It was a pleasure to be a judge at this year's Novel London Literary Competition. A very well-run, well-established prize, with fabulous prizes and open to novelists from all over the world. My co-judge was Blackbird author Diane Chandler.
Check in to Novel London's website for information about next year's competition.
CWWL, Creative Writing Workshops London, run by Blackbird novelist Diane Chandler and Blackbird editor Stephanie Zia, is proud to announce the winners of the fourth annual writing competition.
by Lucie Wignarajah
by Liz Hagerty
3rd WHATEVER IT IS, I FORGIVE YOU
by Eliza Frayn
Joint 4th I'M STILL TALKING
by Nancy Maillie
Joint 4th WALKING OUT ON RELIGION
by Ann Wood
by Lucie Wignarajah
One for sorrow
A coral geranium sits in a pot on my mother’s windowsill.
The dark peat smells damp and warm, wholesome.
My childhood is rooted there, potted in soil,
in my parent’s hold.
My grandmother’s greenhouse holds various earthenware pots of magic,
Her big garden gloves make me look like a circus clown.
I feel embarrassed, dwarfed, silly. Do you like me Granny?
You don’t smile at me. You look cross.
I water the sweet peas, watching the mud pooling the edges.
I crunch one, popping it in my mouth, sweetness in sadness.
Two for joy
She is wearing a red skirt with a toothpaste white stripe squeezed through it.
Buttoned at the waist,
She starts her ritual,
warms the pot.
I smell home as boiling water meets the leaves.
They swirl and dance around in merry union,
swimming together in the water.
Finding their stillness, they sink into a warm dark bed.
She lifts the red pot and tilts the steaming spout,
There is nothing to fear in this moment.
Three for a girl
My newly washed school uniform hugs the warm padded boiler in anticipation of a new week,
pale pink sheets, flushed as cheeks, warm in the airing cupboard above it.
The smell of pine lingers from a draining Radox bath,
Small green flowers grow up the bedroom wall in a repeating pattern,
We sit on the edge of the white diamond stitched quilt.
I pray my fresh bright blood won’t stain it.
A wood pigeon coos gently outside, overhearing our hushed conversation.
Four for a boy
The day we bring you home it’s snowing, unusual for March.
We’ve been in the hospital together for seven long fragile nights in the intensive care unit.
I’ve wrapped you up in a soft blanket on top of all your layers and little knitted strawberry hat.
I sit next to you in the back seat.
Who switched the lights on in a world that was once dark?
I am suddenly filled with a sense of completeness.
I look out of the car window and see
the paternal high rise on my right,
the maternal red brick terrace on my left,
the flow of the city,
the sweep of the car lights and I’m lifted into the sky briefly.
I would do anything for you,
I look hard at your face.
I see generations of my family,
I think of Grandfather pulling a horse in a field,
Dad tending to a pile of books,
do these hands somehow guide him too?
I see Dad’s eyes looking up at me from his chair in the nursing home,
full of longing.
I can get back to you Dad.
I can see you again Daddy in this new boy.
The sky is the inside of a shell,
pale and soft as your new skin.
We carry you carefully from the car to the house,
like a Ming Vase into an auction.
We’ve been at the hospital for so many days that the pipes have frozen,
they choke and spit out water for our tea.
We sit together on the end of our bed,
you are lying between us.
I just can’t stop looking at you,
holding up your tiny hand which instinctively clutches my finger.
We must have sat like that for an hour,
both of us watching you sleep.
Your round belly rising and falling easily.
I’ll always bring you home.
You need never be alone again.
Five for silver
The silver car door is opened for me
I step out.
It is a relief to leave the interior which smells of tobacco and spearmint and has made me nauseous.
I walk on to the pavement and see the familiar shop window,
large square glass painted with gold letters which spell out my father’s name.
I’m only as tall as the wooden shelves outside which hold the cheaper paperbacks.
Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys.
I look down at my shoes,
red straps across red and white patterned socks.
Behind the glass,
he has displayed rare and antiquarian books,
large volumes of decorative art books
intricately illustrated Victorian children’s editions with gold edged pages.
Along the front of the window,
he has lined up a troupe of mechanical wind-up toys including an original 50s robot which I want to
play with, but never do.
Lights hang in the window like jewels.
Inside the shop,
the ceiling is painted Egyptian blue with a large white Victorian ceiling rose,
corniced around an ornate glass light.
If I look out of the double fronted Victorian building,
I can see the Tyne Bridge cast in black,
an iron monster with its jaws open,
but I am safe here between the rows of books.
I look up at the shelves,
there is a ladder on a runner which is propped against rows of leather-bound volumes of classics.
As a book ages,
the chemical compounds used—
begin to break down.
as they do,
they release volatile compounds—
the source of the smell.
A common smell of old books is a hint of vanilla.
There is no other smell which can take me back to him with such fragile force.
there is a large high-ceilinged room where he wraps and stocks his books,
there is a long table arranged with brown paper,
I stand at the edge of the table and pop a row of bubble wrap,
one bubble at a time.
There’s no other noise in the room,
no other children.
Six for gold
My body has seasons
Yesterday I was in winter
Despite the insistence of this nagging sun
My children wanted to roll up their trousers and walk through the fountain
I wanted to roll down the blinds and fold in
My body is an instrument
Yesterday it played too many chords
Out of time and out of tune
My nerves were screeching violins
We walked around the city looking for a gift your mother,
sugared almonds in pretty pink and virgin white,
six pastel de nate in a box,
golden tops with dark uneven spots like a leopard.
I put one in my mouth, the sweetness of affection.
The cake box is decorated with an illustration -
reminds me of the intricate laced edge of my wedding veil,
what will it take to survive this union?
You look at me expectantly,
I regret my bitter thoughts.
Seven for a secret never to be told
“The seventh child of a seventh child”.
My grandmother Edie attributed this to her savant like ability and profound intuition.
An acute sensitivity to the visual and an affinity for words were striking.
This, and the chinking bottles of booze, have been passed down the familial line.
She was a keeper of secrets and shame.
I have a responsibility to cut the ancestral ribbon of trauma
that wraps around my family and weaves through generations.
The day she died
a cruel snow drift had trapped her in her home.
Alone and isolated,
the feeling was familiar.
I recall that day as exciting,
something to remember.
An adventure: The day we were snowed in.
The day my Mum warmed milk on the stove.
I put my dolls in order of size,
dressing and undressing them.
Granny might visit tomorrow.
The cotton mill behind our house,
a tombstone against the tumbling snow.
The dark hollow quarry hazardously icy.
Not far away in a neighbouring town where the slush was benevolent,
a baker took warm almond tarts from an oven and arranged them in a jolly window display.
My mother paced the floor,
The phone lines dead.
You came into the world like a cork from a bottle.
But I didn’t celebrate with champagne.
All the bottles that glitter behind the bar are not gold.
I’m no longer a magpie chasing a glinting glass.
We used to call you chaffinch.
Bobbing about and chirping sweetly.
I can open your cage and set you free.
I kneel on a prayer box carpeted with a tapestry of mauve,
fawn and mustard yellow and the pattern is left on my bare knees.
I pray for you to be free from the repeating loop-
Like a falcon released.
c. Lucie Wignarajah 2023
All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission
by Liz Hagerty
‘Puedo tomar el desayuno?’ he asked at the hotel’s front desk, self-consciously unfamiliar with the language. His bill was paid. His suitcase stored by the bell-boy, ready for that evening’s flight home. Home. London. Stella. But that left him eight hours, almost a day. Plenty of time but, first, breakfast. He was being collected in half an hour. After that, who knows? The temperature was already rising and the fan above his head barely stirred the air.
The receptionist nodded him through a marble archway towards an empty sea of linen-covered tables. Too early for the small gaggle of foreigners staying at the hotel hoping to do business with the new military Junta; too expensive for most locals struggling with 350% inflation. Well, the honest ones.
Three waiters, immaculately white gloved, leapt forward to assist him, only adding to his embarrassment at asking for simple ‘Té y tostadas’. One held his chair, the second laid a hand-towel-sized serviette across his lap, the last elaborately set out too much cutlery and chinking, clinking crockery. His joints stiffened at their presence, all elbows and knees.
How Stella would laugh at the sight of him he thought as he ate. They’d met as university students when his only furniture was a beanbag and a mattress on the floor. She’d bought him two new mugs and an ashtray for his birthday that year. He’d felt awkward then, too. Her with her background. Him with his. But she stayed. And here he was, just five years on, being waited on hand and foot in one of the grandest hotels in South America. How the feck did that happen?
The waiter was scraping crumbs from the tablecloth in front of him with what grimly reminded him of a cut-throat razor, when Pablo arrived. ‘Sam, my friend! We must go. The car’s outside.’ Pablo’s English was perfect, a result of the young Argentine’s expensive public school education in England. He threw an arm around Sam’s shoulders as he guided him across the lobby.
It had been the strangest week, his first big business trip abroad seeking out contacts to lubricate the supply of souvenirs for the next football World Cup. If England made the final, there could be rich pickings. The military takeover had made communications difficult, which is why he was there in person. His firm couldn’t give a fig if Genghis Khan or Stalin was running the country if there was money to be made. But although the work had gone smoothly, he’d started to feel as if he was in some strange hall of mirrors: everything took on a different shape according to where you stood.
He had been treated with enormous courtesy, and his hosts had gone to lengths to set out their ‘English’ credentials. In many ways, Sam reflected, these men were able to appear more English than the English with their love of public schools and polo and private clubs. He even remembered families back home in Ireland like that; his father laboured on their estates.
Still, it was a relief to be able to mention that he was actually Irish without seeing the look in people’s eyes change. London was no longer the place to advertise his origins. Over the past three years, bombings on the mainland had brought anyone with a trace of Irish about them under suspicion. Not of being directly involved, of course, but of unconsciously sympathising. There was a slight stiffening of spines, a hardening around the eyes. Sometimes it was something more obvious, a conversation about bombing suddenly stopping, an insensitively bad joke starting: ‘An Englishman, an Irishman...’ Naturally, no one said anything outright.
Rather like here. In these men’s company you’d never know that the country was emerging from a coup d’état, certainly not what they felt about it. All was shiningly positive. Instead, it was his translator and guide, a sparky young woman nicknamed Concha, who unnerved him over coffees between meetings, with rumours of another, darker side. He’d told her a bit about himself. About Stella. Quite a lot about Stella, as if conjuring her into a third person sitting at the table. About his unexpected success at getting a good job. About how watching out for any ‘unattended bag’ on the London Underground was second nature, in case it was an IRA bomb.
Tiny, dark-eyed, dark-haired Concha had, in turn, told him how most people struggled, buying anything as it came into the shops as it would cost more in the afternoon, then bartering unwanted objects for food. She was working in Buenos Aires, 600 miles from her parents, in order to send money home. Anyone in a uniform just got tougher. There was even talk of young men, students mostly, who were seen going voluntarily into police stations by the front door and who simply didn’t return.
Despite or because of this, away from the meetings, his time with Concha was always a pleasure. She’d even suggested an evening at La Boca, The Mouth, district of Buenos Aires, as ‘something not to miss’. And she was right – bars and musicians crammed brightly painted wooden buildings that were little more than shacks lining dirt streets. After enough beers, Sam decided the dance floor was crowded enough to hide his beginner efforts at the tango. It was, he became aware, quite exciting holding Concha against his body and trying to match the Latin rhythms with some moves that felt vaguely ‘macho’. Eventually, back at the hotel he was tempted to say, ‘Fancy a coffee?’ to continue enjoying the drowsy, heavy, longing of having her close for a little longer. He’d forgotten the pleasurable fantasising that’s triggered by sensing you are attractive to a woman you hardly know.
They’d sat for a moment in the back of the cab, the unspoken question vibrating in the air, until she was the one who decided, kissing him on the cheek and saying: ‘Buenas noches, Irishman’. He felt a boozy mix of disappointment and relief.
It was Concha who the next day brought him Pablo’s invitation, waving away his stumbled apology. Pablo, the youngest son and junior partner of one of the most aristocratic businessmen he’d met, wondered if he had any spare time to spend out of town? Sam might find it interesting. Dress casual.
Sam assumed it was to schmooze him a bit, to improve the terms of the licences, a last-minute deal away from the competition. But it was also, Sam thought, an opportunity for him to see a little more of this curious country and, maybe, be a bit less of an idiot with Concha, so he said yes.
But as they headed to the car, Sam felt spooked as much by the oiled efficiency of therich as Concha’s tales of disappearances. He hoped his curiosity wasn’t about to kill the cat. There was no sign of Concha, just him and Pablo in the back of a curvaceous black car that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the 1940s’ gangster movies his parents used to watch from their sagging sofa.
They snaked smoothly between the brightly coloured buses packed with workers and school children, Pablo pointing out occasional landmarks, the Casa Rosada, on Plaza de Mayo, and the Recoleta Cemetery, its tombs like little marble houses and resting place of the still beloved Eva Peron, until they speeded up out into the countryside. As the sky got bigger, the air began to shimmer in the early December heat. Sam felt that lift in his diaphragm that he always felt when he left a city behind, as if he suddenly had more space to breathe.
The car swept on as the traffic thinned to be replaced by tractors hauling teetering loads of sugar cane, until they too fell away and the land opened up into a seemingly endless, treeless plain. ‘Welcome to the Pampas. From what Concha tells me I think you’ll enjoy it,’ said Pablo. He smiled slightly in Sam’s direction as he mentioned Concha’s name.
The words on the stone arch, through which they eventually turned off the road, read ‘La Galera’ and for the next mile or so they drove along a dirt road until buildings came into sight. Built of warm-pink sandstone, surrounded by pomegranate bushes and a cluster of trees, they melted into the surroundings. A shady verandah so deeply surrounded the house the sun couldn't possibly penetrate to the inner walls except at dawn and sunset. Sam understood why as soon as he climbed out of the car, now turned an even dust grey. The heat was like an extra weight on his shoulders.
Inside in the cool gloom of the house, every surface gleamed. Someone was winning the battle with the dust. A middle-aged man stepped forward with a tray of lemonade and a plate of sugar-dipped frozen grapes. ‘Ah, servants, that’l be it,’ Sam smiled inwardly, and thought of the flat he and Stella were doing up by Wandsworth Common in south London.
How easy it was to accept the hospitality of the rich while maybe sneering a little inside. And to fend off envy by telling yourself yours is the ‘real’ life, the life most people live. But that’s not true either. The life he and Stella lived – a place of their own, a car, friends for dinner and salaried jobs – was already way beyond the imaginations of the kids he’d gone to school with, the kids in hand-me down clothes and an equally handed down disrespect for any adult except maybe their Das with their thick leather belts.
‘Let’s have a drink, talk a little and have some lunch then you might like to take a look around,’ said Pablo.
But it wasn’t the conversation he’d been expecting. ‘Inflation is killing us,’ said the young businessman angrily, as they ate pieces of fall-off-the bone barbecued meat. ‘One government bribes its people by printing money, the next scares them half to death. It’s amazing how people just carry on. But eventually our fine new Government will need a fresh tactic. Probably picking on someone else – nothing like a common enemy to get everyone pulling together. I love Argentina, but which Argentina do I mean? At the turn of the century, just 70 years ago, this was one of the wealthiest, best-educated and fairest countries in the world…’
He shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, this is not why I asked you to come. Concha and I wanted you to take home a real Argentine memory. She told me you used to ride?
Used to ride? Suddenly, Sam was swept back to the soft green of Ireland and the small patchwork of fields near the centre of the village where the annual horse fair was held. There was always a few pence to be made on those days, showing off the horses to prospective buyers. He could remember the feel of the warm, round, barrel sides of the horses as he urged them into a reluctant trot or canter, his wellingtons making a slapping sound as he clapped his legs against their ribs. As the hours passed and the pubs kept serving, Sam would use every riding skill he had to make the horses look better. In fact, he’d often end up getting a fat tip from both sides in the deal, one for helping with the sale and the other for revealing such a late ‘bargain’. He’d learned to ride and to sell in that field.
Pablo led the way outside, to two horses tacked up with Spanish saddles and bridles. He nodded at Sam’s jeans and shoes, ‘Do you need to borrow some clothes?’
After bare legs and turned-down wellies? ‘No, thanks, I’ll be fine.’
They both swung up into the saddles, the stirrups set long so their legs were almost straight, Western style. ‘You’ll be fine on Arco, he’s been working the cattle all his life and knows the ropes – and the way home!’
Sam gathered up the reins in his left hand and felt the horse tense under him, taking its weight back ready for action. He leaned slightly, away from the veranda, and Arco moved a step with him. This was going to be a dream. Over the next three hours they rode across the Pampas, Pablo pointing out the extent of the estancia, to the river in one direction, a line of far distant trees and some buildings in the other. Riding Arco made Sam feel like a centaur. At times it felt as if he only had to think left or right and the horse reacted. With the surest of steps Arco missed the jagged open cracks in the dried earth and barely twitched an ear when the occasional armadillo scurried out of their way like a giant, pointy-nosed woodlouse. Home? thought Sam, as Arco skimmed the earth, this is what feeling at home is like.
Eventually they joined some workmen – a few, with weathered and deep-brown faces, bare feet and wearing broad, flat-brimmed hats, were like sepia pictures of the past – who were moving one of the cattle herds back towards the ranch. Occasionally someone would have to haul his horse back onto its haunches, to turn on its heels and leap after an escaping steer. No wonder Argentina produced the best polo ponies.
‘These men are not just our employees,’ explained Pablo. ‘Each of them owns a parcel of land. Otherwise, what would they do if they were unable to work? Live on hand-outs in Buenos Aires? That would destroy their souls. The original gauchos, the indigenous people, believed people’s roots go into the ground like any other plant and creature on earth. Nothing survives without that connection.
‘Anyway, bit by bit we on Galera are giving back land to the community. My grandfather started it. Maybe it will stop the countryside emptying its guts into the city. I’m hoping Concha will bring her family here, but she’s frightened that things will turn badly for her brothers if she does. So far, the Junta hasn’t caught on to what we’re doing, they’d call it subversive. Not quite cricket, as the English say. It’s either that or they think my family could be valuable to them.’
Nothing, nothing is at it seems, thought Sam. I’ve been here for five days and the world feels as unreal and fragile as sugar glass: a massive pretence of normality that we all join in.
Their return the house dragged his thoughts back to a more real reality, time: ‘I need to pick up my case from the hotel and get to the airport.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Pablo. ‘I’ll call Concha to get it and meet you there.’ They said goodbye at the car. ‘Hopefully see you at the World Cup,’ said Pablo. ‘Maybe football is the answer to the world’s ills, hermano.’
At the airport Sam barely had time to give Concha a hug of thanks, with its fleeting muscle memory of a moment of frisson and a deeper, sadder sense of the worries she carried. Soon his Aerolineas Argentinas flight had settled into its steady, sleep-inducing 13-hour hum towards Madrid and an early morning British Airways connection to Heathrow.
The moment he stepped out of Arrivals it was if he was breathing with another person’s lungs. From sun and wealth and struggle, big open spaces and cool marble, and warm hearts laced with cold fear, the plane had skidded down into a slushily grey December morning, the rush-hour cars’ lights making gleaming, wriggling lines of white and red on the wet roads into the city. Orderly cogs in a still apparently functional machine. Same world?
Stella was there to greet him, so familiar and strangely unfamiliar. As they kissed she suddenly sniffed and tilted her head back quizzically: ‘Horses? You got to ride again?’ However he tried to explain the way he’d felt a few hours previously wouldn't capture it: centred, alive, struck with awe, knowing the very things that made him, and people like him, fulfilled were what others wanted to trample. In the car Stella chatted about seeing a friend, a problem with a bill, a leaving do at work. No bad news; so little had changed in so few days apart.
At the flat he noticed the smell of fresh paint, the extra tidiness that comes from one person using a space rather than two. He felt as if he was struggling not to be aware of the surface of his skin, as if it was meeting new textures for the first time.
He put the suitcase on his, totally undisturbed, side of the bed and clicked it open to find the gifts he’d bought. A giant ostrich feather duster beautiful enough to adorn a Biba window, a string of pottery beads and an LP of tango music.
Stella stood beside him appreciating each of the gifts, turning them over in her hands, and then they both looked down at a last parcel, simply wrapped in a few sheets of the Buenos Aires Herald dated two days previously. His heart skipped, he didn’t recognise it. It weighed heavily in his hand. ‘Go on, what is it?’ prompted Stella. Slowly he pulled open the paper until lying in his hand was a piece of beautifully carved, moss-green onyx. Following the grain and shades of the translucent stone, he could see a waving mane, pricked ears and flared nostrils and leaning low on the horse’s shoulder a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat. In one hand he powerfully held the reins, while in the other swung three bolas, the gauchos’ famous tool of the cowboy trade. Concha must have slipped it into his bag when she brought it to the airport. And he knew what it meant. ‘It’s a souvenir from the Argentine soil,’ he improvised. ‘It’s to remind us to remember who we really are.’
All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission.
I’m Still Talking
by Nancy Maillie
The next act is about to begin. The curtains open to a small room behind an unremarkable door, of an unremarkable terrace house on an unremarkable street in Salford. Four of the cast are in view, the presence of the other two members apparent by the booming male voice and the responses of a lesser female vocal, both out of view but very present. The tension in the air is immediately apparent although it’s not known yet that the lives of the four children are about to drastically change. Little did they know that they would never again experience life how it had been. Or that, despite the constant fear and unpredictability that had been life as they had known it so far, the familiarity of that was so much more acceptable than what was about to come. Not one person caught up in that drama on that fateful day could have had any idea of the life that was about to be.
The scene playing out, was not unfamiliar. The cast of young children, centre stage, in front of the drab sofa that stretched from the door at the bottom of the stairs, across the room to the front door of the house. The simple sofa that would become indelibly imprinted on a young brain for many years to come. The younger two children were trying to occupy themselves, despite the shouting. The older two in a state of panic, as they hovered around the door to the stairs, knowing all too well that this scene could have an unfavourable outcome.
Then, the shouting stopped. An unfamiliar sequence of loud noises. Followed momentarily by silence. Was it over or was this just an interlude?
It turned out it was more than that, something very different was in the air. The door opened and the figure of a heavily pregnant women stumbled through, her hair dishevelled and her face flushed red. She reached out to gain some stability, leaning on the back of that drab sofa that until now had stood insignificant, just there, non- descript and unimportant. Now, it had become her support as she tried desperately to stand, despite the obvious impact of her flight from the landing to the ground floor. But it wasn’t support enough and her body slumped behind it as she plummeted out of sight. No longer a support, that ineffective sofa was now a barrier, a barrier that would never be overcome.
From that moment a darkness filled the room, broken only by weak streaks of sunlight fighting their way in, as if a spotlight for the dust particles dancing around in the air, trying to distract attention away from the tragedy unfolding in this ill -written drama called life.
Regardless of this being a long running drama, with each character having a familiar role to play, no-one expected that this scene, on this day, would end quite how it did. No one expected the twist in the plot that this drunken aggressive onslaught from the leading man, would end with the leading lady being written out of the play. A truly tragic scene that not only stole her life but also stole the life of the unborn child that she carried, and the innocence of all four children, unwilling witnesses to this ‘domestic incident’.
From that moment, in some way, a part of everyone in that room, playing out that scene, died. Tickets were bought for a rollercoaster ride, seats allocated with no option of refusal and no stopping however loud the screams. Nothing would ever truly make sense again.
Sadly, this was not a scene written as part of a gripping drama. This was in fact our life. I was halfway through my second year of existence and about to become part of a system that never truly saw me or knew me. I became a number, a file, a part of a caseload. An insignificant file that was easily passed over and forgotten. I spent the next five years not belonging anywhere. Dad’s love affair with alcohol saw us in and out of foster placements, left with family members or neighbours or home alone to fend for ourselves. Picked up and dropped, dependent on his inclination or desire to play the father role.
My age and impaired ability to process the events of Mum’s death meant that for the best part of my childhood, the cognitive narrative given to me of her death, never really resonated. They were words that I knew but never really accepted. I carried the vivid memory of that day, in that room, with that sofa and the confusion of the sudden loss, however, spent years stuck in denial and disbelief.
Until that is, I finally received details of her burial site. Information handed to me on a street corner, by my then social worker along with the information of Dad’s arrest and subsequent acquittal in connection to causing her demise. Up to that day I had spent twelve years searching faces in the crowds in the hopes that she would be there, searching for me, and on seeing me she would gather me up in her arms and claim me and I would finally wake up from this nightmare that had become my life.
My tiny body froze right there.
My legs motionless and still.
Like my whole body had ceased to work.
Except my ears. Attuned to the angry drill.
It was a noise often heard within these walls.
A 'normal' day I suppose.
And I had learnt by now, when anger lurks.
Comply. Do not oppose.
Even when the door flew wide.
And my saviour staggered through.
And my every fibre wanted in her arms.
Nothing would my body do.
As I watched her collapse to the floor.
Both our bodies left that world.
But when the little girl returned again.
Into chaos she was hurled.
And so began the fair ride.
Rollercoaster here I come.
Torn from all I knew as norm.
To borrow home, after home, after home.
In my years of training to work therapeutically with children from a background of trauma, I had to take the journey through my own trauma. This part of my story, making sense of it and coming to terms with it I think was for me the hardest. During that work I came to the realisation that if I allowed myself to grieve, I was also accepting that she was gone and giving up on the hope that she would one day be back to claim me. Which felt, for my abandoned little girl, who at that point I hadn’t truly discovered, like losing her all over again.
Something broke the day I lost you.
Something fragile deep inside.
I searched endlessly to find you.
A prize each day denied.
My whole world became dismantled.
I became no one overnight.
Our heartbeats once connected.
Now forever out of sight.
You gifted me with my first breath.
You held my dreams within your hands.
My life ended when I lost you.
And no one understands.
The years that followed Mum’s death were filled with unpredictability, fear, chaos, and abandonment. We moved from the unremarkable little terrace house to an equally unremarkable maisonette. If I close my eyes, I can still see the little yellow Formica table pushed up against the wall in the tiny kitchen, surrounded by the four mid-century modern chairs. I remember the half net curtain at the window next to the sink and the thick stench of cigarette smoke that was part of the décor and part of Dads presence.
One of my few positive memories of Dad being around was centred around this very table. The day when he had made us boiled egg and ‘soldiers’ and he was laughing with my brother about me calling them ‘sholdiers’.
The eldest of Mums children didn’t move with us, she was instead taken in by my mother’s older sister and her family. I learnt in later years, from my uncle, that a verbal deal had been struck between my Aunty and my Mother. The deal was that should anything happen to my Mother, my Aunty would promise to take the eldest sibling in. I remember the great sadness I felt when I heard that, thinking about how much fear my Mother must have lived with. Almost as if she had received a death sentence and was planning for after what felt like an anticipated almost inevitable outcome.
After Mums death, Dad was arrested on suspicion of causing the ‘domestic incident’, and the promise was honoured. We three younger members of the cast were shipped off to a convent in Liverpool, only to be returned two weeks later to the care of the man suspected of causing the violent demise of our safety net. Back to the charge of a man who could barely take care of himself.
For the next scene in this farcical play, the curtains rise to three young children sat around a table in a café, empty plates before them. The two younger toddlers seemingly being watched over by their slightly older sibling, whilst the café owner looked on with growing concern. It had been some time since the smartly dressed man, well presented in his suit and tie and his crisp white shirt, whom she assumed was the caretaker of these stray children, had bought them food and then left. It had been so long in fact that, as the night began to draw in, questions of whether anyone was, in fact, going to return to collect these little packages, were hanging in the air.
Eventually the door opened, and a man walked in. He first approached the café owner, engaged in a muffled conversation, both looking over to the children then back at each other, eventually taking the action he had been called there to do. A very kindly man, in an equally smart but very different suit and riding in a blue and white carriage. He was in fact responding to a call from the concerned café owner who was waiting to close shop, coming to transport these three unwanted strays to the police station. Exit stage left as the curtains drops on the three being ushered out into the waiting car, and all involved hoping that whoever is writing this sorry tale has written in a happy twist.
A quick change of scenery and the curtain again rises. The audience is invited to look in on the events unfolding in the police station. The smart suited caretaker has been located and brought to be reunited with his children. The youngest has clambered onto his knee and muttered “mucky beer again” whilst notes were being written on how ‘clean and well fed’ the children appeared although duly noting that the youngest had a head that was infested with lice. Despite protesting in his inebriated state that he was unable to cope and wanted the children to be taken into care, the decision was made that they should all return to the ‘safety’ of their home. For now, at least.
At this point it would have been approximately three months after Mums death, a little while before I entered my third year of experiencing this unenviable journey through life. Dad’s pattern of parenthood started to take root, and a dance of ‘Shall I shan’t I, Can I can’t I’ ensued. A dance that lasted for the next four years. Dad was the only one who knew the steps, we just fumbled our way through hoping we got somewhere, somehow and we might reach that place relatively unscathed.
Before we saw this year out, we had experienced two temporary foster placements with the three of us still being together in at least one of them. The first has no pleasant memories and if it taught me anything it was that relationship with adults in the role of carer, was more threatening than being left alone. My brother was physically admonished within the first couple of hours for his actions of showing how brave and daring he was; our bedroom had a locked door (something that became a running theme in later placements), physical punishment for childhood behaviours was a regular occurrence and if one was being punished the other children in the house were lined up to watch. A visit from a social worker resulted in an entry on our files that highlighted concerns that I appeared afraid to talk, the female carer didn’t leave us alone with her. Apparently when I did talk, it shed light on the fact that I had seemingly taken on the responsibility for my Dads wellbeing and for managing his drinking and consumption of medicines. After three months, we returned to his care, now armed with the knowledge that adults truly are uncaring and threatening.
At a later point the second eldest sibling, not Dad’s child, was also taken to become a part of my Aunt’s little family unit, leaving my brother and myself to continue the journey with Dad. For years as a child, I really struggled with the ‘Why’ of life. Why did it have to be my Mum that died? If Mum had to die, why did we have to have the Dad that we did, why couldn’t we have had a good one? Why didn’t any of the family want us? Why wasn’t I enough? Why wasn’t I loved? Why did we have to keep moving? Why didn’t anyone care? In time I came to the belief; it was because of me. I wasn’t worthy of love. I just wasn’t enough.
c. Nancy Maillie 2023
All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission
Walking Out On Religion
by Ann Wood
I’d given B my best spaniel eyes, “Shall we go and see the Pope in Heaton Park, first ever Pope to visit Britain and all that?” Forms of entertainment on our dates usually featured music concerts, so I acknowledged his somewhat confused brow. “We’d spend a night together under the stars…” I said, eagerly awaiting a response.
Sold! to the naive teenage boy in the glasses.
The things we do for love, eh?
The next big ask was getting this plan approved by Dad. I was just shy of turning 15 and couldn’t quite believe Dad agreed to let me stay out all night with my first boyfriend. He didn’t even utter his usual “Don’t bring any trouble home” mantra as I left the house. Maybe he figured we couldn’t get up to much in the company of 250,000 worshippers with celestial parents looking on.
* * *
B and I had both done time in the House of God and I was still being made to enter. B had been raised a catholic and had attended a catholic school but lapsed immediately after starting at art college. I was a mashup of Methodist and Church of England, who wore a tiny silver crucifix and had a fascination for the Turin Shroud. I also loved the whole theatre of religion, its unfathomable rituals and grisly iconography. One image that influenced my early years was a poster-sized print of The Broad and Narrow Way, hung in a heavy set, wooden frame at the top of the stairs. Its title is a quote from a verse in the gospel of Matthew and our copy was claimed by my mum from her former home after my maternal grandmother died. I remember there was some foxing at the edges and it looked well-travelled and its original owner must have paid quite a sum for the frame. There was a paragraph of italicised text about the artist at the bottom and have since learned it is German in origin from the late 1800s. The image depicts a forked road, with each path divided by a rocky gorge, with the left, wider and more ambling and the right with steeper, narrow ascents. Only two wooden bridges allow freedom of access to join or leave either path as they wend their way up the picture to the unmistakeable final destinations of Heaven and Hell, detailed at the top. This illustrated map is littered with moral symbolism and biblical annotations. I looked up a few as a child but soon lost interest, as the words meant nothing to me. However, I loved the green of the dramatic landscape and use of blue within the picture and was attracted to the symbols of the rainbow and the watchful, triangular eye in the centre, between trumpeting angels and Armageddon. Looking back, it is clear why as a teen, I preferred posters for my bedroom wall by surrealist Salvador Dali and science fiction/fantasy artists like HR Geiger and Rodney Matthews, over ones of the latest pop-singer heart throbs. As a child, I sometimes mulled over which of the paths people were on. My parents for example, were both regular Church goers so could be on the steeper path, yet they both loved the theatre, music and TV and radio shows not to mention the odd glass of homemade wine. Theatrical entertainment and drinking were both clearly portrayed on the broader path so did that mean they were hell-bound? I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at the initial discussion around the prospect of bringing this beast into the house. Not only did Mum want to keep it but it ended up being displayed blatantly on the wall visitors approached and had to pass to use the bathroom. The ‘little room’ was next door, marked by a porcelain tile on the door, painted with roses and the words “Yer Tis”. The sign originated from a giftshop on a family holiday to the West Country and appealed to my parents’ cheeky sense of humour. Mum came from a family of practical jokers and had an impressive back-catalogue of antics, one being making a sandwich for an unsuspecting farm visitor using beautifully sliced up pieces of soap instead of cheese. Then as a young adult, she used to escape through the bedroom window to go dancing in the nearby village.
As the picture was put in place, I tried to read my parents’ thoughts. I sensed some derision in their tones around the stark choice between “Way of Perdition” and “Way of Salvation.” I also never fully understood their wry smiles over the Sunday Train, which was pictured just below Hell. Their behaviour could be classed as devilish and unchristian by some, so with fresh eyes on the evidence, I can only conclude the picture hung there with a big dose of irony. I know my Dad had no desire to keep it after mum died in 1979 and it then disappeared from our lives.
After my brother went to university in 1981, my deep conversations with Dad began and one day I said, “Why do we have to go to Church?"
He replied without hesitation, “There is something [special] about being part of a large group or congregation.”
I listened and tried to marry up this response with understanding random messages on noticeboards outside churches at the time, claiming ‘He is risen’ or ‘He is coming’. I used to get mildly triggered by the weird use of grammar or else my inner voice would pipe up wanting answers to the questions, “Is he, if so where, when and how?”
Dad’s rationale for attending church irritated me as it made no sense. In fact, it made me more frustrated at the prospect of having to go, especially as my older brother was living away and free of this chore. However, although Dad’s no longer around for me to confirm my theory, I think I get it now. I think back at the number of Dad’s police colleagues who popped in for a brew and a chat at our house. The house was filled with their huge, uniformed presence and the vaguely medical smell of the Police Station. Helmets were casually left in the hallway while the sounds of deep voices and crackling radios escaped from the front room. I remember Dad saying it was often hard to make friends outside the police, so maybe the church was another safe social activity for him, where he would be accepted. It was also an opportunity to express himself through singing, something he had loved doing as a choirboy growing up.
In contrast, mum’s side were more towards the Cromwellian variety of church goers. Aside from the Methodist decree of abstinence from alcohol, her parents banned singing on Sunday, except of course in chapel services, which had to be attended in both the morning and evening. All things considered, being the product of a parenting style falling firmly between the law abiding Thin Blue Line and piety, I would not be out of place at the Pope’s gig and could do guilt as well as anyone else.
So in the late afternoon on a balmy, spring bank holiday in 1982, B and I started on our journey to Heaton Park and entered through the iron gates, unhindered by ticket touts and the now ever-present security checks and beeping QR codes. We were soon soaking up the festival vibe, making our way through all demographics of humanity, who were milling about chatting and laughing in the sunshine. We were some distance from the action but it was easy to make out what resembled a giant, white petrol station styled forecourt rising high above the crowd, accessible by three impressive flights of white steps. Had we been allowed to venture further forward, we’d have seen these staircases were flanked with beds of white, scented flowers and trestle tables covered in crisp white linen. Beyond these were line upon line of chairs for hundreds of random ecumenical personnel, protected by a significant police presence. Tomorrow groups of priests in black robes and nuns in grey veils would eagerly head towards their seats like imprinted goslings drawn towards their mother.
There were surprisingly few tents and most of the crowd sat on patterned, picnic blankets laden with flasks and Tupperware containers, bulging with freshly made sandwiches. We gingerly tottered our way through smiley family groups busily establishing their territory before we settled down on our anoraks to talk idly about the event, the meaning of life and take in our first taste of freedom away from parents. By the time a pink sunset gave way to a clear indigo sky, we had finished up all our meagre supplies. It was at this point, the cool grass and moist air began a stealth campaign to extract the heat from our bodies. We snuggled in close as voices in the darkness became reduced to near whispers and yet, all I could hear was my own inner voice shouting, “WHY THE HELL DID I NOT THINK TO BRING A BLANKET, MORE FOOD, MONEY, TOILET ROLL, EVEN A BOOK!”
During the night we made one journey, staggering through the darkness to find a toilet and then alternated between sleeping and clock-watching before dawn finally broke on a night of a thousand yawns. I stood up to take a photo and pressed fingertips hard into my left eyebrow, in a feeble attempt to snuff out the flicker of a migraine. Filled with gratitude for the warmth of the morning, which started to coax blood gently back into my extremities as I stretched and shook out the stiffness from muscles and joints.
Others who had survived the night were up and about and we began to tune into nearby conversations about stage times and a possible setlist. At around 8 AM, the roar of a helicopter alerted the crowd to start cheering and screaming as if the Beatles had reformed. Thousands of small souvenir flags with Vatican insignia were waved enthusiastically as the bespoke, open topped, white Leyland truck, eased its way towards the stage.
“Thank God for that,” I say.
B grinned back but any attempt to soften my face was by now futile.
We watched as figures, dressed head to toe in white, began amassing on the podium like gods on Mount Olympus. I could see the white cassock, short shoulder cape and skull cap, as the main man gestured with open hands to the adoring crowd, his arms outstretched. I took out my camera again.
Accessorised now with mitre and crosier, Pope John Paul II began to speak and the crowd quickly fell silent. As his words rang out through the impressive PA system, I looked around at the people gathered and sensed the love in the room. After about 15 mins, I started to grow fidgety and stare evermore downward, finding an interest in my feet as they pawed at the grass.
Another 20 or so minutes passed so I turned to B and said, “I’m starving, shall we go?”
He nodded and we grabbed our stuff, respectfully making our way to the exit in silence, passing by fixed stares and clutched rosaries.
I have no regrets about going to see the Pope that day and later recorded the occasion as ‘JPII’ in white thread, among the many band names on my embroidered jeans. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the experience, maybe I was simply trying to do something my dead mother would have endorsed. Having said that, she may have disapproved. Her family with its blend of harsh Methodist and Victorian values, were suspicious of Catholicism and disdainfully referred to her older brother’s union with his Roman Catholic wife as a “mixed marriage.”
Maybe I expected to gain a kind of spiritual awakening but it felt just like every other church service I had attended, where I felt nothing and passed the time miming hymn lyrics in the wrong order. Another nail in the coffin of religious identity came when Dad passed away less than 10 years later. It was probably shortly after that when I decided not to associate with any form of religion at all. My love of art has however taken me into many churches and art galleries to appreciate stunning architecture and religious paintings. I have even recently bought a 1000-piece jigsaw of The Broad and Narrow Way so I can study its composition in more detail. I regard it now with a strange affection and even though aspects of my lifestyle, like an appreciation of music and theatre, sit more on its broader path, I’m indifferent to its polarised message and biblical references. Although I would argue there should be a handrail of nuance situated somewhere in the middle ground as there should be in other modern ideologies like politics and gender.
My own family had an initial look of confusion bordering on concern and worry that I had lost my mind when they saw the jigsaw but they have now accepted its back story. My daughter knows the picture is part of her family history and her mother’s and possibly grandmother’s macabre interest in religious art. However, she inwardly despairs of her parents’ papal regard. She recently became aware that in 1987, five years’ after my visit to Heaton Park, her Dad attended a specially organised event in Rome and within 20 minutes, had walked out on the very same Pope.
c. Ann Wood 2023
All rights reserved. No part to be reproduced without permission
Thanks to all who shared their stories with us, we thoroughly enjoyed reading them. Entries are always anonymous until the final arguments between the judges are over and the winners chosen. As writers ourselves, we are always intrigued and amazed at how subjective the process really is. The 'It's just one opinion' line that is part of most rejection letters, really is only that.
With much thanks to this year's guest judge, Wilma Ferguson and administrator Maddie Chandler.
There will be another competition and party in the summer of 2024. Open only to the students and ex-students of CWWL. For more information, and details of October 2023 workshops in Chiswick, London W4, please see the Creative Writing Workshops London website.
Here is a list of very talented writers and I can't wait to meet those who can get to the awards party.
The Novel London Literary Festival 2023 is supported by the Old Diorama Arts Centre, a shared home for live arts, creative industries and the local community at the Regent's Palace complex in central London. It's a fantastic hub of creativity where West End rehearsals and big-name castings nestle alongside new work by emerging artists and local groups - and everything in between. The ideal place to celebrate these emerging authors.
If you're in London on September 16th, come along! For more info on the Novel London Literary Festival at the ODAC, Regent's Park, see the Novel London website https://www.novellondon.co.uk.
“A touching love story that illuminates the aid business. Compelling and enjoyable.”
Clare Short, former Secretary of State for International Development
WINNER: The People's Book Prize for Fiction 2016
Donetsk was on the news again today. It’s become headline material, even out here; the hostages, the burning buildings, the thugs – and those Russian tanks gathering in ever greater clusters along the border. Afterwards, I managed finally to get through to Svetlana. She says it’s tense in the village, that some of the youths have left to join the pro-Russian activists. Her relief that her son is too young was palpable down the phone line, and my concern for her rebounded at me as a long-distance echo, “If you need to get out, then come here.”
Those youths from the village, now hurtling through the streets of the city, launching their petrol bombs, they were barely born back then. I can still see their hot little faces, just awakened from their naps, as they ducked around our legs in the wooden hall which served as the kindergarten – along with its many other communal roles. I see them hoisted onto the shoulders of the men returning from the mine, the pinpricks of coal dust emblazoned in their foreheads. It will be those children who are fighting in Donetsk now. But then, of course, most of them followed their fathers down that mine, with its rickety ceiling props and high methane levels, so what do you expect? The country has barely changed since it won its independence over two decades ago. The inertia of Ukraine, I used to call it, and people would nod vigorously – yes that’s just the word. Inertia.
Back then though, there was so much hope, so much commotion. We Westerners were crawling over Ukraine, passing on know-how in the ways of democracy and the free market, helping this bold new nation through its transition from communism. But did we ever really know where that transition was to wind up? Not where it is today. Ukraine means ‘borderland’ in old East Slavic and perhaps Russia was never really going to let go, perhaps it allowed Ukraine to fray at its borders, scrunching it back in when the threat of union with Europe seemed like it might actually happen.
At least the winter is over. The TV pictures show a landscape that is still barren, but I know that it will be strewn with sunflowers before this conflict reaches its zenith. There are blue skies and sunshine, a warmth in the air, and the soldiers at the checkpoints can feel it on their backs, even if the inevitable still awaits them. In the village, come April, spring was always quick to arrive and life would begin again; the chatter at the well, the goats straining on their chains, the whitewashing of the squat houses with their roofs of corrugated iron, the storks taking flight from an old chimney top.
The TV cameras homed in on the airport, on the offices of the regional government – I even caught a glimpse of that hotel. How can there be conflict in a city I know so well? Where all the buildings are so familiar – so benign? I can feel myself there, as if it was all just yesterday. What is going to happen to all those people I knew? I picture their faces, I see them laughing, dancing at a party deep in the forest, or contemplative, stirring sugar into strong black tea, and the memories overwhelm me. The past twenty years fall away, and I remember so vividly that first time I went to Donetsk – with Dan.
“You wanna come to Donetsk with me?”
I was sitting at my desk awash with documents when Dan phoned. We’d met the day before at the launch of my programme.
“It’s where the coal mines are. Thought you’d know that, Vanessa?”
What if I’d said no? What if I had never gone with him that day? But that provocation in itself was sufficient, plus the fact that this was of course a prize of an invitation. And, I admit, he had been on my mind.
“Of course,” I said, “down in the east. When were you thinking of going?”
“Flight’s in two hours.”
“Yep. You got your passport?”
“Yes, but we’re not leaving the country, are we?”
“No, but Ukraine’s still communist in all but name and there’ll be checks.”
“OK,” I said.
“I’ll pick you up in thirty.” And he hung up.
I flustered about the office, checking my handbag for my passport, which had not left my side since my arrival in Kiev a few weeks before, and stuffing background papers in my briefcase. I have to smile when I look back on those eager days – I even forgot to pack my camera. From behind her computer, Irina threw me sullen glances, while Sasha sent faxes with his back square on to me; they must both have found this impromptu day trip as bizarre as it was.
When he pitched up with his driver, Dan was slouched on the banquette seat, his arm loosely thrown about its back. He wore chinos and a crimson polo shirt, while his cream jacket was bunched up on the back window, its stripy lining spilling like the silk of a hot air balloon. Not without some trepidation, I climbed in beside him, wishing I’d worn a longer dress that day. As we set off for the airport he turned to me with his languid smile.
“Settling in OK?”
“Yes thanks, making good headway with the programme.”
“Well, you made an impressive start yesterday.”
“Thanks.” I felt myself flush.
He contemplated me for a few moments. “You’ve just got to know that they’ll play you, these people, they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear. But can you second-guess them? That’s the real skill to this game, it can get tricky.”
I laughed, only vaguely clear. “Thanks for the tip. I’ll have the chance to suss them out when we get down to the detail at our workshop next week.” I paused but he said nothing, so I added, “I really want to get it right.”
“Sure you do.”
As he smiled at me, I took the chance to observe him. He must have been in his late thirties – a good ten years older than me anyway – his cheeks held the crease that comes with age, a baggy line drawn out from the nose down to the corner of the mouth, only in Dan’s case it was as marked as Yogi Bear’s. His hair was coal black and dishevelled – messy even – and his eyes, the colour of walnuts, were gentle. Presence, that’s it, I thought, that’s what he has. Even then I could feel it wreathing itself around me like the hot day. He reached behind him for a paper bag and offered me a doughnut.
“Thanks.” I held it for a moment as he bit into his.
“You get a place yet?” He sucked sugar from his fingers.
“No, still at the hotel.” I took a bite of my own and gulped it back. “Once we’ve finished the programme design, I’ll head back to the UK for a month or so while we put the contract out to tender, then I’ll find an apartment in the autumn.”
“Ah.” He scrutinised the last of his doughnut. “Yours have any jam in it?”
“Little bit.” I flipped my hand to show him the red ooze.
“Mine didn’t. But then life does that to you, don’t you find?”
I watched the tip of his tongue working on the last grains of sugar at his lips, before turning to the view from my window, my thighs peeling like Sellotape as I shifted position on the vinyl seat. Get a grip Vanessa, you’re a professional, I chided silently, still callow enough to enjoy the weight of that word when applied to myself. I could see why so many people had told me about Dan, but I was not about to be waylaid by some guy, however high up the ranks he was. I was in Ukraine on a mission – well I was there to change the world, wasn’t I? We travelled on in silence, entering the birch forest which surrounded Borispol airport.
“What projects do you run in Donetsk?” I asked eventually.
“IFI mainly.” He turned and saw my frown. “Inward foreign investment.”
“Oh yes, of course.”
“Most of it from the States – plenty of rich pickings down there. We’re setting up an IFI department for the Governor, which is the purpose of our meeting today.”
“Is there scope for the Levshenko Programme down there?”
He snorted. “There’s scope for everything down there, Vanessa.”
The plane to Donetsk was a squat propeller affair, which looked like some cartoon character from a kids TV programme as if it should have a face and a cheeky smile. We were last on, having enjoyed the VIP lounge, which consisted of a couple of benches in a side room and a glass of iced water. As we made our way in through the hold, I pulled up short at the scene before me. Beside the heaps of cases, several people were standing around, chatting and smoking. A row of worn canvas loops hung down from the ceiling, and I realised that these passengers were going to be strap-hanging during the flight. Incredulous, I turned back to Dan, who winked at me.
“Different strokes, Vanessa.”
He took a window seat at the front of the plane, placing his briefcase in the saggy overhead netting, while I placed my own by my feet, intending to brief myself on Donetsk during the flight.
“So what’s the population?” I asked, fastening the tatty seatbelt.
“About a million,” he said, lengthening his own; there was a hint of a paunch.
“And how many coal mines?”
“Well over two hundred.” He glanced at me. “Does that trump the UK?”
I turned down the corners of my mouth in what I imagined could pass for a sage look and nodded slowly. “Pretty much the same, before the cull.”
He raised his eyebrows at that, as I remember, and it did feel thrilling to have filled a gap in his knowledge.
“They’re gonna have to close half the mines,” he said, “That’s a hundred thousand men, in terms you or I care about.”
I tutted gravely. “How are we going to find jobs for all of them?”
“Aw, may as well skip a generation, focus on the youth.” He yawned as he spoke.
I frowned sharply at him, but Dan was reaching across me for a glass of red wine from a tray offered by the stewardess. I declined the drink, my expression overly cross as I grappled with his cynical reaction. My empathy for the unfortunates of this world broiled inside me and I wasn’t going to let him off there.
“You can’t just give up on them,” I said, as he put his nose to the glass and breathed in. “In the UK, we got thousands of miners back into work. Loads of them started their own business too, guys with a passion, a hobby maybe, which they managed to make a living out of when the pit closed.”
Dan took a lingering sip of his wine. To anyone else, this message may have been clear – leave the technical stuff till we get to our meeting – but not me, I persisted.
“There was one miner I knew who just lived for his roses, spent all his time in the garden, deadheading and stuff. Now he set himself up in horticulture – and he made good money from it too. Another guy I knew started recycling old conveyor belts from the mines, making new things with them …” I scrabbled through my mind to remember what things. “Tool bags, for example.”
I waited until Dan turned to me. “Roses and tool bags, eh?”
His mockery smarted, and at first his eyes held only amusement, but then they softened, until finally he seemed quite unguarded. A professional giant exposed.
“You have to start somewhere, don’t you?” I muttered.
He continued to watch me until finally he said, “I guess you do.”
It was me who broke the moment, reaching forward to unclip my briefcase, while Dan closed his eyes and settled back in his seat, the wine glass held balanced at a loose angle on his thigh. He remained silent until take-off, and once we were airborne it was impossible to talk over the din of the propellers anyway, so I spent the flight flicking through my documents, highlighting in yellow as I went. Clearly, I was trying to impress Dan, but he was oblivious to me, making hefty inroads into a John Grisham paperback. As would I these days, of course – I never used to retain the facts in those background papers anyway.
When we came into land after an hour or so, I found myself gripping the armrests. I’d not flown much before and had no particular fear back then, but as we approached the runway the plane seemed to be tilting over. Across the aisle, I could see the tarmac skidding outside, but a glance at the window beside Dan brought only glimpses of sky, and I still swear today that the plane landed on one wheel first, tipping us sideways at a terrifying angle. I braced myself, eyes screwed shut against the squeal of tyres.
“It’s OK,” I heard Dan say gently, “we’re not gonna die today.” I felt his hand on my forearm, the warmth and weight of it both calming and rousing, and I opened my eyes with a lingering smile of thanks.
Then I caught a movement in the seat behind. A woman had stood up and was reaching for her carrier bags in the baggage nets.
“Saditsya!” Sit down!
Even I understood the command of the stewardess. The woman snapped back at her and made a great show of smoothing her skirt before sitting down again. But then, once the plane had come to a standstill, I snapped off my own seatbelt and I too jumped up.
This time the passengers joined in with the stewardess and Dan grinned at me. “Got to wait for the pilot to get off.”
A good five minutes then passed before finally a stout man, eyes bleary, skin flushed, ducked through the door of the cockpit and walked the short length of the aisle, to thunderous applause, both from cabin and baggage hold.
A black Volga from the regional government swept us into the city of Donetsk. We passed swathes of factories spewing toxic clouds into the cobalt sky, which soon lost its battle to camouflage them and became engulfed by billows of grey. When we crossed the vast river, my eye was drawn to the rows of flower tubs which lined the bridge, each of them packed with roses, the vibrant pinks and oranges of the blousy, old-fashioned heads softening the view across the water to the Soviet monoliths beyond. Finally, we drew up at that colossal building in the main square.
The Governor of Donetsk, Vladimir Zukov, was a short barrel of a creature who bustled out of his office and bore down on Dan. As they shook hands, the man clasped Dan’s arm, the way American statesman do on TV, then he pushed him through the door and swung his arm around my waist to propel me in too. I tried to ignore the squeeze he gave me on the way.
Inside his office, a wall of windows had been thrown open to the stunning July day and a breeze rifled the heaps of papers on his desk. On the wall behind it hung an enormous framed photo of Leonid Kuchma, the new President of Ukraine, who had been elected just days before, his eyes gleaming somewhere in the distance, seeking a glorious future – or perhaps a glorious past. Across the whole of another wall was a tapestry of the Donetsk coat of arms, the bottom section a swathe of coal-black, the top half a striking royal blue. A fist, chunky and chiselled, was holding a hammer high up in that sky, beside a luminous gold star, and, as I gazed at the image, I was startled to find myself welling up. I blinked back the tears, staggered by the emotion it had stirred in me.
We took our seats and the Governor boomed at Dan in Russian, while the translator Dan had arranged for my benefit struggled to keep up. “Dan, you are my friend, my buddy, and you are good friend of Donetsk.”
“Good to be back here, Vladimir, good to be back.” Dan’s voice was full of rich warmth. “And this is Vanessa Parker, from the Levshenko Programme.”
The Governor threw me a quick nod – I’d say he thought I was Dan’s love interest – and with a flash of annoyance I did fleetingly wonder if there’d been other women he’d whizzed down to Donetsk, to ease his negotiations. But then this man was far too professional and I swiftly quashed that thought.
“Ah, such good times we had in Chicago, Dan …” the Governor cried, adding in English, “… in Vindy City.”
More grey suits joined the meeting and greeted Dan effusively, with again the briefest of glances my way. So I sat back, biding my time, and observed Dan in operation; the genial smiles, the locker-room bonding, as he talked about the need for tax breaks for American companies who might invest in Donetsk, as he won them around to his point of view. It didn’t occur to me that Dan might also have been trying to impress me – such was the awe I felt for the deputy head of the USA’s colossal aid programme for Ukraine. At that point, Dan was the epitome of strength for me, possessed with gravitas, although it would only be a matter of hours before I was to witness his fallibility. Finally, he took the chance to introduce me properly and I sat forward eagerly.
Vladimir Zukov cocked his head at me. “Aha, you are also here for official business?”
The translator captured his undertone perfectly with an intonation which infuriated me, and I launched into a defiant opening gambit about my own aid programme, about how I was in Ukraine to help create new jobs in the wake of communism. But the instant I mentioned the budget – a hefty sum for an aid programme back then – the Governor interrupted me.
“Three million pounds, you say? I hope we will see some of that money in Donetsk, in our city of million roses.” He swept his hand towards the open windows. “We are most important city in Ukraine, we have educated people and coal mining, which is biggest industry in my country.” He paused. “Sadly many coal mines must now close.”
For a brief moment I sensed a connection, a chance to be taken seriously. I felt the power of that tapestry on the wall beside me – the stark simplicity of a miner’s fist and the memories it evoked of those I had known. But before I could let him know of my passion to help, the man had slapped a palm on the table and declared that the meeting would continue over lunch. The moment had passed. Then he contemplated me, raising an index finger as a teacher might to a four-year old. “After lunch, we will show you real coal mine.”
The other Ukrainian men chortled then, even Dan smiled, I noticed, which felt like a betrayal of our unspoken Western solidarity in that room. I raised my chin to the room.
“That would be great,” I cried, a little wildly then. “I’ve been down lots of coal mines. I used to manage a programme for miners who lost their jobs in the UK.”
The ‘manage’ was stretching it a bit – I’d been an assistant – but the translation was met with a momentary silence, with the surprised glances I’d been courting, and I sensed myself edging from bimbo to someone of potential value. And so I went on, my heart racing, committing myself further to this region far from Kiev, without any go-ahead from my philanthropic boss Bogdan, whose personal wealth was fronting our programme, and who had never once even mentioned Donetsk. How much of it was the tapestry – all those miners to be thrown out of work? How much of it was the way these men had dismissed me in front of Dan? Even today I’m still not sure, but I was a woman possessed.
“I will be launching a massive programme in Kiev, but I could set up a pilot project here. Dan has taken me through the needs.”
I shot a glance at Dan. He looked surprised, lips parted with amused interest, which fired me up further.
“I could set up a mini Job Centre at one of the coal mines due to close. This would counsel the men, help them find a new job, retrain them even, if need be.”
While speaking ad lib, I was mentally running through the cost of all this; probably no more than a couple of hundred thousand pounds, which we could easily absorb. But I was also aware that the Governor, who had been preparing to stand, had settled again in his seat, that the grey suits had shifted forward in theirs. And so I went further. Much further.
“Job Shops. That’s what they’re called in the UK. And if our pilot Job Shop is a success, then we could help you roll it out to other mines in the region.”
I can still see myself in that office, making policy on the hoof as I sought to prove myself to this man. And to Dan, of course. The way an aid programme takes shape – it was all so willy-nilly.
Over lunch, I was suddenly one of the lads, I was in the tent. The table was heaving with chicken legs, with pig liver pâté, with a baked fish on a platter, and the Governor plied me with vintage wine from Moldova. In those days, I was no wine drinker – I was more used to vodka nights out with Carole, my friend from home – but I found myself knocking back the 1965 Cabernet Sauvignon which the Governor had laid on for Dan, and leading the relentless laughter. After the food, we progressed to the toasts, with cognac, which came at me fast and furious, each drained glass instantly replenished by Vladimir Zukov for the next one. Dan stood, addressing me with a playful smile, and made the traditional Ukrainian third toast to the ladies, while all six men bowed to me and I giggled tipsily, a palm to my chest in modest acceptance. Then I sprang up for the next one.
“A toast to the Governor,” I cried, “to your beautiful city of a million roses, to our future collaboration through the Levshenko Aid Programme.”
Amidst all the cheers, the thumps on the white linen tablecloth, Vladimir Zukov slammed his shot glass against mine and clicked his fingers for the attention of our interpreter.
“May I call you Vanessa?” He leant towards me.
“Please do.” I leant forwards too. “Actually, my close friends call me Ness.”
“Ness? Like the monster? In Scotland?”
At that I collapsed into giggles, banging my fist on the table, an action which by then was the universal language at that lunch.
“You’d better have some coffee, kiddo, you’ve got a coal mine to get through.”
I turned to Dan as he spoke. Again his look was open, quite unguarded. And I’d say that was the moment. I’d say the kiddo did it.
Following on from our 2022 collaboration, we are delighted to be associated with Novel London's 2023 literary competition and festival. This is the fifth year of this well-run international competition with fantastic prizes and opportunities. As all publishers and seasoned writers know, competitions are THE way to get your stories noticed, whether you are starting out on your writing to publication journey or an experienced novelist hoping for a Richard & Judy, Booker or Women's Prize listing. So if you've started writing your novel and have a good idea of where it's going but have yet to complete it, or indeed if you've reached the end but know you've more editing to do, this is the ideal competition for you. The final judging is on the first 3,000 words + synopsis only. The entry fee is £11.00 with a first prize of £500 plus Blackbird feedback on your first three chapters, your synopsis and covering letter. There's a second prize of £350 and lunch at the Ivy with a literary agent and a third prize of £100 and a mentoring session. Plus there's a summer PARTY! and awards ceremony in central London at the Novel London Literary Festival. Read about the 2022 event and winners here.
Rosie loved Tom. Rosie had always loved Tom and, although she was unable to measure ‘always’ in terms of years and months, this made perfect sense to her.
Their love was not constrained by the mortal bonds of time; it was eternal, ageless and ancient beyond all recollection and record. All that mattered to Rosie, all that had ever really mattered, was that she loved him and he loved her. These facts, she knew, were as solid and undeniable as the old oak tree in the garden.
Nowadays, Tom talked to the oak tree more than he did to Rosie, but she didn’t take this personally. She understood his need to be with nature. She knew he found it comforting that a world which produced guns and bombs could also yield a dewy spring blossom. She realised that his eyes craved beauty, for she had only to look into them to see that his wounds were still fresh and current.
He needed time, she told herself. He hadn’t long come home and it was clearly going to take a little while longer for him to truly return to her. It didn’t make the slightest difference to how she felt about him. She had all the time in the world for Tom and, while she waited for him, their love would see them through.
Tom found the sudden change in his circumstances more than a little bewildering. To be here in the house, shadowed by his watchful, yet unobtrusive wife was wonderful, but also rather strange. It felt like the fantasies he’d created as a battle-weary soldier, when he’d shunned grim reality in favour of a romanticised vision of life back in England.
He’d so often dreamed of home, that his homecoming had seemed dreamlike and still now his surroundings quivered with the tremulous contours of a mirage.
Yet, for all its perplexing intensity, Tom was acutely aware that life here was good. The house was beautiful and so was she. It was his favourite time of year; the garden was brimming with burgeoning flowers, the house was bathed in the mellow luminosity of hazy spring sunshine and his wife… his wife’s blue eyes shimmered with the promise of better times to come. It was the culmination of his most cherished desires. His home, his garden and his lovely wife, waiting for him at the end of it all. Tom knew he would be happy, given time.
Rosie noticed that the ritual of familiar routine helped Tom adjust to his new environment. He took to making the bed with her, helping her set the table, putting out his West Ham mug next to her china teacup as she filled the kettle.
The more time Tom spent at home with Rosie, the more ownership he took of his daily chores and, much to her satisfaction, he even began to instigate them.
One Sunday morning, she found him in the kitchen, peeling potatoes and carrots for lunch. She watched him for a few moments, mesmerised by the rhythmic motion of his task and by the perfectly proportioned strips of orange vegetable peel emanating from the carrot in his hand. She bustled into the room.
‘You don’t need a housewife,’ she joked.
He put down the carrot and took her in his arms.
‘But I’ll always need a wife,’ he replied.
Rosie thrilled at his words and at his touch. After so long apart, his skin on hers felt like the very first time.
She cast her mind back to that exquisite night, not so very long ago, when their future together had stretched out before them, as long and as vibrant as their tightly intertwined limbs. She wished now she’d made a note of that date; the day they realised the full extent of their feelings for each other, the day that changed both their lives forever.
Why is it, she thought to herself, that I can remember every look, every smell, every taste from that night, but I don’t know whether it was July or January? She put it down to the heady excitement of first love and, as she looked into Tom’s eyes now, she knew he could still make her feel that way.
A few days later, he kissed her full on the lips, catching her unawares while she took tea in the garden. The shock of it caused her to drop her favourite cup and, as she responded to the warm pressure of his mouth, she watched the shards of rose-patterned porcelain scatter across the veranda.
She tried to focus on his kiss, the sweetness of which she had sorely missed, but her mind returned to the shattered pieces of bone china surrounding them. She fancied they were like splinters of fractured time; fragmented moments from their past together. Time they had wasted, time they had borrowed, time they had taken for granted and would never get back.
That night they lay down together, face-to-face on one pillow. Rosie held her breath and listened to the sounds of the silence; the dripping tap, the ticking clock, Tom’s steady breathing. She looked deep into the whirlpool of his cloudy gaze, trying to interpret its meaning and feeling much like Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole; dizzy with excitement, yet fearful she would lose herself in the sensation of perpetual falling.
‘I love you, Tom,’ she croaked.
He shifted beside her.
‘I should go back to my own bed.’
She squeezed her eyelids shut and tried hard to understand.
‘This is your bed too,’ she told him, ‘whenever you’re ready.’
He stroked her face and kissed her affectionately on the forehead.
‘Good-night, my love.’
He rose from the bed and left her staring into the shadows. She lay awake for a while, doggedly counting her blessings; but then the creeping darkness slowly dimmed her senses and sleep erased her memory until all that remained in her consciousness was the imprint of her sorrow.
Tom lay trembling in an unfamiliar bed across the landing. He thought about his wife, about her sparkling sea-blue eyes. She was all he’d ever wanted in a woman. Why then, when he loved her so much, when his body ached for her, was he spending the night alone, yet again?
He was tired, that he knew and he’d been through so much, but coming home to her had helped soothe the pain and he was now ready to put the past behind him. Tomorrow he would talk to her, explain how he really felt. He’d get a few things off his chest, about the loneliness and the fear. Clear the air so to speak. She’d understand. He needed to talk, to get back to his old self and then they could get on with the business of living.
The next morning, Tom found her in the garden, barefoot and dressed only in a thin dressing-gown. She didn’t notice him at first, so enthralled was she by the dancing daffodils under the oak tree, by the sweet birdsong and the long wet grass, which felt like tiny puppy tongues lapping her ankles.
‘You’ll catch your death, you silly old moo,’ he reproached her mildly.
She turned to him laughing and shivering, delighted that he’d sought her out.
‘Watch it, cheeky!’ she said. ‘I’m not old.’
‘Well you’re too old to be wandering around outside half-clothed,’ he grumbled as he guided her gently back into the house.
‘I was going to have a bath,’ she told him, ‘but I looked out the window and the garden looked so pretty.’
They sat down in the living room together and she put her hands in his.
‘Do you remember when we used to do silly things? Just for the fun of it?’
He shook his head.
‘No, not really. Can’t say I do.’
She leant forward and searched his eyes.
‘Of course you do,’ she insisted. ‘Running down hills, blowing spit bubbles. Skinny-dipping.’
She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively and saw a flame ignite in his dark eyes. He grinned.
His smile broadened and settled into the lines and creases of his lovely face.
‘There you are,’ she said.
She took him by the hand and led him up the stairs.
Afterwards, they slept and Rosie knew peace.
Tom’s slumber was not so restful and he found himself back on the battlefield. He was awoken by an explosion, which flung him out of the bed and onto the floor. His cries roused Rosie and she rushed to his side.
‘Get back in the tank!’ he screamed at her.
She cradled his head and stroked his damp hair.
‘Hush my darling, it’s not real.’
‘The enemy,’ he panted, ‘the enemy’s approaching. RUN!’
‘Look at me, Tom. It’s Rosie.’
He looked at her.
‘You’re at home with me.’
He sat up and looked around the bedroom.
‘Is the war over then?’ he asked.
‘Yes darling, it’s over.’
He let out a loud whoop.
‘Shush!’ she laughed, ‘you’ll wake the neighbours.’
The last thing she wanted was one of those busybodies knocking on the door. She got up.
‘Shall we have breakfast?’
Tom got up too but then flopped down onto the bed.
‘I’m still tired,’ he said, ‘how about you?’
He patted the empty space beside him on the mattress and she giggled.
‘I could do with forty winks myself,’ she said and lay down next to him.
They cuddled, oblivious to all else but the muted delight of their whispered intimacy.
Oblivious to the bedroom door slowly opening and a shadowy figure entering the room.
c. Tanya Bullock
This book hits you, right at the start. With hardly any preamble, the accident happens and there's no going back.
'A compelling story of how humour, friendship, grace and sheer grit can triumph over unthinkable catastrophe. Diana Morgan-Hill's unflinching memoir is proof that what does not kill us makes us strong.' Liz Jensen, author of The 9th Life of Louis Drax
'More of a page-turner than any novel I've read in a long time.' Louise Voss, author
As featured in The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror; ITV News, ITV This Morning; BBC Radio 2's The Jeremy Vine Show; BBC Radio 5 Live Stephen Nolan Show, RTE's Ryan Tubridy Show & more.
The last time I ran was for a train.
It was a warm August evening and a slight breeze fanned my face as I strolled into the safe, suburban railway station just outside London. A few straggling commuters huddled at the ticket kiosk. Realising the train was pulling in, I hurried across the bridge, scurried down the stairs, quickly and evenly, dashed across the platform and raised my leg to get on the train.
The door was open, I was on the running board and aware of people inside the carriage. Suddenly the train jerked and I lost my grip on the inside of the door. The train jolted again and I lost my balance. The weight of the heavy bag on my shoulder tipped me backwards and I dropped.
With a wrench, the sudden movement twisted me round and crushed me down. As I became wedged at chest-height between the train and the platform, the train picked up speed. I screamed and screamed and grasped desperately at the concrete. But the train dragged me along, gaining momentum, crushing my ribs against the platform, until I fell into the darkness and the wheels below.
One of my legs was ripped off, just below the knee. Beyond saving, my other leg was amputated above the knee later that night.
In 7 seconds I went from busy girl about international town businesswoman with everything to live for to a double-amputee, my life in ruins.
What could be worse? Could there be anything worse?
Seven days after my accident as I lay in a hospital bed traumatised and heavily sedated with painkillers, I learnt in the most underhand way imaginable that British Rail were going to interview me with a view to prosecution for trespassing onto their railway line.
It was unfathomable. I couldn’t yet believe what had happened.
That a train would move off as passengers were still getting onto it?
That the train would then not be stopped immediately by the Guard?
That I had just lost both of my legs for crying out loud. It simply couldn’t be true. But it was, and so the parallel nightmare began.
An indicator as to how British Rail would be behaving came just days after the accident. Their chosen method of communication was not by any letter or phone call to myself or to my dear, traumatised relatives, but, whilst we were all still in deepest shock, via the newspapers. There it was in black and white for all of London, and then as the news spread, the nation, to see: British Rail were going to employ a 100 year old bye-law and prosecute me for trespassing onto their railway line.
This was the first aggressive tactic by British Rail to throw the authorities off the real scent. They then chose to fight me. In every undermining way their highly-paid team of lawyers could possibly conjure up. There followed an exhaustive mission by myself, my family, friends and lawyers to follow this repugnant trail and clear my name. The legal battle that ensued took away five years of my life at a time when I was trying to learn to live again in the most painful ways imaginable.
When I look back on those years I can say with all honesty that my fight with British Rail is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Yes, even worse than having both my legs stolen from me. This attitude, of a public corporation towards its passengers was, at first, hard to fathom. But as, along with learning to live without legs, I embarked on my legal battle, the reasoning behind their inhumane methodology soon clarified.
After a busy morning, I’d left my business partner, Sarah, in the West End to tie up the details on another Primetime meeting, and had raced back to our office to prepare paperwork needed by a new client that afternoon.
MediaVision was based in an attic bedroom in Sarah and Justin’s Wandsworth semi in a safely suburban street 4 miles or so from central London. An arrangement we kept carefully hidden from the majority of our clients with their palatial, glassy offices in downtown New York, LA and Paris.
I was due to meet fellow PR Barbie back in town for pre-dinner drinks and moved speedily around the office, darting backwards and forwards between the filing cabinets and my computer. Yellow Post-it stickers littered the circumference of the screen – messages from Max, a tall, blue-eyed blonde American I’d met at the annual MIP Media Conference in Cannes and fallen for in a big way. When I discovered he was taken I’d finished it but he was still in hot pursuit. So far I’d been fortunate in that Sarah had been there to pick up the phone when he’d called. Though I’d finally moved on I didn’t want the temptation. Even his voice was dangerous – heavy in maturity and sexuality.
Typing furiously, my eyes drifted out of the window to the sunny day. I thought about ice-cream, wondering if I’d have time to grab a cooling cone to eat on the train. I bounced my way down the narrow flights of stairs, stopping off at the hall mirror to reapply my eye-liner and lipstick. I was looking good, lean and healthy with a sexy real-tan glow, attained from a quick week away to Greece with best friend Dinah and her family at the end of July. I gave myself a little smile before slamming the heavy door behind me and setting off for the station.
Heat warped the afternoon air and I could hear a distant cooing from a summer dove. An endless chorus from twittering birds added further song to the radiated atmosphere of that hot, sunny afternoon. Dawdling by the post-box, I rummaged in the over-sized bag slung over my shoulder, ferreting for my rail-pass and letters to shove in the slot.
I walked quickly. My Walkman, attached to my trouser waistline, bumped slightly with each step. The headphones were around my neck. I preferred birdsong whilst I was out and about and didn’t usually wear it until I was travelling to relieve the boredom of the long train commutes. I produced home-made tapes in my flat. The best songs from favourite albums got me frequently dancing around my home, the volume on the stereo turned up high.
All around were sights and sounds of an overcooked summer. Trees wilted with heat, leaves drooped with dust. An ice-cream van tinkled gently in the distance. I turned quickly into the station entrance, a blast of hotter diesel air greeting me from the hissing, squeaking train standing at platform one. When I got to the top of the stairs I saw through the bridge railings that my own train was trundling its 400 ton weight into the station. My cream, cropped top stuck slightly to my back as I re-adjusted the heavy bag on my shoulder and began trotting over the bridge.
A crowd of passengers hung around the glass box that caged the ticket collector. This was the fourth time I’d passed him that day. He filled the cubby hole, a black mass of shiny face and uniform. He seemed both distracted and sleepy. I didn’t bother to flash the pass that was in my hand. I had to struggle through a crowd of dawdling, chattering passengers who appeared to have all the time in the world.
I knocked one of them with my bag. Sensing she was cross, I muttered a hurried apology, intent on catching my train. I quick-stepped down the stairs and across the platform. The door of the train wasn’t fully closed and opened easily. I had my right foot on the running board and was raising the other when the train jerked ferociously. I made eye contact with some of the other passengers sitting inside the train. The train pulled away from me violently. I mouthed OH!
Then my right foot slipped, my hands scrabbled. As I clung to the wooden sides of the doorframe, the train jolted again. My left leg dropped below the running board. I struggled and was twisted down, down until I was wedged, crushed, between the train and the platform wall. Four hundred tons of metal began to roll against my back. The force rolled on, my feet were in the platform well, my stomach and chest pressed hard-up against the platform. I raised my hands, waiting for it to slow down and stop.
But the train didn’t stop.
Instead, it speeded up.
Through fear rather than pain I screamed, ‘Stop, stop the train!’
In a typically English way, I felt embarrassment. WHY didn’t they see me?
A red terror gripped as I realised how much worse my predicament was becoming. I was pinned, a butterfly with all limbs mentally flailing, my feet were with the wheels, massive, heavy crushing wheels and the train was moving faster, faster. I was still relatively safe with the wall and, although flattened, I hugged it still closer to me. I thought very clearly, “Keep your head away from the train”.
A metallic fear hit my nostrils and flooded my brain.
I felt a tugging and then – nothing.
My memory of the moment I fell beneath the wheels, thank God, does not exist.
I came out from the black pit of nothingness.
The train had stopped and I was trapped beneath it.
The smell of evil permeated the air, fumes of dust and black grimy coal. I breathed the gagging fumes of diesel and electricity.
A dull thud, atrocious in pain level, reached up from the track and held my body deadly still. I did not breathe, I did not move as the thud hit me again. Electricity was holding me down, claiming its route through my body, the fragile vessel. It made a sound, the deepest lowest buzzzz.
I raised my head from the ground, thinking, ‘I’ve got to get up, I’ve got to get out of this.’ A strange object came into focus, it lay away from my body at a distorted angle. A sliver of something attached it to me. What was it? It didn’t look human. But I recognised the shoe. It was mine.
No. It couldn’t be.
This is not me.
A wretched agonising pain filled all of me instantly. If there was a Richter scale for pain, this would be a tornado, a major earthquake, shuddering through my body. A sickening weight was crushing my left leg. I couldn’t see what caused it. My hands raked at the wall, my nails clawed the brick, I HAD to get up.
‘Help me,’ I mewed. ‘Help me. This is not me,’ I called from some primitive survival base in the back of my throat. I didn’t recognise the voice. ‘This is not happening to me. ‘Help.’ It was depleting my energy. I fell quiet. Too frightened to speak. But then came the surge of adrenalin, the adrenalin of fear and flight, my energy hopelessly boosted.
But there could be no flight. The fear accelerated.
A kind face appeared, warm black in colour. Soft eyes, sad eyes. He bent down. ‘I’m so sorry, someone will help you. I am so sorry.’ He straightened himself and left, walking backwards, his eyes registering horror.
Train doors slammed and banged. Panic rose. I sensed no one until Maggie appeared. I knew that was her name because I asked her and, even in fear and panic, one is polite.
‘Diana, hold on. Don’t worry.’ She was desperately trying to give me some security. Some semblance of hope. But I didn’t care. It wasn’t me she was speaking to anyway. I didn’t know where I’d gone. She held my hand. I gripped her life-force, unsure of where mine was.
Minutes ticked away, every second a tortuous hour of horror. A female policewoman type was there, on the edge of the platform. Her voice annoyed and distressed me. Two ambulance men arrived. They had difficulty getting to me. The train had to be moved. I could hear them talking. They’d have to switch the electricity on again to do that. It could give me an electric shock. The driver, sweating, heaving, tried to squeeze his way to me. He couldn’t. I let go of Maggie’s hand. I didn’t want her to be there when they moved the train off me if that electricity hit again. I knew I wouldn’t survive a third jolt of 650 volts. I put my head down on the track and scratched my nails deep into the black coal, perfect shiny pink against black. I remembered painting them that morning so they’d look beautiful.
That was a time long distant. Another, parallel, universe had taken me over.
Oblivion, that’s what I craved and that was the vision before me. If I turned my head away from the platform, to the left and to the tracks, that was all I could see – oblivion, an all-enveloping sense of being nothing. Not existing in any form. If I turned my head to the right, and raised it slightly I could see Maggie. I could reach my hand up to her. I chose to take her hand as they rolled the train off me.
I heard the engine of the train and buried my face into the stones of the track. Give me that oblivion. I was groaning and the sounds I made frightened me.
‘Don’t do this. Don’t do this to me.’
‘Diana give me your hand. Please Diana, give me your hand.’ Maggie ignored the wishes of the forces around her. They were concerned about the amount of electricity required to move the train. I couldn’t bear it. I turned my head to the left, away from the platform, away from Maggie. But the oblivion I faced seemed too deep. Too uncomprehending. Was this death?
I heard Maggie’s soft voice again, pleading with me to turn to her. I obeyed and took her hand as they rolled the train off my left leg.
With trembling voices and gentle hands they put, what seemed to be, plastic bags on my legs.
‘I’m sorry love, we need a doctor for painkillers,’ said one, his voice so low, so timorous, I could barely hear it. But I hadn’t asked for painkillers. I pleaded for a direct blow to the head from a sledgehammer. I whimpered the request, like a puppy in severe pain.
When you are in pain, a pain that obliterates everything else, you don’t scream, you squeal quietly, conserving energy.
A policewoman stood over me, looking in my bag. Her voice, strangely, got on my nerves. ‘Who should we contact?’ she asked. My first thoughts were my mum and dad. I couldn’t do this to them, not after Dad’s accident.
‘Sister. Helen. Drew. Drew,’ I whimpered half of Andrew’s name twice.
‘An… Drew. I need him. Please. Sur Name Palmer.’
I couldn’t breathe. My parents, oh sweet Jesus, Mum and Dad. I couldn’t think of anything. Such pain obliterates most thoughts, my brain didn’t work. My eyes couldn’t see anything.
‘Contact lenses. I wear contact lenses. Tell the surgeons I wear contact lenses.’
The ambulance men moved fast, attaching drips, which I could see, and doing something with my legs, which I couldn’t. Their breathing was heavy, I pleaded again to be knocked out. ‘Sledgehammer’ I muttered, over and over.
I could smell the sweat on them, it reeked of distress.
Somehow they got me onto a portable stretcher. Somehow they got me across four tracks and into the ambulance. I was shivering with shock, my teeth chattering and clacking with a fearful shuddering.
‘They will sew it back on again, won’t they?’ I asked the poor sod who had to travel with me in the back of the vehicle.
‘Don’t worry about it love. Not now,’ said the ambulance man, his words shaking away the enormity of the truth. I remembered the same cadence of voice from inside the ambulance that had taken Dad to hospital, a few weeks previously.
The kindly lie. A lie is kinder than the truth. For everyone.
I lay face down and remained face down when they took me out of the ambulance and through the swing doors to Accident and Emergency. I’d seen this on television. I was in an episode of ER.
White coats flapped. There seemed to be a room full of them.
Voices asked about my back. Scissors sheared material off my back. A slight piercing of indignation hit my senses. I like that shirt! What are you doing? I called again for a sledgehammer. I pleaded for the big hit over the head that would overrule all pain which had moved me from the real world into who knows what this was.
‘Your back, Diana, does your back hurt?’
‘No. Please knock me out, Doctor. Please.’
Still face down, I lifted my head slightly and looked straight ahead. There was one of the sweetest faces I’d ever seen. Another angel, looking distressed. A nurse with soft eyes. Deepest compassion.
‘Breathe into this Diana.’
‘Am I going to have a baby?’ I muttered, ironic to the end. I gulped at the mask and I was gone.
I came to and Andrew stood at the end of the bed, looking at me, his pale face shadowed in gloom. I felt I must say something, sensing my last words had to be said now. It was not just him I delivered those three words to, they were for everyone close to me.
‘I love you.’
‘I love you too.’ His words, reluctant, hoarse with fear.
I felt I could go, aware of my last exhalation as I fell away to the darkness.
c. Diana Morgan-Hill 2023