Not to be published for 100 years: Man Booker prize winning novelist Han Kang is the latest author to join the Future Library project

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You will have to wait a century before you are able to read Han Kang’s Future Library submission. 

Man Booker prize-winning novelist Han Kang has been named as the fifth writer to contribute to the Future Library project – a 100 year artwork that will see her work unpublished until 2114.

Han Kang joins Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjón, and Elif Shafak as the latest writer to contribute to the public artwork, which was first conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson.

In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Paterson said there was a familial bond between the authors involved in the project:

“I think there is a thread that connects all the authors together. There is this almost familial bond that we create with them. Like a family tree, and each author follows in the footsteps of the one before and through the annual ceremony we do create a chain of people who are connected through time and through the trees.”

Speaking about Han Kang joining the project, Paterson said:

“Han Kang expands our view of the world. Her stories are disquieting and subversive, exploring violence, cruelty, fleeting life, and the acceptance of human fragility. As 2018’s author, Han Kang makes us confront uncomfortable issues: injustice, pain, mourning and remembering; a shared loss of trust in humankind, alongside the belief in human dignity. She leads us into the very heart of human experience, with writing that is deeply tender, and transformative. I believe her sentiments will be carried through trees, received decades from now, still timeless.”

An entire forest planted to make books

As part of the project, one thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years’ time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.

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A path through the Nordmarka forest – where the footsteps of authors past, present and future will follow. Photo by  Kristin von Hirsch

Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Future Library project, spoke to Nothing in the Rulebook about the ethos behind the artwork:

“Projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.”

“Pray for the fates of both humans and books”

Speaking about joining the project, Han Kang said:

“My first impression of the concept of Future library, was that it was a project about time. It deals with the time scope of one hundred years. In Korea, when a couple gets married, people bless them to live together ‘for one hundred years’. It sounds like almost an eternity.

I can’t survive one hundred years from now, of course. No-one who I love can survive, either. This relentless fact has made me reflect on the essential part of my life. Why do I write? Who am I talking to, when I write? Then I imagined a world, where no-one I love exists any longer. And in that world, the trees in Norway still exist, who I once met when I was alive. The clear gap of the lifespan between humans and trees struck me. This meditation is so strong that it has the power to directly open our eyes to the impermanence of our mortal lives and all the more precious fragility of our lives.

Ultimately, Future Library deals with the fate of paper books. I would like to pray for the fates of both humans and books. May they survive and embrace each other, in and after one hundred years, even though they couldn’t reach eternity…”

Safe storage

All one hundred manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in the new Oslo Public Library opening in 2020. Intended to be a space of contemplation, this room – designed by the Katie Paterson alongside a team of architects – will be lined with wood from the Nordmarka forest. The authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but none of the manuscripts will be available for reading until their publication in one century’s time. No adult living now will ever know what is inside the boxes, other than that they are texts of some kind that will withstand the ravages of time and be  available in the year 2114.

Han Kang will hand over her manuscript in the Norwegian forest on Saturday 25 May 2019, everyone is welcome.

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Book review: Ghosting for beginners, by Anna Saunders

Ghosting for beginners

Anna Saunders is haunted by many things: myth, legend, her political concerns, environmental problems and, most engagingly, the ghosts of people she knows, living and dead. This diverse range of ghouls work their way into her fifth and latest poetry collection Ghosting for Beginners.

Haunting can be a tricky theme to pull off, as it’s well-ploughed territory and can lead easily to Gothic melodrama or cliché. However, Saunders avoids this by stretching the theme a long way, using the ongoing theme of ghosts to expose interesting perspectives on other ideas, rather than appearing to write strictly to a gothic or eerie theme. It feels as though the poems emerged organically, united by feeling rather than the need to stick to a particular topic. The book as a whole feels melancholy: the ghost of Saunders’ father emerges gradually over the course of the collection. There is a moving moment in ‘The Ventriloquist Dolls of the Dead’ when Saunders sees a familiar gesture of her father in a stranger. She imagines her father is somehow doing this himself, using the man’s body to reach out, briefly, from beyond the grave: ‘The gestures are identical/and he’s moving as if/he were a dummy/brought out of the box long enough/for your dead dad/to show that even though you can’t see his lips move/he still fancies a chat.’

Brexit, Grenfell and ongoing political turmoil all make appearances in the poetry. In ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, Saunders imagines the starlings above the city of London as the ghosts of Cabinet Ministers, ‘wishing that in life/they had acted differently/but airborne, and dead, it is too late.’ She doesn’t hold back. Working with an impressive command of language and a rich knowledge of myth and legend, Saunders communicates effectively and efficiently through her poems. There is a touch of Angela Carter about the way she sees people and animals, likes to examine humans through their ghosts. For me, reading Saunders reminded me of studying Carter at school – words like ‘pelage’ and ‘papillae’ had me reaching for a dictionary but, as with Carter, having to stop and take stock to soak in the words on the page didn’t hinder the experience. You’re not supposed to speed through this stuff. The more I read, the more I find some texts are like Magic Eye puzzles. You don’t see it, you don’t see it, you don’t see it and then you see it. And then you have go out and tell everyone, because you’ve done something meaningful.

But there is light in the grief, in the disillusionment. Even at her most political, Saunders has an almost Neil Gaiman-esque twinkle in her eye, bringing characters from myth and legend into our world, having the Angel of Revelation struggle with the bead-curtain hanging at the entrance of the New Age Centre, Jesus spurn the ticket barriers on the London Overground. There’s a fun side to the hauntings – not all ghosts are bad.

The strength of the collection is the portraits of the real people and the glimpses we have of Saunders’ own interiority. In its weaker moments, the poetry spirals into abstraction, tries to do too much – the ideas behind ‘The Ghost Room’ are interesting but rely on sensations too far removed from everyday experience to be profound. We hear the Ghost Room is ‘airy and immaterial as this stanza/but it will occupy your thoughts.’ Far more interesting is the plea of the wife, telling her husband to put on a dark coat so that their neighbours will not mistake him for a ghost and kill him. The poem ‘I said Thomas, There is a Piece of Work About the Ghost’ is based on real events; a man tried for killing a labourer called Thomas that he took for the Hammersmith Ghost. Thomas’ widow had reportedly warned her husband that, in his white overalls, he looked particularly ghostly. Told from the point of view of the wife as she warns her husband, the poem is urgent and moving, tragic yet bizarre. Haunting.

Saunders draws some beautiful portraits in this collection. The pheasant ‘dangling clumsy from string like a plummy yo-yo,’ in ‘Befriending the Butcher’ is startling and real. However, she has a tendency to take poems a beat too far. The lines ‘No longer able to walk, he scored the floor/with wheel chair marks as if ticking items off a list’ would make for a blistering ending, but Saunders goes on to add ‘and the single bar of the fire was a winter sunset;/a thin scarlet line, blazing with its own heat/as it slipped down silently, into the dark.’ Pretty though this image is, I’d stick with the old man, carving his achievements into the ground with the wheel of his chair, to which he is bound forever.

We have the same situation in ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, returning again to the ghosts of politicians as birds, swirling above Westminster, Saunders ends the poem by saying, ‘We shiver, as we watch them wheel and turn,/Our bones almost through our skin.’ This is haunting; but it would be far eerier if the poem was left to burn at the end of the previous stanza: ‘The sky is bruised with the bloated bodies of/Cabinet Ministers/fat with stolen fruit, they eclipse the sun.’

However, the final stanza of ‘Sowing Seeds’ is perfect. The poem is a meditation on climate change, on Donald Trump’s denial of its existence and the difference we, the little people, can make. Walking with a friend or partner on the beach, Saunders brings the poem to a close with the lines ‘The sea, its salty tongue working/like someone who will not stop speaking,/gets the final word’.

A collection occupied by the idea of what we leave behind, Ghosting for Beginners left me feeling agitated and comforted in equal measure – both aftertastes intended by Saunders I’m sure. The poems are successful in portraying the world and humanity as contradictory; friendly and unforgiving, beautiful and ugly. And who knows what we’ll leave behind.

Ghosting for beginners is available for purchase directly from Indigo Dreams online http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/anna-saunders-gfb/4594255832

About the reviewer

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 @ellenrlavelleon Twitter.

“What It Was Like, What Happened and What It’s Like Now”

There are countless examples of famous creative artists struggling with mental health issues or turning to addiction. Yet for every troubled genius who made it, there are countless others who didn’t. In this article, musician Christopher Tait shares his personal experiences of living with addiction – and what can be done to help provide support for struggling artists and musicians.

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“What It Was Like, What Happened and What It’s Like Now”

– The AA Big Book

I vaguely remember being curled up on a filthy mattress, praying to anyone/thing to make the pain go away. I recognized the pain – acute pancreatitis. It felt like there was an alien pushing though my sternum, and my veins were on fire. I’d experienced it before after some serious benders, and the only relief was to lay fetal-style and wait for it to pass. Or…go to the ER and beg for Dilaudid.

It was 2005 and I lived above Detroit’s premiere (and only) goth club in an old hotel called The Leland. The weekend I moved in, someone jumped off the roof after taking acid and wandering from the basement club up to the top of the building. That set the tone for my stay there.

I was gone half the year on tour, and the other half was spent living like a vagrant and shoveling tour profits up my nose. I’m not sure what made me think that that could go on forever, but as soon as I felt better, I’d escape the ER and walk down the hall, past my room with the dirty mattress where I prayed for help, and head straight down to the dealer’s place. (It helps to have the goods in-house during those cold Michigan months, fyi. While I enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, there was nothing like buying a baggie from the guy down the hall).

When you’re in it, bad things keep happening to you and it’s always someone else’s fault. And incredibly, if you say that enough times you start to believe it.

Flash forward six years to 2011 – I wake up in a hotel in Nashville, not sure where I am. Again. No other band members are staying in the room, and there is vodka left in the jug. It was always a bad sign if there was booze left and the jug was in the trash – that meant I hadn’t put it there. It was probably thrown out based on behavioral backlash. At first it was just another morning of waking up and wondering what I’d done, and searching for keys, wallet, phone, etc. etc.; forget repeat; forget; repeat.

I woke to several texts and a knock at the door. I was sat down and told I’d be leaving the tour. After driving the tour van over a laptop (I hadn’t had a drivers license in nearly a decade), I repeatedly tried to fight multiple members of the group. I had this super power – when I was at my most unhappy with myself, I’d start drilling at everyone around me. Shockingly, my hotel roomies had had enough and gone elsewhere.

When I read back on what I just wrote, it sounds like badly-drawn Bukowski without much glory or wit. All signs point to insanity, but not when you’re in it. When you’re in it, bad things keep happening to you and it’s always someone else’s fault. And incredibly, if you say that enough times you start to believe it. The universe was against me, and the bottle was my only friend. Or the dope man, on nights where I had enough scratch.

Flash forward again to 2013 – I’m on tour with Electric Six in the states, then Canada. Sober for two years and trying to stay sane on the road. I’m drilling at myself by this point, and my head is rampant with anxiety and paranoid fear that the others I’m touring with think that either I’m boring now, or that I’m a self-righteous turd (the ego is truly an amazing thing; two weeks into a van tour, everyone is just trying to get a few hours sleep, five minutes of peace, and laundry on a lucky week).

The fact that I think anyone gives a shit either way about me or anything other than staying sane at that point in the tour is in itself delusional. I’ve tried to go to meetings on the road; local AA info has led me to a bowling alley in Asbury Park, and an open field in Little Rock. In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, we arrive late. There are no meetings around, my data doesn’t work, there is no green room, the Starbucks is closed. It is freezing cold out. I sit in the van and listen to an old AA tape on a laptop (Adam T – La Hacienda Reunion. An old chestnut in the world of AA speakers). I start to think to myself that it should be easier than this.

“Communication…that’s where the change began and continues”

I’m not here to rattle off war stories without purpose, and I don’t regret every single thing I did when I was actively using either. I’m here to present a cautionary tale, and a solution that helped me: Communication. At it’s very heart, that’s where the change began and continues personally.

When I’m on tour, I go to meetings. I have a show to do and beyond that, the gig environment is none of my business. When I’m off tour, I work with others that share the same issues. “Defects” even, as you often hear in recovery. I like the term “Character Defects”. It reminds me that it’s not something I can put a bandaid on, hoping it will go away. It’s there; But the garbage floating around my head – the anxieties, fears, and apocalyptic inclinations will recede if I discuss them with others who might be in a similar boat. And that’s enough, with regularity. If I open up, they diminish. If I keep them in, they get heavier until the bow breaks and I’m screaming at people who can’t hear me down the express way.

When I let my guard down, I can get vulnerable. I can laugh about this shit. I can sit down and talk with strangers anywhere in the world that relate, and the weight is lifted. I’m not alone, and much as my ego would like me to be the only single “tortured artist” on the planet that’s ever dealt with this, I’m not. We’re everywhere.

Before, my only answer to anything was to jump into a bottle. I suppose it was easier, until it wasn’t. But this is better. Life is still life, but I can handle it without the crutch of numbing myself. I live with, understand, and appreciate consequence and accountability. I have options; I don’t have to let everyone down, I can be there for myself and others, my bills are paid, I know where my wallet is etc etc repeat remember repeat. I still screw up, but I attempt to make right.

Passenger was started as a very small, simple, feet-on-the-street service in Detroit – If someone is on tour or traveling, they can call or email us and we will flesh out times with them to make sure they have options. If they have time for a meeting between soundcheck and stage, we’ll get them to a meeting. If their time is limited, we have a clean green room that’s just coffee, internet, peace and quiet.

For the last year, we’ve worked on The Compass – a metropolitan meeting-finder that will be updated through user interaction and central offices. We hope to make it like a Waze for people in recovery on the road. Efficient and current. Simple.

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Passenger’s Compass tool is a GPS-enabled app that offers directions and info for travellers to multiple types of meetings including AA/NA, buddhist recovery (Refuge), and mental health (NAMI).

Our campaign was put together with artists and musicians alike, both in and out of recovery. Our hope is to present a united front where artists from all walks of life can stand together to support those who have recognized issues or concerns in their own lives. We ask anyone who’d like to help to visit the campaign page and see how they can contribute:

https://www.patronicity.com/project/passenger__compass#!/

Help us provide resources for travellers and touring musicians struggling with mental health & addiction issues.

About the author of this post

Christopher TaitChristopher Tait has written and performed for Electric Six since 2002. When off tour, he’s at Brighton Center for Recovery (a treatment center outside of Detroit, MI) working with others who are struggling with addiction issues. Before starting Passenger in 2015, Chris was a freelance curator for Beats/Apple Music in Culver City, CA

I Said I Like It Like That

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Justine’s mother bought herself a new phone when she moved to the States and, after that, Justine had trouble getting hold of her. She had the new number supposedly, sent to her via email from an unfamiliar address. She assumed the email was from her mother because it was characteristically brief and contained only the words ‘new number 4 florida’, followed by a string of unfamiliar digits. She tried the number a few times, locking herself in one of the guest bedrooms so that no one would ask who she was calling. Who would want to speak to you? But she never had to explain herself because no one ever picked up.

It was five years now since she’d spoken to her mother, which was a long time when your mother was eighty-seven and your siblings were dead or in prison. All apart from Dawn, her sister, but Justine never knew whether to count Dawn as a living relative. Living seemed to imply movement; a sense of the passage of time. Dawn had barely moved from her the sofa in her dark front room for over twenty years. Surely that was a kind of prison; Justine would rather be dead.

Now, she leaned against the granite workshop in her bespoke kitchen, holding a spatula of fluffy egg white with one hand, her phone with the other. The call echoed into nothing. Into Florida, if that’s where her mother still was. Justine had been to Florida once with Nigel and the kids when they were little, when Nigel became Head at St Faith’s. New house, new car, expensive holiday. Florida had been sun, sand and fat people. Was her mother fat now? Justine glanced at the clock. Florida was five hours behind. It was half-past one in Lincolnshire, the huge skies scorched by the midday heat. Half-past eight AM in Florida. It was fine; Mum had always been an early-riser. Probably because she’d never gone to bed in the first place, a constant haze of cigarette fumes fueling her from dusk until dawn.

But the phone rang on and on and Justine brought the spatula close to her face, the mixture shining a few centimeters away from her nose. She was about to stick out her tongue and lick it, when an American woman said her call couldn’t be taken at the moment but that she could leave a message after the tone.

‘Hi Mum,’ said Justine. ‘I don’t even know if this is the right number or what, but Travis has gone missing again and I was just wondering if he’d tried to contact you. It’s probably nothing, but anyway…’ She trailed off, staring out through the kitchen window into the garden. Her daughter, Chloe, was spread out on a sunbed next to the pool, the gleam from her belly-bar blinding. ‘Just give us a call when you get this. If you get this.’ She hung up to stop herself from saying anything else and put the phone screen-down on the worktop. Then she picked it up again. Nigel had told her not to call Travis again and with good reason. She was only filling Travis’ voicemail. Calling him had never brought him to heel in the past. If it had, he would be home already – here in this room, hunched over a bowl of cereal. The kitchen was clean, the surfaces shiny. There was only the mixing bowl, the meringue mixture and Justine, one hand on her hip, the other tapping at the screen of her new iPhone. Not available right now. Please leave a message.

The messages had documented perfectly her transition from best mother in the world to worst. At first, she’d been understanding: ‘Travis, love, it’s mummy here. Just wondering where you’ve got to, sweetheart. Just drop us a message when you can.’ She’d been very impressed with herself and had imagined telling somebody, a vaguely friend-shaped shadow, about parenting: how there’s no point pushing them, you have to let them come to you. But Travis hadn’t come to her and it was getting on for seventy-two hours which, with his track record, was a problem.

She began to speak just before the tone. She didn’t introduce herself – he knew who she was. ‘Listen to me, you little shitbag,’ she said. ‘This is enough. This is the final fucking straw. If you’re not home by the end of the day, don’t bother coming back at all. I bend over backwards for you and you piss in my face. Well that’s it. You’d better work out where you’re going to live.’ She hung up, finished the pavlova.

‘Sometimes,’ she said to the shadowy friend in her head. ‘It’s a firm hand that does it.’

*

The pavlova was for Martin and Rebecca, who were coming for dinner. Martin was Nigel’s right-hand man at the Federation of Academies and Rebecca was his new wife. For fifteen years, it had been Martin and Sharon. For the last five Christmases, Justine had incorrectly addressed their card and had to throw one out each time. This was unfortunate, as Justine liked to buy good-quality cards, the ones you could only buy in packs of five or six. Not the flimsy, charity efforts that came in multipacks. Each time she forgot Martin’s divorce it was another couple of quid down the drain.

‘I don’t know why you’re so bothered,’ Nigel said last December, as she swore over an embossed pop-out angel, its wings tipped with glitter and tiny sequined stars. ‘It’s not like we’re paupers.’

Justine couldn’t blame herself entirely; Rebecca was forgettable. She had the same long blonde hair as Sharon, but fewer lines around her eyes and her tanned skin didn’t yet have that leathery, tea-stained finish. She probably had another few years left. Halfway through whisking the egg whites, Justine realised she didn’t know if Rebecca even liked pavlova but then, with the KitchenAid whirring away at maximum speed, Justine decided it was too far gone now. You couldn’t unbreak an egg.

*

The problem with this kitchen was that nothing slammed. When they’d had it fitted, soft-close drawers and cupboards had seemed like a good idea, with two teenagers that moved about plugged into iPhones, deaf to their own inconsiderate behaviour. But the kids ended up spending very little time at home. Chloe was always out with friends, friends with names like Jemima and Frances, whose fathers were always ‘in’ something. ‘In’ property, or ‘in’ banking. They never just ‘had’ a job. But whatever they did, they could afford houses that Chloe seemed to disappear into for whole weekends, only coming home when she needed a clean pair of pants or because she’d forgotten her swimsuit. Over time, these swimsuits got smaller and smaller, until there was really very little left to forget; barely a few pieces of string, tied in a knot over the gusset.

And then there was Travis. Justine didn’t like to think about where he was, or who he was with. He just wasn’t around, so it was her own anger that the kitchen ended up moderating. No matter how hard you threw the cupboard doors closed, they refused to slam. Over the years, they had somehow assumed the personality of Kimberley, that smug-bitch therapist she’d been sent to see. ‘Why don’t you try breathing?’ Kimberley and the cupboards asked her. None of them were any help whatsoever. None of them understood. If you wanted to cause a scene in this kitchen, you had to generate the noise yourself, which was exhausting. She’d found it was easier to drink from the wine glasses than smash them on the antique Minster-stone tiles.

Half-one was probably too early for a glass of wine. She’d allow herself one before the guests arrived. Maybe at half-five. Or five.

She spooned the mixture into a mound on the baking sheet and gouged out a crater in the middle. The idea was to bake the meringue and then cover up the hole and the cracks with a load of strawberries, cranberries and fresh cream. You had to let it cool completely before you added the fruit; Justine had learned that the hard way. In the early days of her marriage, when she’d still been in shock at having her own kitchen, she got over-excited about recipes and could never last the whole cooking time before going on to the next step. The very first time she’d made Nigel dinner, he’d come home from work to find a runny shepherd’s pie in pride of place on the kitchen counter, the meat not yet browned, the mash lumpy. He’d laughed, in the easy way he had back then, ruffled her hair and they’d gone upstairs to have athletic sex. But that was then. Now, she waited the appropriate time for the meat to brown, for sauces to reduce. The lasagna would be the highlight of her evening.

Even the oven door was polite. She watched the meringue in the orange glow for a few seconds, the first of the air bubbles beginning to prickle in the heat, before checking her phone. Her wallpaper was a picture of herself and Chloe, heads tilted together, clinking glasses of prosecco on a balcony in Paris. Her birthday last year. An hour after the photograph was taken, she’d had to restrain herself from throwing her daughter over that balcony, onto the Avenue Montaigne, when Chloe decided she was going to meet some old uni friends for cocktails that evening, instead of going with her mother to the dinner they’d booked at the Four Seasons. ‘I’ll be, like, an hour,’ Chloe had said, already slurring as she slung her Birkin Bag over her shoulder and tottered out of the room. Justine spent her fifty-eighth birthday alone in the hotel suite, watching old episodes of French soaps that she didn’t understand at first but seemed to gain poignancy with every mouthful of prosecco, swigged from the bottle like a hooker in a teen comedy.

The photograph of Justine and Chloe was clear of notifications – no one wanted to speak to her. And if she was honest, Justine didn’t want to speak to them either but, while one child baked in the sun, the other was loose, out of the pen. And he’d done enough damage already.

*

It was Nigel that came up with the idea that Travis should change his name. ‘It’s not just the fact you’ve been in jail,’ he’d said.  ‘It’s the fact you were in jail for something like that. You’ll be on a list.’

So now Travis was Trent, except Justine couldn’t keep it up all the time. To the family, he was still Travis. They didn’t offer an explanation as to why the young man brooding under his greasy fringe had two names and no one asked. Everyone knew better than to question the Carter family quirks. At the Federation of Academies, people didn’t ask Nigel Carter to explain himself. Which is why Trent Briggs could be employed at St Francis’ C of E Academy as a groom in the new Equestrian centre. Under the guidance of Nigel Carter, the school had become an Academy, had government funds coming out of its ears. Travis Carter was on a list, but Trent Briggs was a stranger.

Travis had always been twitchy. Nowadays, he would probably be diagnosed with ADHD or something – one of those conditions that meant you got a note from a doctor saying you could do your exams in a small, quiet room with a laptop, instead of slaving away with pen and paper like everyone else. Travis would have liked that – a bit of extra attention. But Travis ended up sitting barely any of his GCSE exams because he had fallen into the wrong crowd and was often high on the sofa of some little twat’s mother, deep in the labyrinth of the city council estates. Or shooting up behind the back of Sainsbury’s. It made you wonder if it was in the genes. All her hard work gone to waste. The drugs were one thing, but the other stuff – exposing himself in that way to those kids – made her think of her Uncle Brian, with his moist smile and his hairy hands. The thing that had passed from Brian to Travis, did it run through her too? She’d thought she’d done a good job of stamping it out, keeping the kids away from all that, but it was a lifelong game of whack-a-mole. Just when you thought you’d exorcised all the demons, a new kind of fresh hell would crawl out of the pit.

It was a good job that Nigel had been able to get him the equestrian training once he was out. He’d only been inside six months but that was enough. Six months and a black mark next to your name could follow you forever. But Travis became Trent and he went on the residential course. They used the Federation credit cards – the state had taken six months off him, so it was only right that it paid for the course. Fair was fair.

The Academy Federation had acquired properties in France, for use by the schools during residential trips. Nigel had taken Justine with him to scout out the various locations. She’d fallen in love with a place in Normandy. It was £1.9 million, situated barely an hour’s drive from Bayeux with a banqueting hall and spaces easily divided into apartments. Justine had been such a help on the visit that Nigel had paid her a consultant’s fee – an extra £55,000 for the year’s work. It had been a blast, picking out the bathrooms, deciding which bedrooms would open onto what. She’d liked the floor tiles so much that she’d chosen them for their own en-suite upstairs. As an additional thank you, Nigel had suggested she take some friends for the weekend when it was all finished. He was so busy at work at that time that he didn’t seem to realise she’d shed most of her friendships. Intentionally, of course. As she became more involved with the academies, after she transferred the kids to single-sex private schools, after they moved from the city centre to the six-bedroom, hundred-acre Lodge which presided over the Fens and had its own pool, she found that looking at those people made her depressed. She didn’t want to think about the conversations they’d had in the playground of the inner-city Primary School all those years ago. She didn’t want to think about the grotty Starbucks coffee dates, or the aqua-aerobics classes they’d taken together, dodging the floating plasters and leering pensioners. She was a different person now and needed new friends. In the end, she’d joined a salsa club and asked a few people from there to come along. They’d shimmied and swayed across the floor of the banquet hall to Pete Rodriguez, drinking sangria and laughing. She was pretty sure Sharon had been among them, or was it a different woman, with a similar shaggy blonde hairstyle? Someone else – Jules? Julie? – had accidentally broken a pane in the French windows when she’d kicked her foot backwards into an arabesque and her wedge heel had flown off, shattering the glass.

‘It’s ok, really!’ Justine had said as the woman apologised over and over again. ‘The kids aren’t going to come here for ages.’

In fact, Nigel hadn’t mentioned any school trips to the Normandy retreat yet. Mind you, there was so much in the curriculum these days. So many exams and whatnot. The kids probably didn’t have time.

*

In some ways the Academy credit cards made life much easier, but when things went wrong, it was complicated. Like when Travis went missing, for example. To be fair to him, since he’d come out he’d been better. He still sloped around, disappeared for the night without telling them and came back reeking of marijuana. But he was in his twenties – young men did that kind of thing. Justine was able to tolerate the odd wild weekend. It was when he did things like this – disappearing for several days in a row – that people started to ask questions. It had been the St Faith’s sports day yesterday for Christ’s sake. He had responsibilities – mowing the grass in preparation etc. People noticed if he went missing now. And someone, any one of them, might call the police. Justine didn’t know much about how the police went about their business, but she assumed it wouldn’t take them long to realise that the person everyone knew as Trent Briggs had once been Travis Carter and that Travis Carter was on a list. Trent Briggs worked at a school. They would also see that Trent Briggs had been on a training course funded by the Academy and they might start looking at credit card statements. Salaries paid to Justine Carter and Chloe Carter, for ‘consultancy’ work. Business trips to Paris. Which is why Travis had to come home.

*

Martin and Sharon – no, Rebecca – were coming at seven, which meant the lasagna had to be in the oven by six. At five, she was chopping mushrooms, the mince browning in a thick-bottomed saucepan. It had been a bad idea, cooking a lasagna on a hot day like this. She kept having to wipe away her sweaty fringe with the back of her hand. She’d been crying earlier, because of the onions, and could feel gritty bits of mascara worked into her eyeballs when she rubbed them. It made you thirsty, cooking in this heat, and so when she opened a bottle of merlot for the Bolognese, she also poured herself a glass. Usually, she preferred rosé – something sweet, like a White Zinfandel or a Grenache Rose. It didn’t seem like such a terrible indiscretion, if you didn’t drink the thing you really wanted.

She was adding the mushrooms to the pan when she heard a car door slam. Nigel. She’d told him to be home at a decent time and, for once, he’d listened to her. The front door opened and closed. She could hear him breathing in his usual, huffing way, could hear his shoes on the parquet and almost cried again for no good reason. The onions were cooking in the sauce, had lost their edge, so it must have been the wine making her eyes prickle. When he stepped into the doorway, his paunch appearing first the way it always did now, she wanted to fling her arms around him, or as far around him as she could reach, and bawl her eyes out onto his expensive white shirt.

But he was already snarling like a Pitbull. ‘Tonight,’ he said, slamming his briefcase down on one of the stools at the breakfast bar. ‘If Martin asks if you’ve heard from Travis, I need you to tell him you have.’

Justine scraped the last of the mushrooms into the pot and gave it a stir, the little baldy bastards drowning in the thick red sauce. ‘Why?’ she asked.

‘Because I’ve told him you’ve spoken to him.’ He said this painfully slowly, as if she was deaf. Sometimes, he behaved like she was a teenager, a student at one of his academies. She’d flag this up in future, when all of this had blown over.

‘Why did you do that?’ she asked, setting her knife and chopping board safely out of the way.

‘Martin’s getting twitchy. He thinks I’m losing control. He’s worried this is going to blow everything open.’

She turned to look at him. ‘Are you?’ she asked.

He’d loosened his tie and was getting himself a glass from the cupboard. My god, from the side he looked particularly hefty. She’d have to let out the waist of his trousers soon. ‘What?

‘Are you losing control?’

‘Am I fuck.’ He sloshed wine into the glass. ‘Just tell him he’s texted you or something.’ The wine gushed out of the bottle.

‘I need that for the sauce.’

‘How much?’

‘Just don’t pour any more,’ she said. Once the glass was full to the brim, he set the bottle down on the counter. Justine stirred the pot. ‘So you haven’t heard anything?’

‘No,’ he said, taking a swig. ‘He’s pushed it too far this time.’

She moved to the fridge. For years, everyone had asked her what the secret ingredient was in her Bolognese. It was the Thai Sweet Chilli Sauce that gave it its zing. It wasn’t much of a secret ingredient, actually, as she told everyone who asked.

‘No idea what he’s risking. No way of beating it into his thick fucking skull.’

She squeezed the bottle of Sweet Chilli into the Bolognese and it spurted up the sides of the pan. ‘Don’t say things like that,’ she said.

‘Well it’s true,’ Nigel said, wiping wine from his mouth with the back of his hand. His eyes flickered over to the window. Chloe was still stretched out on the sun lounger, plugged into her phone. Watching something, messaging someone: rotting her brain. Nigel jabbed a finger in his daughter’s direction. ‘And that one’s a waste of fucking space.’

‘Nigel…’ The sauce had to simmer for a while. In the meantime, she’d make the cheese roux.

‘I’ve got Simon on the job.’ Nigel said.

‘What?’

‘Simon. Simon Withers, you know,’ Nigel said. ‘He’s going to find Travis.’ Justine stopped stirring and stared at her husband. ‘Simon?’ she asked, her heartbeat suddenly loud in her ears. Simon was the youngest member of the senior management team. He had coiffed hair, an unnatural tan and was a little too pleased with his company Audi. He was probably about thirty, but Justine always thought of him as being seven years old, could imagine him making ‘broom, broom’ noises behind the wheel of his car. He’d been for dinner a couple of times and Justine had resisted the urge to ask him if he wanted her to cut up his chicken into little pieces. She’d felt fond of him initially and then less so later when, a couple of glasses down, he’d lost minutes at a time staring into Chloe’s cleavage. This was the man that Nigel had enlisted to find her son.

‘You asked Simon?’ she asked.

‘Everyone else in the senior team is busy and I’m not involving anyone lower. There are enough people running around as it is. It’s only me, you and Simon that know.’ Nigel said. Then he frowned, putting his glass down on the worktop. ‘And Chloe, unfortunately. She’s not told any of her stupid friends has she?

‘You’ve given this to Simon?

‘Simon’s a smart lad. He’s very bright.’

‘He’s fucking twelve!’ Suddenly, she was shouting, which was alarming even to her. ‘He still gels his hair!’

‘Justine, get your shit together. I’m not having this conversation with you when you’re like this.’

‘Our son is missing, Nigel,’ she said.

‘Actually, we don’t know what’s happened,’ Nigel said, resting one hand on the counter, the other on his hip. There was the headmaster again.

Justine left the wooden spoon in the pot and folded her arms. ‘You want me to lie,’ she said.

‘He’s probably fine. He’ll be off his face somewhere, the little shit. ‘

‘Three days, Nigel. He could be hurt,’ she said and then, before she lost her courage to say what she’d been thinking all day, she added: ‘he could be dead.’ She had intended this as a bombshell, thought it would shake Nigel out of his aggression, force him to take her seriously. But it did the opposite.

Snorting, Nigel reached for his wine again. ‘He wouldn’t be that bloody considerate,’ he said into the glass.

‘Nigel!’

‘He’ll turn up in a few days and then I really will kill him.’

Justine stared at her husband for a second and then her eyes drifted to the clock. It was five-past six. Fuck. The roux, the fucking roux.  She had to walk past Nigel to get the flour out of the cupboard, the butter out of the fridge. Sticking her nose in the air, she fully intended to give him the silent treatment but, on her way back across the kitchen, her resolve crumbled.

‘But what if he doesn’t?’ she asked, slamming the butter down on the scale. Fifty grams the display said, meekly. ‘What if he doesn’t and people start asking why we haven’t called the police.’

‘No.’ Nigel threatened her with a podgy finger. ‘Don’t even go there. Don’t you dare.’

‘But what if that’s what happens?’ Flour billowed out across the worktop in a cloud. ‘What will we say then?’

‘He’s going to turn up.’ The finger was still pointing at her. ‘And in the meantime, you’re not going to tell anyone.’ Something must have flickered across her face, a kind of guilty shadow, because suddenly Nigel was in front of her, wine on his breath. He was surprisingly fast, for such a lardy bastard. ‘What? What have you done?’ he breathed. ‘Who have you told?’

‘I need to get to the hob.’

‘Who have you fucking told?’

She was almost certain he wouldn’t hit her. She looked up at him, at his bloated ruddy cheeks, his black eyes squinting into hers. ‘My mother,’ she said.

Nigel blinked, stunned. ‘Your mother?’

Justine stepped around him, pulled a saucepan out of the cupboard. ‘I didn’t actually tell her. I just… I left a message on her answerphone.’ The butter slid around in the pan, shining wetly.

‘For the love of fucking Christ.’ Nigel had his hands over his face now. With his arms up like that, she could see the sweat patches blossoming under his pits. He smelled oniony, or was that just the sauce? ‘I’m trying to keep a lid on this thing and you’re blowing it wide open.’

She stirred the butter with a metal spoon; Nigel was blocking the drawer that held the rest of her wooden ones. ‘Have you thought for a moment what it’s like for me?’ she asked into the pan. ‘What it’s like on my own in this house?’

‘Oh yes it must be really hard for you,’ Nigel crooned. God, she hated when he imitated her like this. Her voice wasn’t that high. ‘With the pool and the wine and the-’

The metal spoon was out of the pan and in his face. She waved it at him and a drop of hot butter must have flicked into his eyeball as he recoiled, rubbing it and swearing. ‘I have no one to tell, Nigel,’ she hissed. When she was mad, she went quiet. That was where Nigel’s impressions always went wrong. ‘No one. That’s why I called my mother, who wouldn’t even pick up the bloody phone. I’m going mad here, Nigel. People are going to start noticing something’s wrong, but it’s not going to be because of me.’ She stared at him a second, while he rubbed his eye like a baby, and then she grabbed the flour which was behind him on the counter. ‘You’re in the way,’ she said.

He eased himself away from the worktop. She could feel him glaring at her, hear him breathing, smell him – it wasn’t the Bolognese. She stirred the roux, the flour bubbling, turning biscuity.

‘If you’re going to go mad, do it silently,’ Nigel said. ‘Don’t make a fucking noise.’ She heard him gulp down his wine. ‘If you tell another living soul,’ he said. ‘This family is finished.’

*

It was handy, therefore, that she never knew whether to class Dawn as a living relative. Nigel was a clever man and Justine respected his achievements, but he didn’t know everything. He hadn’t grown up in a house where sons did time the same way other boys went to scout camp. He would thank her and repent, down on his knees, when she was the one that brought Travis home.

She did it when she was still upstairs, just after having a shower but before she got dressed and did her makeup. The lasagna was in the oven – the cheese bubbling away like the hide of a living, breathing animal – and the pavlova was setting in the fridge. Justine stared at her reflection in the mirror for a minute – a minute too long, really, without any makeup on – unlocked her phone and tapped out a text to Dawn.

Travis missing again. I need your help. She pressed send at the same time as she took a sip from the glass of White Zinfandel she’d brought upstairs. So, she’d had a glass of red before five o’clock and was on rosé now. That was probably an extra three hundred calories right there, but it had been a trying day. And anyway, she’d forgo the pavlova later. Give hers to Nigel. Perhaps, if she was lucky, he’d have a heart attack.

*

When, in the future, she thought back to that evening and the dinner with Martin and Rebecca, she’d struggle to remember the order of events. It would have been easy to blame the wine and, honestly, she had drunk a fair quantity even by the time she opened the door. She flicked her hair over her shoulders and said ‘hello’ in the breezy way she’d adopted, as though they’d just interrupted her in the middle of tai chi or caught her having an intellectual debate with one of her many erudite offspring.

In fact, she hadn’t spoken to Chloe for several hours and only realised she was going out when she tramped downstairs later in a pair of stilettos and an unflattering jumpsuit. ‘Taxi’s here,’ Chloe called, seemingly without any need for a response. It was just as well. By that point in the evening, Justine wasn’t up to arguing with her daughter. She was already dealing with Martin.

She knew that Martin and Rebecca had been on time; she remembered them handing her a bottle of wine as they stepped from the porch into the hallway. She couldn’t recall the colour of this wine, or what had happened to it. She was sure she hadn’t drunk any of it. Was it the one that was smashed, much later? Perhaps. But they’d definitely handed her a bottle and she’d put it on the countertop in the kitchen, next to the toaster.

The evening was tinted gold, the dying sunlight streaming in through the French windows. In her memory, shadows lengthened and shortened again, snapping back with every event placed out-of-sequence. By the time Martin stood up, scraping his chair along the wooden floor, and frog-marched Rebecca out of the room, there weren’t any shadows because the main light was on. They could see each other clearly while they destroyed the relationship that had united the two men, five schools and amassed millions of pounds over the last twenty years.

She’d put too much Sweet Chili in the Bolognese. The tang stayed on her tongue for the next few days, forever merging in her mind with betrayal. The spice made them all drink more, which was no doubt a factor in the proceedings. Smug-bitch therapists like Kimberley would no doubt be able to flow-chart the shit out of that. But that was all very easy in retrospect, when you were charging a hundred quid an hour. In the moment, with your mouth on fire, you just knew you needed a drink. You didn’t stop and think about it.

Over the course of the evening, Travis came up by name on three occasions – moments she recalled with perfect clarity as they had sent a flash of cold panic through her body and prompted her to find something to do with her hands, like folding napkins or topping up glasses. Though his name was mentioned only three times, Travis’ presence (or rather, his absence) was heavy at the table, as if he himself was lying spread-eagled over it, his greasy head resting on the condiments tray, dirty trainers in the lasagna dish.

‘He’s with friends,’ Justine remembered saying, as she cleared away the dishes. Looking back, she wasn’t sure if these were the dishes that had been used for the garlic bread she’d served as a starter or if they had been stained orange with oil from the pasta. About two things she was completely certain. The first; they weren’t the plates intended for pavlova, as they’d never got around to eating dessert. Second, as she leaned over Martin, as he removed the scrunched-up napkin from his lap and put it on the plate, her eyes were caught by his. And it was clear beyond all doubt that he didn’t believe her.

Nigel had made it sound easy. Say you’ve heard from Travis. Say he’s texted you or something. But ‘or something’ was a dangerous realm. She’d thought there would be strength in ambiguity but – what had Nigel said? – she’d ‘blown it all open’. Well he should have done it himself. He should have got up off his fat arse and found their son.

There was a sense of something simmering from the beginning; the feeling of performance, like the house was an elaborate set and Nigel and Justine were crap actors on some over-funded BBC Two drama. Nigel had always been a sweaty bloke but he’d soaked his shirt within the first hour. Rebecca was laughing at everything, even things that weren’t supposed to be funny. ‘I accidentally chipped this bowl’, ‘I got this tablecloth from a nice boutique but it’s closed now’ and ‘would you like a top-up?’ were all met with her warbling, high falsetto. Justine just stood there, wine bottle in hand, while Rebecca laughed herself silly. When the laughter showed no sign of abating, Justine went ahead and refilled the glass. It seemed as though Rebecca needed it.

Through it all, Martin sat back in his chair, arms crossed. He was a small man and he and Nigel had always made a good team – little and large, chalk and cheese, bad cop/good cop. While Nigel raged, Martin – painfully polite – would talk you through the restructure, explain to you why you’d lost your job, why your funding had been cut, why he was leaving you for his secretary. And all in such a civilized manner that you couldn’t possibly blame him. While Nigel’s body was broad and flabby, Martin’s power was concentrated, dense as a ball-bearing. The longer she watched him sitting there – arms crossed, eyes narrow – the more certain she became that tonight, David would take down Goliath.

‘He’s with friends,’ Justine said as she took Martin’s plate. ‘That’s where he is.’ She concentrated on stacking the dishes, so that she wouldn’t have to look at Martin again or listen to his silence. It was as she was moving from the dining room to the kitchen, crossing the parquet floor in the hall, that she heard him mutter, ‘We all know that’s a load of bollocks.’

Looking back, this was the moment when everything changed. Or at least, the moment when everything that had already been changing for some time came into sharp focus. These seconds would stay with her for years to come. A spasm of guilt and she was back there, standing in the dark hallway with the plates trembling in front of her – they had traces of lasagna on them she remembered now – the cutlery quivering as she hovered between rooms. The hallway was safe, free of allegiances. But she couldn’t stay there forever. She was stuck in the middle, with the dining room and Nigel behind her, kitchen and pavlova in front. She could go back to Nigel. In the glow of the John Lewis chandelier, she could put her hand in his and they could face it all together. Face Martin, the police, whoever.

The refrigerator hummed in the dark kitchen but the dining room was quiet. She turned her head slightly, twisted an ear towards the open door.

‘You want to say that again?’ This was Nigel, low and dangerous. It was the only tone he seemed to use these days. After a while, it lost its effect.

She shuffled into the kitchen and turned on the light. The room gleamed, welcoming her with its shining surfaces. She set the plates down and opened the fridge. The pavlova had been waiting for her, glistening patiently on the middle shelf. Some of the berries and cream had bled into the meringue. Or was her eyesight just blurry from wine?

When she arrived back in the dining room, carrying the pavlova in front of her, both men were out of their seats, gesticulating over the table. Rebecca was making feeble attempts at grabbing Martin, as if he was seriously going to take Nigel on. She was dimly aware of her own name coming up, amongst the profanity and hysteria – ‘That psycho is going to drag you down, Nigel; you, Justine and Chloe…’ – but set the pavlova down on the table anyway, twisting it round so the most impressive side faced her guests.

‘Plates,’ she murmured to no one in particular and was about to go back into the kitchen to get some, when Chloe darted through the hall, a flash of tanned skin and satin.

‘Taxi’s here!’ Chloe called. The door slammed.

Justine blinked before starting towards the kitchen again. She needed a knife to cut the pavlova, or maybe a spatula of some kind – the cream might be gloopy.

‘I’m not going to let you drag me down with you, Nigel. Not a chance in hell.’

And then Martin and Rebecca were in the hallway, standing in front of her. Martin ripped open the front door and stalked out onto the driveway. From somewhere in the darkness, the lights on his car flashed. Rebecca hovered for a second in front of the door, her lips quivering at the edges.

‘Did you bring your coat, Sharon?’ Justine asked. Rebecca made a shallow noise in the back of her throat and followed Martin out into the night.

*

There were very few instances over the course of Justine’s life when she hadn’t been to bed at the end of the day, not even for an hour. There was the night when she was fifteen and her brother Jonno had been caught up in an armed robbery. He was on the run and the police were stalking her street, waiting for him to come home. She waited up too, in her only pair of pyjamas. Justine and Dawn watched the television in the lounge, the cartoons nothing but blurry shapes and sounds, as their brother slipped between houses into the crenellations of the shadowy estate, finally captured in the haze of blue lights.

Then there was the night she’d given birth to Travis. He’d been a difficult baby. Perhaps she should have taken that as a sign. She’d screamed as he’d split her open and was then unable to make a noise for hours afterwards. She could only stand mutely by the window in her private room, watching the lights of the cars as they moved in and out of the parking spaces beneath her.

But they were the only times – she liked sleeping. After Martin and Rebecca left, however, the house groaned and ached and there she knew there was no way she could go to bed.

‘Can you not hear that?’ she asked Nigel.

‘What?’ he asked, eyes drooping, whisky glass resting on his paunch. He’d started in on the drinks cabinet immediately after dinner and, by ten, was in a stupor. He always had been able to sleep through anything anyway. When the children were small, it was always her that their cries woke, Nigel numb to the world on the other side of the bed, his body an immovable mountain.

With Nigel checked-out of consciousness, she set herself up in the study in front of the huge monitor of the desktop computer, a glass of rosé at her side – definitely her last for the night. She scrolled through her own Facebook feed, then logged into Chloe’s account – her passwords were all written in the back of the diary she kept in her bedside cabinet, silly girl – and scrolled though Chloe’s messages. She appeared to be currently obsessed with a young man called Jasper, whose profile pictures all showed him in nightclubs, pointing at the friend next to him. There were a lot of messages from Chloe to Jasper and not so many from Jasper to Chloe. Justine cringed as she stumbled across an animated gif sent from Chloe to Jasper earlier that evening, of a cartoon cheese beckoning seductively. There was no question that Chloe was doing the pursuing.

In Justine’s day, the girl waited to be pursued. She’d met Nigel in a crowded pub when she was out with her sisters and cousins. They only had one set of rollers and three lipsticks to share between the lot of them and so she remembered feeling pretty smug that evening as she’d managed to use both the rollers and a lipstick before they came out. Sure, one side of her head was curlier than the other, but that hadn’t put Nigel off when he’d accidentally jabbed her with his pool cue as she walked past on her way back from the ladies. He’d grinned at her and offered her a drink. She wasn’t related to him and he wasn’t from the Estate, which was enough.

Depressed, she logged out of Facebook. Travis didn’t have Facebook, said it was for ‘poofs’. She went onto YouTube, to find some Peter Rodriguez music to cheer herself up, and stumbled across some sort of remix, featuring a woman called Cardi B. Cardi B shouted over most of it, about ‘flexing on bitches as hard as I can’. Justine swayed in her wedges in the middle of the study as she swigged from her glass. She even did a few mariposa moves, imagining she was dancing with Mateo, her salsa instructor. She amused herself in this fashion until three in the morning, when there was the sound of glass shattering from downstairs.

She found Chloe in the kitchen, balancing on the heels of her stilettos as if they were stilts, in a pool of broken glass and red wine. Eyeliner and mascara were streaked down her face, her tongue so heavy in her mouth that, when she saw her mother come into the kitchen, she was unable even to apologise. She just stood there, clutch bag hanging limply from one arm, blinking in the harsh light of the kitchen spotlights.

Justin moved her to the sofa and, once Chloe was safely horizontal, cleaned up the wine and glass. A bag of oven chips was open on the counter, now semi-defrosted and useless. Chloe’s culinary skills knew no bounds. Justine made her a peanut butter and jam sandwich, the way she always had when the kids were little, but by the time she brought it over to the sofa, Chloe was fast asleep. A string of drool stretched from Chloe’s mouth onto the upholstery. Tomorrow’s problem. Justine fetched a throw from the lounge and draped it over her daughter, before turning out the light.

She went outside, even though it was freezing, and sat by the pool. The goosebumps on her arm were sharp and painful but still she stayed there, shivering in the darkness. She’d brought a bottle out with her and poured herself another glass – this really was her last. She’d always said she wasn’t going to be her mother, awake all night, a cigarette burning through the hours as her children cavorted in the estate around her, stealing, robbing, stabbing and spitting. But look at her how.  Was that why her mother had up and left for the US? Because she was sick of the cold?

*

There was no doubt that she was over the limit but, at seven-thirty in the morning, she was pulling out of the driveway onto the main road in her little bug, her face scrubbed clean, hair pulled back into a clip. She was absolutely fine – kept pushing her Tom Ford glasses up on the bridge of her nose to tell remind herself so. She’d avoided Nigel – he’d been in the shower when she’d left – and Chloe was still asleep on the sofa, so she hadn’t had to answer any questions about where she was going.

Dawn still lived on the Estate, trapped in the labyrinth of red brick and spray paint. As she pulled into the first grim street, rolling the car over a speed bump, Justine remembered how slowly you had to drive in this place, as if something was pulling you back, weighing you down. A group of young men, faces shadowy under their hoods, turned to watch as she passed and she locked the car doors.

It was eerily quiet before an Alsatian launched itself at its garden gate, howling, jerking backwards when strangled mid-air by the chain attached to its collar. One of the youths yelled at it and Justine accelerated, lurching over the next speed-bump.

Justine was last here for the christening of one of Dawn’s many children. Was it Ashton or Ashley? That was getting on for four years ago now, just after their mother left for the US. Justine had come on her own – Nigel had been outraged at the very idea of eating Iceland sausage-rolls in Dawn’s tiny kitchen and making small talk with whichever tattooed bruiser she’d taken up with that week. Justine hadn’t much fancied it herself but did feel a sense of duty to Dawn, in whom she saw herself, the other Justine, the one that hadn’t been skewered by Nigel’s cue. And anyway, she’d didn’t have to eat anything. She could just chug a cup of weak tea and leave.

Since that day, when Dawn hadn’t seemed all that pleased to see her and hadn’t even offered her a plate for the miserable-looking buffet – ‘You’re always on some kind of diet, so what’s the point?’ – their communication had been terse and infrequent. She assumed she still lived at the same house, number nine, and left the engine idling for a couple of minutes as she stared at the chipped front door. Curtains twitched around her. One neighbour, a man in a string vest, came and stood outside his house with his arms folded, watching her with narrowed eyes. On the fence that skimmed the perimeter of his yard, a handwritten sign read: ‘Shut the fucking gate’. Justine killed the engine and got out, closing the door as quietly as possible.

It was only in the few seconds after she rang the bell, waiting for an answer, that she realised how early it was. It was eight o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday. But surely the children would need to go to school? Dawn would be awake, wouldn’t she?

The man was still watching her. A flash of hot panic set her backing away from the doorstep, fleeing back to her car, but then the door snapped open and she was trapped on the path, quaking in her wedge heels.

Dawn was fatter, sadder. She was wearing a faded Minnie Mouse dressing gown and her fluffy, over-dyed hair hung in strings over her eyes. She squinted into the daylight like a mole and, seeing Justine, opened her mouth in loose incomprehension.

‘You didn’t get my text?’ Justine said, shifting her weight, suddenly ashamed of her neat, coral-coloured toenails.

Dawn blinked. ‘I changed my number,’ she said. A child appeared under her arm, dressed in half a school uniform. Justine smiled at it weakly.

‘Mum changed her number too,’ she said. ‘I tried to leave her a message.’

Dawn wrinkled her nose. ‘Mum’s dead,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ said Justine. She knew she should ask how it happened and when, but this seemed as though it was the end of a conversation, not the opening of a new one. ‘Right.’

‘What do you want, Justine?’ Dawn said, crossing her arms to mirror the man still standing on the other side of the road. The child blinked up at Justine, began to pick its nose. ‘Never thought you’d be caught dead back here.’

‘Travis is missing,’ said Justine, who detected that the time for bullshit was long past. ‘I wondered if you’d seen him.’

‘Yeah I saw him,’ Dawn said and Justine had to hold a hand to her chest, to steady her heart. ‘Couple nights back. He came to ask if he could stay here for a bit, until things died down.’

‘What things?’

‘You know. Things.’ They both knew what kind of things.

‘What did you say?’

‘I told him to fuck off.’ And then Dawn expanded in the doorway, smiling as she swelled. She was still smiling when she said, ‘Don’t want any of your type round here.’

Justine opened her mouth and closed it again. Travis was in trouble and, because of Dawn, was on his own. Or was it because of Dawn? Was it not because of Justine herself, because she didn’t eat semi-defrosted sausage rolls at the christening of – Ashton, Ashley? Because she’d tried to shed this place, her own past, from her body. Peel it off like a snakeskin.

It didn’t matter, there was nothing left to say. Justine managed to totter back to the car and, as she unlocked the door, caught sight of her pedicure. She wouldn’t wear that colour again.

*

The drive home took her past the police station and she swerved suddenly into the carpark. She was beeped by a woman in a Citroen, with a baby on board sign hanging in the rear window. Fuck off, bitch. No one cares about your offspring.

The reception area was full of posters about binge-drinking and reminders about staying safe online. Justine pretended to read them, one hand holding her phone to her chest, the other in the back pocket of her jeans, clutching onto her buttock, pinching it for no good reason. After a while, a young woman in uniform came up to her and asked if there was anything she could do to help.

Justine stared at her face – it took a few seconds to focus. ‘No,’ she said. ‘There isn’t.’

She got back in the car and drove home. The pavlova had been left out all night and was wilting on the dining table. The strawberries and cranberries had all run, leaving a huge pile of bloody meringue and cream. She could almost hear it breathing and she knew what it was waiting for. She sat down, in Nigel’s place at the head of the table, grabbed a spoon.

She was still there when Simon Withers came to the house an hour later, but by then most of the pavlova was gone. He found her at the table, mouth sticky with meringue, her cream blouse stained red.

‘Is Nigel in?’ Simon asked. When Justine didn’t answer, he went on: ‘I wanted to tell him I’m not up to it. I don’t think there’s any more I can do.’

Justine looked up, mouth covered in cream, and tilted her head to one side, frowning, as if listening to the death throes of a small, pathetic animal.

‘I think,’ Simon said. ‘I’m out of my depth.’ Travis had now been gone at least ninety-two hours. Wherever he was, Simon wasn’t going to bring him back.

Justine picked up her spoon, scooped up a weeping strawberry. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are out of your depth, Simon.’ She brought the spoon to her mouth and Simon glanced away, the colour high in his cheeks. ‘If I were you,’ Justine went on, mouth full. ‘I’d get out before you drown.’

About the author of this post

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.

Noticing the Journey

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One morning I was given a lift into work by my parents. I climbed into the middle seat of the back and then spent a while leafing through emails on my phone, followed by aimlessly watching the road blur above the dashboard until we arrived. A perfectly average lift, by any means; nothing remarkable about it. Yet in making these unremarkable journeys time and time again, I have begun to ask myself an important question:

                          When was the last time I really noticed a car journey?

I don’t mean just noticing how far I’m travelling and which turnings we took to get there; but being aware of all that we were passing through. How many people driving or being driven right now are actually looking out of their windows and thinking about the landscape that they’re in; about the noises, the shades of colour, the rise and fall of the fields and forests and buildings as they merge? And then how many people are seeing nothing but the blur of the motorway at seventy – an interminable rush beyond a window; hearing only the sound of the engine and the air buffeting small gaps in the windows as if “outside” does not exist at all – as if a journey is only a state of limbo between destinations?

If you were to ask someone who had driven from Birmingham to London yesterday what they had done on that day, they’d probably say something like,

“I went to London”, and then they might tell you what they did there.

Or, just after arriving in London they might say,

“I’ve been driving.”

Driving.

It calls to mind the image of a car interior and wheels rolling by at high speed. There is no place attached to it, no sense of a world it fits into, just an idea of getting somewhere fast. This is convenience – the quickest route from a to b – and in many ways it makes sense that this is what we routinely settle for, in our modern world of crammed schedules and fast-paced living.

But this is not the way that journeys have to be, and it is not the only way to travel.

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The moment you decide to take the scenic route on the train, or choose to cycle through the woods, or boat your way down the winding waterways of a country, you are forced to slow down and look around, opening yourself up to something quite amazing: noticing the journey. Not just noticing the journey as movement, but as a discovery of place, self and mind.

As you slow down, you allow yourself to become more aware of your own thoughts, of the interactions between yourself and your environment, and begin to engage mentally with the full height and breadth of a space as a historic and imaginative pool of potential. Giving yourself this mental breathing room in your day to day journeying is how problem solving is tangled out, how we process our own desires – how poetry is born.

It’s too easy nowadays to neglect making time for ourselves in this way, time for making sure we understand how we are connected to the worlds we inhabit. It’s also time we need for processing and distilling observations and experience into something meaningful, something that lasts in the mind.

Walking or floating down the canals of the UK, for example, offers up a whole wealth of ideas and stories if you allow yourself to slow down and engage with the journey: in the conversations of passersby, the memories of long lost boats and boaters, the years of trains and wars and disuse, and the rallies that brought them back into being. There is so much there to contemplate whilst the leaves bow in and out of view, and the birdsong and constant running of water set the pace to your thoughts and movements.

This slow time for contemplative thought is, for me, much of what makes poetry and poetic thought possible. It is an opening-up to feeling the sensory past and present of place and moment, to feeling the rhythms that surround us and that we automatically orient our lives around. It enables us to learn how to play off these feelings, pushing and pulling against the pulses and sounds to create something evocative, something that captures the unique way our thoughts fall against one another and gradually coalesce into meaning.

I find that poetry is so often a discovery of new and beautiful ways of seeing. It captures the unexpected in the things that we think we know – life, love, cities, nature, people, words. But in order to access any of those multitudes of perspectives, in order to see the extraordinary within the ordinary, we must allow ourselves time for observation of our surroundings in the first place.

This is what a journey can be, if we let it; this great storing-up of inspiration, a way of focusing the mind and processing ourselves. So next time you’re about to get into a car, think about slowing down and taking a different route, think about getting out of the car and experiencing some new way of getting to and from the places you think you know; think about what you don’t know – what is waiting to be discovered all around you.

About the author of this post

32880562_10208750525599857_7033432400910614528_n.jpgJessica Kashdan-Brown is a poet and writer based in both Bath, where she lives, and Coventry where she studies as part of the University of Warwick Writing Programme. She is currently working on the installation of a poetry route within the Bath flight of locks along the Kennet and Avon canal. This is a large-scale poetry project designed to draw attention to the Bath canal as an imaginative space, and as an alternative mode of transport to cars in Bath. For more details on the project, please follow this link.

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Justin Sullivan

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Justin Sullivan

Justin Sullivan is a singer and songwriter; the founding member and lead singer of New Model Army. Formed in 1980 to play two gigs, 14 studio and four live albums later they are still going strong, releasing Winter in 2016, and currently touring South America. He also has two solo albums, and is part of Red Sky Coven, in which he performs with Joolz Denby and Rev. Hammer.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself – your background and your lifestyle.

SULLIVAN

I never tell too much about myself. It’s all out there if people really want to know…

INTERVIEWER

Music or writing as a first love – which came first, and how do they coexist in your output?

SULLIVAN

Music always came first. Like many people growing up, music made sense of the world and the mysteries of life and experience when nothing else did. I found that I had an ability to shape ideas and words later. Their coexistence is a tricky issue for me – how much precision and meaning to sacrifice for the sake of the song as a whole is a constant question. I love the ‘ideas stage’ of song-writing; that’s the easy bit – but the actual construction of songs is just a question of ‘putting the hours in’.

INTERVIEWER

Who and/or what inspires you?

SULLIVAN

Anything, everything. Things I see, read, stories that other people tell me. I try not to write too much about my own life and experiences; many songs begin with ‘I’ but really they are other people’s stories.

INTERVIEWER

You have often told of your love of being “by, in, or on the water”, and much of your work details this love. Where does this love stem from, and how does it inform your writing?

SULLIVAN

There is a physical sensation of communion when swimming in the sea or rivers because the water is moving around you, with you, almost like another sentient being. I also think that constant change is the principle of life but while forests and mountains and seasons are changing they’re not really happening in our time scale. The movement of waves and tides is much more something we can relate to.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a writing practice/system/habit?

SULLIVAN

The way we write songs is to have two cupboards. One is marked musical ideas – like drumbeats, chord sequences, bits of melody, bass-lines, jam sessions, anything collected from all members of the band. The other is marked lyrical ideas and at all time I have notebooks with me in which I write – sometimes just a line or idea, sometimes a whole story or rambling thought. When both cupboards are full I sit down and start to put things together; it’s important to wait until both cupboards are full and not be stuck in a studio scratching heads looking for inspiration. If you’ve got enough in storage the process becomes pretty easy  – again just a question of ‘putting the hours in’.

INTERVIEWER

Your writing work is sometimes cited as poetry – is there a significant difference between the poetry and lyrics in your mind, and if so, what is or are the differences?

SULLIVAN

I think there is a difference. Poetry (or at least good poetry) can have a certain musicality but it doesn’t have to be sung. The rise and fall of words can be altered by the person reading. In song-writing the melodic rises and falls are fixed and have to be right.

INTERVIEWER

Your lyrics are syntactically coherent throughout each song, and many convey full and detailed stories and sentiment. Many musicians write music first, fitting the vocal line, and thus the lyric, to the melody. What is your practice, and how does it affect the writing of lyrics, and the evolution of a song?

SULLIVAN

Mostly (though not always) I write in a recognisable form of structured verses, choruses, breaks etc into which I have to fit lyrical ideas as best I can, which takes more work and involves more hard choices.

INTERVIEWER

You and Robert Heaton worked closely with writer Joolz Denby, putting music to her poetry for several of her albums. In terms of composing music for lyrics/poetry, what do you think is most important to keep in mind?

SULLIVAN

I have done a few albums with Joolz – as have other musicians. These are particularly attractive projects because her poetry usually has a strong narrative, which allows music to be built around it – almost like a film soundtrack. On top of this she has an outstandingly musical reading voice (she once worked with a very famous Canadian jazz pianist who said it was like working with a jazz singer). We begin with the poem of course but can spend so long on the music that it’s important not to forget that in the end it’s still all about the poem…

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

SULLIVAN

No, never.

INTERVIEWER

Is language itself a love for you, or just a tool? What are your thoughts on fluidity and development of language in the age of “text speak” and emojis?

SULLIVAN

Yes, language is a fascination and I am in total admiration of certain poets and authors, but as I said at the beginning, it does come secondary to the music for me. I like the way language changes. I love text messages for their brevity and precision. I’m not especially quick-witted in conversation. So the chance to think for a minute before replying is welcome. I don’t hate emojis as some people often claim to. In wider social media (I don’t do Facebook but of course I’ve seen it often), they are essential. In normal every day human conversation we read each other’s faces as well as listen to words which is incredibly important to gauge what people really mean, whether they’re joking or not, whether they’re hurt or upset. Without this communication the possibilities for misunderstandings and the escalation of bad feeling is multiplied many times over; hence the development of emojis.

INTERVIEWER

How would you say your writing has changed through your career, and what have been the major influences on its development?

SULLIVAN

When I started, I felt a need to state positions, emotions. After the first few years, I’d done that and didn’t feel the need to repeat them. Instead it became interesting to tell stories, even those of people whom I don’t naturally agree with or find sympathetic. It goes without saying that Joolz has been the most major influence on my development as a writer but of course there have been many others too. As lyricists I really admire Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, lots of country and hip-hop artists all for their precision and poetry. Oh and many, many others.

INTERVIEWER

In Song To The Men Of England, you “co-write” with Percy Bysshe Shelly, and the social climate in the West is hugely polarised, monochromatic and angry right now – what are your thoughts on poetry and music as protest and documentation?

SULLIVAN

Well I wouldn’t say we co-wrote it. It was for a straightforward political project – I can’t remember whose idea it was to use the Shelley poem, probably Joolz’s, and we created some music that fit with her reading. Political poetry and music rarely change people’s minds but what they can do is give focus and clarity to a half-thought and, most importantly, make people aware that they’re not alone in how they feel about the World. This is incredibly important. We’ve really felt a new electrical charge at our concerts in the last 5 years or so – as if people NEED this music more than ever and the sense of community that it creates.

INTERVIEWER

When we last met, you were telling me of how you’d found a proper original punk rock recording studio in Bradford, that you were looking forward to going to. Has that bourn fruit, and if so, what and when should we expect?

SULLIVAN

A long time ago now. ‘Winter’ was made there and so will at least part of whatever we do next.

 

Are your darlings dead yet?

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Variations on the well-worn phrase “kill your darlings” have been handed down in writing workshops and guides for decades. Precisely who first coined the term is a matter of some debate, with it being attributed variously to Oscar Wilde, Chekov, G.K. Chesterton, William Faulkner and Allen Ginsberg. It has also been popularised by Stephen King, who wrote: “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

But who said what exactly and when isn’t what’s important. What matters is the advice behind it is as good as it ever has been: because it’s true.

“Killing your darlings” offers three main benefits to your work. It can:

1) Enhance your characters and plot, cutting the bits (and people) who don’t quite fit – making your story more compelling
2) Improve the overall quality of your writing, meaning that your reader doesn’t have to drudge through laborious or self-indulgent prose to get at what you’re trying to say
3) Refine your self-discipline, so that you don’t keep wondering why the 3000 page manuscript you keep submitting to agents gets rejected all the time

What to kill…we mean, cut

Killing your darlings is one of the easiest ways to improve your novel. It’s a crucial part of the editing process. Here’s a short list of what you should be getting rid of.

Weak Characters. Those without strong personalities or purpose. Do they enhance your plot or affect your protagonists or antagonists? If not – you better get-a-murdering.

Unnecessary Plot Lines. Will your novel still work just as well even if you don’t have that sub-plot with the casino and the bank heist organised by some minor characters? If yes – then, you guessed it, it’s murdering time.

Note for an example of an unnecessary plot line – see Star Wars Episode VIII: The last Jedi

Pointless Metaphors and Similes. Sometimes we feel like going even further and just saying – cut all these out.

Backstory. If it isn’t plot – cut it out.

Unnecessary Scenes. As with extra plot lines; if the scene doesn’t cut the mustard, get your killing game on.

Bad sex scenes. We have an entire web-page dedicated to this topic. Too many authors (and agents and publishers) seem to think it necessary to include sex scenes so that people will read their book. But if you’ve just stuck a sex scene in there like a bad lover, or if your execution and technique is poor, it’s time to get killing again.

Fluff. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, your novel is nothing more than fanfare. Don’t hide behind unnecessary elements that will put your readers off.

Are you killing yet?

If the above hasn’t got you thinking about what might need to be cut from the work you’re currently writing, perhaps some sage advice on the power of the delete key from some of the finest writers will convince you to start murdering your beautiful little darlings.

Anne Carson – “Edit ferociously and with joy, it is very fun to delete stuff.”

Arthur Quiller-Couch – “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings”.

Ernest Hemingway – “Revision takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty… Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much”.

Zadie Smith – “When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second — put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal — but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.”

Truman Capote – “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Kurt Vonnegut – “Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

Helen Dunmore – “Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.”

 

 

Familiar history: fascists attack bookstore in London

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With news that a small group of fascists have attacked an independent bookstore in London, it is easy to feel this may be a case of history repeating itself.

Bookmarks announced on 5 August that the store and its staff were attacked by “far right protestors wearing masks” the previous evening.

The owners of the store remained defiant, writing: “We will not let this happen! Never Again!”

Although physical damage to the store and its staff was minimal, the escalation in tactics deployed by right-wing protestors to specifically target a bookstore will appear to many to be a worrying turn of events.

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Nazis burning books in Germany

Watching the video of the attack – described as “an ambush” by one individual recording the video who appears to have the intellectual ability and wit of a rotting dog turd – certainly makes for troubling viewing.

Nothing in the Rulebook‘s very own Professor Wu said:

“Nothing in the Rulebook has previously cautioned against comparing the rise of extreme right wing groups in the US, the UK, and western Europe to the rise of fascism in the early 20th century. Yet, as a creative collective (indeed, one which even has the word ‘book’ in our name), attacking a book store is where we draw a line.

There are too many similarities between events taking place today and those witnessed by those generations before us who were forced to live through the horrors of fascism; of persecution, censorship, suppression, restriction of individual liberties, and, ultimately, genocide.

Independent bookstores like Bookmarks play a crucial role in investing in new ideas and voices to counter the prevailing cultural winds. Attacking places that allow truly free expressions of thought that seek to illuminate new ways of thinking speak to the fear those on the right have of genuine intellectualism. It is a clear sign that they fear the power of the written word; that they wish to disengage with what it represents (creativity; enlightenment; knowledge) so vehemently that they are willing to turn to violent, extreme methods of breaking free from its potential to influence and persuade those who are not so ignorant as them. Such violence is a sure sign for concern.

We now find ourselves in an age where the largest bookseller in the world pays virtually no taxes. Although Amazon allows micro-genres of fiction, such as Dinosaur Erotica, to flourish, it is no friend of the free-thinking liberal, or indeed anyone who would like to see the power of language used to fight the ignorance that threatens to bloom across the world.

At its heart, this attack was an attack on freedom of thought; not simply freedom of speech. The far-right often accuse the left of using political correctness to censor them; yet they are the ones attacking independent bookstores.

We therefore wish our comrades in Bookmarks and in independent bookstores across the world solidarity, success, and friendship. And we urge all readers to sign up to the Bookmarks solidarity event planned to take place in London. More than that – we urge you all to go out and buy books; to read books; and to go out and write them. Fascists wish to silence us, but we will not be silenced.”

As elegant as a violin

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but suddenly it would come over her, If he were here with me now what would he say? – some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people;

-Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

The first time I met Leo was one year ago, on an oddly warm night of October.

The party was in a small semi-detached house in the suburbs, not far from the train station. The small living room was already overcrowded when I arrived, and smelled strongly of smoke and beer, like every self-respecting student house during a party. There were two threadbare black sofas, a coffee table covered in half-empty plastic cups, and not a single face I recognised. In the middle of a dimly lit kitchen, a wooden dining table had been turned into a beer-pong table. At the back there was also a tiny, untidy garden, where a few people went to get fresh air or, mostly, to vomit.

He, curly-haired and not much taller than me, looked even more out of place than me, wearing a perfectly ironed shirt and a forced smile.

I had an assignment about Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis to write, and wasn’t even thinking about stepping outside my room until the end of term.

‘There’s no way you are going to miss this party,’ said Marta, blonde-haired and three years older than me, whilst the two of us squeezed in the back of a taxi.

‘I don’t even know these people.’ I tried to discourage her, despite knowing it was too late.

She pretended not to hear me, ‘we’re going to 4 Wells Terrace,’ she told the driver instead.

As I predicted, I didn’t know anyone, even though we were all students from the same year. The curly-haired boy was constantly and annoyingly waving at whoever entered the front door. His housemates – two look-alike Spanish girls and a skinny Greek boy – had arranged the party. I remember that all of them came up to me and introduced themselves as hosts, while he looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but in his own house.

‘So, Sofia, right? I’m Paula. Feel free to have beer,’ said one of the two Spanish girls, ‘and ignore Leo, he’s a bit moody tonight,’ she nodded in his direction.

‘Yeah, a beer sounds fine, thanks,’ I said and smiled, even if I hate beer and I’ve barely drunk one in my whole life.

The first thing Leo said to me during that party was so irrelevant that I don’t even remember what it was. Maybe he said he liked my dress, or I asked where the toilet was. I guess it is normal, when you have shared so many great and so many awful moments with someone, not to remember the first thing they said to you. Certainly, at one point he said to me: ‘Guess who’s going to clean up this mess? Yeah, me.’

I spent the whole night leaning against the wall of his kitchen, which was too small to contain all of us and the beer-pong table, and then Leo’s eyes, a surprisingly weird mixture of green and blue, exploring my face.

*

‘Look,’ he whispered to me one morning, in the silence of the library. He put two tickets on my desk, forcing me to look up from the book I was reading. ‘It’s a quartet. Two violins, a viola and a cello. Tonight, 7:30.’

The classical music concert was held in a bright and spacious hall, in a Georgian spa town, where the two of us went by bus on a rainy evening.

The music was filling up the hall, and I was trying so hard to push away any thought, to focus on every note of the music, to black my mind out. No matter how hard I tried, I could only feel his elbow against mine. Leo was sitting next to me, eyes closed, deeply lost in those abstract sounds, and in that actual moment I did not even exist for him: what only existed was himself and the music.

He had been studying violin since when he was a kid, fair-haired and red-cheeked, revealed by some old pictures. He then became an adolescent completely different from the others, completely devoted to his violin and little else. He always had very few friends, very little time for himself or for anyone else. I envied him for this special and visceral relationship with his musical instrument,  which had always been far more than only an object for him. That violin, its strings and its tapered handle, meant ambition and success, fear of failure, and will to reach the top.

Despite having always loved classical music, I have always been bad at playing any instrument, to the point that it became ridiculous. After a few disastrous piano lessons with a private teacher, a broken guitar and a pair of mental break-downs, I gave up and decided that I would always love the music that other people would play for me. My affection for that kind of music was something I deeply nurtured, by myself and for myself only, too afraid to fail to even commit myself to it. That exclusive relationship with an instrument was something I wanted desperately, but could never reach. For me, that night, during that concert, Leo was himself like a violin: as beautiful, as elegant as a musical instrument, and equally painfully unreachable. I was sitting next to him, closer to him than ever, his elbow against mine, but he could not see me or even hear me, over the sound of music. And ironically enough, no other situation we lived could better sum up our entire story.

After the concert we ran under the rain and got on the bus back home. I put my head on his shoulder, we stayed silent for a while. The bus was empty, I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the rain on the windows.

‘Can you hear it?’ I asked him, my eyes still closed.

‘What?’ I could feel his breath on my cheek.

‘The rain is playing for us now,’ I replied, and even if it sounds silly now, in that moment, after the concert, everything I could hear was musical.

‘Thank you for coming with me,’ he said.

*

The first time Leo played his violin for me I was sitting on his bed, cross-legged and completely speechless. Like everything that mattered in our relationship, that moment came unexpectedly. It happened by chance, with a fluidity and an astounding perfection that I have only experienced when with him.

We were having dinner at his place, the kitchen was untidy even if he used to do everything he could to keep it clean. It was me who cooked that time, because he used to say that pasta with carbonara sauce tasted different when I cooked it. I have always believed that care is what makes the difference: if made with care, everything tastes better. And every time I made pasta for both of us, I found myself putting as much care as I could into it.

‘It’s really easy! I only need two eggs and parmesan… and black pepper,’ I told him, opening his fridge as if it was my own. ‘Oh! And of course, pancetta.’

‘Can I do anything to help?’ he asked, standing in the doorframe of the kitchen, his left shoulder leaning against the jamb.

‘No, I’m happy to do it, and you can learn from a real expert,’ I replied, the pinch of pride in my voice made him laugh. He came closer and watched me carefully breaking two eggs on the edge of a bowl, and then mixing the two yolks and only one egg-white. I then added just the right quantity of parmesan and a sprinkle of black pepper powder.

‘Is that it?’

‘Almost, it’s not difficult, is it? Can you pour the boiling water from the kettle into that pan, please? We need to boil the pasta now,’ I said and opened the pack of pancetta to cook it in a frying pan, with a tiny bit of olive oil.

We ate facing each other, both perched on the stools in front of the kitchen counter, my pasta getting cold on the plate because I had too many things to tell him to stop and eat my portion.  After two or three ‘It’s getting cold! Why don’t you eat it, for God’s sake?’ he gave up and ate his share, listening to my random comments.

‘I can’t believe they’re actually planning to host another party here!’

Leo shrugged his shoulders the way he always did when he wasn’t feeling like talking.

‘Do you remember Halloween? I basically followed you around this house with a bin bag for the whole night,’ I continued, in the attempt of provoking some kind or reaction from him. ‘For the whole night.’

‘I know,’ he replied, still chewing his pasta. ‘Not the best party of my life, to be honest.’

‘And your Greek housemate is still smoking weed in his room, isn’t he? It smells disgusting,’ I said and then ate the first bite of pasta since we sat for dinner, while his plate was already empty. I finally started eating my cold pasta, whilst he talked about the new melody he was learning for a concert with the orchestra.

‘Do you think about something when you play?’ I asked, we were now standing in front of the kitchen sink, doing the washing up together.

‘Other than the musical notes themselves, do you mean?’ Leo looked up from the pan he was scrubbing, white soap bubbles on his hands.

‘Yes. Do you imagine something? Like, I don’t know, fields, mountains… or the sea,’ I said, because to me classical music had always felt as infinite, as mysterious as the sea.

He didn’t answer straight away. I kept washing the plates and the forks in the warm water, his face looked lost in far thoughts. ‘I only think about the music’ he finally said, ‘there’s only the music … and the pressure of doing the best I can.’

The house I visited for the first time during our first party now looked like a whole different place, weirdly silent and tranquil. I had been in his room only once or twice before then: it was on the second floor, small and bare, a single wide window just above his double bed, which was often left open. It smelled like fresh air and his cologne. The view from up there was ordinary and grey, on a busy road, and the noise of traffic jams could easily wake you up early in the morning. The view from that window is printed in my memory so clearly, so fiercely, and it provokes, every time I think about it, a profound sense of calm, of shelter.

‘I bought you a book,’ I said in one breath, my back leaning against the wall and my legs crossed, I was sitting on his bed. Leo did not look surprised at all, he must have known exactly what that meant. Books were for me what his violin was for him. I had spent nearly two hours in the bookshop, trying to make up my mind, to decide which book I really wanted him to read. In the end, I went for the first one I had  looked at, when I walked in the shop. I chose The Solitude of Prime Numbers: the story of two best friends that never found the courage to tell each other they were in love. The main protagonist, an aspirant mathematician, beautiful, shy and socially awkward, reminded me of him.

Whilst he unwrapped my present, his violin had been on his desk the whole time. I thought it looked strangely lifeless when not in his hands. He must have noticed that I kept looking at it with curiosity, because he said ‘do you want to hear the piece I’m playing with the orchestra on Saturday?’

He did not even wait for an answer. Before I even realised it, Leo was standing in front of me, the instrument on his left shoulder, his right hand holding the bow. The room echoed from the very first note, while I did not know exactly what to look at; whether at his beautiful and deeply focused facial expression, or at his hands on the violin. What he was doing was more intimate than anything else he could have done for me: he was establishing a connection that has never ended.

I do not remember the melody. I do not even remember what I thought about it or what I said when he finished. The only sound I remember is the sound of his breath, how he held it and then released it, in order to follow the tempo. Hold and release, hold and release, that was the intimate melody Leo played for me only.

*

Spring came, warm and unexpected, and we were laying on a field, one of the few green spaces in town. I was supposed to go to a lecture, when Leo called me saying that it was too sunny to stay inside. ‘Also,’ he added, ‘hurry up because I need to tell you exciting news!’. One hour later, I was on the bus on the way to the park, where he met me with a striped blanket and a warm smile. A chilly wind was ruffling my hair, as can happen only in a fresh afternoon of March.

‘So, tell me all the amazing news!’ I encouraged him as soon as we sat down on the blanket. He laid next to me, facing the sky.

‘I got a summer internship in Venice! Isn’t that insane?’

‘You got it!’ I hugged him, he wrapped his right arm around me. I smelled his familiar odour on his jumper.

‘It’s crazy how fast this year is going,’ I said at last. My jacket rolled under my head to make an impromptu pillow, the sun on my face and Leo’s eyes so close that I could not see anything else, I felt like I had suddenly woken up after a hibernation.

‘It is. But I’m excited to see my school mates again for spring break.’ He told me about his friends, how he knew most of them from elementary school, how they had some kind of tradition of spending New Year’s Eve together, how they went on holiday in Greece the summer before.

‘So this guy, Nick, is your best friend, right?’ my head was now placed on his chest and he was playing with my hair, I enjoyed the light touch of his fingertips.

‘Yes, but I don’t think he’ll be there during spring break. Things are complicated with his girlfriend. She lives in another city, you know…’ I noticed indecision in his voice.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘I mean that things are often complicated when you’re with someone.’

‘Are they? I don’t get your point.’ I moved so I could look at his face, he stopped playing with my hair.

‘It feels like they only have each other, nothing else exists, do you get what I mean?’ Leo said, and I thought it was a beautiful thing to say. But for some reason his voice tone didn’t match the words he was saying.

‘Isn’t that beautiful, though?’ I answered, ‘I mean, having such a relationship with someone.’

‘I guess. I don’t know, I’ve never been in a proper relationship.’ He didn’t look at me in the eyes.

‘Because you didn’t want one?’ I asked, almost without thinking. I regretted it right afterwards.

‘Because I feel that my freedom is more important.’ He sounded serious, his gaze was lost in the blue sky above us, so I looked up as well, trying to see what he was looking at.

‘But being in a relationship doesn’t mean you can’t be free.’ I sat up, his eyes followed me, he could see my silhouette against the clear, bright sky. My words slipped out of my mouth so easily: ‘I feel I know a lot about you. But still, there’s something I don’t get. You do not entirely open up to me.’

He looked at me through his dark sunglasses and waited, then I heard again his luminous laughter. ‘I think it is because I am not prepared. I am not ready for –’ he opened his arms, as to include the two of us, the blanket, the sun and the astonishing spontaneity of it all, ‘ – this’. I lay down next to him, silent: all I could see was the blue of the sky above us. We stayed on that blanket until the sun went down and we started feeling cold.

*

The first and last time I got drunk was because of Leo. We were out celebrating the birthday of Rose, my Portuguese friend, in an busy pub, of which I do not even remember the name. I only remember it had a terrace, from which, on clear nights, you could see the stars. At midnight she blew the candles on her cake, and we drank champagne. Neither Leo or I could really tolerate alcohol. After a few rounds of a drinking game that involved us drinking straight vodka or answering embarrassing questions, all our inhibitions were gone. All the walls I hadn’t been able to overcome broke down. All I wanted was knowing what he felt. All I wanted to know was if he could feel my elbow against his during that concert. If he could see the care I put in preparing pasta for him. If he understood that freedom is also choosing to share your life with someone else.

I kissed Leo on the lips out on that terrace, in front of the stars, the wind blowing through my hair. He kissed me back, he tasted like the champagne we drank together. It was a pure, chaste kiss, the only one we have ever shared.

That night, we slept in the same bed. I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow, his left arm, where his violin usually rested, now around my shoulders. I, even if for one night only, took the place of his violin. I felt, even if for one night only, as important, as beautiful, as elegant as a violin.

The sounds of the traffic out of the window woke me up a few minutes past 7 a.m., my head spinning around and my stomach upset. Flashbacks of the night before, of the candles, of the music, of Leo’s hand in my hand, of us on the bus back to his flat, came to me and made me feel nauseous.

I remember him saying ‘please, come home with me, I need you to come with me,’ and then his arm around my waist and his eyes deeper than the sea, and his voice louder than any music he had ever played for me.

‘But if you come with me, promise me you won’t expect anything,’ he continued, and I promised myself I would enjoy the moment, without thinking about anything else.

When the morning came, I felt emptier and more confused than ever before. Leo was still asleep next to me, covered in white sheets, looking peaceful, helpless, oblivious. He had long, fair eyelashes. His blonde hair was messy on his forehead.  I kissed his naked shoulder but he didn’t wake up.

*

When I went to Venice, it was summer, thirty-nine degrees Celsius, and Leo was at the station, waiting for me to get off the train. We spent forty-seven hours together in Venice: I believe I’ve counted them to make them seem more real.

We sat on the steps of a bridge and ate Chinese food from a take-away bag. Leo ate his and my portion too, I was busy enough telling him how much I loved the city and pointing out tourist attractions on a map to have a single bite of food.

‘It’s so busy today! Is every day like this?’ I felt naïve, as if I was seeing the world for the first time. From the bridge, I observed the boats and the gondolas full of tourists in the canal, and people walking on the fondamenta – Leo taught me that was the name of the streets in Venice – or sitting at tiny tables in front of the many bars, drinking orange Spritz.

‘It is, and it’s exhausting, especially when it’s hot like today. But, you’ll see, at night Venice is even more beautiful,’ he answered.

‘Is it even possible?’ I handed him my take-away bag.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to eat more?’

‘I am, go on.’

‘I like it better at night. All the bars close and all the one-day tourists go back to the mainland. It becomes empty, noiseless,’ he said and finished my food. I looked again at the map and tried to figure out how to reach Piazza San Marco from where we were.     He convinced me to go on a ride on a gondola, his hand sustaining me whilst we boarded the wobbly boat. The sun was slowly going down and the canals reflected the shades of orange and pink like I had only seen in paintings.

At night we wandered around the city, the damp air smelled like sea-salt and  algae and I could not feel my feet anymore, but I did not care. I could have walked until sunrise. Leo was right. When night comes the city becomes silent, it looks almost abandoned, unreal, like the deserted setting of a noir film. I was out of breath. The only thing I could hear was the echo of our footsteps and of our laughter, and the occasional sound of a lonely boat in the canal. The only relief for my sunburnt cheeks was the fresh, salty air of the night. When we felt tired, we sat down on the ground, which was still warm from the hot day which had just finished, and watched the reflections of the lights in the water, without saying a word. Venice was all for us that night.

After forty-six hours, Leo took me to the train station. The city was bursting again and the magic was over. I kissed him goodbye in front of the train, touching his lips briefly, because I knew he would have not kissed me back. I have learnt that goodbyes are always bitter-sweet.

*

Leo called me on the phone one evening. I was busy so I did not answer. It was October once again. He called me twice. I picked it up the third time, it must be something important, I thought.

‘Hi Sofia,’ he said. He was crying on the other side of the phone. ‘I have to tell you something, can you talk?’

I closed the book I was reading and told him that, yes, I could talk. I had missed him. I just can’t help it, when I hear someone I love crying, I start crying as well. Some call it empathy. I guess it’s never comforting for the other person, I get puffy eyes and I’m not good at giving advice, so I’m not sure I’m really empathetic.

‘Tell me,’ I said, a first teardrop on my cheek.

‘Sorry for not being in touch.’

‘That’s alright Leo, we are both busy,’ I said, even though I’ve always thought that it’s the most pathetic excuse ever invented.

‘I should have called you.’

I remained silent, trying not to give away the fact that I was crying too.

‘Do you remember?’ he asked, ‘Do you remember that we kissed and then you slept next to me and –’

‘I do, of course I do. And?’ I pressed my phone closer to my ear.

‘– And nothing happened. We just slept. And do you remember Venice?’

‘I do remember Venice.’

‘Let me speak, please, it’s hard.’

‘I am just answering your questions.’

‘Just listen, ok? Don’t answer. Nothing happened, even though I love you, and I know that what we have is unique, and you are the only one who understands, and I’ve tried, I swear I’ve tried.’

‘But?’

‘But it didn’t work. It didn’t work. It will never work. I have tried. I can’t give you what you want.’

*

Leo told me he liked a boy during high school. He was a class-mate, had beautiful, intense brown eyes and never knew about this. No one knew, because Leo had always been too afraid to reveal it to anybody. Despite having known it since forever, it was then that it became reality. He told me he tried to date girls, because after all, they seemed fine. It seemed easier. In the last year of high school, he went out to a club with his mates and kissed a girl he had never seen before, because the other boys were doing the same. He felt guilty for months.

Leo told me how he had never properly dated neither a girl or a boy, because he was too scared. He was not ready. ‘My dad could have a stroke if I told him, I think,’ he sighed, then waited for few seconds. I realised I was holding my breath. I thought about his dad, he had a white beard and worked as a dentist. I also thought about his mum. I had met her once, she had offered me coffee and asked me about my degree. She looked a lot like him, same green eyes, same passion for classical music. ‘But I have told my mum. She asked if it’s only a moment. She hopes it will pass.’

Leo told me how he thought I was the right person, the only one who could finally help him through this. ‘I tried,’ he said ‘because if I could decide who to love, it would have been you.’ I was listening, silently crying, ignoring his do you remembers and do you understands, as they evidently were rhetorical questions. ‘If I could decide who to love, it would have been anyone but you,’ I thought, but did not say a word.

I cried a lot. But I did not cry out of pain or despair.

‘Why are you crying? Did you expect this?’ Leo asked after a brief silence. ‘Say something.’

‘I am so glad,’ I said at last. I watched my own reflection in the mirror and I dried the black teardrops of mascara on my cheeks with the sleeve of the jumper I was wearing. ‘I’m so glad I met you.’

‘You know there’s nothing wrong with you,’ he continued.

‘I know,’ I replied.

That evening, Leo called me on the phone and we were both broken, rifted, cracked. But they say that a crack is where the light comes in.

 

About the author

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Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.