university of east anglia
I don’t pray anymore
except for when I do—
and when I do, I pray for you.
Not on my knees
with head bowed and hands clasped,
no our fathers or false promises.
I pray for you
with two pence pieces
turned over and over
between thumb and forefinger
and flung into fountain wells;
with cracks in the pavement
and counted steps at bedtime;
with childish superstition
I refuse to outgrow for your sake.
I don’t pray anymore
except for when I do—
and when I do, I pray for you.
I pray you’ll grow up a diamond
so when the world
comes to your doorstep
with cutting tools in hand,
you’ll shine brighter
just to spite them.
she starts growing fur and fangs,
watches hair poke through skin
like new-grown grass;
lets her spine bend to breaking point
and hides herself under baggy jumpers.
she keeps jagged glass and sewing pins
in the back of her underwear drawer
and waits until she’s alone to shed her skin.
While nerve endings scream their protests,
it still feels like coming home.
she prides herself on hunger pangs,
rakes new-grown claws over a stomach
that’s always empty or overflowing,
teaches herself to love the taste of bile
behind her teeth.
she learns how to bite,
how to draw blood;
how to silence a scream.
She sees the world in shades of crimson
and counts her scars at the end of the day.
she forgets what it’s like to walk on two legs.
She carves out a home
in the small hours of morning,
licks her wounds behind back-garden fences
and digs claws into dewy earth.
she learns to love the animal under her skin.
She steps over the threshold,
lets tendons stretch, lungs expand,
and howls at street lamps
when she can’t see the moon.
[The original title of this poem was “I Was A Mentally Ill Teenage Werewolf But I’m All Right Noooooooooooooow”. Figured that wasn’t quite the vibe I was going for, though.]
[ Bit of context: I’ve been working on a longer-term writing project over the last few months, and in a bid to expand that particular universe and keep the muse going I’ve written a few bits of flash fiction focusing on the minor characters. This is the first of them. ]
In the house on the end of Newton Avenue, a community of wanderers and left-behinds arose practically overnight. Families formed wherever there was space: blood pacts and brotherhoods, sisters and mothers and cousins.
Miss Terezhkova sat on a battered sofa surrounded by the littluns, who within just a few hours had taken to calling her “Ma”; she sang a lilting nursery rhyme in her mother’s native language, idly bouncing the youngest of them on one knee. The toddler cooed and grinned toothlessly, pulling at her necklace with pudgy fingers. In the far corner the Novak twins (only just clear of their teenage years, all bruised cheekbones and male bravado) sat watching Mr Perkowski’s weather-beaten hands as he whittled a crude model of a wolf out of the remains of a broken chair leg.
Nina and Yara were already walking everywhere arm in arm and calling each other “sister”– and for all anyone under that roof knew, they might have been. The fact that the two of them had been total strangers only the previous day, huddled together behind a crate at the Hainsley docks and hardly daring to breathe lest they be caught, was unthinkable to anyone.
It seemed the stars had aligned to bring them all together to their own crowded little corner of the universe, and they gravitated towards each other, comfortable – for now – in their orbit.
Teach your children
to sail the Indian Ocean in a thimble,
to turn bathtime
into a voyage to the depths.
Teach them to balance, tip-toed,
on the pinpoint of a new idea –
sometimes they’ll fall off, and when they do,
teach them to number their bruises
like notches in a door frame,
count them with their achievements
like trophies and medals
in the living room cabinet.
Teach them that while bodies can be temples,
they are the gods to whom they’re devoted
and only they decide who kneels at their altar.
Teach them not to say maybe when they mean to say no.
Teach them that, like bodies,
sexuality and gender
come in a myriad of shapes and sizes
each as valid as the next;
that they can be who they want to be,
love who they want to love,
be it male, female, both, in between, or none of the above.
Teach them that the concept of beauty and brains
is not a dichotomy, and that there are
a hundred thousand ways to have both;
that they don’t have to smile with their lips closed,
and that not even the girls in the magazines
look like the girls in the magazines.
Teach them to embrace the gaps that can’t be filled,
that it’s okay not to know everything,
because learning as we go is the whole point.
Teach them that nobody is always right.
Even you. Especially you.
Besides being true, it’ll keep you humble.
Teach them to make up their own constellations,
to hop zig-zag from star to star
like traversing cracks in a pavement;
and when the heavens start to bend
and come crashing around their ears,
teach them to wear their good days like armour
so they can stand their ground.
Above all, remind them that they are not Atlas:
that their shoulders, however broad,
don’t have to hold up the world alone.
[Note: A while ago I wrote this as a much shorter story for my book– I’ve since expanded it into a much longer piece and I’m really happy with the result. Feedback always appreciated!]
The crow was back on the bird table.
Eddie sat in front of the window, staring blankly past his own translucent reflection, asit landed in the midst of a group of sparrows and let out an aggressive squawk. The sound of wings flapping was muffled by the window pane as the sparrows scattered en masse, heading off in search of a more hospitable feeding place.
In days gone by, he’d have tottered out to the garden and banished the crow with a broom or a loud yell – now, though, his legs wouldn’t hold him. Instead he was perpetually confined to his rocking chair, only able to sit and watch.
“Eddie, love, I’m home!”
Nora’s voice echoed through from the hallway, promptly followed by the slam of the door and the rustling cacophony of plastic shopping bags.
“Tesco’s ran out of chicken noodle, so I got minestrone instead,” she trilled, patting the top of his chair and setting it off rocking gently as she bustled her way past him and into the kitchen. “Is that alright? It’ll have to be, I’m not making another trip ‘til the weekend at least. My poor ankles have had quite enough for one day, they’ve been driving me up the wall since lunchtime. Getting as creaky as your old chair, there.”
Eddie’s chair creaked loudly, as though in response, as the muted thunks of tinned food being stacked in the kitchen cupboards drifted through into the living room. Nora appeared in the doorway with a mug in one hand, tucking a few stray strands of wispy hair back behind her ear with the other.
“Ran in to our Bev on the way back from book group this morning,” she said conversationally. “Do you remember our Bev? The tall one, nose like a ski slope–cup of tea, love? Actually, I’ll do us both one,” she corrected, disappearing back into the kitchen and continuing to talk over her shoulder.
“Anyway, you’ll never guess what—she’s gone and got married to that George from down the post office! Just got back from her honeymoon. You should have seen her, she was brown as a nut—said they’d had a lovely fortnight in Madrid.”
Outside, an intrepid sparrow was making its way back to the bird table, beady eyes watching the crow from a distance.
“I said, Madrid? That’s where me and my Eddie had our honeymoon; always so lovely and warm, the locals were so friendly, and the view from the hotel window… d’you remember?” she asked as she shuffled her way through into the living room, plucking a photo frame off the top of the dresser and dusting off the glass with the corner of her cardigan. In the picture, a man and woman in sepia tones stood with their arms around each other on an ornate balcony, the sun setting in various shades of brown behind them. The bell boy had been kind enough to take the photo for them as he brought them up a bottle of champagne – Nora had giggled as Eddie explained, in stilted schoolboy Spanish, how the camera worked.
“’Course, they’ve put in that bloody great telly tower since. Great big eyesore if you ask me, it ruins the skyline something awful.”
They’d spent every day wandering around the city, Nora crossing off landmarks from a dog-eared brochure she’d swiped from the travel agents’ office until they were sure they’d seen every last one. No matter how sore their feet were, how much their bones ached, Eddie had insisted on carrying her over the threshold of the hotel room every night. He used to have such broad, strong hands, Nora thought—but over time, she’d watched them lose their steady, self-assured touch until they withered and shook. These days, he couldn’t even hold a pen.
“Anyway, listen to me, prattling on… what’ve you done with yourself this morning? Been watching the birds again?”
The sparrow edged further across the table, taking a couple of furtive pecks at the edge of the patch of bird seed.
“You’re always watching the blasted birds,” Nora tutted, reaching over the back of his rocking chair to tuck his tartan blanket closer around his shoulders. It was starting to get a rather musty smell to it, she noted making a mental note to add it to the laundry basket later; it had probably been due for a wash for a few days now. She glanced down at the tray on his lap and the untouched bowl of ham and pea soup on it, and let out a low, exasperated sigh.
“Darling, you’ve not eaten your dinner again,” she pointed out, shuffling around the side and leaning down to retrieve it, a little of the thick green broth slopping over the side.
“What’s going on with your appetite these days, eh?” she asked softly, patting his arm. “You never touch your food anymore. Need to keep your strength up, you know.”
When he didn’t respond Nora simply sighed again, taking one of his hands in hers and giving it a gentle squeeze as the crow, finally twigging that it had company, hopped forward and jabbed its beak towards the sparrow in an unmistakeable threat. The smaller bird hopped back towards the edge of the table again, but held its ground.
“Gordon Bennett, your hands are cold… you should’ve said something, you daft thing!” She shook her head fondly, fussing with his blanket again before shuffling off back towards the kitchen, tray in hand.
“I’ll call that lovely man in to have a look at our heating tomorrow,” she promised, setting the tray down by the sink and filling the kettle. “You know, the one with the accent and the hair. For now, a nice hot cup of tea will just have to do.” She set the kettle boiling a moment before the electronic ringing of the landline sounded from the hallway.
“Back in a minute, love.”
There was the familiar click of the phone being taken off the receiver followed by the tinny voice from the other end, the volume turned almost all the way up to accommodate Nora’s gradually failing hearing.
“Hello, is this Mrs Barker?”
“Hi, this is Julie from Ivy House Care and Support Services…”
“Oh—didn’t you get the form I sent in?”
“You’ve been absolutely lovely to my dear Eddie but we won’t be needing you from here on, I can do just fine.”
Outside, the crow let out an aggressive squawk and lunged for the sparrow, beak snapping. It let out a plaintive cheep of alarm and tried, a split second too late, to hop out of the way.
“Actually, Mrs Barker, I’m calling about one of our care assistants. Zahra Fischer? She was assigned to your husband for two visits a week.”
“Oh! Yes, lovely lass. Did wonders with Eddie’s sleep schedule. Recommend her to anyone—does she need a reference?”
“I’m afraid it’s a bit more serious than that. Zahra hasn’t signed on since Monday and she’s not answering her phone, so we’re a bit worried about her.”
“Oh, dear. I do hope she’s okay—though there’s some nasty flu going around at the moment. Last time my Eddie got ill with the flu he near enough passed out for three days on end.”
The crow made another jab at the sparrow, this time coming away with a clump of feathers in its beak. A third, and the smaller bird fell silent.
“It may well just be that she’s ill, Mrs Barker, but for now we’re just doing a quick ring-round of all the patients she had on her roster. The last person to see her so far was Mr Rahim, a couple of roads away from you on Norris Avenue—did she make it to your 11am appointment?”
“Afraid not, dear, we haven’t seen hide nor hair. Just as well, really—my Eddie was getting quite attached to her, I’d have hated to tell her it was our last appointment in front of him. Best he finds out when he’s ready.”
“She didn’t ring ahead to say she couldn’t make it? You’ve not heard anything from her?”
“Afraid not. So sorry, I wish I had more to give you but dear Zahra’s not been round.”
“Ah. Well—thank you for your time.”
“My pleasure. Do ring back if you hear from her, won’t you? I’d hate to think something happened to that lovely girl. Besides, Eddie’s been missing her terribly, he’s been so quiet recently.”
“Will do. Take care, Mrs Barker.”
Nora replaced the phone, heading into the kitchen as the kettle let out a well-timed hiss. The crow on the bird table revelled in its new meal, a mixture of blood, bird seed and stray feathers clinging to its beak in clumps.
“That was Ivy House,” she said, over the clinking of mugs on the countertop and the sloshing of water as she poured the tea. “Said that your lovely Miss Zahra’s not been coming to work. Poor lass, probably just a bit under the weather— she did seem a bit off-colour on Monday, bless her heart. I’m sure she’ll turn up sooner or later, though.” A few moments later and she was back in the living room, a mug in each hand.
She set her drink down on the window sill, placing Eddie’s in his lap and carefully arranging his hands around it, hooking his fingers through the porcelain handle.
“There you go, you get that down you,” she said. “You’ll warm up in no time, just you watch. Nothing like a good cuppa to warm your bones, eh?”
Nora retrieved her mug and took a long sip, following Eddie’s gaze out of the window and tutting as the crow tore off another mouthful of its kill and swallowed it down.
“Oh, now, that’s a bit grim.” Her lower lip jutted in a disapproving pout. “That’s the third one I’ve seen this week– maybe it’s the rubbish that’s attracting them,” she said, giving a little indicative nod towards a bulging bin liner propped against the side of the shed. “Should probably get rid of that… but the bin man doesn’t come ‘til Friday and I’ll put my back out if I try lugging it around myself.” She took another long sip. “Ah, well. I’ll sort it somehow. Got to unload the rest of the shopping first, anyway. You drink up, dear.”
Patting his shoulder, Nora bustled off into the kitchen once more – always busy, always moving.
Eddie remained in his chair and the tea remained in the mug, slowly forming a thin skin over the top as it cooled. His eyes remained unblinking, fixed on the bird table outside as the crow – having eaten its fill – squawked loudly and flew off into the darkening sky.
It would return early the next morning, and Eddie would be there waiting for it.
She still gets giddy when she sees a firefly.
Every day, he forgets a little more of their sixty five years together; he never tells her, but the thought terrifies him that he might one day wake up next to her without her name ready on his tongue.
But when their children and their children’s children have gone home, and they sit huddled together on the porch swing, he just has to see her eyes light up – like the sky spared a star to light up the back yard just for her – and he’s right back at the start again.
Once before, she dreamed you had wings twice as long as your arms, one of them crooked when you landed in her back garden with a crash and the splintering of apple tree branches. She rushed outside, barefoot in the dew-soaked grass, and patched you up with a strip torn from the bottom of her nightgown. This time you hover at the end of her hospital bed, counting down the computerised beeps of her heart monitor and clutching a new white robe to replace her old one. In the morning, the nurses make up her bed for a new patient.