Sunday, 24 November 2013

A Design for Life

     Well that's today's earworm sorted. Incidentally, when that song came out in the spring of 1996, I loved it so much that I straight away bought the cassette single and played it on repeat for a whole weekend. My parents were away, so I had the house to myself and blasted it from my second floor bedroom for hours. The only thing that stopped me playing it was the fact that I blew the speakers on my stereo on the Sunday evening because I'd been playing it at ever increasing volume for far too long. That took some explaining when my parents returned.

     I tend not to have rules to live by, I’m not that well organised. But there are certain guidelines that have served me well over the years (and days, some of these are fairly fresh discoveries), and I thought they might come in handy for other people too.

     Anyone who requests that they want ‘The End’ by The Doors played at their funeral is so tediously unimaginative and selfimportant that their corpse should be reanimated, just so I can flick their ear really, really hard, before allowing them to be dead once more.

     Anything that is described as ‘classy’ automatically ceases to be so.

     Thermal underwear is the work of angels and in a British winter, will improve your quality of life by an immeasurable amount.

     Soundtrack your life. And now I come to think of it, play the Rocky theme tune at my funeral.

     If you have ever written ‘could/should/would of’, please do fuck off right now. It’s HAVE.

     Always carry a paper and pen.

     If you have children you will exist in a permanent state of fear and selfloathing. This is normal. As is The Guilt. But there are downsides to having children too.

     Dance to the music.

     There is only one good thing about Autumn, and that is trying to catch falling leaves before they hit the ground. Try it. It’s really bloody hard, but also far too much fun for something that is free and doesn’t make you feel like shit the following day.

     ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ on facebook are suggestions, not commands.

     Take the tablet, apply the cream, pour the wine. And then drink the wine, obviously. It's not going to do anyone any favours to stare at a glass of wine for days at a time. And if it's white wine, for the love of grapes, chill it properly. Warm white wine makes me feel sick (bad teenage memory).

     There’s always one.

      Look around you. Notice things. Observe people. You will learn more from opening your eyes that you ever will from any book, song or film.

     One word alone can arouse the urge to kill, bring down governments, and set fire to the world. One word. Most dangerous from the mouths of toddlers. A single word. ‘Why?’

     Look at the night sky and watch the stars. Realise that you are simultaneously both the least insignificant thing in the world, and the most important.

     Go for walks in the woods. And if some bloke, covered head to foot in black clothes, including a black scarf wrapped around his face, leaps out of the undergrowth, shouts something incomprehensible, and begins marching towards you, and you're on your own, in the deepest part of the woods, your mobile has no signal, and this man is still shouting and marching towards you, and you haven't seen anyone else for at least twenty minutes and you're terrified and thinking about all the women who've been murdered by strangers out in the countryside, and you want to run away in the other direction, but you're worried that doing so will provoke this strange man dressed all in black, with his face completely covered, into chasing after you and attacking you, so you don't run, but your body courses with adrenaline and you have to force yourself to walk past him on the path, trying not to look at him, maybe he hasn't seen me, maybe with that scarf over his eyes, he can't see me, I'll be really quiet, he doesn't seem to be looking at me, I can get away, I know the quickest route back to open countryside, okay, I'm past him, go down into that path there, oh shit, there are noises behind me, I'm going to have to run, JESUS CHRIST there he is, he's following me, he's coming after me, he just shouted something again, oh god, I'm going to die, he's going to kill me, and every muscle in your body goes into flight mode and you run, run like you haven't run since you were a child, fear adding wings to your feet, and you're shaking, your breath coming in ragged little gasps, your lungs are bursting and finally you're out into the open and you grab your phone, and you bump into a woman and tell her not to go into the woods because there's a man in there who followed you and she looks worried.

     And then she laughs. And explains it's a game played by people from Aylmerton Field Study Centre.

     Should you find yourself in that situation, please do remember that you have my blessing to tell her to fuck off with the laughing.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Your Life is About to Get So Much Better

     I saw my GP yesterday. Not a major appointment, just a review six weeks after she suggested we double my dose of Escitalopram because I clearly wasn’t coping with life. We had a really good talk about depression, counselling, and the stigma attached to depression. She’s trying to organise some sessions with medical students where they can talk to people who have mental health problems and I said I’d be more than happy to participate.

     Then, as I was leaving, she said ‘You seem like a completely different person from the one I saw last month. You’re glowing!’

     And it’s true. I am. Because I have discovered how to make each day of your life seem motivational and empowering. Montage.

     It started out as a joke. My mum was staying with us for a couple of weeks, from when I was really very low until last weekend by which time I was much better. During a conversation with her, I said ‘No! I’m not putting up with that!’ To which she said ‘Just look at you! How you’re standing!’ And I was standing, feet placed apart, fists on hips, shoulders squared, ready to take on the world. I felt strong enough to handle anything. Mum started humming the theme music to Rocky, I joined in, adding a slow motion jog on the spot, and an earworm was born.

     The Rocky music has since been permanently in my head, soundtracking everything I do. So yesterday, when I was striding home after seeing Dr H, it was playing in my head and I was giggling to myself as a result, thinking that this would be the climactic scene in a film where our heroine throws off all that is holding her back to the backing of  a swelling orchestral theme. Then Alistair came home for lunch, and mentioned in passing that he would be working on Saturday.

     And an unholy bastard lovechild was spawned.

     For some reason, I could not stop imagining little ten second snippets of Alistair at work, accompanied by the Rocky theme tune. Typing away at his computer. Making phone calls. Holding a clipboard. Pointing at something. Walking down a corridor. Making coffee. Putting on a hi-vis jacket and hard hat. Arguing with his boss. All with that song playing in the background. I tried to explain it to him, but all I got in response was a very worried look and ‘Do you think maybe they should lower your dose of antidepressants?’

     And after that, I couldn’t stop it. Everything I did became part of a montage. Doing the washing up wasn’t me dispiritedly swiping at a saucepan for ten minutes, but a ten second  flurry of scrubbing instead. Tramping down the long, damp and leafstrewn streets for the fifteen minute walk to school was transformed into a quick flash of me marching along, head held high. Taking The Girl to the park whilst we waited for The Boy to finish cross country training was no longer me being frozen to my very marrow, resignedly pushing her on the swings, and yearning for a cigarette. No, it was a burst of me putting all my energy into making the swing fly up higher, and The Girl throwing her head of blonde curls back and hooting with laughter. It made the whole day seem amazing and uplifting. Seriously.

     I tried explaining it again to Alistair when he came home from work, including speaksinging his actions to the tune of Rocky. ‘Coming home, getting changed, opening a beer, having a fag. Getting sandpaper, ready to paint the stairhehhehhehhairs!’ He still didn’t get it. So I tried again, but this time with the theme from The A-Team. And then he totally got it. Totally. And from then on, everything he did was with a greater sense of purpose and fulfilment.

     So clearly, it does work. You just have to have the right music to set your montage to. Alistair suggested Eye of the Tiger, which I’m unsure of. Partly because I am already prone to earworms and worry that if I invite them in once, they are like vampires and will take up residence in my mind forever. But also because it has words in it, which is best avoided.

      There’s also the Knight Rider theme tune, which really doesn’t work for me. It’s not slowbuilding enough. The thing with Rocky is that it’s much slower than you remember, which is all the better for building up our little friend Maureen Mentum. But then I think Mission Impossible probably could work for some people. It doesn’t do it for me, because it just makes me think of Tom Cruise and shudder a little.

     Beverly Hills Cop? Hmm. Has potential. Star Wars Theme doesn’t work for me, but The Imperial March does, especially if, like me, your day involves a lot of walking (minimum of six miles a day). A really good one I’ve discovered this morning is the Indiana Jones music.

     Try it. Seriously. Stick the cinematic soundtrack of your choice on whilst you arse about on the internet, and suddenly you’re not wasting three hours of your day laughing at videos of people falling over. You are kickarsily spending ten seconds frowning at a computer screen in a way that seems massively important and meaningful. And when you make that fourth cup of coffee, it doesn’t take three minutes whilst you gaze into the middle distance, thinking about that ingrowing hair, waiting for the kettle to boil. No. It’s just a clip of you taking a swig from a steaming cup of caffeine. Trudging around Sainsbury’s isn’t an hour of your life wasted, it’s just ten seconds of you striding down the aisle, your trolley like a chariot in front of you.

     And if you have any suggestions for any other pieces of music to montage your life to, then please do let me know. And it works best if you speak-sing your actions to the music, thusly (to the tune of Rocky): Put kettle on, grab a mug. Pick up spoon, open jar. Put coffee in mug, pour the water overherherherherherHER!

     No need to thank me. It’s just what I do.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Warning for you, yes, you.

     I know you read this.

     I know that, because as I’ve said before, blogs collect an awful lot of information about you when you visit them. So I see when you read it, what you’ve read, how long you spend reading it.

      We’re not talking right now. No, that’s not true. We had a difficult series of exchanges, then we were keeping a wary distance from one another for a while, then you cracked, about thirty seconds before I did.
But now you’ve withdrawn totally. And I’m here to tell you I’m not putting up with that.

     I’ve realised something about myself over the last few weeks. When bad stuff happens, I have a meltdown. I cry, I rant, I throw all sorts of unwise and untrue words up on here, I self-harm, I rage against the world. Then I have a few days of self-pity, before coming out the other side, stronger and more kickarse than I ever was before. If I have a few more really shit things happen to me, then I’ll probably develop a skin of stainless steel and never get damaged again. But it’s not like that for you, is it?

     You internalise everything. I don’t know, can’t know, what’s going on in your head. But I do know, as an outsider, as someone who cares deeply about you, that your life right now seems to be an unrelenting, joyless and flattened way to exist. It’s not your fault. There’s just stuff going on that no one seems to want to confront or change. And that makes me angry. And I’m not putting up with that.

     Because you’re better than that. You are one of the best people I have ever known. You are beautiful, gentle and true. You have so many friends who would be shocked to know what’s going on in your head, who would step in and help out in any way that they could, because you mean so much to them.

     But I understand that you can’t right now, because of how small and helpless you feel. Reaching out is the last thing you feel capable of doing. But right now, I am kickarse. And I can’t stand by and see you sink. That’s what I accused you of doing, and you kind of did, but now I understand why. I thought you were feeling better than you are, so that’s why it hurt. I didn’t know what else you were struggling with when things went tits up between us.

     So this is a warning. I am coming for you, I will chase you down, I will not let you escape my crosshairs. Because you mean so much to me, I will not stand by. I will do everything I can to help you and stop you feeling like this. You don’t deserve this, and you need someone to grab you by the elbows and pull you out of this pit. Luckily for you, I am in a Rocky state of mind, and I am coming after your (not as peachy as mine) arse. My feet are planted apart and pointing outwards. My fists are on my hips. So nur. I'm coming for you.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

We Were Going Out to Dinner

     Mumsnet Bloggers' Network are currently running a competition to win some books. Lot of books. Bookilly, wookilly lots of books. Taking our cue from Lionel Shriver's favourite first line 'We were going out to dinner.', we have to blog something. Anything, just use that first line as our starting point. Here's my attempt.

    We were going out to dinner.


     Bloody facebook.

     I don't know about you, but I don't often hear people say 'Facebook has caused me no end of joy' or 'Facebook has made my life so much less complicated' or 'Do you know, I've never had any problems arise as a result of facebook.'

     My anger with facebook is more than simple annoyance at 'u ok hun lol x' and 'Like and share if you wish bad things didn't happen'. Facebook ended my marriage.

     After two years of long hours, networking and seriously hard work, my husband Nick had been nominated for an award. And not just any award either, an ‘Excellence in Innovation’ award at the regional tourism organisation’s annual ball. I was just a lowly mobile bookkeeper, but apparently being married to a genius like Nick meant that I was allowed to tag along for the evening too, and wear a posh frock.

     I’d got home from work later than I’d planned, tired and sweaty after a panicked drive home in the rain, stopping to pick Serena up from her friend’s house. The friend’s mum cheerfully told me that she hadn’t given Serena any dinner ‘because they were playing so nicely, I didn’t want to interrupt them.’ I seethed inwardly, thanked her for her hospitality, drove home, made beans on toast for Serena’s dinner and let her eat it in front of CBeebies so I could dash upstairs and have a shower. I was frantically drying my hair in front of the mirror when the front door slammed and Nick came upstairs.

     ‘You’re not ready? Jesus, Polly, you know we have to be there for half seven! What have you been doing?’ He shrugged off his suit jacket and began unbuttoning his shirt, becoming annoyed when he realised he’d forgotten to take his tie off first. ‘This evening is so important to me, I can’t believe you’d jeopardise it by not getting ready in time. You’re just piling more pressure on me, you do realise that, don’t you? I don’t need this, not tonight.’

     ‘I’m sorry.’ I said, rummaging in the drawer, looking for a new pair of tights. ‘I had to finish up in the office, and then collect Serena. I thought I’d left enough time, but the traffic was bloody awful, and then I had to make dinner…’

     ‘That’s just a list of excuses.’ Nick kept his back to me as he got dressed. ‘If you really cared about this, and how important it is to me, you’d have made sure you had enough time.’

     ‘I am sorry, I really am!’ I risked putting a conciliatory hand on his shoulder. ‘Honestly, I do understand how important this is for you, and I want to support you.’

     ‘You can start by getting ready.’ Nick kissed my hand to show that he knew he’d been unreasonable, and smiled, slightly shamefacedly. ‘You look beautiful, Pol. I’m going to be the envy of all the other blokes there.’

     I skipped downstairs to grab my evening handbag, and check on Serena, who’d turned off the telly and was playing with her Disney Princess dolls. My heart swelled as I watched her, her face scowling ferociously as she concentrated on whatever story she was acting out with them. Oh, to be five again and be able to lose yourself so wholly in make believe. ‘Sally will be here in ten minutes, darling. Are you going to get your pyjamas on now?’ Serena ignored me, as she tends to do when asked a question that isn’t to her liking. I carried on down the hall, putting my earrings in, hooking my high heels on, and rummaging through my work bag (sturdy, plain, indestructible) for the essentials to transfer to my evening bag (sparkly, pretty, impractical).

     The flashing of the answerphone caught my eye. Strange. Someone must have phoned when I was in the shower. I hit play, and a breathless, squeaky female voice filled my ears.

     ‘Hi Polly, it’s Sally. Um, I’m really sorry and everything, but I can’t babysit toni…’

     Shit. Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit. This wasn’t the first time Sally had let us down – she’d done it only a few weeks previously – but it would definitely be the last, I vowed. Nick is going to go absolutely batshit.

     ‘Did we have a message? Is everything ok?’ Nick leant over the bannisters, his short blond hair neatly parted, his blue eyes sparkling.

     ‘Sally.’ I gave him The Look. The Look that said yes, I know. And we have no back up plan for tonight. No one else we can call. No favours we are owed.  Briefly, I considered taking Serena with us to the awards ceremony, and immediately dismissed the idea. ‘You’re going to have to go on your own.’

     ‘Shit.’ Nick took a deep breath. ‘There’s no one else, is there? Of course not.’ He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. ‘I’ll have to. Bugger. I need to get going now, then.’

     ‘I wish I could come.’ I felt terrible, seeing his shoulders slump with disappointment. ‘If I can get hold of anyone else, I could join you later?’ I knew there was no one else to get hold of, but saying it made me feel better.

     ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I’ll ring you when I get there.’ Nick kissed me on the cheek and was gone.

     After I’d put Serena to bed, I took off my slinky dress, put my pyjamas on and took a packet of pink wafer biscuits into the family room to scoff whilst I wasted another evening on facebook. The contrast between another evening spent like this and the glamorous, sophisticated evening I should be having could not have been greater. My computer pinged with a notification. And another. And another. Nick had been tagged in some photos people were uploading from the awards ceremony. God, he looked gorgeous, eyes crinkled as he smiled at the camera, white teeth flashing. I clicked through the album, smiling as I saw how handsome he looked, especially compared to the pudgy and pasty local businessmen, in their double breasted jackets with brass buttons. Then I stopped smiling. Who was this woman with a proprietorial arm draped around Nick’s shoulder?

     There she was again, a hand on his chest. And again. Holding his hand? Wait, kissing him? Nick in the background of a photo, his tongue down this woman’s throat? A text message on my phone. Nick. He hadn’t won, but he was drunk. Too drunk to risk driving, and there were no taxis, so he’d stay at the hotel.
A wave of cold came over me. I stared at the screen, feeling as though my world had frozen around me, incapable of thinking, moving, responding. 

     I don't know how long I sat there, but one moment I was chilled to the bone, the next I was quietly and utterly filled with poisonous, burning fury. I channelled it, and I got to work. Systematically, I went through Nick’s facebook account, twitter account, his email addresses. Private messages, photos, plans for various rendezvous, checklists, notes on other women. I checked my diary against the dates, and every overnight business stay corresponded neatly with flurries of activity between my husband and other women.

     I thought again and again of all the cancelled trains, the meetings that went on too long, the conferences that had such early starts that he'd needed to stay the night before. Was any of it true? Any of it? Or had it all been a convenient smokescreen for his other activities? Clearly, he was more of a genius than even I had realised, managing to build up his business and conduct all these affairs at the same time, I thought bitterly.

     How could I have been so stupid? How could I have been so blind? I hadn’t had a glimmer of a scintilla of an inkling that my husband had been sleeping with all of these other women. Was it my fault? Was I such a terrible wife that he needed to seek solace from somewhere else? Had I not supported him? Why wasn’t I good enough? Why wasn't I simply enough?

     I packed his bag for him, left it outside the front door, and called a locksmith. Only after the locks had been changed did I make the call I’d been needing to make since last night, to my best friend Tom.

     ‘I need you to come over.’

     In my kitchen, coffee pot filled to the brim, pink wafer biscuits to hand, ‘Christ, Polly, you look terrible.  What is it? Are you ill?’ Tom’s face was bewildered and full of concern.

     I took a shaky breath and wondered where to start. How to tell someone that your entire life has shattered in every direction? That your world has fallen apart? Where to begin?

     ‘We were going out to dinner.’

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Blogfest 1

     I’m calling this BlogFest 1 because frankly, yesterday was so amazing and thought provoking that ideas are just spilling out of me to the point that I’ve had to start writing them down because I don’t want to forget anything, and I know I’ll be writing more about it soon.

     The absolute standout highlight for me was the afternoon session ‘Cracking yarns and tall tales: how to tell a better story’, chaired by Sarah Crown with a panel  that featured Lionel Shriver, AL Kennedy, Cassandra Parkin and Rosie Fiore. Four incredibly talented and diverse female writers who have a wealth of experience and knowledge that they shared with us, informatively and at times, hilariously.

     AL Kennedy said on the importance of writing a strong beginning to your work ‘What you’re doing is establishing trust between yourself and the reader. You’re saying ‘We’re going to start here. Come along with me (she mimed holding hands), it’s fine.’ Then gave a creepy, disturbing smile and raised eyebrow to the audience that made me howl.

     But mostly it was about finding your voice, about building a bond with your reader, about really caring about and believing in what you’re saying, what you want to express, in whatever form you are writing in – a novel, a blog, an email, even just a tweet. It’s about that connection that you are creating when (hopefully) someone reads your words. Words have power (as we saw demonstrated later on during the ‘Mummy Blogger vs Feminism’ debacle – short recap: Feminist said you can’t be a mummy blogger and a feminist, uproar, a panellist talked about a personal decision, more uproar, heckling from the audience, explanation from the stage, more uproar, surge of anger, more heckling,  Mumsnet break the glass and release the emergency Jo Brand).

     And then AL Kennedy absolutely nailed it. Talking about books, she made the point that ‘Your words might be company for someone in a very dark place, no matter how trivial they are.’ Then talking about totalitarian regimes, she went on ‘They burn books, not shoes, because shoes don’t save lives.’ And I wanted to jump up and down and scream ‘YES! That’s it, EXACTLY!’. When I tried to kill myself nearly four years ago, I was in the middle of reading ‘Saving Grace’ by Ciara Geraghty. And even as I shovelled pills down my gullet, I can remember feeling pissed off that I hadn’t finished reading it before my demise. Not because it’s an especially profound book, but because it was so well written I was head over heels in love with it, and wanted to know what happened next. Of course I didn’t die, and I finished reading the book, so there’s a happy ending right there.

     So of course, that got me thinking about writing (for a change). And why I write this blog. I said last week that writing is my therapy, that it’s a way of releasing whatever’s stuck in my head. It’s more than that though.

      Later in the day, I was chatting to bloggers who make money, serious money, from their blogs because they write reviews for various companies, they have adverts, they host content. I felt a bit awkward when they asked me why I don’t have adverts on here, because I didn’t want to seem as though I thought myself somehow superior for not doing so (I don’t, I just don’t want adverts on here). I just sort of mumbled something about not really writing stuff that would attract advertisers.

     And then I had a bit of an epiphany later on when I was chatting to a woman during a fag break.  She said she didn’t host adverts either, because she blogs in much the same way as I do. Then it hit me. This blog for me, is about readership. I just want to be read, to have my voice heard. To maybe make a difference to the way people think about things, or to develop conversation with people. I’m not writing this to make money. Other people are, and that’s great. One woman I spoke to is a single mum with a young child, and for her, blogging provides for the pair of them, she can do it from home, bring up her son, and make money from it. If you can do that, then why the hell not? And obviously if anyone does want to throw money at me, my paypal account is….

     But this is all about my words, finding people who want to read them, and hopefully us getting to know each other better. This has been an incredible year for me, all because of writing. There have been some really terrible low points in it, but the highs have made it worthwhile. And the biggest difference in it has been what Mumsnet Bloggers Network have done for me in terms of getting this out there, and read, and my voice heard. Not only that, but yesterday. Yesterday, bloody hell. Blogfest was beautiful, wonderful, empowering, infuriating, inspiring and completely surreal. To actually meet so many fellow bloggers and rejoice in the glory of blogging was pretty much transformational. But I do have one regret.

     At lunchtime, I was at the bottom of the stairs, on my way up to outside and a sneaky fag break. Coming down the stairs was Kate Williams, one of the Mumsnet Bloggers team, and an absolute star. We exchanged smiles (hers radiant and warming, mine shy and starstruck) and passed each other. I really wish I’d found the courage to thank her in person.  Because if I didn’t have this blog, if I didn’t have the marvellous tweeps, if the Mumsnet Bloggers hadn’t been such a brilliant support to me, then I would have missed out on blogfest. And I would have missed out on possibly the best day of my life*.

*Usual birth of children etc disclaimer applies.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

As Crafty as They Come

     Today was Reading Café at The Girl’s school. Reading Café? It’s a chance for parents to go into the school for the last hour of the day, do a bit of reading, then make something with their child. The idea is to improve communication between parent and child by getting them to work together on the project.

     So I turned up (damp and short-sighted, my glasses had misted up in the rain), collected The Girl from her classroom then made my way to the school hall. We read to each other, then a teacher read Funnybones to all of us. Every child loves Funnybones, don’t they? Well, every child in this household at least. I dreamily look back on those days when The Boy used to demand I read it over and over again when he was three. Over and over again. Over. And. Over. Again.  Every day. Every. Day. For months. I didn’t even need to look at the book by the end of it, it was like the mantra of a cult that had brainwashed me into the worship of bones. And The Girl! The Girl still loves Funnybones now that she’s five. I am doing everything I can to hasten her reading skills so she can curl up with a book, any book, any book at all, perhaps that one with the yellow border, all by herself.

     This particular teacher was obviously a frustrated performer, because she managed to spin out her rendition of the book to a good twenty-five minutes. Yes, twenty-five minutes. Twenty five minutes. Of. Funnybones. I was sitting in an especially exposed position, so I had no way of discreetly distracting myself from the inept assembly of a skeleton dog by arsing about on twitter. Instead, I let the words wash over me like a grey wave of torture.

     All resistance beaten out of me, it was time to move onto the Craft Project. No, sorry, that’s not quite right. It’s the ‘FUN Craft Project’. FUN. FUN Craft Project.

     I absolutely fucking hate craft.

     I’m crap at it, it takes forever to set up and do, the thing you’re trying to make always comes out wrong and not at all as you expected it to, and then after all that faff, you have to tidy everything away and clean up. Except that stuff involved in your crafting will have scattered itself to all four corners of the house, and for months afterwards you’ll still be finding sequins every time you sweep the kitchen floor, or weird little pools of glitter next to the bathroom sink. Every time I move a large piece of furniture in the house I find at least two beads, a piece of painted pasta and Prittstick lid behind them.

     Everything involved in craft is designed to aggravate and irk me. Every time I buy The Blondies a magazine (Moshi Monters for him, Sparkly Pink Tat for her) there is always a craft project involved in it somewhere, and despite knowing my very firm views on the subject, they pester me to help them assemble something. I start by saying no, then’ I’m not really very good at this sort of thing’, a feeble plea of ‘Wouldn’t it be better to do this kind of thing with Daddy?’, and before I know it, it’s two hours later, I have smears of glue on my forehead, glitter coating my hands and a very wobbly and precarious looking Princess carousel made from the glossy pages of the magazine. I take one step back, panting slightly, one corner sags, the front peels off, the whole fucking thing falls apart, and I get The Rage.

     I do everything possible to avoid craft. But it’s part of the Reading Café thing, and The Girl was excited about it. Also, I reasoned to myself, if it does go as spectacularly tits up as every previous attempt at craft, I can just say that The Girl did it ‘all by herself’ and absolve myself of any responsibility and involvement.
I ended up working on a table with another mum and her daughter whom I’d seen around, but never really spoken to. The little girl had the same name as me, so it sounded a bit like her mum was cheering me on the whole time 'That's great Lucy! Well done Lucy!'. The other mum mouthed at me, perfectly deadpan ‘I hate craft’.

     Ahh, a soulmate.

     Oh god, it was terrible. We had to make a Funnybones skeleton thingy by cutting out various drawings of bones, then put them together with little matchstick sized bits of wood and sellotape. I can’t even use scissors to cut along a straight line, so little detailed things like fingers are best avoided. The Girl was having a logic bypass and kept insisting on sticking sellotape on the bits that didn’t need it, and my namesake swapped the ribcage and pelvis of her skeleton around, so he either had a bowtie on or very pert breasts (depending on the purity of your thoughts). The other mum clearly had her alibi already established, and was constantly solicitously getting drinks for the other parents at the table, a drink for her daughter, offering her chair to others, so that when the monstrosity of the FUN craft project was unveiled, she could deflect blame and legal responsibility entirely on to her daughter. Of course, the other parent at the table had managed to make all three figures of the skeletons (the big skeleton, the little skeleton and the dog) and his daughter was happily colouring them in before we’d even worked out what all the bones were on the one single skeleton we were wrestling with.

     And finally, the end result.

     I fucking hate CRAFT.

First Cut is the Deepest


 That’s my twitter picture. It was a poster that was put up in the subway in Norwich. I took a picture of it at the time, then thought it seemed appropriate for me. Partly because my wrists are connected to my hands that writes the words that help me make sense of the world. But more because of my history of self harm.

     It started when I was 15, when I was struggling to come to terms with my miscarriage, and what my very geographically distant boyfriend felt and thought about me. In those pre-internet days, we were reliant on snail mail and the odd phone call. He was good with words. Not so good at actually following up on what he’d written. I wrote most of this years ago, at the same time that I wrote Aftermath of a Miscarriage, when I was pregnant with The Boy. I was pretty much terrified at being pregnant for the second time, and trying to get the words out of my head so they stopped haunting me. My feelings aren't quite as heightened now.

      After the aftermath, he wrote. He told me he was sorry, he told me he loved me, he told me he would return to me as soon as he could. I believed him. I believed every word. Did I? I wanted to, I truly did. I yearned to believe him, I wanted it to be true. But still some vestige of doubt remained. If he loved me, why wasn’t he here? Perhaps, despite what he said, he blamed me. Perhaps he’d wanted the baby when I told him it was gone and now he was angry with me, but felt guilty for not loving me. Then I would realise how illogical I was being: he didn’t have to write to me, he didn’t have to phone me, there was no need for him to stay in touch if he didn’t love me. But then why wasn’t he here? My mind was in turmoil and I couldn’t stop dwelling on the negatives. Again and again I thought of my miscarriage, of the distance between us. Did I really believe he was coming back? Was he really in love with me? What would have happened if I hadn’t lost the baby? Would he be coming back sooner if I’d still been pregnant? There was a maelstrom of pain in my head and I couldn’t see how to make it stop.

            I wasn't in control of my emotions, or so I felt.  I'd go from poisonous fury to deranged weeping to passive acceptance in the space of ten minutes. Sometimes the pain was too much and I would rake my arms with my fingernails, needing the physical pain to distract me from the emotional. I'd look at the long red scratches dispassionately, picking at them until they bled. It calmed me. I know how that sounds. But somehow seeing something physical, a tangible proof of pain, helped. Now the pain wasn’t inside my head, it existed in the real world, it could be witnessed and not just felt.

Again and again I heard a voice in my head, telling me that I was no good, that I was worthless, that there was no way anyone would ever love me. Why had I been so stupid as to believe that he had? He had done nothing to prove it since he'd left. I wrote the word ‘worthless’ again and again into my arm. Worthless. That’s what I was. Not worthy of respect, thought, or consideration.

It got worse in the summer. I’d told him it was over, but still he came back (having prioritised taking drugs in clubs in London with his friends over coming back to me). My summer job meant I couldn’t escape him and his loud, hedonistic, obnoxious friends. Most evenings, after I’d finished work, I would shower, change into my nightie, and sit in the dark room, door locked. There was always a knock on the door at nine that I ignored. Then I would sit, brooding over how stupid I had been, gazing at the marks and scars on my arms, adding to them, the sting of the knife reminding me that I could feel.

     40 weeks. Your baby will look like an individual now and you will recognise them from other babies. In this scary, loud world that they’ve found themself in, you are familiar. Your heart beat and your voice have been their main sounds for months. 

28th August 1995. My EDD. Expected Date of Delivery. The day that we would, should, have been meeting our child together. I’d begged for, but not been granted, a day off from work. In the whorl of misery and confusion, in the downward spiral of self-loathing there was no way I would cope with seeing him today. But of course I would. And of course I was put to work in the kitchen. I knew that of course EDD is only an indicator and not an exact science. But I had imbued it with such symbolism that I couldn’t just approach it as any other day. I sat silently through making the packed lunches, swinging my hair over my face to hide the tears I couldn’t stop from streaming down my face.

I even volunteered to go and slice the ham for the sandwiches, a job universally despised by all of us. It consisted of the grim act of extracting 30cm of solid processed meat from a cylindrical can by removing both ends, then sticking your fist into the tube and pushing to extract the tube of spam. Like the type of movement a rural vet becomes very practised in, just without the arm length glove. Then loading the greasy, pink and wobbly form into the slicer, then standing, trancelike, dragging the metal slicer from side to side. And repeat. For another nine tins. It was mindless, dull work that suited me that day. I wasn’t crying, I just couldn’t stem the flow of saltwater that streaked from my eyes, down my face and onto the front of my green long-sleeved top, dampening it.

     When lunch was over I went back to my room for an hour, sitting on the bed, curtains drawn, crying, tearing at the skin on my arms, wishing I could somehow peel away the sorrow I felt as easily. Someone knocked on my door twice, but I ignored them and eventually they went away.

     I couldn't bear it. I needed something to distract me, stop me thinking about it, stop me from running after him and telling him everything. Automatically, I dragged my nails down my arm. But I felt nothing. I tried again. Nothing. I looked around the room wildly until I saw a glass on a chest of drawers. Without thinking I smashed it against the wall, picked up the largest shard and put it against my arm. No, not my arms. Too obvious, too visible. I raised my nightie and watched intently as my hand, on autopilot, guided the glass onto the skin over my hip and sliced into it. It didn't hurt. Blood immediately rose to the surface, seeping out. I sliced again, again, again. More blood. I watched as it trickled down my hip, then leg. I watched until it stopped, then dried in an uneven flaking path.

            I felt perfectly calm. That is how you solve the problem. That. If I could keep my emotions in check, problem solved. This calms me down. This works.

          And then, a few days later, I was working in the kitchen again, and someone made a joke about him being a dad. They had no idea of what had happened, they weren’t being malicious, just chatting and joking as friends do. I pretended I needed to get something from the store room, reached into the drawer where the keys were kept and pocketed them, along with something else my hand closed on instinctively, then walked stiffly out to the store. I left the door ajar, just enough to see what I was doing and crouched behind a stack of shelves. A little better. A little better. I'd had to cut my arm to be able to see it, but I had long sleeves on, no one would notice. I was so intent on what I was doing that it took a few moments to realise just what I’d become.

     I was someone who had been so intent on trying to stop thinking about what had happened to her that instead I’d become someone who ducked out of work to cut her own flesh. I was someone who found relief in seeing my own blood, my own scars, my own wounds that I had inflicted on myself. I was damaging myself far more effectively than he ever had, because I was doing this deliberately. Him? He was just young, immature, fucking stupid and too caught up in the world of his friends to really care about anyone else. I was 15, six years younger than him, but I could see him for what he was. Not a nasty bastard, just a bit of a twat, incapable of realising just what devastation he had unleashed when he started all this by snogging a slightly too intense and damaged 14 year old girl early one morning a year earlier. He thought he loved me, he told me he loved me, but I see now that he believed he loved me because he wanted to. He wrote all the right things, but ultimately failed to back any of it up by his actions. It wasn’t intentional, he just couldn’t see what he’d put me through.

     So I stopped selfharming on a regular basis. But, I’ll be honest, I do sometimes still do it, when things get too much, when there is a silent howl in my mind, when I’m sunk so low I can’t fight back against the tide. I’m not glamourising it, it’s a bloody stupid thing to do, I feel ashamed afterwards and have to wear long sleeves to cover it up. It doesn’t help, however much I feel it does when I’m in the moment. Better by far to just reach out, to talk to someone, anyone, about how you feel. It is ok to feel shit. It is ok to cry. It is ok to feel hurt, to not understand, to question the behaviour of people who purport to love you. It is never ok to hurt yourself to the point of bleeding. And if you are doing it, then it says far more about the people around you than it does about you.

Monday, 4 November 2013


     This is a short story I wrote a few weeks ago. I was supposed to send it in as a guest blog for someone else, but then things went a teensy leetle bit awry... I feel very weird putting it on here. Blogging is just my opinion, and we can argue the toss on it. Writing fiction is something else altogether. And Laura isn't a fully fleshed out as I'd like her to be, but sod it. My blog, my words, you can choose to read it. Or not.

Monday, 28th October
     ‘It’s tiny!’

     ‘What were you expecting? I told you it was small. Are you going to give me a hand with the bags, or not?’ I passed the overloaded bags of food to Mark, deliberately choosing to carry the much lighter suitcases myself. Mark grunted and trudged up the path to the front door of the cottage.

     ‘It smells a bit fusty.’ Mark grumbled as we stepped through the door and into the hall.

     ‘Well, obviously. No one’s been here since August. We’ll just have to open the windows for half an hour to get some fresh air in.’ I said briskly.

     ‘We’ll freeze!’

     ‘No we won’t. Look, are you going to complain about everything? Because if you are, we may as well just go home now.’ I dumped the suitcases on the floor and put my hands on my hips.

     ‘Sorry.’ Mark smiled ruefully. ‘I’m just wound up and tired.’

     ‘I know.’ I hugged him, resting my head against his chest. ‘That’s why you need this break. Five days in the middle of nowhere, no work stress, no need to chef. Just you and me. It’ll be just what you need to feel back on track.’

     ‘You’re right. Ok, let’s get this stuff put away.’

     Sitting on the sofa in the living room an hour later, Mark sighed happily. ‘You were right Laura. I do feel better already. How come you never suggested coming here before?’

     ‘I’d kind of forgotten to be honest. I haven’t been here since I was a kid, at least twenty-five years ago. It was only when I bumped into my cousin Sarah and she said they’d been here in the summer that I remembered about it.’

     ‘How can you forget you’ve got a holiday cottage to stay in?’ Mark asked incredulously. ‘It was your grandmother’s house!’

     ‘Great-grandmother.’ I corrected him. ‘Like I said, I haven’t been here for years, and Mum and Dad never bothered either. Anyway, last time I was here it was completely different. Totally unmodernised for a start. No heating, no electricity, no bathroom…’

     ‘No bathroom? That’s a bit grim.’ Mark interrupted me. ‘What about..’

     ‘The toilet?’ I grinned. ‘Long drop shed in the garden. I know. It seemed really dark in here as well. Rosa had all this stuff hanging up everywhere, herbs and flowers, shelves packed out with bottles and jars of things she made.’

     ‘What, like jams and chutneys?’

     ‘Sort of, yes. She made a lot of herbal remedies for things as well, like a cottage industry Neal’s Yard.’ I stopped. An old memory stirred fretfully in my mind, of gathering herbs in the woods that surrounded the cottage.

     ‘Any good?’

     ‘No idea.’ I lied. ‘Anyway, what do you want to do with the rest of the day? Go out for a walk?’

     ‘Nah. I’m going to cuddle up to you, watch a film, and then this evening I shall prepare the most excellent steak dinner for modom’s delectation.’ Mark kissed my nose and I giggled.

     ‘You are daft. You’re supposed to be having a week off from work.’

     ‘Cooking for you is nothing like cheffing in a restaurant. For a start, you actually appreciate the food.’

     ‘I do love you Mark. And not just for your culinary skills. Well, not entirely.’

Tuesday 29th October

     I woke up slowly, the feather duvet comfortingly heavy on me. Delicious smells were drifting up from the kitchen, hinting that a full English breakfast was being prepared. Mmm. I snuggled down further into the bed, smiling to myself.

     ‘Laura!’ Mark called from downstairs. ‘Stop pretending to be asleep and come down for breakfast.’

     Shrugging on my dressing gown, I made my way down the steeply winding staircase and into the kitchen where the anticipated breakfast was being dished up by a smiling Mark.

     ‘Fancy a walk today?’ Mark asked, deftly forking up sausage and egg.

     ‘Yeah, why not? As long as it’s not raining.’

     We set off after breakfast, arm in arm. A weak sun struggled to shine through the light mist that hung in the trees. Underfoot, the ground was damp, but firm, the only sound our footsteps and the infrequent cooing of wood pigeons. We walked in companionable silence for an hour or so. Then;

     ‘Guess we’d better head back.’ Mark said doubtfully. ‘Which way?’


     ‘Which is the quickest way back?’ Mark sounded slightly impatient.

     ‘I don’t know!’

     ‘You were leading the way; I just went along with you.’

     ‘No I wasn’t. I was just walking. I thought you were paying attention to where we were going.’ I protested. We stood in a clearing, facing each other. The mist had deepened and gave a murky, haunted atmosphere to the unfamiliar trees. The sun had given up, disappearing behind the clouds, and the woods felt darker and more oppressive. ‘Fine. Let’s just head back along the path.’

     Within five minutes I could tell I’d gone the wrong way. The trees here were older, more gnarled and covering in ivy. Bum. Perhaps if I kept us walking fast enough, Mark might not realise.

     ‘We’re lost.’ Mark said flatly.

     ‘No, we’re just not going the same way we came.’ I said evenly, trying to convey a sense of calmness I didn’t feel. ‘It’s a big forest; there are plenty of ways through it.’

     ‘Yes, plenty of wrong ways.’ Tetchy.

     ‘I don’t see you doing any better.’ I retorted. Whoops. Mark suddenly looked over my shoulder.

     ‘Laura, what’s that over there?’ Mark began picking his way through a large patch of ivy, heading away from me. I tutted and followed him. ‘Weird. It’s like some kind of table.’

     ‘Altar. It’s an altar.’ I tried to keep my voice steady, but my heart began pounding and adrenaline tore through my veins.

     Mark didn’t seem to have heard me, examining the three foot high white stone altar, the top covered in intricate symbols and runic markings. ‘What an odd things to find in the middle of the forest! Someone must have put it here for some reason. And quite recently too, it’s not covered in moss or ivy like everything else is.’ He ran his fingers across some of the carvings. ‘Come here, have a look.’

     ‘We’d better get going; it looks like it might start raining in a minute.’ My voice sounded high-pitched and stilted, even to my ears.

     ‘Aren’t you even slightly intrigued? Feel how smooth it is.’ Before I could demure, Mark took my hand and brushed my fingers along the top of the altar. I whipped my hand away. ‘What’s wrong?’

     ‘Nothing! I’d just like to try and find our way back to the cottage, before we get soaked.’ Already I knew the route as though I’d walked it every day. And sure enough, within ten minutes we were unlocking the front door.

     ‘How on earth did you do that?’ Mark was stunned that we’d made it back so easily.

     I shrugged. ‘Good sense of direction. And lucky. And aren’t you lucky that you’ve got me?’

     ‘Luckier than Lucky McLuck, riding his luck and asking Lady luck for a date.’ Mark slipped his arms around my waist. ‘Why don’t we celebrate our safe return with a nice hot bath and a bottle of champagne?’

     ‘I could get used to this.’ I mumbled, leaning back in the bath, eyes closed, surrounded by bubbles.

     ‘Me too.’ A pause. ‘Did you hear that?


     ‘Sounded like a noise downstairs.’

     ‘S’nothing. Probably just the furniture creaking.’ I opened my eyes. Mark was sitting hunched forward at the other end of the bath, head cocked to the side, listening. ‘Seriously, it’s an old house. It makes noises. Get used to it.’ I closed my eyes again.

     ‘Yeah, I know. Just seeing that table, altar, shrine thing in the forest… It’s kind of spooky, don’t you think?’

     ‘Not really.’ I faked a yawn. ‘You’re just a townie. You get all sorts of weird stuff in the countryside.’

     ‘Ah yes, I’d forgotten you grew up as a straw chewing yokel. Still got your smock and straw hat?’

    ‘Shurrup.’ I flicked water at him. ‘Make yourself useful and top up my champagne.’ I thrust my glass at him.

     ‘Your great-grandmother would be shocked at all these goings on in her old house.’ Mark said, refilling the glasses, and putting the bottle back on the floor. ‘If she could see us now, eh?’ There was an ear-splitting crack and shards of glass were scattered across the floor as the bottle smashed. ‘Jesus! What the hell happened?’

     ‘You dropped the bottle, you idiot.’ I huffed, climbing out of the bath and wrapping a towel around me.

     ‘I didn’t! Honestly! It didn’t even slip!’

     ‘Well bottles don’t shatter on their own, do they?’ I muttered as I started collecting the larger pieces of glass together.

     ‘You don’t think…’


     ‘What I was saying, about your great-grandmother…’

     ‘Oh, don’t be so stupid.’ I snapped, scowling at him.

Wednesday 30th October

     The tension that had sprung up after Mark smashed the bottle lingered for the rest of Tuesday, making us snap and kvetch at one another. I woke early on Wednesday morning and stood, coffee in hand, gazing out of the window in the living room at a grey and drizzly morning. Looks like we’ll be getting a dose of cabin fever today then, I thought.

     ‘Morning.’ Mark was standing in the doorway.

     ‘Look, I’m sorry…’ We both began, then laughed.

     ‘I’m sorry for being in a mood, I said gruffly, my chin tucked into my chest.

     ‘No, I’m sorry. I must not have put the bottle down properly.’

     ‘It doesn’t matter. It was a stupid thing for me to get annoyed about.’ We cuddled. ‘Do you want to go out anywhere today? The weather’s looking fairly grotty, I can’t see it changing much.’

     ‘Let’s just stay in. Build up the fire, you can read a book and I’ll go to the shops later. Maybe stock up on some bathtime champagne, if that appeals?’ He nudged me. ‘Hmm?’

     We spent the morning slobbing about in the living room in front of the fire, drinking hot chocolate and reading. Absolutely blissful, as the wind outside picked up speed and the old cottage creaked. I felt cosy, peaceful.

     ‘Happy?’ Mark asked me as we washed up after lunch.

     ‘Yes. Just you, me, and peace and quiet. You?’

     ‘Never more so. I know it’s hard sometimes for us to get time together, with the hours I work, but being here with you like this, it reminds me just how happy you make me.’ I blushed and he went on. ‘That said, I’d better go shopping straight after this, before the weather gets any worse. Do you want anything?’

     ‘Just you!’ I said in my best soppy voice, simpering at him and fluttering my eyelashes.

     ‘You big eejit.’ He jangled the car keys and went out to the car.

     I felt restless after he’d gone. Lounging around the cottage on my own didn’t feel as enjoyable somehow. I put away the washing up, straightened up the living room and tried to settle back down with my book, but I couldn’t help feeling slightly on edge, tense, as though I was expecting something, something I wasn’t looking forward to. ‘Don’t be silly.’ I told myself. ‘It’s just because the wind is howling, you’re in the middle of nowhere, on your own and with no one close by… Oh why did I think that?’ Obediently, the wind began to roar through the trees even more violently than before. Despite the lack of sun, the thrashing limbs of the trees cast spindly shadows across the living room, making it appear that the forest was in the living room with me, the wind its wailing voice.

     I clapped my hands over my ears and squeezed my eyes closed, not wanting the memory to return. But it was there. The old woman and the terrified child in the forest, the tempest swirling around them as they held hands and exchanged the ring…

     ‘Stop it!’ I shouted and opened my eyes. ‘Stupid! Stupid.’ I took a deep breath. Stupid. I wasn’t an impressionable child anymore, she was long dead and this was just a normal autumn storm. I glared at the trees outside as though they had personally offended, and pursed my lips. The living room door banged loudly behind me and I jumped, then laughed at myself. Silly girl. It’s the wind, just the wind. And that shadow moving across the wall is just tree branches moving, the noise at the window is just debris from the storm. Enough. I squared my shoulders and sat back down on the sofa, pretending I didn’t feel relieved when Mark got back half an hour later.

     ‘Who was that woman?’

     ‘What woman?’ I put down my book, frowning.
     ‘That woman who was just walking down the path, towards the forest.’ Mark spoke as if I were slow of thinking. I stared at him, puzzled. ‘She came out of the back door. Was she a neighbour?’

     ‘There aren’t any neighbours for at least a mile. And no one’s been here apart from me. Are you sure you thought you saw someone?’

     ‘I don’t think I saw someone, I did see someone.’ Mark was adamant.

     ‘It might have been a walker who got lost. But no one’s been here apart from me, and definitely no one’s been in the house.’ I said, then something occurred to me.’ If someone did knock, I might not have heard them, the wind’s been so loud. But the back door’s locked, so they wouldn’t have been able to get in.’

     ‘I’ll go and check it.’ Mark spoke angrily as though I was deliberately trying to irk him.

     ‘Fine.’ Needled by his mood, I followed him, just to see him discover that I was right.

     ‘Ok, so it is locked.’ Mark abandoned checking the lock and started unpacking the shopping, obviously put out.

     ‘There you are then.’ I said pointlessly.

     ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

     ‘Nothing. Just that I’m pleased that there wasn’t anyone trying to break in when I was here on my own.’ I adopted a placatory tone. Mark was supposed to be unwinding, not getting more stressed.

     ‘So. Laura.’ His voice was like a knife and I felt instantly wary. What had I done wrong? ‘When were you planning to tell me the truth?’

     ‘The truth?’ Stalling. Play for time. ‘The truth about what?’

     ‘Your grandmother.’

     ‘Do you mean my great-grandmother, Rosa?’ I ventured.

     ‘Sorry, your great-grandmother. When were you going to tell me?’

     ‘Tell you what?’ How did he know? Had he guessed? But I’d never told anyone, not a soul. He had no way of knowing what had happened all those years ago, just before Rosa died. ‘I… I didn’t, I’m… I was scared.’  My voice was a whisper.

     ‘Scared?’ Mark snorted. ‘Scared? You couldn’t be that scared! What was there to be scared of?’ I stared at him, my mouth slightly agape. ‘Honestly Laura, I’m annoyed because you didn’t tell me, but there’s no need to be frightened of telling me. It’d just have been nice to know that Rosa died in this house, that’s all. It was a bit weird to hear it from a stranger in the shop.’

     ‘Oh! You mean, yes, yes, she did, she died. Here, in the kitchen.’ Oh. Relief flooded through me like a river. He didn’t know. He didn’t even suspect anything.

     ‘Yes, I know that now. Why didn’t you say anything before?’ Mark smiled fondly at me.

     ‘I didn’t want to freak you out?’ I suggested. Sounded plausible. ‘You’re supposed to be forgetting about horrible stuff.’

     ‘It’s an old house. I’m sure plenty of people have died here over the years. And it was years ago, wasn’t it?’

     ‘Twenty-five years ago.’ I said faintly.

     ‘So not long after you were last here then?’

     ‘Mm.’ Let’s not go any further in that direction. ‘So what do you want to do with the rest of the day?’

     ‘I can think of a few things.’ Mark raised an eyebrow and smiled wickedly. I felt a wriggly squirm of desire and grinned back.

Thursday 31st October

     The storm lasted all night, the wind shrieking, and making the thatched roof bump and rustle. I woke in the early hours to find Mark standing at the bedroom window.

     ‘Whassit?’ I asked fuzzily. ‘Come back to bed.’

    ‘Laura, come here.’ His voice was low and urgent. I hauled myself out of bed and stumbled over to him. ‘There’ Mark pointed towards the trees. ‘Can you see that?’

     I squinted to where he was indicating. ‘I’m not sure. What do you think it is?’ I couldn’t actually see anything, but he seemed bothered by whatever it was.

     ‘It looked like a light, moving through the trees.’ Mark sounded distracted, ducking his head this way and that. ‘Can’t see it now. But there was something definitely out there.’

     ‘Might be the moon. It’s full moon today or tomorrow.’ I stifled a yawn. ‘Come back to bed. It’s the middle of the night.’

     ‘Yeah, will do.’ Mark frowned, making no effort to move away from the window. ‘I’ll just watch for a minute or two more.’

     Unsurprisingly, I found him fast asleep in the armchair by the window when I woke up at seven. I tucked the duvet round him and went to get myself some breakfast. The storm had finally blown itself out and the new day was cold, but bright, the air crisp. When Mark was still making happy little snores at half past ten I decided to go out for a walk to shake off the clammy feeling that comes of spending too long indoors. Not wanting to get lost again, I stuck to the circular path that skirted the end of the garden, knowing it would keep me well away from the area of forest where the altar was.

     But the path seemed to have changed with time. More overgrown, fewer views of the fields beyond. And it was with a sense of impending unease that I rounded what I told myself would be the final corner of my walk to be confronted by the sight of the altar once more. Without consciously intending to, I drew closer and stood beside it. The sounds of the forest died away and a strange feeling of tranquillity stole over me. I placed both hands on the altar and closed my eyes.

     The memory rose over me like a tidal wave. Rosa, tall and sinewy, her long silver hair reaching past her waist, taking hold of both of my hands and staring into my eyes. I’d stared back, refusing to be intimidated, as much as I was scared of her. She’d watched me intently and then smiled, a thin-lipped smile of cruel satisfaction, not joy, and said to herself ‘Yes. This is the one.’

     And then that terrible rain lashed night at the end of April, following her deep into the forest, her hands gripping my wrists over the altar, making me repeat the same mysterious and snakelike words she hissed into the night. I remembered trembling, terrified of what I might have unleashed without fully understanding, as she pushed the cold metal of the silver ring onto my finger.

     Then the final memory of running, pell mell, the following morning from the cottage back into the woods and to the altar, my hands scrabbling frantically at the wet earth, shoving the ring as deep as I could into the soil, then covering it with leaves and pebbles so that it was gone, gone forever and I was released from the terrible bond Rosa had placed me under.

     I gasped and stepped back. How much of it I’d never wanted to remember. Hadn’t been able to remember until now. ‘Silly old woman.’ I said aloud. ‘You might have scared a little girl, but you don’t scare me.’ Feeling slightly foolish at addressing my words to the trees, I walked quickly back to the cottage, shaking my head that I’d allowed myself to become so fearful. Rosa hadn’t been a witch. Just an eccentric old woman who’d spent too much time on her own and believed her own thoughts. It was coincidence that she’d died a few days after my last visit, nothing more.

     ‘Mark? Mark? Are you up?’ I called up the stairs.

     ‘In the kitchen.’ I threw my arms around him as he stood at the toaster. ‘What’s this for?’

     ‘No reason!’ I sang. ‘Just because I love you. Let’s go out today. It’s too nice to be stuck inside. I fancy a walk along a beach and then fish and chips.’

 It was nearly dark when we got back to the cottage just after five o’clock. Mark grinned at me as we got out of the car. ‘Got a surprise for you.’ He rummaged in the boot. ‘Ta-DAH!’

     ‘A pumpkin?’

     ‘Yes! It’s Halloween, remember? We can put it outside in case any trick or treaters come by!’

     ‘That’s hardly likely.’ I pointed out.

     ‘Spoilsport. You can carve it whilst I start making dinner and then we can watch a scary film and pretend not to be frightened!’

     ‘Oh, alright.’

     It had been bright and sunny all day, and the night sky was clear, a galaxy of stars outshone by a full moon, illuminating the path ahead of us. I felt unaccountably ill at ease, as though we were being watched, the trees seeming to have edged closer to the house, their branches reaching towards us like gnarled and arthritic fingers. There was a hushed susurration of wind and then

     ‘JESUS!’ I yelped, clapping a hand to my chest, fingers splayed.

     ‘Blimey, Laura, it was only a fox or deer or something!’ Mark’s voice was higher than normal, probably from the fright I’d given him, rather than from alarm caused by the sudden crashing noises in the undergrowth to the side of us. ‘What’s got you so jumpy?’

     ‘Nothing!’ I prickled, angry at having frightened myself. ‘It just scared me, that’s all.’ My heart began to slow down. ‘Come on.’

     ‘You were the one who stopped, not me.’ Mark muttered in an undertone that was meant for me to hear. I felt my hackles rise and told myself to ignore him.

     As soon as we were inside he began preparing dinner, industriously chopping, whisking and grating as I battled with the pumpkin, reflecting that the innards of it were possibly my least favourite thing to touch with my bare hands.

     ‘Shall we be total slobs and eat in front of the telly?’ Mark asked, all irritation soothed away by losing himself in culinary bliss.

     ‘Seems like a shame when you make so much of an effort.’

     ‘Not really, I like my food, but I love you. And cuddling up to you is my favourite place in the world to be.’ He snaked an arm around my waist and pulled me close, nuzzling my neck. ‘You make up the fire and choose a film whilst I carry on here. Eat at about seven?’

     I headed out to the woodshed at the end of the garden, pulling my coat around me as the wind frittered leaves past my face and thin wisps of clouds scudded across the face of the moon, sending shadows through the trees. I still felt unsettled, glancing around me for animals lurking, ready to leap out of the woods at me. I filled up the wood basket quickly, my movements jerky and uncoordinated with tension. As I bent to pick it up, the wind stopped, suddenly and completely. There was nothing, so sound, not even from the creatures of the forest. I paused, then lifted up the basket.

     ‘Laura…’ A hoarse whisper. ‘Laura…’

     I ran, incapable of sound, speech or thought, throwing myself through the door of the cottage, dropping the basket and bolting the door behind me.

      ‘Laura! What on earth? You’re white as a sheet!’

     My brain unfroze. ‘Just heard a noise, a noise outside I mean, when I was outside, there was a noise, it frightened me.’ I gabbled, clutching at his arm, silently pleading with him to reassure me, make it stop, make it go away, make her go away.

     ‘Oh Laura.’ Mark tilted his head to the side as he looked at me. ‘A noise? Really? Not an axe-wielding maniac or anything like that? It was probably a hedgehog or something. You’re so jumpy today. Is it that time of the month?’

     ‘No! It wasn’t that kind of noise, it sounded like someone whispering to me.’ Now that I was in the warmth and light of the kitchen, it didn’t seem so real. But still…

     ‘Come off it darling. You’re still freaked out by earlier, for whatever reason. Look, pour yourself a glass of wine, and go into the living room, make up the fire and then relax. I’ll manage in here.’

     Perhaps he was right. But it had felt so close. It had sounded like my name in her voice. No, I was just being silly. She’d been dead a long time. And I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t. I do not believe in ghosts. I started as the wind howled outside and rolled my eyes at my own stupidity. Nervy idiot.

      The wind continued to guest throughout the evening, bringing with it heavy rain that thundered against the roof and splattered on the windows. We decided against a scary film, and settled for a fluffy rom-com instead, cosily snuggled up on the sofa, the fire blazing merrily away before heading upstairs for an early night. I lay awake, listening to the sound of the storm outside, the trees creaking as they attempted to withstand the assault. It sounded like tow great armies of nature opposing one another, as though the ground itself was being torn apart. Appropriate for Halloween, I thought to myself, the time when the dead return to earth.

     I gripped the duvet. Why had I thought that? Why? I cuddled closer to Mark. He grunted in his sleep and threw a heavy arm around me.

Friday 1st November

     Stupidly, superstitiously, I’d stayed saucer eyed long after midnight, finally falling into a fitful slumber at six, only to wake, tired and grumpy at eight when Mark got up. Odd dreams had stalked me, fragments of memory piecing themselves together.

     I had been so silly, so gullible. Admittedly, I’d been young, but really! Had I honestly believed that Rosa had somehow put a part of her soul into a ring? That she was waiting to be brought back to life, as though she were a pot noodle and I the kettle of boiling water? I snorted at the thought and joined Mark downstairs.

     ‘I guess we’d better pack up, clean and head off before it gets too late.’ There was a slight query in his voice that meant he wanted me to lead him astray.

     ‘No rush, is there? Let’s load up the car and clean in here, then go for one last walk in the woods. Come on.’ I cajoled. I wanted to see the forest again, see it with fresh eyes no longer haunted by the memory of Rosa. ‘And before I forget, pinch, punch, first of the month. And no return.’

     Mark slapped his forehead. ‘Too quick for me. Huh. First of November. All Saints Day. Samhain.’


     ‘Ancient Celtic festival of something or other. Precursor to Halloween. Ok, let’s pack up and see if we can get lost again.’ He kissed the top of my head. ‘Love you. Thank you for suggesting we come away here. It’s been good.’

     ‘Love you too. And I’m glad we came.’ As I said it, I realised it was true. I’d spent so much time fearing my memories that to realise it was all just the eccentric mumblings of a lonely old woman to an impressionable young girl was like tasting freedom for the first time.

     Stomping through the woods a few hours later, we realised just how devastating the storm had been. Branches strewn across paths, trees uprooted, the landscape appeared refreshed and unfamiliar. Our progress was halted by an ancient elm tree that had been blown down and lay across the path.

     ‘We could go round it.’ I said doubtfully. There wasn’t much of a gap to squeeze through and the brambles made me fear for the integrity of my tights.

      Mark walked to the end of the tree, peering at the roots and made a small noise of disappointment. ‘Look at this! Laura, look. That stone table. It’s been completely smashed by the tree.’ I moved forward and saw that it was true. Rosa’s altar was in pieces, completely broken and irreparable. I felt elated. Another reminder of my naivety gone. Mark was rooting around in the ground, picked something up, examined it for a moment then stuffed it in his pocket, before standing up. ‘I suppose we should just turn back. The path ahead is probably even worse.’

     Back at the cottage, we checked everything was clean and locked away, then I went upstairs to close the curtains as requested. When I came back down, Mark was waiting in the kitchen, a sheepish look on his face. ‘What? What is it?’

     He took a deep breath. ‘Laura.’ He dropped to one knee. ‘We’ve been together for three years now and I love you so very much.’ Clearing his throat, he delved into his pocket and went on. ‘Will you do me the honour of agreeing to become my wife?’

     I felt the smile spread across my face like sunrise. ‘Yes! Yes!’ Tears filled my eyes. ‘I love you too, and yes, I want to be your wife!’ Mark slipped the ring onto my finger and then lifted me up, swinging me round, both of us laughing.

     ‘But are you sure? I mean, really sure?’

     ‘I have never been more sure of anything in my life!’ I cried, my voice choked.

     ‘When I found the ring, I knew it was a sign, and I knew it had to be here. But now, my darling, your chariot awaits. Let’s go and tell everyone we know that we are engaged.’ Mark opened the front door with a flourish and bowed.

     Absolutely! But firstly, and  in no way wanting to spoil the moment, I need to go to the loo.’

     ‘See you at the car then.’ We beamed at each other before I dashed upstairs.

     I was at the front door when I remembered I hadn’t checked if the kitchen blinds were closed. Phew, they were. I stepped back for one last look to make sure that everything was as it should be and… I saw a movement in the corner of my eye. I turned to the left. Nothing. To the right. Nothing. I looked down.

     Tiny darting black shadows were rushing, racing across the stone floor, hundreds of tiny darting black shadows swirling and writhing. I stood, immobile, watching, hypnotised by them.

     The shadows began to join. Where they met they became larger, darker, faster, filling the world with darkness. There was a split second.

     And then the shadow leapt.


     Mark tooted the car horn, impatient to be leave and share the news. He watched as the figure of Laura in her denim jacket locked the front door, skipped lightly down the path and leapt into the front passenger seat.

     ‘Happy?’ he asked.

     ‘Never better.’ replied Rosa.