Short fiction and serialised novellas of GJ Fairlamb

Posts Tagged ‘leeds savage

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

Savage Writing: Sarah

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This week’s topic was “Swapping Filth” again. NSFW.


It was August 17th 1991, when I first laid eyes on the tits of the woman who took my virginity.

It was at a toothless end-of-summer barbecue thrown by my Aunt June, the sort with more potato salad than meat. I was just sixteen and wearing baggy ripped jeans, a plaid shirt with a vest underneath, and my favourite choker around my throat. My hair was probably slightly greasy. I think it must have been about two pm when I saw her? All I remember is that I got my plate and went to the salad buffet to get some chips and dip and there, hovering over the radicchio like some heavenly sign, were her tits. Her denim shirt was tied in a knot under them, and goddamn if it wasn’t like they were wrapped up just for me. The cleavage seemed to go for miles and miles. I stared, entranced, for what felt like an hour when she reached over to my side of the table, aiming for the breadsticks.

I blinked and looked up. She smiled and said something food-related. I don’t remember exactly what it was now, but to be honest I probably never heard it. She had heavy bobbed hair, curled perfectly under at the bottom. After she put the breadsticks and salad on her plate, she pushed her hair behind one ear, only for a huge lock of it to immediately fall back out again.

‘You’re Anne’s daughter, aren’t you? Hi, I’m Sarah.’

She was a friend of my aunt’s. They went to church together.

‘Natalie,’ I said.

We didn’t say much after that. Pleasantries. I wanted her to stop talking and walk away so I could go back to ogling her. Eventually she obliged, but still I drifted near her all day, only to turn away whenever she noticed me, like a skittish fish or an insect.

At one point, I watched as she and her husband talked to my aunt and uncle. Sarah spoke as she ate, and as she lifted a nacho to her lips a dollop of sour cream fell off of the chip and hit her left boob. It remained there for a further second – tip tapering up to the sky – before she swiped it up with one finger and put the finger in her mouth, tightening her lips as she laughed at herself.

That night, in bed, I imagined licking it off of her, running my tongue up her soft skin, untying the knot of her shirt and drowning in what was beneath. I had to press my palm over my own mouth to silence the end of that fantasy.


I became her walking bitch. Aunt June said Sarah had a springer spaniel and a pointer that neither she nor her husband ever had time to walk. I offered. She was delighted. I got to see her three times a week and even more in my dreams.

Time painted me a picture of her, a watercolor made of droplets of half-hour meetings that became afternoons and evenings and more.

She would dance about her kitchen to Lionel Richie. She liked modern art but was only allowed to hang the most bland, inoffensive pictures on her wall. She loved Father of the Bride and thanked me for seeing it with her when husband was out of town again. She gave me my first taste of wine.

There’s no point being nostalgic about it. It happened, but it doesn’t really matter now. Here’s how it ends, so you know you’ll be disappointed: it ends when she puts a “For Sale” sign on the lawn the next July and then a week later I see her brown hatchback go by my house and it doesn’t even slow and I don’t even glimpse her silhouette. Her husband was later found guilty of fraud. June stopped writing to her about that time. God’s forgiveness and love, whatever, I guess. I told my girlfriend in college that she was my first because she was nervous. I breathed so little word of Sarah that I almost forgot she had happened.

Here’s what happened:

It was December. I took Bonnie and Lisa in from their walk and my fingers were frozen. Sarah was lying on the rug in front of the fire, laughing at a rerun of The Simpsons Hallowe’en episode. The dogs bounded over to her, and from the way she lost her balance trying to hug them, I knew she’d been drinking even before I saw the bottle on sitting by the hearth.

When the dogs were in the kennels and I returned to her, she was lying on her back with those mini-mountains splaying out to each side of her chest, barely restrained by her pink flannel pajamas.

I sat next to her. If she was only a little drunk, I figured, then she’d tell me it was late and that I should go home. If she was far more than a little drunk – as I suspected – then maybe…well, I’d be able to look as much as I liked…

‘Do you know what’s bullshit?’ she burst out. It was the first time she’d ever sworn in front of me.


‘Everything. Men. White houses. Ironed shirts. I used to dance until sunrise, ride around in every boy’s car, talk about art and novels and the world. Now I’m…this. Never marry, Nat. Don’t settle down.’

‘I won’t,’ I said.

‘Ha, you will,’ she said.

Her knowing, cynical tone – that’s what finally dragged my eyes away from her body. It annoyed me so much that I blurted the truth.

‘You know I’m gay, right?’

She sat upright so fast, she nearly fell right back over.

‘You are?’

‘…yeah?’ I squeaked, wondering whether I would regret it.

She gave me a deep, wicked smile.

‘Thank God.’

In later days, she would tell me of her days at college flipping between girlfriend and boyfriend, of the eventual triumph of parental pressure, of female lovers crying down the phone.

But what she did, right then, was kiss me.

Don’t think I’m a prude, or that because I was nervous I hesitated. She kissed me, not the other way around – but then I ripped that pajama top from her so fast I probably set a record. I ran my hands over her tits – sweet Jesus, they overfilled my palm – and I couldn’t resist, I trailed my tongue across every inch of them. And when she slipped her hand between my legs, and it was better than every fantasy I’d had about her, I knew – like no other time we fucked in the next six months, like no other night of my life since – I knew that I was in heaven.

Written by G.J.

20/08/2015 at 9:49 pm

Savage Writing: Blithe

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She took the 7.56 tram to the Queen Elizabeth memorial hospital on the 4th of August, and that was the day she sold her eyes. She remembered it vividly, even years later. She had crushed her ticket in sweating palms. The tram conductor found her out that day – that’s what happened – she had been showing the same ticket all month, and August the 4th was the first day the tram conductor actually checked the date on it. Yes, she had handed over the £2.50 she had brought for lunch, she had hoped that after the surgery she would be too nauseous to want to eat. That was the day they took her eyes.

Not that she hadn’t planned it for months. WANTED: GREEN EYES – HIGH PRICE. That’s what the ad had said. Those were the words that sprang out at her that night, when she was clutching her stomach to try to press away the fear. Before the words, it had felt as if a car was parked on her shoulders and was growing heavier and heavier and wouldn’t stop until it turned her into ground beef. After the words, the weight lifted, eased, until it felt as if she was only wearing a thick fur coat. She had green eyes, with perfect vision. She took a selfie in the bright light of her bathroom, sent it to the agency, and was snapped up in seconds.

They gave her the first payment at the first appointment, and that was enough to keep her afloat for a month and a half.

‘Good, healthy green eyes,’ the doctor said, shining light into her this way and that. ‘Your buyer has brown’ – always brown or blue, green and grey eyes were the rare ones – ‘and it’ll look very different. Are you prepared for that?’

Doesn’t matter how I look in the mirror as long as I can eat, she thought.

‘Of course,’ she said, with a confident smile, her customer smile, her please-don’t-get-me-sacked smile, her please-give-me-another-month-and-I’ll-pay-the-interest-I-swear smile.

Would she meet the buyer, she asked.

‘No. They don’t usually meet the sellers. As popular as it is to buy rare eyes, there’s still a certain queasiness about the practice. I know many prefer to treat it as if we simply change the colour of their birth eyes in the surgery. When people buy it for others as gifts – fathers for their daughter’s eighteenth, that kind of thing – they often prefer to mask the truth entirely.’

She signed a raft of forms, exempting the agency from any liability should the surgery go wrong, exempting the buyer from any liability whatsoever. As if she had the money to sue anyone even if it should go disastrously wrong. She’d rubbed her eyes self-consciously as a momentary wave of terror passed by, as she imagined what it might be like to be blind.

Blind people definitely count as disabled, she said to herself as reassurance. They probably got more money a month than she did.

‘You can back out at any time,’ the doctor said. ‘Even on the day.’

‘Do I have to pay back this money if I do?’ she asked.

He had blinked, as if she was the first person who had thought of it.

‘Yes, I believe you do.’

Her chains were set, then. She walked out of the doctors and went across the road and bought a massive slice of pizza and the grease dribbled all over her hands and she nearly choked for the luxury of it, eating such a huge slice at 3pm instead of working for ten hours on a stomach pumped with caffeine.

On the 4th of August, she entered the hospital. At the pre-surgery consultation, the nurse asked if she’d eaten anything that morning. She laughed. She had paid off her second credit card last night and was still high on the happiness.

While she sat in the waiting room, not long before she was called to get changed, a woman walked by. Her age was undefinable – at some angles she looked eighteen, at others thirty-five. Her lips were plump, her eyebrows were angled, and her teeth gleamed snow-white as she smiled and talked to the nurse beside her.

‘I thought, you know, “Jack’s bonus has come in, he’s already done everything for Valentine’s Day, so what else can I ask for for my birthday? I know, I’ll get the eye thing that I’ve been wanting to do for ages.” My mate Lily, she’s had it done and she’s got these stunners and I’m well jel, and I’m sorry but I can just tell that the green’ll go better with me than it does with her – though hers are a brown-green mix, she couldn’t get a pure green one – she’ll be so upset with me when she sees me. I hope I won’t have to be out for long, though, I’ve got lunch with Jack just after – I’m hoping I’ll surprise him, I haven’t told him the surgery’s today…’

The nodding nurse took the woman around a corner and the chatter faded away.

She’d expected, that if she were to ever met her buyer, she’d have envy so thick she could cut throats with it.

But she just felt tired.

A few hours later it was done. Half an hour of rest, and then she was out the door, looking around with her new eyes.

Nothing seemed different. The buyer had laser-perfect eyesight.

On the tram home, she checked her bank balance on her phone. Part of the last payment had come in already, wired in the second the hospital confirmed that she’d gone into surgery. She paid off another chunk of debt, and felt her fur coat of worry moult until she was wearing only an uncomfortable spring jacket.

At home, she went to the bathroom.

She blinked five times when she saw herself. Bold eyes, a darker, muddier shade of brown than her hair. It looked strange. There was a pang of loss as she remembered those days, that so quickly became faded memories, where she had green eyes like a princess.

The pang faded fast. She got changed, grabbed her purse, and walked out the door. There was just enough time to get a slice of pizza before her evening shift.

Written by G.J.

05/08/2015 at 10:49 pm

Savage Writing: Elephants and Mice

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This week’s topic was “Make me laugh.”


Just as his hands brushed the safe – click.

Light beamed on him from his right. Tommy span on his heels.

A second click.

‘Stay where you are.’

Sweat dripped down the back of his neck. Slowly, he turned, raising his hand to ward off the glare from the lamp.

A woman sat on the reading chair, hand holding the lampshade at an angle, directing its full force to him. In her other hand she held a revolver. She was in her thirties, curled brown hair, long-sleeved burgundy shirt cinched in by a wide tan belt, knee-length green skirt (her colouring fit right in with the rest of the study). Pencilled eyebrows. An amused smile on her lips.

Maggie. The lady of the house.

She let go of the lamp and it swung, back and forth, wobbled, settled. Still the eye of her revolver stared at him, black and merciless.

‘Good evening, Tommy,’ she said. ‘Fancy meeting you here.’

Tommy didn’t raise his hands. He’d do that when he had to. Part of him doubted Maggie had the guts to pull the trigger, but the bigger part of him remembered when her horse broke its leg last fall. He remembered the grim determination she had held as she strode through the crowd – past the veterinarian, past her injured daughter – and put a bullet right in the old thing’s head.

‘You gonna call the cops, ma’am?’

‘Perhaps I will,’ she said, still smirking. ‘Or perhaps I’ll let you off easy. Lord knows you’ve done a good turn or two here.’

He ordered the burst of hope in him to pipe down. No point trusting her.

‘All depends on whether you can do what I ask you,’ she continued.

‘And what’s that, ma’am?’

She flicked the edge of the lamp, and sent its halo of light circling, hula-ing around its base.

‘Make me laugh.’

A cold chill ran down him.


‘Make me laugh. Go on, a good joke, a fine tale, make me laugh and I might think twice about getting those nice boys down here.’

I’m a goner, Tommy thought. He remembered the days at school, sitting with Pete Mason as he heckled everyone going by. He had never hoped to match that kind of wit so he’d protected himself by laughing with him instead. He thought of his lame lines on girls, their confusion, their withering looks as they walked away, how loudly they would mock him as they linked arms with their girl friends. He couldn’t make anyone laugh at even the best of times – how was he to do it now, with a gun winking at him?

‘Go on,’ Maggie said. ‘I’m waiting.’

‘Ah – uh – uh – wh – what d’you call a, um, uh – wh – what, say, does a, uh, elephant have in common with, a, uh, mouse?’

He didn’t know what an elephant had in common with a mouse. The words had juttered out of his mouth before he could stop them.

Maggie raised an eyebrow.

‘I have no idea. Tell me.’

Tommy cursed in his head and wondered which was worse: jail, or having to endure her eyes on him as he ransacked his mind for possible answers. Everything he seemed to light upon vanished the second he grasped it.

‘Well, go on.’

No, it was gone, all gone, hopeless. Would she shoot him if he turned and ran now? Probably. Her smiled faded and her lips pulled down into a scowl.


She raised the revolver a half-inch. Tommy jumped and blurted:

‘They don’t talk!’

‘…excuse me?’

Tommy felt his face burning. Light-fingered Tommy, best long-con there was, never a safe he couldn’t crack – now blushing with his eyes down like a five-year-old.

‘They don’t talk. Elephants and mice. They…don’t talk.’

He winced and closed his eyes, half-expecting her to shoot him in disgust.

Maggie burst out laughing.

‘They don’t – they don’t talk! They don’t talk! Well, damn if you’re not right, Tommy – they sure don’t talk!’

She continued to cackle. Tommy looked up. She was leaning forward, gun dangling to the floor, elbows on knees, laughing as if he’d told the best joke in the world.

‘They don’t talk,’ she said, as if to herself. ‘Hoo-ee.’

She stood up from her chair and walked towards him. As she approached the safe, she waved the gun at him, gesturing for him to stand aside.

‘You win, Tommy. Now, I’m going to show you something that always makes me laugh. My best joke.’

She turned the safe combination. Tommy watched her, instinctively memorising it, wondering what she was going to do.

The door swung open. Again she waved the gun, gesturing him closer to her. He stepped around the safe door, and looked inside.

It was empty.

‘The Hodgeson fortune,’ Maggie said. ‘Prettiest gold in the world, don’t you think? Never seen so many rubies in my life. Ha! Oh, you should’ve seen Abe’s face when I asked him to put a safe in here. “We’ll have every thief in the state trying to work here and sneak a way in.” “All the better that it’s empty, then” I said. Nice little mousetrap, isn’t it?’

Tommy didn’t speak.

‘It’s a shame, Robert – do you mind if I call you by your real name? – a real shame. A man with your history really could’ve made something, with the amount we pretend is in here. Maybe you could’ve gotten away from your past entirely.’

She shut the safe door and turned to him, the revolver an intermediary between them.

Tommy’s dreams fluttered away like startled doves. The solid heat of humiliation was all that remained.

‘You gonna call the cops, ma’am?’ he asked.

‘We made a bargain, didn’t we?’ Maggie said. The smirk grew on her lips. ‘And besides, I think it’s time that Houseman Thomas went back to his bed. He has a lot of work to do tomorrow, I wager, and after that, and the day after that, if he’s a good boy. And maybe,’ – and here her smile grew – ‘he should think a little about his favourite joke. Fine animals, elephants and mice. Elephants don’t forget. Elephants crush mice. But neither of them…’

She paused, and rolled the word around her tongue.


Written by G.J.

25/06/2015 at 7:42 am

Savage Writing: Maisie’s Sister

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This week’s topic was “Unbelievable.” I reread The Dream of the Rood and wrote this. Everyone said they expected this to be the start of a longer piece, which surprised me. I don’t plan to do anything more with this – I don’t see any way it can go without devolving into cliche.


Maisie was cracked. That was for sure. She was four days back from her latest “fallaway”, as she called it. The police had found her wandering around an old estate five miles away, in loose-fitting pyjama bottoms and a grey fleece, clutching a pillow to her chest like it was her favourite teddy bear. She was very quiet when they brought her in, but she gave her sister the biggest, most worrying grin she had ever seen as they took her upstairs.

The police stayed a while. Had some tea. Maisie’s mum forced biscuits upon them to hide her shattered pride. The girl was twenty-one years old, for goodness sake. If she was well enough to dye her hair red as she did, then she was well enough to stay put and not be an embarrassment – that’s what Maisie’s mum said to the police, when the police recommended she take her to the doctors and get more medicine.

‘When I was younger, the doctors wouldn’t have let my mother order medicines for me,’ she said. ‘Not when I was a grown woman.’

The female police officer gave her number and details to Maisie’s sister for this reason. Maisie’s sister missed them the second they were gone.

But this was four days after that. Maisie and her sister were alone at home. And with a creak and a shuffle and a creak, Maisie came down the stairs for the first time since she fellaway.

She had that big, beautiful grin set on her face.

‘Lise,’ she said. She spoke as if she expected a sound effects expert to put a reverberation on her voice: deep, pulsing, dreamlike. ‘Lise. I have…to tell you…the most wondrous…thing.’

Maisie’s sister did not wish to hear the wondrous thing, but she was trapped by love and politeness to the couch.

Maisie saw her sister was listening. The light in her eyes flashed once in excitement, and then she spoke. Not as slow, but not fast, beating rhythmic like a drum or a poem:

‘I have to tell you the most wondrous thing,

it came to me in the middle of the night.

See, I was in bed, and the stars were out, shining,

and I thought I’d see them far better down t’ street,

they looked like gems all sparkling, sparkling,

embedded in the sky like some upside-down mine

so I went outside and I looked up and up

and I looked so hard that I fell the way wrong,

and I floated among them for a days and days

but they sent me home ’cause I said I missed you,

I missed you Lise, and I could’ve been a star.

I’d’ve shone in the night and died in the day

and nothing would have bothered me


nothing at all.’

And here Maisie kept grinning, and she looked at her sister as if she’d just won a prize, and she said….


‘It’s…a pretty story?’

Maisie scowled.

‘I knew it,’ she said, all cadence lost from her voice. ‘I knew I made the wrong decision. It was hard, you know. I told myself it was one of those tests, those trials of fortitude in stories, where the naked woman comes out the mirror or lake and shows you everything you’ve ever wanted if only you’ll stay with her, and you’re tempted but then you remember your family and remember to do the right thing. But I came back, and as soon as I saw mum’s face, I thought, this is Cinderella going back to the coals. I have no family. Not the loving, die-for-you, miss-you-forever kind. I should’ve stayed with the stars.’

So Maisie returned to the stairs, and thudded her way up them, and shut her door with a half-hearted slam.

And Maisie’s sister looked up the contacts on her phone. She’d kept the policewoman’s number. Not far underneath it, was a contact she called “CM.” The contact had once read “For Crazy Maisie”, on her old phone, but Maisie had found it and thrown it onto the kitchen floor and bye-bye-phone. So instead the contact was CM. She had Maisie in her phone already, of course, its picture was a selfie of them both in Tenerife on their last family holiday, before she got bad again.

Maisie’s sister dialled CM, and the familiar number came up.

A voice answered. It was Scott. Maisie’s sister knew them all by the way they said “Hello” by now.

‘Hi Scott,’ she said.

‘How are things today, Lisa? How’s Maisie?’

‘Mum’s out,’ Lisa said. ‘I cleaned the kitchen. Maisie said she’d wished she’d stayed out in the stars, that she has no real family.’

Scott started to say something and Maisie’s sister burst out over him:

‘It’s like a lady came from a lake and showed your greatest desire. Mum not so angry, everything quiet, not needing to worry every time there’s a noise upstairs, not needing to worry every time I go by her room that one day she won’t be moving when I look in. But then I remember that I have to do the right thing. I do, don’t I? I have to keep looking after her. It’s only right.’

Scott comforted her. She hung up, fix granted. Maisie’s sister looked up at the ceiling, and began to speak-chant:

‘Let me tell you the most wondrous thing,

Maisie’s sister, she does the right thing…’

Written by G.J.

20/03/2015 at 1:27 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