ShutUp30.28: Burial Grounds


Write a death scene for the prompt “surrounded by family”.

Edith leaned back on the mauve armchair in the corner of the sitting room. The springs had gone back when it still lived in the back room at number 56, before her older sister Maud had passed. Lucky that she weighed so little these days, and had so little extra flesh to be troubled by the lumps and bumps, she thought. Silver lining to everything. That’s our Edith.

The lace curtains were drawn, but through the crack in them she could see kids straggling home from school, uniforms already askew with the promise of freedom. Tyler would be about their age, she thought, though he was slight and small, still a boy. It had been too long, she thought. He’ll walk through the door all of six foot eight, sprouting hair everywhere, you’ll see. She couldn’t wait to see him. He’s a good lad.

Victoria wanted to be called Tori. With an “I” at the end, to distinguish her from the political party. Edith didn’t let on that she had been voting Conservative for years. Who else was there to vote for? In between her job and her political friends, Victoria didn’t come around half as much as Edith would have liked.

The mantelpiece clocked ticked gently in its chrome-effect case. Edith felt her eyes begin to close. 5 o’clock, she’d said they were coming. Already a quarter to six. They’d ring the doorbell when they got here. No harm if she slept until then.

When Victoria did arrive, Edith could no longer be woken.

ShutUp30.6: Do Or Do Not


Today’s prompt was to write a mini-report about characters and plot arc in a movie that you’d seen. I’m not a fan of these non-creative-writing prompts, so I chose do not.

But I can’t do nothing on this, the sixth of my thirty days, so I found this site and used a random number generator to give me

  • Literally, one by one everyone on Earth is dying. One by one, one minute at a time,
  • on the cheapest group shuttle to the airport.
  • I am a rogue cop turned librarian.

I wrote for fifteen minutes.

Edina worked on the Facilities Management desk, auburn perm only semi-visible behind the neat but towering stack of papers in her in-tray. The papers never seemed to percolate through to the out-tray, no matter how much frenzied hen-peck typing happened to her keyboard. A plea for privacy, I had always suspected. A form of psychological defense.

Edina died at 7:47am on the cheapest group shuttle to the airport. Hell of a way to go. She was leaning over Nadia (Stanton, Accounts, stripped her way through college) to offer Jim (Wilmes, Library Assistant, extensive amputee porn collection) an iced bun. She’d made them specially, she’d said more than once. Given her choice in bakery items, I would have suspected a simple coronary.

Except… except. When you’ve seen as many heart attacks as I have – caused a few, even – you learn to spot the signs. I’ve never seen a person just flicker out like she did. It took the staff of Denton Centenary Library a few beats of their own hearts before they panicked.

“Is she-?” “She’s OK, right, I mean…” “Can somebody, uh…?”

“Let me through,” I said, threading past Ed (Asare, my junior at Digital Services, known in dogging circles as “The Chokehold”). I held my fingers to the base of Edina’s neck, listened for breath, shook my head slowly and sadly, and pronounced her dead.

According to several sources, she is survived by three African spurred tortoises, Morris, Boris and Doris.

About the people who have been dying ever since, one a minute, every minute, my sources are silent.

Archive: You may now turn over the paper


A gym hall, the late ’90s. A faint smell of sweat hangs in the air – a memory of exertion past, or anticipation of what is to come?

“You may now turn over the paper.”

Swissshh. And so we do.

Read the poem below and answer the question that follows. You are advised to spend thirty minutes on this section.

Ambulances – Philip Larkin

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.

Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;

For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there

At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.

Analyse the poem with reference to its form, language and meaning.

I did not analyse the poem. What I did was cry, hunched over the wooden desk, flooding the crisscrossed graffiti of ages indiscriminately, SKINS RULE OK and METALLICAAAAA alike, shoulders heaving, trying not to let it show, trying not to be the laughing stock, trying not to dampen the precious exam paper on which I was to write nothing.

And I thought I’d gotten away with it too, until a voice cut through the tangle of my thoughts as I tugged my school bag out of the middle of the bottom of the sea of possessions outside the exam hall. “A word, Caroline. If I may.”

I think I told my teacher that my grandmother had died, which she had, and that I’d been to her funeral, which I had. We never spoke of it again.

Did I cry because the poem, speaking as it does of the nearness at every moment of our lives of death and grief, made me think of granny? Was I reminded of the cosy darkness at the back of the room where we coloured things in, played in the rocking chair and drove small sports cars recklessly in circles in the shadow of granny’s friend’s Bill’s chair, over whose shoulder you could read the strange newspaper with the shiny-faced naked women and the big shouty headlines?

Or was it something altogether more selfish that seized me that day? Was it a nascent sense of how grief would impinge on my own young life? An infantile sense that the text was chosen just to spite me, unshakeable in my belief that such things could only have happened to me?

When this moment came back to me this morning, unannounced and unbidden, it was painted in clear, clean lines: background cause + immediate cause = weepy effect. The more I thought about it, however, the less sure I became. The me at the funeral was small, and in the way, and wearing borrowed clothes. The me that sat in that exam hall was, for all the misdirected angst and emotion, beginning to bounce tall in her silver Dr Martens, starting to dream of brighter futures and dreaming spires. It feels like there were years between the two.

UK exam hall

The Great British Exam Hall (By WahTee (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Memory is a curious thing, something that bends itself to needs we don’t even know we have, without even letting us know it’s doing so. Hear a story often enough and you’ll start to believe you were there. Believe you were there and hey presto! you were the life and soul, a raconteur sans pareil. Supply it with a disjointed story and narrative will grow up like bindweed to fill the cracks.

And there was no exam hall, no ancient desks, no sea of bags. Nothing rested on this exam, really. But there again you see, narrative shall out. What is it they say? Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

I still cried, though. And I still don’t know why.

From here on November 7th 2012.

Archive: Saying goodbye


In 2001, at the tender age of 21, I said goodbye to my friends and set sail for a small town in a rural part of Japan. It was the second time I had ever flown anywhere. I was to be a sensei, an educator, an enlightener, a bringer of English to row after row of bemused Japanese teenagers.

My two years in Sanyo did much to form who I am today. They awakened my love of language, my thrill at the challenge of life out on a limb, my addiction to culture shock. They also taught me a great deal about the kindness of strangers. A small group of kind-hearted people welcomed me warmly into their lives and homes in a way that I will never forget.

One of these people was Keiko Tsuno, town councillor and de facto head of an affectionately boisterous household of fifteen, swelled on most evenings by friends, homestay students, and wide-eyed young English teachers. She was a force of nature, always on the go from work to pickle-making to sign language to pottery to cooking for half the town most evenings, ending the day with “Any time, please come in my house!” She somehow found the time to help me beyond measure.

On October 18th 2009 my friend Keiko said goodbye, after a long battle with cancer. She will always be in my heart.

From here on October 30th 2009.