15 excellent short stories you can read for free right now

Book and Stones

Are you a literature addict looking for that sweet hit of literary ecstasy that comes from reading well-told stories? Are you also – like so many of us slaving away with ever-increasing work demands – short on time? Fortunately, we have just the thing for you that can satiate your craving for well-told, expertly-crafted fiction; bringing you tightly controlled beginnings, middles and endings in the time it takes to eat your lunch or smoke a cigarette (there’s a reason flash fiction used to be called smoke-long stories, after all).

We’re talking, of course, of some of the finest short stories that you can read for free thanks to the wonders of the interwebs. There are untold thousands – probably millions (if not billions) of these pieces floating around in the digital ether, but to get you started we’ve compiled 15 of our favourites, mixing together writing from new and aspiring artists with established literary titans.

Once you’ve had your fix, fear not! We also have many other collections of short stories you can read for free from legendary writers including J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth and Alice Munro among others.

And if you need even more literary satisfaction; we’re pretty sure you’ll find it thanks to some of these fantastic places you can read tens of thousands of literary texts completely legally and completely for free.

Back to the matter at hand: check out these brilliantly crafted short tales from magazines around the world below.

‘Black Moons’ by Robert Wyatt Dunn

Black Moons

“There were some things you could only do in New York.”

Read the story in Litro.

‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ by George Saunders

“Work, work, work. Stupid work. Am so tired of work.”

Read the story in The New Yorker

‘Bullet in the Brain’ by Tobias Wolff

“The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped.”

Read for free online.

‘Broads’ by Roxane Gay

“Jimmy Nolan has a thing for broads—loud, brassy women who sit with their legs open and drink beer straight from the bottle—women who always say exactly what they’re thinking and for better or worse, mean what they say.”

Read it via Guernica.

‘Ganymede’ by Chelsea Harris

“Tonight I am Venus. We’re sitting on top of the kitchen counters. Daddy hasn’t been back in days but I’m not worried.”

Read it via Okay Donkey

‘Tell-tale heart’ by Edgar Allen Poe

“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night.”

Read it courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

‘That was back before, of course’ by Samuel Dodson

“She never knew what Maxine wanted. But it started the moment Mark Dean emerged from all the rust. Then it ended with a knife and the sound of something scraping against metal, some sound almost like an animal.”

Read the story for free courtesy of The TSS

‘Goose’ by Chelsea Grasso

“It’s okay, my goose. She will come back.”

Read the story via Carve Magazine

‘Girls at play’ by Celeste Ng

“This is how we play the game: pink means kissing; red means tongue. Green means up your shirt; blue means down his pants. Purple means in your mouth. Black means all the way.”

Read the story thanks to Bellevue Literary Review

‘Anatomy of a burning thing’ by Monica Robinson

“He was falling in on himself.”

Read via Blanket Sea Magazine 

‘Hills like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway

“I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?’”

Read for free online. 

‘Fitting’ by Molly McConnell

“I left a relationship because it was too tight. But once I was out, I wanted back in.”

Read the story in Rabid Oak

‘The lady with the dog’ by Anton Chekhov

“It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.”

Read courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

‘Five baked beans’ by Katy Thornton

“I had started wearing earrings again, after the break-up. Not that I hadn’t worn earrings because of him – I’m sure we never had a conversation about it. I guess at some point I’d grown out of wearing my green-skin inducing costume jewellery and decided only to wear jewellery with sentimental value.”

Read thanks to Porridge Magazine

‘The Veldt’ by Ray Bradbury

“‘Nothing’s too good for our children,’ George had said.”

Read for free online

 

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Creatives in profile: interview with K.M. Elkes

KMElkes.jpg

Writing flash fiction takes skill, precision and – perhaps more than anything – hard work and dedication. When done well, these micro-stories can throw the reader in and out of the human condition in profound and unpredictable ways.

Some have said flash fiction stories are a part of our social media age, our insta-lifestyles, our shortened attention spans, our handheld devices, our micro-making of everything. Yet, in a world preciously short of big ideas, we could do with some of the big ideas contained within these short tales. And we could do with more

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with one of these writers willing to put pen to paper to bring these short tales – and their ideas – to us.

K.M. Elkes’s short fiction has won (or been placed) in a number of international writing competitions including the Manchester Fiction Prize, The Fish Publishing Flash Prize, the Bridport Prize and the PinDrop Prize, as well as appearing in more than 30 anthologies. His work has also been published in literary magazines such as UnthologyThe Lonely CrowdStructo and Litro. A flash fiction collection All That Is Between Us will be published in paperback by AdHoc Fiction in 2019. He is a short story tutor for Comma Press and his work has also been used on schools and college curriculum in USA and Hong Kong.

Elkes lives and works in the West Country, UK. A recipient of an Arts Council England award, he is currently working on a debut short story collection and a novel. As a writer with a rural working class upbringing, his work often reflects marginalised voices and liminal places.

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

In summary – writer, teacher, musician, traveller, ginger, potty-mouth. Not always in that order. I currently live in Bristol, but my background is rural working-class Shropshire.

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

Writing is one of the things, like making music, that I cannot not do. It’s more complicated than love or passion.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ELKES

Single-minded people – I’m too ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, so I draw inspiration from writers, particularly women or those from less privileged backgrounds, who have had the singleness of vision to succeed against the odds.
And pole vaulters – their sport is rife with symbolism.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

ELKES

I went to a tiny rural primary school in Shropshire that had about 30 children and two teachers. It was stuck in a 1930s time warp – two classrooms, no inside toilets, dinners delivered lukewarm on the back of a van. But that school and those teachers instilled a hunger for reading in me that has been the catalyst for many things.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to flash fiction?

ELKES

As a form based around concision, it combines poetry’s attention to language and rhythm with the prose tools of plot, characterisation, dialogue etc. Within that there are infinite colours, moods and stories, so what’s not to like?

INTERVIEWER

One of the joys of English is that, while its huge vocabulary can be deployed in mesmerising Joycean arpeggios, it can just as easily concentrate its meaning in a few well chosen words. In the age of Twitter, why do you think so many people are increasingly attracted to the brevity of short, flash or ‘micro’ fiction?

ELKES

I’m not a fan of the notion that people have short attention spans so they are attracted to shorter forms. Just because something is short doesn’t mean it requires less concentration and effort to read. I would hope more people are attracted to the form because they recognise it can produce genuinely good writing. The rise of social media and digital platforms for writing has no doubt helped.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a story needs in order for it to be a story?

ELKES

Movement. Not necessarily plot, but a sense that something has changed.

INTERVIEWER

How easy do you find it to move between different writing forms/mediums – can you balance writing a novel with crafting flash fiction or short stories?

ELKES

Transitioning between different forms is not difficult. Writers who claim otherwise are probably just procrastinating. In fact, changing forms is a good way to give the kaleidoscope a shake to find new ideas. What is difficult, sometimes, is the act of writing itself, whatever the form.

INTERVIEWER

How do you maintain your motivation for writing?

ELKES

By reflecting at length on the fact that I don’t have motivation to carry out just about any other form of gainful employment.

Also by dreaming of the day when I can walk into a bookshop and find a section devoted just to short fiction, rather than having to play ‘hunt the collections’ among the general fiction…

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel writers should feel any ethical responsibility in their roles?

ELKES

I don’t think it is ethical for a writer to create ethical responsibilities for other writers – they need to deal with their own shit.

Having said that it grinds my gears when well-established writers phone it in for cash. Such as when novelists supply distinctly average ‘been-in-the-bottom-drawer-awhile’ pieces for occasional short story specials in newspapers or magazines. In this case, maybe the ethical motto should be: ‘Do your best or don’t bother’.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?

ELKES

No. Except that maybe the fantastic audience who came to a live literary event I did in Bath last year and laughed like drains at my funny stuff and emoted all over my sad pieces. They can come and sit in the room while I’m writing (if they bring their own chairs).

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry (if we can call it thus)? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

ELKES

The trend to encourage more diversity in writing and publishing is something I would like to see continuing. As someone from a working-class background, I know there are barriers still in place. But I also know I have to check what privileges I have as a white male. Even those at the epicentre of the white, male, middle-class, London-dominated and Oxbridge educated system must acknowledge there’s a better way. Done right, I think more diversity would mean more readers, more books sold, a more robust industry.

Another big challenge is how writers, whose average income from books continues to decline, can earn enough to keep creating. There is an unrealistic expectation in society that creative work should merely be another form of free content.

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

I’m editing a collection of flash fiction called All That Is Between Us which will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction in Spring 2019. I’m also working on finishing a short story collection and starting a novel.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5-10 top tips for writers of flash fiction?

ELKES

  1. Give yourself permission to write crap, then use that freedom to write well.
  2. Read lots of short fiction in collections and online to learn more about what works and what doesn’t
  3. Don’t grab at the first idea for a story, let things brew for just a little while longer.
  4. Write hot, edit cold
  5. Ignore lists of top tips for short fiction writers and write whatever feels risky and surprises you.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ELKES

Instagram and Twitter allow this:  #Thewomandreamedofstrollingdampwintermeadowswithherlatehusbandbefore wakingtofindherloverwashingherfeet

 

 

Book review: December Stories I, by Ian Samson

december_sstories

What’s that sound in the air? The crisp crunch of carollers footprints in the even evening December snow, perchance?

Not a bit of it. That sound you hear is applause; the clapping of hands from all those souls for whom the festive period is never as simple as the unbridled joy and consumerist cheer that the overwhelming majority of corporations and media establishment would have you think everyone is feeling at this time of year.

Because, of course, the month of December means a multitude of different things to different people at alternate points in their lives. The meaning of Christmas (if there is such a thing) changes as our feelings evolve and our memories build upon one another. The sweet stirrings of excitement many felt as Children on Christmas morning contends with the emotions pent up in familial tensions and blends over the years with Christmases of all stripes and colours; of loneliness, disappointment, anger and – yes – joy, into feelings that are not simple or binary emotions; but not necessarily the poorer for that.

Yet this complexity is so rarely discussed or acknowledged. And it is rarer still to see it put down in any form of creative medium. And so the aforementioned applause comes because it is precisely this complex diorama of festive feelings that is displayed so well, so vividly and so wonderfully in Ian Samson’s latest book, December Stories I.

Published by a team of fabulous independent creatives over at Belfast-based No Alibis Press, December Stories I comprises ‘short stories, vignettes, axioms, the odd recipe [emphasis on ‘odd’], art criticism, meditations and literary curiosities relating to all things festive’.

This collage of 31 entries – one for every day of the titular month – offers readers a plethora of different viewpoints with which to view the Christmas period. And it is within these tales – of terrible Christmas poetry, strict instructions from teachers to parents before the holidays, Floridian barbecues and meditations on faith (among so many others) – that we encounter the rich and so often contradictory feelings and emotions that make Christmas what it is.

Funny, sad, lovely and above all else utterly empathetic, December Stories I, is the perfect antidote to piped Christmas Muzak played on repeat from October onwards. And it also offers something else to people who may otherwise find themselves rushed off their feet at this time of year with work, social engagements and requisite consumer splurges and extensive (and expensive) grocery shopping: a chance to pause. Indeed, Samson’s book gives everyone who reads it the opportunity to take time out from everything else that may be going on and reflect – perhaps even meditate – on what Christmas means, and has meant, for them over the years; and also, perhaps more importantly, what it can mean for others, too.

Human beings are wonderful, surprising, contradictory things – and few times is this more apparent than during the Christmas period. Samson captures all of this effortlessly and brilliantly, making December Stories I an essential item on everyone’s Christmas wish list (we suppose you could wait for the January sales; but where would be the fun in that?)

You can watch Samson reading one of the short stories from the collection, ‘Two words’ in this lovely short video below.

 

 

 

Horrible Feet

Dancer's feet

When I was ten I saw a ballerina tear her Achilles tendon. I was sitting on the side of the stage during a recital rehearsal, unrolling a leg warmer on my left thigh. It was April, and I could hear heavy rainfall beating against the emergency exit doors of the theatre. My face was warm, and one of my legs was aching with a cramp. I sipped some water from my bottle as I looked at the girl who was going over her pas de deux behind the curtains opposite me. I knew her name was Camilla because she was the most promising dancer in our school, even though she was only fifteen. She was talking angrily to her dance partner, Alex, but I could not hear what she was saying. He was a handsome boy with wavy hair, and all the girls in my class were obsessed with him. Through the white empire-waist costume Camilla was wearing, tight on her flat chest and broad around her thighs, her ribs and backbone were visible. When I saw her walking towards me, I hastily looked down.

“Is this yours?”

I raised my eyes. Camilla was pointing at my water bottle. I nodded. From up close, I noticed that her hair was dirty and that she had a violet bruise on her neck, the shape of a jellyfish. She had an unlit cigarette in her right hand. She grabbed my bottle with her free hand and gulped like she was dying of thirst. Then she put it back next to me.

“Camilla!” Maria, our ballet teacher, joined us on stage. She was pregnant at the time, her belly round like a melon, bags under her eyes that were puffy and purple. “What are you doing?”

“Smoking.” Camilla talked to Maria as if they were equals, which surprised me, as I feared Maria more than anyone else. Maria took the cigarette from Camilla’s hand and broke it in two.

“You’re rehearsing.” She stared into Camilla’s eyes until she nodded, like a rebellious daughter annoyed by her mother. “Get ready now!” Then Maria noticed me, sitting at their feet: “Cecilia, after Camilla bothers to try her choreography, it’s your turn.”

Camilla and Alex danced like swans. She looked pale and weightless, while he touched her and lifted her. They ran away from each other and then jumped back into each other’s arms. I counted her pirouettes as her gown opened like a moonflower. Then I heard a snap, and Camilla fell. It was an audible pop; it echoed all over the stage. Alex stepped back, unsure of what to do. The music went on. Camilla was not crying.

“Fuck,” she screamed, panting.

Maria hurried on stage as I looked from behind the curtain. She knelt next to Camilla and caressed the back of her ankle.

“It’s the tendon,” Maria said, “I’m calling an ambulance.”

“No!” Camilla almost shouted and grabbed Maria’s arm. Her ankle was twisted, quickly swelling up. I wanted to go closer but I couldn’t.

“She’ll be fine.” I turned, and Alex was right behind me. I wasn’t sure whether he was talking to me or not, but I could tell from his face that she wouldn’t be fine at all.

*

I straighten my back and grit my teeth. I can feel blood staining my pointe pads; I did not have time to place them properly on my toes.

“Smile!” Maria shouts to the entire class, yet it feels like she is addressing me only. I’m her favourite, but she hates me. She has been my teacher since I was three. Now, after thirteen years, nothing has changed. She still treats me as if she doesn’t understand that I have feelings. I suspect she doesn’t have any.

I complete the sequence of assemblés and échappés, my ballet shoes clacking against the polished wooden floor, my hand holding on to the barre. When the music stops, the smiles drop off every girl’s face at once. Maria takes the CD out of the player. We are all waiting for her response, our necks sweaty, our legs shaking with exhaustion. Once, she took the CD out and threw it on the floor, then started shouting at me, saying that I was “rude”, “stupid” and “unfit” for the class. Turns out I kept yawning before starting the choreography.

This time, Maria turns to us and says: “Class is over.” She never says “well done” or “good job” or anything like it, but, if she doesn’t complain or insult any of us, it means she’s satisfied. I’ve learnt that silence can also be a compliment.

We leave class dragging our feet, looking forward to getting rid of our uncomfortable tights. In the changing room, the radiators are not working. I take my bag and clothes and walk to the bathroom; I don’t feel like talking to anyone. Sara follows me. She is older than me, like everyone else in the class. This year, her acne is gone and her blonde hair has grown long and glossy. When she rehearses without tying it in a chignon, it swings and arches like a golden rainbow.

Sara sits on the cold floor of the bathroom and wipes her sweaty chest with toilet paper. She starts removing her shoes slowly, first the heels and then the toes, which have become glued to the pointe pads. I remove mine quickly; I’d rather feel the pain hitting me all together. I stuff the pointe pads in my bag, then I rapidly place my feet under the freezing water coming out of the sink. Sara does the same. Our feet look terrible, mine covered in blisters, hers missing a couple of nails.

“Ballet shoes are not for everyone,” Maria has always told us. When we were ten and got our first pairs of pointes, we all looked at them with excitement. The satin was shiny and the sole was hard; it smelled of leather. I used to put them on at home, and jump and spin around my mother’s grand piano, coming up with choreographies that I would then perform in front of my family.

After getting dressed, we walk back to the changing room through a narrow, poorly lit corridor, then to the entrance, where all the other girls are waiting for someone to pick them up. I walk past them, stuffing my hands inside the sleeves of my coat. I see the lights of the cars driving away from the parking lot, chasing one another until they fade into darkness. I look at the illuminated windows of the terraced houses and at the floating moon. The outlines of other passers-by seem ghosts under the lamp posts, and I am glad they cannot see my horrible feet.

*

Alex has come to class today for a new pas de deux assignment. I haven’t seen him in six years, since the day Camilla tore her tendon. Sara, whose mother is friends with Alex’s parents, says he passed the auditions for the ballet school at La Scala Theatre but then quit because he wanted to go to university to study psychology. He has changed: he has tattoos on both his hands, his skin is stretched on his muscles and a hint of beard has appeared on his chin. He is sitting on the floor next to Maria and watches us as we perform the choreography alone, one after the other. I see him out of the corner of my eye: sometimes he stares blankly, other times he checks us out in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Emma, our headmistress, paces back and forth in the room, clapping her hands to the rhythm and shouting “posture!” She is in her forties, her hands are rough and wrinkly, and her long black hair looks dry. Still, when she moves, only hinting at the steps of the dance with her graceful limbs, she seems younger than any of us.

Maria is quiet, as always when Emma is around. Earlier today, I heard them talking about the costumes we have to wear for the next recital. Emma suggested we paint our faces red, which did not sound like a good idea to me. I still remember the dance contest when we had blue paint on our cheeks and so much glitter on our eyelids that some got into my left eye. It started to ache and water right in the middle of our performance, and everyone thought I had become emotional.

After she has observed all of us carefully, Emma says: “Cecilia will dance with Alex.”

The other girls whisper in disappointment.

“Does anyone have a problem with that?” Maria asks. Anna, who is shorter than me and as skinny as a twig, speaks up: “The best choreographies are always assigned to the same people.” Last week she almost fainted. I think she doesn’t eat much anymore; she keeps swallowing weight loss pills before class.

“Like who?” Maria stands up, walks closer to her.

“Cecilia is the only one who did a solo.” Anna’s top is slick with sweat and sticks to her back.

“Cecilia remembers the steps of the choreography and doesn’t complain.”

Anna flushes, and I notice her hands are shaking. Emma takes me by the arm and turns to everyone else: “You can leave early today girls. Good job everyone.”

I remain alone with Emma, Maria and Alex. He stands up and stretches. I wipe the sweat from my forehead.

“This is not a pas de deux as you imagine it. It’s not too graceful, too perfect, too clean,” Emma says. I look at Alex’s tattoos and then at my pink bodysuit.

“I want this to start quietly. You smile, you touch each other gently. Then you let go. Can you do this Cecilia?”

“Yes,” I lie.

“Good. Then let’s just try one sequence before you go home. Alex’s running after you, he catches you. So you stand and your arms reach out… remember?” We both nod and get into position.

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Alex runs after me, and his hands brush against my naked back. He takes me, and I raise my arms to the ceiling.

“Hold it!” says Emma, “Hold it Cecilia, you are a tree, a tree in the wind!”

I let my arms swing gently, and wonder what kind of tree I am.

“Your arms are branches, your hands are leaves!”

I feel Alex’s hands tight on my waist, his breath on my neck. I move my fingers and wrists, and tilt my head back, laying it on Alex’s shoulder. I decide that I am a weeping willow, like the one that grows in my grandmother’s garden, shading the daisies and cobblestones against the sun. Its branchlets turn yellow in autumn and look like a cascade of golden tears.

After class, Alex lights a cigarette outside, cupping his hand around the end. The tattoos on his hands are feathers, one for each finger. He has nice knuckles. I wonder if he remembers that I was there when Camilla got hurt. But that was a long time ago.

“Are you sad?” he asks me.

“Why would I be?” I remove the pins from my hair and let it loose on my back. He watches me as if we were intimate and not two strangers.

“Your friend hates you because you got the part.” He tilts his head a bit, his smile is cheeky.

“She’s not my friend.”

He laughs, ties his curly hair in a knot and walks away.

“See you tomorrow,” he says, without turning around.

*

Back home, I skip dinner and fill the bathtub with hot water and vanilla soap, as the smell of minestrone comes from downstairs. I undress slowly, my muscles tired and aching. I throw my clothes on the floor like waste paper. The water burns my skin but I slowly sink until I am completely immersed, my hair dancing around my face in slow motion. I close my eyes.

I hear a muffled knock on the door. When I re-emerge, my mum is folding my clothes, crouching on the bathroom floor. I rub the soap from my eyes and look at my toes that creep out of the suds, covered with plasters.

“How was class?” my mum asks.

“Tiring.”

“And this new guy Alex?”

“Too good.”

“Better than you?”

“Yes.”

My mum runs her fingers through my wet hair: “Should you practise more?”

“I already practise two hours every day. I also need to study.”

“But if you want to do the auditions for La Scala…”

The moonlight filters through the slats of the blind, striping her face. She takes my feet into her hands and rubs them gently.

“It’s my life not yours,” I say.

“Don’t talk to me like that.”

My mum wanted to be a ballerina but her family couldn’t afford to pay for her ballet classes. Once, I saw a photo of her dressed up in a light blue tutu, taking a bow in front of an invisible audience. The colours were faded and there was a blemish on the lower part of her face, so I couldn’t figure out whether she was smiling or not.

“I’m sorry, I’m just tired.”

“I’ll bring you something to eat.” She leaves the door slightly open, the light of the corridor illuminating the flowery tiles of the wall. I fall asleep in the cooling water, my head resting on the edge of the tub.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Alex and I rehearse two hours every day after my class with Maria. Emma supervises the choreography, sitting on a white plastic chair, swinging her head left and right to the rhythm. Alex does not seem to struggle with anything. I sweat too much, weigh too much, forget too much.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Some days Emma dances with Alex to show me what I do wrong. As they sway around the room in perfect harmony, they seem to hear each other’s thoughts, their steps echo in tune. I feel like an off-key note.

“We have to do this together, you know,” Alex says to me as we take a break, stretching at the barre. “It’s like finding a compromise.” I think that I’m not good at compromising but I nod.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

My horoscope says: “It is important for you to keep at least one foot on the ground, as powerful emotions are likely to take over the scene.” As Alex lifts my body in the air, his hands on my thighs, my back arched backwards to form a right angle with my hips, I wonder if the “foot on the ground” thing is physical or metaphorical. I start liking our practise, our stretching breaks, the cigarette he smokes before we go back home, hungry and exhausted.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

I learn that he is always a bit early with the tempo, that pirouettes are not his strength, but he jumps so high he seems to defy gravity. I learn that our bodies have a way of reading each other that slips beyond the things we tell – or fail to tell – each other. When my fingers brush against his shoulders I imagine I am opening windows, letting his light peek through the clouds.

When he runs after me, Emma repeats: “Cecilia is the direction you are going Alex! She is your path!”

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Emma hasn’t come to class today because her daughter is sick, so we have to practise without her. I look at Alex and myself in the mirror, at how his tattoos jar with my pale skin, his hair band that barely holds his curls back with my perfect chignon. The floor is dusty and covered in signs left by my pointes. We try the choreography until the sunshine does not come through the windows anymore, and we are left with the feeble light that comes from the bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

“I’d better go home for dinner,” I say as I put on my oversized sweater. Alex nods.

“Do you want me to walk you?” He has never asked me that before.

“That’d be nice.”

He smiles, picks up his bag. I open the door and, as I am about to walk out, he closes it from behind me, covering my hand with his. He kisses me, and I taste mint and smoke and remember when, as a child, I was looking at him with Camilla, wanting to be like her. I am like her now but I’m not sure it is a good thing.

*

On Saturday Sara insists that we go to a house party thrown by a boy from Anna’s high school. I drink too much beer, the kitchen table is sticky, and the people keep jumping in the swimming pool with their clothes on.

I love you like a love song baby. Anna and Sara drag me to the centre of the living room to dance. I look at them and copy their moves; the rhythm is repetitive and shallow but it’s nice to let go. And I keep hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat. Anna takes my hand and makes me spin; she doesn’t seem to hate me now, she looks beautiful in her leather dress, her curls loose. A tall boy comes up to me, offers me a plastic cup filled with wine. I, I love you like a love song baby.

“That’s Marco, he’s from my school, go and talk to him,” Sara whispers in my ear and pushes me towards him.

“So you’re a dancer,” Marco smiles, a bit awkwardly. He is wearing a nice, ironed shirt. I take the cup from his hand and gulp down the wine.

“Yes, but what I should really have been is a singer. Everyone kept saying it for years.”

“Wow. Really?” He sips from his drink. He seems more confident now, enjoying the idea of me singing for him.

“No. That was a joke. No one has ever told me that.”

He stares at me, confused, then laughs out loud. Before he can say anything, I feel the weight of someone’s arm across my chest and I turn and see Alex, a cigarette between his full lips, a wrinkled blue shirt looking too big on him. The music grows louder and Alex carries me outside, leaving Marco and his ironed shirt empty handed. The street is quiet and still.

“Let’s go home,” Alex says. He drops his cigarette, and I watch it glowing and bursting into sparks as it hits the ground. He drives me home, in silence. Re-peat-peat-peat-peat. The screen of my phone illuminates with Sara’s message: “you okay? Why did you leave?” I type: “practise tomorrow,” and wonder why I keep doing this, going to ballet classes, spending most of my days with people I don’t really like. I come to the painful realisation that I don’t have an answer.

Alex kisses me goodnight in front of my door, then drives away. From outside, I see my parents’ faces lit up in front of the television screen. I unlock the front door with difficulty, then walk up the stairs to my room. I hear the soft steps of my father’s slippers following me from the living room. I jump on my bed and hide under the sheets, my alcohol smelling clothes still on. My father’s head pops in, accompanied by a gentle knock.

“How was the party?”

“Fun.”

“Your mum is upset. The recital is in one week.”

“Tell her it’s fine.”

He nods. Doesn’t leave. It looks as if he is about to speak but then he closes my bedroom door behind him, and I am left alone in the dark.

*

I draw a big amount of brown eyeliner across Sara’s eyelids and smudge it with my fingertips, as we have run out of eye shadow. She is struggling to flatten her chest inside her bright red tutu.

“Can you stay still?” I ask.

“Why do I have big boobs?” she moans.

I spread some glitter on her cheeks and chest, then I fix my own headdress, whose orange and yellow feathers won’t stay in place. We are standing in a corner of the changing room, next to a harlequin costume that is hanging from the ceiling and keeps ticking our necks with its sleeves. The room is an explosion of colours, as girls and boys of every age walk around, trying to find space for their own bags and costumes, swearing whenever a hairpin falls and gets lost on the messy floor. Most of the older girls are stretching, leg warmers wrapped around their ankles and feet. The place smells of sweat and deodorant. The music that is playing upstairs, on the stage, is muffled by the buzzing that reigns backstage. Every now and then, the head of a ballet teacher pops in and tells us to lower our voices.

I crouch on the floor and close my eyes, focusing on the sound of Sara’s hands rifling through my make-up bag. I wonder where Alex is; he is late and I am meant to perform with him right after the dance with Sara and the other girls. I feel Sara’s fingertips finishing the touches of my winged eyeliner.

“You’re up next,” Maria’s voice comes from the stairs. I know she is talking to us, even before she walks down and repeats: “Cecilia, Sara you’re up next. Then I want Anna, Clara, Francesca, Paola! Quick!” She grasps Sara and me by the arms and drags us upstairs. We leave the changing room and enter the darkness of the stairs. We go past younger ballerinas who are already waiting in their yellow tutus, biting their nails. Emma’s husband is smoking by the door at the top of the stairs, keeping it open; the cold air makes me shudder and paranoid abut my muscles.

Maria speaks on my behalf: “Shut the door, Mario! Can’t you see they’re about to go on stage?” She keeps holding our arms, as if we weren’t able to walk by ourselves.

I stand behind the curtains with Sara, looking at the girls on the other side of the stage, as they twitch their hands and fix their shoulder straps and headdresses. Emma presents our choreography, a dance inspired by The Firebird with music by Igor Stravinsky. Then the audience applauds, and the lights go down.

My pointe shoes do not make any sound as I walk towards the centre of the stage with Sara, the other ballerinas spreading around us. I look up and smile; the light suddenly illuminates me, and the music starts playing. I stare at the upper part of the audience, where faces seem to melt into one another. My arms are wings, my fingers are light and long, my palms are speaking. When I jump near the curtains, I see Maria’s apprehensive face. She is counting to help us keep the rhythm. I finish the dance landing on my feet after an assemblè. The audience claps and shouts, I can see my mum’s proud face in the crowd; she is sitting in the front row.

We run backstage, and, in a second, a thousand hands are touching me, removing my tutu, working on my chignon and make up.

“She’s up next!” Maria says. Sound and light operators make room, pushing younger girls behind. Alex, already in his white costume, is stretching his neck with his eyes closed as if I wasn’t here. I stand half naked behind the curtains, trying to fit into my empire dress, as Maria wipes off my Firebird make up with a wet tissue. An assistant covers my cheeks in white foundation and my lips and cheekbones with red lipstick.

“The hair!” Maria removes the pins of my chignon, pulling the skin of my head. My eyes tear up but I have no time to recompose myself, as Maria pushes me towards the stage. I feel Alex’s hand into mine and I follow him.

There is only the two of us now, our bodies curved one on the other like two piled up spoons. We start dancing in the silence and our shoes echo on the floor, our breaths fill the air. We dance in circles, as if there was a revolving door between us, its glass never letting us touch each other. Then the music starts, his fingers grip mine, and I start doing my pirouettes. In a second, my neck paralyses. I lose my balance and fall; I feel Alex’s hands letting me go as I land on my ankle. A shooting pain makes me gasp. I try to stand up as gracefully as I can, but my leg cannot carry me and I fall again. I hear Maria’s whispers behind the curtains: “stop the music for fuck’s sake.” Silence, followed by Maria’s and Emma’s light steps on stage.

“I am sorry but we have to interrupt the recital, our ballerina has been injured, nothing serious, no need to worry.” Emma speaks into her microphone, and her words echo in the theatre. I raise my eyes and see the audience, all silent and staring back at me. One small figure detaches from the mass, the gracious silhouette of my mum, running towards the stage. She is wearing her best silk dress.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I whisper, as Maria and Alex lift me up and carry me backstage.

Back in the darkness of the curtains, the cold pavement is like freezing water against my back. My mum and Alex remove my ballet shoes, exposing my damaged feet that I don’t want anyone to look at.

“You’ll be alright,” Alex tells me.

*

The parking lot is empty in the early morning light, except for Maria’s light blue beetle car. I know I can always find her here in the morning; she prepares the choreographies before the afternoon classes. From the window of the ground floor, I see her standing at the barre, stretching her arms. I limp inside with my crutches.

“You look better,” Maria says when she sees me. There is a freshness in her face that I have never noticed, maybe it is the summer air or her blonde hair, always messily tied up, now loose and brushed.

“Last week before I can put these crutches away,” I smile.

“When do you finish your physical therapy?”

“Two more months.”

“So you can only do the winter recital. That’s fine. You can catch up with the choreographies afterwards, maybe you can come here every day after lunch, we’ll work together.” She speaks hastily, as if she was eager to make things go back to the way they were as fast as she can.

“I’m not coming back here,” I blurt it out all at once.

“What did you say?”

“I’m not coming back to classes in September,” I repeat.

“Why?”

“I want to focus on school, then try to go abroad for university.”

Maria takes a strand of my hair and smoothes it with her nervous touch.

“Think about it. You still have time to change your mind.”

“Yes,” I say, but I know I won’t. “Thanks for everything you have done for me. I’ll come back and visit.”

Maria seems to struggle with words.

“You are one of our best dancers,” she says.

“You have been a great teacher. You pushed us to our limits.” I turn around, the wooden floor creaking under my crutches.

Her voice follows me: “Alex says you haven’t been replying to his calls.”

“Say sorry to him from me. I’ll see him around, I guess.”

About the author

CostanzaCostanza Casati is a writer and screenwriter. After completing her Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick, she currently works as a freelancer journalist for the Canadian magazine HOLR and as a screenwriter for Erminio Perocco’s feature-length documentary about the 16th century Venetian painter Tintoretto. The first chapter of her historical novel has been published in Manifest: New Writing from Warwick and her short film Sguardi is available on Youtube.

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.

The Dancer

Dancer letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Somebody lied,” I said.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mary.”

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

“It was a Normande,” Don said.

“What?”

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you ever write to her?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

“Do you know her?” Nancy asked me.

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

About the author

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

 

Short stories by Philip Roth you can read for free right now

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Celebrated as “the last of the great white male” American authors of the 20th Century, Philip Roth has died at the age of 85.

Rather than devote pages (or pixels, as may more accurately be the case) to an obituary recounting the same great feats of an author who has towered over the US literary scene for decades, we have endeavoured to find and bring to you short stories, as well as one excellent piece of non-fiction, written by the man himself.

All the following texts are available online for free.

Conversion of the Jews

Extract:

If one should compare the light of day to the life of man: sunrise to birth; sunset—the dropping down over the edge— to death; then as Ozzie Freedman wiggled through the trapdoor of the synagogue roof, his feet kicking backwards bronco-style at Rabbi Binder’s outstretched arms-at that moment the day was fifty years old. As a rule, fifty or fifty-five reflects accurately the age of late afternoons in
November, for it is in that month, during those hours, that one’s awareness of light seems no longer a matter of seeing, but of hearing: light begins clicking away. In fact, as Ozzie locked shut the trapdoor in the rabbi’s face, the sharp click of the bolt into the lock might momentarily have been mistaken for the sound of the heavier gray that had just throbbed through the sky.

Defender of the faith

Extract:

Long ago, someone had taught Grossbart the sad rule that only lies can get the truth. Not that I couldn’t believe in the fact of Halpern’s crying; his eyes alwaysseemed red-rimmed. But, fact or not, it became a lie when Grossbart uttered it. He was entirely strategic. But then—it came with the force of indictment—so was I! There are strategies of aggression, but there are strategies of retreat as well. And so, recognizing that I myself had not been without craft and guile, I told him what I knew. “It is the Pacific.”

He let out a small gasp, which was not a lie. “I’ll tell him. I wish it was otherwise.”

“So do I.”

He jumped on my words. “You mean you think you could do something? A change, maybe?”

“No, I couldn’t do a thing.”

“Don’t you know anybody over at C. and A.?”

“Grossbart, there’s nothing I can do,” I said. “If your orders are for the Pacific, then it’s the Pacific.”

“But Mickey—”

“Mickey, you, me—everybody, Grossbart. There’s nothing to be done. Maybe the war’ll end before you go. Pray for a miracle.”

“But—”

“Good night, Grossbart.” I settled back, and was relieved to feel the springs unbend as Grossbart rose to leave. I could see him clearly now; his jaw had dropped, and he looked like a dazed prizefighter. I noticed for the first time a little paper bag in his hand.

“Grossbart.” I smiled. “My gift?”

“Oh, yes, Sergeant. Here—from all of us.” He handed me the bag. “It’s egg roll.”

“Egg roll?” I accepted the bag and felt a damp grease spot on the bottom. I opened it, sure that Grossbart was joking.

“We thought you’d probably like it. You know—Chinese egg roll. We thought you’d probably have a taste for—”

“Your aunt served egg roll?”

“She wasn’t home.”

“Grossbart, she invited you. You told me she invited you and your friends.”

“I know,” he said. “I just reread the letter. Next week.”

I got out of bed and walked to the window. “Grossbart,” I said. But I was not calling to him.

“What?”

“What are you, Grossbart? Honest to God, what are you?”

I think it was the first time I’d asked him a question for which he didn’t have an immediate answer.

“How can you do this to people?” I went on.

“Sergeant, the day away did us all a world of good. Fishbein, you should see him, he loves Chinese food.”

“But the Seder,” I said.

“We took second best, Sergeant.”

Rage came charging at me. I didn’t sidestep. “Grossbart, you’re a liar!” I said. “You’re a schemer and a crook. You’ve got no respect for anything. Nothing at all. Not for me, for the truth—not even for poor Halpern! You use us all—”

“Sergeant, Sergeant, I feel for Mickey. Honest to God, I do. I love Mickey. I try—”

“You try! You feel!” I lurched toward him and grabbed his shirt front. I shook him furiously. “Grossbart, get out! Get out and stay the hell away from me. Because if I see you, I’ll make your life miserable You understand that?”

“Yes.”

I let him free, and when he walked from the room, I wanted to spit on the floor where he had stood. I couldn’t stop the fury. It engulfed me, owned me, till it seemed I could only rid myself of it with tears or an act of violence. I snatched from the bed the bag Grossbart had given me and, with all my strength, threw it out the window. And the next morning, as the men policed the area around the barracks, I heard a great cry go up from one of the trainees, who had been anticipating only his morning handful of cigarette butts and candy wrappers. “Egg roll!” he shouted. “Holy Christ, Chinese goddam egg roll!”

An open letter to Wikipedia 

Extract:

Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend. Like most every other novelist I know, once I had what Henry James called “the germ”—in this case, Mel Tumin’s story of muddleheadedness at Princeton—I proceeded to pretend and to invent Faunia Farley; Les Farley; Coleman Silk; Coleman’s family background; the girlfriends of his youth; his brief professional career as a boxer; the college where he rises to be a dean; his colleagues both hostile and sympathetic; his field of study; his bedeviled wife; his children both hostile and sympathetic; his schoolteacher sister, Ernestine, who is his strongest judge at the conclusion of the book; his angry, disapproving brother; and five thousand more of those biographical bits and pieces that taken together form the fictional character at the center of a novel.

 

Grammar rules and how to break them: the run-on sentence

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Breaking rules are what all the cool cats are doing these days (and have been doing for years, to be honest with you – it isn’t something that goes out of fashion). Even though new writers may find themselves drawn to the myriad number of ‘rules’ for writing that exist on the internet, there are a lot of writing ‘Dos and Don’ts’ that were made to be ignored – so long as you do it right, of course.

Chief among these are often rules of grammar, syntax and punctuation. Not least because attempts to standardise language and the written word often leads to the suppression or marginalisation of communities and peoples.

Grammar rules do exist for a reason; yet learning when and how to ignore certain rules can enhance your writing.

To give you an example, in this article we’ll look at the run-on sentence – and show you how you can throw all conventional wisdom out of the proverbial window in order to write one hell’uva good story.

Cool runnings – an introduction to the run-on sentence

First things first; the basics: run-on sentences, also known as fused sentences, occur when two complete sentences are squashed together without using a coordinating conjunction or proper punctuation, such as a period or a semicolon. Run-on sentences can be short or long. A long sentence isn’t necessarily a run-on sentence.

What’s the problem with using a run-on sentence?

A run-on sentence lacks the correct punctuation to tell the reader where to pause or to signal that a new idea is being expressed. The reader may be confused about the meaning of the sentence or have to make their own decision about where to pause.

Correcting a run-on sentence can help your sentences read more smoothly and should help your reader understand what you’re trying to say more easily. The independent clauses help the sentences make sense and they are much tighter and concise by comparison to the run-on sentence structures.

Breaking the grammar rule

Now, we’re not advocating ignoring the rules around run-on sentences completely: you can’t use them for everything you write, constantly. But if you understand how to conveniently forget about the grammar rule around them from time to time, you can help bring some new-found life and variation to your stories that will leave your readers gasping for breath – and gasping for more of your writing.

In the spirit of one of the most frequently touted rules of writing – we aren’t going to tell you how to do this; but rather show you, by using examples from some of the greatest writers who didn’t think twice about what grammatical rules they may or may not have been breaking.

First up – and perhaps not surprisingly – we have James Joyce’s Ulysses, which  famously concludes with Penelope, or Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, which has 24,048 words punctuated by two periods and one comma. Here’s a part of the final episode:

“…I suppose he was thinking of his father I wonder is he awake thinking of me or dreaming am I in it who gave him that flower he said he bought he smelt of some kind of drink not whisky or stout or perhaps the sweety kind of paste they stick their bills up with some liquor Id like to sip those richlooking green and yellow expensive drinks those stagedoor johnnies drink with the opera hats I tasted one with my finger dipped out of that American that had the squirrel talking stamps with father he had all he could do to keep himself from falling asleep after the last time we took the port and potted meat it had a fine salty taste yes because I felt lovely and tired myself and fell asleep as sound as a top the moment I popped straight into bed till that thunder woke me up as if the world was coming to an end God be merciful to us I thought the heavens were coming down about us to punish when I blessed myself and said a Hail Mary like those awful thunderbolts in Gibraltar and they come and tell you theres no God what could you do if it was running and rushing about nothing only make an act of contrition the candle I lit that evening in Whitefriars street chapel for the month of May see it brought its luck though hed scoff if he heard because he never goes to church mass or meeting he says your soul you have no soul inside only grey matter because he doesnt know what it is to have one yes when I lit the lamp yes…”

If you find this difficult to follow, you’re not alone. At the time of writing, this soliloquy contained the longest sentence ever written at 4,391 words, which made it the master of all run on sentences.

Nonetheless, while you might not want to go quite as far as Joyce, you can see how ignoring conventional grammatical wisdom can enhance the intensity, voice, and style of your writing. It helps your words to flow freely, adding life and vigour to your writing.

For our second example, we’re turning to another literary great, David Foster Wallace. His short story Incarnations of burned children was first published in Esquire magazine and you can read it online for free (do it now).  The story consists of only nine sentences, and yet is 1100 words. The breathless run-on sentences intentionally lend to a panicked, anxious reading, a messy and somewhat incoherent babble as neither the narrator nor the Daddy nor the Mommy can slow down and think rationally.

Here are the first three sentences of the story, to give you a flavour of how Wallace breaks traditional grammatical rules to such devastating effect:

“The Daddy was around the side of the house hanging a door for the tenant when he heard the child’s screams and the Mommy’s voice gone high between them. He could move fast, and the back porch gave onto the kitchen, and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner’s blue jet and the floor’s pool of water still steaming as its many arms extended, the toddler in his baggy diaper standing rigid with steam coming off his hair and his chest and shoulders scarlet and his eyes rolled up and mouth open very wide and seeming somehow separate from the sounds that issued, the Mommy down on one knee with the dishrag dabbing pointlessly at him and matching the screams with cries of her own, hysterical so she was almost frozen. Her one knee and the bare little soft feet were still in the steaming pool, and the Daddy’s first act was to take the child under the arms and lift him away from it and take him to the sink, where he threw out plates and struck the tap to let cold wellwater run over the boy’s feet while with his cupped hand he gathered and poured or flung more cold water over his head and shoulders and chest, wanting first to see the steam stop coming off him, the Mommy over his shoulder invoking God until he sent her for towels and gauze if they had it, the Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose, not yet aware of how smoothly he moved or that he’d ceased to hear the high screams because to hear them would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done to help his child, whose screams were regular as breath and went on so long they’d become already a thing in the kitchen, something else to move quickly around.”

Protect your voice

If we were to ‘correct’ the work of Joyce and Wallace (to name just two authors who ignore the run-on sentence rule), we may make them conform more closely with standardised English language; but both works would lose something fundamental in doing so. They would lose their energy; they would lose their voice.

Since a writer’s voice has more to do with what meaning is or isn’t conveyed to the reader than the grammatical rules and syntactical structures we place upon our written language, these stories would have their fundamental essence rearranged and, ultimately diminished.

So, if you find yourself locked in a burst of frenzied writing energy and wake the next morning covered in raw coffee beans and ink (we’ve all been there) to find that your prose is riddled with run-on sentences; don’t worry. Sit back, re-read what you’ve written, and remember the timeless (though slightly paraphrased) words of Doc Brown from Back to the Future: “Rules? Where we’re going, we don’t need rules…”

 

 

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Helen Rye

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The world of a short story may be more condensed than the world of a novel, but its emotional impact can be as wide-ranging as a novel’s. Indeed, whether you want to call it micro-fiction, sudden fiction, smokelong lit, short-shorts or flash fiction, writing short stories requires dedication, skill and applying new techniques to make them zing. But, when done right, these pieces of fiction can offer a true – albeit fleeting – moment of literary delight to both writers and readers.

With booksellers reporting a surge in the popularity of the short story, Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with one of those writers brave enough to embrace the short story as their form of choice.

Helen Rye has arrived on the short-story scene with quite the onomatopoeic splash and bang since her debut short story was nominated for the 2016 Bridport Prize – with her stories variously winning or being shortlisted for a number of other prestigious short story competitions since.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

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

RYE

I live in Norwich, UK, a beautiful city packed to the seams with talented writers, due in part to the legendary MA creative writing programme at the UEA. I don’t have an MA, but I have benefited via a sort of trickle-down effect from some brilliant classes and writing groups run by people who do.

My main work background is in homelessness and drug work, but I’ve also been a lab technician, a classroom assistant, a cleaner, an admin worker, a voluntary theatre company director and an underqualified parent. I’ve wanted to be writer since I was eight and was encouraged by a couple of English teachers to pursue it seriously, but I dropped in and out of school as a teenager. After being told in sixth form that there was no way to study creative writing beyond school, I ended up leaving to work in a science lab, studying physics part-time at a tech college.

I was always writing in my head, but too afraid to put it down on paper for such a long time in case I turned out not to be any good at it after all. For years I kept telling myself that soon I would write, until I was staring down the barrel of a milestone birthday and decided it was now or never. I took a couple of courses and joined a writing group, where I was introduced to flash fiction via a Kit de Waal story. I REALLY wanted to learn how to do that, so had a stab at it, and that story – the first thing I’d ever subbed anywhere – ended up being shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. That gave me enough of a confidence boost to try writing some more and (I know this sounds incredibly jammy), the next story I sent out won the October 2016 Bath Flash Fiction Award, out of 700 entries.

I’ve since had other stories published in various online and print journals and anthologies and went on to win the Reflex Fiction Prize in the summer of 2017, as well as unceremoniously crashing and burning in other contests. Confidence is such a strange thing, isn’t it. I’m still really reticent about sending stuff out, and am fairly brutally aware of my shortcomings as a writer. The last few months have been a particularly busy and difficult time in my life, but I’m hoping now to press through this hesitancy – basically, to get over myself and get subbing.

INTERVIEWER

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

RYE

No, it’s writing. That’s my thing. I also love music, though, and I have been part of an improv comedy troupe, although I’ve come to the conclusion that my brain just doesn’t work fast enough for that. I do love the creative, collaborative nature of music and of improvised theatre, though, and the incredible sense of teamwork and connection that comes with both – I get that from the writing community, too  – the flash fiction writers are my lovely dysfunctional extended family. We get each other in a way that nobody else does, beautiful obsessive weirdos that we are.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

RYE

Oh, gosh. Well everyone who can write a beautifully constructed sentence that takes my breath away with its emotional impact, and anyone who can produce a flash story that shines with heart and poetry. So many writers. My mentor, Tania Hershman – as well as being a wonderful, joyful writer, she is a shiny, glowing human full of life and encouragement. One or two of my closest writing friends who would probably be embarrassed if I named them, but they know who they are. People who give so much to the writing community in editing journals, helping other writers develop, writing incredible stories themselves. People who always make time to workshop your story twenty minutes before the deadline you forgot you had. People full of kindness, humour and humility who are willing to slice open a bit of their heart and lay it on the page, make themselves vulnerable in order to say something worth saying. These guys keep me sane and keep me writing with their support and encouragement.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

RYE

I had two dedicated and (here comes that word) inspirational English teachers at school who both said they were keeping stuff I’d written because they thought I’d be a famous writer one day. Sorry to disappoint you there, guys. But thank you so much for your encouragement – I definitely wouldn’t have tried to write at all if it weren’t for you. Then in more recent years I did some creative writing courses with former UEA people Lisa Selvidge, Stephen Carver, Andy McDonnell and Ian Nettleton. They’re all utterly fantastic teachers, genuinely.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to flash fiction?

RYE

Flash is everything that’s best in writing, to me. It’s closer to poetry than it is to longer fiction, I think – the condensing of ideas and feeling, the need for single or pared down imagery and language. At its best (i.e. other people’s) it’s a laser-cut jewel of perfect shining prose. It can break your heart in pieces in such few words. I love poetry too, but I don’t understand it well enough to write it well and I relate better to the clearer narrative of flash. A great flash story will make me feel something, and that’s almost the whole reason I read. Writing it lets me work out and express what I feel or think about something better than anything I know. I’d trot out that old line that it’s faster to write flash than longer fiction, but for most flash writers I know that’s not actually true. When you have few words to tell a story you try to get every one of them right. I hope there’s no function on my computer that can tell you how long I’ve spent per word on a given story – I’m sure whole novels have been written faster and better.

INTERVIEWER

How easy do you find it to move between different writing forms/mediums – can you balance writing a novel with crafting flash fiction or short stories?

RYE

I’m focussing on trying to get better at writing flash at the moment, but have accidentally written some hybrid pieces that stray towards prose poetry territory. I have begun thinking about returning to the shambolic collection of scenes on my laptop that I’ve sometimes described as a novel draft, and I have a couple of children’s fiction drafts and ideas I’m wanting to find the time to return to. How easy I’ll find that shift, I’ll let you know when I try it!

INTERVIEWER

How do you maintain your motivation for writing?

RYE

The crazy obsessive in me can’t let it be. It’s how my brain works, I think in terms of stories and eccentric language and metaphors, and it’s one way I try to make sense of the world. If I didn’t keep writing now I’d probably develop some other, more self-destructive habits, so I need to keep it up, I think. And the support and encouragement of writer friends. I’d be weeping under a duvet without them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel writers should feel any ethical responsibility in their roles?

RYE

I don’t think you can divorce ethical responsibility from anything you do. Nobody wants to read preachy writing, but sometimes what drives us to write is an unbearable sense of injustice, or the suffering of other people. And maybe occasionally a story will make someone think – or rather, feel – deeper – who knows. Doing our absolute best not to be a part of endemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism etc is everyone’s responsibility, and that extends to art.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?

RYE

No. Maybe I should, I don’t know. I kinda just write and hope it might end up beautiful in some way, say what I want it to say, and that someone somewhere will read it and not completely hate it.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry (if we can call it thus)? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

RYE

I’m a mum from Norfolk and I’ve only been submitting stories for about 18 months – I’m not sure I’m aware of general trends within the writing industry… I think flash is becoming more mainstream, maybe? There seem to be more opportunities for chapbooks and collections to be published commercially than a year or so ago, which can only be fairly wonderful. Maybe the literary world is catching up with us flash writers, here at the tiny but sharpened cutting edge of short story writing…

INTERVIEWER

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

RYE

I’ve just joined the editorial board of Ellipsis Zine, a fantastic online flash fiction magazine, and also been asked to act as fiction editor for another print journal. Both of those are incredibly exciting for me. I have a back catalogue of mothballed flash stories in need of editing and sending out and I’m hoping desperately to find the time and confidence to do that now. I have that half-written and possibly very bad novel hidden in a dark corner and I need to brush the beetles off that and see if it’s worth working on. I also have some children’s picture book texts I’m trying to psych myself up to send to an agent. And an idea for a children’s novel that’s been occupying a small space in my head for about a decade. What I really need is someone to prod me with sticks until I get over myself and just do this stuff because who knows, hey. It’ll definitely never get anywhere if nobody ever sees it.  And that’s what writer-friends are for.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

RYE

No.

Kidding, but they’re so hard! Ok, erm…

Whiteness would have made him bulletproof.

 

 

 

Lorrie Moore Reads Antonya Nelson

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The New Yorker fiction podcast has a great episode up right now, with Lorrie Moore joining Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “Naked Ladies,” by Antonya Nelson, from a 1992 issue of the magazine.

https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/thenewyorker/?share=1#file=/audio/json/837438/

Here’s an excerpt from Nelson’s excellent short story below:

“Laura Laughlin, 17, and her family attended the annual Easter frolic of the Houses, the family her mother worked for in Eastborough, Kansas, a rich, incorporated city in the middle of Wichita, while Laura’s father was away showing his paintings. Laura’s mother took care of the House children, especially 4-year-old Mikey, a Downs syndrome baby, leaving her own children to fend for themselves. Laura’s father refused any invitations to the Houses; he hated it that they called his wife Nana, and that she had to wear an ugly smock to work. Mr. House greeted the overdressed Laughlins in his tuxedo jacket and sweatsuit. In one room, there were drawings of nude women and one, oddly, of Laura’s father’s somber paintings. Laura wandered through the house, saw a pristine studio and compared it to her father’s cold and chaotic back-porch studio. She found her mother with Mr. House and Mikey, who had her mother’s wedding ring. He obviously played with it a lot. During the egg hunt, Laura and her sister found chocolates shaped like naked women, eggs with crude riddles. She told Pammy that Mr. House and their mother were having an affair. When her father arrived unexpectedly, she led him to her mother, carefully avoiding his painting. Her mother was asleep next to Mikey. As they left, Laura watched her father look at the nude women, and was surprised that his eyes skipped over his own painting. She thought that the nudes could be of her mother, done by Mr. House. They never speak about it. Her mother never went back to the Houses. Her father stopped traveling. Laura intercepted the letter that returned her mother’s wedding ring.”

Read the full article on the New Yorker