I’ve been thinking a lot about trigger warnings recently. It’s a complex issue. What are they? Why do we have them? Do they work? Do we even need them? Generally, film and TV programmes now include a warning at the start of a showing, listing the things addressed in the material that the viewer might find difficult, such as sexual assault, suicide, self-harm or drug abuse. Anyone likely to be upset at these issues can switch off. The idea of the trigger warning divides people, and there is evidence both for and against them. Some see them as compassionate, as protecting those dealing with trauma, while others see them as a pandering infringement on free speech. Some experts say that anticipating a certain topic makes people better able to regulate their response it, while others say that this anticipation can exaggerate the reaction, even if the person avoids the very film they’re being warned about.
But my concern is more about literature and whether trigger warnings should be included in books? I raised the issue recently in an online book group and things got quite heated, but the general consensus leaned towards readers not wanting them, mainly because of the ‘spoiler alert’ ruining the story, but also because they felt they could just stop reading if they needed to. Many of those who commented said that for anyone who really did need a warning, then the book reviews on Goodreads and Amazon often include a list of the difficult subject matter within a novel, as does the blurb.
I started thinking about trigger warnings in books when a reader emailed me last year because the issue in one of my novels had upset them.
They wrote: I was looking forward to reading I Am Dust until I started and ended up reading a lot of triggering material (specifically self-harm). I’m just writing as I feel like this should be brought to your attention that in this day and age to not have a trigger warning on a book with such graphic detail about such an awful thing is upsetting and especially angering. I hope you read this email and understand my concern for any potential trigger without a warning this book may have for other people. Myself included.
I want to say here – before I go any further – that I’m a survivor. I suffer with childhood PTSD. Suicide, depression, mental illness, self-harm, and alcoholism are rife in my family so I’m not writing this piece from a privileged, judgemental, uncompassionate place. I know the pain of these things; I know the long-lasting effects of abuse.
And yet, I don’t believe in trigger warnings for literature.
Going back to the email that got me thinking: my immediate thought was sympathy for this person. They were clearly in a dark place and my book – words I had written – had added to their pain. That bothered me. But then a friend who I showed the email said this reader had put the responsibility of their distress on me; that their upset was because of their own issues, not because they had read my book. Obviously, I sent a kind reply to this reader. I said that I hoped they had recovered, and that I don’t have a say in such a thing as trigger warnings, but that if I did, I felt having one might ruin the book for others who don’t want this alert.
And still, I wouldn’t want a trigger warning in my books.
In my opinion – and it’s only that, I understand that others may feel differently – I can stop reading if I don’t like the content. It’s that simple. If I arrive at a line or just get a hint of the thing coming that I’m triggered by, I can put the book down. Never pick it up again. Go away and do something I enjoy. Give the book to someone else. (No, I won’t warn them, because I don’t know if they want that warning, though I would likely only give the book to someone I knew well enough to know they’d be OK with it.)
A year and a half ago I went to the cinema to see a horror film with my then nineteen-year-old daughter Katy because we love a good scare. About a quarter way into it, a man jumped off a cliff and crashed to the ground, resulting in horrific leg injuries, and yet him still being alive. Five months prior to this my mum jumped off the Humber Bridge and luckily survived. She had experienced the very same injuries. Naturally, Katy and I were traumatised, so we left the cinema at that point.
Still, I don’t think a trigger warning was required. How could they include one for a fall anyway? How could the filmmakers, months earlier, have known that somewhere in East Yorkshire two women might have found the scene difficult because it mirrored one they had experienced? Because this is another problem. How can anyone know how much to include in a trigger warning? How can we know exactly what triggers any single individual at any time? It’s impossible. Granted there are general themes we know to be triggering, but how far do we go with it?
For the record, I would never have dreamt of complaining about that fall scene in the film to anyone. It’s no one’s fault that the scene upset me. It’s life. I experienced something unusual and a piece of art mirrored that and reminded me of my hurt, but I’m OK.
There’s also the huge problem that a trigger warning on a book could ruin it for those who don’t want one, and there are many of us. Most writers and readers I talk to say they would rather not have one, that it’s very easy to find out what the general themes of the novel are if really needed, and that it all spoils the anticipation of the read. Should we therefore include them for a possible minority, especially when as I mentioned earlier they are not even proven to work. Some researchers have found that trigger warnings actually increase a person’s self-reported anxiety because the words involved can cause emotional damage. I suppose two editions of a book could be released, one with a trigger warning included and one without, but I fear that the books that include one would sell fewer copies, though I could be wrong, and this would be a difficult thing to manage anyway.
All of this said, if someone specifically asked me – person to person, privately – if my book contained a certain issue, I would tell them. That’s different. It isn’t affecting anyone else’s experience. Because this is the key for me. In attempting to protect some people, we’re not considering everyone. Are we considering real choice? After all, we can go and research what tricky topics are in a novel before we read it, but we can’t unsee a trigger warning that might ruin the overall read for us.
So should I have included a trigger warning for this piece? Maybe. Maybe not.
But I didn’t.
There’s a strong part of me that feels that real life doesn’t come with a trigger warning. I can walk down a street and hear a graphic conversation about cutting. I can open a magazine and see an image that I’m personally triggered by. I can turn on the TV and catch a graphic news report halfway, having missed the warning. Unlike with a direct attack – either physical or verbal – these things weren’t aimed at me personally. What should I do then? I can’t tell two people not to have their own conversation. I can’t predict what page I’ll open a magazine onto or what I’ll catch on the TV randomly. So I move away. Take myself out of the situation if it’s upsetting me.
And yet of course I have kindness in my heart for those who are seriously suffering, who read or watch something without a warning that causes them grief. I’ve been there myself. Isn’t a simple MAY CONTAIN DISTRESSING SCENES enough?
But still, I don’t want a trigger warning on either my own books or on those that I choose to read.
How about you? I’m genuinely interested.
What WOULD we have done without books this year? The arts saved us. Music, films, photographs, documentaries, art, and books were – in many ways – all we had in 2020. The escape and joy they offered perhaps replaced (or at least compensated for) the lack of human contact, the being separated from our families, the having to stay home from work, the losing of loved ones. For me, the writing (I wrote two books during lockdown, a novel and my memoir) and the reading kept me sane, as it has since I was a child. Difficult times compel me to dissect the world with fiction; my own.
I started writing Daffodils at the end of 2019, Then, throughout the first lockdown, it was the place I went once I’d done my permitted one hour of outdoor exercise, and the door was shut, and I was home, just the husband and me. My memoir’s completion coincided with the easing of lockdown measures; I came out of my past and the real-world present at the same time. I decided to give myself some time off – Daffodils had been an exhausting write – but I just can’t stay away from the words for long. By the time the second Covid-19 wave came, I was in the throes of book nine, a story that reflected my frustration and examines a world where fiction is banned.
As well as the actual writing, I launched book six – I Am Dust – in April. It had to be done entirely online. It was a challenge, but I was fortunate that it wasn’t my debut and I already had a small platform built from the success of previous books. I watched as many writer friends had to navigate not only the new experience of having their first novel released but do it in these strange and distanced times, where actual literary events feel like a thing of a long-gone era. Many of us supported one another, doing giveaways of each other’s novels, and sharing reviews. There was a wonderful camaraderie among the community. I think we all knew that coming together was the only way. It was the same with bloggers and festival organisers – we all had to rethink how we ‘got together’ to celebrate new books. And we did. I took still part in Newcastle Noir (sporting disastrous home-dyed hair!) and Noir at the Bar and the East Riding Festival of Words, talking from my front room via zoom instead.
But I miss people. I miss that closeness; I miss reading an extract and getting an intimate reaction from an audience member, signing physical books, laughing while in the same room, enjoying those ticks and connections that online contact can’t replicate. We will have that again, some day, and I think we’ll appreciate it like never before.
And next year? What do I hope for, quietly and with controlled optimism, tiptoeing into 2021 lest it spots me and tells me to bugger off? Here’s what I know is happening – book seven, published again by the tirelessly hardworking Karen Sullivan at Orenda. I’m really excited about This Is How We Are Human, which is out in eBook April, and in paperback June. The novel was inspired by a real-life dilemma, that of my friend Fiona Mills and her twenty-year-old son Sean. He inspired Sebastian, who is autistic and looking for love and sex in a world that thinks it knows better what he needs than he does. The cover reveal will be in the new year, and it’s a beauty. For now, in case you missed it, here’s a chat with Fiona about the process and how she guided me through certain chapters.
What else in 2021? I hope that Daffodils finds its place in the literary world, even though it will be scary to share my own real-life story with others. I hope we can slowly emerge from our homes and see one another again. I hope to do physical book events and festivals again. I hope to be able to thank in person all the writers and reviewers and bloggers who made 2020 special in spite of a world pandemic. Because I think we did. I think we got lost in the power of stories, whether writing them or reading them or singing loudly about the ones we loved most.
For two days we’d been on the run in the African bush. My daughter was barely breathing. And her once sturdy legs were now faltering. Her bullet wound had dried. It was caked over with dust, but the flies still persisted. I’d been dragging and pushing her along since we witnessed it two days ago. That savagery. I had to get her away from it all. But she could hardly move any more. I also needed a rest now; everything had become so hazy – my sight, my mind, my instincts too. On the way to the river, I’d tried to get her to eat, but she just lay down on the ground heaving, each exhalation lifting red dust high above her. But I had to get her moving on. When we finally reached the river, though, she wouldn’t take any water. She just lay there; I couldn’t get her up again. And her puffs of dust became mere wisps. I had to get her to eat something. So I stretched up to get the best fruit from a marula tree for her. And that’s when it surprised me – a shuffle in the scrub behind me. I stumbled backwards and … then … then that horror from two days before … it all came back to me …
… our herd was drinking down by the waterhole. My calf and I were warming in the sun behind a lone swollen baobab. The last drops of morning dew glittered on the grass around us; it was just perfect for a morning nap. We were just about to fall asleep when dozens of shots suddenly ripped through the air around us. The humans! They rose up from everywhere – from behind the scrub, from ditches, even from the waterhole itself – firing rounds in all directions. Small babes perforated. Massive males fell instantly to ground, like teardrops hitting the sand. Blood splattered noisily against our baobab. And blood drizzled onto the waterhole like soft rain. As we fled, my calf stumbled, but I pushed her along. We got away just in time as a truck with more humans sped past, towards the waterhole. We heard the truck pull up at the nine bodies of my family – some still alive, I could hear. I could hear, and I could do nothing! More shots were fired, single shots. And then chainsaws began to screech.
I edged my calf on. A stream of bright red trickled down her back leg. They must have hit her too. But we had to run, we had to go on. I tucked my trunk under her and pushed, and pulled. For two days we struggled along like this. And only when we reached the river this morning did we stop to rest. And that’s when I heard that shuffle in the scrub behind me.
Fear ripped through my body as I turned around. I thought it was the elephant killers again, I really did. But behind me was just a human tribeswoman. Alone, picking mopane worms from a tree. Then … I couldn’t help it … some instinct, I don’t know. I heard that blood again, splattering against that baobab. And I saw bright red.
When I stepped back, the bush regained its colour. The alarm calls of oxpeckers fell silent. The doves began to coo softly, and cicada shrill took to the air again. The woman was lying on the ground – awkward and still. I walked circles around her. She didn’t move. I went away. I came back. But she just lay there. You shouldn’t have come, even if the trees are greener in our reservation! You shouldn’t have! Then something stirred. Yes! You’re alive, you’re alive! But it was only the brown leaves beside her that lifted in the breeze, to settle again next to her cold, staring eyes. And I knew the woman would never move again.
Something gurgled faintly in the distance. And a strange, yet familiar smell made its way up my trunk. I followed the sound. Something lay in the grass ahead of me. It was a baby! A human baby. The woman too had a little one! It must have slipped from the woman’s blanket pouch as she ran from me. It was wrapped in a blue blanket and it wriggled like a moth in a cocoon on an acacia tree. Then it began to whimper – just like my calf whimpers! I raised the blanket gently with my trunk, it stopped whimpering. It was a girl, I knew. She smelled just like my little one! It too had a few tufts of hair on top. It gargled, saliva bubbling – like my calf does when she’s frolicking about! And then the little blue bundle smiled. Smiled at me, in that nauseating air. I lowered the blanket softly over the little human and walked away. I came back, then I walked away again. The tribespeople will hear its cries. They’ll come for it, it’ll be fine. I gathered up my calf and we strained on towards the hill above the river. As far from the humans as possible.
But now, the humans are gathering below. The tribal chants get louder, they carry rocks now. And loud lines of dust draw closer on the road below. Shots are fired into the air, they echo across the valley. The ranger is on his way up the hill now too. With his gun. To get the killer elephant. Let my calf survive, at least. Take her, please. Here, wrapped in the blue blanket.
Allison Whittenberg is a writer who has a global perspective. If she wasn’t an author she’d be a private detective or a jazz singer. She loves reading about history and true crime. Her other novels include Sweet Thang, Hollywood and Maine, Life is Fine, Tutored and The Sane Asylum.
There were times when it seemed like all the beauty was sucked out of my life. This was one of them. It was cold and damp, early spring, and I was Greyhounding from my old life to my new, from North to South. I was 24, master degreed, unwed, and pregnant.
All around me, I saw failure. As each passenger climbed
aboard, emptiness filled the bus. I saw the unshaved and the unshowered. The angry and confused. Widows, retirees, practically invalids dragging their duffle bags. Beside me, a degenerate unwrapped his plastic wrapped sandwiches. I stared out of the windows like a peeping Tom. Riding the bus never meant passing City Hall, never going by the nice restaurants or boutiques melting into friendly pedestrians strolling past. No businessman with wedding bands checking briefcases. No, I saw a squeege man dirtying clean windshields.
I wish I’d taken the Peter Pan, a special line that showed escapist movies. I’d taken that before when I was only going as far as NYC. I saw a flick about moving an elephant cross-country. It wasn’t a box office smash but for a bus ride it was perfect. Here, there wasn’t even a blank screen. I could go for another feature length; too bad that line doesn’t go down South.
A man with eyes like the sky was doing the driving. He loud talked to the passengers in the front couple of rows about how fake pro wrestling was. He asked the question, “How come every time they hit each other, they stomp their feet?”
Back in high school, I was valedictorian. A decade later, long after pomp and circumstance was played, I found myself a loser. Just another confused minority waif riding public transportation bouncing the back of her neck against a greasy headrest…
My wish was for a miscarriage. I know that was a horrible thing to wish for.
I had used up all my distractions. I put on my headphones and heard only a staticy cassette tape. The magazines I had brought, I had read too quickly. I had put away the novel I had brought miles ago. I just couldn’t get into it. It was just words on a page. Now what?
There was a woman with chicken wings in her shirt pocket. Her fingers smudged the window.
I’m going to kill my baby. Strangle it with my large intestine or with my hands like the Prom Mom. It was a fleeting thought. I blamed it on the bus. Some people get motion sickness; I get homicidal thoughts.
If only the Peter Pan would go way down to Georgia. Maybe I should have flown or rented a car. Truth is, I didn’t have the presence of mind to do either. I needed to let someone else do the driving. Let someone else make the stops and turns. I was so angry. Angry at rape, domestic violence, the porn industry, sexism, fascism, racism, ismisms. My life wasn’t supposed to go like this. I was the smart girl.
I should have watched my drink.
I should have reported it.
I should have taken the morning after pill.
I shouldn’t have been in denial.
RU486 could have stopped this from being compounded. How am I going to look at this product for the next 18 years? How? What am I going to do? Where am I going? I know where I’m going. Macon. But where am I going?
I’m going home. I don’t even have a job waiting for me. I had two grand saved; that’s all.
My legs were cramping from a rocky night when I try to turn this seat into a sofa. I snuggle in the best I can.
I had no other plans than to live with my mother. My mother was loving and nurturing but not understanding. She couldn’t understand this; I couldn’t understand this.
A few rows behind me that Lolita pop music was playing,
someone else turned on a hip hop station and overpowered it. This all could have been understandable if I dressed like that naval centric nymphet, but I didn’t. I never did. Even on that night, I had on my work clothes at the party, Navy skirt, light blue turtleneck. (When groping for cause and effect, fall on stereotypes.)
I thought I knew Warren. We had talked before about peace, public education, and reparations. My life was going so well. I was saving to buy a condo, something tasteful with modern furniture. It would look like the furniture storeroom at Ikea. Now look at me, boomeranging back to my same humble beginnings, to the grey borough I grew up in. I have lost control. My power is taken. My destiny. Couldn’t he at least have opened up a condom package and put it on?
The woman in front of me was babbling about how thick her son’s neck is. He was in the Navy and that Navy wanted to kick him out because he’d gotten fat. They have been taping his waist and throat to find the density.
My rapist wasn’t big, but he did overpower me.
My rapist didn’t look like a rapist. He was tall, slender, a runner’s build, dark, bookish eyeglasses – kind of like me only male and a pervert.
I only had one glass of wine.
Date rapists aren’t any different from rapist rapists. In a lot of ways, they are worse. They gain your confidence, then betray you. They Milli Vanilli their way into your life. They don’t carry a knife or a gun. Just a drug. And surprise.
I remember my stockings pulled down around my ankles so I couldn’t move my feet and run. The wheel of my mind takes in the way he braced my arms, so that I couldn’t move my arms and clock him. The way he got inside my mind so even my voice didn’t work. Why didn’t I scream? I lived in an efficiency on the third floor where the walls and ceilings were as thin as loose-leaf paper.
I worked in the politics of shame as a counselor at a women’s shelter where the politics of silence was busted every day. I should have come forward. Instead, I did what I urged others not to do, I swallowed it down… yet the projector kept whirring and clacking.
There was a woman on the bus with her hair so uncombed she had dreads from the neglect. Her carry on was a shopping bag full of pain. I was just like her. Up until the rape, my life had been so fine toothed combed. Pregnancy dictated to me that all my dreams were gone. Even my distant ones of going to Africa, eating raw cashews in Nairobi, tracing my roots…
The bus driver stopped just past Columbia. He told us to get a smoke or a coke. The previous day, I had thrown up twice. Today, I was hungry. I went to the rest room to wash up. The smell of joints hit me as did the sight of women brushing their teeth and washing up. Not just bird baths. Not just splashing under the armpits, spritz to open the dry eyes. These women had their tops off and their pants down. They were buck-naked crowded by the drain.
I left the rest room and cleansed my hands with a moisten towelette I had stored in my carryall bag. I ducked into the terminal coffee shop and sat at the counter.
A waitress made her way over to me and grunted at me.
“Do you have any turkey?” I asked.
“What do you have?” I asked.
“Burgers. What did you want? A club?”
“No. I wanted a Rachel.”
She looked at me blankly.
I explained. “It’s like a Ruben, but you use turkey.”
“We don’t have no turkey.”
“Do you have bacon?”
“Do you want a BLT?” she asked.
“No. Bacon cheeseburger.”
“We don’t have no cheese.”
I squinted. “No cheese? No bacon?”
“Nope. So what do you want?”
She gave me a blank stare.
“I’ll have a burger,” I swallowed hard and said hoarsely.
“You want fries with that?”
Soon, the moon-faced waitress slid the plate my way.
The bun was cold, and the burger looked like an SOS souring pad.
I just don’t get it; I had done everything I was supposed to do right down to only using my first initial on the mail and the phone book. How did I get raped?
Some fellow with a head full of shiny Liberace hair — every strand in place -– sat next to me. I eyed him. He was a brown skinned man, chubby, I don’t know why I thought Liberace. I should have thought Al Sharpton.
“How’s your burger?” he asked.
I said nothing.
“My name’s Brian.” He smiled. I noticed that he was missing a side tooth. “You know, you are exactly what I’m looking for.”
I thought for a moment; exactly what was I looking for? A life of fox furs, red sequences evening dresses? White candles in silver candlestick holders? The man kept smiling at me showcasing his missing molar. I told myself to give up. Life is not going to be gallant.
He chewed his burger favoring one side. “What’s your name?”
“Ann.” I lied. It was really Arna. This is what I always did. I never give strangers too much information. Even in singles clubs, when asked for my phone number, I would give only, the last digit. I’m always cautious, watchful.
“Ann. I like that. I like women like you. I like a woman whose breasts are where they’re supposed to be and have a nice small waist like you have.”
I turned away from him and placed my napkin over my burger.
“I have a truck,” he said.
I put a five-dollar bill on the counter.
“You want to go for a ride in my truck?” he asked. He smelled oily and close.
I stood up. “How old are you?”
“I’m 42, but I don’t want no has beens. My daddy had kids up until he was 60…. I don’t date women over 21, 22.”
“Naw, I don’t want a has been.”
“Do you have any kids?” I asked.
“I have grandkids,” he answered.
“You have grandkids.” I absorbed and repeated.
“Yeah, but that’s my daughter’s business.”
“What happened to your wife?” I asked.
“What wife? I’ve never been married – “ He leered. “- Yet.”
I made a fist. “You’re a 42-year-old grandfather. Why don’t you date grandmothers?”
“I done told you I don’t deal with no has beens,” he told me. “Have you started your family yet?”
“By family, you mean a mother and a father and a child right. If you mean that, the answer is no.” I made my voice icy as Massachusetts in December. I kept my cadence proper and dry.
“You know what I mean. You got any shorties?” he asked still snaggle toothed grin.
“The answer is no.”
I turned to leave. He reached for me.
“Get your goddamn hands off of me.”
The entire clientele craned their necks at me. An older woman next to the door looked over her glasses at me. The waitress cupped her hands over her face.
“I went to Smith!” I told them, then I gave Grandpa the finger.
I gathered my coat around me, clutched my bag and walked toward the pay phone. I had promised I’d call my mother when I got close to home. I pulled out my card and pressed the digits. Ma answered on the first ring.
“How’s your trip going?” she asked.
“All right,” I answered. This was my biggest lie yet.
“It’s a cast of characters ain’t it?” she laughed. I loved her laugh. It was full, colorful, and Southern.
“How far are you along?” she asked.
“Right outside of Columbia.”
“How far are you along?” she asked again.
“I’m right in Sumter. Outside Columbia, I’ll be there in another two hours.”
“No, Arna, how far are you along?”
“You know? How could you know?”
“I just do. Something about the way you told me out
of the clear blue you were moving back home. You love Boston.”
She didn’t sound angry or disappointed. She sounded psychic.
“Everything is going to be all right. You’re not around any smoke are you? They say that now. That ain’t good for the baby.”
“I’m only two months in, Ma,” I told her.
“It’s too bad you have to travel pregnant. You have morning sickness and jet lag.”
I smiled. It felt strange to smile. ”Ma, you can’t get that from a bus because you feel every mile.”
“Buses ain’t so bad anymore. Don’t they show movies?”
“Certain ones do. Greyhound has a spin off. Peter Pan. I’m just on the regular one.”
“Well, you’ll be home soon. We’ll all be there to pick you up.”
“I don’t have a job lined up.”
“You’re a mother now. That’s your job.”
“But I had a career.”
“You find something down here. You’ve always been smart.”
“Ma, I let a dumb thing happen.”
“You’re the first one in the family to ever go to college, Arna. You’ll find something down here. We got everything’s Boston’s got. Just a little less of it.”
I saw a mass of people heading toward the bus. “Ma, I have to go.”
“See you soon.”
The bus was just about to pull off as I climbed back aboard. The driver asked me if I knew The Rock.
I crossed my fingers and said, “We’re like this.”
There was a reshuffling of the seats, and I found my middle of the bus seat gone. I went to the back.
It’s always those honor student, 16-year-olds who don’t want to disappoint their parents who hemorrhage from grimy abortions. Ma took the news better than I thought.
My mother had emphatic ears. She didn’t wear make up or nail polish. She had basic hobbies; she liked to sew and cook. She was lucky; she didn’t go out to the world to discover herself. She was married at 15. I was the exact middle child of seven. Maybe. Macon wouldn’t be so bad, it’s not like I had a job on Wall Street. There’s shelters in my hometown or at least people in need of shelter.
A voluptuous big-hipped woman sat next to me. She had swollen ankles. She was one of the nude women I saw in the restroom.
I guess I wasn’t put into this world to be pampered; I was put in this world to be squeezed between a window and foul smelling misery.
Back home, kids ride their bikes and chase each other up and down the ridewalk. Just thinking of that made me feel warm enough to ignore the draft that was coming from the metal vent along side the window.
I will not end this life.
If it’s a girl, I will cover her pigtails with red and purple plastic. If it’s a boy, I will teach him to be kind.
The bus started up, and I got a mild case of whiplash caused from my neck bouncing against the headrest.
There are times when it seems like all the beauty is sucked out.
This isn’t one of them.
The Rain Garden
by Joanna Campbell
I am creating a garden from rain. My hands, steeped in glossy soil, are digging to the core of the world. A spangled worm twists, unhurried, around a clod of earth, working without searching, hoping to avoid thrushes’ beaks and the thrust of gardeners’ spades. Not enough brain for thinking at all. Only for living.
I plunge my hands in again.
Damp earth flies up, spattering my list, but the blurred words still shine.
I wrote it the night after the baby came, all the steps I must take in thick pencil like a column of flattened flies on the page.
I watched Lily’s face in between the words, leaning over the crib to hear the rapid newness of her breath, feel its warmth in my ear. I laid my palm on the perfect round of her head, the damp softness of her spring-rain hair. After months unripe, unseeing, helical and water-logged, Lily emerged from my distended shape, a fresh-minted creation, like a smooth, risen scone from a clump of dough.
The list took shape in minutes, not months. The work it entails will take longer and the results of the toil yet more time after that. But with one patient step at a time, I will create a garden from rain.
I crouch on the ground, daunted, and pick up the worm, letting it curl in my palm. Afraid? Or basking in earthy heat? Probably both at once, the same as me.
Listening to Lily’s breathing, I set to work again. The worm channels its way into the darkness, descending forever into the gingerbread soil. This earth lives, moves and breathes with me and Lily, thickening and deepening for miles beneath the turf you laid last summer.
Slice by slice, you unfurled your living carpet, and it grew, brick-like, in the manner of a horizontal, living wall. I remember, as you trod and toed the spongey slices of turf into place, your foot slipped from the edges, unable to locate the centre, so many times.
“There. One lawn,” you said, unrolling the final piece, blind from the sweat seeping into your eyes. I had to help you to align it, casting a smear of resentment over the clarity of your gratitude.
The lawn dried in the sun-weighted breeze and never lapped a drop of rain. The drought parched even the patio into a crazed stone desert. We lay on the brief coolness of the sofa until our skin clung, melting the leather. We drank beer to conserve the water in the taps and squirmed together in the swelter of the night.
When September brought frantic skeins of rain, we vowed never to waste a drop again. We reused our baths, stepping into each other’s pool of deflated foam. As I eased myself in, my skin dissolving into your shed cells, we watched the slow water close over my hip bones to meet in the centre of my body.
After a downpour we looked out of the window, our lips close enough to taste the glass, and listened to the drip-feed from roof to patio; from path to brittle turf. Steady enough, surely, to revive the sandy matted garden we had created? The late sun, bright and showy like a clown at a stagnant party, formed a rainbow cascade. We stepped outside to stand beneath its arc, to revive.
While torrents blurred our bedroom window, we created our baby, ready for spring. I hot-housed the spreading life inside me. But the lawn refused to recover.
In spring, we said, all will be well.
But your hand on my powerful belly felt like paper.
As I became lard, you faded. I felt as if you had rolled me in a blanket woven with your own fibre. The baby flourished, a sweet, fat seed in a pod.
I began to waste water. Long oily baths to keep my skin intact. Tall glasses of mint cordial for heartburn. Taps left pouring, rinsing the custardy brushes that painted the nursery pale-yellow.
The lawn changed from emerald to ochre within weeks. But you lost your colour in far less.
Trees crouched in vicious gales that hurried winter to its finale. I wanted you to stroke my skin, tight now around our child, a tense coating that no swerve of the wind could shift. But by March you were too weak to eat; by April too tired to sip. You hunched on the garden chair, reluctant to linger, unable to leave. When you dozed, I sat in the car on the drive, where you couldn’t hear me cry.
Ona good day, you ordered sedge-grasses. You fashioned an unfinished garden in a notebook. It looked dry and weak on the page, all wavering lines and faint measurements.
When you finished the drawing, the pencil slipped from behind your ear. I kissed the tender nape of your neck, in the pattern of creases. It didn’t hurt there. My breath moistened it, kept you alive a little longer. My finger charted its byways while you slept.
We struggled out for a day. I pushed your wheelchair up and down the straight lines of a botanical garden. But you were not sitting in it.
With you bone-weary in the passenger seat, I fought the wretched contraption to make it unfold, grappling with wheels that refused to budge, compressed and clinging to the folded seat. When I flung it down the rattle sounded final. I kicked it, then sank onto the edge of the open boot and watched the blustery drizzle thrash the passers-by, even though I had chosen a day with a bright outlook.
When the rain eased, a well-shaven man, scented with sandalwood, walked by with a flute of champagne. He would have struggled too, he said, had he borne the same burden as me.
He gave me the glass to hold safe while he flicked the lever. The concertina mechanism sprang upright in fewer seconds than it took for the effervescence to subside.
“Watch where you wheel this,” he said. “Avoid the claggy areas. Plenty of good paths though. The rose garden is lovely. Nice wide walkways. Terrific scent. He’ll at least be able to breathe it all in.” He spoke as if breathing was all you had left.
The man marched on, tipping his trilby to ladies in summery frocks, waving aside my thanks in that way gentlemen have. Politely dismissive, as if the moment held no meaning. He might mention it to his wife later:
“Had to help out a damsel in distress today. Poor soul. Expecting, she was. Any time now, I should say.”
You were hunched over in the passenger seat. How would I know if your heart was still beating?
Families teemed, cars crunched on the gravel. A silver band tuned up and starlings shrieked on the verges. Life was rocking the car the way an anxious mother jiggles a pram and I couldn’t hear one man’s breath.
“John, are you all right? I’ve got things ready.”
My voice hung there. A forgotten apple core lay in the ash-tray, reeking of wet car picnics from childhood, of abandoned school-bags rediscovered at the end of summer.
You stirred. Stiff, only half-awake, you opened your eyes to the rain-rinsed world, the wind whipping it full of air. Crowds floated in pastel clothes, shining hair and flying feet, making their way to the glorious flowers under that wide spring sky. They were going to live forever.
You saw the chair waiting and said I should look round alone. Collect ideas. Take everything in. “Absorb it,” you said. To come all this way and drive straight home would be a shame. You would sit just as you were, with your tube of soft mints and the leaflet that explained the different sections of the garden.
It felt like leaving a child gripping a present on a strange doorstep, on the threshold of a new friend’s party, hoping a smiling mother in full skirt and soft shoes would open the door.
I didn’t know how to collapse the chair, so I pushed it along, my right-angled turns sharp at first, as if the chair were pulling me. I inspected the shrubbery, the greenhouses and ornamental ponds, their stone fish spouting fountains from pouted lips, as if a shadow of me had unfolded itself and was pre-set for pushing and turning and striding along.
Then I saw the rain garden.
I consulted the printed information in the way you would have done and discovered I could scoop a deep basin of earth out of our garden and plant it with the right vegetation to absorb rainwater and with it, the mingled debris that fell from roofs and gathered on paths that would otherwise pollute streams and ponds.
I could make sense of the words. They had moisture and growth, hard toil and hope bound in them, inky seams of nourishment nosing through parched ground.
I read them to you, the invisible man in the wheelchair. You approved. They were the first words I had absorbed for a long while. Even last month’s ‘all is well, the scan shows the baby is fine’ had squirmed away like slippery fish.
‘A rain garden is a beautiful statement,’ the leaflet told me. Of what? Of the gardener’s eco-awareness? Of the grace of cotton-grass? Of the glorious diversion of miraculous, wonderful water? I had no idea. And I didn’t care about statements.
I went to the shop and bought sedge, yellow flag and water-chestnut corms, filling the chair with them and rolling my tender cargo along with care and precision. I passed the man who had helped me. His smile showed no surprise that you were not there. I smiled back. I smiled down at my trembling ranks of leaves, quaking regiments of stems.
Three days later, I buttressed you in my arms for the last time, your head resting on the mound of your patient, waiting child. There was time to say goodbye. The tiny writhing limbs, untiring, and the small sturdy heartbeat pounding in your ear, permeated and sealed your last moment.
Hours later, my waters ruptured. Lily emerged that night with ease, making me gasp and cry and laugh as the moon spilled silver light across the hospital bed and stippled the empty chair.
While she sleeps beneath her blankets in the shade of a birch, I dig my bowl of earth. My list is blistered with bullet points.
Plan, plot, stake, string, dig.
During lulls, I cradle Lily, listening to her thirsty gulps. My milk becomes her life, her reason for waking. Her quenched body, full and heavy in my arms, becomes mine.
Level, plant, mulch.
Fattened worms change direction as my spade encounters their course through the soil. The bright string I tie between stakes to help measure the right depth, turns my damp fingers bottle-green.
Light June rain is falling. The coffee-grounds in my cup turn to sludge and my list to pulp. Ants teem. Sticks swell.
I work on.
Way above, an aeroplane leaves a thin trail that vanishes before dusk. Way below, my fork strikes fossils. I unearth them with care for an older Lily to trace with her finger. As the sky deepens to indigo, I shelter with my child under the silver-birch, allowing a raindrop offered by a new leaf to alight, quivering with moon, on her hand
In the last two weeks, since launching my writing competition, I’ve been inundated with well over a hundred short stories. I’ve been swept away to Puerto Rico, Malaysia, Beirut, Bangkok, the US, Northern Ireland, and Jamaica. I’ve been whisked back in time to the Suffragette movement, to the Edwardian and Victorian period, to the Second World War and the 50s. I’ve been on the ocean, travelled on trains and planes, and best of all visited alternate realities. I’ve met fortune tellers and Marilyn Monroe and ghosts; and talking trees and dogs.
I had entries from all over the world – long and short, complex and simple, funny and serious. It’s been so hard to choose a winner. I will come to that. Meanwhile, a kind anonymous donor gave me some beautiful hardback books to I can award them to three runners-up. These go to three stories that came so close, which I will share here in the coming weeks.
The Rain Garden by Joanna Campbell.
Mothers by Zuzanne Belec.
Ride The Peter Pan by Allison Whittenberg.
I’ll just mention a few others that affected me. Another Little Morsel was a dark, funny tale about the true power of the book review. A Picked Scab Always Scars, with an opening line of ‘the exquisite pain reminded her of picking her biggest ever scab’ was a gorgeous, angry and clever tale of revenge and pain. A History Of Knitcraft had a beautiful sense of place. The Other Wives was perfect in its simplicity. Herald was a touching tale of longing for lost love. I also enjoyed Bitter Blue, Balloons, and Bittersweet.
Thank you everyone for entertaining me, for making me laugh and cry.
But now, my winner. I chose this one simply because I could not forget it. The words imprinted themselves on my heart. It is simple and effective. For me, true art is speaking directly to your audience. Honesty somehow transcends style and ‘cleverness’ and precise grammar. These things are great, necessary in so many things, but with stories, I need to feel it. Honesty is voice, and for me, that’s what it’s all about.
This is the beautiful Elements of Love by Sarah Starr…
Elements of Love
(Inspired by and in memory of Grenfell)
It snowed the day I wove her golden braids, black ribbons twisting through her luxurious mane of flax. She held her head proudly, but sadness curtained her dark eyes. The sky, still grey from soot and ash, held the further surprise of frosted sugar as I led her prettily from her stall.
I remembered the day my sister had leant over the railings above me, her hair the same gilded hue, her laughing eyes obscured from my view. She enjoyed affecting flight, arms outstretched to that same sky, then blue as cornflowers and with the promise of endless summer days. That was when bees had circled the tower in search of nectar and pollen for their hive. Seeds drifted on silent thermals with only the birds for company. She saw me way below her and ran inside to meet me.
But soon a dreadful, fateful day exploded. When no rain or snow came forth to quell the burning tongues that mocked and flailed against stone and iron. Writhing and crawling higher and higher the fire broke forth in a raging tornado of destruction. This was to be her epitaph, terror and hopelessness pitted against an unstoppable inferno. This was the element of suffocation, of ultimate chaos and death. There is no comfort knowing she walked the bridge to the next life with our father.
Memories reduced to silt were piled into corners of the home. I scraped up what was left of her books and toys and gently placed them into a small box. It was months later when I found the courage to set them into the sea. My fishing boat at the ready, it was with a heavy heart that I sailed along the Thames, the final journey for the little things that had afforded her so much bliss. The ocean waters lapped up those remains, while I was left with only the memory of another day.
It was a day when the snow settled in soft lace over her coffin, making it seem even more perfect in its simplicity. Then, I backed the flaxen pony between the shafts and buckled her harness, black ribbons in her mane and tail. And as I drove the cart snowflakes melted on my face and mingled with my tears. I watched as she was laid to rest in the soft earth; her home now, for all of eternity. It was then I decided to scatter her ashen playthings into the sea. Standing by the grave I could see her waving to me from her fairy castle. And I knew I would think of her always with every ebb and flow of my breath, every dream I had, and how I would forever love her with every fibre of my being.
Years later flowers laid claim to her grave, along with the bees and the birds. My own child gambols through the graveyard and I call to her. She has the same laugh as my beloved sister and those same laughing eyes. If there is life beyond death, perhaps I can claim to behold it now as I watch her grow. And with time I endeavour to teach her of real joy and hope, of forgiveness and sacrifice, and to open her heart to the endless power of love.
To celebrate my recent 50th birthday, I want to give something back. I’ve enjoyed some glorious writing moments during my forties, but I’ve never forgotten how long it took to achieve my dream of a book deal in 2015, aged 44. Before that, I entered every writing competition I saw, followed numerous authors and listened to their advice, endured rejection after rejection, posted my work in writing groups for critique, and worked and worked and worked on my craft. So I’d love to reward another writer in some tiny way.
My short story competition is open to absolutely anyone at all; experienced writers, new writers, young, old, any gender, anyone. The prize is £50 (to fit in with turning 50 – plus I’m skint and can’t afford much more) and I’ll share your story here on my website too.
The story should be no more than 2050 words (see what I did there, adding a 50) simply because it’ll only be little old me reading them. It can be on any theme or topic. It should be a Word doc, please. To make it fair, I want it to be anonymous so please don’t put your name in either the document or the email. So, just send the story to me, attached as a Word doc, with the title in the subject line, nothing else. Competition closes 1st December 2020. Within a week or two, I’ll choose the winner, based simply on the story I most enjoy, and contact you. Here’s the email to send it to: Louise.email@example.com
Good luck! I’m very excited to read them…
Writers often apologise when they share glowing newspaper reviews or a reader’s praise of their books. I often see them saying that it feels like ‘bad form’ or that it seems somehow vain to retweet positive blog posts. They admit that they feel they are perhaps supposed to – in order to be visible, to promote their work – but that it feels cheap. Some have said that it maybe doesn’t count if it comes from them. They seem embarrassed, like they’ve committed some grave error or sin.
And that makes me sad.
I always share the positive reviews that I’m tagged in. I also share ones that I’ve read if they touched me. I never apologise. I’m not humble about it. I retweet or share or post a link without shame, without apology, without regret.
It took me ten years to get a book deal. It took me four novels and thousands of rejections to finally see my debut in print. I spent between three months and a year writing each of my so far nine books. I lived and breathed the characters for the whole of that time. I didn’t sleep when a plot had me in tangles. I scribbled notes in the dark when a poetic paragraph came to me. I sweated over every word I wrote; I tightened each sentence, deleted entire pages and rewrote them better, then edited again and again and again. I took on critiques from beta readers and tightened each novel further. I edited again for my publisher. Then again. Then again. I gave my full heart and time and effort to the process each time.
I loved every moment. I made my book the best I hoped it could be.
So, I don’t think it’s wrong or vain or embarrassing to share any praise that happens when my book finally goes into the world. I think it’s fine not to share if you don’t want to, but if you are going to, be glorious in it. Be proud. Be loud. Joyful. You deserve to be. I am. I will not crawl quietly into the shadows. I’m grateful for every review. For every kind message. To each and every blogger and reader. They took the time to review my book and I want them to know how grateful I am.
I love seeing other writers share theirs.
Please, dear writers, be loud and joyful with yours too. Nothing makes me happier. You earned it.
Writing was hard for a lot of authors during lockdown, what with everyone suddenly stuck in the house, and home-schooling, and job losses, and other life changes. I’m one of the lucky ones. Despite the stress, I managed to put down some words. Perhaps because of it. Writing has always been there for me in the hardest times. During lockdown, it was the sisters I couldn’t see. It was the son I couldn’t visit. It was the daughter I couldn’t hug. It was the theatre I couldn’t work in. I wrote my memoir, Daffodils, which is now out on submission.
I also read some words. Quite a few. Some brilliant ones. Some affecting ones. Some powerful ones. Some close-to-home ones. Some not-even-out-yet ones. Here are reviews of some of my favourite books of the last few months…
THE MINDERS by John Marrs
I was so lucky that I got to read an early version of this, and was yet again blown away by Marrs’ ingenuity. He is one of the most original thriller writers of this decade. This one, involving five ordinary people selected to have the country’s secret information implanted into their heads via genetic coding, is very Black Mirror, set in the near future, and with clever nods to Marrs’ other works’ themes/storylines. He has replaced Sidney Sheldon for me, in that whatever he turns his hand to, I have to read it and can never put it down.
SKIN DEEP by Liz Nugent
This one was recommended and gifted to me by Susie Lynes. Oh, she knows me well. Such a difficult book to categorise, which are often my favourites. But one that I read in two or three sittings. The writing is sublime, the settings alive with reach-out-and-touch vividness, and the main character, Delia, is the most dark, fascinating and terrible woman I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know. Did I say it was dark? Did I say I love the dark? I do.
LULLABY by Leila Slimani
The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. Who could not read on after these opening lines? This brief, precise, breath-taking book is another I won’t forget. Louise is a nanny. Not a Mrs Doubtfire kind of nanny, that’s for sure. That’s it. I’m not going to say any more. Just read it.
MY DARK VANESSA by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Another recommendation/ gift, this time from John Marrs. This was such a deeply disturbing but necessary read. Vanessa thinks she had a relationship with Jacob Strane. She thinks he was her first love. She believes this. But she was just fifteen and he was her teacher. A clever, clever book about how grooming is so subtle the victim doesn’t even know it’s happening – even looking back as an adult.
DIARY OF A YOUNG NATURALIST by Dara McAnulty
This absolutely beautiful book is by a young autistic boy with a passion for nature. The language is so evocative, it made me cry. If this is how he writes at fifteen, I can’t wait to see what he produces in years to come. His deep love of wild spaces around us, folklore, and history is truly joyful to experience.
We have more time than ever before to read. Even those of us who are still working – either from home or as key workers – have long evenings without pubs or restaurants or theatres or friends to visit. However, many book lovers online are saying they’re finding it hard to concentrate at the moment. Understandable. Though I’m writing furiously, I too find I read a few pages of my latest book and drift away. So I’ve tried to come up with a helpful list of lockdown literature; of books old and new, in a variety of genres, that are either lockdown-themed, my recent favourites, or just the pure escapism you might need.
If you want a book that’s quite literally isolation in motion, you can’t go wrong with the epic Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It’s one of my top ten all-time faves. In this fantasy adventure, Piscine Patel – or Pi – is a Tamil boy from Pondicherry. After the ship he’s travelling on sinks during a storm, he’s left stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days – with only a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker for company. The book explores issues of spirituality, storytelling, and survival.
Flowers in the Attic is the pulp fiction 70s classic by Virginia Andrews. I devoured it when I was fifteen. The fantastic tagline was: Such wonderful children. Such a beautiful mother. Such a lovely house. Such endless terror! In the book, siblings Cathy, Christopher, Carrie, and Cory are hidden away in the unused attic of an old house while their mother tries to re-win the affection of her rich father, who must never know she had children. Total soap opera sass, but utterly addictive.
In many ways, Jane Eyre is a Lockdown Classic as well as a love story, and a tale of feminine strength. Jane is hired to be the governess to a young girl at the secluded Thornfield Hall, owned by the foreboding Mr Rochester. But what secret is he hiding in the attic? One of my favourite books of all time too, this is a beautiful, gothic tale of betrayal and lost love.
I think The Book Thief might be my favourite book ever. It’s up there with The World According To Garp, which is not a lockdown-themed novel, just wonderful. The Book Thief is cleverly narrated by Death as he watches us humans making a mess of life. He closely watches young Liesel in Nazi Germany during 1939. After her family are taken to a concentration camp, she falls in love with books, and steals them from wherever she can. Then, when her foster family hides a Jew in their basement, her world changes forever.
Newer Lockdown Reads
The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith, which is out in ebook 9th May, could not have been timed better. Reading it in the current climate was scary and tense, but utterly addictive. The tagline – No Drugs, No Miracles, Just Fear – could be describing the Covid-19 crisis. If the themes are dark and topical, the writing is exquisite, so don’t avoid this if you’re scared it will be too close to home. I got to the finale with my heart in my mouth.
What Lies Between Us by John Marrs is out 15th May and has elements of Flowers in the Attic, except that in this dark and descript novel it’s a daughter, Nina, who keeps her mother, Maggie, hidden away in the attic; quite literally locking her down with a chain. Why would anyone do that? Who is the one really keeping secrets? And can I use this excuse with my own mother? You’ll have to read it to find out the answer to the first two questions.
If you want to get lost in magic, and you love spooky houses in the middle of nowhere, then Wild Spinning Girls by Carol Lovekin – which is out now – would be perfect for you. There are ghosts at the window. There is wild weather. There are lost dreams and found people. There is Cloud House, with stopped clocks and secret bureaus and all the answers. This beautiful book has all the Welsh magic you’ll find in the land’s poetry and music.
If you want to read a book that has nothing to do with any sort of lockdown and is just a blissful escape, I absolutely loved Daisy Jones and The Six recently. Everyone and the world had read it before me, and I kept seeing it everywhere. Finally, I gave in last month, and was rewarded with a hedonistic tale of rock ‘n’ roll in the late seventies. The plot follows Daisy Jones and band The Six when they join forces and become the biggest group of the decade. What. A. Ride.
The Lies We Hide by SE Lynes is a complete departure of genre for her, but she outdoes herself in this gorgeous, emotional novel about family and the strength of a mother’s love. It touched me profoundly, perhaps since I have experienced a lot of it. The intelligent and sensitive exploration of redemption, forgiveness and survival make this a truly unforgettable book. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble forgetting lockdown and social distancing when you’re reading it.
In The Day We Meet Again by Miranda Dickinson, Phoebe and Sam cross paths by chance at St Pancras station, each heading in opposite directions. There’s an instant connection. They agree to meet there again in one year. Will they turn up? What will happen in between? This beautiful book explores all the what-ifs in life; the ones we control and the ones we don’t. Romantic and warm, this is heaven if you want to escape all the Covid-19 news.
Gill Paul’s Jackie and Maria is an addictive novel set during the Kennedy era, and exploring the relationship between Maria Callas at the height of her operatic career and Jackie Kennedy as she copes with her new life in the public eye. Gill is meticulous in her historical research for novels, and always brings the characters so vividly to life. And this book is no exception. It’s an era I LOVE – the 1950s and 1960s, much of it in the US, and my heroine Marilyn gets a little walk on part too. I lived the book for days, looking forward to being transported to their luxurious yet tragic lives.
I’m a huge Louisa Treger fan and either of her books are perfect for getting lost in another world. Her newest novel, The Dragon Lady, tells the story of Ginie Courtauld, a boundary-breaking woman with an extraordinary tattoo snaking up her leg, in a time before this was common. The narrative spans enormous cultural change, and travels from the Italian Riviera to Scotland to Rhodesia. The language is gentle and the story uncoils beautifully snakelike. Treger has a way of making you feel like she’s whispering the words to you, and that you hear it alone.
I read The Last Paper Crane by Kerry Drewery at Christmas and knew it would be one of my books of 2020. Let it transport you, as it beautifully did me, to Hiroshima in 1945, just after the bomb drops. Ichiro survives the devastated landscape and is left to care for his dead friend Hiro’s five-year-old sister, Keiko. In the chaos, he loses her. The writing is just breath-taking, a mixture of poetry and prose, with gorgeous sketches scattered through as well. It’s about the power of books. About a lifetime of guilt. About love and hope. Amazing.
I hope I’ve whet your appetite for reading again. While I have you, my online launch for I Am Dust will happen on Facebook Live on 16th April from 5.30pm. I will be giving away each of the brand-new April books in the image below. So do join me then for readings, chat, Q&A, and an abundance of great reads.