This collection of work was published in 2014 by Nottingham Writers’ Studio, 25 Hockley, Nottingham NG1 1FH www.nottinghamwritersstudio.co.uk
Collection copyright Nottingham Writers’ Studio Copyright for individual articles rests with the authors
Nottingham Writers’ Studio gratefully acknowledges financial support from Arts Council England
Printed in Great Britain by Imprint Digital
INTroDuCTIoN ...................................................................................................................5 STEAlING From THE DEAD Lynda Clark ........................................................................7 THE SECrET lIFE oF mr rICHArD CooPEr Lauren Colley.........................................13 INDoor FIrEWorkS Julie Burke ...................................................................................23 ANGEl’S TEETH Debbie Moss .......................................................................................25 rAvEN-rAGS Paul Stapleton ........................................................................................31 HIDDEN Anne McDonnell ............................................................................................33 TAkING FlIGHT Joanne Gibson ....................................................................................45
Welcome to the second volume of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio Journal. This edition has the theme of Secrets, which our contributors interpreted in a delightful and surprising number of ways. From 1800s Scotland to modern london, from re-imagined Celtic myths to postmodern murder mysteries, these stories transcend time and place yet reveal the enduring truth that secrets are an inescapable facet of life, no matter how hard people might try to believe otherwise. We invite you to enjoy these stories of secrets and the trouble—or salvation—they lead to. Pick a favourite (or two). our top pick? Well now, that’s a secret… The NWS Journal Editorial Team
STEALING FROM THE DEAD Lynda Clark
The tourmaline ring is big and beautiful, shiny as a sugar daddy’s balding head. my eyes must have lingered too long. “It doesn’t count as stealing if they’re dead!” says morgan with a derisive laugh, pushing me aside to get at the ring. She’s like a jackdaw, from her cawing laugh to her black feathered dress, to her penchant for the bright and shiny. Show weakness to morgan and she’ll peck out your eyes. oh Bella, whatever did you see in her? I watch in horror as she tugs at the knobby finger joint, determined to work the ring free. “We should go,” I say uneasily, looking from the corpse to the door. “Fetch me my purse.” She gestures to the bed, ignoring me. “I think there’s a knife in it.” “What? morgan, no!” I say, but I get the purse anyway. maybe this is how Bella felt. I’d only been traipsing after morgan a few weeks and already she was making most of my decisions. I couldn’t remember when she went from benign benefactor to malign dictator, but already it seemed like everything from the shade of my lipstick to how we’d earn a living was down to morgan. The trick is slumped in the chair exactly as we left him, but I still expect him to leap up and accuse us of something. I give him a wide berth, holding the purse out to her at arms length. She snorts. “He wasn’t up to much before; he definitely won’t be doing anything now.” She pats his shoulder. It might’ve seemed aﬀectionate if I hadn’t 7
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo seen her dose his bourbon with barbiturates downstairs. I look away as morgan saws and swears, one stockinged foot braced against the desk, her shiny dark hair flopping into her eyes. I look at the stained bed-sheets and the crinkled pillows. I look at the champagne flutes on the nightstand, my lipstick and hers kissing the rim of each glass. I look at the handle of the door, slowly turning, slower than slow motion, with an ominous creak, as the nasal voice calls out: “Housekeeping?” I lunge for the door, slamming it shut with such force that the maid on the other side shrieks. “No!” I bellow then, forcing calm, “No, thank you.” outside, the trolley moves away. “I come back later.” “Don’t,” I whisper, my head dropping against the door. “Please, don’t.” “Stop being so melodramatic,” morgan’s voice is distorted; she’s working at something with her teeth. She comes over to me, grin wide, the tourmaline ring clamped in her perfect, bloodstained jaws. She wants to kiss me with the ring in her mouth, I can tell from her wicked eyes. I turn away. She drops the finger on the floor and spits the ring into her palm. “Have it your way.” She slides the ring onto her thumb, the only digit wide enough to accommodate it. “Just wanted to give you a little gift, is all.” “You’ve given me enough already,” I insist, smoothing my dress just for something to do with my hands. “Yes.” She looks me up and down, and her eyes are like the surgeon’s scalpel, cutting me to the bone, reconfiguring me to something of her liking. Which is kind of how it was. I thought at first that she made me look like Bella because she missed her. Now I wasn’t sure. Was it a display of power? A project? A temporary diversion like renovating a house or training a racehorse? “Check his pockets.” The abruptness of the request startles me and I just stare at her stupidly. 8
SECrETS “You were the one who said I’d given you enough,” she snorts, rolling her eyes. “maybe you should take something for yourself for once.” I fumble my hands back into my elbow-length silk gloves. They are really too narrow and elegant for my thick forearms, but I force them on anyway. I can’t touch him without them. Holding my breath—as if that somehow makes it better—I reach into his pocket, closing my fingers around the leather billfold. As I withdraw it, he sinks even further forwards, burying his head under the desk with a low sigh. I leap back as if burned, looking from him to morgan with wide frightened eyes. I can picture exactly how they look because I’ve stared at them so many times in the mirror. The last bit of the old me looking out. The only bit that hasn’t really changed. “Poor baby,” she coos, retrieving a cigarette from her purse and lighting it. “It’s just air leaving the corpse.” She blows out, and I wonder how many corpses has she seen? How many times has she done this? And to whom? Was Bella— She takes the billfold from my unresisting hand and tosses it into her purse without checking the contents. After swigging the last of the champagne from the bottle, she drops it back into the silver ice-bucket with a clang and says, “let’s go, Bella.” “Don’t call me that,” I sniﬀ, folding my arms. “Well, what should I call you?” She stops in front of me and brushes my blonde pin curls back from my face. I realise she isn’t looking at me, she’s looking at Bella. my Bella. Her expression shifts from tender to taunting in an instant. “David?” I take a step back, shaking my head. I should never have done this, none of it. As soon as I found out about morgan, I should have just left her well alone, let Bella’s memory rest in peace. I’d wanted to align my body and mind, but not if this was the price. But I guess even then I’d wondered. About her, about Bella, about what really happened at the end. Was what Bella and I had ever really real, ever really ours? or was morgan always waiting in the wings like a crow’s 9
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo shadow? I suppose that was why I stuck around. I guess I thought the more time I spent with morgan, the greater chance I had of knowing the truth. After all, if it didn’t happen like she said, surely she’d slip up somehow, sooner or later: a thoughtless comment, a contradiction, a clue. Bella had always said she’d still want me after the surgery, and I had to believe that was true, no matter what morgan said. morgan may have been like a sister to Bella, but I was her world. We were two halves of the same soul, I’m sure of it. “Donna,” I say, “Call me Donna.” She strides for the door, bored already. “Donna, what kind of a name is that?” “It was Bella’s middle name,” I say sarcastically, but my words are drowned out by the maid’s scream. She’s returned and barged in, seen the trick and the blood and his finger. That finger. lying on the carpet like a discarded condom, rubbery and colourless, leaking fluid. And her scream awakes him. He leaps to his feet, almost overturning the desk, and he’s yelling at the pain in his hand and the strangers in his room and the dizziness that must still be coursing through his head. “You were meant to be dead!” morgan’s yelling, and she’s fumbling in her purse and I know she has a gun, and when she draws it and fires, I don’t know what else to do, I just react without thinking. “You saved me,” says the trick, staring at morgan’s prone body. Her head’s at a sickening angle. I’d hit her so hard with the champagne bucket I must’ve broken her neck. Then, “You’re strong as an ox.” He’s genuinely surprised. Surprised that an elegant, delicate woman in opera gloves could do such damage. I’m so delighted by this in spite of myself, it takes me a moment to notice the gun. The gun in her hand is smoking. The bullet is embedded in the splintered mahogany of the desk’s bottom drawer. “What happened?” says the maid, looking at us in horror, “Who are you?” 10
SECrETS I don’t know why I say it, but I do. “I’m morgan,” I say, “morgan Edgar.” It doesn’t count as stealing if they’re dead. “I met the gentleman downstairs,” I continue, buoyed by his lack of resistance, “This horrible woman was hiding in his wardrobe.” And he thanks me profusely, and the maid just nods, because rich men can do whatever they like in hotel rooms and I leave quickly, before the cops can get there and ask too many questions. I have to step round morgan on my way out, narrowly missing her thin arm with my stiletto heel. Best let David die in there with morgan. He was an idiot, undeserving of his beautiful, brilliant wife. Now there’s only Donna and she won’t let jealous, grasping, control-freaks like morgan rule her life. She’ll appreciate every moment. Even the ones that hurt. miss you, Bella.
Lynda Clark wrote an article for The Guardian ages ago and has been dining out on that story ever since. She works full time as a writer in between riding horses and playing video games. She used to work as a producer making games for PlayStation Home. Don't worry, noone's ever heard of it.
THE SECRET LIFE OF MR RICHARD COOPER Lauren Colley
13th July 2012 Face to Face This morning, I hear richard Cooper closing his shower door. I was in the shower too and thought of the weird intimacy of two naked strangers a foot apart. In the months of his occupancy of Flat Two, however, mr richard Cooper—like mr Craig mordecai before him—has become something of a mythological creature. First it was the birdwatcher’s challenge as I awaited a sighting—caught in the few metres from front door to car, or perhaps taking the rubbish out, or (god forbid) washing and waxing his volkswagen Golf. But alas no, he proves a shy and stealthy thing. Hearing noises from the mr richard Cooper’s residence next door, but not seeing or speaking to him, provides fertile ground for any imagination. mine likes to go to town though, and along with the few titbits garnered from our shared landlord, I have soon constructed our future marital contentment (I have always said I could only tolerate a husband living next door), and reasons for it: compatible ages, close family relationships, both prone to furtive comings and goings—a match made in heaven. Now it is fast eroding. None of these imaginings are by choice. They scuttle like cockroaches onto the white plate of my consciousness (and oh, CBT advocates the world over, I tell you they are hard to push oﬀ ). 13
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo It is fast eroding, because all these months later what more do I know? He is ‘fit’ (my landlord’s word), walks to work, is often in the gym, plays cricket. As far as I have heard, he doesn’t seem to play music or the radio, and he collects his mail with extreme diligence from the front hall. oh, and he has exceedingly short showers. 22nd July 2012 I knock Having worked myself into a curious outrage at not having met my neighbour, I decide to knock. This is not a decision I take lightly. I pace the kitchen. I’ll just be on the way out, I think, Chris Shaw’s car will pull up to the rescue—she’s always on time for Sunday practice—and I can do an ‘oh, gotta go’ and disappear off into my super-busy social life. I practise: “Hi, it feels odd not to have properly met…” “Hello, I just thought I’d say…” “I thought I’d knock on my way out…” I go and put eyeliner on. Then I hurry out of the door and knock. How close is too close? A foot? A metre? I don’t want to be in his face. And he’s tall, or at least an estimated six feet… plus the step gives him another six inches. Shit, I’m going to look small. It doesn’t matter anyway because he’s not in. I knock again. No movement, no sound, no mr richard Cooper. of course, this is a relief in most ways, although also a bit disappointing, having rallied myself up, so I put on eyeliner fully knowing I have sensitive eyes (bring on tomorrow’s bloodshot waterings). Since he’s not in though… I bend down slowly, push the letterbox open and peer in. I scan the bit of room I can see. Everything is very neat: nothing on the floor, no magazines or mugs, a smart cream sofa carefully 14
SECrETS angled to—oh shit, there’s a mr richard Cooper lying on the sofa. luckily he is facing diagonally towards the Tv in the opposite corner, and I silently lower the flap and stand there. Immediate thought: he’s ignoring me. Bastard. But how would he know it’s me? Perhaps my door closing, followed by the knock alerted him… or perhaps he didn’t hear at all, after all, the Tv is on. or he might even be asleep. By now I’ve walked several metres away, but after first feeling silly, I get a wave of indignation. How dare he ignore me! I spin round, walk back and knock harder. Again, nothing. Perhaps I was mistaken entirely. I repeat my letterbox snoopage. mr richard Cooper is very much there, though something of a chameleon in his cricket whites. He’s not asleep because his fingers move on the remote, and the Tvs not loud enough to obscure a knock. I feel even sillier, and Chris still isn’t here. I don’t want to go back to my flat—the creaking door would be an audible defeat. So I go round the front and sit on the step instead. The old men across the road are having one of their little gossips on the pavement. one of them—Arthur, I think—whistles and waves. I give a feeble wave back and carry on my sitting. 2nd August 2012 The Snoop Perhaps some would be outraged, but there’s no harm in a little curiosity, and there’s no mr richard Cooper around to ever know. The landlord is doing some work on his flat during the day and the door is open. In all the months of his residence, mr richard Cooper has been an extremely regular nine-to-fiver, so it’s highly unlikely he’s going to pop home. It seems only natural to have a peek. I wipe my feet, mind. It’s very sparse, but in a slightly dishevelled way. The only seating is the sofa, but that—like mine—is swimming beneath a large blanket or 15
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo two, and cushions. It holds the shape of an absent inhabitant, the cushions at one end slightly flattened, the sofa curved to the shape of a body as though it had been poured in. There’s a drying rack draped with gym-style clothes—loose ‘working out’ shorts and T-shirts with sporty logos. A couple of pairs of trainers (notably sizeable) are by the door and there’s also the odd cricket bat and a guitar leaning in the corner. What else? lots of DvDs, a poster of 2Pac, not much to go on. No bits and pieces, no newspapers, plants or photos; no calendar, post-its, postcards, knick knacks… I feel disappointed. His life clearly exists outside of this room. It seems his shower is just a shower, before or after something. The bedroom is for sleeping. The sofa for watching Tv. He puts on his (big) shoes and picks up his bag and goes out to his life. I reach round from the inside and put my fingers through the letterbox. I watch the bristles rise up like a comedy moustache. I turn to face the Tv at a diagonal, as the sofa-sprawled mr richard Cooper had been and see this movement from the corner of my eye. oh. 17th August 2012 He Sings! Yesterday mr richard Cooper sang in the shower. melodious, uncaring—he sang like a happy person. I don’t know why I say ‘like a’, perhaps he is a happy person. Perhaps I am too eager to find oddity or mystery, something about him—what my mum would call a foible—that makes him… well… normal. I would like something to clash with the smart, athletic, moderate figure shaping in my mind. So although the singing is something, I would prefer him to roar some Slipknot, or an obscure operatic aria, or even better, recite poetry with the eager, gushing enthusiasm of a romantic poet. 16
SECrETS 25th August 2012 This is becoming a slightly obsessive preoccupation: mr richard Cooper. I am sitting next to one of his parcels. Again. It’s from Amazon—a CD, or perhaps a DvD, in a nondescript brown package. I’m not really that curious as to what’s inside, more pleased by the fact that it’s having a stop-oﬀ on the way—a sleepover at lauren’s house that he will never know about. I am inquisitive, nothing more sinister than that. September 2012 The Run my door makes an unmistakable creak; mr richard Cooper’s door sticks, needing a few shoves to lock. I think these alerts are the reason we manage so well, so unfortunately, to just miss bumping into one another. When I hear mr richard Cooper locking his door, I have time to run the length of my flat—from the kitchen, down the hall, into the front room to the blinds at the front bay window. There I stand perfectly still as his shape moves past the first frosted pane. once I know I am beyond his field of vision, I can step forwards and pull apart the slats a crack to watch him disappear around the corner. It is quite possible that he hears me as I go; the floor is the kind that resonates with heavy footfall, and I would never call myself graceful. I feel the walls quiver a bit. The flat doesn’t let me get away with much. I am not a stalker, merely a peeping Tom. I realise, though, that now I have a mr richard Cooper, I no longer want to meet the real thing. In fact, I actively avoid it, as I think he most probably does me. We do ships in the night remarkably well.
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo 17th September 2012 Snap Just when I had decided we were absolutely not compatible. How diﬀerent could we be really? A man of short showers and unfaltering routine; a man with no clutter, no pot plants pushing themselves against the windows like captive ghouls; a man of Tv and sport and sport on Tv—sounds I hear only when I don’t have radio 4 on. I wonder if he hears the Archers theme tune as he makes his tea, every day at 7. Then he gets a little parcel—no bigger than a postcard, about a centimetre thick. Two days later, I get one exactly the same. And inside there is a little olympics pin badge—a limited edition one as well—so I am not the only person who sends oﬀ for the Evening Post special oﬀers. Good to know. 27th September 2012 The Bag I have seen him come and go with that bag. Sometimes the bag is all I see, the white Dunlop logo disappearing with him round the corner, following him through the doorway of his house. And suddenly I have to have one. Those bowling bags that I have always thought so hideous now drive in me a furious greed. I go into town, get off the bus and march with great purpose down Clumber Street, turning into the logo emporium of Sports Direct. I feel myself out of place as I weave through the racks of T-shirts, my eyes focussed on the back wall and those bags. I choose one quickly, decisively, barely looking at the price, feeling a great surge of satisfaction as I take my new bag to the counter. It sits next to me now with its great yawning mouth, and I think how un-me it is. 18
SECrETS I put things in my bag, feel a little swell of pleasure at how neatly it takes A4 and how easily it accommodates the height of a water bottle. It is wonderfully not me. I have made bags my ‘thing’, as women tend to do. All those birthday card jokes about women being shopaholics—the ‘you can never have too many shoes’ jokes, yet there is the simple, behavioural truth of it: women pursue a thing of which a better version will always exist. Coats, earrings, bags, all acceptable materialisms—not too extravagant, but things that ever have a new range coming soon, an end-of-season sale, or merely a hierarchy of standard to luxury. I know bags. I can spot a new season mulberry, radley or Bridge, or name the range from which any of the 300 varieties of kipling come from. I am the girl that strokes the leather, examines the stitching of the lining and, on occasion, asks the staﬀ if I can try my journal in it for size. I am the bag pervert. Now I look down into the yawning mouth of my bag, unlined and pocketless—a disorganisation that would usually horrify me, but now feels pleasingly clear. It is a not-me bag and that’s what makes it so very pleasing. [Note, I may be odd, but I realise it is important that mr richard Cooper does not see my new bag. It is my little secret.] one day when I have taken my flat-length sprint, I will open the blinds, tap on the window and stand stark naked holding only the bag. That’d scare him. 8th October 2012 more post without a specific flat number is delivered to the front, rather than side door. I think mr richard Cooper’s birthday is on the way. Two cards with handwritten addresses and a small parcel arrive. one card from Taunton, the other reveals little about itself. I don’t keep these hostage, honest. I just write a tiny message down the side—a literal text message of ‘hello from your neighbour’. I doubt he saw it, but I am pleased by my gesture; I feel I have been friendly. 19
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo A Question of Names Yes, you at the back there in the hat. Why use his full name? That’s a very good question with a simple answer: that’s who he is to me. He is not mr Cooper—a formal, grey-suited man. He is certainly not richard—too flippant, the address of an acquaintance or so-and-so’s friend. mr r. Cooper opens a letter from his doctors. Would he like to benefit from the free chlamydia check? No mr r. Cooper would not, thank you very much. richie would be posing for the camera draped over the bonnet of his golf, all gelled hair and tight jeans. rich would be signed by hand at the bottom of a note: Mum, gone to gym, back 6ish, Rich. PS decorator called—something about hallway? rC is neatly embossed on the handle of his cricket bat. The letters take oﬀ with possibility: radio Controlled? roman Catholic? on the tourist map: churches here, here and here: rC. Close, too close to ’arsey’. A Taurean perhaps: private, stubborn, sensitive. Ahh no, but a birthday in october—coloured envelopes with handwritten addresses. Speculation of course, but my mr richard Cooper has a birthday in october. 9th October 2012 Facing Facts The landlord oils mr richard Cooper’s door. Now he can come and go with the stealth of a tiger. my flat-length sprint is no longer necessary anyhow, because I realise I know what he looks like. He is the man who often passes me outside when I go to Asda. Somewhere in my subconscious, I knew. Despite all the obvious clues—bag, sports clothes, heading in the right 20
SECrETS direction for the flats—I had not admitted that this is mr richard Cooper. He has been anonymous until proven otherwise. Yesterday, though, our eyes met. We both looked away, but not before recognition. recognition feels like it should go with words like ‘spark/flash/glimmer’—sudden realisations, the dawning of new knowledge—Eureka! But this was tacit, the tiniest dip of the head: ‘Yes, I know it is you’ that brought a sudden red-cheeked flush of exposure. Then came a sense simply of diﬀerence. ‘opposites attract’ doesn’t fit here, because even that infers polar ends of sameness, for example if one person liked jaﬀa cakes and the other didn’t, they do at least know what a jaﬀa cake is. We are in entirely diﬀerent worlds. unfortunately for mr richard Cooper, I am insatiably curious about his. I don’t think—but wait! I could be wrong—he would snoop around my flat, given the chance. Nor press a glass against his wall, examine postal marks or take letters hostage. December 2012 Farewell Mr Richard Cooper mr richard Cooper is leaving. Not that he was ever really here as such, but his imprint was. Was: already I am referring to him in past tense, when really he hasn’t gone yet. Time left for a token farewell. I flick through my CDs—that catalogue of whims and crazes, fleeting infatuations, and the more long-standing loyalties. The ones you bought because everyone else had them—Eminem—and the ones you felt duty-bound to buy—the World Cup songs (even despite being oblivious to the ‘three lions on a shirt’ patriotism, believing until recently it was ‘three lines’ to advertise Adidas). I pause over Candle in the Wind, Goodbye England’s Rose, but no, best to follow my first instincts, the song already trailing through my mind. 21
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo Ah ha, bingo! I wasn’t amongst the first screaming Spice Girls fans, and only once the wave had begun to recede, when the group began to bicker and have babies, did I truly warm to them. I remember that cringeinducing Christmas of my dance ‘routine’. Strutting short-skirted, purple-lipsticked down the stairs singing into a hairbrush: Wait wait, where’s Nan? Nan didn’t see. James rewind the tape, just a minute. Muuuum come back we’re doing it now… I set my CD player up in the kitchen, stretch the cable round the corner to the bathroom. richie routine is in his kitchen. In ten minutes, the smell of his tea will drift into the bathroom. The song comes out a bit louder than I’d anticipated and I lunge forwards as the tiles buzz Goodbye back at me. Then I sit on the toilet—well, there’s nowhere else to sit—and let the song reach its fade out. Goodbye mr richard Cooper. Epilogue What does mr richard Cooper leave? Even though he’s no longer there boiling the kettle a wall away, he leaves a girl with the tendency to lean on the toilet, so as to wee silently on the side of the bowl.
Lauren Colley studied English at Cambridge university. After this she returned to Nottingham and worked as a Dementia Support Worker, an area of interest that has inspired some of her recent writing. Next year she will embark on the Creative Writing mA at Nottingham university. She has just moved into a new home and is trying hard not to stalk her neighbours.
INDOOR FIREWORKS Julie Burke
the doorbell trills it’s her your belly flips and fizzes she looks at you baﬄed for a moment then she twinkles her smile and even though your sister’s in town she shimmers in past you she seems happy to stay you sit opposite her at the table it’s simple she’s easy to talk to you’re funny she laughs her rings clink as she curls her fingers around her mug of tea she scoops her dazzling hair back behind one ear and settles her chin into her hand you want to declare that she is exquisite instead you ask if she wants a biscuit she says ok as she moves over she’s beside you not touching you but close how long will she stay is she glad your sister’s out 23
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo you want to oﬀer more tea but moving even just breathing will extinguish this so you sit then you hear the car pull in you panic and shoot out of your seat you babble you’ve only been here a minute ok she looks baﬄed again but she says ok and here comes your sister laden with shoes or jumpers or make-up fiery faced you leave the room you cherish each moment when she was yours while they laugh about how nicely you make tea
Julie Burke ran a balloon shop in Newcastle-uponTyne for six years before moving back to her native Nottingham. She's also served time as an au pair, English coach, toymaker, library assistant, biscuit inspector and sandwich vendor. She prefers writing poetry and recently had a little flurry of pieces published. She is particularly thrilled to have been selected for inclusion in the NWS Journal.
ANGEL’S TEETH A TAlE For CHIlDrEN
Debbie Moss He had never imagined till now that there were things in this world besides pastries and watches and sweet pears, things for which no name could be found in the vocabulary of childhood. Anton Chekhov
That first day working at the crematorium, I was cold and hungry. I was always cold and hungry. I reached into the secret pocket my mother had sewn into my overalls. There was a small piece of dark, stale bread that I had saved from the rations I sometimes had to deliver to the men’s barracks. As soon as my mother saw the bread, she grabbed my hand and pushed it back into my pocket. “Not here, ruth, you silly girl.” During those days she wore one of two masks: one was frightening and the other was sad. I looked up into her frightened eyes. Perhaps she was scared, but I was still upset and cross with her. The crematorium was close to the river, but it was quite shallow at this point, and we had to stand at the edge in a stew of mud. I could see other women and children standing in the shallow part of the river. We were told to stand with them, about an arm’s length apart from each other, forming a winding line from the edge of the water to the hard steps of the crematorium. I could see that each urn being passed along from one person to another had a date of birth, a date of death and an 25
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo identification number, just like the one I had been given on the day I arrived at the camp. There were lots of SS men walking around. Whenever there was any activity, there were SS men milling around. There was smoke belching out of the crematorium drifting through the bare branches of trees. In the last months there was always smoke. I tried hard to breathe though my mouth so I could avoid the stale smell that hung in the air. In the dark strands of hair that had escaped from my mother’s head-covering, I could see small white flakes of snow, which had settled like sprinkles of sugar. Eventually I was handed an urn by a woman whose face I could hardly see, as her scarf was wrapped so tightly round her neck and face. I held the urn towards me; my mother told me to pass it on quickly but I held it closely against my clothes. “Pass it on ruth!” my mother shouted. I passed it back to the woman who had struggled to give me the urn. She had held on to the urn so tightly that when I went to take it, she pulled the urn back towards her. She had tears in her eyes and kept crying, “my son, my son, please, please.” my mother had tried to grab the urn from me before the woman had already taken it back. But the crying woman’s arms were by then already tightly wrapped around her child. The SS man shouted again, ”Schnell! Schnell!” He snatched the urn from the woman and threw the ashes into the river. He then grabbed the woman and marched her away. my mother put her arms around my head so that I could hardly breathe and pushed my head hard against her flat, empty stomach. But I could still see the ashes in the river. They did not sink and I could see them merging with the other ashes as they lay unsettled on the dark, cold water. I did not hear the gunshot that my mother and all the other people standing near the crematorium heard that day. No sound reached me 26
SECrETS when it happened. The skies did not darken as others later recounted in their own stories of that day. I did not hear my mother cry or feel her heart thump. I was too busy staring at the angel drifting above the water. At first I didn’t realise it was an angel, as the smoke appeared to curl into strange shapes but then I saw its smoky, grey-tipped feathered wings. “look!” I cried to my mother. “He must have been coming for the child!” But my mother didn’t seem to be listening to me. She was probably still cross with me about the bread and not handing her the urn. “Please, ruth, you must just concentrate on passing the urns. Why must you always ignore my instructions?” The SS oﬃcer ordered the angel to join the line to replace the woman who had been taken away. He was told to hurry. more SS men came marching along the line shouting at everyone to hurry up. I wanted to talk to the angel, but I was frightened of the SS men. So, to please my mother, I tried to keep quiet and carried on passing the urns. but I was glad because when it was time to return to the barracks, the angel followed us. I tried to turn round to look at the angel but my mother kept twisting my head so I was facing the line of workers in front of us. I didn’t see the angel again until later that evening. Everybody’s clothes smelt of smoke and were caked with dirt, dust and ash that had fallen on to the floor. Before my mother went to sleep, she did what she always did and swept the room. “Greta, leave that now and sleep,” said Hana, the woman who had become one of my mother’s closest friends in the barracks. “ruth was very lucky today, you need to speak to her. Who knows how long we may have to work at the Crematorium? Perhaps the SS man took pity on her, because she is a child like the boy in the urn.” “He was ten,” my mother said, pulling up my blanket around my head, gently kissing my hair and wishing me happy Channukah. very 27
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo quietly, she pushed a piece of bread she had saved for me under my blanket before climbing into her own bunk. She began to dust down her bedding. my mother slept in the middle layer of one the bunks and I slept underneath her. I don’t think I had been asleep for very long when I was awoken by a ruﬄing sound coming from the corner of the room. That’s when I saw the angel huddled in the corner, with his great wings wrapped around his body. my mother and all the other women had fallen asleep. I went and sat by him. He woke and stretched out his soiled, grey wings and shook them until all the vermin fell out. He looked quite old and there were many creases in his skin. He smiled at me and as he moved to unfold his wings, I noticed his mouth was filled with darkened yellow teeth that glistened slightly in the moonlight entering the room from the small, narrow window. “You can’t stay here, you must go to the men’s barracks,” I told him. “Yes I know, and I will, but your father wants me to give you this.” He pulled out a doll from one of the folds within his wings. I recognised her blonde hair, although it was now darkened by dirt and dust, her pink silk dress was no longer shiny and the blue ribbon in her hair was faded. “Eva!” I cried. “Your father wishes you happy Channukah,” said the angel. I told the angel how my mother had told me not to pack my doll when we had to leave our small village near to Prague. She had told me to leave it with our neighbour for safekeeping, as she had her best tablecloths. I told him how I packed her anyway, wrapping her tightly inside a blanket and putting her in my rucksack, but then my father found her and hid her inside his false leg. The angel said my father had hoped to get it to me when he was delivering bread to the women’s barracks, but that he had not been working in the kitchen or the vegetable gardens, since he had been made to use his dentistry skills. “I must tell my mother. Perhaps this news will please her,” I said to the angel. 28
SECrETS “No, no, just tell her that he is still in the camp.” The angel smiled and listened whilst I told him how my father had hid extra bread rations in his leg and sometimes had managed to get them to us, though my mother was always worried that he would get caught. The angel said that it was important for him to get back to the men’s barracks, that he was tired and that he would see me the next day at the river. As he left, I stuﬀed the doll inside my pillow. When the time was right I would show her to my mother. It wasn’t long before I fell asleep. The next day we were marched down to the crematorium. The angel was already making up part of the line. The urns were quickly being passed along the line, but when the angel came to pass the urn, his large wings got in the way, slowed down by the heavy weight of the mud caught in the feathers at their tips. The SS man came to see what was holding up the activity. He pulled the angel out of the line and marched him away. Days passed, and some people had said that the angel had been made to work collecting potatoes in the vegetable gardens. I was quite sure that he would have been able to collect and carry large amounts in his wings, stuﬀed between pockets of feathers. many people had soon forgotten about the angel, or were only thinking about how cold and hungry they were. my mother’s sadness lifted a little some seven days later. It was the last night of Channukah, and when we got back from the crematorium there was a pile of potatoes in the room. They had all been halved and scooped out, and there were eight in total. Inside each potato was a wick made from very fine torn threads, possibly from blankets or even feathers. The threads had been twisted tightly together. Inside a shoepolish tin was a small amount of oil, the sort of fine oil that would be needed to work a machine. “It must be from the angel,” I cried. 29
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo “This is from your father, putting himself in danger. He has obviously been stealing from the vegetable garden again. I don’t know where he has got the oil from.” “Perhaps he is working in the factory now,” said Hana. I wanted to tell them both about what the angel had said about my father now working in dentistry again, but he’d told me that it was best not to tell my mother. Everyone agreed that my mother should light the candles. Hana stood posted at the door to act as a lookout. my mother made three blessings, then we quietly sang the traditional Channukah songs. For a moment nothing else mattered. We were all dreaming of home, of people we loved, but most of all we were dreaming about miracles. *** Eventually the snows melted, the mud by the river hardened and the winds that blew the ash across the water grew warmer. The sprouting leaves on the trees reached out for the sun. one warm may day, I walked out of the camp with my mother and father, tightly clutching my doll. my mother shielded my eyes from the piles of objects that lined the exit of the camp, but I was still just able to make out some grey, dirty feather tips poking through a mound of orphaned shoes.
Debbie Moss is completing an mA in Creative Writing at Nottingham university. Before this she was a Geography Course leader on the PGCE course at keele university, after teaching for 23 years in schools in london and Nottingham. She completed a Fellowship in Holocaust Education with The Imperial War museum in 2009 and is using this work to inform her dissertation.
RAVEN-RAGS Paul Stapleton
A cold day dawning bright when it happened. Fair hair falling angry over his dark face Connor culled the last of the winter-calves death-warmth dropped with its own intended milk into Deirdreâ€™s cold lap as he left her nothing to show for his kingly attention. Black birds fell down then, swirling fast behind taking up blood thick-clotting on frosted ground while cream-lipped from the jug and smiling she said I would have a man of those colours hair of the raven, cheeks like blood new-settled snow his own white skin. Dark as mourning, those crows arose in clamour yet silenced by the sound of one manâ€™s voice as deep and clear as a stag in the dawn. She could smell the sweat on his skin, somehow feel his breath, hanging moist on her cold neck in a part of her mind not quite awake 31
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo
but ripe for something to happen and soon. overwhelmed by the need for just his touch only to hold—even to be held—she said, I am sick now that I know of him and will be no better until he is mine. I won’t hear of anything else before then. For old Connor, grey at the muzzle and corpse-breathed, she felt no love at all Deirdre had the need for a much younger bull. Her first-blood flowed full and with painful pangs as cramped over, she hid her condition with red-rags fed to ravens arrived to help veil her availability. They followed her ever after, bound up in blood-deception, their sanguine secret shared.
Paul Stapleton has lived in Nottingham for nearly forty years, only writing fiction in the last five, verse for even less. old English/Irish, both historic and mythic interests him; all we have now from before that written dawn are decimated monkish transcripts of mostly lost oral tradition. He would like to develop a graphic approach but he is no artist.
HIDDEN Anne McDonnell
Early June, 1876, St Kilda Island A fine mist hung over the mountaintop, but the sun reached across the bay and onto the semicircle of houses. Fiona stepped out of the Factor’s house, glad of the night’s rest on solid ground, and took a deep breath. This was to be her home for the next few years. She stared at the deep curved bowl of the mountainside that stretched down to the bay shore. So different from the smoke and dark stone of Edinburgh. on the boat over, she had wondered what kept people on these islands, their lives unchanged over the centuries, especially at such a personal cost. But this place had a magnificence of its own. Green grass covered the lower slopes where the crofters’ plots were marked out with stones. Smaller structures, barely the size of a kennel and covered with turf, dotted the area. A stone wall curved from one corner of the bay, up and around the ploughed enclosures and down to the other end of the bay. Higher up, sheep meandered gently through the bracken. The Dun, a spit of land oﬀ to her left, was separated by a finger of sea water. The air felt clean, vibrant, life-giving, in a way she hadn’t experienced before. She could understand why this place had held fast to untold generations. And now it was up to her to make sure that the price didn’t remain so high. The breeze tugged gently at her skirt and she reached up to make sure that her nurse’s cap was firmly fixed. 33
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo Footsteps approached from behind. She turned. “Good morning, Nurse mckauley.” It was Alex mcCallum, the schoolteacher. “Call me Fiona, please,” she said, smiling. He had welcomed her oﬀ the boat, shown her to her lodgings in the Factor’s House and provided her with food for the week. The rest of the islanders had been more belligerent. Yesterday, the ship from Glasgow had anchored, mid-morning, in the bay. The island had looked uninhabited, apart from the barking dogs at the water’s edge. only when the ship’s whistle blew did people emerge from the fields and houses. The islanders gathered on the water’s edge, arms crossed. Eventually, a couple of men hauled out a small row boat and with some eﬀort, managed to reach the ship. At the shore, the waiting islanders all stepped back. only Alex came forward. “You must be Nurse mckauley.” He greeted her in Gaelic. “Delighted to meet you.” He turned to the crowd. “Come. make Nurse mckauley welcome.” “Does she carry the plague with her?” asked one man, leaning forward. Fiona was startled. “No. I’m here to help you stay healthy. To help with the births.” “You a Sassenach then?” barked a voice from the back. “A Sassenach? No. Born and raised in Fife. Why?” “It’s Sassenachs that bring illness, and we don’t want any of that. last year the boat bought us all the Cold. Just managed to get over it before winter.” “If you’re a Sassenach, you’ll not manage to recruit any of us. We’re not for fighting your battles.” “No. rest assured, there is no war going on,” Alex said. “All is peaceful on the mainland. I am right, aren’t I, Nurse mckauley? You’ve not come to report war.” he turned to her. 34
SECrETS She shook her head. “Certainly not.” one woman, stocky and wearing heavy skirts, stepped forward, reaching out her hand. It was filthy, caked in mud. Fiona flashed a questioning look at Alex and then took it reluctantly. She shook hands with them all. The hands were mucky, and at times accompanied by an acrid unpleasant smell. That evening, about twenty-five villagers, mostly adults, had followed her into the house. They squatted on the clay floor in the kitchen, watching. mr mcCallum sat at the table. He indicated Fiona who stood with her back resting against the cool wall. “This is Fiona mckauley. She’s come all the way from Edinburgh, to help with the babies, help them to live beyond the ‘eight-day sickness’. She’s been trained in nursing and delivering, and you must call her when the pains start.” Fiona looked round at the men and women. Their pale faces had weathered, turning brown in the wind and sun. Creases lined their foreheads and cheeks, and their hair was matted. The men’s bonnets rested on their knees. one man, well-bearded, spoke up. “Why would we need such a person?” Another said, “If a babe can’t survive beyond eight days, they aren’t going to be strong enough for this life. Best to find out early.” “Aye.” “Isn’t that the lot of women?” one woman, arms crossed, stepped forward. “‘myself and Ann. We deliver the bairns. We manage well on our own. We’ve no reason to trust strangers and their crackpot notions.” A younger woman nodded. “They’ve delivered many babies. We’ve no need for you.” “Yes, but how many survive?” asked Alex quietly. “How many children have you had, Ailsa?” 35
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo Ailsa’s head dipped slightly. “Borne eight, buried six.” Fiona felt enormous sadness for the woman. “But that’s not the way it has to be,” she said, aware of her cheeks flushing. “It’s not natural for so many to die.” An older man, his hands gnarled like old roots, stood up. He brushed his jacket down. “If it’s God’s will that babies should die, nothing you can do will save them!” Having spoken, he walked round the group and headed out through the door. The group spoke quietly, but with authority. None was upset by another’s suggestion, even when they shook their heads. The others gradually stood up, the men twisting their bonnets in their hands. Some heads were nodding, while other people frowned, their bright eyes temporarily hooded. They all excused themselves politely, and headed out. Through the small window, Fiona watched them walking together up towards the village houses and their families. These people needed help and Fiona knew, after ten years of work and training, that she was good at her job. Today was her first day. The Glasgow boat had left and no-one was certain when the next boat was expected. It all depended on the conditions at sea. She smiled at Alex. “It’s some sight,” she said. He nodded. “Not like Edinburgh.” She had to agree. The air felt fresh, blown in straight oﬀ the sea. The islanders were stocky, ruddy cheeked, strong with bright blue eyes. They had easily carried her luggage and the supplies from the boat. “And yet...” she said. “I know. The babies. That’s why you are here. Now, we’re going to meet mary. Her babe is four days old now. And seems very healthy, good pair of lungs, I’ve heard!” They walked along the Street, a well-trodden path that ran behind the row of sixteen Hebridean-style stone houses. The small, rectangular 36
SECrETS buildings, their backs facing the sea, had a central door and a glazed window on either side. The corrugated zinc roofs shivered in the wind, creating an oddly musical sound that contrasted with the constant cry of the seagulls. Alex stopped outside the third cottage, and knocked on the wooden door before walking in. “Come. mary is fine to see you.” The house was dark inside, and it took Fiona’s eyes a couple of minutes to adapt. She was in a small space that led straight forward into an open closet. To the left was a square room with an earthen floor. A small, crudely carved wooden table and two chairs stood in front of the fireplace, in which burned a small pile of peat. Smoke drifted through, smarting her eyes. To her right was a darker room that smelt of milk, blood, human waste. It brought back an image of slum dwellings in Edinburgh. She’d delivered babies in worse places than this house. She walked in to the right, her eyes adjusting to the dark shadows until she saw a woman sitting on the bed with a baby suckling noisily at her breast. “mary? That’s a fine babe you’ve got there.” mary stared at Fiona. She looked down at the noise and shrugged. “It’s nothing, not yet. Hasn’t been decided if this babe will live or die.” Fiona squatted on the floor beside mary who leaned backwards as far as she could go. “Don’t come near me. Don’t want to catch it oﬀ you.” Fiona stood up, startled. “All right.” She sat on a small stool leaning against the opposite wall. For a few minutes, while the baby fed, she talked quietly to mary. Asked her about her family, what she did on the island. mary informed her that this child was her fourth birthing, but none so far had survived the eight-day sickness. Fiona’s hand went to her chest. The baby finished, and mary put it down on the bed. “may I see—is it a girl or a boy?” Fiona asked 37
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo mary tipped her head to one side. “I don’t know. Catherine wrapped it before I could see. Told me not to unwrap it until it’s reached ten days.” Fiona crept across. She kept her arms firmly behind her back while she leant over the bundle. The child was tightly swaddled in an old, filthy blanket. Its face was soft, and it posseted a dribble of milk that soaked into the wrapping. A nauseating smell of stinking fish emanated from the bundle. Fiona tried not to gag. “Tell me. What did they do with the stump? Do you know?” she asked. mary shrugged. “may I look?” said Fiona. “Can I open this blanket?” mary leant across the baby. “No. You’ll only bring harm to the child.” Fiona stepped back. “Have you any clean clothes for it?” she asked. mary shook her head. “Not until the ten days have passed.” Fiona pulled the stool over to mary. She asked her about feeding, about how she was feeling, about her bleeding and how often baby fed. She recommended that mary clean her hands when she picked up the child, and ideally put some clean clothes on it, but she knew that mary would not listen. All they could do was wait out the next few days. She emerged from the house into sunshine. The mist was lifting and the top of the mountain was becoming visible. “You all right?” asked Alex. “No, not really,” said Fiona. “I’ve never seen such filthy rags on a baby. And the smell of fish...” “Hah. That’s something you’ll get used to. Fulmar oil. It gets everywhere. After a while you won’t notice it!” said Alex. “It’s used on wounds, and when your legs or arms are tired, especially after they have been catching the birds.” Fiona drew in a couple of breaths of fresh air. maybe this constant wind was a good thing. “Think I’ll go back and get cleaned up.” 38
SECrETS “I’ll walk with you. I’ve got a class soon. After lunch, the women’ll be in the fields. look for rachel and morag. Both due to have their babies soon.” That afternoon she walked around, introducing herself to the women, inviting them for a cup of hot tea. one of them pointed out rachel on the middle field, her pregnancy visible even under layers of petticoats and skirts. Fiona watched as rachel stood up and pressed her hands into the small of her back before rubbing the top of her belly. Her basket was filled with potatoes from their patch of land, and she lifted it carefully, carrying the produce to the cleit for storage before turning back down to the cottages. Fiona headed down to the Street to meet her. As rachel reached the path, Fiona noticed another woman stopping to talk to rachel, resting her own hands on rachel’s belly. rachel nodded, head lowered, and the woman moved on. rachel paused, leaning against the wall, her shoulders sagged. Fiona walked up to her. “mrs mckinnon? rachel? mr mcCallum mentioned you. I’m Nurse mckauley, but call me Fiona, please.” “oh.” rachel stared at her. “How are you?” Fiona asked. “I can see that the baby is almost due.” rachel crossed her hands protectively over her stomach. “Catherine says seven days.” Fiona nodded. “And have you been well?” rachel shrugged. “As well as can be. We’ve not had the Cold this time, so not too bad.” “Can I come and talk to you? About the baby.” rachel looked down the street. Behind her, two women were chatting outside their houses, and mary was sitting in her doorway. one woman strode towards Fiona and rachel. “Don’t talk to her.” The strident voice reverberated oﬀ the stone walls, making rachel jump. 39
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo “Catherine,” said rachel. “It’s Nurse mckauley.” “Hello, Catherine,” said Fiona, recognising her from the meeting yesterday. “mrs Ferguson, please,” said Catherine. “my apologies, mrs Ferguson. I was just talking to rachel about her baby. I’ll be here to deliver it when it arrives.” Catherine stopped beside them, planting her feet about twelve inches apart, letting her heavy skirts hang down to her boots. Wisps of fair hair spiraled from under her red scarf and her arms crossed in front of her broad chest. She stood a few inches taller than Fiona. “Is that right? Well, we’ve no need for any help. I told you, we’ve two of us now that sort it. myself and Ann.” Fiona nodded. “I’d love to talk with you. There’s new methods, ideas to prevent the eight-day sickness...” “Hmm. Don’t think there is much you can help with. We’re used to babies here.” ”I know,” Fiona said. “And I’m here to make sure more of them survive.” Catherine stared pointedly at Fiona’s bag. “Your tricks won’t work here,” she said. “Come, rachel. let’s get you back to your man, and a chance to sit.” Catherine hooked an arm through rachel’s, twisting her so they walked side by side. As rachel moved away, she turned her head. Her bright blue eyes stared straight at Fiona, pleading. Fiona gave a quick smile back, afraid of the strength of Catherine’s hold on rachel. rain battered the windows the next day, so Fiona was surprised when Alex walked straight into the kitchen “I knocked.” He stood, dripping. “It’s mary’s baby, it’s not sucking.” Fiona leapt up and grabbed her overcoat and bag. She followed Alex out, head down into the wind and rain. mary’s house was steaming with damp clothing and smoke. The kitchen was filled with women, all voicing their own opinions. Fiona 40
SECrETS turned to rachel and told her to go home, to stay away. mary sat in the bedroom, holding the baby to her nipple, but it wasn’t sucking. The mewing noises it made were pitiful. “Cried all night long. Never once drank.” Catherine was there, trying to force a spoonful into the mouth. It spilled out, running down the chin. Fiona could see the throat constricting. mary laid the child down on the bed. She turned her head away. Catherine swept the child into her arms and took it through to the kitchen. Fiona followed and watched as they tried to feed warm whisky and milk through a bottle, then a spoon. over the next three days, Fiona argued with the women to clean the child, to put it into clean clothes, to feed it with breast milk. It was useless. They refused to listen and she could only watch as the child’s jaws clamped together, making any feeding impossible. All the while, the baby’s eyes shone bright and it mewed piteously. Then on the third day, the jaw fell open. The women left, heads bowed. The child died soon after. Fiona oﬀered to clean the child for burial. mary shrugged. Her eyes and face were blank, and she sat on the stool, arms wrapped around herself, gently rocking. Fiona eased the blanket oﬀ the body, aware of manure and mud and an intense fish smell. It came from an oily cloth that had been wrapped round the cord. She loosened this and recoiled at the pus and infection inside. other than that, the baby looked normal. All the fingers and toes were present and the limbs and torso had a natural shape. She dipped a rag in the bucket of water beside her and cleaned the boy, rewrapping him in part of a clean sheet from the Factor’s House. The funeral took place the same afternoon. The minister talked about God’s Will, and Fiona vowed never again to come to one of his sermons. But his hold on the islanders was absolute. Afterwards, in the cemetery, 41
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo none had spoken to her, all had turned their backs. In a place such as this, how did new ideas ever get a hold? She had been here a week, and still the women refused to talk to her. Back in Edinburgh, she had never felt as lonely or isolated as she did now. Yet she had chosen to work here because of its isolation, and because she thought she could make a difference. maybe she was wrong and it would be best to catch the next boat out. Certainly her own mother would be pleased, and would renew her attempts to get Fiona married, even at this late age. But Fiona knew that would mean abandoning the St kilda women like rachel and morag, and all the children yet to be born. She couldn’t do that, not when she knew how to help. She had to find a way to earn their trust. That evening, Fiona met rachel walking along the shore. The seagulls swooped and called, filling the air with their cries. “How can we stop it?” said rachel. Her hand was over her mouth, her voice quiet. “I don’t want, can’t...” “rachel. let me deliver your child, and it won’t happen. I know what to do. I’ve delivered dozens of babies in my time. None of them have this.” “But they are saying that you brought it with you—you infected mary’s child. And you bewitched mary. She won’t leave the house now.” “listen. In Edinburgh, there are scientists, looking for the causes. They are studying data, looking at methods...” rachel stepped away. “That’s witch talk. Catherine was right. You can’t help us, just want to...” “No, rachel.” Fiona shook her head. It was all going wrong. She had to make rachel understand, otherwise all the modern knowledge and skills would remain a secret to these people. “listen. I don’t know what the sickness is, or where it comes from, but it was here before I was, so you know I didn’t bring it. And I can help. I know I can.” To her horror, dampness stung the corners of her eyes. She’d never win these people’s trust by acting weak. She turned to leave, hoping at least that rachel 42
SECrETS would think about what she had said. She would have to try again tomorrow. To her utter surprise, a hand on her arm stopped her. It didn’t clutch or grab; she could barely feel it. But it carried the weight of mountains. “rachel,” said Fiona. “I promise I will do all I can to keep your child alive. You have to trust me.” “But Catherine. She won’t let anyone else in,” rachel said, her face pale in the fading light. “I’m so scared. I don’t want this child to be born, I want to keep it safe in here forever. Neil and I... we can’t bear to lose another...” late the following afternoon, rachel arrived at the house. Fiona brought her in, nodding to Neil, who then left. She had a mattress set on the kitchen floor and the fire was burning gently. rachel’s pains continued through the night. By early morning, the baby’s head was visible. Fiona kept refreshing a bucket of hot water, washing her hands each time she checked rachel. The baby girl arrived in one final push and Fiona passed a knife through a hot flame three times before severing the cord. She promptly covered the umbilical stump in a clean dressing before wrapping the girl in a boiled-clean sheet. The baby was perfect, the slightly rounded limbs suggested a good birth weight, and she let out a healthy cry before rachel put her to the breast. The kitchen door slammed open and Catherine stomped under the door frame. “This is not your business. You, bringing devilry to our island,” Catherine almost spat at Fiona before turning her attention. “rachel. Why are you not at home?” “Catherine. We are both tired. rachel has been safely delivered of a girl. Go and tell her husband.” “Now we wait,” said rachel muttering into the baby’s thick black hair. 43
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo Catherine tried, several times, to visit and rewrap the child. rachel was such a bundle of worry that Fiona insisted she stay with her. on day five, the girl was feeding well and the cord had fallen oﬀ, leaving a healthy belly button. Fiona asked Alex to watch over rachel, while she visited morag, the daughter-in-law of Catherine. She talked to her in the smoky darkness of her house, unsure if morag could break through the family loyalty. By day ten, rachel’s child was fattening up. And rachel bought out a new blanket she had made. Fiona insisted it be washed first before she let the child be wrapped up in it. on day fifteen, Elizabeth mackinnon was christened and all the islanders were present. Fiona didn’t attend. She was busy delivering morag’s baby. The service lasted long enough to detain Catherine until Fiona had cut and bandaged the umbilical cord. While morag rested, Fiona took the cleaned babe out for his first breath of island air. Scruﬀy clouds clung to the mountain top and the boy stared at them, then yawned. Fiona cradled him close, her voice a whisper. “I kept my promise. And let me tell you a secret, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll keep you safe.” The baby yawned again, eyes closing, unaware of Catherine striding towards them. Fiona turned back to the cottage, the baby warm and healthy in her arms.
Anne McDonnell owns and runs Pewter rose Press, a Nottingham independent publisher focusing on publishing short stories. She has worked as a primary teacher and an information scientist, writing abstracts for a royal Society of Chemistry journal. She is currently writing her first novel.
TAKING FLIGHT Joanne Gibson For My Husband, Our life in a book. May these memories be forever at your side, if not in your head. Your Wife Full-Back, 1993 This is how I saw you. Huge, bent, storming; everything blurred apart from you. Streaks of green, red, brown, then you on top. All the faces are smudged except yours. look at your hands; huge, splayed, but cradling that rugby ball as if it were something precious. We met on a day like this. I fell in love on a day like this. Dark Nights, 1994 You wanted to escape. You tried so many things, but in the beginning alcohol served you best. This is Adrian’s 21st. You look happy; your eyes melting outwards, your face torn open by the biggest smile. I longed to share that joy; I longed to evoke it. You are hanging from Adrian’s shoulders; cheeks shiny, hair harrowed in whichever direction you last pulled your hand. You were drunk, not happy. When the music stopped—drink dried to sticky residue, sunshine dull behind drawn curtains—I longed for you to love me. But I can admit it now; your abandon was just that, you didn’t care about much at all. 45
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo You staggered for four years beneath street lamps, through strobe lights, cheered on by rugby teams, university mates, school friends, colleagues. Women. When you and rob tried to steal a boat from the river bank you fell in, going under, then tearing through the liquid blanket, shuddering, swearing and grinning. You fell from a roof terrace, limped to casualty, then limped out with stitches and half the nurses’ mobile numbers. You stole a bike instead of ordering a cab and I clung to your waist, laughing. I rode your choppy wake fiercely, desperately. And finally, you were accepted to flying school. So, you turned your back on your playground and left for New Zealand as I crashed; tired, thirsty and lost. An Antipodean Sunrise From the Cockpit of a 747, 1996 For me, it is confusing. The clouds belong above me, not stretched out so I could kick through them like a child. Here, the diamond sun is within reach, a promise on the horizon, shooting pale pink darts into dirty cotton wool. This was your world. What about the day you saw two sunrises? You described it as ‘a little unusual’. I thought it sounded magnificent. As you soared above New Zealand, I ground through Britain weighted with doubt. Graduation, 1996 And then you came home. A pilot. The freedom you craved was yours. You'll forgive me for mentioning here how this uniform made me giggle. It really should have been a noble photograph to commemorate the event. only the shirt is too large, even for your broad shoulders, the short sleeves too wide and the hat makes your hair stick out. Certainly not the chiselled dignity they sold in the brochure. But I believed I did see dignity; in your eyes—brown and penetrating, like flashlights. 46
SECrETS Our Wedding Day, 29th February 1997 The photographer made us look like we were meeting here for the first time. The city gardens are white with snow. Black branches tangle at our backs and the glow from a leaden streetlamp warms our almost-caress. He told you to reach for me. He captured a small woman in a red dress, dark hair spread across her fur stole, head tilted to the figure standing over her. But you did not touch me. Your hand fell away with the crack of flash and your head jerked towards the laughter inside the hall. Beyond the beams and whitewashed timber waited a carnival of balloons, streamers, drapes and painted women who twirled and chattered. All but one. I can see her now; black dress clinging, a black rose thrust into blonde hair while our celebration swirled around her. I wondered—only briefly— what was she waiting for? Before long I was lost in a fog of champagne and when I found you, your hair was damp and snowflakes clung to your shoulders. I brushed them and my doubt aside. Home 1998 19 lansdowne road, Didsbury. red bricks and bright white walls. Those sash windows let in the cold and a burglar. But I can hardly complain—I chose it. You insisted I did; what did it matter to you for all the time you spent here. It’s not a good photograph, but then I took it in a hurry. I thought it should be in here and I will need to sell the place soon. I shall not be sorry—it is haunted. When I was alone, there should have been silence. Instead, each room hummed with questions and cruel laughter. I could hardly bear it. And when you came home, exhausted, you only crawled beneath the duvet, abandoning me to those foul ghosts. The only real sounds punctuated your leaving. Whirs and snaps and the full stop of the Yale lock. You left in the early hours and I too would get up to shuﬄe about the kitchen, matching your steps in my slippers. 47
NoTTINGHAm WrITErS’ STuDIo A pathetic dance lit by spotlights, repeated over years and reflected in the kitchen window panes. my skull heaved with questions planted by those hungry ghosts. ‘When will you be back? Will you be late again? Will you tell me where you are? Do you miss me? Do you love me?’ If I had a photograph of your black silhouette as you made for the door I would paste it here. It is my memory. But I want you to see it. Finally, your feet heralded your going; tut-tuts against tiles. You never rushed anywhere, save that one time. Then your feet beat the stairs. But for once I was oblivious, crouched at the bottom of your wardrobe, blood in my ears, brain glutted on terrible satisfaction. Danielle, 1997 I found her. mad with voices—anxious, unwashed and breathing the stench of my own sweat—I opened your wardrobe. Beneath flip-flops, t-shirts, hats and a drumstick I found what I was looking for. I must have thought the pounding was in my head. Then somehow I knew you were there. I turned and dropped the photograph. There was something scrawled on the back. But it was the face I had glimpsed that mattered. Wide smile, eyes glazed. With drink? love? Blonde hair and a black rose. So inappropriate for a wedding—I remember thinking so at the time. When I picked her up, clutching her between thumb and forefinger, holding her out, you left without a word. But not for good. Neither of us knew it, but the disease was already here. The first time you called me by her name, I was looking down on you. Your large palm was on my waist; hard, squeezing, pressing valleys into my flesh until I called out. And in response, you called her name before pushing yourself deeper into me. That was the beginning. Progressively, your memory faded and your sense of time and space and bodies dissolved. As it tightened its grip on you, it made your secrets mine and I gorged myself on them until I was 48
SECrETS sick. But I did not leave. After all, what had changed? She had always been there—your escape, the one thing just out of reach— only now I could name her. And in some way, you finally needed me. Mnemosyne, 2009 You made the kite at the day centre; still good with your hands, even now. Delicacy is the only thing you have left. I named it mnemosyne— after the Greek god of memory. A cruel joke, but it was lost on you. You simply repeated it several times before it was gone. I promised we would fly it, and I always keep my word. The wind was perfect. You held it above the cliﬀ tops with a tenderness I envied. I heard or read somewhere that to fly a kite is like shaking God’s hand. I hope you felt that and it gave you just a fraction of the freedom of real flight. It was your first since the diagnosis—Early onset Dementia. When you watched that nylon-strapped frame with narrowed eyes, with utterly unflinching concentration, I think you were remembering. You know, I had to smile when I put her photograph in the book. As I daubed on glue, I finally read the back. She had printed two words: ‘Never Forget’. A prophetic, confident sentiment at the time, I suppose. But sadly ironic now, although I am not sure for whom. Each day, I hold a limp hand and search eyes, devoid of care or recognition, and I wonder whether you are lost, trapped and terrified inside. on the other hand, you might be making your greatest escape. Either way, I am tethered to the shell you have left behind. And while you have forgotten, I never will. Jo Gibson joined Nottingham Writers' Studio in November 2013, determined to develop her writing habit and become an active member of a creative community. An undergraduate degree in English literature and a masters in Creative Writing have provided structure and insight into the world of literature. Now comes the hard work of putting it into practice.
This collection of work by Nottingham Writers’ Studio members addresses the theme of Secrets. There are secrets between couples, secret imaginings, secrets kept from the gods themselves, and attempts to break down and build up walls of secrecy with varying success. Founded in 2006, Nottingham Writers’ Studio is run by writers for writers, and is dedicated to the support and development of all forms of creative writing. As well as creating a vibrant social community for writers to discuss and develop their work through courses, writing groups and live literature events, NWS has championed major writing events, including WEYA2013, the Eu-funded Dovetail Project, and Nottingham Festival of Words, Nottingham’s first city-wide literature festival for over thirty years. membership is open to committed writers who have been or are on the verge of being published, living in or connected with Nottingham. Current members include novelists, poets, songwriters, scriptwriters, copywriters, playwrights and publishers at all stages of their careers. our patron is 2012 International ImPAC Dublin Award winner Jon mcGregor.
NWS is supported by Arts Council England through Grants for the Arts.
A showcase of the work of NWS members, including short stories and poems about secrets of all kinds.