Snail explains his harpoon to a captive audience

Frankie McMillan 2013

They trawl through long grass –
believers of Cupid

so who is Snail to tell them
that not all his endeavours

come off?  There is the issue
of his short sightedness

last time he fired his love dart
it missed        took seven

days to make another.
Once he shot her in the head

he had to crawl over rough surfaces
make slick promises

about the enduring path of
always           forever

his audience, Snail knows
do not study the restraints

of courtship
or carbonate darts

but they do like his double glazed shell
the privacy it affords.

The Hospital Pass

Gayle Cook 2013

20 Oct 2004

Dear sweetheart,

I send a wish your way,
Of happiness today,
And looking to the future,
May you ever healthy stay.

Have a wonderful 21st birthday.  Love you to bits.  Mumsy.

Oh Mumsy.  When I saw the email message headed “You’ve received a Dilly Card from Maz Dally” I freaked.  I thought someone had spammed me.  I couldn’t help but look, and when I did, I had to look away.  I cried.

I can’t think about this right now.  I’ll think about it tomorrow, after my party.


Mumsy, I wish I could tell you about my fancy dress party.  We boogied around a bonfire on the beach and didn’t crash ‘til 3 a.m.  It was the first time all the family had been together at our house since the funeral.  I dressed as a winger, in a number 11 jersey splattered in mud.  Julez, my best-ist friend, came as a hooker – as in a prostitute, not a rugby player.  She looked hot.  Bitch.

Dad came as loosehead prop, complete with cauliflower ears and a bleeding nose.  I know what you’d think: you guys didn’t have any sons and that’s why Dad taught me to kick a ball and be passionate about rugby.

Dancing all night in rugby boots is hard on your feet.

20 Oct 2008

Happy 25th to my dearest daughter,

Here’s a thought: Isn’t it splendid that they banned those pesky chlorofluorocarbos (or however the heck you spell it)?  The ouzo hole is closing back up.  How cool is that?  Now fewer people will develop skin cancer.  Me bitter?  Never.

Lots of hugs, sunshine and giggles.  Mumsy.

The moment I saw the Dilly Cards logo, I knew, and it hit me like a drop out from over the halfway mark.  I picture you now, in hospital pyjamas, propped up by pillows, laptop on your knees, tapping away, as optimistic as the pill bottles on your bedside table.  You had such faith in those little pills, Mumsy.  Faith in the ingenuity of humanity to cure illness, fix anything and make the world a better place.

I got googling.  This year, the ozone hole is the same shape as your first skin graft; but unlike your moles, it’s shrinking.  The hole has been healing for twenty years, ever since ozone-zapping CFCs in fridges, aerosol cans and stuff were sin-binned.

Why?  Why didn’t you heal?

I told Julez about the “ouzo hole” and she laughed so hard she nearly fell off her bar stool.  ‘There are two half-empty glasses on the bar,’ she said, ‘and it’s your round.’

21 Oct 2008

Dear Dilly Cards

Please cancel all future-dated e-cards set up by Maz Dally.  They’re way offside.  She died, you see, five years ago, on my twentieth birthday. 

Fab.  Ta.  Lexie Dally


No news from the other side for almost three years.

We had the biggest snowfall I’ve ever seen in my life.  Beautiful.  Pure.  White.  You’d have loved it, Mumsy.  Julez and I threw snowballs until our fingers froze and I asked, ‘If the climate is warming, why is the weather cold?’

Julez rolled around in the snow, like a cat offering her tummy for a rub, and said, ‘Cold weather happens, hot weather happens, climate changes – get over it.  Ergo, global warming is a crock.’


Stink.  Today we had an even bigger snowfall.  What’s going on?  Perhaps global weather over time is what we expect, but local conditions at a point in time are what we get.

Dad told me it’s the warmest winter for a hundred years.

‘Back the truck up,’ I said.  ‘Snow and warmth?  How can that be?’

He said that great snowfalls don’t happen when the air is colder than normal, but when it’s warmer, because – and there always has to be a “because” with Dad –  because warm air holds more water vapour than cold air, and the more moisture the bigger the chance of snow.

I’m over snow.


Dad took me to a rugby match: 20,000 referees shouting at a paddock and more drama off the field than on.  Just before the full-time hooter, the blindside flanker offloaded the ball to the lock, who crashed into a wall of defense.

Dad yelled, ‘Hospital pass.’

‘Ouch,’ I said.

St John’s carted the injured man off the field, while play carried on around them.  Dad blathered on about people not prepared to take the tackle, who passed the buck and saved themselves by hurting others, and that the 2.5 degrees warming threshold – beyond which it’s difficult to keep the wheels of civilization turning – was just years away or may have already happened.  I didn’t see the fireworks coming; until he blurted out that he’s marching off to the Grub Hills transition town to plant nuts, fruit trees and whatnot.  ‘There’ll be famine, feudalism and fascism,’ he said, through clenched teeth.

Is he exaggerating?  Yes.  Though not by much.

20 Oct 2013

Cheer up my darling,

Turning 30 isn’t the worst thing that can happen.  By now, you could have a daughter just like you, so you’ll know what I had to endure.  Ha, ha.  Hope you’ve learnt to do the little worrying mother thing. 
I’m hanging out for my cocktail of chemicals.  Mr Welby is so handsome, a gorgeous hunk of an oncologist, yay, yay.
You know that I know that experimental drugs are risky, but my prognosis is so dire, that I’ve nothing to lose.

Love, the guinea pig.

Idealistic?  Possibly.  Freaky?  Very.  Do you mean well?  Definitely.

Mr Welby told us there were side effects.  Unpredictable responses.

I read on a news blog – yes, I read the news now.  Yes, I know.  I must be growing up.  Anyway, this scientific expert said that large portions of Antarctica are bucking the trend and growing colder compared to the global average.

‘Go figure,’ said Julez, and rushed out to buy some more smart drugs.

I wish you’d bucked the trend, Mumsy.  I miss you so bad.

20 Oct 2018

You’re a caring, habitual
and careful individual.
I bet it’s a gorgeous hot day
and you’ve had a beautiful day
and all is well in your world.

Happy 35th to a fabulous person from your fab mother.

I opened our kitchen cupboard today and a barrage of plastic containers and mismatched tops tumbled out.  You always had that cupboard stuffed full and it drove me batty.  I swore I’d never let it happen to me, but now every time I open it, I hear you saying, ‘Who made this mess?’ and my heart sings, ‘not me, not me, yay, yay.’

I laugh your laugh and have your eyes, but not your wisdom – still working on that one.


The Health and Safety people at my work, put up a “Caution: Watch your step” sign.  I was so busy trying to read the new sign that I tripped over the step.  ‘Silly duffer,’ I heard you say, ‘You’re as much use as a chocolate teapot.’

I may be a simple office worker, but I think the whacky weather might be a portent, an omen too easy to ignore.  Maybe, just maybe, manmade climate change is like melanoma.  It sucks.  It’s scary, but it’s preventable, and early detection saves lives.  Ours.

It’s easier to doubt, because to believe means I’d have to change, and too many lifestyle changes are not worth the hassle factor.  Don’t be mad at me.  I care, but not enough yet.  Oh look, the All Blacks are playing.

20 Oct 2023


A woman is at her peak at 40
Is a saying very true.
Don’t let small aches and dizzy spells
Worry or frazzle you.
It’s easier to cruise downhill
Than to struggle up.
The secret is to lie about your age
And wear proper makeup.

Love, Mumsy.

No, no, no.  Beautiful old fashioned lady.  Beautiful old fashioned values.

How were you to know that sunbathing in your youth would kill you?  How was I to know that burning fossil fuels over three centuries would make the planet sick or that providing sufficient food, water and energy to allow me to lead a decadent life would become a challenge?  Easy targets for a hard impact tackle.

It’s game on and it’s not a crowd pleaser.

20 Oct 2028

Just for a laugh on your 45th, here’s some simple motherly wisdom:
No matter what pressures life flings your way,
Passing on your troubles is not okay.
If you make it fun and do it snappy,
Horrid things won’t have time to grow unhappy.

Lots of peace, goodwill and hope.  Mumsy.

Even though you’ve been gone twenty-five years, your love still guides and sustains me, and whenever I question how to respond to a difficult problem, I ask myself, ‘What would Mumsy do?’  The answer has never failed me, until now.  You see, scientists have discovered that the ozone hole over Antarctica was keeping the continent cold and the planet colder than predicted.  Year-by-year, as it heals, temperatures are warming.
Ice is melting.  Drip.  Drip.  Drip.

At least Dad is safe up at Grub Hills, with his community garden, trees, water tank, windmill and network of friends.  He begs me to join him, before world order crumbles and zombie hordes flee the cities.

On the other hand, Julez says we can “fix” the climate – plant reflective crops, paint the city white, install giant mirrors to deflect the sun’s rays back into space.  She’s all excited by the news that some whiz-kids have invented a panacea, a universal remedy for the climate’s ills.  The climate-fixers plan to throw a cocktail of chemicals up into the sky to prevent sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface.

Mumsy, you didn’t choose to take those drugs, but you were terminally ill, and it was your last chance, if not to get better, then to extend your life.

We’re in serious trouble here.  It’ll be a huge effort to turn things around.  Time is almost up on the clock and we need three converted tries to win.  Is it too late to apply sunblock to the planet?

We must try, even if we might fail, and even though planet-size fixes mean planet-sized risks.

There are things I know we know, and things I know we don’t know, yet the more we know, the more I know how little we know.  You know?

19 Oct 2033

Public Notice

Dilly Cards – the best little e-card company in the world – regrets to inform our respected customers that due to seawater inundation of our server room we are unable to deliver future-dated e-cards. 

We humbly ask our esteemed customers to try again soon at – we’ll be over this hiccup in a little while.

Super duper wishes from Sally and the rest of the team.

The game is nearly over.  It was hard, very hard in the beginning.  Even through to the end it’s tough, and the middle part was a balls-up.  It seems we broke down at the break-down.

Oh Mumsy.  Just like Mr Welby, the climate-fixers seduced us, but failed to save us.  They’ve red-carded the chemical cocktail, for offloading a hospital pass to a receiver molecule that collided with a heavy bunch of tacklers.  Ouch.  It caused ozone depletion and other unpredictable side-effects.  It’s unwinnable.  After a relentless attack to save the world’s coastal cities from submersion, we now risk ultra-violet mega-death.

If only we’d had a better game plan… if only.


I walked by a mirror today and saw you looking back at me.  It’s official… I’ve morphed into you; my posture, my hair, and even the way I think in rhyme.  Some of it’s horrid, some of it’s torrid, but I’ve had some laughs along the way.

Warming’s soared past 3 degrees, the sea laps at my door, and the army’s come to force me from the home that I adore.

Heatstroke took Julez; malaria killed my baby and left me with hospital bills, so I crept out of town, headed for Grub Hills without a sound.

The Magnolia Chronicles

Leslie Mckay 2013

She finds Bishopdale
with her eyes closed
surrenders to the magnolias
perfumed licence
under a nor west arch
defiant chin out
for passion’s bumpy ride
the Spanish ancestor
revving her blood
up beyond reason
Changing the world
will only take a minute

When she exits the garden
for the subversive lens
she embraces the template
fired just off kitchen tables
and on guitars
Cleans shoes in factories
rather than design them
Harangues white male
control freaks
until they are red of face
fortified by Greer, comrades
and Monty Python

At parties she smokes Sobranies
and drinks Black Russians
in romance and gravitys
scintillating light
In the slow burning afterglow
the magnolias hear her breathe

The Knife

Paul McGuigan 2013

The blade is curved, with a deep belly,
it ends in a cut back point.

It is made from carbon steel
that has a rated hardness of 59.

The type of steel and its hardness
makes it difficult to sharpen.

He sits in the sun, for an hour,
the whetstone precise on the blade.

He checks his work, shaving the hairs
on the back of his left hand.

When the hair is gone, with a rawhide strop
he patiently rolls the edge.

He parts the wool, placing the heel of the blade
on the lower lateral muscle, under the ear.

He lifts up and back, a rotation, while holding
pressure under the chin, and the spinal cord parts.

Soon, very soon, a carcase hangs on the gambol
cooling in the concrete shed, the killing house.

He washes the knife in ice cold water,
dries it, folds it into soft cloth.

The Agency of Fate

Pat Deavoll 2013

They come up the hill at a shambling trot, three thin brown men riding thin brown horses.

From the top of the hill a gnarled ridge crabs to the north and an escarpment breaks from this to fall into a valley riddled with ancient stream beds. Behind is an immense plain of tufted brush and shallow gullies and rock outcrops as uncompromising as tombstones. The men turn and look back over the plain, back the way they’ve come. There’s nothing to see and they relax and sit lower in their saddles and one by one take tobacco from their coat pockets and roll cigarettes as slim as twigs for the tobacco is running low. Two of the men are older with creviced faces and eyes like slits and grey stubble mottles their boney cheeks. The third man is a boy in his late teens with straw blond hair and smooth even features beneath a grimy hat. He would be handsome were it not for the down-turn of his mouth and a mistrust in his washed blue eyes. The men sit and watch and smoke and no one talks for there is nothing to say that’s not already in the minds of all three. A slight wind shifts the air, stirs the brush. The shadows of the horses and riders lengthen. Still no one speaks.

A dark thing spots the horizon, curdles in the afternoon heat. It’s there for a second, then it’s gone. One man starts, his eyes crease. His cigarette pauses midair.

“I saw something.”


“Just below the horizon.”

They are all watching now but the dark thing is gone.

“There’s nothing.”


They relax, but not the one who thinks he saw something, he keeps looking, his jaw tight and his eyes on the horizon. Then he jerks his arm and points.

“There, it’s there again.”

Now they all see it, the dark thing, below the horizon and part way across the flat. Sometimes it splits in two, only to merge and split again.

The men drop their cigarettes and urge the horses over the edge of the escarpment with quick rough words, down the steep slope of scree and stunted trees. The horses sit low on their haunches and stones and grit roll from under their hooves to fan out below them. A dry stream bed parallels the slope and they pick their way along this heading east, careful lest the horses stumble. They hope their tracks won’t show amongst the smooth black rocks. After a short time they come to a junction in the stream bed and stop and look back towards the top of the escarpment. There’s nothing to see. They choose the left branch and keep on downstream, the horses’ breath coming in quick ragged bursts. The stream switches and loops back tight under the escarpment before dropping into a twisted canyon. The entrance is guarded by the bleached trunks of ancient trees from a better time. Evening approaches, they need to hide and they wonder if the canyon will do.

“Hard for them to ambush us, they can’t saddle this in the dark.”

“Have t’ do.”

They ride down into the canyon and tether the horses amongst the boulders and prepare to wait out the night. The sun sinks and the walls of the canyon turn rose, then deep brown. Darkness comes quickly. The temperature drops and the men huddle in their coats. They don’t dare a fire.  Each sinks into his thoughts. The night passes, no one comes.

They leave before dawn, leading the horses for the canyon drops steeply into a jag’d maze of glazed boulders and dead brush. The horses skitter and flatten their ears and snort and the men curse them softly and tug on the reins and cajole the horses to be quiet now, quiet. The canyon cuts deeper into the bedrock and the men know the further they go the more difficult it will be to climb out when the time comes. This worries them. The sun sidles around and suddenly it’s light and the top of the escarpment sharpens against the white gold of the sky. The men look up at the escarpment but see nothing.

Then the small wind draining the last of the night from the canyon brings the sound of distant rock fall. The men look up again and this time a black mass builds on the skyline at the farthest end of the escarpment. It grows bit by bit over the next few minutes.

“They’ve found our tracks.”

“But they can’t see us yet, not in the canyon, we’ve still got some hours on them.”

“Unless they skit round the top and head us off.”

“Maybe we should climb out t’ the south. Before they try it.”

They stand in silence, looking at one another.

“Ok let’s go south,” one man says. He looks at the walls of the canyon and points downstream to a shallow ravine of dried weed and brush and old grey sticks that breaches the orange rock. It’s about 30 feet wide and winds upward to meet the right hand edge of the canyon.

“Maybe we can climb out there.”

“We’ll have to try.”

“But what if we can’t?” says the boy.

The others mount without reply. Half way up the ravine the horses are breathing hard and sweat slicks their sides and the smell of the horses lingers in the close air. Hooves scrape across the rocks and tiny sparks from the shoes catch and die amongst the brush. The men slap the horses’  sides with their hats  and hurry  them on with curses but the animals have had little rest, little feed for days now and they founder and eventually the men dismount again and lead them, haul them upwards by the reins. By the time they reach the top of the ravine both the men and the horses are done in. They stop to rest and the boy says, “I can’t go no further,” but they know they can’t rest here for long, they can be seen, positioned as they are against the skyline. They must move. One man looks back.


There are horsemen in the stream bed, moving with the tenacity of ants. They negotiate the boulders and brush at a relentless winding trot. The men swear softly and one says, “They’re gaining on us,” and another, “There must be over a dozen of them.” They spur their flagging horses into a crazed canter across river terraces that rise in scalloped layers towards the mountains of the south.

An hour passes before the men rein the horses. They are hard under the brace of foothills fringing the southern range and the horses stumble in their need for water and rest. The sun hangs heavily in the midday sky and the brush and boulders cast small dirty shadows. The men look back across the country they’ve ridden but see no one following. They roll cigarettes and smoke quickly as they confer.

“They know where we are, just a matter of time,” one of the older men says. “We can try t’ loose them in the hills.”

“That’s if the horses can climb,” says the other, looking up at the spines and outcrops and jagged ridges of the foot hills.

“That or skit the edge, try ‘n outrun them.”

“The horses are done, we’ll never outrun them, better we hide.”

The boy says nothing. There’s exhaustion in the set of his shoulders, despair in the dullness of his eyes.

The others shift in their saddles.

“There they are.”

The posse is converging at the top of the canyon. It hovers as a mass, sways, then one by one the horsemen peel away and start across the bottom terrace. The sun splashes off the metal barrels of the rifles and they can see the silhouettes of the rifles like pickets slung above the riders’ shoulders.

“We gotta’ go up,” one man says and they turn the horses and start up a brittle ridge running back towards to the long summit massif of the foot hills. The ridge is steep and paved loosely in shale and stunted cacti and the horses begin to stumble and baulk, then fall on their knees and foam at the mouth and the men are out of the saddle and leading the horses again. They cuss and haul on the reins and break pieces of brush and beat the horses. The boy drops behind, he is on his hands and knees in the shale.  Below, the posse has reached the final terrace and comes on at a controlled and systematic gallop.

The sun slants in on a golden angle as the men reach the ridgeline. The main range of mountains opens out above them. The summits shine against a sky as vast and free as an ocean.  The peaks and shaded cwms are wrapped in glistening white. Streams pour helter-skelter over rocks, bust through small ravines, tumble into pools of silver.  The lower slopes are blanketed in a forest of emerald. A subtle wind shimmies off the mountains bringing with it the fragrance of snow and pine. It moves lightly across the men, cools their faces and shifts the horses’ manes. The men mount the horses for the last time and rein them close as they pass the remains of the tobacco. They light their cigarettes and draw deeply. There’s no hurry now. They wait.

Soon they make out the blue uniforms and peaked caps and rifles of the posse. There are twenty horsemen and they’re at the base of the foothills now, beginning to climb the ridge. They hear the hoof-beat, the clink of stirrups and the rasped breath of the horses as they scramble the rocks and scree. They hear the voices of the men cussing the horses and the barked commands of the officer at the head.

They wait.

Now they see the faces of the horsemen and the eyes, and the brass buttons and red braid and insignia on the uniforms. They see the silver spurs on the dusty boots and the tooled detail on the saddles and they smell the leather of the saddles and the sweat of the horses and the men.

Still they wait.

At one hundred paces, the horsemen stop. A command cracks the air. Twenty rifles rise as one, cock… and level.

And still the three men wait.

Summer of 76

Celia Coyne 2013

It was the year of the drought. It was the summer that my dad left home. It was the summer I had to say goodbye to my best friend. None of these things were connected.

That summer was hot – the hottest British summer for over 300 years. Reservoirs dried up, wild fires broke out, cars and trains were covered in grime because people weren’t allowed to wash them. For 15 consecutive days in June/July we sweltered in temperatures of 33°C. It was so hot you could fry an egg on the pavement – one man did, earning himself a spot on the evening news.

On those long, hot days there was nothing much to do except close the curtains, open the windows and pray for a breeze. When Ruth came over we would pester my Mum for use of the paddling pool. There was a hosepipe ban but Mum let us have a few inches of cold water and we would be in and out of it all day, splashing each other and squealing when we slipped and fell in. Sometimes Mum would bring a chair and sit with her feet in the water.

One day she looked serious. She said: ‘There’s going to be some changes.’

I wondered what she meant.

‘It’s about Dad and me.’

Then I knew. It must be to do with him sleeping on the floor. He’d been doing it for weeks. He’d use the cushions from the settee to make a mattress and I’d find him there in the morning under a sheet, taking up most of the floor in the lounge. It was annoying because I had to step round him if I wanted to watch the TV with my Cornflakes. He would stir and bark: ‘What time is it?!’ When I said it was 7 or 7.30 he would jump up saying ‘I’m late!’ Next minute he’d be rushing round with a rumpled shirt in his hand saying ‘Where’s the bloody iron!?’. He was very angry in those days and he would shout and spray spit into the air as he spoke. It was as though the heat was making him boil up inside.

‘Why does Dad sleep in the lounge?’ I asked. ‘Is it cooler there?’

Mum didn’t answer. She sighed and slipped her feet out of the water, drying them on a towel. ‘I’ll get you an ice-pop,’ she said.

A few days later when a classmate called me a wog on the way home from school, I had to ask my Mum what it meant. My Mum wanted to know who’d said it and why. I told her that Sandra said I was a wog because I play with Ruth. Mum explained it was a nasty word that stupid people use to describe coloured people. (We didn’t say black people in those days; coloured was the acceptable term.) She said that using the word wog was racist. I was shocked and felt my cheeks flush – as if I’d said it myself. I vowed never to talk to Sandra again.

‘And remember Ruth needs all the friends she can get as she’s new around here,’ Mum said.

She didn’t need to tell me that. I adored Ruth. We had been friends since the summer before, when her step-mum, a large and cheerful woman with wild red hair, had brought her to our house. Her step-mum wanted to join the ladies’ darts team, which my mum ran at the local community centre. While they chatted over a cup of tea, I impressed Ruth with my snail and beetle collection.

When I next saw Ruth, after that horrible incident with Sandra, I gave her a present: two rainbow hairclips. Ruth had short woolly hair and she always wore bright-coloured clips in it.

‘Magnificent Suzie!’ she said and put them on right away. Magnificent was her latest word. She always had a special word on the go. She would pick one from the dictionary and practise it. There had already been contagious, serendipity and mermaid. Mermaid was an old word, but new for Ruth – she was fascinated by the stories of mermaids luring sailors to their deaths at sea. She liked a good horror story.

Ruth’s skin was black as velvet. She had the most amazing hands with long, slender fingers and square palms. Her nails were perfect (not bitten down like mine). Ruth was mysterious: it went with her sing-song voice; the way she said things. She told me she was from a country in Africa. It began with a T. She had been adopted four years ago, when she was seven. But she didn’t say much more than that.

Ruth was a year older than me and she knew things. Like catapults; she knew how to make really powerful ones. It was all to do with the elastic you used. She knew where to find the best trees to climb. She knew how to make traps around our den, so that an intruder would stumble and fall. She was good at making up stories, too, about zombies and ghosts. There was one she liked to tell about a zombie, who used to be a doctor, and knew exactly how to reach into people’s bodies and rip out their still-beating hearts. When she could see I was getting scared her eyes would light up and she’d say ‘Shall I continue?’ even though she knew I would say yes. Sometimes I would just be listening to the up and down of her voice, not really taking in what she said. Then she would stop suddenly and say ‘And what did I just say?’ I had no clue. I had to quickly say something and usually she would pretend to be cross and to thump me. But she would always laugh. Then she would start again, with another story.

On those long hot days in the summer of 76, while the country longed for rain, it was too hot for anything, even climbing trees. As the drought wore on the heat seemed to stack up on itself, sapping the energy and making people tetchy, on edge. In my house, the tension was thick in the air, like a parched forest waiting for a spark. Ignition came one afternoon when my Mum pushed my dad’s reel-to-reel tape deck out of the upstairs window.

Bryan Ferry was on the radio and Ruth and I were singing along, strutting through the house holding hairbrushes as microphones: ‘The marriage vow is very sacred…’ Then there was an almighty crash. We both froze. My Mum was shouting and ranting upstairs. I looked out through the curtains and there it was in the garden: a mess of coloured wires and grey metal.

‘It’s my Dad’s tape deck,’ I said, stunned. ‘It cost a lot of money.’ Ruth came up beside me and we both looked out at the crime scene.

‘She must be incandescent,’ Ruth said. Then we heard the sound of my mum stomping across the ceiling and down the stairs.

‘That’ll teach him!’ she said, pointing towards the mangled machine. Then she went back into the kitchen and I heard the kettle go on.

Later, my sister told me that Dad had it coming and that what my Mum did was strike a blow for all women. The tape deck was symbolic of something he loved. It was true – he loved his music more than anything. So she really was hitting him where it hurt.

The next thing Mum did was pack two large suitcases with my Dad’s clothes. She asked me to fetch the ironing basket and she just emptied the clothes into the case. She struggled down the stairs with the cases, breaking into a sweat and heaving them onto the front step. She was kicking him out. He went quietly without a struggle. He gave me a wink and said not to worry that he would be back soon.

When I told Ruth the next day she put her arm round me.

‘It’s ok not having a Dad around,’ she said. ‘Me and Angie – we manage all right.’

Ruth always called her step-mum Angie. We sat in silence. I wanted to ask her what happened, how it had been for her in Africa, but she didn’t want to talk about it, I could tell.

And the terrible drought went on. It was all they would talk about on the news. My sister said that it was the silly season, but I didn’t think it was silly. It was agonising. The swimming pool had been closed and there was nothing to do. My Mum told me I was looking at things the wrong way. She said it was a ‘life event’ and that in all her life she had never known such a drought. I should pay attention, cycle up to the reservoir and take a look, submit it to memory because I probably would never get the chance to see such things again. Those were the days when the phrase ‘climate change’ hadn’t been invented; all we had was the ‘greenhouse effect’ and no one really understood what that was.

It was too hot to cycle to the reservoir, and I’d seen it on the TV: deep fissures cracked the soil and in the middle a pitiful puddle of muddy brown water like a weeping blister. There were too many news stories like that. It got a bit boring. I was more interested in the plagues of greenfly that were rampaging though the countryside and ruining crops. After the aphids there was a plague of ladybirds, which had multiplied due to the abundance of their favourite food. Some days Ruth and I spent hours seeing how many ladybirds we could find. There were different types, the big ones with nine spots and the little ones with just two. There were stories about ladybirds actually biting people. They must have been as hot and bothered as the rest of us.

When Dad turned up one day, parking his green Cortina on the corner, Ruth was round and we were playing jacks on the front step. He asked me if Mum was in as he needed to get a few things, but before I could answer, my sister was shouting from the upstairs window.

‘Get that scrubber out of our street!’

She flew down the stairs and was standing there all red faced and panting.

My Dad stood very still.

‘Watch your mouth,’ he said to my sister.

‘Watch your own – you can catch things off that!’ and she pointed to the car, where a lady was sitting in the front passenger seat.

My Dad raised his hand as if to hit her but he changed his mind.

The woman had beautiful hair – long and yellow as straw. She had the window right down and her thick blonde hair was flowing like a mane in the breeze.

I was cross with my sister because my Dad just turned round and walked off. I didn’t get the chance to say anything to him.

‘Why do you have to spoil things!’ I shouted at her.

‘You should ask him that,’ she said and stomped back inside.

It was Ruth’s turn to throw but she held on to the jacks. She said: ‘You miss your Dad don’t you?’

I nodded. I wondered how he could forget about us – just walk off and live his own separate life.

‘Do you miss your mum and dad in Africa?’ I asked.

‘Sometimes,’ said Ruth. ‘I used to worry that they would forget me. But Angie told me something. She said that a person’s heart carries a memory of those it has loved and as long as it is beating that memory is always there. Your Dad won’t forget you.’

I didn’t really want to think about it then because I knew it would make me cry, so I said ‘Your turn slow coach!’

And soon we were laughing again and playing jacks until it was time for her to go home for her tea.

Ruth and her step-mum lived in a caravan on the edge of Norsey Woods. It was a beautiful spot, with the woodland behind and a flower meadow all around, although this year it was dried out and brown. When school broke up for the holidays, Ruth and I would spend whole days hanging out in a camp we had made in the woods. We had decked it out nice and comfy with a couple of old settee cushions and a blanket for lying on. We had a radio, too, which we kept wrapped in a plastic bag to keep the rain out, though with the weather the way that it was, that was something of an over-precaution. It was August now and still no rain. Even Big Ben had gone on strike, its cogs seizing up in the heat. The country was so desperate the government had sought the help of druids.

‘Did you hear about the rain dancing at Stonehenge?’ I asked Ruth.


‘Bunch of druids been doing rituals and stuff to see if they can get it to rain.’

‘It’ll rain when it’s time,’ said Ruth decisively. ‘And it won’t be long now.’

I never questioned Ruth when she said things like that. I just believed her.

‘I’ve got something to tell you,’ she said and then she paused for what seemed like a long time. I was just about to break the silence when she said: ‘We’re getting chucked off the land. We’re going to have to move.’

‘What!’ I said. ‘But you can come live with us.’ Even as I said it I knew that it wasn’t possible.

Ruth slowly shook her head. ‘We’ll probably go up to Leeds – Angie has friends there. It might be better.’

I didn’t know what to say so I just sat there looking out of our den at the trees and the way their branches let glimmers of sunlight through to the woodland floor.

‘It’s catastrophic, isn’t it?’ said Ruth. ‘But we still have the summer.’

So we turned on the radio. They were playing a track by Queen, ‘You’re My Best Friend’. We both smiled at that because it was one of our favourites. Immediately we both jumped up and began posing and strutting like Pans People on Top of the Pops. We never told each other we were best friends. We just knew it. Like we knew that this was our song.

Two weeks later, we were walking back from our school’s summer fete. The air was sticky and hot, making our t-shirts feel clingy and the sky was a mass of grey clouds. I’d managed to win a strawberry jelly in the tombola and we’d split it in half, eating the chewy cubes of raw jelly even though it made us feel sick. Ruth had won a coconut and was shaking it to hear the juice moving about inside.

‘I don’t want you to go,’ I said to Ruth.

‘Nor do I – but I have to,’ she said simply.

I could feel my stomach twisting like it always did before I was going to cry. I was fighting it. Then suddenly a fat raindrop landed on my face – and then another. I looked up as the sky erupted in a huge fork of lightning. It was followed by a crackle of thunder – and then came the rain. Boy did it rain – like someone emptying a bath. It came down in torrents, running down the gutters and overwhelming the drains.

We walked home slowly in the rain, allowing ourselves to be utterly drenched. People were going mad all around us, splashing in puddles and clowning about. And so the drought had finally ended, like we knew that it would. Ruth left to go up north. My parents got a divorce. Things didn’t fall apart. Life went on.

Now many years later I wonder about my childhood friend. I wonder if her heart still beats and if, like mine, it still holds a memory of the summer of 76.

though his ship leaves the space between windows

Kerrin P Sharpe 2013

though his ship leaves
the space between windows
Jacko still lights
the bull’s eye lantern

straightens the captain’s
Wallace sheets brushes
the epaulettes
on the dress-makers dummy

he still chops strong rough wood
to fill the red arms
of Morrin’s wheelbarrow

and tells her she swims
like an aristocrat

so when he asked her
to return his small
stage of bones to the earth

she realized he would walk
the road, you know
with hand signals and everything


Linda King 2013

Chapter Two

29th September, 1857

Sarah craned her neck and looked up into the rigging. The masts of the Stebonheath searched the vacant sky, gently rocking back and forth with the swell. Seagulls sat in rows along the furled sails; fidgety white blobs of paint. The birds called to each other and every now and then one would dive down and swoop on an unsuspecting hawker selling food. Luggage, boxes, chests and bed-rolls littered the main deck. Sailors shouted to each other over the din, orders mixed with remarks, “Heave ‘er up, lads, steady she goes.”

“Seems this’n has lead weights in it, and it’s supposed to be only filled with ladies drawers!” The men roared, adding more ribald comments as the trunk was lowered into the hold. Two serious looking crew members hoisted kegs and crates onto their shoulders and disappeared below. Heavy ropes strained from above, ready to lower a dozen tea chests slung in a net. The cargo hung there, motionless. A seagull landed on one of the top chests.

“Git away ye buzzard””, the Boatswain shouted. The gull looked down at him with its head cocked, showing a yellow eye. The load shifted downwards. The gull rode the cargo down, almost into the hold but flew off when the boatswain went for it. “Bad enough down there without seagull crap addin’ to the stink”.

A pig in a sling was being hoisted up the side of the ship. It kicked and squealed, struggling to free itself. Some children laughed, and pointed at the unfortunate creature. It was dumped unceremoniously into a pen that had been constructed on the main deck next to the deckhouse. Sarah counted five pigs and twelve sheep, each one jostling for room. Many more waited near the wharf, bleating and grunting, penned in the back of rough-hewn carts, their excrement dripping onto the cobbled stones. The noise of hammering and sawing added to the clamour. Carpenters bent at their work adding another section to the pen beside some timber slats piled up ready to be worked. A little boy in grey britches furtively looked around and shifted the top slat to form a ramp against the pile. He grinned happily and rolled a large marble down the coarse wood. It clattered when it hit the deck. Sarah watched him rush to retrieve the marble after it stopped under a wicker basket, which contained two hens. They clucked and fussed, annoyed at being swung in the air once more.

People strained to make themselves heard. The Boatswain barked orders, and hawkers called for buyers. Men raised their voices, while guarding their luggage and possessions, trying to keep hold of unruly children and look after harried wives. Some of the single men stood leaning against the rail, taking in the scene before them, while others seemed fascinated with the workings of the ship. Sarah threaded her way through the mass of people looking for her friend. Over her shoulder she wore her brother’s satchel, bulging with some food, cutlery, and personal trinkets she could not bear to leave behind. Under her left arm, Sarah had tucked a bundle of coarse bedding, a work dress, some shifts, two petticoats and some linen. The rest of her belongings had been stowed below, along with what seemed like hundreds of similar chests and boxes. She had marked her name as required and prayed that her things would stay safe and dry. Her arms were tired from constantly adjusting the weight of her bundle, but she was not going to put them down; if they were to become lost or stolen she would have no way to prove they were hers.

Sarah looked over the rail and scanned the wharf. The confusion there looked just as fierce. Carts stood idle, stacked with cargo waiting to be loaded into a net sling. Warehouse doors were flung open with crates, and boxes and barrels spilling out. Sailors said their goodbyes to loved ones. One man held his wife, while six children looked on. There was a sense of urgency in their embrace. He had grabbed his wife roughly, as if it was expected of him, and when he kissed her, she was looking over his shoulder at the ship. The sailor broke away and dashed up the gangplank. His wife just shrugged and took her children away. She did not look back.

Ellen was not on the wharf. Sarah moved along the main deck towards the poop deck and contemplated a family making their way forward. The father wore a top hat and a black, wool coat. The mother’s bonnet looked expensive, with its ribbons and silk flowers. She held a matching reticule in her hand, the silk pouch crammed with what Sarah imagined would be precious objects, though probably much fancier than what was in her satchel. The man steered his wife and family along. “Let us retire to the poop deck. No steerage passengers allowed there, my dear”, he’d said in an over loud voice.

Sarah turned her head and scanned the deck for her friend. She had only known Ellen for three days; the hours on the train led to the decision to stay together and brave out the days at the somber depot where all emigrants waited to embark. Crowded into the dormitory next to Ellen allowed Sarah the

opportunity to develop an easy understanding of the young woman. Even though Sarah was a year younger, Ellen, at twenty-six, was still a girl at heart. Small things amused and delighted her, she had a wicked sense of humour and Sarah was grateful that she had a diversion to take her mind of her troubles. There were still times that caught her unawares, at night, especially when she‘d lie awake and go over and over that last conversation with Joseph. He’d been so vitriolic, so unbelievable in his treatment of her. She honestly thought he cared for her. The nature of his secret liaison had made her vomit, so shocked at hearing the sordid details; his face close to hers, spittle landing on her as he spat out the words. She walked to the rail and gripped it. Bending slightly out over the water, Sarah breathed deeply. The waves patted against the hull, little splashes, gentle in their approach, almost caressing the side. She turned around and looked along the length of the ship. Ellen would surely be near the poop deck gawking up at the well-to-do folk.

“Ellen! Somehow I knew you would be here.”

“Just get an eyeful of those dandies, Sarah. Clothes like that, makes me wish I was amongst them.”

“Well, from what I’ve seen so far, toffee isn’t everything.”

“To have money to buy whatever you want, eat at the nicest places and wear the latest fashion. ‘Aint that for you?”

“It would be fine to be able to buy some nice things, but sometimes having money doesn’t always mean  people will have good manners. So far, on this ship, all I’ve seen is bad manners, and not just from steerage folk, the toffs as well. People shouting and shoving, and only one person has spoken to me since I came on board.”

“Oh? Who? Not Mr. Dunbar, he’s too old for you. Surely not Mr. Thearley! What would his wife say?” Ellen winked and nudged Sarah as she laughed.

“Ellen, you can be wicked! A total stranger spoke to me. Took me by surprise, actually. I haven’t even seen Mr. Dunbar or the Thearleys. There must be at least four hundred people here. It’s remarkable that I found you.”

“Who talked to you Sarah!”

“No one for you to worry about. But I must say he was handsome.”

“Tell me, Sarah. Put me out of me misery.”

“Well, he commented on how strange it was that when the sheep are brought up the side of the ship in the sling, they just hang there, quiet, all docile; but the pigs had kicked and squealed and bucked and fought, all the time thrashing themselves against the side of the ship.”

“Was he a farmer, if he was interested in the animals?”

‘No. He was the ship’s cook! He was only interested in possible damage to their carcasses!” Sarah laughed when she saw the expression on her friend’s face, and steered her away from the poop deck, away from all of its finery, until she found them a barrel and a crate to sit on, not far from the pig pen.


The steps leading up to the poop deck were crammed with passengers. Children, held tight by anxious mothers squirmed and fidgeted, or hid behind wide skirts, fearful of getting lost. Passengers pressed forward to hear what was being said. Gulls called to each other, the ship bumped rhythmically against the dock and distant shouts from the wharf rose towards the assembled crowd. Three men stood before them, their stance, demeanor and tone of voice had commanded attention. Each man had spoken, the introductions were brief and to the point. Doctor Henderson was from the British Board of Trade. His white whiskered face held a friendly expression as he talked, his hands resting on an ample stomach. Beside him, a man of indistinct age stood tall, his right hand finger tapped on the clip board held in the crook of his elbow. The rapping sound could be heard when Doctor Henderson paused for breath.

“All of you before me now will undergo the official medical examination. Passengers must be fit for travel, and care needs to be taken that disease does not come on board. Some unfortunate voyages have resulted in significant loss of life. Disgusting diseases, hidden and undetected not only killed, but in some cases created epidemics. This could have been avoided had thorough inspections taken place.” He paused to let this information take effect.

“Lordy, he’s scaring us on purpose, eh Sarah? The rate he’s going, there’ll be none left to take the trip – bet there’s a few poxy sores on some bodies around here!” Ellen sniggered. “Still, I don’t want to take any chances, might have a bit of a scrub up, and wash out me mouth before he goes sticking his fingers where they’re not wanted!”

Sarah giggled with her friend, amused at her rather fertile imagination. It would not be a dull trip with Ellen Loughsborough on board, of that she was sure. Doctor Henderson continued.

“I expect each of you to present yourself to me when your name is called by Mr. Simonson the Emigration Officer. I believe that some of you have already made his acquaintance. You are to present your embarkation ticket to Mr. Simonson who will make a record. Verification of the passenger list is essential.”

“What if ye can’t read? How d’ye know ye’ve got the right bit of paper?” The man’s voice rang out from the back of the crowd. “None of me family reads, and I’m not afraid to say so. Hard working miners we are, had no course to learn to read.”

“Yeah, you don’t need words to know how to mine, eh William? Can’t see a bloody thing in the dark anyways!”

The two men laughed and folk around them joined in. Dr. Henderson, annoyed at the interruption ignored the question.

“Dr. Roland, here, as the ships surgeon superintendent, will be at each medical examination. It is his role to note any weakness, malaise or warrantable concern. If you or a member of your family present with unexplained rashes, signs of fever, illness or serious coughs you will be put ashore immediately, pending further investigation.”

The crowd all seemed to speak as one, anxious not to be put ashore, words tumbling out of mouths asking what they would do if such a calamity befell them, praying that it would not happen, the months of saving and planning only to be ripped away and for what? A slight cold, aches and pains or even a furry tongue?

“Please be quiet!” The doctor waited once more for calm. Even the sailors stopped for a while. “It is also my personal responsibility to inspect the ship’s medicine chest to see if it is adequately supplied, so that you passengers need have no fears.” Doctor Henderson glanced around at the sea of faces. “Once you have produced your ticket and we are satisfied with your medical inspection, you may pass down below and take possession of your berths. Those who have not paid, or have attempted a fraud, or fail to produce the necessary funds will be immediately transferred back to port.”

People looked at each other, men muttered about regulations, while nervous women gathered family or belongings close. The main deck held all those passengers set for occupying the steerage compartments. Cabin passengers had already been processed, and had retired to unpack.  For the others, the waiting began.

Mr. Simonson raised his voice over the increasing noise. Seven families had had their inspection and moved off, heading below to the family quarters in steerage.

“Mr. Alexander Duffy, thirty-five years. Embarkation ticket if you please”.

Duffy moved forward, and handed over a grubby piece of paper, with ink smudged across one corner almost obliterating the words. He thrust out his tongue, turned his head for the doctor to look into his ears. He offered his wrist for his pulse to be taken and he took a deep breath when asked.

“Right strong’en here. Dr Roland, make a note”.

Duffy’s wife was presented next, and his seven children. The youngest, a baby of one year, grizzled and cried, the rash on her face grew more obvious.

“What’s this? What’s this? This baby has the look of a fever, Mrs. Duffy. Can you explain?”

Her stammered reply brought her husband to her side. “Just teethin, Doctor. See, she’s cutting a tooth is all”

The doctor ran his finger around the inside of the baby’s mouth. She screamed and squirmed. Mrs. Duffy struggled to keep hold of the child. Sweat broke out on her face.

“You fevered as well?” The doctor peered at her.

“Don’t mind her, doc.” Mr. Duffy offered his most charming smile. “She’s always a one for getting in a flap. Worries all the time. Never is at peace, but a good woman all the same.”

The doctor sighed and nodded to the emigration officer. “They’ll do”.

The main deck was still crowded, though not as densely as when the inspections first began. Families had disappeared below, anxious to set out belongings and claim the best accommodation in steerage. Four hours had passed, hawkers continued to sell their wares down on the main deck. Forks and knives were popular, although passengers grumbled about the price being twice what was found in the town.

People were quickly finding out that many of them did not have enough provisions. Those who couldn’t read had merely guessed at what was required for the voyage. Lists were prepared for assisted passengers. Unassisted, either looked into the matter when purchasing their ticket, or had to trust their instincts. The hawkers traded on people’s lack of organisation, setting up stalls to sell everything from pots, pans and utensils to sewing kits, reading matter and whiskey. Getting the attention of the female passengers seemed to be the main objective, bargaining on them needing the comforts of home.

“Oy! Ye! Get yer metal goods here. All that a woman needs! Quart tins, hand-basins, pint tins, plates. All at fair prices.”

“Personal provisions is what you need, mam. Soap, have we? No? Then you’d be needin’ me lovely yellow soap, or perhaps some marine soap for washin’ yer smalls? Not forgetting buttons, ribbon, or the odd bolt of cloth?”

Missionaries handed out pamphlets and free papers, warning people of potential sins in the colonies, heathens without shame and the virtue of staying true to one’s faith. A pamphlet skittered along the deck. A little boy ran after it, his bare feet made a drumming sound, which stopped abruptly. The pamphlet had wrapped itself around the left leg of a tall, thin man standing by the rail. The boy looked up into a face where beady eyes met at the bridge of a long, straight nose.

“Well, and what do we have here? A boy after this sheet of paper?” The man bent, took the paper from his leg and looked at it closely. “Surely you cannot possibly read this, a boy dressed as you are? What do you want it for? Fetching it for someone?”

“Nnnno sir. I need the paper to do me drawings, see. Paper’s like gold, sir. We never can afford it. I jest ‘acquires’ it I do.”

“Acquires? Big word for a little boy. Had some learning then, have we?”

“No sir. I jest keep me ears open, is all.” The boy held out his hand for the piece of paper. The tall man gave it over gracefully.

“I’d like to see some of your drawings one day, when the ship is underway. Used to do a bit of drawing myself. Charcoal mainly, but I have dabbled with pen and ink.”

“Yes, sir. When the ship is underway. Thank you sir.” The boy dashed off clutching his prize. He went straight back to where the missionaries were pestering the harried immigrants whose only intent was on getting themselves passed as medically fit.

Small Things

A F Tyson 2013

The light beams above the tops of the curtains like stage lights. I am twisted up in the sheets, sweaty and uncomfortable. Meredith is asleep, still and calm, her long dark hair fanned out on the pillow. Her book is digging into my hip. She reads cookbooks in bed, page marking with slips of paper the recipes that catch her eye. Occasionally she turns to me to ask if I like pine nuts or crystallised ginger or some other exotic ingredient, smoothing her dark hair with her hand while recalling a fantastic ginger fudge she once made that I would love or musing that lightly roasted pine nuts smell better than they taste. She loves fragrant spices in her food: cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. We’re going on a tour of the East Coast’s vineyards and restaurants, buying bottles of wine, jars of jam, some new crockery or more cookbooks at each little town we stop at, filling the house a little more with these found treasures. But first there is a matinee; I am finally meeting her mother.

Her Mum runs a cafe with her husband, with a side business in cakes and muffins. Meredith and her mother talk on the phone about dishes they’ve cooked and recipes they’ve tried. They can talk about food and restaurants and cooking for hours. At home food was tipped out of cans and poured out of packets, heated then eaten watching TV. My mother baked only when it was our birthdays and then she pulled out the Edmonds. When it was my turn to choose any cake I wanted, I would read and reread the recipes as if muttering the instructions under my breath would conjure the dish before me and help me choose between Yoyos or Afghans. Cream. Butter. Caramelize. Bake until golden. The very language of cookery is comforting, words that you can taste like some crazy kind of synaesthesia. I move the book to the floor, roll over again, shut my eyes.

We are late leaving because of me. I lay awake for hours, my thoughts jumping until I heard the birds beginning to wake. Meredith has spent all morning packing and repacking the boot of the car while I slept. Now she is in the front passenger seat, the map in the glove box alongside a handwritten list of places she already knows she wants to stop at. Her sunhat is on her lap, her hair held off her face by her sunglasses. She smiles at me but I can see impatience in her eyes. She wears clothes that could only look good on her, long flowing skirts made with clashing scraps of patterned fabric that drag slightly on the ground behind her. Tight singlets, or skivvies in winter, that skim her breasts and cling to her hips. Scarves, silver bangles and rings. When she bakes her long pale fingers delve into the dough, rings and all, as if the jewellery is part of her. She projects herself through every ring she wears, every book she reads, every painting she chooses to hang on the wall.

The city has encroached further and further into the rural landscape. Large boxy buildings surrounded by overgrown paddocks. I grew up in outskirts like these, where suburban streets lay cheek by jowl with highways lined with large biscuit and jam factories. Most days it felt like Merrick was the only place in the world, the sky stretched out flat above us, the tar sealed streets empty save for cats crouched by letterboxes and children minding their business on bikes while waiting for the Mums to get home. We drive for an hour or so, passing large hand painted signs announcing the sale of apricots and nectarines and peaches, before Meredith asks me to pull into a fruit orchard. I get out of the car but stand by the roadside smoking, waiting for her to emerge clutching plastic bags full of fruit.

I took her home to meet my mother after six months. Our family home doesn’t have any paintings on the wall or books on shelves or knickknacks. There is a calendar in the kitchen. A mirror in the hallway. A framed family photo in the lounge. It looks temporary, like we could pack up and move out at any time. Meredith had looked awkward sitting on the plush purple couch. Mum didn’t look much more comfortable in the chair opposite. She brought us instant coffee and biscuit seconds from the factory. We all took hasty sips and bites while an awkward silence grew. Mum cleared her throat, and then asked how we’d met. It wasn’t exactly a conversation starter but it broke the silence.

I’ve always been drawn to women like Meredith. After a week of filling in spread sheets and producing invoices and emailing, these are women who look forward to going to the local market for fresh produce, mulching their garden or meeting their friends for coffee – savouring the simple life after a week spent staring at a computer screen. They savour small things and their worlds seem so much bigger. Mum dreams of winning lotto or an overseas holiday but Meredith talks about finding the most luscious quinces or a perfectly spiced chutney.

We drive for most of the day and when we finally pull up the long gravel driveway, her Mum is kneeling in the garden weeding. I feel a little nervous as I get out of the car and hang back as Meredith runs into her mother’s arms. Molly is tall and wide hipped, her long grey hair piled into a loose bun. She pulls her gardening gloves off and kisses her daughter on the cheek. I can’t catch what she says until she turns to look at me, “And you must be this partner I hear so much about.” She strides towards me and grips me by the shoulders with strong hands, welcoming me to her house, before leaning in to kiss me on the cheek. I start and turn my head the wrong way so that for a split second we are like two chickens pecking in the dust before she pats my shoulder and turns toward the house calling at us to follow her. I turn to pick up our bags, loath to catch anyone’s eye.

After we’ve put our things in the guest room, we all sit around the solid wooden table in the kitchen, drinking wine and talking. That awkward moment in the driveway seems like nothing as we sit, with just one lamp lit for light, and talk. Actually I hardly speak at all but listen to Molly and her husband Gerald talk about their house and their trip overseas. I listen and drink and look around the room. A dresser lines one side of the room, laden with dinner plates, each a different pattern and colour. Alongside another wall, a low bookcase is stuffed full of photo albums and books, with photo frames, a telephone and pen and paper on top. A corkboard hangs on the wall, choked with messages and photos and doodles. A breakfast bar separates the kitchen from the dining room while a large window looks out upon the hill that rises above the cafe. My face is flushed from the wine and we are all heading to bed when Molly grabs me by the hand to quickly show me around the house in case I wake up in the night disorientated. Meredith tags along as I am shown the bathroom, the lounge, the games room and the back porch. I fall into bed, tired and drunk and immediately fall asleep.

I awake in the middle of the night, almost as if Molly had predicted it. The room is so dark I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I flick on the bedside lamp; Meredith squawks and pulls the sheets over her eyes. I pull on some pants and go out to the back porch. At the back of the house a hammock hangs between two trees, moving slightly in the breeze. The dogs murmur in their kennels. I sit and smoke for a while and am lighting one cigarette off another when Molly taps me on the shoulder, asks if she can cadge a ciggie. We sit there quietly smoking for a few moments until she says, “I thought you’d wake up. I always do when I sleep in a new place for the first time.” She says it as if she expects I will stay again. Molly fills the silence before it grows, asking about my job, my family and so on. We talk and pull on our cigarettes until we’re in danger of smoking the filters, before heading back inside.

At the local Sunday market the next morning Meredith is enchanted with some wind chimes, made of shell and stained glass and fishing wire. She brings them home, wrapped in tissue and tied with string. I look desperately at each stall for something to give her Mum, something she can put on the hallway side table alongside the family photographs and other knickknacks, or in the glass cabinet in the lounge crammed with crystal and porcelain. Finally, while Meredith and Molly are distracted talking to an old family friend, I buy a small agate egg.

We eat dinner that night outside at a table dressed with candles and cloth napkins. The fish is cooked on the barbecue with lemon juice and fennel in tinfoil, the salad mixed with fresh herbs, the potatoes brushed with olive oil and garlic, the sauvignon blanc is cold. Meredith and I had dinner at Mum’s the other week and took a bottle of merlot. After an hour or so we’d sat down for dinner at the old kitchen table. Tablecloth. Stainless steel knife, fork and spoon at each place. Stainless steel salt and pepper shakers. Small, thin wine glasses. And the bottle of red wine in the centre of the table, now covered in tiny beads of water. Meredith said nothing, gave nothing away, even said in the car that it had been a lovely evening, that she liked my mother. “Music!” Molly cried. “I’ve forgotten the music.” She rushed inside to open the veranda doors and turned up the stereo, before coming back with another bottle of wine. “Now we can sit back and relax.”

I am late to the breakfast table the next morning, my head fuzzy and my mouth dry. I walk into the kitchen, the agate egg in my pocket. Everyone has finished eating and is sitting drinking coffee. As I butter my toast, they talk of itineraries and wineries and cheese factories. After a while, they fall to silence. Gerald shakes the paper out as he turns the page. Molly gazes out the window. Meredith smiles at me and then looks away.

It is time to go. We stand in the driveway and hug our goodbyes. At the very last moment, I go to draw the stone from my pocket and place it in Molly’s hand, thank her for having me. I cup the egg in the palm of my hand. It is warm and heavy and smooth. I turn and get in the car, unable to bring myself to let it go.


Powerful Drugs

Nod Ghosh 2013

I’m not overly enamoured with the bunch of suicidal misfits I’ve ended up with. But this week it’s my turn to speak. The floor is mine for half an hour. One of the others tells me he’s got himself a notebook, and writes down how he feels. He writes about everything that led up to the moment he attempted suicide, says it’s therapeutic. So I’ve tried doing the same. I flick through my red notebook, tweak a word here and there, and make sure I can read my writing. I contemplate whether I can talk to seventeen people about what happened.

“After Steve told me, I’ve found it really difficult to keep everything together…”

I read on. Since my illusion of happiness was shattered, I have found it difficult to keep everything together. I was feeling emotional the day my husband told me he was having an affair. It was a Wednesday. Pink, blue, white and purple flowers, hundreds of them, were floating on the River. Sharon and I went out in our lunch break, stood on the bridge, and dropped several heads of agapanthus into the slow flowing tar coloured water. I made a silent wish, to bless the families of the 185 people who died in the city a year ago. I was struggling with the memory of the chaos and catastrophe caused when the earth had kicked us in the guts, spilling masonry and snuffing out lives. The eerie atmosphere in the hospital, stony-faced countenances, armed soldiers on the streets in tanks, piles of grey silt. A year later, it still haunted me. I wanted a shoulder to cry on when I got home. Instead, Steve asked me to sit down, and told me he was seeing somebody else. No preamble. No warning. The tears I’d been suppressing all day came pouring down my face, and he walked out of the room.

“At first I carried on going to work. I wanted people to think everything was normal. I think if they thought it, I could pretend it was too.”

Over the next few weeks, I went through the motions. I didn’t miss work. I went on quiz nights with Sharon and some of the other girls from the ward. I never told a soul that Steve was fucking someone else. I never said he was disappearing for three or four consecutive nights. I never told them he’d even stopped lying to me about the regular ‘conferences and meetings’ he just told me he was going to see her. I never told them why my eyes were puffy and swollen after I’d screamed at him. I blamed an eye infection. I never revealed the fact that I was sleeping alone in our king size bed, whilst Steve slept in the spare bedroom. He watched television in there, alone. I lied about us sharing meals. I still cooked for two, but he’d go out and grab a takeaway, and I’d graze at my leftovers for the rest of the evening. Soon I stopped cooking. There was no point. And there were always cashew nuts.

“I eat cashew nuts when I’m sad. I eat them when I’m stressed. I eat them when I’m angry”.

I never told any of my friends that he’d asked me to move out. He said he had rights, because his parents had helped with the house deposit. I didn’t tell Sharon why I was asking for the name of a good lawyer. Every day I’d paint on a veneer of foundation and perfect a pseudo-smile for the patients at work.

Inside I was breaking.

Some mornings I found it hard to take the next breath, because the leaden pain of abandonment sat on my chest threatening to suffocate me.

“I tried to see my doctor when I knew I couldn’t make it on my own anymore.”

I made an appointment to see my GP. She was on holiday, and I was offered a locum. He looked to be about seventeen years old.

“I…I’m having trouble breathing.” I tried to control the waver in my voice.

Only after much poking, probing and auscultation, I revealed there was nothing wrong with my respiratory system, more a metaphorical loss of life giving sustenance, because the things I held dear had been torn out of me.

The teenage GP looked at his watch, and then sighed. He clicked on his computer terminal, and selected options from a panel on the left.

“Are you a danger to yourself? I may have to admit you if you are…”

Oh Jesus.

“No, I’m not going to do myself in,” I tried to take the exasperation out of my voice.

“Perhaps we’ll give you some anti-depressants.”

“Well…I need something.”

He started to tell me how the drugs would take two to three weeks to kick in, and I could increase the dose later if necessary. The boy looked into my eyes with an earnest expression he probably kept in a box in the shelf along with his medical texts.

“When we have nervous breakdowns, we sometimes…”

“I’m a nurse.” I hoped the revelation that I was also part of the medical ‘club’, would suppress his patronising manner, but he carried on with his spiel. He finished by handing me a leaflet to help me with my ‘weight problem’. I was glad to get out of there with a prescription in my hand. I forgot to pay for the consultation.

“For weeks I waited for the oval egg coloured ‘happy pills’ to do something.”

All I noticed was a clawing nausea, and I started having trouble concentrating. I stopped taking them. Our house became a battleground.

And then one day, without any explanation, Steve left.

“The day I actually did it was a clear blue skied Thursday. I have it marked in my diary, with two small ovals. Thursday 15th March 2012, two ovals in blue pen.”

I woke up inappropriately early on the Thursday. It was my rostered day off. I normally looked forward to a lie in, but the absolute silence was like a siren keeping me awake. It was still dark. The only thing that had kept me sane since Steve packed his clothes and left the previous Saturday was the routine of work. When I’d got home on Tuesday, there were gaps in our house. All his books had been carefully extracted from our bookshelf. It looked like an old man’s mouth, a few remnant teeth, in a sea of pink gum. There was a pale rectangle on the lounge wall, where the painting of a rooster had hung. Several things were missing from the study. At first I couldn’t tell what they were. I went to turn the desk lamp on, but it wasn’t there. Piles of CDs, re-filed in random order, his favourites picked out, probably sitting in a box wherever he was living. With her.

He’d only taken one photo album, Joel’s baby album. Some may say that was a cruel thing to do. But a man that leaves his wife for her ex-best friend isn’t a man who considers her feelings above his own. I thought about Joel. Perhaps the album belonged with his father. Steve had always been closer to our son than I. Sometimes I thought I was just a peripheral extra in their lives. I regularly e-mailed Joel in London, but it was all bullshit. Happy family home and garden bollocks. I made no mention of the fact that his father was tearing our world apart. I hadn’t contacted him since the weekend. Perhaps I’d wait until he actually replied to one of my messages. I couldn’t remember when he last did. Steve would probably tell him he’d left me anyway.

“I tried to read a stupid magazine for a while…”

I poured out a bowl of cashew nuts, turned the lounge lamp on, and sat on the sofa. I wrapped myself in a throw, and ate nuts whilst flicking through a women’s magazine. I read about the disputed paternity of a celebrity couple’s child. I poured out another bowlful of nuts, and devoured them whilst flicking through photos of aging beauties, wrecked by plastic surgery. They looked like angry cats. A third helping of nuts, and I started to feel sick. But I cleared the bowl. The yellow lamplight made everything look warm, even though my feet felt like slabs of chicken breast, fresh out of the fridge.

“I started asking myself questions. They were really bad questions.”

I felt wretched, and thought about what would happen if I weren’t there anymore. Who’d notice? Who would it affect? Perhaps Steve had done me a favour by taking Joel’s baby album. I’d never really been a good mother to that child. I was nothing to him. Who else loved me? My mother? She’d taken my father away from me when I was little. I wasn’t sure if I loved her. Anyone else? There must have been someone. But at that particular time, I couldn’t think of anyone, who justified the continued pain of my existence.

“I looked for my Celexa in the bathroom. They were the tablets the substitute GP had prescribed. They’d done bugger all for me. I thought perhaps they could help me now. I didn’t deserve to be happy. I owed a debt. I’d owed it for nearly three decades.”

I can’t talk to them about that. It will be easier to tell them how I wilfully tried to kill myself, not another human being. Once again I wondered if I should have killed myself a long time ago. Did I earn the right to lead a happy life all these years after I killed someone? But then that happiness was just a travesty.

I drove towards town. The morning sun picked out sheets of gold against the grey blue of the estuary. I turned up one of the steep roads that took me to the Port Hills. When Joel was a baby, I used to walk up that hill, pushing his wobbly old buggy. Now I’d be hard pushed to walk up it on my own. My Nissan screamed in defiance, as I tried to get it into the correct gear. Pulling up on the side of the road, I waddled to one of my favourite spots, breathless. A troop of joggers bounced past me. One of them looked back, staring at my waistline, no doubt in judgment of how enormous I’d allowed myself to become.

I took out my water bottle, and took three long slugs out of it, making sure I didn’t finish it all. Rose pink shards of light against the velvet blue sky mocked me, almost too beautiful to look at. I sat on the grass, felt the dampness seep through my track pants. The Alps screamed out for attention. A recent Southerly had dusted the tops with snow. A hazy mist separated the mountaintops from their bases, pink peaks of candyfloss floating in the sky.

I pushed several little eggs from a blister pack, and laid them out on my track pant leg. Then I pushed some more out of a second leaflet.

“No one ever tells you how boring suicide can be. If I’d realised it was going to be such a long haul, I’d have brought book. What would you read? Would it be your favourite book? Something depressing? Something funny? Would you be able to concentrate? Perhaps an I-pod would be better. But hey, we’re not supposed to be enjoying ourselves here. Make sure you choose something suitably sombre.” (I imagined my audience tittering at this point).

The multi-coloured sky became a bright cerulean sheet. My legs were quite damp from the dew, and I was cold. Uncomfortable too. It wasn’t often I sat on the ground for prolonged periods. The joggers came hurtling past me again, giving the same critical looks.

I mouthed ‘fuck off’. I wish I’d shouted it. When you’re going to die, you shouldn’t really care should you? But I couldn’t do it.”

My heart was racing, even though I’d been inactive for an hour, my fingertips felt numb and looked blue. I stood up. It wasn’t easy, as my leg had gone to sleep. I walked back to the car and sat inside for a while. I turned the ignition on to warm myself up. Perhaps if I’d had the foresight to bring a length of hosepipe, I could have connected that up to the exhaust. I looked in the glove compartment. I found an old AA magazine, and read a few pages, thinking ‘this might be the last thing I ever read’. The Nissan vomited out ugly brown smoke. It didn’t seem to enjoy standing still. Some walkers gave me a filthy look as they passed me. I didn’t feel the slightest bit drowsy, so I pulled out, turned the car, and headed back down the hill. I parked near the estuary.

“I ended up walking on the beach.”

I walked in the grey sand, shoes in my right hand. The ashen grains, damp and heavy, squelched between my toes. I’d walked for about a hundred metres and was so out of breath I had to sit down. The clean sea air cut through my nostrils like decongestant. I fiddled with a fragment of seashell, and dug little holes in the sand with a stick. Two kids appeared, and threw a ball around. I wondered why they weren’t in school. One was about ten years old, with tangled fair hair. Screeching with delight he stretched up to catch the black and white ball. An older child in his teens, ran to the younger one, picked him up, and turned him upside down until he was squealing with laughter. They sat down and started digging in the sand. I remembered playing with Hazel when she was small, her tinkling giggle insuppressibly infectious. The younger boy stood up and darted in my direction, closely followed by the other. He ran straight past me, towards the cafe that looked out to the ocean. I could almost feel his breath as he passed me.

“It was when the little boy fell over in the sand, that something changed. Something jolted me back to my senses.”

The boy tripped over something I couldn’t see, and skidded in the sand. He must have grazed his knee. He was at that in between sort of age where a child knows he can’t start weeping disconsolately, but sometimes he can’t help it. I watched his face crumple like a six-day-old balloon. The older boy caught up with him, sank to his knees and put his arm around the child’s shoulders.

“‘Hey, it’s OK, you’re strong,’ I heard the big kid say.”

I watched the teenager comfort the youngster.

“Hey, it’s OK, you’re strong,” he told him, rubbing the sand off the child’s bloodied knee. And then I started to see something I hadn’t seen before.

“Hey, it’s OK, you’re strong.” It was Pete. My brother. I could see Pete comforting Zed. I knew it wasn’t really Pete, but at that moment, the older child had become Pete, comforting my nephew, who was crying because he’d lost ‘Hannie’, his favourite aunt.

I’d taught Zed to use watercolours. The picture in my pantry: the seven and a half suns, was Zed’s ‘alternating universe’.

“Don’t you mean alternative universe?” I’d asked when he’d painted it, not long after the September earthquake.

“No. Alternating. Because it keeps changing.” He’d wiped the snot from his nose on his sleeve before I could stop him, and dipped the brush into a golden blob on the palette. “Today there’s one planet and seven and a half suns, tomorrow it’ll be the other way round.”

“But how can you have half a sun? Doesn’t that go against the laws of the universe?”

“No. Different laws in an alternating universe.” An eight-year-old’s simple logic.

“It’s when I started seeing the older boy as my brother (in-law) Pete, and the younger one as my nephew Zedoary, that I got really scared about what I’d done.”

The boys walked away. I got scared. It wasn’t so much the thought of not seeing Zed again. It was the thought of Pete having to explain what I’d done. I couldn’t let that happen. This time, I had even more difficulty getting up. The muscles in my legs were twisting and going into strange spasms. I took my mobile out of my pocket, and rang Sharon.

I put my notebook away. I’m not sure I can read this out to them. It hurts too much. But if I do have a go, it’s got to be better than the speaker we had last week. She told us she feels like she’s living on borrowed time since she took enough paracetamol to kill an elephant. She did it years ago, but she still comes to the support group, because she still has her demon tapping her on the shoulder, nudging her to do it again. She’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she’s going to have surgery. She’s going to go through all that, but you get the feeling there’s little point, because the thing that will probably kill her before the cancer can, is her own dangerous mind.

“I’m living on borrowed time,” she told us, “and if this disease takes me, part of me will be glad.” A gasp had gone through the group. We weren’t supposed to endorse negative views. “I’ll be glad, because although I’ve had a good life, I’ve had a huge amount of sadness too. I look forward to death in some ways, as a final release. Death will be a gift if it comes this way, because it won’t be by my hand. My family won’t have the stigma of knowing I was one of those cowards who couldn’t hack it anymore.”

Yeah, I think I will read it. I reckon I’ll do better than she did.