He took his trainers to work

How could I be so stupid? I didn’t think the film was going to drag on so long, but I should have accounted for the possibility that it would. Now I’m behind on everything…

I’m such a pathetic girlfriend. Dan took his trainers to work so he could run home and get high as quickly as possible. I know what he expects – I expect it of myself. I should have had the first joint rolled and the munchies prepared by now. He’ll be absolutely livid if I’m not ready when he gets back. And when I tell him I went to see a film with my mum, and it lasted longer than I thought it would, he’ll say “that’s no excuse”. He’ll say, “I told you what time I’d be home.” And he’ll be in a mood all night. Sure, he’ll smoke and snack with me until 3am, just like every night, but he won’t say a word. His mind will go to a place I can’t reach, and it will all be my fault.

God, why did I even go to see the film? I could have just called my mum, right here in the kitchen, and got ready at the same time. Then everyone would be happy. I wish I’d done that. That’s what I’ll do next time, if there is a next time. I don’t deserve Dan. There he is, working full-time in the shop, while I’m just here at home. He says he likes me being at home, but I feel guilty about it. I love him so much. I need him. One day he’ll know better than to be with me. It might be today, if I’m not ready in time. It’s a terrifying thought. How will I cope out there on my own? I haven’t spoken to my friends in months. I really, really need to be ready in time for him getting home. There’s a lot riding on this.

OK, now the munchies are all laid out as he likes them. Sausage rolls, chips, dips and ice cream. I’ve put them on his favourite tray with his favourite sauces, and I haven’t forgotten the cutlery this time. I’m learning. This is good. The thing is, there’s hardly any time to make this joint. I can’t rush rolling it, because he’ll notice. He might not notice an undercooked sausage roll or a burnt chip, but he’ll notice if his first joint isn’t up to scratch. It’s the most important thing. It’s got to be the right size, and the right strength – he will be able to tell the difference.

I should have made more time for this. Is the clock ticking louder? It sounds like it’s ticking louder. I’m sweating from running around the hot kitchen. I burnt my hand pulling the sausage rolls and chips out of the oven and it stings. I’m shaking so much that I rip one of the papers I’m rolling up, and weed falls onto the carpet. Tick-tock. No. Please, no. Not now. It looks like I’ll have to start again, God it really looks like I have to start again and I don’t have time now. What is time? Time is wherever Dan is.

It usually takes me about seven minutes to roll a three-skinner and I’ve only got half that. God it’s everywhere. It’s all over the carpet. I should clean all this up before starting again because he’ll be angrier at me wasting weed than not being ready with the first joint. I think. Or will he? Now’s not the time to be frozen in fear! There’s no time.

And now I can hear the lock turn in the front door, and tears are falling down my cheeks. He’s even earlier than he said he’d be. I fall to my knees. I was so close, Dan. I was so close to being ready. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Don’t hurt me. Please don’t hurt me. Please just smile. You look so beautiful when you smile.


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She spent a long time looking in the mirror, sweeping her hair to different sides, and pulling it back to see how each hair stretched her skin.

She plucked a few to see what follicles look like.

She followed the patterns of the veins on her head, counted the glossy little lumps underneath her eyes, and nipped her ear lobes until it hurt.

She licked her lips to see how long they took to dry.

After a while her breathing clouded the mirror.

When the steam faded, she noticed how deeply embedded the lines in her forehead were.

When it came to getting dressed, she saw her work uniform and realised she’d made no plans for today, her day off. And by now it was nearly one.

It didn’t seem to matter.

She rested her hands on her stomach, and wondered how to tell him.


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It was the fastest and loudest thing that had happened all day. Maybe all week. But once the sirens had faded to a floating wobble in the late afternoon breeze, everything was quiet again. Front doors were shut, curtains closed. Most people who had gathered to watch went back inside their homes.

Two men remained standing on their lawns, which sloped down towards the road between them. They locked eyes and prepared to talk about what had just happened. Drifting smoke and road dust corrupted the air they shared.

“Sounds like they stopped a couple of streets away,” said Jordi.

“What did you say?” said Carl, stepping out onto the road. “Sorry, that noise has deafened me.”

“The fire engines. They turned right at the end there and then back down here, so they must be parallel,” said Jordi. He couldn’t tell for sure, because the view was blocked by his garage, but he looked in that direction anyway.

Carl approached the foot of Jordi’s front lawn, which was peppered with flattened clumps of freshly cut grass. When he got there, Jordi cleared his throat.

“I’m going inside. Do you want a cup of tea? I’m Jordi, by the way.”


In the kitchen they stood at the sink, looking out the window. It was wide open. The rusty blinds shuddered in the breeze, but the heavy air all around felt inescapably hot. Just beyond Jordi’s garden fence was a bungalow. It was engulfed in jungle of bright flames, which Carl wondered was more orange or yellow. People stood next to a trio of fire engines next to it, and many of them covered their mouths as the plumes of water hosed down the blaze.

“You know what, I reckon that’s that young couple’s place,” said Jordi. He rubbed his beard with his fat, hairy fingers. “Apparently he left her for someone else, and she was having a hard time.”

“What was her name?” said Carl.

“I don’t know,” said Jordi.

“I hope she’s alright,” said Carl.

“Me too, but that looks pretty nasty. It looks like a gas fire,” said Jordi, taking a step back from the window. He put his hands on his hips.

“Not that I know what a gas fire really looks like.”

Carl shook his head. “It’s crazy. I’ve never seen a fire like this before,” he said. “We must be a hundred metres away and we can still hear the flames.”

“Oh my…” said Jordi, pointing. “Look at that.”

An ambulance had stopped on the bungalow’s driveway. Two paramedics got out and opened its rear doors, and the crowd of onlookers split into two around them. Then things got panicky for a second when a satellite dish hurled itself from the roof and smashed into bits on the ground, making children cover their ears from the fire’s pops and squeals. Up above, it was clear which way the wind was blowing by the direction the black smoke had taken through the sky. Its journey looked a bit like a question mark.

“Sarah. That’s the woman’s name. My wife knows her. She’s only our age,” said Jordi. Then he turned to the door and shouted: “Jennifer! Come see this!”

After a while Jennifer showed up in her dressing gown. She tip-toed across the floor tiles towards the sink, and when she got there she pushed the tap’s spout around to the left and wiped the damp draining board with a tea towel. Then she looked out of the window.

“Isn’t that your friend Sarah’s house?” said Jordi.

A few moments of silence passed. Then a few more.

Jennifer was taking so long to respond that things were becoming uncomfortable for Carl. She stood there, mesmerised, her body trembling.

“It is,” she said.

Outside, paramedics carried a stretcher into the back of the ambulance. Parents covered the eyes of their children, who were still covering their ears.

“Do you know this woman?” said Carl.

Jennifer spun around and looked at him.

Carl scratched his head, instead of going for a handshake.

“Sorry, I’m Carl. I live across the street.”

“Sarah and I go back a long way, but we weren’t really close,” said Jennifer. She was struggling to speak through her tears. “Her boyfriend left her about three months ago.”

Jennifer looked back at the fire and gasped.

“She’d made a go of it with some other guy without a second thought, but he…” said Jennifer, but this time she couldn’t finish her sentence.

“I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.”

She stormed out of the kitchen and slammed the door. “Nice to meet you,” said Carl. Then he turned to Jordi and said: “I think I should go.”


“She looked pretty upset. I feel like I’m in the way,” said Carl.

“Nonsense. She’ll be OK,” said Jordi. “But let’s get out of here.” Smiling reassuringly, he led Carl out of the kitchen and into the living room at the front of the house. “I think we’ve been watching long enough.”

Carl saw how untidy the living room was. Thick slices of dust rested atop a stack of records next to the fireplace, which was being used as a bin. The arms of the sofa were torn, and the carpet was coated with hair clippings. A clock on the cracked mantelpiece ticked, but told the wrong time.

“It’s right twice a day!” said Jordi, following Carl’s gaze.

Now Carl wished he’d insisted on leaving.

“Do you want a drink? I’ve got all sorts,” said Jordi.

“No, I really shouldn’t stay long,” said Carl. “I can’t.”

“Can’t, or won’t? Come on, we’re neighbours!” said Jordi. “What you having?”

He climbed out of his armchair and walked back into the kitchen.

“We’ve got beer, wine, whisky…”

Carl didn’t respond.

“What’s this stuff. Cointreau,” Jordi said, pronouncing it incorrectly. “Mojito mix. Wait, that’s way out of date.”

“I’ll take a beer,” said Carl.

There were two sharp hissing sounds from the kitchen, before Jordi returned with two opened bottles. He put one down on the coffee table next to Carl and said: “There you go, buddy.”

Carl was pleased they were only stubbies.

The ambiance in the living room was different to the kitchen. There were no flames to look at, or sirens to hear. No drama. Just two men who didn’t really know each other. Carl could see his front garden from where he was sat. Jordi saw him looking.

“So… nice garden. You been mowing recently?” said Jordi.

Sometime later they were laughing loudly about Jennifer’s mother.

“And let me tell you, I couldn’t look at her in the eye for at least a month!” said Jordi.

Carl snorted and rolled another empty bottle onto the coffee table. Its rim left a wet trail as it nestled gently into the other dozen or so, which were arranged in a line. He looked up at Jordi and shrugged apologetically.

“Really, it’s fine,” said Jordi. “Are you kidding me? Have you seen the state of this room? It’s fine.”

They burst into hysterics again, and only the sight of the streetlights flickering on outside broke their laughter a few minutes later.

“Wow, time has flown,” said Carl.

“You know what, I think this is one of the times of day that the clock is telling the right time,” said Jordi. He was slurring. “What time is it?”

The clock was frozen at twenty-five past nine.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Carl, looking at his watch. “It’s nine twenty-five.”

“Told you!” Jordi laughed. “It’s right twice a day.”

Carl rubbed dry the trail of beer on the coffee table with his sleeve, and dust became embedded in the fibres of his sweater. It was the start of a protracted silence, which Carl tried to ignore by again looking at his house across the street. The upstairs light was on.

“Do you believe in coincidences?” said Jordi.

The question caught Carl off guard.

“I guess so,” he said feebly. “Wasn’t that just a coincidence?”

Jordi smiled at Carl and said: “I don’t believe in them. I think all that stuff’s bullshit.”

He laughed loudly. Carl shook his head and laughed as if he understood some kind of subtext.

Jordi looked towards the open living room door and shouted: “Jennifer, get in here! Come downstairs!”

They heard Jennifer’s distant footsteps through the ceiling. She was moving slowly. Soon enough her slim figure appeared in the doorway. She stood there with her arms folded, dressed about 10 years older than she was, in a blue cardigan and a white blouse. Her lower half was covered by a flowery dress that revealed nothing of her legs.

“How much have you had?” she asked Jordi.

Jordi looked at Carl.

“Carl, how much have we had?” he said. He expected a witty response.

“Not enough,” said Carl, shaking his head bashfully.

Jordi laughed.

“There you go, honey, not enough,” he said, turning back to his wife.

“Sarah died in that fire,” said Jennifer.

“Oh, honey. I don’t know what to say,” said Jordi. “You weren’t that close, were you?”

He took a swig of his beer, but lifted the bottle too high, and had to wipe his chin afterwards.

Jennifer narrowed her eyes contemptuously and said: “We were close enough, Jordi!”

She walked over to the vacant armchair, sat down and sobbed for a long time.

Carl sobered up quickly as the minutes ticked by.

“I was closer to Pete, but he’d left her for some other girl,” she said. “He killed her. Pete killed her!”

“When did you hear about this?” said Jordi.

“About Pete?”

“No, about Sarah.”

“It’s all over the news, Jordi.”

Jennifer rose from the armchair.

“Maybe if you weren’t too busy getting drunk, you’d realise that someone close to us has died,” she said. She slammed the door shut and marched upstairs. Then slammed another door.

“I should get off,” said Carl, making for the doorway.

“I’m sorry about that,” said Jordi.

“It’s fine, she’s obviously upset,” said Carl. “And I think you should talk to her.”

Jordi nodded.

“I’ll just – ”

“I’ll show you out,” said Jordi.

Out on the driveway, the air smelt strongly of smoke, but it wasn’t anywhere near as hot it was before.

“See you around,” said Carl.

“Do you take ketamine?” said Jordi.

Carl stopped halfway across the road, and turned around.

“What?” he said.

“Do you take ketamine?” Jordi said again. “Like, ever?”


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Fashionistas, weaving mills and magical murals – a mad week in Lodz, Poland

Published by Glasgow Evening Times

A major city 80 miles south-west of Warsaw, Lodz (pronounced “wooj”) has a rich textile history dating back to Poland’s Industrial Revolution. Today, the city’s fashion credentials hold their own against the style powerhouses of London, Paris, Milan and New York, making it an alternative choice for a chic weekend break.

I am sitting beside a man dressed as a kind of glam-rock soldier, and his suited-and-somehow-booted Jack Russell, next to a catwalk. We’re watching the main show at FashionPhilosophy – Poland’s largest fashion event – with a few hundred nonchalantly cross-legged attendees, who occasionally raise their eyebrows at the hottest threads drifting by. If looks could kill, then theirs would inflict collateral damage. On the other hand, mine might give you a Chinese burn – or, at best, an irritating flick of your ear. And I’ve made a special effort tonight.

Since 2009, FashionPhilosophy has been held periodically in Lodz – pronounced “wooj” – a major city 80 miles south-west of Warsaw. With a rich textile history dating back to Poland’s industrial revolution and the boom of clothing manufacturing in the 1870s, Lodz’s fashion credentials hold their own against the style powerhouses of London, Paris, Milan and New York.

Today Lodz is a cultural hotbed not only for fashionistas, but for all kinds of creative people. Artists come here to fill the walls of buildings with brilliantly bizarre murals, film-makers fulfil their dreams at the world-renowned National Film School, and writers, musicians and designers exchange numbers in the trendy cafés, bars and studios of Off Piotrkowska.

Nowhere else are these historic and artistic connections better physicalised than at andel’s Hotel Lodz – a 19th-century red-brick structure that, having once been a thriving weaving mill, is now enjoying its second heyday as a spectacular modern guesthouse.

I stagger through its sliding doors to be greeted by a hypnotic patchwork of baby blues and yellows that creeps around the circular carpets and ceilings. Purple spotlights shimmer off cast-iron beams, from which original artwork hangs to be admired by men with soul patches and beautiful women. They soon disappear into elevators that ascend into the open-brick walls. Air’s Moon Safari plays through invisible speakers. This is just the foyer.

In the expansive sofa area to my right, parties of old friends giddily discuss tomorrow morning’s plans, while a mother decides she’s going to try scallops for the first time in the restaurant – which is also decorated with visual art. Upstairs, a family relaxes in the low-lit pool, and, on the very top floor, a couple gaze over the twinkling lights of Lodz’s sodium nightlife.

It’s a different kind of luxury here. One that blends elements of past and present, classic and contemporary, industrial and artistic. Against all this award-winning aesthetica, my request of the available receptionist seems pathetically mundane. My room card got lost in a mist of flashing lights, boots and wine at the FashionPhilosophy event, so I need it replacing. She doesn’t roll her eyes, or frown, which is nice.

Wizz Air operates the London Luton – Warsaw Chopin route with 3 daily flights with fares starting from GBP 25.99*. Bookings on wizzair.com. *(one way, including all taxes, non-optional charges and one small cabin bag)


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VIDEO: BBC News interview about the Scottish independence referendum

After my piece about Scottish independence became one of my most successful online posts, BBC News asked if I would like to be interviewed on the night of the second Darling v Salmond TV debate. There were supposed to be three or four other York-based journalists giving their opinions along with me, but I was the only one to turn up. So I did the interview on my own.


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Solitude is productive: Writing in the Highlands

Last month, I had a week booked off work, and I hadn't made any plans. So I packed a pen and paper, drove up to the Highlands, and pitched my tent in the middle of nowhere.

I'd always wanted to experience the pleasure of writing creatively in pure solitude, and this would cross one off my bucket list. Plus, I needed to make greater headway on my first short story collection, Pillow Talk for Insomniacs, and I sensed that this was the perfect opportunity.

Sat in my Corsa outside my York flat, I put PH22 1RB into my phone's sat-nav. 242 miles, it blinked. Six hours, 38 minutes. Not too bad, really. I fastened my seatbelt and pressed DRIVE on the screen. For some reason, the distance then shot up. Now it said 360 miles, seven hours. 59 minutes. Oh.

The roundabouts came and went, and I got to the Cairngorms in the end. Finally on foot, I set off in search of a flat area to pitch my tent. I must have hiked off-trail for a couple of miles, drawing entirely on the minimal camping knowledge I'd learned at scouts and music festivals. (Scouts, where, in five whole years, I'd earned only one badge - orienteering, which I kind of cheated on anyway.)

I eventually stumbled upon a bed of heather, which lay within the cocoon of a bank beside a river, and thought: this'll do. The landscape in every direction was wide and beautiful, the heat inescapable.

Apart from some ravenous midges, there were no distractions whatsoever. I wrote solidly for four days - pausing only to warm my home-made soup on the stove, or sip from a tumbler of single malt whisky (because drinking alone in the Highlands is not tragic, it's iconic).

I would sometimes catch the echo of someone's voice, look up, and spot a group of walkers a few miles away. They were about the size of these full-stops...

That was the closest I came to human contact. And, as much as I'd love to say I fought off bears and hunted down wildebeest with a spear I'd fashioned from flint, twigs and nettles, there weren't really any animals around either. Just insects.

By the end of my trip I'd written six short stories, which is about six times what I usually muster per month back home.

So solitude is productive.


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A Yorkshireman's thoughts on Scottish independence

During my four years in Glasgow, I had to tolerate my fair share of anti-English “banter”. And I completely understand why. If we English lived next to a country with a population ten times the size of ours, whose government had, over hundreds of years, used its strength in numbers to slowly erode our native culture and language, was largely ignorant of our needs, yet still made most of our decisions, was dominant, yet indifferent, over our affairs, was so socio-economically imbalanced that our liberal beliefs became defined against it – then we’d probably have a gentle jest with its citizens every once in a while. Especially when they had the cheek to cross over our border.

It’s not personal, it’s just banter, I was told. Which meant that I didn’t deserve it as an individual, but England, my country of birth, probably did – like it or not. From the Battle of Culloden, to the Poll Tax, England hasn’t been the friendliest of neighbours to Scotland over the centuries – and while that stuff’s got nothing to do with you or I, it’s all happened, and the collective memory remains pretty strong on the other side.

It’s where our countries find themselves as Scotland approaches its independence referendum.

On September 18, in what is no doubt a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Scotland will vote to go it alone and become the country it has always seen itself as – or show its faith in an embittered union of more than three hundred years.

The Yes and No campaigns’ economic arguments involving North Sea oil and Sterling are far from conclusive. On a political level, though, there isn’t much debate to be had. In England, we pretty much always get the governments we vote for. But there are more giant pandas in Edinburgh Zoo (two) than Conservative MPs in the whole of Scotland (one), and somehow its parliament is still under the authority of a Tory-led UK Government. How is that fair?

An independent Scotland would improve Anglo-Scottish relations. Greater respect would exist between our separate countries, cooperating as international allies, not haggling and rutting as unequal cousins. (See, for example, our contrastingly fruitful diplomacy with Ireland, the US, or any of the 60 or so other countries that have declared independence from the United Kingdom, and the British Empire, over the course of history.)

An independent Scotland would also give the north of England greater bargaining power in Westminster. If Scotland can do it, why can’t we? There are political parties who want to win our regions more autonomy (and I might have voted for Yorkshire First in the European elections, had they not had vague links to UKIP). Imagine if the north of England went independent. Yorkshire, the Lakes, Manchester, the Pennines, Blackpool Tower, the Chuckle Brothers, chip spice… we’d have it all to ourselves, and it would be awesome.

Anyway, the crux of the debate in Scotland rests on emotion. It’s mostly indifference down here in England, typically, but north of the border, the pro-independence lobby cares more passionately about independence than the unionists do about the United Kingdom. Essentially everyone’s a ‘why?’ or a ‘why not?’ kind of person. Some people go out and take risks, others stay indoors. I’m not sure which type of person is going to win this referendum, but it’s going to be close.

If you ask me, the idea of a country is fundamentally ridiculous. But given these circumstances, and to ensure the best outcome for generations to come, Scotland has to vote Yes to independence on September 18.


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You don't want to be a DJ anymore

“I wanted to be a DJ for about a year. I was about 14. I used to buy magazines and CDs, but I couldn’t buy records because I had no turntables. And it bugged me, so pretty soon I looked into getting some. Naturally, the cheapest. Belt drive. One day I saw some for £180 in an advert in one of those magazines. If I saved £90, my mum and dad agreed to give me £45 each to make it up. It took me ages. I only had a paper round at the time, but I’d get paid for washing my grandad’s car now and then. Finally, after nearly a year, I’d saved enough. I was all in fivers and pound coins. My parents kept their word, so I called up the number on the advert and placed the order. The turntables arrived about two weeks later. I couldn’t believe it. I’d finally got my hands on them! My grandad came over to help me set them up next to my windowsill. It didn’t take him long, and when he left I had them all to myself. Two blue-and-white turntables, with a silver mixer in between them. I’d wanted them for so long, and now I had them. And then, pretty much immediately upon realising that, I got over that particular phase. I didn’t want to be a DJ anymore. The turntables were shit, anyway, and I hadn’t realised I’d need an amplifier to play music through speakers. An amplifier would cost even more, and I really couldn’t be bothered with all that again. So they just hung out in my room for a while, before I gave the turntables away to a friend. He was some sort of musician who recorded stuff in his bedroom studio. He could make more use of them than I could. But then apparently he sold them to someone else for a tenner.”

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?” said Paul.

“What I’m trying to tell you is that you might think that, right now, this is what you want. But I’m telling you, you’ll get over it,” said Dan.

“Dude, I’m not 14,” said Paul. “Vivian isn’t a pair of turntables.”

“It’s kind of the same thing,” said Dan.

“Look, I know what you’re trying to say,” said Paul.

“I just don’t want you to get hurt again,” said Dan.

“I know, and I appreciate that, I do,” said Paul.

“Just give it time. Just take, like, a week to figure out what you really want to do,” said Dan. “You work with this girl, remember. You’ve heard the phrase ‘don’t shit where you eat’, haven’t you?”

Paul walked home from Dan’s and knew exactly what he was going to do. He was going to call Vivian right away and ask her to come over. Dan had never been with a girl for more than six months, and Paul knew what a loving, lasting relationship was. He and Dan just had different approaches. Neither was right or wrong, and every decision they made would work out a certain way, and would be evaluated based on their own perspective as much as the outcome.

He spoke to Vivian for only a few minutes and everything that needed to be said was said. She’d come over for dinner tomorrow night.

“Dude, what was I just telling you?” said Dan.

“I know, I know, I just thought you should know,” said Paul. “I’m sorry.”

“Well, I’ll be here to pick up the pieces when it all goes wrong,” said Dan. “You’d be surprised how carried away you can get when a girl with a nice name gives you a bit of attention.”

Dan hung up before Paul had the chance to explain himself. It was all stuff they’d gone over before, anyway. Paul crossed the road and turned down his street, and noticed a blurry figure waving at him. As he got closer, he recognised who it was.

“Daisy Meredith!” he said.

“Well isn’t this a surprise,” said Daisy. “I didn’t know you lived down here.”

“Only for the past couple of months. Are you still…”

“Living with my parents, yes. Temporarily. I can feel myself going slowly insane,” said Daisy.

“I know how it is,” said Paul, laughing. “Are you heading into town?”

“Sort of. I’m just heading around Dan’s to pick something up,” said Daisy.

“Dan?” said Paul. Daisy nodded. “Dan… Smith, who was in our year? You know Dan?” said Paul.

“Yes, not too well, but wow, small world!” said Daisy.

“Sort of,” said Paul.

“Well, I’d better be getting on. Nice seeing you!” said Daisy.

“And you.”

Paul smiled to himself and shook his head, and wondered why he’d ever gone to Dan for advice. Just to reciprocate for all the times he’d offered Dan advice, probably, even though it was unheeded anyway. A fucking DJ, he thought. Fuck him.

When Paul got back home he turned on his TV and sank into the armchair. He thought about making himself a toastie and a glass of milk, but just wanted to relax for a moment first.

A few hours later he stirred to the sound of a TV game show’s theme tune. It was a late-night repeat and all the buzzes and jingles jarred with Paul at that time of night. He was horrified he hadn’t made it to bed. His eyes were sore. All the lights in his apartment were still on. One of the bulbs buzzed and flickered. Paul’s phone blinked beside him. It looked like a text from Dan, but he didn’t read it. He just turned everything off and went to bed.

In the morning he tidied, cleaned and dusted. He had a lot to do, and when he was done he swore he could feel the rush of endorphins in his veins. He wanted to wear his best clothes, the ones he’d been wearing yesterday, but they smelled of Dan’s bedroom. So he threw on a different shirt, saw how it looked with one button unfastened, then two buttons, and studied the difference in the mirror. By the time he was done with all the preparations and had made all the necessary decisions, there was still five hours before Vivian was due to show up.

Four empty beer bottles were rolling around in his recycling box by the time she was supposed to have arrived. Opening this fridge, Paul decided that a fifth was probably too many. His vision was already blurred because he wasn’t wearing glasses, so he sat himself back down.

Half an hour later his phone rang.

“Paul, hey, I’m sorry but I won’t be coming round tonight,” said Vivian.

“Oh, right, OK,” said Paul. “Why?”

“I’m at the hospital. Something bad’s happened and my grandma’s been admitted. Sorry, I feel really bad,” said Vivian.

“No, don’t feel bad, it’s not your fault,” said Paul. “You’re where you need to be.”

“I was really looking forward to tonight,” said Vivian.

“We’ll do it some other time. Don’t worry,” said Paul. “I hope everything goes OK.”

“I hope so,” said Vivian. “Anyway, I’d better go.”

Paul hung up, and in the same movement opened the fridge and pulled out his fifth beer. He ate his steak with blue cheese sauce, the mushrooms and the spicy potato wedges – at the table, as planned. Then he ate his ice-cream dessert, and Vivian’s as well, on the sofa.

“What can I say, man, you don’t want to be a DJ anymore,” said Dan.

He took a drag of the joint and rearranged the pillows behind him.

“There’s no shame in it, you just don’t want to be a DJ anymore. You’ll save yourself a lot of hurt in the long run, man,” he said.

“I know, I’ve just totally gone off the boil in the past week,” said Paul. As Dan flicked the joint’s ash into the lid well of an empty beer can, Paul said: “Hey, can I have a little?”

He reached out and took the joint from Dan’s fingers. As he sucked and inhaled, he heard a distant toilet flush.

“Oh, hey, there’s something I need to tell you, man,” said Dan. “Do you remember Daisy?”


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I actually felt sorry for the sofa. The sofa we’d bought together for our first, and last, home. I felt like we’d failed it. Promised it that it would have the honour of accommodating us throughout our shared lives. It would support us as we watched TV, ate dinner, made love – and, in a few years, might acquire the hairs of a cat or a dog, or have some kids jump around on it.

But all that’s no longer happening. Not since she left.

This was an important sofa. It was supposed to last us our lifetimes. That’s the promise we made it, and it deserved such a commitment – it was a decent piece of craftsmanship. Thick, bouncy cushions. Green felt covers with faux-Chesterfield dimples. A solid oak frame, varnished.

Apparently its previous owners were an old married couple who’d “had it for donkeys’ years”. So I guess we’d failed them as well.

The sofa is coming with me to my new apartment. I feel guilty as my mother and I have to pull it apart to fit it in the back of our rented Transit van. I tell her not to throw its cushions in with everything else, but to place them carefully on top of each other. The sofa’s frame inevitably takes a few knocks on the journey, and then a few more as we carry it up the stairs when we get there.

But my new apartment is pretty well lit. From its new place by the French windows, the sofa glows in the sunlight like never before. It looks so much more radiant. I’m convinced it’s happier here.

When I sit on it now, I think: whatever life throws at us, we’ll go on together. And, I imagine, it looks back up at me, rolls its eyes, and thinks: oh, and that’s a promise, is it?


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Theatre review: Beryl @ West Yorkshire Playhouse

Published by The Arts Desk

Wife. Mother. Yorkshirewoman. Cyclist. Legend. Beryl Burton was perhaps the greatest sportswoman this country has ever produced, and we ought to be ashamed of the fact that many of us will have to Google her to find out what her achievements were.

Born in Leeds in 1937, she dominated women’s cycling in the 1950s, '60s and '70s – becoming five times world pursuit champion, 12 times national champion, and best British all-rounder for 25 consecutive years. She won nearly 100 domestic titles, and her 12-hour distance record – of a staggering 277.25 miles – has never been broken. While setting it, she caught up with Mike McNamara, who was hoping to smash the men’s record, and offered him a consolatory liquorice allsort as she whooshed past. (Apparently he was grateful.)

To manage such sporting success these days requires a lifestyle governed by trainers, nutritionists, sponsors, and maybe even PR people – but there was none of that for our Beryl. No, she funded herself by working on a rhubarb farm, wolfed down baby bottles full of homemade rice pudding during races, and led a very modest existence with her husband Charlie and their daughter Denise in Morley, West Yorkshire.

There was no financial backing for British cyclists in her day, when many of the country’s top competitors were struggling unknowns. However, Beryl was a star on the continent, where the public had greater enthusiasm for the sport – particularly in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The fact that the odds were stacked against Beryl from an early age made her international success all the more remarkable. In her childhood, she suffered a bout of rheumatic fever that left her with a weak heart, and doctors strongly discouraged strenuous activity. But she took no notice, determined to prove them – and her cynical schoolteachers – wrong.

“I’m going to make my mark!” says Beryl, in Maxine Peake’s debut stage play, adapted from her short piece that was broadcast on Radio 4 in 2012, and commissioned to tie in with the (incidentally all-male) Tour de France. “Doing what?” asks Charlie.

“I dunno, I'll find something!” says Beryl.

It’s a wonder Hollywood bothers writing feel-good sporting dross like Dodgeball  when it could just Americanise the hell out of this. Thankfully, Rebecca Gatward’s production tells the story of this incredible woman’s life with impressive accuracy and respect.

With a cast of only four actors, each adopting multiple roles, the play conveys the camaraderie and selflessness of the cycling community that helped lead Beryl (played by Penny Layden, pictured above) to her many triumphs – in the face of such prejudice, hardship and indifference. There’s also a good measure of dry Yorkshire wit throughout, and the brilliant Dominic Gately – who plays about seven different parts – is responsible for most of it.

Peake’s script follows Beryl until her last breath, when she died suddenly from heart failure while out delivering invitations to her 60th birthday party in Morley – of course, on a saddle. As her bike’s rotating rear wheel rattles to a stop, even those of us who have never previously worn lycra are moved to tears.

And then, as her mountains of medals, cups and trophies glimmer majestically under the stage lights and the audience stands and applauds one of our true sporting heroines, we are left wondering to ourselves: what are you going to do with your  life, exactly?


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No more cereal for pudding

Stone stood above it for a while, hypnotised by its mystery – or perhaps by a rather dull lack of coffee. Something must have leaked out of something, and a lake of green matter had nestled in the grooves of the tiles over by the walk-in fridge. He thought that maybe it was soup. Whatever it was was darker than before, and would probably be more difficult to clean. But Stone walked past it. It wasn't his job to deal with it.

Stone knew what his job was, and he wasn’t prepared to give anything more, as he threw his weight onto a trolley, where his equipment was, and pushed. And pushed – the wheels’ resistance echoing around the quiet supermarket stock room.

Two of the wheels turned begrudgingly, while the other two weren’t turning at all, and Stone’s stifled grunts of exertion sounded pathetic, even to him. But now he was hunched over the trolley, he felt he might as well struggle on. If he could just get it through the double doors and out onto the shop floor ahead, it’d be fine.

So he kept pushing, and it kept squeaking. He passed a cling-filmed wooden pallet stacked high with budget kitchen roll, and around it he noticed the pretty girl who worked on the delicatessen. Jennifer. She was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor by the walk-in fridge, where he’d just been stood.

“This green stuff is manky,” she said, climbing to her feet.

She threw a torn cloth towards a bucket, but missed, as steam rose violently from the frothy water inside. Stone liked how a thick strand of her blonde fringe swept across her forehead and tucked around her right ear, which was held down by a straight white hat. He didn’t like how, blotchy, sweating and red-faced, he didn’t look great in any way.

“Oh really, well I don’t know anything about that,” he said, standing over her. “What sort of green was it? Was it soup?”

Jennifer sighed and ran her hands under the tap, then ripped a few hand towels from the plastic dispensary on the wall and dried herself. She looked at Stone.

He looked back at her and recalled how he’d tried to fill his head with thoughts of her in order to dream about her, every night in bed that week. But if he had, he couldn’t remember it. Maybe this was how it began, right here at work. Maybe he’d leaned in and kissed her softly, before unbuttoning her long, thick shirt and… maybe that’s how it went.

Jennifer looked at Stone’s name badge and said: “Is that your real name?”

Stone inspected the plastic plate that was pinned to his lime green shirt.

“Yeah, I guess it is,” he said, his voice breaking as he forced a chuckle.

The conversation was dead, and they both knew it. Although Jennifer smiled at him, the way her eyes narrowed and nostrils flared as she left suggested she was about to laugh. She disappeared through the door and her footsteps fluttered up the stairs. Stone mouthed “I love you” after her, then shut his eyes and felt his heartbeat return to its normal pace. The blood drained from his face.

He knew that if he kept screwing up these fleeting moments they had together, which were once a week at best, then he’d never make any progress with her. If he’d had more time, or was speaking to anyone else – literally anyone else – he was sure he could have come up with a much better response to her question. Already, one had occurred to him.

Squeak-squeak-squeak through the double doors, and then, “woah”, Stone said, blinking a few times as he edged onto the over-lit shop floor.

He’d never got used to this. The humming fridges with their strip lights reflected in mirrors, the beeps and bleeps of distant checkout tills, the gossip of customers getting in each others’ ways, the music – everything felt bad and wrong, as usual. Looking down at his wrist, he saw a milky white line where his watch should have been. Must have taken it off before he had a shower. Left it in the bowl of potpourri on the bathroom windowsill. Probably only another three hours until home time, he reckoned.

Rubbing his eyes, Stone staggered over to the meat fridge, where he began his job of finding products that were close to their expiry date, reducing them by a third of the price, and putting them back on the shelf.
And so he lifted the packets of food no higher than necessary as he checked the dates of sausages, gammon, pate – his trolley squeaking every step of the way. Yoghurt, cheese, butter – creeping along the wall of fridges, inch by inch. Apples, mushrooms, salads – playing a whole album in his head to keep him entertained. Chicken, mince, crabsticks. Pies, pizza, quiche. Soup. Squeak squeak squeak.

“Hello!” said a voice next to Stone.

A boy standing behind Stone was holding one of the packets of mince that Stone had stacked on his trolley.

“How much are these going to be?” said the boy, dressed in what appeared to be a school uniform.

“Why, what are you going to with them?” said Stone. “Do you know how to cook?”

The boy shook his head.

“They’re for my dad,” he said.

“Right,” said Stone.

He tried to ignore the boy, but found it difficult to concentrate on anything else with him just standing there with a hopeful, expectant glare.

“How old are you?” said Stone.

“Seven,” said the boy.

“Well I’m knocking a third off the price, so these are going to be about £1.30,” said Stone very slowly and clearly.

The boy frowned and momentarily drummed a beat on the side of the trolley with his index fingers.

Then he said: “OK,” and turned his back.

“Well, whatever. For you I’ll make it half price,” Stone said. “So £1 a packet.”

The boy smiled like it was his birthday or something.

“Take it or leave it,” said Stone.

“I’ll just go and ask my dad!” said the boy.

The boy skidded down the biscuits aisle, and Stone kept his focus there, hoping to catch a glimpse of the boy’s father. Stone had been living in this town all his life, and hadn’t once seen the boy around. He didn’t sound like a local. After a couple of minutes, Stone assumed they must have paid up and left. He got down on his knees to reach the large tubs of margarine at the back of the bottom shelf.

“What about this stuff?” said the boy.

Stone turned around and saw the boy carrying a swaying column of packets of meat. There were about nine or ten altogether, neatly stacked on top of each other.

“Hey, you’d better put those down or you’ll drop them!” said Stone.

“No I won’t, I’ve got hold of them,” said the boy. “I won the egg-and-spoon race last year, I’m good at balancing things,” he said.

Stone smiled and said: “Oh yeah, where was that?”

“Just at school,” he said.

Stone laughed. “You should get a job here,” he said. “People who can carry things as well as you can are pretty useful here.”

The boy laid the packets of meat on the trolley, just as Stone’s boss walked past them both. His boss was despised by all the young people who worked in the store – and the feeling was probably mutual. This time, he didn’t bother Stone. He barely even acknowledged him as he held his head unusually straight and high, with the confidence of a man who’d read a book on how to look confident. His shiny shoes clip-clopped through the double doors, and beyond.

“Actually, maybe not,” Stone said to the boy. “You don’t want to work here. Promise me you’ll never work here, ever?”

The boy laughed.

“It’s not that bad in here,” said the boy. “It’s warm.”

“It is that bad, believe me,” said Stone.

“And you must get free food!” said the boy.

“Promise me…” said Stone.

“OK, I promise!” said the boy.

“Say: I promise…” said Stone.

“I promise…” said the boy.

“That I will never…” said Stone.

“That I will never…” said the boy.

“Work in a supermarket,” said Stone.

“Work in a supermarket,” said the boy.

“Good,” said Stone.

He looked down over the packets of meat the boy had laid out for him, and shook his head.

“See, I can’t reduce these. They’re nowhere near their expiry date,” said Stone.

The boy sighed, and tried to take the packets back. Stone stopped him.

“Don’t worry, I’ll put them back,” he said. “I tell you what, you find me anything that says the 18th of May on it, and I’ll reduce it by more than half, just for you.”

The boy scampered off as soon as Stone’s sentence had registered. Two minutes later he returned, and dropped some more stuff on Stones trolley.

“It’s all the 18th of May, so it all needs reducing,” said the boy.

Stone was amazed. He hadn’t expected the boy to find anything, because he’d been looking in areas that Stone was already supposed to have checked – clearly not too thoroughly.

“Cheers mate,” said Stone. “Wow, you really would make a good worker here.”

He slapped reduction stickers on the packets the boy had brought him.

“But still, never, ever work here – understand?” said Stone.

The boy nodded, and watched as Stone scanned more packets and printed off more reduction stickers.
“There you go, that’s two-thirds off a joint of gammon. A real bargain, that,” he said.

The boy smiled and held the gammon like a trophy, before he dropped it into the basket he held with his small hands.

“Mikey!” said a man behind them.

A man approached them wearing a flannel shirt. He was quite short, and his long hair looked thin under the bright lights, which beamed off his pale scalp.

“What have I told you about hassling people?” he said, winking at Stone.

“Ah he’s no bother,” said Stone. “He’s actually been a real help finding the all the out-of-date stuff I’d missed!”

The man laughed and ruffled his son’s hair. The man carried a basket of his own, but there was very little inside it.

“He said he’d made it cheaper than it usually is,” said the boy, holding up a strawberry milkshake. “Look at this, dad.”

The man again winked at Stone and ruffled the boy’s hair, but Stone could tell he was quite taken aback as he read the price sticker.

“Good work, Mikey,” he said. “Good work.”

The boy buried his head into his father’s midriff, and his father threw his arms around him.

“You old softie,” said the man.

“The more you can find, the more I’ll knock off,” said Stone.

“For the 18th of May?” said the boy.

“Yes the 18th. And the 19th actually, let’s go crazy,” said Stone.

The boy disappeared one of the aisles and came back with some pork chops, couscous, and three punnets of strawberries. And he wasn’t done. He went back to get more. Coleslaw, quiche. Tomatoes. Even his father got involved. A roast chicken, some peppers. After a while they needed to go back and get a trolley to put all the stuff in. And then the printer ran out of ink, so Stone just started writing the prices on in pen. He was reducing things by as much at 95%. It was ridiculous. But he could tell how much it meant to them.

“No more cereal for pudding,” said the man. “For a while, at least.”

“Actually, forget about the dates,” Stone said. “Just bring me anything you want and I'll reduce it.”

The man and the boy left with two large trolleys of food. Stone expected questions later on that shift from his boss, but he didn't care. He wasn’t earning a living here, anyway – just a disposable income.

Upon realising he hadn’t taken a break for a while, Stone felt in his pocket for cigarettes, and put one between his lips as he walked through the stock room and upstairs. He lit the end just before walking into the smoking room, where Jennifer was sat.

“Hey,” he said.

“You up for your break already?” she said.

She opened the ringpull on her can of Coke and quickly put her mouth around the rim to catch the fizzy brown liquid she hadn’t expected to gush out so much. Stone hadn’t noticed. He stared at the woodchip wallpaper and tried to imagine the man and the boy unloading all those bags of food into whatever car the man drove. He wondered where they were going.

“Hey, I said are you on your break already?” said Jennifer.

Stone stirred. “Sorry. Yeah, I'm done for now,” he said.

“I haven't got much to do, either,” she said.

They both took long draws of their cigarettes and exhaled. Then Stone got up and walked towards the window and looked out over the near-empty car park. The streetlights didn't light up much.

“So anyway, I was thinking,” said Jennifer. “Do you want to get a drink somewhere when you finish? Like, just us two? Somewhere in town? I'm not at college tomorrow.”

Stone saw a couple of shadows next to a car’s open boot, and squinted as he tried to make out who it was. But he couldn't. It was too dark. It didn't look like the man and the boy. A car was waiting at the traffic lights, and he thought maybe that was them. When the lights turned green the car drove away. No more cereal for pudding, he recalled repeatedly, nodding slowly. No more cereal for pudding.

When he returned to his seat, the smoking room was empty. Jennifer’s cigarette withered away from where she’d clumsily stubbed it out, and the leather was still rising on the base of seat that she’d clearly only recently left. Stone noticed a brown puddle on the table where her Coke was, and thought about wiping it away.


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Theatre review: Blithe Spirit @
York Theatre Royal

Published by The Arts Desk

Some people say that, in the age of theatrical consultants, narrative deconstruction, and the so-called "multimedia performance", conventional theatre no longer cuts the mustard. But there are still those large swathes of any audience who love a smooth journey between a beginning, a middle, and an end. Who shuffle politely past others towards their seats, look expectantly towards the stage curtain, and know exactly what's coming. And then go home smiling rather than thinking afterwards.

Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit  is unapologetically a play for that public. It was mainstream before the word existed, becoming among the most successful shows that the West End and Broadway had ever seen when it was first produced in the 1940s. Even today, it is rarely far from view, as a concurrent West End production starring Angela Lansbury makes clear. In many ways the definition of the classic British farce, it features men sharing dry martinis and protracted anecdotes with women in ballgowns as they converge upon a comfortable Kent home populated by swells.

The story begins when novelist Charles Condomine (Andrew Hall) invites clairvoyant Madame Arcati (Nichola McAuliffe) to conduct a séance in his home, in a bid to gather material for his next book. Charles's idea backfires when the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Amy Rockson), turns up and repeatedly attempts to disrupt his marriage to second wife Ruth (Caroline Harker), who cannot see or hear her. For the next two-and-a-half hours, key ingredients of the traditional British mad house - folly, clumsiness, accusations, stiff upper lips, and of course abundantly crossed wires - take shape alongside the plot's twists and turns.

One quirky element of the York Theatre Royal production, directed by Damian Cruden, is the use of a voiceover (by Blair Plant, who also plays Dr Bradman) to introduce each scene with Coward's stage directions. Yet for all the invention behind this witty touch, which the Master would surely himself have admired, the show somehow fails to produce the audience laughter it probably should. Granted, most things that may once have provoked uncontrollable fits of the giggles among the wartime public only get sporadic chuckles today. Still, more could have been made of the script's persistent humour.

That said, much of Coward's wisdom continues to pack a punch - "how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit?" being one particular gem that I'll be keeping between my ears for a while. And the cast are terrific, notably Rockson, who manages to be convincingly tormenting, flattering and insecure as the high-maintenance apparition that is Elvira. McAuliffe's Arcati as expected steals the show with her bombastic demeanour and bizarre rituals.

The time-honored British farce may never be the future of British theatre, and there's perhaps not much more juice to squeeze out of this 70-year-old play. But like a true classic, Blithe Spirit  will rarely disappoint its audience. There are plenty of warm smiles as we are led out the theatre's exit and I find myself making a mental note of a play that is of its time - that phrase "of its time" very much underscored in my head.


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These words, like this

I start with a blank canvas. With nothing. Sometimes I start with words I’ve copied from an idea I had weeks, months ago. Not this time. I write the words on a page, like this. These words, like this. It makes me feel like I’m getting somewhere. I don’t want this – a self-indulgent story about me writing a story – to be the only place I get to. I want the place to be a journey. This is my starting point, this time.

Maybe I should write something about a conversation I was part of the other day. A couple of old friends, chatting about when they were kids. They stole a large, cheap bottle of whiskey from a convenience store, which is now out of business. They took it from behind the counter when the fat owner wasn’t looking, and ran out of the shop. They were chased around the block by some passing police officers – that’s bad luck – and made it perhaps a mile down the road, before they decided they could run faster without the bottle, so they threw it into some bushes near this factory and sped away. They were never caught by the police officers. Years later they were telling this story to someone else, and in doing so, wondered whether the bottle would still be in the same place they threw it. So they went back to have a look, and yes, there it was. The label had rotted off, but the dark orange whiskey inside was still there. And then they opened it and got drunk, belatedly. See, that is a cool story. Maybe nothing more than that.

So anyway, I’ve looked up and seen the blank canvas dotted with rows of lines, letters, words, and perhaps I’m making progress. Not checked the word count yet, though. Maybe 200? Oh, 306 – it’s in the bottom left of this Word document. I hadn’t realised that before. It’s important I keep writing. It’s the only chance I’ve had in a long time to get to write something I don’t have to – I’m a journalist in my day job – now, tonight. Oh, I’m fully aware it doesn’t always work like that. Inspiration can’t be arranged, sure. It would be pointless if it could be. But also convenient. Sporadic progress is quite frustrating. You want to be able to make short, but regular progress as a creative writer. The last story I wrote was perhaps a month ago. And now I have the chance to start something new.

Do I want a Pop Tart? Maybe. NO. I don’t. I shouldn’t. I’m not even hungry. Oh, this is it, I’m slowing down, losing momentum, now that an external pleasure has been flirted. In the zone I need to be. In the zone is thinking about memories, about love, tragedy, people, etc. Typing trains of thought gives a self-illusion of creative productivity – that’s why I’m doing this. So I’m back to the start. The canvas is filling up and I’ve checked in to my desk for the night. I have tonight, only tonight, the first night in a long time, to come up with something. Not for a publisher – God, no – just for me. My self-esteem, my identity, yada yada. And for you.

Just now I’ve decided the person in this story is called Helen. She starts her life in my story at the breakfast table. Not a middle America, Little House on the Prairie type breakfast table, with an actual cloth held down with pancakes and jam pots. A dull, modern breakfast bar. She sits on her stool and faces the wall, where there’s no TV or anything. She eats quickly to get out of her chair and do something more interesting. It’s important for me, the author, not to go back at this point, but I am going to anyway. The breakfast bar is based heavily, entirely even, on the one that was fitted at my previous address. It was, I think, a granite surface, and the wall was white. I ate Pop Tarts on there. You see how I came to the breakfast scene, now, if you’ve been following. I’ve just realised it myself. Helen eats Pop Tarts on the stool. She’s cut them into four, so they are easier to put in her mouth, and so the filling cools down more quickly. But it means that some of the red, strawberry jam, which lies within the pastry, had dropped onto her jeans. It leaves a dark, glossy stain, which frustrates her a little. Although she’s determined not to let it bother her too much, as her friend gave a speech within a conversation about life, and it made her think that she worries way too much. That bit didn’t happen to me, it just happened to Helen.

Helen has brown hair. She likes smoking and that’s what she does when she finishes her Pop Tart. She likes smoking outside, particularly. When it’s cold, and there are no other sounds but her, exhaling. She’s standing outside the house, by herself. Out the back, with the overgrown bits of grass at the edge of her square lawn, blowing at her feet, blowing against her leg. That sentence may need restructuring.

It’s a typically overcast day, but it would be too perfect if this meant that Helen was feeling similarly typical, mediocre, non-emotional. She is actually incredibly emotional. She’s reflecting on a profound experience as she gazes off into the middle distance. A few hours before, at a party in the night – she hasn’t yet been to sleep – she was told by someone who she used to like, that they used to like her. In private, within a room so full of people – bursting with other conversations and anecdotes and bragging and singing – that it seemed private. So she’s thinking about that right now, as a long collection of ash starts to droop at the end of her cigarette.

She’s standing there so still and smoking it so gently that the ash never falls until she throws the cigarette in the brown bin, where it floats in water next to others from other solitary moments. Helen lets the brown bin lid drop. She opens the door and heads inside to do something else. She’s wearing her shoes, again from the previous night, so decides it’s a sign that she must go out into the world. She has no direction. It’s a Sunday. She leaves through the front door and rounds the corner of her driveway, heading into a graveyard, where she sometimes gets high, alone.

The place is so full of the pink and mango colours of the flowers and weeds that she hasn’t seen as it’s usually pitch black when she’s here to get high. No one else is around as she walks, her walking boots making no sound as heel-toe, heel-toe, she navigates her way around the 19th-century gravestone, frowning by default, as she lies, deep in thought.

The mundane experience that affected her profoundly, is what she is thinking about. Not the one aforementioned. The thing that that admission, that the guy she used to like used to like her, in the small circle of the two of them, within the bursting room that was warm and smoky, led to. Basically, she ended up sleeping with him. So vivid, its memory is to her – it only happened a few hours ago – as she walks through the graveyard’s exit and into the main square of the town. Helen breathes more heavily when she recalls the more intimate and particularly physical moments of that encounter. It’s not like it happens to her all the time. In fact, that’s the first time anything like that’s happened in 18 months. He whispered things in her ear, she recalls. She winces when she remembers what she said back. Again, this totally doesn’t happen to her all the time. All the wincing and breathing heavily makes passing strangers look up at her and wonder what’s on her mind. Some of the people aren’t strangers.

Helen reaches for her cigarettes, but remembers where she left them before she even touches her left pocket where she usually keeps them. The wind would make them more difficult to light out here anyway. So she thinks about heading back. Stands there in limbo, for a while. It’s Sunday, and she has no direction, you see. She decides to head back to her house. Blossom falls from a tree into her hair. Maybe she’ll go home and watch a film, maybe someone will tap her on the shoulder on her walk back and remind her of something she needs to do today. Maybe the guy she slept with will turn up at her front door. Maybe he’s waiting at her front door right now. Maybe he’s walking right behind her.

I just don’t know. I’m going to eat a Pop Tart.


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Theatre review: Under Milk Wood @
York Theatre Royal

Published by The Arts Desk

A spiralling stage, horned with two raised prongs. A circular display, mounted on the back wall, which presents the buildings and coastline of a seaside town from a bird’s eye view. Subtle blues, yellows and reds that light up the stage to reflect the time of day. Spirited actors buzzing around like heated molecules in an educational science video as they each take on several roles.

If Under Milk Wood was exclusively “a play for voices”, as its author Dylan Thomas suggested, then such visual aspects of the classic Welsh tale would never have come into being. But here they are at York Theatre Royal, where Terry Hands’ stage production continues its major tour of the UK and the US. With stars including Game of Thrones regular Owen Teale and Torchwood’s Kai Owen, Theatr Clwyd Cymru's energetic revival of the play directed by Terry Hands marks the 60th year since it made its debut on BBC radio, and the centenary of Thomas’s birth.

Under Milk Wood was reportedly the Welsh poet’s attempt to create his own version of James Joyce’s Ulysses – taking in 24 hours in the lives of the residents of fictional Llareggub (read backwards for a smirk). Among the town’s more flamboyant characters are Blind Captain Cat, who dreams of dead former shipmates, Mog Edwards and his sweetheart Miss Price, whose romance only exists in the letters they write, barman Sinbad Sailor, who runs the bonkers Sailors Arms pub, bigamist baker Dai Bread, forever floor-scrubbing Polly Garter, Nogood Boyo, whose shenanigans cause mayhem in the wash house, and Lily Smalls, who longs for a more exciting life.

While the play is rich with anecdotal incidents, it lacks actual drama, and yet, as an inherently lyrical work, the action lies within the language itself. From when Teale’s First Voice says: “Listen! It is night. Come closer. Hear their dreams…” we are hooked from sunrise to sunset. Every line is delivered note-perfect, every word charged, every syllable treasured, every sound cherished to the last phoneme. Caryl Morgan’s spine-tinglingly evocative recital of an old woman’s dream about the Garden of Eden, and Richard Elfyn’s continuously impressive vocal range, make them highlights of a superb cast that carries no weak links.

Sometimes risqué, all times charming and cheerful, this relatively short piece moves quickly as Llareggub’s larger-than-life gaggle go about their existences – and we audience members wear warm smiles throughout as we become endeared to a simple way of life we can’t quite recall. It all ends just as it started, with each character encased in heavy sleep.

So then it’s our time to go, and leave through the theatre’s exit, emerge onto the lit street, and somehow try to relate what we’ve seen to our own lives. It’s not that difficult, I realise, as a friend bumps into me on my route home and suggests a drink in our local. It’s not quite the Sailors Arms, but it’ll do.


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Let me start by saying that a part of me always feels sad when a good conversation ends. Because I know I’ll never enjoy that same conversation again.

So I'm with Carl and his friend Renny in The Duke on the Saturday night after payday and the air inside is warm, very warm, with people. It’s so busy we can’t be seated. We barely even have space to turn away from the bar and find something to lean against after collecting our drinks.

Carl takes a swig of something orange and icy, and says: “Let's go after this.”

I say: “What?” and he says: “Let’s go after this.”

Renny looks distracted, maybe by the ringing of fruit machines, clinking of glasses, clashing of pool balls, or any of a number of things as constant in here. Constant, like the sound of distant footsteps in a hospital ward.

“Agreed,” I say. “But I think everywhere’s going to be packed, to be honest.”

Sometime later, I’m buying our third round in The Duke. The drinks are served in three different-sized glasses, which makes it tricky to take them back in one trip. But I do. By now we’ve found a spare stool next to the fire exit, and we’re taking turns to rest our legs. The way it’s worked out is that whoever buys the round gets to sit down, for a bit. Our crumpled coats pick up wet dust on a shelf above our heads as our empty glasses reflect our shoes. It's not the best night out we've ever had.

Carl says: “We’re leaving.”

“You’re leaving? What, now?” I say. “But I’ve got your drinks here.”

“Keep them,” says Carl.

“What? No, this is my round,” I say.

“Mate, we didn’t ask you to get another round,” says Carl. “We’re going back to mine for a smoke, alright?”

He reaches for his jacket as Renny opens the fire door, inviting in a blast of evening air that flutters posters against the wall and slides flyers across the floor. I’m still holding our drinks awkwardly. And Renny’s smiling for the first time tonight.

“Sorry man,” says Carl, the unlit joint between his lips quivering with each syllable. The door shuts with a windy slam.

After a couple of minutes, I head outside for a cigarette.

“I can give you one of these,” I say to this guy. “My friends left them.”

Someone once told me it’s surprising how many people want to know you when there’s a free drink in it.

“Sure,” the guy says. He flicks open the packet.

Or maybe it isn’t. I mean, surprising. Anyway, they were right.

“Thanks,” I say.

I take the only cigarette that isn’t filter-up in the packet.

“Woah, wait. Wait. That’s my lucky one,” the guy says.

He doesn’t smile, so I put it back, upside-down, as it was, and take another, as well as the lighter from the middle of the table.

“Sorry,” I say.

“You’re going to have to speak up. I’m deaf in one ear,” he says.

He puts down the glass Carl never touched and mimes scratching a record on a turntable. “Too much DJ-ing.”

I smile politely and take a seat opposite him.

“So which country are you from?” the guy says. “Where’s that accent from?”

“Accent?” I say.

Maybe it's something to do with my lips being numb, or that I’m shouting to make myself heard.

“No, I live not far away,” I say.

“Norway?” he says.

“No, not Norway, not far away!” I say.

“Lovely country,” he says.

“No, not...” I say.

I’m thinking that it’s not like this night could get any worse, and the accent just kind of slips out.

“Yes, Norway. I am from Norway,” I say.

I expect him to notice. But he doesn’t notice. Nobody notices.

“I've not been to Norway, but I'd like to go,” he says.

I'm thinking me too, but say something like: “Oh, you should!”

Then it starts to flow.

“You can visit me and my grandparents in the north, in Tromso!” I say.

Tromso’s definitely a place.

“It's beautiful there in the winter time!” I say.

It's come up when I’ve looked for holidays. I'm not sure it’s in the north, but this guy is less sure.

“Well I'd love to... what's your name? I'm Bill,” he says.

“My name is Bjorn,” I say.

“Well, Bjorn,” he says. He's still shaking my hand. “I'd love to, someday.”

We talk for 30 minutes like this. He tells me about his two kids in college, and his second wife, who died. And he wants to visit my grandparents in Tromso so much that I wish they existed. It seems like a good time to move on when he finishes Carl's drink and seems to expect another, so I tell him I’ll be right back and go to the bar alone. As I serve my time in the ridiculous roll-call of impatient men gripping bank notes and staring desperately at the working bartender, I feel really bad.

Then I sit down next to a group of four girls, and wait. A woman with olive skin, wearing green, is closest to me. I tap her shoulder.

“Excuse me, do you have the time?” I say, in the accent.

I point to where a watch isn’t on my wrist. I've already seen she isn't wearing one, but I'm thinking this could be a way in.

“Oh, you know what? I don't,” she says, I think in a Midlands accent. “Sorry.”

“That’s OK! What is your name?” I say.

She shrugs, turns her back, and everything falls into the same rhythm as before.

I say: “You are very beautiful!” but she doesn’t respond.

Back outside, the man I was talking to is smoking alone. But I’m with a woman now, it’s going pretty well, and I’m thinking please, nobody recognise me. This woman has a friend who isn’t drunk.

“Tromso sounds wonderful!” the woman says. “Why come here?”

“I am a student, here at the university,” I say. “I just love the buildings here, and the history of the place. It’s great! And you all are very beautiful, you British girls!”

The woman laughs hard; her friend squints.

“I love the British women,” I tell the woman. “They are beautiful. And you are beautiful.”

Blinking slowly, she brushes her fringe out of her eye and stumbles. I catch her before she falls down the concrete steps.

In my arms, looking up at me, she says: “Where are you staying tonight?”

“I sleep maybe in, how you say, hostel?” I say. “If they have room for me.”

“You can stay at mine,” she says.

Now her friend, who hasn’t yet spoken, steps forward.

“Hey, is it colder than this in Tromso?” says the friend.

“Uh... yes. Most of the year, it is,” I say.

“That’s interesting,” the friend says. She glares at me.

“Remind me, what’s the currency in Norway?” she says, folding her arms.

“Uh...” I say.

But I don’t get even one attempt.

“Come on Kate, I’ll take you home. This guy’s a weirdo,” she says.

Krone, is it krone? I think, as they descend the concrete steps. Or is krone the Czech Republic? It doesn’t matter, I’ve blown it.

At work, a couple of weeks later, I say to Carl: “What’s the currency in Norway?”

Carl checks.

“Krone,” he says. He reads on for a little while, before looking back across the desk at me. “Why? What’s funny?”


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Exciting news!

Well, sort of...

I'm now halfway through writing what will be my debut short story collection, Pillow Talk for Insomniacs. 

To celebrate, I've put the 16 stories on Wattpad – so if you've ever wondered what they look like side by side, or just want a quick read, then please, click the image below.


Inside They Talked about Love

Pete and Sarah had been our friends since secondary school. I say ‘our friends’ as if Dan and I had always been an item. We hadn’t. In fact, when the four of us first met, I couldn’t stand the sight of him – but that’s another story. I was with Pete back then, while Sarah and Dan had just started dating. I’d known Sarah since Brownies. She was one of my oldest friends. One of those girls who will never be a stranger, however rarely I see her in person.

Dan and I got together at university, and stayed together afterwards, kind of by default. Pete and Sarah had been living together for about a year – in a two-up, two-down, in the village in which we all grew up. But they had to move out when their landlord sold the house. They found a bungalow near Pete’s mother’s, and Dan and I hadn’t been to their new place.

Getting there didn’t take as long as I thought it would. I finished work early, and we got lucky with the lights, so we made it in pretty good time. Pete and Sarah came out to greet us as our car pulled up on their driveway, and helped us unload our stuff – a boot-full of snacks and wine bottles, and two matching leather sports bags with our clothes inside.

After we’d found our room and unpacked, Dan and I sat on the sofa in the living room. Pete swivelled on the computer chair, looked towards the open doorway, and shouted: “Sarah! Can you get me a drink? Just blackcurrant.”

He waited for a response, which failed to come. He didn’t bother asking again.

“Didn’t you have a cat before?” said Dan.

“Well,” said Pete. He licked his forefinger and rubbed away a mark on the wall. “Jake got stolen.”

“Stolen?” I said.

Wiping his hand on his jeans, Pete looked at me and said: “Months ago. He kept disappearing and not coming back for days. And then… then he just didn’t come back. We got really worried, of course. We asked neighbours if they’d seen him, printed a couple of posters… then we saw him, just hanging out down the road.”

Sarah came into the room and handed Pete a frothy purple drink. He thanked her, and watched her take a seat on the armchair in the corner.

“Sorry, where was I?” said Pete.

“You saw Jake down the road,” I said.

“Oh yes. So I ran towards him and called his name,” he said. “Over and over again. He wouldn’t even look at us! He ran in the other direction, into someone’s garden. So Sarah and I went to knock on the front door, and this guy answered. We asked for our cat back. But the guy wouldn’t give him back. He said he’d never seen Jake. Really stuck-up, he was. There was nothing we could do but go back and just hope Jake turned up. After a few days, he still hadn’t showed, so we went back to the guy’s house and knocked on the door. The guy came round the side door and said he’d still not seen him. I said: ‘He’s not coming back to our house because you obviously keep feeding him!’ On the way back, I caught a glimpse of Jake in his porch!”

Pete glanced over at Sarah, who had struck a lighter’s flame. She held it carefully against an incense stick.

“I swear I could smell smoked kippers coming through from the kitchen,” said Pete. “That’s why Jake never came back. That guy down the street kept feeding him, so he just went round there all the time.”

Sarah blew out the flame and smoke trickled up into the air. The incense stick’s amber glow reflected in the darks of Sarah’s eyes for the shortest of moments.

“He’d feed Jake smoked kippers and fresh milk every morning,” she said. “Smoked kippers and fresh milk! We can't keep up with that. I’m not going to feed my cat pigging kippers every morning, am I?”

Dan laughed.

“Sorry, you don't mind her lighting this, do you?” Pete said, pointing at the incense stick.

I shook my head. “Not at all,” I said.

Sarah scoffed.

“Your asthma doesn’t tend to bother you anymore, does it?” said Dan.

I shook my head again. “Not for years,” I said.

“Guys, do you want a drink?” said Sarah. “Juice, tea? I think there’s a bag of wine somewhere…”

“A bag of wine?” said Dan.

“Yes, a bag of wine with a plastic tap on it,” said Sarah, smiling. She stood up.

“Thanks, but, we have our own wine,” I said. “I’ll take a cup of tea, though.”

“Sure. Dan?” said Sarah.

“Let’s see this bag of wine,” said Dan.

“Dan, we’ve got our own,” I said.

He stood up and followed Sarah out the door, ignoring me. As they entered the kitchen, the sound of their distant laughter became the hum of the refrigerator. I crossed my legs and looked up at the clock. It was nearly six.

“Wow, is it that time already?” I said.

Pete laughed. “What do you mean? You only got here 15 minutes ago,” he said.

“No, not that… I just mean the day goes quickly when you’ve been busy,” I said.

My gaze followed a strip of angled sunlight from the laminate floor to one of the peeling windowpanes, which offered a view of the front garden to my right. The grass was more yellow than green. Swathes of uncut areas swayed in a wind that reminded us that the long, hot, breezeless summer would not go on forever. I yawned.

“Daisy, we’ve missed you. I feel like I haven’t seen you for ages,” said Pete. “Did you get my email?”

I continued to look outside as a sparrow hopped around the scorched turf. It jumped onto the driveway, and danced around our car’s exhaust, before it stumbled over one of the cracks in the cement.

“It has been a while,” I said. “Dan lost his job a few months ago, and my mother’s been ill. We would have come sooner.”

“Sarah told me about Dan,” said Pete.

The sound of glass smashing in the kitchen distracted us both momentarily.

“It’s a nice place you’ve got here,” I said.

“No, it’s not,” Pete said. He chuckled. “It’s not.”

*     *     *

Sometime later I was smoking outside. Sat on an upturned plant pot by the front door in my pyjamas, I folded my arms and wished I was wearing my jacket. It was slightly too cold to enjoy my cigarette. I especially liked to enjoy the cigarettes I smoked alone. I exhaled towards the streetlight beyond the driveway, watching smoke rise into the yellow haze, further into the dotted night above. So many stars were out. I took a moment to try, in vain, to identify a constellation. Every few seconds a car would pass from left to right, before their rear lights disappeared over the hill that, I believe, led to Pete’s mother’s place. I learned how to tell who was a bad driver just by when they changed gear.

Inside they talked about love. At least that’s what it sounded like, muffled through double-glazed windows and thick curtains. Dan was talking a lot, and Pete wasn’t saying much. I felt bad for Pete. I thought about what I was going to add to the conversation back inside as I twisted my cigarette stub into the ground and stood up.

“Just throw it where you like,” said a voice behind me.

I turned around, startled. It was Pete.

“Oh, were you about to go back inside?” he said.

“Jesus, Pete!” I said. “You scared me!”

He smiled and pulled out a cigarette of his own.

“Got a light?” he said.

I found a lighter in my pyjama pocket and handed it to him.

“Thanks,” he said. “Do you want another one?”

I said: “Sure, why not,” and took one from the packet. My heart was still racing.

“Sorry about dinner,” he said. “Sarah was convinced she’d defrosted the chicken.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.

Pete turned around and looked towards the back door. I could hear laughter through the front window, from where I was stood. Dan and Sarah were having a ball in there.

“Though it’s as much my fault as it is hers,” he said.

“Really, it’s fine,” I said. “The pasta was lovely.”

Pete handed back the lighter. He said nothing for a while, but I knew he wanted to.

“Daisy,” he said finally. “Did you get my email? The one I sent weeks ago. I need to know you got that message.”

“I did,” I said.

“You didn’t reply,” he said.

“I was afraid Dan would see it,” I said.

He nodded, and I smiled politely while holding his gaze. Another car clumsily changed gear as it staggered up the hill.

“I’ve never stopped being in love with you,” he said.

“Pete…” I said.

“Please, I need to tell you all this. I really do,” he said.

“Now? With Dan and Sarah inside?” I said.

“I’ve reached the point when I really don’t care anymore,” he said.

“Well I haven’t,” I said.

“I’m not putting words in your mouth, I’m just letting you know where I stand. I want to be with you. I love you,” he said. “I always have.”

He moved close to me and put his hand on my hip, my pyjama top fluttering gently against my goosepimpled body in the breeze. Then he undid one of my buttons and slid his other hand against my trembling flesh. His cigarette withered itself away at our feet.

“I can’t hide it any longer. If I can’t share the one life I have with you, I’m going to at least let you know how strongly I feel. Leaving you was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “There must be some way we can make this happen again, please.”

“Pete,” I said. “We’re not in school anymore. We’ve got different lives now, we really do. We moved on a long time ago. We’ve changed.”

“I haven’t. Circumstance has got in the way, but it hasn’t changed how I’ve always felt about you. I’d give up everything I have for you,” he said. “And I know you feel the same way.”

I didn’t resist as he put both his hands on my skin. I was completely lost in the moment, and I have to say, it felt surprisingly great.

“You’re still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

We leaned towards each other and kissed in the moonlight like we were 18 again. It was euphoric. After our mouths came apart, we rested our foreheads together and shut our eyes and cried together, briefly.

Nobody asked any questions when we went back inside, and I soon headed upstairs to bed.

*     *     *

Dan packed away the last of the booze he hadn’t drunk as I waited behind the wheel with my sunglasses on and the engine growling. “Don’t forget this, Dan!” said Sarah.

She struck a dramatic pose, and he laughed. It was obviously an in-joke. I didn’t even care. Once Dan shut the passenger door, I pulled out of the driveway, the bottles in the back clinking as the car rolled over the kerb. I honked the horn and everyone waved goodbye.

On top of the drive back, I had a lot to think about. I loved Dan. I did. But life ticks away one second at a time. This was the youngest I was ever going to be again. Maybe he just wasn’t enough. I needed to get home and think. Just think, in complete silence. I decided I wasn’t going to talk to anyone about it.

Dan squeezed my thigh and kissed me hard on the cheek. He hadn’t brushed his teeth so his breath stunk of booze.

“Can you not do that while I’m driving?” I said.

“Whatever,” he said.

I felt him glaring at me.

“What’s with Pete?” he said. “He barely said a word to me.”

I didn’t respond.

“Did you hear me? What’s wrong with you?” he said. “What have I done?”

“Nothing, I’m just tired,” I said.

He looked away, unconvinced. I kept my eyes on the road and put my foot down on the accelerator. The roundabouts came and went.

*     *     *

We were very nearly home when Dan’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Staring at the screen, he just kept saying: “Wow.”

“What is it?” I said.

“Oh my god, Pete’s left Sarah,” he said. “Wow.”

“What? When?” I said.

“Just now, by the sounds of it,” he said.

My clammy hands turned the wheel as I rounded the corner of the junction that led to our street.

“What? Where did he go?” I said.

“She doesn’t know,” he said. “He just threw his suitcase into the car and left.”

A shiver climbed my spine. My foot quivered above the brake pedal. I pulled the car into a parking space in front of our house. Never had its exterior looked so grey, despite it being washed in the epic sunlight of another sweltering afternoon. Dan opened the passenger door and got out. He raised his phone to his ear. I realised I wasn’t going to have the time I wanted to think things over. I kept the car in gear.

“What did he say?” he said, to Sarah on the phone.

I waited for Dan to walk around the car before I made my move. As soon as I felt him unlock the boot, I edged the car forwards. “Hey!” he said. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to get food,” I shouted through my open window, creeping further ahead. I improvised. I was operating purely on instinct, and I couldn’t stop. The cogs were in motion.

“What are you talking about? We did a food shop before the weekend,” he said. “Daisy, stop! Stop the car!”

He ran up to my door, but I sped away before he could open it. I was halfway down the street in no time. In the rear-view mirror, I saw him standing in the middle of the road. He was still on the line to Sarah. Our elderly neighbours were out in their front yard.

At first I felt sick. But then, I felt good. Jesus, I felt more than good. I felt tremendous. I laughed, and kept laughing, uncontrollably, for a full two minutes or so, only stopping to light a cigarette. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. I guess I loved Pete too. I needed to speak to him. A Carpenters song played on the radio as I approached the intersection. I sang the chorus loudly. It was the first time I’d heard my own singing voice in years.

When it was my turn to cross, my phone rang. I hoped it was Pete. The traffic was busier than usual, and this was an unfamiliar road. I didn’t know where I was going. I was just driving. Cars leapt towards me and veered abruptly away, while others waited in their lanes, their windscreens and mirrors reflecting harshly the sunlight that painted everything else golden. I was desperate to answer the phone call. I also needed the toilet. As I turned right, a truck turned into my path and honked its horn. Its front was at a right angle to its longer back, which took up most of the lane I was turning into. The screech of its brakes grew louder and closer, while other cars stopped to give me the room to make it round the truck. It didn’t look like enough space. My phone was still ringing. My damp palms gripped the wheel as I swerved sharply to the left and grimaced, and suddenly, thankfully, the exit to my right opened up. I was safe.

I pulled up somewhere as soon as I could and answered my phone. It was Pete.

“Pete!” I said.

“Daisy,” he said.

“I’m on the road, by myself. I know what’s happened. I’ve left Dan,” I said.

There was no response at the other end.

“Pete?” I said. “Are you there? Hello?”

“I’m here, Daisy,” he said.

“Where are you?” I said.

“Don’t panic, I love you,” he said. “I’m driving to your place.”

“No, no! Don’t go there! I’ve left Dan, I’m not there,” I said.

“OK,” he said. “Meet me at the airport.”

“The airport? Where? At the entrance? Pete? What do we do now? Hello?” I said before I realised the line was dead.

It didn’t matter. I was free. With a nervous smile on my face, I dropped my phone and sunglasses onto the passenger seat. It was almost dusk. I turned on the ignition and headed for the horizon, thinking: if this is possible, what else is possible?


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