Tuesday, 3 August 2010

I passed - at distinction!

Well, if I hadn't passed I would have wondered how I would cope with the big jump up to the MA! I got 91, which is brilliant. I wasn't sure about the life writing but the short story was fun to write and condensed down from 2,300 to 1250 words. I cut it further and sent it off to the Biscuit flash fiction competition. I feel better prepared now to tackle the MA as well as the level 3 course A363. I'm always aware that marking creative writing can be influenced by personal taste and hoped I didn't find a very prudish marker for my ECA!

Meanwhile, back at the keyboard, I'm working on scenes for my new book. Writing the book scene by scene rather than in a single long narrative feels weird, but it does mean my writing will be more consistent and I won't have a cast of characters that change enormously through the book. It also means I can go back and polish each scene, safe in the knowledge they probably won't be cut (which you never know in the stream of consciousness verbal splurge method of novelling.)

Getting in the way of all this creativity is just feeling blue about renting a horrid little house opposite a prison and leaving my cats (and children...and husband of course) behind. I can't imagine leaving this house behind, just when we've settled into it. The boys will be off at college and I will be spending a lot of time on my own - which I'm strangely, for a grown up, not used to. I had to buy a new bed and some bedding, and it feels like I'm going away for ever. Anyway, I'm off to celebrate my result with a slap up dinner somewhere - or, more likely, given the financial pressure of running two homes for nearly a year, sharing a bag of chips in the rain on the sea front.

This was my 91% winning life writing piece! (I changed the names except where I had permission!)
Sailing Solo 
My daughter Sophie’s bought herself ‘Lady and the Tramp’ on DVD; she’s going to watch it as a reward for doing her revision. Twenty-two but somehow four years old, she will never miss an episode of Dr. Who but can go clubbing dressed as a policewoman with an eight inch skirt. She can sleep one night in a tangle of patchwork blanket and soft toys in her old room; and the next with her boyfriend Charlie, barely changing gear. I look at her, preparing to leave home for good, and wait for her to watch the film that I can’t forget. I have a picture of her on my bedroom wall, life jacket almost up to her nose and down to her knees, fist raised in triumph at her first solo sail around the harbour, aged nine. I can’t imagine her leaving for good. 

My husband Steve smells like fruit salads chews, which I loved as a kid; and hot plastic sheets. There’s a chemical scent too, from the oxygen streaming out from the sides of a plastic mask. His chest is exposed, where he’s pulled the hospital blankets off in an effort to get more air. Two weeks ago, he’d been singing to the baby in our bed, keeping me awake. We both noticed Steve had started to get out of breath. Now he is pallid, every procedure, even touch, paints purple blooms on his skin. Every puncture site oozes blood. Bags of blood and platelets hang overhead. I can see his heart pounding, beneath his ribs.
His voice is small. ‘How are the…kids?’
My mouth is dry, it’s hard to speak. ‘Fine. Sophie even helped me with the ironing.’ Sophie, four years old, folding things into triangles, squashing them flat with a cool iron. ‘What did the doctors say?’
‘They…are…’ He fades again, gasping. ‘They’re looking at the results…they think they know what it is.’ His eyes roll back for a moment.
In the last nine days, we have been on a rollercoaster of possible diagnoses. Tuberculosis, Lymphoma, Legionnaires’ disease, AIDS and back again.
Please let it be TB.
His hand is limp when I pick it up, but he manages to roll his head towards me.
‘I’m…I’m scared.’ He coughs, spraying the inside of the mask with a pink mist.
Oh my God, that’s blood.
I take his hand, dodging the bruises. ‘It’s OK. The doctor said if you get any more out of breath they can take you up to intensive care and ventilate you.’
He lifts the other hand to pull the mask away for a moment. ‘At least I’d…get a rest.’ He leans back, his hand feeling cool and lifeless in mine.

We travel back on the dark motorway, my brother James driving, cat’s eyes glowing in a curve along the hard shoulder. The sound of the tyres and the engine fill the car. The heater is on full, but I am shaking, holding my coat around my shoulders. Cars approach us, lights caterpillaring towards us in convoys, broken by the odd gap and an occasional lorry. They act as if this is an ordinary evening in October, as if nothing has happened.
‘That nurse must have thought we were mad.’ James keeps his eyes on the road, his face occasionally spotlighted by a car behind us, reflecting off the mirrors.
I don’t know what to say, lean my forehead against the glass, despite the cold inside. I feel as if something is holding the contents of my chest in a fist, squeezing from time to time, tightening into my throat.
The clicks of the indicator fill the car, intermittent pools of yellow from the dashboard on his white uniform. He glances over at me, as we curve onto the A27.
‘Are you OK?’
‘I’m all right.’ My voice is a whisper as the fist crushes again, leaving me breathless.
He steers the car into the cul-de-sac. Poplar Drive. It sounds so cheerful, so rural, but it’s in a concrete satellite town. Our front window glows through the curtains with intermittent colours from the television.
I don’t want to do this. A bubble of something is rising again, like it did in the hospital. Perhaps this is hysteria. I fight it silently. James sits quietly too, his fingers on the steering wheel. Three years of training as a nurse haven’t prepared him any better than me.
He sounds angry. ‘That nurse didn’t know what she was doing.’

The ward sister had led us into the room, reverently, the intensive care unit full of beeps and chimes. She touched his forehead gently.
‘There. He looks better, now, doesn’t he?’
I was incredulous, looking at Steve, bleached by the fluorescent lights.
‘He looks dead.’ It fell out of my mouth, and rang in my own ears. Then the laughter started, out loud. Steve would have got the joke. James looked at me, his mouth starting to curve, so he pursed his lips.
She clapped her hands to her face. ‘Oh, don’t, don’t.’
I don’t know if she was distressed for me or Steve, but she kept saying it. James started laughing too, and reached for me, his arms tight. Finally, I realised she had gone, and James and I were alone with Steve. The spasms of laughter were painful, clawing at my chest, tears starting to pour down my face.

My eyes and diaphragm are still sore. ‘Is Sophie still up?’
My sister nods to me, her arms wrapped around herself. ‘She’s in the front room watching “Lady and the Tramp”’. Her new favourite.
The living room is lit only by the television, the sound down so as not to disturb the other children. Sophie sits at one end of the sofa, feet covered by her patchwork ‘blankie’. She barely glances at me, her eyes glittering with the movement of the screen.
The floor is scattered with the baby’s toys. As I pick them up, words form in my brain.
‘You know Daddy was ill, in hospital?’
She looks at me again, this time for longer. Her lips are tight, her chin stuck out.
‘Well, he got much worse.’ The words spill out. ‘And then he died.’
Hard words, rattling around the room. She stares at me, her face blank. Finally, she turns back to the screen, her face lit blue, then green, then purple as the scene changes, as cartoon chefs sing love songs and dogs eat spaghetti.
Her voice is as hard as mine. ‘He never died before.’ Behind her, the baby’s vests and pyjamas are ranged along the radiator, the bottom shelf of the bookcase full of slanted and tumbled children’s books.
‘Well, he died now.’ I feel like I’m striking her, hurting her with the words.
Her arms fold around her chest, tighten, as she puts her chin down and concentrates on the screen.
Outside the room, I’m lost. The hall leads to our—my—bedroom. The door scrapes on the old carpet, a triangle of light falling on the empty bed. The book he was reading lies open, his freshly ironed shirts hang from the door of the wardrobe.

‘I couldn’t watch it all.’ Sophie smiles anyway, sniffs a bit. ‘I skipped through the song—you know.’ She reads over my shoulder, squinting at it without her glasses. ‘And I revised loads. Statistics.’
She’s off to Charlie’s in a month’s time, for good, after her exams. Her room is full of boxes, and I don’t think I would stop her if I could. But it feels like I’m left in the harbour, watching as she puts up the wrong sail, on the wrong boat, and zigzags away.        
(1281 words)


  1. Wow, a moving piece of writing. A well deserved 91% I must say.

    Congratulations and good luck for the future.