Creatives in profile: interview with Paul Scraton

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Paul Scraton is a writer and editor who grew up in Lancashire in the north of England and now lives in Berlin, Germany. Among various projects, Paul is the Editor in Chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and also contributes to Slow Travel BerlinCaught by the River. The author of Ghosts on the Shore: Travels Along Germany’s Baltic Coast, his fiction debut is  Built on Sand (published by Influx Press), which paints a picture of Berlin through a series of interconnected short stories; and in this, we discover a city three decades on from the fall of the wall, and in many ways still coming to terms with that history.

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

I am a British-born writer based in Berlin. I have been living in the German capital since 2002. I feel at home both in the north of England and in Germany, and I feel an outsider in both at the same time. As a writer, I don’t think it’s a bad place to be.

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

I have wanted to be a writer since I was about seventeen or eighteen, and although I have lots of interests, mainly involving getting outdoors, books and literature remain very important to me.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

SCRATON

Family and friends, of course, and each of them in their own unique way. When it comes to writing, it changes frequently, depending on what I am reading! At the moment I am thinking a lot about how history shapes the present, and how the stories of the past, and our knowledge of them, are particularly important in the current political climate. In this I have been thinking a lot recently about the writings of Joseph Roth and Daša Drndić. When it comes to writing on place, a long-term inspiration is Jan Morris. Her writing combines an interest in others with sharp observation, two of the most important components, I think, in any successful literature of place.

INTERVIEWER

How has your time as editor of the Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, influenced the way you view the relationship between place and imagination? And how important a role does setting play in your own creative writing?

SCRATON

I think the fact that I was already interested in place and how the stories of a landscape and people can shape our understanding not only of that specific location but elsewhere is one of the main reasons that I founded the journal with Julia Stone. When it comes to my own writing, whether fiction, nonfiction or something in between, my main themes are history, memory and identity, and as such place is at the core of nearly everything I commit to paper.

INTERVIEWER

It has been said that events like the Brexit vote in the UK have brought to light the differences between so-called ‘anywhere’s’ and ‘somewhere’s – i.e. people who essentially view themselves as citizens of the world, with no particular attachment to their home town or country of origin, and those who view the world directly through the prism of their geographic origins. Do you subscribe to this as an accurate view? Or is this polarity too simplistic a view to take?

SCRATON

I think there is something going on here that needs to be understood, but I imagine it is more complex than a simple divide between citizens of ‘somewhere’ and Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere.’ I think there is a certain sense of dislocation feeding dissatisfaction for many people, not only in the UK but elsewhere. There is a difference in the populist movements that can be observed in the US, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Italy, Poland… but one common thread is a kind of nostalgia for a rooted sense of belonging that communities supposedly had in the past. And that globalisation and all that comes with it have broken the ties that bound a community together.

This is the danger of nostalgia, that it in turn creates a sense of ‘belonging’ and identity that is exclusive rather than inclusive. That it idealises a non-existent golden era that could be returned to. People call these movements new, but there is very little in them that we haven’t seen before. What is new is the role of the internet and the media, and how it allows dangerous ideas to spread and take hold. And whenever people are split, into somewhere and nowhere, us and them, it is always important to ask: in whose interest are we being divided? It is very rarely the people themselves.

On a personal level, I would like to think of myself as both a ‘citizen of everywhere’ and, as someone born in a different country to the one where I’ve made my home, a person committed to being a ‘citizen of somewhere’ in that I want to be part of my community and understand the stories and the history that brought us to where we are in Berlin and Germany today. I have no doubt that it is possible to be both, to be both internationalist and local in outlook.

INTERVIEWER

When writing, can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank page to fully fledged story or novel?

SCRATON

I make a lot of notes. I think a lot. I go for a walk or a run. I spend a lot of time looking and feeling like I am not doing very much at all. But I have always been someone who likes to have a plan, have it fixed – whether in my head or on paper – what it is I am going to do. So it can take a while to get to the blank page (or computer screen) but then when I get there I tend to write quite quickly as I have worked most of the problems out already.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide when a piece of writing is ‘finished’?

SCRATON

I think I have to get to a draft I am not totally unhappy with. That is usually after two or three goes at it. Then I give it to my partner Katrin, who is always my first reader and who has an excellent bullshit and pretension detector, and whose judgement I trust more than any other. Basically when she gives the green light I feel comfortable to send it off, to the editor or to post it on my blog or whatever. If she tells me its not working, I’ll probably argue with her for a bit, go quiet, and then return to my desk because deep down I know she was right after all.

INTERVIEWER

Your fiction debut Built on Sand will be published in April this year. What has the experience of firstly writing the book, and then seeing it published, been like?

SCRATON

This is the second book I have written for my publishers Influx Press, and so I knew how the practicalities would work. My editor, Gary Budden, is someone who I greatly respect both as a publisher but also as a writer. We share many common interests and outlook on the world and in particular how we write about it (although our styles are different). So when I came up with the idea of a collection of stories set in Berlin and the landscapes around, I felt that it would be a project he would be interested in and would be able to help me realise. What changed during the writing and the editing process was the realisation that what I had – what we had – was actually a novel, that although each story could stand alone, together they told a wider story.

The second time around (and the book is not out at the time of writing) it is interesting to see how much easier it has been to get people to notice the book. I don’t know if it is because it is the second book, if it is because it is a novel (and set in Berlin, which must surely help), or if it is because the publishers are a more established name themselves… most likely it is a combination of all of the above.

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for the book?

SCRATON

All the main hopes were in the writing and bringing it to publication, and they’ve been fulfilled. Of course, I hope people discover it and like what I have written. And I hope that some of the themes in the book will resonate, and will make people think about their own relationships to place, and how history and memory, both collective and personal, shape our understanding of the world around us.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a writer?

SCRATON

Only in that I am still trying to find the best way to say what it is I want to say, so my responsibility is to keep working on it.

INTERVIEWER

In an age of ‘abject’ incomes for authors and poets, how can aspiring creatives pursue their passions while also making ends meet?

SCRATON

I think we all have to accept that – with the exception of the very few – most of us will need to do other work to pay the bills. I do copywriting and other bits and pieces for travel companies and content agencies. I do walking tours on the streets of Berlin (which has certainly been good for honing the storytelling skills).  I don’t really have an answer because I still know that I am one of the lucky ones. I have time to write. I can make time to travel. I have a supportive partner. There are people with much more difficult circumstances than mine who create amazing things, and I am in awe of them. The deeper question is, why do we as society not value art and music and literature in a way that means that artists, musicians and writers can live from their work? Because the danger is that the majority of voices we will hear will increasingly come from a privileged minority, those who can afford, one way or the other, to “pursue their passions”. This will have the knock-on effect of only increasing the idea that the arts are for the few and not for the many.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your writing? Are there any exciting projects we should be looking out for?

SCRATON

I have started the next novel and have some loose ideas for nonfiction books, one set in the north of England and the other in the hills of Germany. All three books will no doubt continue to explore ideas of history, memory, identity and place. As I answered earlier: I am still trying to work out the best way to say what it is I want to say.

 

 

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Creatives in profile: interview with Ben Armstrong

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Ben Armstrong is a poet from the West Midlands, UK, who specialises in surrealist, hyper-real and absurdist pieces. An alumnus of the renown Warwick University Writing Programme, his poem ‘The Year of the Apple’ was featured in The Apple Anthology (Nine Arches Press, 2013), shortlisted for Best Anthology in the Saboteur Awards. His debut collection Perennial is out now through Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, and has drawn praise from a number of right-on poets and publications, including Luke Kennard, George Ttoouli, and David Morley, as well as the magazines Eye Flash Poetry, and Here Comes Everyone (oh, and ourselves, of course).

In the large hadron collider that is Perennial, Armstrong challenges the reader to embrace unpredictability and recognise order within otherwise apparent disorder, in what is an extremely fun, engaging, witty and anarchic poetry collection. Given that we love witty anarchy as much as the next creative collective (it’s among the best kinds of anarchy if you ask us), we were thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Armstrong himself and add him to our community of creatives who have shared their stories and innermost secrets with us.

INTERVIEWER

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

ARMSTRONG

I was born in the Black Country, West Midlands, in the early 1990s and still live locally. We’re famous for our pork scratchings, ale, canals and the steel industry (amongst other things). I grew up in Stourbridge, which doesn’t have so much of an accent – people tend to find it hard to place me unless they’re familiar with the Midlands. I’ve just bought a house with my partner so my current lifestyle is mostly settling in there, working, keeping fit and writing for my next book.

INTERVIEWER

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

ARMSTRONG

Music is my biggest passion although I’m a much more perceptive listener than a musician. I was in a band for a few years recently and I spent so much time listening to our mixes, tweaking my EQ – focusing on the really minute details. I loved designing our album booklet and packaging. I guess a lot of people would find that stuff boring? For me, the beauty has always been in the detail. In this way, my love for poetry and music stem from the same place. They’re both very liberating mediums that I can really get stuck into them on a micro level, whilst still having a finished piece at the end of the process.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

ARMSTRONG

On the whole, people who really dedicate themselves to their art. I find that highly commendable, especially in the modern world where money doesn’t exactly come easily for most artists. I’m inspired also by people who have a very strong artistic vision and stick to it, especially across a collection of pieces. We live in quite a quick-fire culture but I still really value full-length collections, records, etc. that tell a story or carry a vibe across a substantial body of work. You can spot these people a mile away and they tend to have long, varied and diverse careers in art.

INTERVIEWER

The structure of your poems is often experimental, while the content blurs vibrant, intricate language with both pop culture references and classical analogy. How do you see the balance or relationship between modern and classical? Are we living in a world of post-post modernism? Or have we simply run out of the terms to adequately express and describe our contemporary cultural trends and styles?

ARMSTRONG

We’re living in an age of pastiche. This is the first time that our entire existence as human beings has become self-referential. It feels like we’re finally letting go of the concept of ‘time’ – the whole thing has just become delineated. Courtesy of technology, the recent past may as well be right now. The distant past is as accessible as what I did last week. People are always creating new art, but the leading trend seems to be recontextualisation. We’re a race of curators, of remixers and remodellers. I think that my poetry and Perennial especially speaks to that. My aim is to make sense of the chaos, somehow.

INTERVIEWER

When writing poetry, can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank page to fully fledged poem?

ARMSTRONG

Nearly always, a line or phrase will just drop into my mind. If I choose to pursue it, I can feel the tangents pulling off from the original seed and urging me to get to a computer or pick up a pen. From there, I write quickly to capture as much as possible and edit as I go. I tend not to move on until I’m happy with a line although if I end up at a dead end, I’ll consider some radical changes to the structure to jump-start the process. I favour using a computer because I can get a better ‘feel’ for the visual element of the poem.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide when a poem is ‘finished’?

ARMSTRONG

This one is down to intuition. Mostly it’ll be when it feels right, visually. I really champion the visual aspect of the poem on the page – it really steers my decision making throughout the entire writing process. Certain ideas just need to ‘look’ a certain way. Some need to slink down, some appear to me as very horizontal and aggressive, others flutter like a burst bag of feathers. I’m not entirely sure why I feel the need to act on these but I do and it’s a big part of why I love writing poetry. I suppose I’d compare it to how a chef arranges a plate. Certain choices are dictated by things other than logic. Why does the onion need to sit just so? It just does.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently published your debut collection, Perennial. Can you tell us a little about the work, and the experience of putting it together? How did you first conceive of the idea, and how did it evolve?

ARMSTRONG

Perennial has been in the works for a very long time now. I started writing poems for it in around 2012 on a coach to visit my uncle in Scotland. It was never intended to be my first collection – it is actually a spin-off to a bigger, larger story – but it just so happened that I finished it first. The collection is a diary of sorts written by an unnamed character who finds himself lost on a strange island. In a narrative sense it functions as a backstory for the character, but it’s a real book within this fictional world, too. Characters from my other poems have read Perennial. The interesting part for me is that due to a complete lack of contextual information, a first-time reader is going to be pretty baffled by it. I wanted to create this underlying sense that its part of something bigger but never really state that outright. The next book will unlock a lot of the secrets in this one.

INTERVIEWER

We live in a time when language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power. This is a time of ‘alt-facts’, an Orwellian landscape in which language is a tool of deception and demagoguery. What role do you see poetry playing in an age of ‘fake news’ and social media trolling?

ARMSTRONG

The reliability and ‘usefulness’ of poetry is always going to be a grey area. I frequently misuse and manipulate language for different purposes. The difference, I suppose, is that I don’t have an agenda. I’m not trying to make you think or feel a certain way, politically or socially speaking. I think modern poetry will continue as it has done for a while – to inspire the few and confuse the many.

INTERVIEWER

Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre, poetry has been used as a tool to provide a voice for the powerless and inspire movements and action against the powerful. What are your thoughts on the idea of ‘poetry as protest’?

ARMSTRONG

I think poetry can be used as a tool for those purposes – It’s probably one of the better mediums for it. Of course, it depends entirely on the person writing it, their motivations and the reader’s own interpretation. Performance poetry isn’t really my thing but it’s undeniably effective at bringing together communities and giving people a voice.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a poet?

ARMSTRONG

Not as a poet so much as a person writing poetry. We’re all personally responsible for the impact we make on the world.  I write primarily for myself and to do justice to the story I’m telling with each collection I put out. My main responsibility is to let the poems go wherever they want to. In spite of this, I do try and promote the things I think are important through my work, too.

INTERVIEWER

In an age of ‘abject’ incomes for authors and poets, how can aspiring creatives pursue their passions while also making ends meet?

ARMSTRONG

I’d say just do it and keep doing it and keep finding ways to continue to do it. I find it easiest to keep my passions and sources of income separate, but mutually beneficial. I do a lot of writing for my day job, and this keeps me sharp for my poetry.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your poetry? Are there any exciting projects we should be looking out for?

ARMSTRONG

As I mentioned earlier, Perennial, is getting a companion collection which should be finished towards the end of Summer. I’m really proud of what I have so far for it; it’s a lot more playful and experimental than Perennial was. Euripides is the biggest influence on it as a whole. I have an incredible artist working with me on the cover design and some internal illustrations too. We’re currently just working on some initial ideas but I can’t wait to pull everything together. 

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite poem?

ARMSTRONG

It would have to be The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot.

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies?

ARMSTRONG

Mood dependant! I don’t really read to relax so probably the movie more often than not.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ARMSTRONG

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated poet?

ARMSTRONG

David Morley. I’m biased because he was my tutor, but in my mind, David stands up against the great pastoral poets of the past. Calling him underrated might be selling him short, but he should definitely be even more known than he is.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated poet?

ARMSTRONG

Because of how widely he’s taught, probably Shakespeare. Not all of his work has aged gracefully and I never had him down as a particularly great poet.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

ARMSTRONG

This is a really tough question, given that so many poets are unknown in the greater scheme of things. I’d probably say Jonty Tiplady. I love Zam Bonk Dip, his debut collection. I’m not aware of what he’s done since, but this has inspired me to revisit him! Outside of the poetry world, I recommend that people check out the ambient musician Tim Hecker. His sonic landscapes are just so expressive.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ARMSTRONG

I’m really good at recalling the specific release years of records. I can also recite Pi up to 50 digits after me and a friend decided to see who could learn it to more decimal places. I’m not even sure why I can still remember it – that was fifteen years ago.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ARMSTRONG

“Thank you”

“Thank you?”

“Thank you.”

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for aspiring poets?

ARMSTRONG

Don’t be afraid to write bad poetry, just write something. It can take years to finish a poem. It can take one minute to finish a different poem. Avoid saying things that have already been said because you think you should say them. Try to write without using any similes. Put effort into your book cover. Remember to title your documents. Performing live doesn’t have to be the goal if you don’t want it to be. Revel in your rejection letters. Aim high.

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Martina Devlin

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Back in January, Nothing in the Rule Book had the chance to review Martina Devlin’s tenth book, a collection of short stories, entitled ‘Truth and Dare’. The stories follow eleven pioneering women from Irish history, pulling moments from their lives and reimagining them in fiction. Each story is an invitation into the life of a historical figure but we wanted to know more about the woman behind the book: Martina herself.

A former Fleet Street journalist, Martina was born in Omagh and now lives in Dublin. She writes for the Irish Independent and was named National Newspapers of Ireland Columnist of the Year. Her fiction is ambitious and covers a wide range of genres and themes. From About Sisterland, a dystopian novel set in the near-future, to The House Where It Happened, historical fiction based on the Irish witch trials of 1711, her writing is ambitious and creative, steeped in dedicated research.

Her work has won or been shortlisted for several prestigious several prizes, including the 1996 Hennessy Literary Award and the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize. We were lucky enough to be able to catch up with Martina a second time, to find out more about her background, her inspiration and her writing.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about your background.

DEVLIN

I’m a child of the Troubles. I grew up in Omagh, Co Tyrone when civil war for a prolonged period was our normal – random bomb attacks, heavily armed soldiers on the streets, roadblocks, no-go areas, dawn raids on houses by security forces, helicopters buzzing overhead and civilians treated as collateral damage in large scale violence. My parents protected us from it as much as possible but violence was a fact of everyday life.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love?

DEVLIN

Storytelling certainly is. I regard myself as a storyteller whether I’m engaged in journalism or creative non-fiction or fiction. As a little girl I was always telling stories to told my family and writing them down in copybooks. I also illustrated my stories, rather badly but with an enthusiastic use of colour. I still have one of my notebooks – it shows no early signs of genius but, rather, a fascination with what my characters were having for tea. Enid Blyton was able to carry that off with picnics and all sorts of foodie high jinks but I wasn’t. However, I realised that research mattered and I used to go to Mrs Quinn’s sweetshop near our house and write down the names of various goodies. Although the shop no longer exists, I can’t pass the building without thinking of all those chocolate animals and jelly shapes I used to buy with a few small coins.

INTERVIEWER

What would you be if not a writer?

DEVLIN

A politician because politics can effect change. The Good Friday Agreement is proof of that. But the whip system is exerted too ruthlessly and I know I’d struggle with that – for me, conscience would always trump how any party leadership decided to vote on an issue. So I expect that eventually I’d be expelled from whichever party I joined. I’ve never belonged to any political party. I’m too much of an outsider, an observer. But I do see that politics is a powerful way of driving change and making a difference in people’s lives.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

DEVLIN

My parents. My father, in particular, had a great respect for reading, learning and storytelling – the power of the story – and he shared that love with me. I remember long car journeys as a child, going from our home in Omagh to my mother’s place of birth in Co Limerick, and both parents passed the journey for us with stories. The oral tradition was strong in our family.

My father never felt hard done by, he had a gentle nature, but there’s no doubt he was a clever man unable to get on in life because of the unjust political situation in Northern Ireland which denied him opportunities. He wasn’t able to vote until he was in his mid-thirties, for example – you had to be a householder but housing was in the control of the ruling majority which didn’t believe in sharing. That’s why the civil rights movement started in 1968. My mother lost the right to vote when she moved to Omagh. Isn’t that extraordinary? Both Dublin and London looked the other way for many decades of Northern Ireland’s existence.

My father had to leave school at the age of 12 to work as a message boy – Grandad was more or less an invalid and the family needed my father’s wage to help them survive. By the time I came along, he was a bus driver and worked very hard to raise seven children – as did my mother in the home – and if I have a work ethic I inherited it from them.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you find inspiration?

DEVLIN

If I knew the answer to that I’d bottle it and keep it on my desk. I honestly don’t know. Reading, thinking, looking, thinking some more?

INTERVIEWER

You describe the women featured in ‘Truth and Dare’ as your heroes. Is there some shared quality that earns them this distinction?

DEVLIN

Their vision and persistence. They recognised injustice and struggled to overturn it. They believed they could bring about change and wanted to make it happen not just for their own benefit but for others. They collaborated to achieve their goals, chipping away at enormous obstacles – both from the system, or the community at large, and their own families. It’s always hard to challenge the status quo but they did. Often, they were demonised for their behaviour but they knew they were right and kept faith.

INTERVIEWER

Is there one woman from the book whose life you find particularly moving or instructive? If so, why?

DEVLIN

Mary Ann McCracken because she was loyal and courageous and believed in the strength of her convictions. In 1798, she walked with her brother Henry Joy McCracken to the gallows – now that required pluck – and took responsibility for his natural daughter after his death, insisting the little girl should be recognised by the family. Also she believed in doing what was right in other ways, for example refusing to eat sugar because of the slave trade. She was a successful businesswoman and ran a muslin manufacturing business with her sister to give employment to poor Belfast people, and the pair of them absorbed the losses during slack periods rather than lay workers off. She wanted children to be educated and helped to support a school, she was part of a campaign to stop boys being used as chimney sweeps and she spoke out about cruelty to animals. Her empathy and energy ranged far and wide. This woman was a rock of decency: Protestantism at its most ethical.

INTERVIEWER

Who did you feel you were writing the book for?

DEVLIN

People who didn’t know much about the women I chose to include in the collection, people for whom they were only names, if that – but who might be intrigued and go off and learn more about them. There’s magic in fiction. I hoped the stories would help to breathe life into extraordinary figures who have shaped the world we live in. Women have pockets in our clothes because of the Rational Dress Movement. We can vote because of the suffrage movement. Let’s not take it all for granted.

INTERVIEWER

Feminism has changed so much since the time of the women in your book – 2018 saw the Irish Abortion Referendum. How does being a woman in Ireland now compare to the lives of women a hundred years ago?

DEVLIN

I’m convinced women from a hundred years ago would be disappointed by the slow pace of change, although there have been improvements in recent years – quotas have increased the number of women TDs. But there are still only four female Cabinet ministers out of 15. As it happens, I brought Countess Markievicz back from the dead in one of my stories (What Would The Countess Say?)  to cast a cold eye over the state of politics today. She’s aghast to discover there’s been no female Taoiseach in the history of the Irish State. It doesn’t look imminent, either, with no female leader of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in the history of either party. When you consider that she was the second Cabinet minister in the world and the first in Europe (back as 1919), we can see the trailblazing ground to a halt. Women of enormous talent, with a real contribution to make, weren’t given a look in.

Incidentally, Countess Markievicz has taken on a life of her own apart from the short story collection and a play based on the story is being debuted at Dalkey Heritage Centre in Dublin on April 2nd – the centenary, to the day, of her appointment as Minister for Labour.

INTERVIEWER

How does writing a collection of short stories compare to writing a novel?

DEVLIN

It’s less of a long haul – I liked the variety of working on short stories rather than the concentrated focus of a novel. Sometimes you can feel overwhelmed by a novel.

INTERVIEWER

Were any of the stories in the collection particularly difficult to write? If so, why?

DEVLIN

The really difficult one was the story about Nano Nagle, who founded the Presentation order, because I struggled to imagine myself as a nun. But I hope I did justice to her and her selfless work for the poor of Cork. The stories are all first person or close third so I had to feel an empathy with those I wrote about. One or two women didn’t make the final cut because I didn’t manage that act of ventriloquism. I was nearly there but the clock was against me deadline wise. Perhaps another time.

INTERVIEWER

What makes you angry?

DEVLIN

The risk from Brexit of a hard border undermining peace in Ireland. I can’t say any more, I might burst a blood vessel. Oh, all right, I’ll just say this. Project Fear was the most perfidious phrase to put into people’s hands by the Leave campaign…it allowed them to avoid dealing with inconvenient facts.

INTERVIEWER

What makes you hopeful?

DEVLIN

The shameless self-interest of our cat Chekhov. When he wants something, he weaves figures of eight between your legs, tripping you up. When he can’t be bothered with you, if you try to stroke him he slinks down almost to his (considerable) belly to avoid your hand. It’s all on his terms. Why does that make me hopeful? Nature gives most of us the tools we need to survive. With cats, it’s winning ways – when it suits them. I admire their indifference to us.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any writers you envy?

DEVLIN

No, everyone who gets published is lucky, regardless of how well or otherwise a book does. I know I’m fortunate and I don’t take it for granted.

INTERVIEWER

To what extent do you feel stories should be morally instructive?

DEVLIN

Ouch! You have to sneak in the moral if you’re bent on having one, and I confess I often am. The minute it’s obvious, though, you and your moral are toast.

INTERVIEWER

If you could go back, what advice would you give yourself as you started out on your writing career?

DEVLIN

Listen carefully to all the conflicting advice you’re given, mull it over and make up your own mind.

INTERVIEWER

What frustrates you about writing?

DEVLIN

The days when nothing comes. The days when I start to doubt a story I’m working on. If I don’t believe in them, who will?

INTERVIEWER

What is the best thing about writing?

DEVLIN

I love the characters who spring from my fingertips. I know this makes me sound like a hapless channel for some external intelligence producing the work. But honestly, sometimes – on a good day – characters just muscle in unexpectedly. And I say to myself, well who are you?

INTERVIEWER

What are you working on next?

DEVLIN

A novel about Edith Somerville of Somerville and Ross fame – they were Victorian ladies who charted the demise of their Ascendancy class even as it was happening. I find them interesting for at least five reasons, if not more. But I’ll spare you the dissertation and stop at five. Number one, because Ross was a unionist while Somerville developed a nationalist position. Number two, because they worked in partnership (dual voices combining to create one memorable voice). Number three because they understood the value of authentic dialect. Number four because of their humour. And number five because they insisted they were professional writers, not dilettantes, had one of the first literary agents and demanded to be treated with respect.

 

 

 

 

A Writer’s Guide to Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons Dice

Pssst… are you playing Dungeons & Dragons yet? In case you didn’t know, it’s not just for ‘nerds’ any more, hiding in their bedrooms with stacks upon stacks of impenetrable lore. These days, D&D has experienced a massive resurgence — partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things — and is now the focus of some of the most watched podcasts on the internet, played by stars like Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello, Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll and action superstar Vin Diesel. Groups across the country are springing up and struggling to make room for massive influxes of players.

That’s because D&D is buckets of fun, but it’s also a fantastic tool for writers, allowing them to sharpen their craft without even thinking about it. I started playing D&D around 18 months ago — first as a player-character, and then embarking on a year-long campaign as the group’s dungeon master. The benefit for writers is present on both sides of the screen, whether you’re taking your Level 5 Fighter for a romp through the Underdark or plotting your players’ demise at the hands of Strahd von Zarovich, so whichever way you’re taking part, there’s plenty of opportunity to learn a thing or two.

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D&D has seen a massive resurgence in recent years, partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things

But wait, the treasure’s over this way!

As a player or a dungeon master (DM, if you’re being technical about it), one of the first things you’ll need to get down is improvising, and being quick about it. When there are multiple voices at the table, and dragons have gotta get slain, there’s no time for extensive debate. So, if the DM throws in an assassination attempt on your way back to Waterdeep, or your party’s dwarven warlock decides to hijack the party’s boat, you need to figure out how you’re going to react.

That quick-fire storytelling can be really helpful when it comes to your own writing, especially when you find characters wandering off in their own direction, or a plot thread that seems to be steadily gaining a life of its own. Don’t be afraid to see where the rabbit hole takes you; a little improv can take your story in new and exciting directions.

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As with writing, mastering D&D requires preparation – especially if your DM happens to enjoy curveballs (or, indeed, balls of any description)

Preparation is key

 Playing the role of the DM? You’ll need to make sure you’re prepared for your next session. Even if you’re running a module, also known as a pre-written campaign, you’ll need to read through the sections you’ll be handling before your session. It’s often helpful to draft a few pieces of dialogue or something to set the scene, and having that ‘prep time’ in mind can give you the perfect excuse to carve out time in your weekly schedule to write.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably toss out about 70% of what you had planned for the session, based on how your group react, but that’s okay — after all, that’s what editing is like most of the time.

Accents maketh the monk

D&D is also your opportunity to do really, really silly accents. I’m currently playing a Grave Cleric called Gwendolyn who sounds like she’s from Merthyr Tydfil, and while it may seem like an excuse to play the fool, giving my character an accent is one extra level of separation for me. As soon as I start talking like Gwendolyn, I find it much easier to inhabit her shoes, figure out what her motivations are and make decisions that are wholly within her character, rather than what I would do personally — a handy trick for writing difficult passages. The same goes for DMs; giving non-player characters a distinctive accent that’s different from your own voice can help them become more than just Goon #1, and you might be able to build a compelling story around them.

This is our story, nobody else’s

Perhaps one of D&D’s biggest appeals (besides an excuse to hang out, eat junk food and sink a few beers) is the fact that it’s a story everyone can get involved with. Working with other people to effectively create and tell a story is ridiculously good fun, and especially if you’ve been struggling to find the time to start writing, it can help you satisfy that creative itch. Even if you’re playing a classic module, or a campaign you’ve completed with a different group, the story is different every time.

Bardic inspiration

Once you step away from the table and put the d20s back in your bag, the fun doesn’t end there. When I get back from a session, I’m filled with ideas for what might happen next time, and sometimes that even translates into a new story or something to try out in an existing piece of work. It’s thanks to D&D that I’ve felt more creative in those past 18 months than I have in years, whether I’m devising a new campaign scenario or coming up with a backstory for my latest character.

So, where to start…

While D&D can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated at first, the main thing to remember is that it’s a game, with the primary purpose of having fun with some friends. Creating a new character shouldn’t take hours upon hours (unless you want it to!) but should serve as a springboard for your next adventure. Sit back, relax, pick up a pencil and see where it takes you – whether that’s fighting bandits, sourcing magical ingredients or changing the multiverse as you know it.

 About the author of this post

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Robyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

A novelist’s guide to waiting

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The type of intensive, cloistered work of writers can lend itself to solitude. Sometimes, this can be accompanied by activity – such as running  – but it can also be just as much about stillness. In this article, author Tim Leach reflects upon the art of waiting; of embracing these moments of stillness to help aid your writing.

The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.

Most of my writing time is spent waiting. Waiting before the half empty page, staring at one of the endless problems to be solved. A minute passes, another and another. Half an hour, perhaps even an hour since last a word was typed. A frightening boredom sets in and seeks to drive me from the chair, to do anything but keep still, hold on. Then a sudden flurry of fingers on the keys, the words springing to the page, the problem solved. And then the next problem, and once more, the waiting.

There is passion in this still, quiet patience. “Am I in love? –yes, since I am waiting,” says Roland Barthes. “The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.” It can have the quality of trance or prayer. And there is courage in waiting too, for learn it well enough and you may outlast anything.

Outlast loneliness, for if one has mastered time what is there to fear from the absence of love? Wait out sadness, for the black waters always recede if you can be patient enough for the turning of the tide. And those other more murderous thoughts that circle the mind like jackals – they too must sleep, if you can stare them down for long enough. The hand that quests for the razor grows old and idle, the rattle of the pill bottle fades to silence, the eye that looks hungrily to high places and the third rail droops and grows heavy.

If writing has taught me anything, it is how to wait. It has been a year of hard waiting. I’ve waited with people and for people, waited out a draft of a book, waited out a madness too. Everything is begun and nothing is finished, much more is broken than is fixed.

But that does not matter. “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing,” says Rilke, because poets know how to wait, too.

I hear the tick of the clock and the sound of the sea, and that particular silence in the concert hall before the pianist first lays their hands upon the keys. I am waiting.

About the author

Tim Leach

Tim Leach is a historical fiction author and creative writing teacher. His first novel, The Last King of Lydia, was published by Atlantic Books in Spring 2013, and has been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. A sequel, The King and the Slave‘, was published in 2014. His most recent novel, Smile of the Wolf  was published in 2018. He teaches creative writing at the University of Warwick, and he lives in Sheffield.

Literary titan Haruki Murakami among all-male shortlist for 2018 Bad Sex in Fiction award

Nominations are in as the Literary Review prepares to announce the winner of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ prize, which aims to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.

Big-name authors James Frey and Haruki Murakami have made this year’s all male shortlist, which also includes Irish novelist Julian Gough for a passage in his novel Connect, spoof autobiography Scoundrels by “Major Victor Cornwall and Major Arthur St John Trevelyan”, Kismet by Luke Tredget, Grace’s Day by William Wall and The Paper Lovers by Gerard Woodward.

Murakami is usually found among the contenders for the Nobel prize in Literature and other prestigious literary accolades; yet in many ways, perhaps his nomination for the Bad Sex in Fiction award is his finest achievement.

Murakami was nominated for an extract of his novel Killing Commendatore, which reads:

“My ejaculation was violent, and repeated. Again and again, semen poured from me, overflowing her vagina, turning the sheets sticky. There was nothing I could do to make it stop. If it continued, I worried, I would be completely emptied out. Yuzu slept deeply through it all without making a sound, her breathing even. Her sex, though, had contracted around mine, and would not let go. As if it had an unshakeable will of its own and was determined to wring every last drop from my body.”

Read extracts of all the passages that earned this year’s nominated authors a place on the Bad Sex Award shortlist here

The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature. The winner of this year’s award will join a long line of illustrious authors – or not so illustrious, in the case of 2015’s winner, Morrissey – to have picked up the booby prize (pun intended, of course), which stretches back to 1993.

American author Christopher Bollen scooped the 2017 prize for his novel The Destroyers

You can read extracts from all the Bad Sex in Fiction Award-winning books in our connoisseur’s compendium.

For more information about the award, visit the Literary Review website.

Nothing in the Rulebook will continue to monitor all updates relating to the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards with (possibly too much) interest.

Bad Sex in Fiction: extracts from the 2018 shortlist

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What’s that sound you hear, drifting through the air? Could it be the sound of spasming muscles, grunts and groans, salacious sighs? You’re almost there – that’s right; its one of the greatest times of the literary year – the annual Bad Sex in Fiction award, which has just released its shortlist of nominated entries.

If you’re a fan of the often surreal world of bad sex in fiction – a landscape of low-cal genetics, bulbous salutations and general limb-flying raunchy madness, then you’re in for a treat.

All eyes are now on the judges at The Literary Review, which founded the award, to see who will be crowned this year’s winner – and whose name will be added to our long-running connoisseur’s compendium.

We’ve listed the full set of shortlisted authors below, along with their literary extracts. Enjoy!

“Overwhelming exploding white god” – Katerina by James Frey

We both move toward each other kissing deeply slowly heavily, lips and tongues, her hands are immediately in my pants, I lift her off the ground set her on the sink tear off her thong. She says now I ask her if she has a condom she says now, Jay, now. I step between her legs.

Move inside her.

She’s tight and wet, leans back against the mirror.

Forward.

Deeper inside her.

Forward.

Tight and wet.

She moans pulls my face to hers kisses me. I start moving inside her, slow hard and deep, her hands gripping the sides of the sink, my hands on her shoulders, we’re looking into each other’s eyes pale green and light brown like cocoa. Do you like my pussy, Jay?

[…]

I’m hard and deep inside her fucking her on the bathroom sink her tight little black dress still on her thong on the floor my pants at my knees our eyes locked, our hearts and souls and bodies locked.

Cum inside me.

Cum inside me.

Cum inside me.

Blinding breathless shaking overwhelming exploding white God I cum inside her my cock throbbing we’re both moaning eyes hearts souls bodies one.

One.

White.

God.

Cum.

Cum.

Cum.

I close my eyes let out my breath.

Cum.

“Nipples as hard as cherry pits” – Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Quietly, so as not to wake Yuzu, I descended from the ceiling to stand at the foot of the bed. I was sexually aroused, powerfully so. I hadn’t made love to her for ages. Bit by bit, I peeled back the quilt covering her. She was fast asleep (had she taken a sleeping pill before retiring?) and showed no signs of waking up, even when I removed the quilt. She never even twitched. This made me more daring. Taking my time, I slipped off her pajama bottoms, then her panties. Her pajamas were a pale blue, her tiny cotton panties pure white. Still she did not wake. There was no resistance, no sound.

I gently parted her legs and caressed her vagina with my finger. It was warm and wet, and opened to my touch. As if it had been waiting for me. I couldn’t stand it any longer – I slipped my erect penis inside. Or, from another angle, that part of her actively swallowed my penis, immersing it in what felt like warm butter. Yuzu did not open her eyes, but she sighed and let out a small moan. As if she had been impatient for this to happen. Her nipples were as hard as cherry pits when I touched them.

[…]

My ejaculation was violent, and repeated. Again and again, semen poured from me, overflowing her vagina, turning the sheets sticky. There was nothing I could do to make it stop. If it continued, I worried, I would be completely emptied out. Yuzu slept deeply through it all without making a sound, her breathing even. Her sex, though, had contracted around mine, and would not let go. As if it had an unshakeable will of its own and was determined to wring every last drop from my body.

“Penile penitentiary” – Scoundrels: The Hunt for Hansclapp by Major Victor Cornwall and Major Arthur St John Trevelyan

There was no other woman like Fang. The urge was too great to withstand any longer. So we yielded. Two atoms smashing together in a thermonuclear embrace. As she unshackled my angry, straining shaft, desperate to be free from its penile penitentiary, it felt as if the very fabric of the universe was being torn asunder.

[…]

“Empty my tanks,” I’d begged breathlessly, as once more she began drawing me deep inside her pleasure cave. Her vaginal ratchet moved in concertina-like waves, slowly chugging my organ as a boa constrictor swallows its prey. Soon I was locked in, balls deep, ready to be ground down by the enamelled pepper mill within her.

‘The stiffening shaft” – Connect by Julian Gough

They remove each other’s remaining clothes, solemnly, with tremendous attention to each other’s responses, like a ritual of incredible power and importance. When his jeans get caught, bunched, on an ankle, he laughs with nervous tension, mixed with pleasure, that they are really doing this. She smiles back.

They will protect each other.

He closes his eyes and they roll over sideways on the bed, and they kiss for a long, long time.

And then Colt moves lower, and explores Sasha with his fingers, with his lips and tongue. He moves his face over the hill of a breast; descends, kissing, across the warm curved dune of her belly, which tightens, trembles at each kiss, little earthquakes.

Down, now, between her legs, into that complicated valley, everything vivid, astonishing, new.

Yes, it’s like orbiting another planet, landing, exploring…

Wow, wow, wow… no, it’s like a rosebud…

She helps him explore.

Oh man, it opens like a rose…

After a long, long time, she pulls him back up, and he wipes his mouth on the sheet, and they kiss again.

She licks her hand, and reaches down. His penis leaps at her touch as she wets its head, and slides her warm, wet palm up and down the stiffening shaft.

[…]

As she helps guide him inside her, he feels both the specific local sensation of his penis sliding inside her vagina, and also the overwhelming sensation throughout his whole body that some barrier surrounding him, isolating him all his life, has finally been removed and he is, for the first time, coming into contact with everything outside himself.

He holds her tight, and Sasha holds him, and he can no longer feel where he ends, and she begins.

“Smeared with wet paint” – Kismet by Luke Tredget

She shuffles her head closer to his cock, close enough to smell her own residue, and then takes it in her mouth, with the vague idea of cleaning it. Geoff mirrors this gesture by burying his head between her legs, and gradually she can feel his cock pumping up with blood, one pulse at a time, until it is long and hard and filling her wide-open mouth. They stay in this position for a long time, Anna sucking and slurping with the same lazy persistence you’d use on a gobstopper or a stick of rock. Eventually she loses her sense of the context altogether – of what she is doing or who she is with or where they are – and becomes an empty vessel for what feels like disembodied consciousness. She looks at the window and wonders how the glass feels encased within its wooden frame, what the shaggy clouds feel like being blown across the sky, what the walls felt like being splattered and smeared with wet paint.

[…]

Amazingly, having floated as separate as planets for twenty or thirty minutes, they come at exactly the same time.

“Small and sticky and amusing” – Grace’s Day by William Wall

He’s almost weightless. When he enters me it hurts and my pain belongs to the subterranean world, primitive as the clay. His body is slacker than I expected, a small paunch begins at his waist and settles in a downward parabola to his groin. His pubic hair is red. His erect penis is a surprise although I had imagined what they would feel like, read about them, seen them represented on toilet walls and magazines. I didn’t see it before he entered me, but afterwards it is small and sticky and amusing. I want to touch it but I don’t dare. I don’t know the etiquette. He is twenty or more years older than me. This is sex.

[…]

I lie there with my legs spread, my shirt pulled down awkwardly. The old bag of tools is beside my head. I can almost sense the numinous reality of the ammonite. I’m sore but not as much as I had imagined. I’ve been learning things from magazines, though they haven’t prepared me for the fullness, the experience of being ridden, of his final explosive stop. The terror is pleasure. There isn’t enough of it. I want it again.

“Miraculously he found himself rigid again” – The Paper Lovers by Gerard Woodward

He was aware that she was making a mewling sound as he put his lips to her tightened nipple and sucked. Her mouth was at his ear, her tongue travelling along its grooves, voice filling it. His mouth tugged at her, extended her, she snapped back, there was a taste of something on his tongue. In his mind he pictured her neck, her long neck, her swan’s neck, her Alice in Wonderland neck coiling like a serpent, like a serpent, coiling down on him. She had found a way through his clothing and her fingers had lightly touched his cock, then slowly began to take a firmer hold. He wanted to cry like a baby. He felt helpless, as though his body had come undone and she was fastening it. He felt as though he was bleeding somewhere. Then he felt powerful, gigantic. He would have kicked a door down.

[…]

Vera rose above him, naked now, but for the necklace, she straddled him, though he was soft and helpless, indeed he was in a certain amount of mild pain. Her breasts moved in front of his face and he felt the befuddled sense of being stared at by them, they were still shiny from where he’d sucked. She knocked them playfully against his nose, one after the other. Beneath them her wetness met his own wetness, and they stirred against each other, she pestled him slowly, until miraculously he found himself rigid again, as though he had risen out of his own pain, fresh and ready.

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.

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.

Creatives in profile: interview with Will Eaves

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Will Eaves is a novelist, poet and teacher. He was Arts Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1995 to 2011 before moving to the University of Warwick, where he is an Associate Professor in the Writing Programme. His novel-in-voices The Absent Therapist was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2014. The Inevitable Gift Shop, a collection of poetry and prose, was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for Poetry in 2016 and commended by the Poetry Book Society. The first chapter of his most recent novel, Murmur, was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2017.

In other words, Will Eaves is an okay dude. His writing has been described by critics as “scrupulous, humane, sad and strange”, carrying “an exciting sense of newness” that feels crucial at a time when mainstream publishing seems increasingly interested only in publishing copies of risk-free, commercially successful novels that are copies of other commercially successful novels.

In conversation, Eaves speaks the way he writes—with point, clarity and wit. Indeed, the reverse is also true: he writes in a way that feels like conversation.

INTERVIEWER

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

EAVES

I live in Brixton, at the top of Brixton Hill. I’ve been in the area now for nearly thirty years, though I come from the West Country (Bath) originally. I went to a comprehensive school: I think it’s the best kind of education there is. Far from perfect, but fair. It is absurd to talk about freedom of choice, in education or health, if choice is something only the rich can afford. Of course, environment has a lot to do with contentment at a young age, and the setting was beautiful. I liked Cross Country rather than contact sports – I was small and thin – and the weekly runs that the bigger kids hated (because of all the hills) took me through a kind of paradise of beech forest and meadows. While the PE teachers repaired to the staff room for a well-deserved fag break after all that fiddling about with whistles, we ran through Rainbow Wood at the top of Ralph Allen Drive and then down through the grounds of Prior Park towards Mike Casford’s house, where we’d stop for coffee and biscuits. I can’t run any more, which is a shame, but I can remember – well, I conjure up – the trees and thistles on those runs, and the view, and the freedom. The teachers smoked, we had coffee. Fair enough. There was some bullying at school, but nothing too bad. I was conscious of being small. I still think someone is going to push me into the road. On the other hand, I could be sharp, and I learnt to answer back. I don’t mind being taken to task, or disagreed with, or even disliked. I mind being exploited by the dull and fortunate.

INTERVIEWER

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

EAVES

It is a habit, more than anything else. I think of it as the sum of things that leads to a poem or a story or a book. I’ve always liked trees, and seeing seeds I’ve planted come up in the spring. Music, too: I played the piano and organ as a teenager; I liked the sociability and solitude of both those instruments; I can sing a bit. I enjoy acting. If I could afford it, I’d have a house with a music room. I was a latecomer to sex, and then had a great deal of it for twenty-five years! I’ve loved being gay. Even the bad experiences have been good, because you meet such different people. I’ve been properly in love twice. The last time was eight years ago and completely changed me.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

EAVES

My aunt. She is ninety. She left the UK in 1947, at the age of nineteen, and went to New York, where she taught at the Central School and met her husband, Bob Bollard, who was a Broadway composer and director. She got to know Sydney Pollack and Harry Belafonte and became involved in Democratic politics for a while. Bob died of cancer in his thirties and Scilla was completely stuck, no money, three kids. But she got a government grant to go to medical school and became a doctor. An ear specialist. I have never heard her complain about anything. I dread losing her. She is ten times the person I will ever be, but I try to follow her example. She liked Murmur, and if it passed muster with her, well, that’s good enough for me.

Writers – the Exeter Book, Shakespeare’s late plays and sonnets, Montaigne, Austen, Coleridge, George Eliot, Flaubert, Christina Rossetti, Auden, William Golding, Penelope Fitzgerald, whoever I happen to be reading (Patricia Beer), Elmore Leonard, Thom Gunn. Also, many comedians and comic writers – Victoria Wood, Lily Tomlin, Joe Keenan, Billy Wilder, Paul Rudnick. Musicians and composers – Bach, Poulenc, Chopin, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin.

And my Dad, John. He is a painter. He has felt it necessary to keep going. His approach is very much “do what you can” in life, which is sensible (and kinder than “do your best”).

I also admire my friends for a variety of reasons.

INTERVIEWER

Your books The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop have both been praised for their fragmentary form. Could you tell us a little about why you chose to structure your work in this way?

EAVES

I like the way speech patterns and conversations derail themselves. Good dialogue, like most things in life, is a combination of determined response and wild digression or misprision. I like the moments in arguments when people suddenly hear themselves yelling, or realise they’ve lost ground, and try to shut things down by changing the subject or feigning emotion. Or play dumb, or defend people who don’t need defending and infuriate everyone else. Anger is often dangerous in life, but it’s also the essence of comedy. I was so frustrated with my life, just before I started The Absent Therapist, and felt I’d run aground. Nothing more to say. Which was a kind of turning-point, because when you have nothing to say you start listening, and The Absent Therapist is really a short book about listening – to the people who interrupt each other, the people who sit quietly and take mental notes. The little monologues are both external and internal, and often seem to be about recreating a moment or justifying a position in retrospect.

Memory is dynamic. It isn’t the retrieval of discrete bits of information, but a sort of paradoxical jigsaw puzzle in which the remembered image changes with the piecing-together. I think that’s what I was trying to get at in The Inevitable Gift Shop, which was an attempt at an honest and therefore slightly discontinuous memoir. I was also in terrific pain at the time, and pain has a way of completely fracturing the mind. You don’t lose your mind. In some obvious ways, the qualia of mental experience are massively heightened. But the intensity of pain can be distracting.

INTERVIEWER

While the idea of collage as an artistic form is not new in the visual arts, do you think it is increasingly a form that is influencing writing – or the literary industry?

EAVES

There does seem to be a fashion for it, yes. But I wonder if the difference between collage and continuous narrative isn’t overstated. For example, a lot of ancient text is fragmentary – all that’s left after the ruin of the ages – and the suggestive reconstitution of those fragments (the psalms, the surviving tragic drama, the Exeter Book etc.) has helped build the Western canon in its long and short forms.

All writing is collage, or perhaps tapestry, in the sense that it is a composition of elements. The distinguishing property is the ordering of those elements – whether the collage serves one story, or image, or many; and often the “one story”, on closer inspection, is the many. Proust is long but kaleidoscopic, motes in one immense shaft of sunlight. I think that a lot of the fuss about experimentalism is slightly embarrassing. If you step back from the collage, you rediscover a sense of its cohesiveness; the edges become joined. A political metaphor.

INTERVIEWER

We know that life does not run in linear patterns – and rather comes in flashes; moments of clarity and inspiration. As Daniel Dennett notes in his work, ‘Consciousness explained’; “we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, [yet] they’re actually chaotic. There’s no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances.” Do you think collage – or a fragmentary plot structure – is a more natural way of organising a piece of writing than traditional models, such as the plot-driven novel?

EAVES

There are lots of different questions, here. I think we need first to clear up something about linearity – to distinguish between the nature of time, as it affects the objective world (and the body), and the nature of mental reality. It’s an exaggeration to say that “life does not run in linear patterns”, because of course it does have a marked linearity for humans: we are born, we live, and then we die. That is the plot of life. But that is only time as we conceive of it historically; on closer inspection, time as we really apprehend it mentally is rather different: a thing that is experienced both as a linear process (we see its ageing, history-producing effect) and as something that can be reconfigured in (see above) the dynamic of memory. The odd thing is that this mental dynamism – a property of the consciousness that Dan Dennett and others consider to be an effect of ordinary material processes – turns out to be quite a good description of the way time operates at the level of the quantum equation, where physical law does not discriminate between the past and the future. (The direction of time’s arrow is given, it is thought, by the state of extreme orderliness at the beginning of the universe; but, statistically speaking, “chaos” is much more likely.)

What this combination of characteristics suggests to me is that consciousness, like time, is both highly personal and fundamental: the subjective component, the feeling that we are experiencing something unique to us, is not an illusion, or “just” an ideation, but an aspect of reality – of relativistic spacetime, in fact. Dennett is a brilliant man, but “we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent” seems to me to be wide of the mark. I have never met anyone who thinks of her mind in this way. The homunculus language of psychology – the “boss in the brain” – is a cartoon. Unless we are on powerful drugs, we normally conceive of minds as being complex and irreducible, as they may well be. My own feeling is that consciousness arises from material processes but cannot be reduced to them (the No Way Back Paradox). The fact that it cannot be reduced without losing its USP – the personal vantage-point – tells us something about our inadequate grasp of those ordinary material processes and their relationship to time.

I don’t see how a fragmentary narrative could be “more natural” than a unitary one because both are artistic constructions. But is fragmentation more realistic? Possibly.

INTERVIEWER

Your latest book, Murmur, puts us inside the mind – inside the dreams, even – of Alan Turing during his chemical castration. Simply, what processes do you go through to so vividly depict the most intimate moments of a genius’s mind at a time of extreme pain?

EAVES

I’m glad you feel that the experiment worked: thank you. It’s hard to say what one does. Writing a book – and perhaps especially a book about a dreadful transfiguration – is a little like having a protracted fit. Once it’s over, there’s no way to retrieve the feverish actuality of the creative moment. Thank God. I just remember not enjoying it very much, and feeling exiled from myself – a dissociative condition I couldn’t very well moan about because I’d chosen it. It’s a short book, but it took years to write, mostly because it coincided with a period of restricted movement, and of course I wonder about the relationship of that period to the anxieties inherent in the subject-matter. I also had to continue working as a teacher to pay the mortgage and the bills.

I was very nervous about tackling Turing. I’m not a mathematician so I had to work hard to understand the meta-mathematics of Godelian incompleteness, the Entscheidungsproblem, etc, and I hope I haven’t made too many errors. For fictional purposes, he had to be his own avatar: I couldn’t allow myself to put words into the mouth of a genius. That would have been wrong. But I think my overall wager is sound. Murmur tries to find a dramatic paraphrase for Turing’s physical, mental and political predicament. It asks: how does one fit the personal experience of trauma into a material conception of the world? The story’s scientist, Alec Pyror, discovers that the outward responses one gives to the world are not necessarily related to the inner life, which may be crying out, in great distress. At the same time, the novel resists that pain. It’s the story of a man trying to overcome desolation and self-pity by objectifying the trauma.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

EAVES

Yes. Ethics is the social dimension of morality. Lots of books have been written about the social role of the artist, and I don’t wish to misrepresent the complexity of that commentary, because there are so many different ways of making an artistic contribution to society. But, as I see it, my ethical responsibility is not to wear uniform. Writing springs from a strange combination of personal aesthetic ambition, vanity, and guarded conviction. It is much more provisional than the artefactual solidity of a book might suggest: this book is what I have to say this time, and it will be a different performance next time. Ethics, for a writer, are unavoidable because publication is the social dimension of private inquiry. The process is, and should be, discomfiting. One way of producing bad writing, bad philosophy and sclerotic politics is to attempt to get art, argument and policy to represent a standard of conduct that already exists – an ideology, I guess. Writers should be wary of all that. If you find yourself expressly on the side of a political party, or a movement, fine, but be prepared to find yourself in disagreement with it. Soon. The most important thing about a conviction is the moment when circumstances threaten its validity.

INTERVIEWER

What role do writers and artists have in shaping culture – or influencing social conversations?

EAVES

This is an enormous question. There is one’s ambition to do something, and there is the true state of play. There is the role one’s ego perceives a writer to have – the role one desires, or fears, perhaps – and there is one’s actual insignificance. How you think you come over, how you are. What you think you can do, what gets done. If one thinks of art and writing as one might think of anything else in life, then the answer must be that one shapes and influences one’s surroundings in a piecemeal fashion, sometimes by design but mostly by accident, and of course the shaping and influencing are reciprocal. Often, it’s the work and the actions that take place on one’s blind side that count for most: the contributions to a local paper, the email sent at just the right time, the note to a councillor. Nothing lasts, and that’s fine. We rediscover art and culture and form and justice. Also, it’s a mistake to confuse the public voice with the social voice. Private correspondence is social, too. The most important things I have written have been letters to people who, for one reason or another, needed some acknowledgment.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you feel, is the relationship between fiction and non-fiction; prose and poetry?

EAVES

A fruitful misalliance. W. Somerset Maugham (in his postscript to The Casuarina Tree): “A work of fiction, and perhaps I should not go too far if I spoke more generally and said, a work of art, is an arrangement which the author makes of the facts of his experience with the idiosyncracies of his own personality.”

INTERVIEWER

A running theme in some of your books is the subject of Artificial Intelligence. In a world increasingly full of modern technology, and in which we now have computer programmes writing prose and poetry (including re-writing Harry Potter), what role do human beings have to play when surrounding by all this early-form AI? Are you as sceptical about AI as, say, the late Stephen Hawking?

EAVES

I’m not sure Hawking was sceptical about it. He was alarmed.

There are two issues. One is the sci-fi existential anxiety about conscious machines, which is obviously predicated on an understanding of what sort of thing consciousness itself might turn out to be. We don’t know. We’re not there, yet, and conscious robotics are a way off, because what we have so far is responsive machinery behaving in ways to which we may, if we choose, assign the properties of intelligence. But assigning such properties to a piece of technology is not the same thing as claiming intentionality for the machine itself – that is, the capacity to refer to things outside itself, to understand the meaning of the rules it follows, etc. Metaphorical language isn’t helping us much, because we tend to forget that “messages”, for example, are conscious-user-dependent concepts. A computer doesn’t send messages; you read them.

Conscious machinery will happen. But machinery doesn’t need to be conscious for it to play a significant, symbiotic and potentially destructive role in social and economic development. Non-conscious tech – automation – has been around a long time and is becoming more sophisticated; the efficiencies/growth model of capitalism means that it will absorb most remaining manufacturing labour in the coming decades. What then?

The vulnerability of labour in a national context is the second problem. Our anxieties about borders and migration are displaced anxieties about borderless technology and the silent transfer of executive power from the defined state (a country with a border and jurisdictional limits) to the transnational corporation. Cyber warfare is a demonstration of the fact that states are losing their integrity: the more powerful countries use the “freeflow” of cyberspace to advance their political agenda (as Emily Taylor has argued in Cyber Policy Journal); but this goes hand-in-hand with corporatism, it turns out, because the media platforms manipulated by these countries, and flooded with bots and micro-targeting, are mega-companies with enormous worker populations across the globe and the ability to pick and choose their tax liabilities.

I’m not sure how we wrest back control. Corporates create the tech, the tech crosses or cancels the border, the states survive in name only, the corporates stay in charge.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

EAVES

Consequential wonder.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a typical ‘writing process’?

EAVES

No. I used to say “start, then keep going”, but I don’t know what “start” means any more. I try to nurture a habit of reading and annotation, hoping that the trail of scrawl will lead to an interesting, half-original thought, and so to a premise, and then some figures in a doorway . . .

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

EAVES

Not much. Journalism is a profession – and an important one. Writing is one of its tools. Writers are presumably people who write. It’s too vague as a term to be of much use, though people do like to call themselves writers, don’t they? It’s a conversation stopper, that’s for sure.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

EAVES

I’m sorry to say that I can’t, because there aren’t any.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

EAVES

Read slowly and carefully. Write letters. Eat properly. Walk. Don’t be afraid to stop: other people matter more in the end, and it’s not a race. Learn to spell and punctuate. Look up.