station at the right time, or spots it in a café, bar, bookshop, library, gallery, waiting room etc (the kind of places to which we’re also distributing it).

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The Brixton Review of Books – look out for a copy at tube stations around London.

INTERVIEWER

It’s no easy feat to bring a new independent literary magazine into existence. What are some of the main challenges you faced in establishing Brixton Review of Books?

CAINES

Well, for the most part, I put together the first issue by myself, and I enjoyed that a great deal. But it’s a relief to have a small team working on the paper from here on.

Then there’s the money. This “experiment” wouldn’t be happening at all if it weren’t for the generosity of the Literature Matters awards established by the Royal Society of Literature. They gave the BRB the funds and the endorsement to get things going.

Thirdly, there’s usually some agony with the administrative side of these things, such as subscriber copies going astray in the post.

And I also worried for a time that the first issue would be universally despised and scorned and laughed out of existence. That hasn’t happened . . . yet . . . that I know of.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, are the biggest opportunities for independent writers and artists within the publishing sector?

CAINES

I suppose there’s a sense in which all writers and artists are (or ought to be) independent, assuming that all trade on some inalienable, intrinsic idiosyncratic approach to their work. Some are just more obviously amenable to the established trade publishers than others, perhaps, and therefore able to cut some kind of a deal. It depends on what a writer or artist truly wants. Publication can mean many things – this airport novel or that pentagonal limited edition with unique perfumes embedded in every leaf – but maybe there’s a mode of publication to suit all tastes. So I suppose the opportunity is out there, and the challenge is finding the right one.

INTERVIEWER

In an era of digital content and e-zines, as well as ‘fake news’ and social media; what role do printed publications like Brixton Review of Books have to play?

CAINES

I’m one of those people – it’s not just me, I hope – who stare at screens for a large portion of the working day but love print. I think I even mean that I can love the material book as a work of art, and reading online, necessary though it often is, forms an instructive contrast to that art. But, er, in less hilfalutin terms, I hope that reading the BRB, or any newspaper or printed work on paper, is simply a change from reading on a screen, and being continuously poked in the eye by electric light.

INTERVIEWER

As editors, do you feel any ethical responsibility for the content you publish?

CAINES

Absolutely – although I tend to mistake ethical responsibility, in this context, for aesthetic responsibility. The two are so easily confused, don’t you think?

INTERVIEWER

Julian Barnes has stated that the problem with the big publishing companies is that they are too risk averse: they are only willing to “publish novels that are copies of other successful novels”. Do you think that independent magazines have a duty to champion independent voices of authors and essayists whose writing may never be given a chance by the bigger companies in the sector?

CAINES

Perhaps, unfortunately, the indie economy as a whole doesn’t have much say in the matter. But either way, I guess that there are plenty of writers temperamentally too rich for the mainstream, and who flourish in indie magazines and in the literary communities to which those magazines belong. But it depends on the magazine’s character. There seem to be some indies that seem to embrace underground-ness, and others that nurture more commercially lofty ambitions. There’s room in the world for both, I hope.

Regarding an aversion to risk: beyond the world of books, some big companies run (what I think they call) “accelerators”, designed to promote and invest in innovation, because innovation is precisely what big companies, for the most part, don’t do well. It’s interesting that so many big publishers, for their part, now run nimble, pseudo-indie imprints, which are arguably meant to play a similar role. The real indies, meanwhile, don’t necessarily receive the recognition and remuneration they deserve – but that inability to er realize an investment may be a further mark of their indie-ness.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

CAINES

I’m no industry guru. So rather than second-guess the future, may I instead offer you a naïve wish-list?

1) That the books business gets over its daft dependency on the insipid drug that is literary prize culture.

2) That the indie scene flourishes in perpetuity.

4) (3 was unprintable, even online, and was basically a curse on reviewers who think their duty is to their pals in the business rather than their readers.) That somebody in television works out how to make a show about books again.

5) That Amazon mends its ways.

(Well, I did say “naïve” . . . .)

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

CAINES

A terrible problem we all have to deal with, but some of us are more successful at banishing it than others, poor souls, who have to slog out their guts over “novels” and “villanelles” and the like. Pity them in their enslavement to the myth of art!

Sorry, what was the question again?

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your editorial and submissions process? How can aspiring writers get involved?

CAINES

For the most part, we’re commissioning reviews, and trying to come up with an eclectic mixture of voices: younger writers and worn-hoarse-by-time-but-very-much-still-worth-hearing, from different backgrounds, with varying interests. We have three months between issues, and it’s the middle month when things start to get serious – when deadlines becoming more deadly serious/merely deadening etc. I hope we’ll be trying out new writers (writers new to us at least) in every issue, albeit probably not as many as we’d like. The budget isn’t limitless, and dependent to an extent on advertising. Aspiring writers are welcome to get their moneybags mates to take out full-page ads in every issue.

INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to authors thinking of submitting their work to BRoB – or other publications?

CAINES

We’re only publishing four issues a year, and most of those issues will be full of reviews. We’re planning to run poetry in every issue, and maybe some fiction from time to time. So with expectations suitably lowered, I hope, I suggest that anybody who’s still interested check out our website, then drop us a line and declare some area of especial expertise or even enthusiasm.

I’m not so interested in “pitches” for particular books, incidentally. I’m not ruling them out altogether, but pitches can sometimes seem a little intellectually suspect: it’s not that I sense outright cronyism in every e-mail; rather that I wonder if the would-be reviewer has already made up their mind about the book, whether they’ve read it yet or not. So the result may be fine, terrific even, but can also feel shop-bought and stale rather than nattily bespoke.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for Brixton Review of Books? What should we look out for?

CAINES

In the not-too-distant future, we’ll do the decent thing and expand the website to look proper n all. We’re hoping to put on a few bookish events around town. (Go on, guess which part of town. Go on!) And there are going to be some good things in the paper itself later in the year. I’m very much hoping, for example, that a few writers with Brixton connections are going to give us little stories about their personal experiences here. That’d be an acceptably educational digression from reviewing books, I hope.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

CAINES

Joan arrived, kicked ass – and left.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

CAINES

I’m still aspiring myself, and must stock up on gnomic tips for these occasions. Revise until it looks like you haven’t. Remember style is the ultimate expression of substance. Read New Grub Street. Um. Don’t automatically “um” in the presence of uncertainty? And I’ll get back to you when I’ve thought of a fifth. . . .

 

Dr Chuck Tingle’s writing tips for writers

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Good writing advice is hard to find. We’ve previously compiled various collections of writing tips from some of literature’s greatest minds; but we’re always looking to go one step further. As writers and creatives, our learning is built on the mentoring and advice of our peers and our mentors. The imparted knowledge they can share with us part of a long-standing tradition within the arts of helping one another to express ourselves.

Of course, the best type of writing advice is that which transcends the topic and becomes advice not just to inspire our best creative work; but also becomes advice by which we can live by, day-to-day.

Where can one find such advice, we hear you ask? Well, right here in this article, friendos!

In April 2018, we were honoured to interview Dr Chuck Tingle as part of our ‘Creatives in Profile’ series. The Hugo Award-shortlisted author of Space Raptor Butt Invasion and My Billionaire Triceratops Craves Gay Ass, and self-proclaimed as the “greatest author in the world” during one of the most incredible Reddit AMAs to date,  Dr Chuck Tingle provided some tip-top advice to keep in mind when writing a book (and it doesn’t have anything to do with word counts). He explained:

“most important thing to keep in mind when making all things as ARTISTIC BUCKAROO is to prove love that is only thing that matters really everything else is just decoration. there are so many ways to prove love so there are lots of options, but it is very important to REMEMBER that only rule for all layers of the tingleverse is that love is real this is consistant across all timelines.”

On the subject of creativity, and what it means to be creative, Tingle opines:

“being creative is just being yourself and trotting with YOUR OWN unique way. just waking up in the morning and stetching your bones is creative because every moment is making infinate timelines. you are so powerful in your way because for every decision there are so many new worlds spinning off and if that isnt dang creative i dont know what is thanks”

 

10 writing tips from Dr Chuck Tingle

Alongside his other timeless advice for writers, creatives, and just all-round human beings – Tingle also provided us with a short list of more prescriptive pieces of advice for writers. Read them below:

  1. drink chocolate milk buddy not that sick water throw that out
  2. you are important and so is your way. this is already a story that can be told
  3. the void is not worth your curiostiy
  4. listen to your buds
  5. there is something to learn from traditional horseplay and there is something to be learned from modern trots. respect both
  6. dont try to tell people what art is you will always be wrong
  7. there is not very much that separates you from a big timers sometimes it is hard work and sometimes it is luck but its almost never talent
  8. spend time with your family
  9. have gratitude if you dont youll look like a goofball and youll feel like one too
  10. prove love always

Book Review: ‘Scratch’ by Steve Himmer

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A forest can be a spooky place. It may seem lush and inviting to an urban dweller, but it’s not as welcoming as it seems. It’s easy to imagine that there might be things in the thickest part of the forest that are quite beyond our knowledge, watching and waiting.

This novella begins uncannily enough, with the narrator urging the reader to join him in the shape of a coyote. Afterwards the reader is present in the narrative as you press your coyote nose against the windows of the human characters.

The lead character is a big city property developer building a housing estate in rural New England. Martin dreams of building the suburban home that he never had during his rootless childhood, living in a trailer on site and planning to settle in one of the houses he builds. One morning, our hero wonders into the new England forest on a whim, straight into a revenant style bear attack. After staggering back to civilisation relatively unscathed, he hears the local legend of Scratch. Scratch is a local bogeyman and shapeshifter that the locals blame for various small misfortunes. A series of strange events occur around the town and it seems Scratch may be more than a myth.

Himmer’s writing is conversational and effortless, picking out the rhythms of small town life, Martin’s yearnings and the timeless patterns of the forest with equal ease.

It’s literary fiction with a supernatural edge. It starts slowly, but it comes to life gradually and by the end I was reading hungrily up until the chilling final sequence. The narrator’s strange presence in the story creates a feeling of being watched and of inevitable disaster. It become clear from the way they address the reader knowingly that they aren’t quite human.

This attractive volume from Wundor editions is Steve Himmer’s third book, all of which have links to nature and the outdoors. This is an intriguing and unsettling little novel, worth reading.

To purchase a copy of ‘Scratch’ visit Wundor Editions https://wundor-store.myshopify.com/products/scratch-by-steve-himmer

About the reviewer

tandrewsTom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

The Dancer

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I saw Jane Hariott for the first time since our schooldays over the body of a dead Canadian. Normandy, June 1944.  I was fresh from England, still blinking away the things I’d seen on the voyage across the channel and on the drive down from the coast. As a nurse I was used to death, but within the confines of wards and funerals. Now, it was everywhere: the remains of an old woman strewn across the pavement, bombed out of her London flat, blood and brains staining her tea-dress. Or the corpse of an American tank commander, draped over the shell of his Sherman like dirty laundry.

The field hospital was between Bayeux and Caen, in what had once been an orchard but was now a swampy crater. Tiny, sour apples clung to the remaining trees – once, on the verge of passing out from hunger, I grabbed one and took a bite, only to spit it out again immediately. Tents crouched low in the space that was left, footprints and the wheels of heavy vehicles turning once solid ground to mud, the air full of the sound of the dying and the smell of the dead. In the time I was there, I don’t remember once hearing birdsong.

I climbed out of the jeep and presented myself to the nearest official – a young woman in full battledress, injecting a sweating man with morphine. She smiled at me. “Reinforcements,” she said, and I saw she had a homely gap in her teeth. Immediately, I liked her. Her name was Betty – the medical officer was on duty in the theatre tent. “You might have to wait a while, though,” she said, unscrewing her syringe as the man’s breathing steadied. “He’s in surgery.”

I hovered outside the tent. I still had my pack slung over my shoulder and I was conscious of the fact I hadn’t washed in several days. But looking too clean would make me conspicuous. The nurses here wore the gore smeared on their battledress with as much pride as the pips on their shoulders – the epaulettes signifying rank, expertise, experience. I had the pips but not the gore, just a damp sand-stain from where I’d fallen over on the rubble-strewn beach.

I pulled back the tent flap. Inside: a man stretched out on the operating table. His innards were shared between the people standing around him – each was covered in blood, engaged in stitching, pulling, prodding. They spoke to each other clearly, but in an undertone, as if worried about disturbing the patient. I inched closer and was stunned – surely, the man was beyond help? Still in uniform, the insignia of his Canadian regiment hung ragged from his shoulders but looked like the most substantial part of him. I hadn’t yet witnessed the medical miracles that would make these tents sacred. I glanced up at the nurse on duty, hoping to confirm my suspicions with a shared glance, and saw that the nurse was Jane Hariott.

We left boarding school together, five years previously. We hadn’t been friends but still I expected some indication of pleasure when she recognised me. Instead, her eyes widened above her mask and she looked away, horror-struck. She was so determined to avoid my eyes that she didn’t realise that the man had died on the table and continued to sterilise the equipment, arranging the scalpels on the surgeon’s tray. It took a nudge on the arm from the orderly for her to see that the scalpels were unnecessary. I wanted to smile at her, say something to dispel the unease that was now suddenly between us, but it seemed inappropriate to do so over a corpse.

“You were supposed to arrive with the gas.” It took a second for me to realise that the surgeon was talking to me. He turned, mask down. “Where’s the gas?”

I travelled to France on the HMS Lancaster. The gas and oxygen cylinders, the trunk containing my dress uniform and the crates of theatre instruments came on the sister ship. I watched from the deck of the Lancaster as the sister ship erupted into a ball of fire, burning for an impossibly long time on the dark waves, before sinking beneath the surface of the sea. A mine. It could have been us but, that time, it was them.

“I thought you knew,” I said. “They split us between two ships.” The surgeon stared at me. I knew I had to say it. If I didn’t say it, he’d hate me even more. “The other one went down. It’s just me.” We lost two medical officers on the ship, along with the gas and equipment. The body on the table stopped me from mentioning this.

The surgeon held me still with his stare and I flinched as he turned away, ripping his bloodstained apron from the front of his uniform. “My name is Lt Col Marks,” he said. “You need to report to the matron. And by the way,” he added, just as I was turning to leave. “You should have saluted.”

*

I fell into my duties quickly. I was desperate to speak to Jane, to reestablish our relationship, iron out any misunderstanding, but I didn’t get to speak to her for some time. We were busy, still dealing with the dregs of the Normandy survivors. We also began to take fresh wounded, those felled in more recent skirmishes, on the winding, hedge-lined lanes of the bocage. There were no shifts, not in those early days. If you could move your hands, you could heal.

The first break I had was with Betty, who offered me a cigarette and passed me a cup of Compo tea, premixed with milk and sugar. It was disgusting but I drank it anyway – I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

“You’ll fit in right enough,” Betty said. “Once you get the hang of things.” It was early, the sun just breaking in a bloody mess across the sky. This was usually the time when the countryside began to stir, when hedgerows began to rustle and birds began to sing. But there were only human sounds – the murmur of different accents, someone laughing, the distant sound of shells.

“I actually know Jane,” I said. “We were at school together.”

Betty’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re a ballet dancer too?” she asked.

I frowned. “No,” I said. “Why would I be?”

Betty smiled. “Jane went to ballet school,” she said. “I’m sure that’s what she said.”

Back then I was quick to laugh. “I’m definitely not a dancer,” I snorted. “Maybe ballet came afterwards? We lost touch.”

“Yes,” Betty said. “That must be it.” She seemed the sort of person to cringe away from conflict. She wanted everyone to be friends, for everything to be the truth. She took a drag on her cigarette and exhaled upwards, squinting into the sky. “Looks like a scorcher,” she said.

*

 I remember being shocked at the number of Germans we treated. A lot of them were snipers, lone wolves, cut off from the rest of the pack. Like Betty said, after a while it stopped bothering you – you fell into rhythm, found the veins in their pale, delicate forearms and diluted their Aryan blood with morphine. It was hard to get worked up over a forearm.

I was just treating a German boy – too young to grow a moustache – when I heard Jane behind me. She had a high, nasal voice and she was talking about her brother, John. She was leaning low over an American paratrooper; the camp beds were shoved together under the sloping canvas roof and sometimes you had to get uncomfortably close to your patients to hear what they were saying. But Jane’s voice carried. “My brother John’s a wonderful horseman,” she was saying to the American. “I bet he could show you a thing or two.”

I had been there three days and I still had not managed to speak to her. If we ever shared a break, it was shared with others too. We passed each other, going in and out of the sleeping tents or emerging from the latrine pits, but she never slowed for a second. I caught her with the occasional ‘hello’ or ‘night’ but it seemed as though she was deliberately avoiding me. I didn’t have time to be offended: too much to do, to feel. I didn’t have a second to spare to worry about Jane. Not until I heard her mention her brother, John.

Like I say, I was never friends with Jane at school and that was partly because of her brother. She began to tell us about him in our first year, about his feats in the army, how clever he was, how handsome. He had always just been posted somewhere exotic, was always fighting in a far-off desert or swatting away insects in a rainforest. You couldn’t open an Atlas near Jane without her ramming her finger between the pages, pointing to a wonder of the world and saying, ‘my brother’s been there’.

“I didn’t know there was a war going on in Antarctica,” I remember saying, as she prodded the white sliver at the bottom of the page.

“He’s not there fighting,” Jane told me, witheringly. “He’s there on reconnaissance.” She was clever with her choice of words. This new word – reconnaissance – had exactly the effect she desired. I did not like to read aloud in class, could stumble through only a few lines of Bleak House before the teacher called the torture to a halt. “You’re supposed to breathe when there’s a comma, Atkins,” the teacher told me, in front of the whole class. “Not suffer a mild aneurism.” I cringed away from the unknown word like a wounded animal.

John marched triumphant over everybody’s anecdotes. Whatever we did over the holidays, John had achieved more. He had affairs with heiresses, duels with their jealous lovers. He could fence and was a fabulous marksman. By the time we were in fifth year, at the end of our school careers, John was also universally loathed throughout the school.

The worst part was, by the end, none of us even believed he existed. Every year, someone would ask (with a sly glance sideways at her friends) if John would be coming to the annual school play and, every year, Jane would have an excuse as to why he couldn’t.

“John’s contracted malaria, unfortunately,” I remember her saying in our fifth year. “He said he’d love to come but he doesn’t want to infect me. Can’t be putting the lives of schoolgirls at risk.”

By this time, she sensed that her stories were failing. She produced letters, crumped and mud-splattered, signed by John himself. Except the handwriting was very like her own, only with the ys, js and gs looped back over themselves. I used to sit next to her in class and I once saw her slip up by looping a y, betraying herself, allowing John to spill out onto the page. I told my friend Rachel, who told her friend Louise and so on. I’m not proud of my sixteen-year-old self but, when the material was so rich and beckoned so seductively, it was hard to resist. It was the thought of her writing them to herself, deciding how to word every line and then stamping on them with muddy shoes to make them look well-travelled. I did impressions of her in our dormitory, stamping up and down in my stockings on the rough wooden floorboards while the other girls roared, rolling around on the beds, beside themselves. Like I say, I’m not proud.

So when I heard her mention him to the American, I stood up abruptly, startling the German boy. I had no school-friends with which to exchange eye-rolls, only Betty, who was further down the row of beds and who had no reason to believe that John wasn’t a real person. A real, excellent horseman.

Jane was still with the American. Her cheeks bore acne pockmarks. I remembered someone trying to give her skin tonic and her fleeing to the bathroom, eyes brimming with tears. I saw the tonic in the dormitory bin and her skin never improved.

John was a fiction, of that I had no doubt, and I found it shocking that she still maintained the fantasy as a grown woman. But I was a grown woman too and it was nothing to do with me. On those wards, you saw people getting through however they could. Rosary beads, secret amulets sewn into seams, wedding rings tied on string around necks – you did what you had to in order to survive and that, I decided, was fine by me. But then Betty’s fiancé died and that changed things.

I still didn’t know Betty very well and so, when I found her sobbing in our sleeping tent, I felt I was intruding. It was Col Marks that told me during a break from surgery. He lit a second cigarette from his own and passed it to me, his bloodstained fingers leaving a smudge of red on the paper.

“Taken out by a sniper,” he said, exhaling smoke. “His name was Albert.”

I wondered if Betty would change around our young German, if someone should watch her, but the pale, drawn face she presented to him was the same one she now showed everyone. And life went on, wherever it could. I reduced my fluid intake, so I wouldn’t have to be escorted to the lavatory pits quite so frequently. We were supposed to be escorted now, because of snipers, which made the whole enterprise even more painful. Drinking was complicated because all water had to be boiled and the Compo Tea was vile, so I could go almost a whole day without a trip. However, between the dehydration and the humiliation of using public toilets (essentially a series of holes over a plank of wood in an open tent) we all had a near-constant ache in our guts, a heaviness that crept from our stomachs up into our chests, making it difficult to breathe. You noticed it when you stopped, when it was your turn to rest and you curled up in bed with your helmet on (new rules, again, on account of the snipers) only to spend the whole time tossing and turning, trying to negotiate the lump of cement inside you. But life went on, until a few days later, when I found Jane sobbing in the sleeping tent.

I stayed in the entrance for a second, watching her shoulders shake. I knew exactly what I should do but was unable to act, as if my quota of dutiful behavior had been used up for that day. And then Betty came in after me. She sank down onto the camp bed next to Jane and, rubbing her back, asked her what was wrong.

“It’s John,” Jane sobbed, her chest heaving. “My brother. He’s missing in action.”

*

I did well – I stayed silent while she told the story. John’s whole squad were missing, suspected dead. He was so brave, he had probably put himself in danger trying to save a friend. That would be so like him.

I moved over to my own bunk and began to tidy my things. I noticed as I unbuckled my pack that my hands were shaking. Earlier that day, I had been unable to remove shrapnel embedded in the face of a British squaddie called Len, blinded in a shell explosion. In a way, it was a relief to discover I had a reserve of emotion left.

But I managed not to say anything, anything at all, until she mentioned John’s unit. She said he was in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and my head snapped up, even under the weight of my helmet. That was when I knew – that particular lie was for me.

Jane hadn’t been the only impersonation in my repertoire during my school days. In the summer between my third and fourth years, my mother’s fortunes had taken a turn for the worse and, when I came home for the holidays, I found that our ‘home’ had moved to a small flat in the East End. We didn’t see much of our new neighbors, only heard their shouts and groans through the thin plaster walls, but one resident was impossible to avoid. His name was Carsall and he lived on the ground floor. The door leading to his chambers was right next to the central stairway and, as soon as you placed your foot on the bottom step, bourbon fumes would catch in your throat, halting your progress, and he would appear like a ghoul, swaying slightly in the gloomy hallway. If you were lucky, he’d let you go after half an hour, his diatribe – ‘I was the best of them, that’s why they couldn’t stand me,’ – still ringing in your ears. He’d served in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the late twenties until some kind of scandalous incident had resulted in his swift ejection from the army. Carsall always skimmed over this part, murmuring something about a ‘misunderstanding’ involving a senior officer’s inability to appreciate ‘a soldier’s right to a good time’ and I never managed to get to the bottom of the story.

That didn’t stop me from exploiting it. I swayed around the dormitory, slopping the contents of my imaginary tankard over my friends as they howled with laughter. “King’s Own Yorkshires,” I slurred. “That’s me.” I turned the shameful – my mother’s gradual descent into financial ruin – into something funny. Now, Jane was using it, once again.

“The what?” I snapped at her. Her face, tear-streaked and blotchy, showed no hint of shame, or recognition. Was it conscious? Was she goading me deliberately, or had the name just stuck in her memory?

“The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry,” she said again, her bottom lip trembling. “John’s battalion.”

“Except it isn’t his battalion, is it?” I said. I was tired, so tired. It was almost too much to keep my head up, the heavy helmet weighing it down. And then I said it. “Because John isn’t real.”

The pair of them stared at me, eyes wide, which made me even angrier.

“You didn’t go to ballet school,” I said. I was standing up now – I didn’t know how that had happened. “It’s pathetic.” The only thing left for me to do was storm out but my feet throbbed in my army-issue boots. After a moment of indecision, I stayed where I was, my arms crossed over my chest, shifting my weight from one foot to the other so I could deal with the pain in shifts.

Betty opened her mouth and then closed it again. Jane, tears still streaming, looked as though she was burning from the inside out. She was actually vibrating with anger.

“I have a letter,” she said, her teeth gritted, mouth twisted. Tears rolled down her nose, over her lips.

I started to laugh. “Well we’ve been here before,” I said. “Where is it?” My hands were still folded over my chest.

Jane jerked her head over to her jacket, slung across the bed. Still burning, she made no move to get it. Betty only stared at me, dumbstruck, so I squeezed between them and the next bed, aware as I did so of how close we were, how vulnerable I would be if she chose to hit me, or dig her fingernails into my face. At that moment, it did not seem unlikely. As soon as I reached the jacket and found the slip of paper in one of the pockets, I darted back to my side of the tent, safely out of range.

To my horror, it looked legitimate. I had never seen one before so had nothing to compare it with but the words seemed official: typewritten and sterile. We regret to inform you that Sergeant John Harriot of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry has been reported missing in action, presumed dead. I folded the paper back over, unwilling to look at it a moment longer and turned to Betty.

“Her brother doesn’t exist,” I told her. “At school, we all used to laugh at her because she made up these ridiculous-”

“You humiliated me because I was ugly.” Jane was on her feet too now.

“That’s not-”

“You made my life hell,” she spat. Betty was standing now as well, with an arm around Jane’s shoulder. “And now, after this happens, you torment me further.” Jane snatched the letter back and stuffed it into her jacket pocket.

Betty was frowning, an expression I had never seen before on her mild features. “She’s competitive,” I said to her, trying to assume a teacherly air of reason. “When you lost Albert-”

“Don’t you dare bring Albert into this.” Betty’s voice was quiet and dangerous. I was used to hearing her bark loudly with laughter, or shout instructions at me from one end of the busy tent to the other. This new, quiet Betty had shadows under her eyes and a scratchy voice, like she’d always just been crying.

“I don’t know how she’s got that letter,” I said. “But it’s not true. You should have known her before. We always used to say-”

“I think you’ve said quite enough, Mary,” Betty said. Jane was crying again, her head in her hands. It was only then that I realised what I’d done, how far I’d gone. There was no going back now. The die was cast.

“Fine,” I said. My own eyes were beginning to burn and I wanted to get out of there before they saw. “Fine.”

I left the two mourners in the tent and stepped out into the night feeling, for the first time in that crowded hospital, completely alone. Now looking back, I see my mistake. I showed my hand, I blinked first. I should have stared straight back.

*

Never before had I been written off as a villain and I felt miscast. I was used to the role of the clown – not pretty enough to be threatening but generally good fun to be around. I was always invited to things and expected to entertain. My mother was an actress and her troupe often rehearsed in our flat. I watched the actors playing the star-crossed lovers and imagined my mother and father in their place. It was widely known that my father was an eminent politician and I was the result of his extramarital affair with a young, penniless actress. I had never met him and wasn’t interested in forging a relationship. He had enough of an impact on my life as it was, with some girls warned off being my friend by virtuous parents and my mother and I enduring the humiliation of being shunned in certain shops and restaurants. At least one of the lovers always seemed to end up suffering, so I was never interested in the part. I was content with the clown. Appear in Act One, make everyone laugh, and then spend the rest of the play backstage, eating sugar mice and giggling with your friends. Fewer lines. It was a shock to find myself as the antagonist. Iago: motiveless and cruel.

Jane and Betty didn’t speak to me anymore. The rift went unnoticed by the higher-ups, as we were too busy wading through wounded for them to pay any attention to our social lives. I found a friend elsewhere – the orderly that had been on theatre duty when I’d first arrived at the camp. Had that really only been a week ago? With days flowing into nights and then days again without any rest, time was elusive; it whipped right past you when you were looking the other way, tightening a tourniquet.

His name was Brian. He had buck teeth and a West Country accent. I kept hoping he’d mention a wife or sweetheart soon, so that I could write off any possibility of him being attracted to me, but none was forthcoming. We cracked on, making each other laugh when we could, sharing tin mugs of Compo Tea, and then we heard about the move.

*

The camp was splitting up. Betty and Lt Col Marks were heading South West, towards Saint-Lô and Caen. Brian, Jane and I were to go North West, to Isigny-sur-Mer, to follow the Americans advancing towards the Cherbourg Peninsula. It was amazing how quickly the patients were moved, sent along the lines to other hospitals, how soon it was before we were standing in nothing more than a sad-looking orchard, dirty canvas lying in muddy pools at our feet.

We left early in the morning, the trucks crawling along the bumpy road. We were driving for an hour. It shouldn’t have taken so long, but the landscape was littered with debris. Moving troops blocked the roads and we were waved through only to be stopped abruptly by a tank or a truck backing into the road. I tried not to see the gravediggers, black clouds of flies churning above their heads as they dealt with the bodies. Fires burned, brazen and unconstrained, wherever there was oxygen and provocation. Occasionally, I saw what looked like a French family shivering by the roadside in their rags but it hurt to look at them so I tried not to see them either.

I was sitting at the back of the truck, near the tailgate, so had a good view of what we were leaving behind. Jane was at the other end of the truck, wedged behind the driver. I replayed the argument over and over in my head, thinking of all the things I should have said. But it was over. I was pleased Betty wasn’t coming with us. It would be a fresh slate, with a new group of people. As long as Jane and I stayed out of each other’s way, all would be well.

*

Over half of Isigny had been destroyed in two major bombardments on the 8th June, a few days after D-Day. We were in tents again, as there was barely a building left standing. We drove into Isigny on June 19th and, as the Americans grappled with the Germans troops in the winding lanes, between the dense green hedgerows, the sky turned black with storm.

Quickly, we fell into routines. Beds were crammed into tents. We kneeled in the mud between them if there was space and straddled the beds if there wasn’t. Over those few days, with the heavens opening up around us, I spoke more to patients than I did to either Brian or Jane.

I can’t tell you any more about Jane Hariott without telling you about Donald Rhodes. Don was an American paratrooper, a medic. The first time I saw him, he was screaming and it took me a moment too long to realise he was screaming at me. His voice was tinged with a twanging accent. By that time, I’d met enough Americans to create a kind of mental patchwork map of the US from their voices. I still had areas missing, but I knew enough to place him from the South, where they dragged out their ‘r’s and called you ‘ma’am’. In that moment, Don was not calling me ma’am. He was yelling at me to ‘get some goddamned morphine or the guy’s gonna die – what are you, nuts?’

I was in surgery that day, had already spent six hours passing the surgeon – forties, tall, skinny, slightly lecherous – his equipment, swallowing my distaste whenever I had to sponge the sweat from his forehead. We stopped for ten minutes and, while I was standing in the entrance to the tent, watching the rain pour down from the canvas, inches from my face, an ambulance tore into the street. A figure threw open the back doors of the truck from the inside while it was still moving and leapt out. A whistle blew and I began to run towards him, the rain deafening as it thundered on my helmet.

You had to drop everything. It didn’t matter if you’d been on duty ten minutes or ten hours, no one wanted to know. The man was already shouting by the time I got there, pulling a soldier out the back of the ambulance.

“Grab his legs!” he yelled, over the rain.

Together, we transported the wounded man into the theatre tent. Others descended on us, removing the man’s uniform as he coughed black blood onto the groundsheet.

The man that had leapt down from the truck was wearing a medic’s armband. He was bent low over his patient and had stopped shouting; he was now murmuring softly to him, stroking his face. I realised they knew each other, they were friends.

The wounded man was called Bill Moyer and, by some miracle, he survived. We got him stabilized that evening and then the next morning had him transported to the coastline, where he was shipped back to a hospital in England. Shot in the chest, just a bit too far off centre to hit anything vital. Few were so lucky.

The medic was Don. Together, we carried Bill from the surgery tent to the wards and settled him into a cot. It was hard to do so gracefully; if you bent low over a bed, you were always shoving your arse into the face of the person next door. We stood in the awning of the tent, listening to the rain. I didn’t know that Jane was behind us until later and, even then, I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to cheapen the moment.

When he wasn’t giving orders, Don was usually quietly-spoken but, that evening, he had to shout over the sound of the storm. “Somebody told me France was mighty fine this time of year,” he said.

“Somebody lied,” I said.

*

In those days, people could throw a party in any kind of structure, if it stayed intact long enough. We held dances in operating theatre tents, with the tables and equipment pushed to the sides of the room. Bombed-out churches with only a few shards of stained glass left in the windows made for eerie dance halls, the strains of Glen Miller bouncing off the gargoyles and buttresses.

Cherbourg was captured by the Allies on 25th June but we only heard about it twenty-four hours later, when the new influx of patients arrived on stretchers. We knew something good had happened when, despite their wounds, some of them were smiling.

Word spread through the camp about a party at the US base – all medical personnel welcome. The MO allowed those that would be off-duty anyway to go. I was one of the lucky few. So, unfortunately, was Jane.

Over the last few days, I had become aware of her tracing my steps, following me, I assumed in order to intimidate me. I remembered from school that she breathed heavily in her sleep and when we’d shared a tent at the first field hospital, I’d spent many nights trying to drown out the sound of her snores. Now, it was the silence keeping me awake. If she wasn’t snoring, she wasn’t sleeping. What was she doing? Planning? Staring at me as I lay in my sleeping bag, trying to kill me with the power of her stare? I was absurdly grateful for the new rules, demanding we wear our helmets to bed.

I smiled at her as I climbed into the back of the jeep, knowing that this would annoy her more than a shove to the chest, or an elbow to the ribs. Childish, I know, but I was wearing lipstick and my spirits were high. I was not in the mood for diplomacy. I wanted to drink champagne and dance.

The party was at the American Mess, ten minutes down the dark, twisting roads. We sang in the back of the truck, passing around a bottle of whisky and, by the time the truck stopped, we were all drunk already.

I had met Americans before, but always on their own when they were on the back foot, when they needed patching up. En mass, they were quite something. The songs were tasteless, but they were loud and drowned out insecurity. After years of blackout warnings, it was a joy to dance in a hall that was light and warm with bodies. I drank too much and danced until my feet throbbed. I saw Jane out of the corner of my eye, staring at me. She was sitting with a group of soldiers and, when she caught my eye, laughed theatrically at something one of them had said. I remembered this tactic from school and smiled to myself. With all her dance training, I wondered why she wasn’t here on the floor, showing the Americans a thing or two.

I sat down at a table and, within minutes, was joined by ten or twelve GIs. That was the problem – we were outnumbered to such a degree that it was exhausting. Looking back, however, I can’t pretend that it was always a burden. One of the GIs was a Bostonian of Irish descent. His name was Mickey and he was a fellow impressionist. He made me laugh until I thought I was going to be sick, doing an impersonating his platoon’s medic who had tied a cow to a tree in order to milk it.

“So we’re all there shitting ourselves,” Mickey said. “And then this guy lassos this fucking Friesian – pardon my language, ma’am – and starts milking it into his helmet. I mean, of all the crazy shit I’ve seen out here…” He wiped his eyes, laughing too hard to make it to the end of the sentence. “A real country boy, that guy. Hey, there he is! Rhodie! Hey Rhodie!”

Don Rhodes was making his way to our table, looking mortified.

“I was just telling… what was your name?”

“Mary.”

“I was just telling Mary about you lassoing that Friesian-“

“It was a Normande,” Don said.

“What?”

“The cow was a Normande, because we’re in Normandy. Friesians are Dutch.”

“Right whatever. Lassoing that cow. Man, that made my goddamned life.”

*

It took an embarrassingly short time for me to fall in love with Don Rhodes. I didn’t have much experience of love; I was too quick to make fun of myself, too gawky, too robust to be convincing as someone’s sweetheart. But Don didn’t seem to know what he was doing either. He preferred cows to people. I was glad he was slight – statistically, the smaller ones were the ones that had a better chance of making it through unscathed. His family owned a ranch in Texas and the only aspiration he had was to end up back there. Perhaps he could turn his medical training to use as a vet? He didn’t know. He was trying not to think too far ahead.

Word got back to camp that I was seeing someone. Brian was awkward around me, confirming my suspicions, but it was Jane that troubled me most. It’s a strange feeling, sleeping near someone that hates you so much. Sharing meals with them. I heard her talking to an Irish tank commander once; he was talking about how it was impossible to hate a German once they showed you a picture of their wife and kids. He said the first thing they did when they were captured was to reach into their jackets and bring out the photograph, holding in front of them like a shield shouting ‘Meine Frau, meine Kinder!’

“Oh I don’t know,” I heard Jane say as I walked past. “There’s definitely one person I’d see dead.”

It was moments like this that I felt aware of the equipment around us, the syringes, the scalpels. The instruments we had that could save life would be just as effective at ending it.

But the thing about love is, you feel like you’ve got a guardian angel watching you all the time, someone on your side. Nothing seems truly dangerous if you know that you can turn it into an anecdote, if you can make it malleable by language and intonation. Don was sometimes at the hospital; after dropping off a patient he would try to find me and kiss me roughly before disappearing again. When he could be spared for more than an hour we would walk together. It was strange, but not unpleasant.

“Sounds like one crazy lady,” he said, when I told him about Jane, but he was laughing when he said it and I felt slightly annoyed that he didn’t think she was a serious threat. But then, I supposed, to someone that spends most of their time under fire from machine-guns, she wasn’t. I tried to laugh too.

*

I came back one day from a walk with Don to find her sitting alone in the sleeping tent. When I couldn’t bear the silence any longer, I said, “Any news about John?” Honestly, I did not intend to goad her – it had been my way of trying to forge some sort of truce – but she just glared at me and, when she spoke, she was full of fury.

“What do you think will happen,” she asked. “When he finds out you’re a bastard, that your mother was a whore?”

I couldn’t speak for a second, the breath knocked out of me. “I’m sorry?” I said.

“These Americans are pious folk, you know,” Jane said. I wanted to slap the smug smile from her face. “Do you think he’ll be pleased, when he finds out what you come from?”

I breathed deeply, to get my heartbeat to return to normal. “I’m not ashamed of who I am,” I said, slowly. “I don’t have to lie to live with myself.” And this time, I had the sense to leave the tent, despite the throbbing in my feet, my head, my heart.

*

Don never did find out about my family. I knew as soon as I saw Mickey, standing in the entrance to the tent, wringing his hands, that Don was dead. A machine gun, not even a precise bullet, intended especially for him. He was killed in a spray.

Everything was dangerous again, everything was cruel. The soldiers I healed were no longer funny or loveable, but more opportunities to get hurt. I thought of Betty, crying over her letter. I even thought of Jane, how I’d kill someone that told me my pain wasn’t real. And then I shut it all down. Do your job. It’s all you have left.

But then we had a Texan on the wards. I found it difficult to listen to his voice and I was glad when Jane became his primary. I walked stiffly past his bed, as if he were somehow infected with something. One day, I was walking by and Jane was next to him, changing the bag on his IV. Her head turned slightly to the side and I knew she’d sensed I was there.

“I knew a Texan,” she said loudly, in her nasal voice. “We were going to be married.”

Sometimes, I can still hear the sound of the slap I gave her. When I lie in bed at night, I can feel it still trembling in my hands as they lie on the sheets in the dark. I can hear the slap and the chill silence as, head snapped to the side, she turned to face me, smiling.

*

They couldn’t keep us together after that. It was shocking, the MO said. Never before had he seen such behaviour from a member of his staff. I was lucky to not be losing my job, but they were so understaffed that they needed every pair of hands they could get. I was sent away to Caen. The less they heard from me the better.

I couldn’t bring myself to care. I’d been in France three months and, in that time, seemed to have sampled the entire range of emotion war had to offer. I was ready to go home and yet it went on and on.

I went to Caen, Brussels and Louvain. I was driven through destroyed cities, populated only by mangy dogs and rats, only to suddenly pull into a town that was untouched. One day I would have to eat whatever was left of the hospital’s K-rations, normally ground into a powder at the bottom of the packets, and then the next there could be freshly-baked croissants, wine from the vineyard of the local chateau. There was sometimes cheese too, but everyone steered clear of the camembert; now I knew it smelled not dissimilar to rotting flesh.

I joined a convoy of British medical officers and, when we stopped in Poix on the way to Belgium, we stayed in an abandoned SS barracks. There were indoor lavatories and tinned food left in the larder. German uniforms were slung over the backs of chairs and hung up on pegs behind doors. There were also German magazines, full of naked women positioned into convoluted shapes. We were still laughing as I opened a drawer in a chest. Inside was a collection of maps. They showed the south of England and, though many of the place names were misspelled, were eerily accurate. Hand-drawn arrows showed exactly how the invasion would take place. I quickly handed the maps to the MO. I felt uneasy about sleeping in the room with them there, in the drawer. The German’s handwriting bothered me, the way the ys looped back over themselves.

In Belgium, we set up our hospital in a beautiful medieval convent. The nuns were still resident and eager to help, but often their efforts made life more complicated as they couldn’t speak English and my French hadn’t progressed much past my schooldays. They cheered us up though – they were plump and rosy-cheeked, scurrying around their wards in their habits, happy to be doing God’s work. I didn’t believe in Heaven any more, only Hell, but it was nice to think that there were those that still thought good could triumph over evil.

It was while I was in Louvain, trying to prevent Sister Sophia-Marie from giving a patient an overdose, that I met John Hariott.

The POW camp had been liberated and he was being treated for malnutrition. On the whole, he hadn’t done too badly and, when he was discharged, I bought him dinner. It seemed like the right thing to do.

John Hariott slurped his soup, wiped his nose on his sleeve of his uniform as he buttered his bread with his other hand.

“Janey never mentioned anyone called Mary,” he said with his mouth full of food. “She said she had a bunch of schoolfriends but I thought she made them all up. She was always such a brat.”

I had lost my appetite and now my soup was cold. When it was brought over to the table it had smelled delicious and I was sad to see it go to waste.

“What was she like at school?” John asked, mopping up the rest of his soup with a hunk of bread.

I thought for a second. “Lonely,” I said.

He snorted. “Yeah that sounds right. She was obsessed with this play thing you did every year. She said she was always picked to do the solo dance.”

“Did you ever write to her?” I asked.

John looked at me over his beer glass as he took a swig. “No,” he said. He had a moustache of froth along his top lip. “We never got on. I was already posted abroad when she was young. What? Why?”

I thought about telling him he needed to wipe his top lip. “Right,” I said. It was late and there were only two other tables occupied by diners. I wondered how long it would be before I could leave without seeming rude.

“Are you going to eat that?” John was pointing at the bowl of cold soup in front of me. I shook my head and pushed it towards him.

He insisted on walking me back to the convent. It was obvious from the way he hovered near the gates that he’d expected something more from the evening but I was clear – painfully so – and, as he walked away, he kicked a stone up the road. I watched him go, walking through this ancient, medieval city as though it had been saved especially for him, so he could kick this stone down this street, and I realised that in a way I had been right. Jane’s John did not exist. This man was his shadow.

*

Victory in Europe Day. I was in Brussels, having dinner with a friend. Nancy was a nurse I’d met in Louvain and, by then, we knew not to talk about what we’d seen. Now, there was a future to toast and we wasted no time on the past, uncorking a bottle of champagne with our appetizer.

Later we went dancing. The city was a mess, but it was joy that was creating the mayhem, spilling out over the edges. The parties flowed into the streets and Nancy and I danced with each other, with strangers and, when no one else could keep up, on our own. Just before midnight, I glanced across the cobbled street and saw a young woman, dancing with a GI. In the lamplight, her acne scars were pitted, pronounced, but she was no longer hunched over. Her posture was upright, elevated, and her legs moved quickly, skirting the ground, whipping around the soldier’s legs.

“Do you know her?” Nancy asked me.

“We went to school together,” I said. “Her name’s Jane. She’s a dancer.”

About the author

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

 

‘The last taboo’ – Elif Shafak contributes manuscript to the ‘Future Library’ project

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Mayor of Oslo Marianne Borgen, artist Katie Paterson and novelist Elif Shafak at the Future Library handover ceremony. Photo by Kristin von Hirsch

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has joined Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell in committing a manuscript of her writing to the Future Library project – a 100 year artwork that will see her work unpublished until 2114.

Shafak’s text, The last taboo, was handed over in a ceremony in the Future Library Forest in Oslo, Norway. During the ceremony, the award-winning novelist, public intellectual and political commentator said:

“It’s been incredible moving for me to be part of this project, and I feel very honoured.

I think it is incredible important its happening at a time, when the world is going mad in many ways. Time and history is moving backwards. Countries doesn’t learn from their mistakes. They slide into egalitarianism, populism, nationalism and religious fanaticism. And essential, it is this tribalism that divides us into tribes and forces us into singular identities. So for me, the Future Library is an act of resistance. It is the way we swim against the tide. And I am very honoured to be part of it.”

Future Library is a public artwork by Scottish artist Katie Paterson that will unfold over 100 years in the city of Oslo, Norway.

In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Paterson explained how the idea for a library spanning generations was important in our current age:

“I love the idea that you need to plan hundreds of years ahead for something to last or exist; it seems the antithesis of the current mode. Instead we live in a ‘one click’ world.

The planet is being destroyed right now and it’s affecting all of our lives. In that sense nature feels really close – you can’t help but think how even the rain falling on our heads is connected to the changing climate and the way the planet is trying to survive.

I think appreciating our natural environment is something Norway does exceptionally well. Our forest is a tiny patch inside the larger forest that surrounds the whole city of Oslo, which is protected under law so developers aren’t allowed to encroach on it. Oslo’s citizens deeply appreciate the forest too, and I think in a way this cultural link with the forest is why the city have been so supportive of Future Library.”

The forest planted near Oslo will, in 100 years’ time, supply paper for a special anthology of books written by authors from across the globe. The manuscripts donated by authors will be held in trust until 2114 – meaning that no adult alive today will ever know what is inside the books.

Speaking at the ceremony, Paterson said:

“Elif, your words have activated the future library. They are now stored inside the rings of this tiny unfolding trees. And these trees are like a bridge from here and into the future.”