Short fiction and serialised novellas of GJ Fairlamb

Posts Tagged ‘death

Savage Writing: 100 words

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This week’s topic was to write two pieces, one of 100 words and one of 500 words. I gave up on the 500 word one, so here is my 100 word piece.


Floating in Space

Weightlessness soothes me. I am suspended in the deepest, blackest ocean, and soon I will forget to breathe as my suit exhausts its oxygen. I don’t think I’ll have the crushing panic that I imagine comes with a watery grave. Just bobbing along, in endless dark, just existing in this frigid womb of space. I wish I could see stars in the endless night about me.

But below turns the earth, white-blue scarred marble, home. Everything that has ever been. It’s a shame. I wish someone could hear me describe how beautiful it looked today, afterwards.


Written by G.J.

15/11/2015 at 4:11 pm

Savage Writing: A Little Stuck

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This week’s task was “Tales of the Unexplained.”


I’m a bit stuck at the moment. It happens. I tend to get stuck in a little loop, and it’s the more I worry about it, the more stuck I am and the harder it is to break free. It always starts when my eyes get itchy. They get itchy, then I twitch, and then suddenly I’m back where I was ten minutes, an hour, a day ago. I repeat, and I repeat, until I get to the end and – if I’m bored or relaxed enough – I just sort of slide out and blink and carry on like nothing happened.

I can’t change anything. I just have to sit back and watch through my eyes like they’re a movie screen, hearing myself talk (invariably I’m saying stupid things) and watching myself act (I’m so much clumsier than I give myself credit for). It’s a little frustrating. I don’t tend to get stuck in a loop longer than a day, thank God, because those are the really boring frustrating ones. Why didn’t I get up five minutes earlier so I didn’t miss the bus? Why did I buy that salad for lunch and not realise that it had ginger garlic dressing on it? Why didn’t I bring my umbrella today of all fucking days? It doesn’t matter; I can’t improve anything. And so much is dull. No, tell me again, Dan, how your weekend was. It was so interesting the first time. Spreadsheets are even more fascinating when you can’t even type things into them.

I’ve never been able to explain it, and no-one’s ever believed me when I try to tell them, so I keep it quiet. I’m more used to it than I was as a kid – and it was more useful then, I was able to study twice as hard by taking in all my homework and textbooks twice over, and you get more perspective on your humiliations the second time you endure them. Anyway, I’ve learnt now that when I feel my eyes itching I should just relax and sit back into it, and soon I’ll slide ride out the loop again and keep going.

I’ve learnt that. But I’m stuck now, at the moment. What happens is my eyes start itching when I exit the hospital doors, and then I’m suddenly by the parking meter again, and I have to watch myself fumble and drop my 20ps, and laugh too loudly when I tell Jenny a bad joke on the way back to the car. So far, so normal: I’m used to my clutziness, my bad jokes (it’s quite satisfying, no-one being able to hear you laugh loudly at your own puns).

We walk into the hospital. We sit and watch TV. This is where I get frustrated. I keep telling myself to turn and look at her, see her, take her in. Instead I talk to my side while keeping my eyes on the tiny screen in the waiting room showing some dreadful daytime chat show. I didn’t know anyone on it the first time I saw it. Now I know the guests’ and presenters’ names and lines off by heart. And I scream at myself to turn my head just a few inches and look at Jenny.

The nurse calls us in. I look at her arse as she walks in front of us. I cringe each time I have to repeat that glance.

We talk to the doctor. Now I’m stuck, I watch his face as he speaks. He’s in his late forties, greyed hair, lines on his forehead that foretell that he doesn’t like what he’s going to say. He keeps his face neutral but there’s the odd edge, the occasional terminal rise and starting crack in his voice that shows that he is not made of stone. I appreciate that, as the loops go by. He lowers his tone when he says “aggressive”; he raises his pitch and speeds up when he talks of a plan of action, trying to bolster us without even realising. I appreciate that, more and more.

This is what I wait for, now, with each loop: the moment when I turn and look at Jenny. Her hair is loose today. She is growing out her fringe and it hangs, parted in the middle, with its tips near the bottom of her eyes. She is wearing blue stud earrings, and most of her lipstick has rubbed off during lunch. The doctor’s words don’t hit her – I can tell that the second, third, fourth time. They bounce off her skin and don’t sink in. She nods, and sets her mouth firm, and discusses the plan like it’s a business transaction. She refuses to believe in anything except a perfect ending.

Then she looks at me, and in her eyes I see the base of her facade break. It hits her then: the concept of loss. Mortality. Me, a widower.

It’s an incredibly strange feeling, being trapped in your own head. Walking locked-in syndrome. Can you call it crying when your eyes don’t water and you can’t control your breath to sob?

She thanks the doctor, arranges other appointments. She holds my hand so tight in the corridor that I think she’ll crush my bones. But I relish that each time I loop round: her skin, tight on mine, her wedding ring digging into the base of my third and fourth fingers. She smells of shampoo most of all, even with all the money she spent on that perfume she’s wearing.

We come to the hospital doors, and she turns to me.

‘We’re going to beat this,’ she says.

She turns away before I can see that she’s about to cry. Every time, I admire how she worries about my feelings above hers, how she doesn’t want to burden me with despair, not at 2pm, not in public, not even when the world would be most forgiving of it.

The doors open, and we step out. I think about how much I love her. How I never want to be without her.

Then my eyes start to itch.

Written by G.J.

17/09/2015 at 7:51 pm


with 2 comments

Katie’s husband shot himself in the head. He locked himself in the bathroom. Katie sat outside, screaming at the door, begging him not to do it.

She sent an e-mail round to her close friends and family afterwards. That’s how they know what happened. She sent it to my sister Anna, and Anna told me the night after I was introduced to Katie, and that’s how I know what happened.

She heard him pull the trigger.

He knew you all loved him, she wrote in the e-mail, apparently. I told him how much everyone loved him.

I try to imagine yelling past a wooden door. It’s so faceless, unyielding, lacks any passion or emotion. Imagine only facing that, knowing that the person you love most is going to turn their brains to goo.

Worse, I try to imagine when the door was opened afterwards. I think the police did it. She didn’t have time to call emergency services between him grabbing his gun and the deed. I mean, in that case you’d assume that you can convince them better yourselves, right? Of course you’d assume that your husband would listen to your pleas more than a policeman’s.

But imagine: shot. Loud. Then absolute silence. She calls for him again. She sobs down the phone – or talks down the phone, quiet monotone, numb and unable to process. Waits. Then they come and talk through the wood block door, stern solid words to coax him out, nothing in response. They kick down the door.

Did she shrink back? Did she peer in, despite knowing what she would see?

And what did she see?

I can’t imagine what a person looks like with their head shot through. I mean, I’ve seen it in films, but you never know how realistic they are, do you? And it’s a world of difference, I suppose, between seeing some unknown actor playing an expendable mook get his skull blown through, and seeing the man you’ve slept with for ten years with a head like a smashed egg.

God. I just can’t imagine it.

What that would do to a person. To your mind. To your perception of the world.

The first time I met Katie, she was normal. A little quiet. It happened last year, you see. I don’t know how long it takes these things to process, but I feel a year is a little too short. She mentioned she works in IT support, we joked about the kind of people you have to deal with and the nonsense you constantly put up with. She’s small. Pretty. Brown hair. Thin. Looks young for her age. Not the sort of person you’d think would have seen gore first-hand.

When I met her again, because I knew, I wanted her to look different. I tried to find signs that she was traumatised in some way, but came up with nothing concrete. I mean, everyone gets tired and down sometimes, no matter how good your life is – and she wasn’t even depressed-looking that day. She looked a normal level of tired. I wondered how she looked the days following her husband’s death. When Anna made a joke and we laughed, I wondered how long it took her after Neil’s death before she smiled again.

‘Does she ever talk about what happened?’

‘She misses him a lot,’ Anna replied, like the question glanced off of her.

‘No, I mean, has she ever told you what it was like?’

‘God no,’ she said, giving me the look that all siblings have perfected – the “what the fuck is wrong with you, you inferior being” look. ‘I wouldn’t do that. I don’t want to bring it up again.’

I wonder if it makes Katie felt better or worse, that no-one will bring it up.

‘I’m doing a half-marathon,’ she said, the third time we met.

‘Good for you.’

‘It’s for a mental health charity.’

I hesitated.

‘Oh, that’s good.’

‘I’m doing it in Neil’s memory,’ she said, eyes on the floor, no other sign of distress.

Was that a cry for help? A sign that she wanted to open up? Or was it nothing at all? What was I to make of that? Words hovered over my lips, but in the end the easy, cowardly, gentle way won out.

‘Yeah…good for you. I mean, that’s good. I’m sure you’ll do well. How much are you asking for sponsorship?’

Not what I wanted to say.

What I want to say, and what I’ve always wanted to do, is corner her one evening, get her alone, and ask her what it’s like to face mortality up close. To hear the man you love die. To see his blood. To know he chose his broken mind over your wellbeing (and wouldn’t that make you doubt how much he loved you?). I’m not sure she could answer this, but I wonder how the grief compares to other, less dramatic, more normal grief. Like, on a scale of grandma-dies-in-sleep to child-is-murdered, how fucking awful is it? I imagine it’s one of the most awful things in the world. And yet she looks normal. I don’t get it. How can you look normal, after that?

I’ll never ask her about it, of course. It’s not done, and Anna would kill me besides. Might trigger some grief relapse or something. It’s one of those things you just don’t do.

But I wonder. Every time I see Katie, I wonder. And I imagine.

Written by G.J.

22/02/2015 at 1:23 pm

Savage Writing: Jacob Wrestling

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One of the pictures we were to use for inspiration this week was quite demonic, and that and the musculature reminded me of a Biblical story. Hence, this.


There is a painting above her bed: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Alexander Louis Leloir. Dark-haired Jacob, his red cloak flying behind him, grasps the angel around the waist. His face shows no strain, and his black eyes stare out of a passionless face, as if he is a teacher waiting for an answer from a pupil who should know better. The angel’s face is obscured by his shoulder as he tries to push away from Jacob’s grip. The muscles in his calves, thighs and forearms are taut with effort. At this moment, captured in the stillness of oil on canvas, Jacob is winning.

This is my favourite painting in our home. Man goes against what is much stronger than him, and more than holds his own: in this painting, he is winning.

Of course, in the story, the angel – or rather, God in the form of an angel – wins because he dislocates Jacob’s hip with one touch, because God can do that, and if God is anything, he is a dirty, rotten cheat.

It was gone, you know. We went out to dinner to celebrate. Mum doesn’t drink, but this once she ordered red wine, and I knew it was a victory for her because when I toasted her, she raised her glass to herself. You see, at every birthday and anniversary and event where glasses were raised to her, she would sit, mouth set in a barely-smiling line, elbows on the table and eyes firm, as if praise was something one had to endure and never accept. But yes, that night she raised her glass of wine and took a full-mouthed glug. She didn’t even flinch at the unfamiliar tannin taste. And I mentioned the irony to her later, between main course and dessert, that after years of not drinking when she could, she would now imbibe when the doctors advised against it.

‘Life’s a bitch, Rosie,’ she said.

I laughed, because what else could I do, seeing my short-haired, five-foot-one, gentle-genteel mother swear in front of me?

Her eyes were sad. I remember that. She had looked exhausted for months, of course – chemo is poison, after all – but she looked like she had come to the end of a marathon, and found no ribbon, no medal, no crowd. Only a thin, wobbling line, drawn in chalk on the tarmac, and a rat scuttling down the nearest drain.

It was gone. But turns out that it was the kind of gone that never leaves forever, like rain or winter or hiccups. They’ll always come back, no matter how glad you are to see the back of them. I wonder if she knew that, or suspected it. I never considered it. I refused to believe she would ever die, right from the start. Cancer? It’s only small, surely? Early stage? Of course it is. Late stage death cancer only happens to other people. It’s just a little scare life has put in to wake you up. Doctors, hospital, surgery, chemo, bam, done, happily ever after, back to normal. And look! We were so close! That dinner was supposed to be it: done, done, it’s over, The End, no more.

It’s the end of January and it feels like winter has been here forever. I’ll get to a sunny day at the end of February and then I’ll shout to the heavens HA! Take that! No more cold! No more ice, not ever! Only warmth and green buds for the rest of my days! Next winter, what next winter? Never. It’ll never happen. Cold is impossible to imagine in the middle of July, right? It’ll never come back.

It came back. That’s the way this illness works. The more new cells are made, the more likely that over time they’ll get a bit tired, a bit senile, forget to stop growing, forget that they depend on you to exist and that you shouldn’t hurt the ones that made you. And even if you stop them with the strongest poison and warnings, it’s as if, it’s like they still might walk into the same place a few months or years later and look around and vaguely remember it and say “yes, that was it, continued growth, shutting down the essential life systems, yes, that’s familiar, yes, let’s try that again. Mm-hmm.”

She was fighting. Everyone’s a fighter with this, I suppose – because what else do you do? She fought as hard as the rest, through the pain, discomfort, helplessness.

It was Boxing Day. Everyone else had gone home. She had a glass of wine, and I joked that at this rate she’d become an alcoholic.

‘Life’s too short,’ she said.

Not yours, I thought. You’ll live until you’re a hundred and eight. You’ll see great-grandkids. You have to, because I’ve decided you have to, because I won’t let fate do any different, it has to bend to my decision. You’ve hiked all the mountains in the UK and you’ve never smoked and you’ve eaten fish and salad instead of pie and chips and that means you’re immortal now, everyone agrees on it, you’ve cracked the formula for living forever and never dying before you’re a hundred and eight and in your own bed asleep.

It was Boxing Day. It was only a month ago. Why didn’t she tell me that she thought it had come back? Was she trying to keep Christmas special, like how she pretended Santa existed even years after we’d figured out the truth? I’m an adult now, even if I don’t quite feel like it. I can handle a bad Christmas!

I don’t understand it. She was winning. She had won.

There’s a painting above her bed, of Jacob wrestling God and he looks like he’s winning. And underneath the painting, there’s an empty bed with clean neutral linen, as she left it the day she went to hospital. It stills smell of her perfume. And did she look at that painting every day? Every day, see Jacob winning, though she knew how the story ends?

Dirty, rotten cheat of a sickness, pretending to leave, then coming back for an encore.

She was winning.

Written by G.J.

05/02/2015 at 6:58 pm

Savage Writing: Whistle and Pea

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Theme for this week was “Whodunnit?” 

My name is Desiree Long – a name which was given to me by my mother in the hopes that I would be beautiful, and charming, and like herself. But I turned out like my father, and so disappointed her in all respects: dumpy, dull and silent.

She’s dead now. I came back from school on Tuesday last week and found her hanging from the ceiling hook in the living room, like she was an extension of the light. It took me ten minutes to stop staring and phone the police, since it was the last thing I had expected. I can’t remember it very well – the shock hit me worse than anything – but I remember dad hugging me and saying it would be okay, and the police muttering to each other before finally telling us that, though it looked like suicide, the marks on the living room floor showed that she was dragged up there. It was murder.

I wish I could say I was upset. Well, I was – but not too upset. She’d never liked me, my mum; she was a whistle and I was the pea trapped inside her, both rattling against each other but unable to part. I remember when dad went to the police station to talk about possible suspects, and I was left alone in the house. I made myself a jam sandwich with mum’s favourite strawberry compote and I sprinkled loads of sugar on top like she would never let me, and it tasted like the best thing in the world until I was halfway through and then I felt really sick, and that was when I started crying.

When dad came back from the station he said that they were taking my uncle – my mum’s brother – in for questioning. It was likely a strong man who fought her and strung her up like that, he said, and my Uncle Phil is built like a bear. Phil’s loud and obnoxious for a security guard, and he’s always made crude comments about me. My mum never told him off for it because she loved him, she loved hanging out and drinking with her brother. That’s why I was so confused when dad said that he was a suspect, because he would never hurt her, I thought. And she trusted him enough to give him a key to the house…

I remembered our last house party. Mum was angry that night, but she had been constantly angry for weeks so I didn’t notice. Phil got drunk and kept calling her Ann, which really annoys her because she had it legally changed to Anastasia when she was younger because she hated being called just “Ann”, and the more she told him to shut up the more she got genuinely angry until she shouted at him and stormed off. He went after her and had a chat with her, and everyone was whispering and awkward – people kept asking me what was up so I just stood by the snacks and pretended to tidy up so they’d leave me alone again. After that she didn’t talk to him for the rest of the night, wouldn’t even look at him.

And then I remembered that after that she got loads of phone calls from him, and she kept hanging up and refusing to answer, until the other day – the day before she died – she went up to her room and ended up shouting down the line, saying he should leave her alone and stop trying to control her life and let her make her own decisions.

‘You know, chick,’ dad said at dinner, ‘our solicitor said that your mother had arranged to see him. You know your uncle’s a beneficiary on her will. The police think that, since she’d had an argument with him, maybe she was going to write him out of it.’

He looked really upset. He looked like he’d been crushed by a train ever since she died, and that made me feel so bad.

‘She wouldn’t do that,’ I said. It was too twee, too like Agatha Christie for anything that happened around my mother. ‘She loved him. I bet you anything he didn’t kill her.’

He gave me a big speech about facing reality and being a big girl and how sometimes the world is cruel and things we don’t think would ever happen come about, but I didn’t listen.

Maybe I should have, because Uncle Phil phoned me up earlier today, and told me I should come round to his house, and I refused because I’m glad that I have no reason to go near him ever again. He sounded worried, upset, said that I should because some tests had come through, and they’d found sleeping pills in my mum’s body, so there would have been no struggle to hang her – and I hung up because I didn’t want to hear it.

I didn’t want to hear it. But I heard it, and I went through to the kitchen and I took out the packet of sleeping pills in the box where we keep medicines. It had four missing. When I turned, dad was in the doorway, and when he saw that I was crying he started shaking his head.

‘Oh, chick,’ he said, sounding so tired, looking horribly sad. ‘What have you done?’

Nothing. I’ve done nothing. I would never have killed my mother in a hundred years – so surely my father, who’s dull, and dumpy, and scorned by her like me, would never have killed her either. But he kept shaking his head and sighing, and he started walking towards me and I pressed myself against the counter away from him, unable to run.

‘You don’t understand, chick,’ he said, and his quietness had never seemed so creepy. ‘She was going to rob me, rob us. Your uncle knew – he thought she should try to stick it out – but I had no idea until she said she was going for divorce papers. I gave everything for her, yet she was going to bleed me for all I had, and leave nothing for you. Don’t you see, chick? I did it for us!’

He didn’t do it for me. I knew how little I meant to her; I never expected anything. He did it for his own anger, not me. And his anger didn’t die with her; I can see it in his eyes, he couldn’t kill it so now he’s looking at me, he’s still angry and he’s just looking at me…

He’s waiting for me to respond, but I can’t do anything but cry. And he’s twisting up a tea towel with his hand and I know I should try to run, but all I can do is think back on everything that’s happened, me and him and her. And he’s coming towards me, and I can’t move, and I know I should stop thinking now because all thoughts have to stop–


I think everyone was a little shocked with this one. Got some very nice responses though 🙂

P.S. Riverboats will be back on Sunday. 

Written by G.J.

19/09/2012 at 10:44 pm