Fifty Minutes

 

 

I don’t recognise her immediately. Why would I? I’ve never seen a photograph. She gave me only her first name when she booked in, and it’s not an uncommon name. It’s the first word I say to her, my voice rising into a question, as I come out into reception to greet her. There’s no-one else there, so of course she nods, and I give her my most professional smile, which is supposed to convey empathy but stop just short of friendliness, and I say, ‘This way, please.’

In the years I’ve been doing this I’ve learned to simultaneously make judgments and discard them. First impressions can be useful, it’s important to acknowledge them, but a good therapist will then shake them off as best she can and start with a clean slate. First impressions usually tell you more about yourself than the other person. So I let my initial observations trickle across my mind as we walk down the corridor: she strikes me as brittle, as so many people who come through these doors are, and nervous. But there’s something else too, a kind of heat radiating from her, a barely-suppressed…what? It feels like anger. She’s attractive, a little older than me, and too thin, but I check myself as I notice this, because I know myself well enough to know this is my own chubby-girl envy rearing its head.

‘Please, take a seat,’ I gesture with my right hand. My treatment room is sparsely furnished: there’s a small table and two chairs, carefully positioned at gentle angles, so as to be non-confrontational. She immediately corrects this, moving her chair so that both her bony knees point at me, dead on, and I make a mental note. On the table are a jug of water and two glasses, and a box of tissues. They don’t usually cry in the first session, but it happens sometimes. There’s a bed in the room too, one of those adjustable ones with a hole for the face, because I share my practice with Therese, a massage therapist. I rarely use the bed, although I have had clients who prefer to lie down.

I offer water, which she declines, and take out my notes. I tell her the session will last fifty minutes.

‘I see you’ve been referred to me by your GP,’ I say, ‘but I don’t have very much history here. I’d like to start, if it’s okay with you, by gathering a bit of background information.’ She nods; she’s not looking at me, she’s staring at the nail on her forefinger, which she’s worrying at with the thumbnail of her other hand, using it as a kind of file. Every now and again she brushes invisible nail shavings into her lap. I run through the basics: age, general health, any meds, eating and sleeping habits. I ask if she works.

‘Part-time,’ she says, ‘In a garden centre. Blooms. Do you know it?’ The first shiver of recognition runs through me and I think maybe I’ve seen her there. I nod. ‘We don’t really need the money, but it gets me out of the house.’

‘And who’s we? Can you tell me a little bit about who’s at home?’

‘I live with my husband and two kids. Well, the kids are grown up now, but they come and go, you know. And two dogs and a cat.’ She gives a little sharp laugh.

‘Sounds busy,’ I smile. ‘Tell me, have you had any kind of therapy before?’ She rolls her eyes.

‘Every kind,’ she says, ‘Hypnotherapy, psychotherapy, CBT, you name it. Not to mention AA and NA. Group therapy. Tell me,’ she leans forward, ‘What is it you think you can offer that all these others haven’t managed?’

I don’t flinch. I’ve come across this so many times before, this defensiveness, although it’s important to treat it each time as though it’s new. I call it the ‘Fix me if you dare’ position, and I know that what it really means is ‘Help’. I put my pen down and rest my hands in my lap, palms up.

‘Well, let’s see if we can find that out together. You know, everything you tell me here is in absolute confidence.’ I repeat the stuff I tell every client when they book in with me on the phone, code of ethics, boundaries, and so on, then I ask, ‘Why don’t we begin with you telling me what brings you here today?’

‘It’s my husband.’ She looks me dead in the eye. ‘I’m afraid I might kill him.’

Now, there are different ways a person can say they want to kill someone. There’s the jokey, embarrassed way; the exasperated, end-of-patience way; there’s the way that’s shouted or screamed in the heat of an absolute rage. But this is none of those. I can still feel anger seeping from her, for sure, but her words are cold, and measured, and as though she’s really thought about it. I get that sensation you get when you reach the top of the climb on a rollercoaster and you’re just about to tip over the edge. I feel the need to slow things down a bit, keep us in the moment even just for a second, because I’m afraid of the drop.

‘I see,’ I say. ‘Tell me a bit more about that. Your husband-‘

And then she says a name.

Your name.

 

 

 

We first met at a charity ball, when we were both the best-dressed, shiniest versions of ourselves. We would never look that handsome or feel that confident in each other’s company again, but a spark was lit, and that was that.

You were – are – the kind of man who tops up a glass before it’s empty, and without asking. I’d come to the event alone, having been ditched last-minute by the friend who was to accompany me, due to a non-specific sickness bug (in her dogs; not her. Her two terriers were puking all over the carpet and she couldn’t leave them, she said.) So I had a space to the right of me, and to the left of me was you.

You wore your tuxedo in such a careless way that I could tell you were very wealthy. You captivated the people at the table, none of whom you’d met before, as far as I could tell, with self-deprecating anecdotes, and you were polite to the waiters. You were interesting, and more importantly, interested. You directed most of your interest towards me, the sad single middle-aged woman, and I did everything I could to appear wholly unimpressive.

‘Why do you do that?’ you asked, your eyes amused, your hands tearing a bread roll into small pieces and covering each one in butter.

‘Do what?’

‘Put yourself down. Make yourself seem…I don’t know. Small.’

I smiled. ‘I amsmall.’ I pushed my chair out slightly from the table, and waved a hand up and down, head to toe, to illustrate my lack of height.

‘You preface everything you say about yourself with words like “only” and “just”. But from what I’ve learned about you so far, you should be proud. You’re a self-made woman. You’re capable. You’re helping people, so you’re obviously kind, too.’ You popped a butter-laden crumb into your mouth. I stared at you, not knowing what to say, waiting for you to swallow.

‘You say “if”, “I think”, and “maybe” a lot too,’ you went on, swilling red wine around in your glass. Then you leaned in and added, ‘I’d like to hear you say definitely. I’d like to hear you say you know. I’d like to hear you say yes.’

I got up from my seat then, walked away, but was sure to give you a little glance over my shoulder, let you see that I was blushing. I’d noticed the wedding ring, of course I had. The most successful cheats never take them off; they don’t need to. I guess there are plenty of women like me, who either don’t care or see it as a positive. I was playing you, of course I was: this is my thing, you see. Married men. It wasn’t a deliberate strategy, not at first, but its advantages soon became clear to me. But you have to be careful: so I do the dance, I act all coy, I let them run and I pull back, run and pull back. I play them like violins, I pluck, pluck, pluck at their strings. When you asked me to dance, I said no the first time, and yes the second.

I didn’t really think I’d see you again, but you handed me a business card, saying ‘If you ever need any financial management’. I laughed and told you there wasn’t much to manage, then fished my own card, curled at the edges, out of my bag and pressed it into your palm, saying, ‘And if you ever need counselling.’

Two days later you called, and not for counselling.

 

 

 

‘You’re not married.’ It’s a statement, not a question. It’s obvious, of course, because I don’t wear a ring, so I agree with her. I’m not married. I pour a glass of water for myself; my throat is suddenly dry.

‘Have you ever been married?’ She cocks her head, a toddler waiting for a fairy story, a dog expecting a treat. I don’t give out details of my personal life, it’s not appropriate; I sometimes have to remind clients about the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship.

‘I’m interested in why you’ve asked me that question,’ I say. She narrows her eyes.

‘Fucking therapists. You always answer a question with a question.’

‘It wasn’t –’

‘It wasn’t a question, I know.’ She sighs, ‘It doesn’t matter, I suppose. I just wondered if you could understand…what it’s like. What it’s like to live with someone, day in, day out. What it’s like to know their habits, to see them at their best and worst, to know them, really know them, under their skin. Do you know?’ I make a head movement that is neither a nod nor a shake, but it seems to satisfy her. ‘I’ve been with my husband since we were seventeen. It’s crazy, how much you change in that time. How you can drive each other insane, too. But you can’t imagine anything ever separating you. Except death.’

I don’t say anything, so she adds, ‘I was wondering if you were still listening.’

‘Of course. You were saying you can’t imagine being separated, except by death. Is that right?’

‘Is it unusual, in your experience,’ she says the word as though she doubts I have any, her eyes scanning the room as though searching for certificates on the walls, diplomas and testimonials, ‘to feel homicidal towards one’s spouse?’

‘Well, that depends,’ I say. ‘It’s not unheard of. Perhaps if you wanted to share a little more about the feelings, the reasons, behind this…this impulse.’

‘Oh yes, of course,’ her face lights up as though just about to share a juicy tidbit of gossip with a friend, ‘You see, he’s cheating on me. He’s a lying, cheating bastard and that’s why I want him dead.’

 

 

 

It was weird at first, dating married men. If you can call it dating. The knowledge that they’re out there, living another life, a life you never really know however much they ‘confide’ in you, and you can’t call them or interrupt in any way. But quite soon I realised it was liberating. I could do whatever I wanted. They could ask nothing of me. They’d no right to. It was easy. Jealous, insecure men are soaccommodating. Add in guilt-ridden and you have pure alchemy.

They’ve got guilt coming out of their pores, these men. They feel guilty about The Wife, even if it’s clear they don’t really love her but just feel sorry for her / have too much ‘invested’ in the relationship / don’t want to hurt her / delete as appropriate.

They feel guilty about the kids, too, which has always struck me as weird. I mean, they’re not cheating on the kids, are they? And then they feel guilty about you, The Mistress. They can’t pay you enough attention, they expect you just to wait around for them, drop everything when they call, they can’t do this or that, oh it’s terrible, agonising and hand-wringing, then whoops looks like they can do it because they’re in bed with you.

The first time I slept with you, you said, all surprised, ‘oh, you’re nervous,’ and I smiled and looked up at you through my hair, laughing inside because you had bought it. Men love the vulnerable, little-girl bit. Makes them feel powerful or something, I suppose.

Eventually, inevitably, you started talking to me about Her. She was a drunk, you said. Not an alcoholic; a drunk. I said I thought your choice of words was interesting. You said she was a nightmare to live with. When she wasn’t incoherent or comatose, she was short-tempered and miserable with withdrawal. I asked you what you thought caused her to drink and you said, ‘Are you saying it’s my fault? It’s not my fault.’

You said if she ever found out about us, she’d probably kill herself. I said I for one had no intention of telling her. ‘Of course, she’ll kill me first,’ you said, and then, as an afterthought, ‘And you.’

 

 

 

When you train to become a therapist, you learn how to deal with suicidal ideation. Homicidal, not so much. I’ve talked a lot of people down from metaphorical ledges, though, and I reason that this can’t be so different.

‘You say you want him dead,’ I reflect, ‘Have you taken any steps towards…this?’ You can’t give someone the idea of killing themselves just by talking about it, that’s what they say, and it’s best to get it out in the open. I’ve always been able to judge the severity of the risk clients pose to themselves by the level of preparation they’ve done. Sometimes they’ve identified the means they’ll use, maybe even done a trial run. Perhaps it’s the same with murder. ‘For example, have you thought about how you’ll do it?’

She looks at me strangely. ‘When I say I want to kill him…I mean, I’m not serious. It’s a figure of speech, right?’

‘Is it?’

‘Maybe. I could run him over in the car. He bloody loves that car. It would be sort of perfect. Hoisted by his own petard, isn’t that what they say? I wouldn’t want to stab him – too messy. I thought about smothering him in his sleep, but he’d be too strong for me.’ An image of you flashes inside my head and with it, a sensation, the feel of your weight on me, so real in this moment that my breath catches in my chest.

‘Are you ok?’

‘Perfectly ok. Please, go on.’

‘Most of all I just want him to suffer.’

‘How certain are you?’ I ask. ‘About the infidelity, I mean.’

‘I’m certain,’ she says, ‘and I’m not surprised. He’s done it before, you know. Lots of times.’ This is new information. I keep my face perfectly still. She sighs. ‘That’s why I hit the bottle.’

‘And how would you describe your relationship with alcohol now?’ I look closely at her face for the telltale signs, the dry skin, the wrinkles, but in the low light of the room they’re hard to spot. I recall your stories, of her banging into walls, throwing up down the side of the bed.

‘I don’t have one,’ she says, ‘I’ve been sober for almost two years.’

‘Really?’

She leans closer. ‘Now that’sinteresting. Why would you doubt me?’

 

 

 

You told me I was the first, of course you did. ‘I’ve been with my wife for over thirty years,’ you said, ‘and until tonight I’d never even kissed another woman.’ I didn’t believe you, of course, but there’s little satisfaction in being proved right. You said she’s a drunk; she says she’s been on the wagon for two years. You said you don’t sleep together; she says your sex life is ‘vigorous’.

You said her body is hard and flat, like a boy’s, and she holds no appeal for you anymore. You like my soft skin, you told me, and my curves. I’m a real woman, you said. She’s a shell, its outer layer cracking. I don’t care for these comparisons but I’ve let them ride. Why would I have cared if they were fair and truthful or not?

 

 

 

Work with what’s in the room, that’s how I was trained. Leave your own stuff at the door. That’s easy enough, usually. It’s often something of a relief. I like emptying my own head and letting others pour their problems in. But today my stuff walked through the door, dripping with anger. I haven’t trained for this.

‘You know, you’re just what I expected.’ It’s her voice but it could just as well be me speaking. We form a picture in our minds, a kind of photofit of our rival, our enemy, and while I didn’t recognise her at first, now that she’s coming into focus her face makes perfect sense to me.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I chose you.’

I frown. ‘You were referred…’

‘I was referred, yes, but I chose you. I knew it was you I wanted to see.’     ‘I see.’

‘I found your card and I knew it was you.’

‘OK.’

‘I think you know my husband.’

‘I’m not sure I do.’

‘I think you should have declared a conflict of interest.’

I say nothing.

‘I’m not sure you continuing to treat me is strictly ethical.’

‘I don’t share those concerns. I’m happy to work with you, if you wish.’

‘Are you really?’

‘I don’t believe I know your husband.’

 

 

 

I’m not in love with you. Would it make the story better if I said I was? We couldn’t help ourselves, that’s how the narrative is supposed to go. A seismic romantic pull that couldn’t be resisted. But it was baser than that, for me anyway.

‘I don’t want him,’ I tell her, ‘I never wanted him, not permanently.’ She sits back, a triumphant look on her face. Is this what she came for: an admission? Only that? She’s shaking her head.

‘So you’re telling me that you’ve dropped this bomb on our lives and you’re not even in love with him?’

So we’ve moved now, from your fault to mine. I want to tell her that it wasn’t me that set off the bomb. I wasn’t the one cheating. I want to shut her stupid mouth by telling her how you pursued me, and why, as well – because she had no time for you, because she had no affection left having poured it all into the kids, the church, the bloody PTA; because she’d changed and grown miserable and bitter and drunk.

I don’t tell her any of this; I stay quiet and listen as she calmly tells me precisely how much of a bitch I am.

This is what women do: we blame each other. So much for the sisterhood. It should be you that she is hating, but it’s me, of course. Women compete, turn on each other, pull each other down. We’re raised to do it. We’re alley cats and the wiliest will survive.

 

 

 

I have a practised move for looking at my watch. I used to have a clock on the wall, positioned just behind the client’s head. But it was distracting and I worried that in any moment that I wasn’t engaging in eye contact they would suspect me of checking the time. Also there was the ticking. A lot of therapeutic work is done in silence, in the spaces you leave. The clock was an intrusion.

So I’ve learned to glance discreetly at my wrist, and when we have ten minutes left I let the client know. I look down. Fifteen minutes to go, but are we playing by the usual rules? I think about the keys in the handbag at my feet, keys not just to this office but the entire building, because she booked the last appointment of the day and there is no-one else here. There’s no-one at home either, not for me. No-one would notice, I don’t suppose, if I went missing. I suppose, too, that she knows that.

‘I thought because of what you do,’ she says, ‘you might be a good person. In some way.’

If she did think that, she was wrong. What if I became a therapist not to help people, but because it makes me feel clever?

You know those patterns you keep repeating in your life? I can see them and I can see why they happen. You know that tangled mess in your head that stops you from ever feeling truly happy in the moment? I can take the threads of it and unravel them, pull out the knots. I can give you clean lines. I have wisdom. I am a kind of guru.

I tell every client ‘This is all about you’ but really it’s all about me. They are just absurd marionettes and I am the puppeteer.

‘It’s all the lying,’ she says, ‘That’s the worst part.’

‘Really?’ I try to keep my voice impassive but it comes out incredulous. Does she really not know? Everybody lies.

I look at my watch again, but don’t try to disguise it this time. She starts to rummage in her bag. For a delirious moment I imagine she might pull a knife. I feel strangely safe while we are lodged in these chairs, but once we move, what might she do? She’s petite but she looks wiry, strong, to me now. She might wrestle me to the ground, throw a punch. She extracts something small and white from the bag: my business card. Curled at the edges. She studies it.

‘You’ve got a lot of letters after your name.’

‘I suppose so.’

‘I could add a few more.’

‘I’m sure. Look,’ and she does look, looks up at me as though I might have some sort of answer, but all I have are questions. All I ever have are the questions. ‘What is it that you want?’ I ask.

‘I wanted you to know, first of all.’ She holds up a hand and flicks at one brittle-nailed finger, as though counting items off a list. ‘To know that I know, and that you are not all that clever.

‘I want you to be lonely, and so depressed you drink yourself to sleep at night because poison in your veins beats your pathetic reality. And if you do find a man who isn’t married to someone else, I want him to grind you into the dirt with his criticism, his loathing, and to go off and fuck younger women at every opportunity.’ She smiles. ‘That ought to do it.’

I’m already lonely, but I don’t tell her this. Instead I say, ‘I’ll stay away from him.’

She laughs, a sound like pans being clanged together. ‘Him? I couldn’t give a shit about him.’ She starts to gather her things together, looking for all the world like any other client at the end of a session. Correction: looking like a client at the end of a great session. Looking somehow lighter. ‘I mean, I might still murder him,’ the laugh again, ‘or I might just divorce him and take all his money. Come to think of it, that would hurt him even more.’ She sits back, bag on lap, and looks at me, and I swear I can hear the tick of the discarded clock, sounding out interminable seconds.

‘Oh one last thing,’ she says, and drops the agreed £50 onto the table. I stare at it as she gets up. I don’t move, don’t do my usual handshake, perhaps a comforting pat on the arm, show them to the door. I am small in my chair.

‘I don’t want it,’ I whisper. ‘I don’t want your money.’

‘Oh, do take it.’ She beams. ‘I feel so much better now.’

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Having babies can seriously damage your relationship

There are certain things the ‘baby books’ don’t tell you. For instance, that you might not fall instantly in love with your child; that your body will almost certainly never return to its pre-childbirth state; and that having babies can seriously damage your relationship.

 

I’m a slow writer. Not so much with the actual writing, which when it finally comes, comes pretty fast, but with the germination of ideas. The first idea for Hush Little Baby, a story about the impact on a family when their injured baby is removed from them, came in 2010.

It was the first year of my own son’s life, and two things happened that set the pulse of a story beating: I read a feature, in a Sunday supplement, entitled ‘What it feels like to be accused of hurting your baby’; and I attended infant and toddler First Aid training. In among the standard anxiety-inducing advice about choking, burns, etc., someone asked about broken bones. The nurse replied: ‘Babies and young children hardly ever have fractures. Their bones are too soft.’ He went on to say, heartbreakingly, that any time he read of an abuse case in which a young child’s bones had been broken, it upset him because he knew real force must have been applied. We all shuddered and I gave my sleeping son a few extra kisses that night.

 

By the end of that first year, by the time he was ten months old in fact, I had other breaks on my mind. My son’s father and I had separated. Our seven-year relationship (clichéd itch, anyone?) and three-year marriage were over. Our still-tiny son was no longer the member of a family unit; he was the subject of ‘shared access’.

 

What led us to that point? Our relationship had been far from perfect, at worst stormy, at best ill-matched, but what caused it to splinter when it did?

When our baby was born (before, in fact), I read all the books. I know they say babies don’t come with an instruction manual, but that’s what I do, what I’ve always done when I’m stuck: I find solace, guidance, in the written word. We had The Baby Whisperer, What to Expect…, The Contented Little Baby, a veritable library stacked up at the back of the bed, but none of them really offered answers. And I needed answers.

I needed answers to why I felt so broken. Why I adored my new son but failed utterly to understand him or read his cues. Why I couldn’t seem to feed him; why he wouldn’t sleep; why he cried, it seemed, all the time. Why I cried quite a bit too, for that matter. Why none of it seemed to ‘come naturally’.

I have friends who endured post-natal depression. I don’t believe I had PND but I was in shock, I might even go so far as to say I was traumatised. It’s my belief now that a lot of new mothers go through this, but they don’t talk about it to anyone. Worst of all, they don’t talk about it to their partners.

 

We both changed in that first year of parenthood. I became Not-Me. And it was Me my husband had fallen in love with. To be frank, the main things that had drawn us together at the start were sex, and going out getting drunk. There aren’t much of either in the first year after childbirth. That might sound glib, but it’s true. And we stopped communicating, except in games of one-upmanship (let’s play “who’s the most tired?”) or resentment-fueled arguments driven by a total lack of understanding of what the other was going through. We looked only at each other’s behaviour, without pausing to wonder what might be behind it. I thought he was selfish and immature and couldn’t handle the new responsibility and the fact that someone was more important than him now. I never considered that he might be anxious too, might feel threatened or inadequate when I seemed to be coping, or frightened when I didn’t. We slipped into the classic, sad cycle: I didn’t want to have sex because I wasn’t getting any tenderness or affection; he didn’t feel like giving me affection because I wasn’t ‘giving’ him sex.

 

I eventually found and ordered a book (of course!) about the impact of having a baby on your marriage. There aren’t many books of this type, I suppose because it feels a bit like blaming the baby for your problems, which is grossly unfair, obviously. It’s not the baby’s fault; it’s the fault of the two people you have become, who have failed to grow together at this crucial stage and have instead grown apart.

Unfortunately, by the time my latest manual arrived, my husband had already moved out. And in all too short a time, he was in love with someone else.

 

The greatest pain of that time, and the only part of the pain that endures several years on, was the fact of being separated from my son. In among my gratitude that his dad, unlike some divorcing parents, wanted to be involved to the extent that he demanded 50/50 access (and, to his credit, became a better parent post-separation), was a deep, yearning sense of loss.  In the throes of the divorce I remember saying angrily, ‘However unhappy we were, the difference between you and me is there is nothingyou could have done in our marriage that would have made me choose to cut my time with him in half.’

 

I didn’t write at all during that period. Friends thought I would, that it would be cathartic. But I’d stumbled from Baby Fog to Divorce Fog and there was no clear space for my writing brain. In time, though, the idea of a family breaking, a hurt child at their centre, solidified and became a cast of characters, and a story I had to tell.

That story became Hush Little Baby. It’s not ‘about’ what happened to us, but it is honest. A lot of the feelings in it are real. Thankfully our son was never hurt, or taken from us; but I did feel the pain of the empty cot. Even now, on the nights he’s with his dad, and I know he’s happy and safe, I stand and look at his made-up bed and feel sad, and miss him.

 

It sounds funny, but my divorce is among the things I’m most proud of in my life. Not in itself, because it’s obviously not what anyone hopes for when they get married, but in the way we handled it and, in the end, put our son at the centre. The way we continue to share access, communicate, and don’t badmouth each other or use him to score points. Out of an awful situation, the best possible result for our son emerged. He has two loving families now and we both put his needs ahead of our own. As it turns out, in the end, that part did come naturally.

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A Brief History of Us

 

When he was asked what existed before the big bang, Stephen Hawking explained that as space and time are curved, somewhat like the earth, you might just as well go to the South Pole and look for a point further south. At the end of the earth, there is no more south. South is meaningless, there. In the same way, it is meaningless to ask what was there before time began.

Some of us struggle to wrap our heads around this just as we can’t conceive of a world without us in it. Before you existed, you simply were not.

My son asks me was he always in my tummy. I start to say no, then hesitate, and tell him yes, in a way, you were. I was born with my thousands of eggs and one of them, one day, would become you. (It will be a much later conversation when he asks ‘How?’ and ‘What did Daddy have to do with it?’)

The answer pleases him – you were always in me – and it pleases me, too. I imagine my ovaries crammed with constellations from which magic would one day explode, in the shape of a boy with worlds in his eyes and so many questions on his tongue.

I also read somewhere recently that when you have a baby, part of their DNA stays in you.

So in a way, I tell my son, you were always in me, and you always will be. Before your time began, and after mine ends, when I will send our sparks into the sky.

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No sign can foretell

There was no warning. You expected one, didn’t you – the solemn chat in the doctor’s office, the fruitless rounds of treatment, the medicines jangling on the counter. Hair falling, body swelling, or shrinking, depending.

Or maybe a different run-up – the sudden grasping pain; the stumble, gazing at lights from a gurney, hearing hushed voices, waking to find you can no longer hold a spoon and fork.

But none of these tried and tested paths were laid out for you. In death, as in life, you had to be different. You went to bed, and positioned your slippers as you always did, in the exact perfect spot so that when you swung your legs out in the morning your feet would find their warm cover.

But the alarm came and went, beeping into empty air.

The slippers grew cold, unworn.

The end.

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Why running a half marathon is a bit like writing a novel

When running (or in my case, shuffling) longer distances, your mind goes to funny places. I recently completed a half marathon and I found myself reflecting, not for the first time, on the similarities between running and writing.

(You could probably argue that writing a novel is more like a marathon than a half, but since I’m never likely to attempt 26.2 miles, bear with me.)

 

There are loads of obvious similarities. It’s exciting at the beginning and at the end, but in the middle there’s just a long, grueling, slog. Sometimes you feel like stopping but you keep going because you’re afraid if you don’t you’ll seize up. There is ALWAYS someone better and faster than you.

 

In case you’re wondering where you are in your own metaphorical race, I’ve created the following handy checklist of symptoms:

 

Mile 1 (page 1)

 

Woo-hoo! We’re off! How exciting! With the challenge of the blank page, the open road, ahead of me, I feel strong, I feel talented, the world is my…oh hang on –

 

Miles 2-3 (first 10,000 words)

 

Wait, this is hard. It isn’t supposed to get this hard this early. Oh shit. I can’t do this. There’s ages to go. Everything hurts. I am useless.

 

Halfway through (30-40,000 words)

 

Oh, the crowds are thinning. I suppose it’s getting a bit boring cheerleading, or asking me how the book is going. My response to both at this point is little more than a wave and a weak smile.

 

Mile 8 (50,000 words or so)

 

I need jelly babies, and I need them now.

 

Mile 10 (60,000 words)

 

Surely this is far enough. I could just stop here, couldn’t I? I mean it wouldn’t technically be a half marathon, or a novel, but it’s a bloody long way towards it and I really ought to get some credit. I have literally no idea how I am going to get to the finish line.

 

Mile 13.1 (The. End.)

 

Thank God that’s over / I’m a hero / I am NEVER doing that again / that was amazing, and so much easier than I thought. Really, what was all the fuss about?

 

Good luck everyone – keep running / writing!

PS Next for me: the Great South Run. I’ve decided 10 miles is my favourite distance. It’s still a challenge but 13 miles is the wrong side of crazy. I always knew I was a novella writer deep down.

 

 

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How to enter a writing competition

 

 

Please note I haven’t titled this blog ‘How to win a writing competition’. Because, let’s get this out there at the start, the truth is (whisper it) I don’t know. Even though I won one of them, a few years ago, which turned out to be A Very Good Thing, I can’t tell you exactly how it was done.*

 

What I do know, and can share, is how to enter a writing competition – with style. How I believe you can give yourself and your work the best possible chance of shining. How I think framing your attitude helps. And, probably, a few heavy hints on how not to win.

Shall we get going?

 

For the last few years I’ve had the joy of being involved in reading for the Bath Novel Award, in the early rounds, up to shortlist stage. In the last two competitions, I’ve correctly identified the eventual winner from the very first 5000 words – now this is partly luck (I don’t read every entry, so I was fortunate they happened into my inbox) but maybe some judgment too. So I’ve been thinking about what it is that made those particular entries shine – and what other aspiring entrants could learn.

 

Stand out for the right reasons #1 – AKA follow the flipping rules.

I know this might seem boring, but seriously. It’s the same with entering a competition as submitting to an agent – if they ask for 5000 words, send 5000 words (or a little under, obviously – find a natural break). If they ask for 12 point Times New Roman, then…how much effort is it, really, to use the right formatting? If you don’t bother following the rules, it doesn’t make you look wacky or interesting, it makes you look like you don’t care, or you don’t think that you need to care, whereas the other hundreds (even thousands) of entrants do.

Of course, sometimes we all make mistakes – and not all competitions will automatically disqualify you for these, but some will.

 

Stand out for the right reasons #2 – check, double check, and triple check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Again I’m aware I’m coming off like the fun police here, and it’s true some readers will forgive you a few errors in the SPAG department if the story and the characters are strong, but…personally, I find if there are too many it’s really distracting. And when the standard is very high, even if you have a killer idea, your consistent typos and missing commas could send your entry into the ‘no thanks’ pile. Ideally get someone else to check your work over for you – it’s easy to become blind to our own mistakes.

 

Remember the power of the hook – a compelling opening scene is all-important. Get straight into the action and pose a question – quickly. To do this you must know what your characters want. Kurt Vonnegut said every character must want something, even if it is just a glass of water. You need to establish what they want early – and ideally put something in their way. Conflict is the lifeblood of fiction. But being a bit thirsty isn’t much of a hook, is it? Unless, maybe, your character is lost in a desert, miles from anywhere, in a dystopian world where water has become more valuable than gold. Maybe they have water, or the means to create it, and someone is pursuing them to get to it. OK, it’s probably obvious I’m not a science-fiction writer, but you get the idea. The hook is the question(s) your reader will be asking themselves as they turn the pages: it’s how, what, why, or when? The hook is the thing that could only happen in your world, to your character. And if it doesn’t show up in the first 5000 words, you probably need to do some trimming of those opening pages.

It might seem a bit like you’re playing to the audience by being deliberately ‘hooky’, but there are two things to consider: one, if your manuscript is longlisted, the rest of it absolutely must deliver on the extract’s promise. Two, writing for a contest is no different to writing for a reader – there’s a lot of competition out there and readers can be fickle and impatient. If you don’t grab them from the opening pages, they’re not likely to pick up your book in the shop, or if they do get it home, they’re not going to keep reading it and then tell everybody they know ‘You have to read this book’. Which is what we want as authors, right? (Pretty sure this is not just me…)

 

Pay attention to voice – I’ve read lots of terrific entries to the Bath Novel Award. When I look back over the notes I made on my ‘yes’ votes, my most common comments had to do with voice. Voice is, in my opinion, the quality that makes good writing great. It’s what makes a book sing from the page. It’s also unfortunately the hardest quality to define (I could probably write a whole blog post on this topic alone…and still not have a definitive answer). It’s the quality that makes your writing yours. It manifests in confident, consistent writing; a narrator, be it first or third person, that I want to spend time with (note, I don’t have to like them – I just have to find them interesting); a world or a way of looking at the world that is somehow unique, even startling. Good voice can be funny, it can be reflective, it can be angry or wry. Voice is tone. It’s style, choice of language, rhythm. Told you it was hard to pin down, didn’t I? If I had to put it into a word though, I would say simply this: good voice sounds real.

 

A word on the ‘dreaded’ synopsis – I think ‘dreaded’ must be the epithet most commonly applied to ‘synopsis’. Yes, we all hate doing them. Yes, it’s one of the bizarre ironies of writing life that it’s harder to summarise your book in 500 words than it was to write the whole damn 80,000 words of it. So here’s my advice: don’t get overly hung up on it it, because it’s not that important. If your writing is absolutely stellar, it seems unlikely (though I can’t swear to it, obviously) you’ll be rejected on the basis of a weak synopsis. Personally I read the extract first and then go to the synopsis to see if you can carry the story, if your novel seems to be paced well and have good character arcs, and so on. Which brings me to the second piece of advice, which is: spoilers, please! The synopsis must tell us how things turn out. Don’t try to tantalise us…we need to see that you know where you’re going (and how you’ll get there).

To be honest, I know an extract is really special when I don’t want to read the synopsis because I don’t want to know how it turns out.

 

Attitude is all – you might argue that the odds of winning a competition that receives hundreds or even thousands of entries are not great, so why bother entering? Well, my answer is twofold: you still might win (someone usually does), and if you don’t, just being a part of the process could be huge. You’ll likely make links with a supportive community even if only via Twitter; you could get useful feedback from the judges; and putting your work ‘out there’ can be a powerful step. Even if you have a great book, there’s luck and personal taste involved, too, but you are best to make friends with those now if you hope to be published in the future.

Frame your attitude, manage your expectations, and dive in.

 

One last thought. There are loads of qualities that make a competition entry stand out. But the thing the recent Bath winners have in common is that they stayed with me when I wasn’t reading. Why not consider getting a trusted, honest friend or colleague to read your entry…then ask them about it a week later? If they’re still thinking about it…if they can still tell you what they liked about it…you might be onto a very good thing.

Happy writing, happy submitting, and good luck!

 

 

*I did once appear on a panel called ‘How to win a novel award’. But it was a group effort; I wasn’t claiming to have all the answers. The other panel members in particular have some interesting and useful things to say, though – check them out here:

HOW TO WIN A NOVEL AWARD

 

The Bath Novel Award 2018 is now open for entries, closing date 30th April. Other writing competitions are, of course, available. You can find useful lists in the back of good writing magazines, and all over the interweb, like here:

https://www.creativewritingink.co.uk/writing-competitions/

 

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Pre-loved*

 

Of course, it’s unusual to think about love when you’re getting ready for a car boot sale.

But in houses a mile or so apart, two people are spending a drizzly pre-dawn doing just that.

 

Gemma needs space. And money. She’s clearing out clothes and ornaments and with them, memories. She wonders how much anyone would pay for this empty picture frame, for that unlit candle.

 

David’s dad was a hoarder; he’s the opposite. He gets rid of things regularly on the basis it will be less for others to clear out when he’s dead. He has no idea who it might be doing the clearing out.

 

Gemma has done the work of clearing a house, sifting through the detritus of a life. She’s amassed these trinkets as a result, trying to keep pieces of the people who have gone, a parent and then a partner, shadows of them made out of porcelain and glass. A grief counsellor told her, when she got overwhelmed by all the stuff, to think about what she’d really like to keep rather than what she should throw away. So this is what’s guiding her as she makes her two piles: sell, and keep. White elephants, and treasured mementoes.

 

David categorises his disappointments. He has a spreadsheet to help him do this accurately. There are weightings for different elements.

He’s had five break-ups, well not break-ups exactly, more like let-downs. He gets close to people and they always leave him for the bad boys, the ones who knock them about or just play games, then they come and complain to him about it.

He takes out a black T-shirt from a drawer full of black T-shirts. Black jeans. Black lace-up boots. Life is just easier when everything matches.

David thinks if he does ever go on a date again, he probably shouldn’t mention the spreadsheet.

 

Gemma is thinking about mistakes, and exes, too. After Andy died, in time, she tried to ‘put herself out there’, she really did. But she got mad that you can have what you think is a connection with someone, bond over music, talk about Joy Division and Editors until dawn, but he’ll go all the way with the one who has tight abs, the outdoorsy type who plays hockey and always looks sun-kissed.

The boxes are ready now so she turns to herself. She hates herself for putting on mascara at 6am just to go to the car boot. Why is physical attraction so important anyway? It exists in a weird curve: it grows the more you fall for someone – she distinctly remembers waking up next to Andy, the first time, and ranking him a 7 out of 10; six months later he was 9.5 and pretty much her physical ideal, the blueprint by which all future men would be measured – then over time, it plateaus as you get used to each other and with familiarity their face fails to hold the same fascination. If she could have his face in front of her again, just for a second, she wouldn’t take it for granted.

 

They both pile their boxes, David’s tightly ordered, Gemma’s chaotic, into their boots and drive off, half-watching the sun come up over the farmer’s fields on David’s left, Gemma’s right.

 

****

 

Gemma has been warned what the car boot sale is like – a friend described it as brutal – but she’s unprepared for people swooping like buzzards and fingering her stuff before she’s even got it out of the boxes.

Someone actually tries to buy her flask, even though the cup is right next to it full of what is quite clearly hot coffee. She’s come prepared, because she’s used to all the things you have to do when you’re alone. Like you can’t just wander off and buy a drink, or your belongings will be stolen.

Later, she’ll reflect that she probably should have just taken the money for the flask.

 

David first notices her because she gives a loud ‘Hey!’, which is followed by a yelp from the old man whose hand she has just slapped. ‘You have iPad? iPhone?’ someone is jabbering in David’s ear, and he shakes his head distractedly, as the old man walks by muttering and rubbing the back of his hand. David watches the girl struggle with her folding table.

 

He could bloody well help me, she thinks, instead of just staring. She’s sweating. She isn’t cut out for this kind of crap. She never even usually wears trainers. She likes pretty dresses and proper shoes. She likes 1950s style and she’d hoped her little sale would be a classy affair with a vintage tea-party feel, but she can see as she lays it all out on the camping table with the wonky leg, hurriedly covered with an Emma Bridgewater tablecloth, that it is a pretty sad collection.

The boy – not a boy, she chides herself, stop thinking of them as boys, he’s a man for goodness’ sake – he’s far cooler, she thinks. He’s not looking at her any more. His stuff is neatly labeled in boxes: BOOKS. CDs. DVDs. GAMES. Everything is square or rectangular, the kind of things that are easy to wrap at Christmas. No soft edges or frills.

 

It’s David’s first time at one of these things and he has decided quickly that it will be his last. Obviously he hasn’t come to buy anything. So why exactly does he find himself standing at this girl’s stall, flicking through her books and CDs? (Phil Collins? Ugh. On the other hand, she’s getting rid of it, so…)

He jumps when she appears from behind her car and says ‘Hi!’ He drops No Jacket Required like he was looking at a dirty magazine and his mum just walked in. Not that that ever happened.

‘Er…hi,’ he says. Er…hi? goes his inner voice. Real smooth. She’s got really pretty eyes.

‘Having a good day?’ she nods towards his neat little pile of soon to be ex-belongings, marginally depleted. He shrugs, feels that bored expression take over his face that always makes him hate himself a little bit.

‘It’s alright,’ he mutters, ‘Not my favourite way to spend a Sunday morning.’

‘Did you want to buy any of these?’ she motions to the CDs, which a hand-written poster announces are ‘Only £1 each!’, in flowery letters. Her voice is still bright but he can tell she’s thinking he’s an asshole.

‘God, no,’ he says, and her face falls. ‘I mean. No offence, but…they’re just not my style.’

‘Well, they’re not mine. I mean, they don’t belong to me, not exactly.’

‘How come you’re selling them, then?’ The words are out before he can stop them. Now I’m a rude, nosey asshole, he thinks. ‘Sorry.’

‘No, that’s alright.’ She sighs and picks up her flask. ‘Fancy a coffee?’

 

David. His name is David. That’s about all Gemma has managed to find out about him, but that’s probably because she’s been rabbiting on about herself. She always does that when she’s nervous. He doesn’t really look at her. Is he shy, or just rude? And can she be bothered to work it out, she wonders. Then again, he did come over to her first, and he did go and buy her a coffee when the flask ran dry, asking her to watch his stuff, though he didn’t seem overly concerned about whether it sold, or got stolen, or disappeared into thin air.

She likes him. She hates how she starts liking guys straight away, starts envisaging far-fetched scenes involving long country walks, city breaks, a proposal, a wedding…but usually does nothing to make those things happen.

The initial flow of people has died down and Gemma wonders if there will be another surge or if it’s time to pack up. She looks sadly at her little collection of bric-a-brac. She doesn’t like the idea of taking it back to the house.

‘I think I’m done,’ David says, to somewhere just over the top of her head. ‘I’ll probably just take the rest of it to Oxfam.’

‘Right. Good idea.’ She turns away and tips her remaining items into the largest box, hearing something clatter and smash as it falls in.

 

It’s been a long time since David asked anyone out. On, like, a date. But he likes this girl. Woman, he corrects himself, she’s a woman, come on idiot. Gemma. She talks a lot but she’s honest and sweet and kind of funny. And she really does have nice eyes. And a great smile.

His remaining CDs are all messed up. He doesn’t bother to sort them; he’s suddenly self-conscious and needs to get away. He places them carefully in the box alongside the books he didn’t manage to sell: a guide to the flags of the world, and some cod philosophy book an ex-girlfriend bought him, called ‘Happiness’ (the book, not the girlfriend). He sighs, catches sight of his reflection in the car window. Ageing, balding Goth, he supposes is how you’d describe his look. What would someone like Gemma see in him, anyway?

 

They both sit in their cars. There’s a queue to get out of the field. Gemma glances in her rearview mirror, catches David’s eye, and the first time, he smiles. The second time, he looks away. Neither of them really knows why he does this, what it means.

When he gets home, David will start to reorganize his CDs into alphabetical order and find one that doesn’t belong there. Phil Collins – No Jacket Required. When he picks it up, a piece of paper will flutter out: a phone number.

When Gemma gets home, she will just wait.

 

 

 

 

*First published on writers-online.co.uk

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