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.


ShutUp30.19: Walk What Way?


Rewrite yesterday’s prompt with a different trajectory.

A lone light shone in the house. The rest of the neighbourhood stood in shadow. Not a thing moved.

Eleanor relished the serenity, stilling her breath to almost nothing. It was incredible what the body could make do with, when it was just ticking over. When it wasn’t running from pillar to post, at the mercy of helpless mouths.

Gareth was a good lad. A good man. Upright. Dependable. She wished he came around more, but she could hardly have asked him to stay. What was there in a town like Rhyl, for a brisk young man with the whole world to come?

The soothing voice interrupted her thoughts. Begin wiggling your fingers and toes. Awaken your whole body.

Yoga still felt like something of a luxury, but it eased the pain in her pelvis and helped her feel almost sprightly. She’d caught sight of herself in a mirrored display at KwikSave the other day, and had to hide a smile at how poised she was looking. I could pass for ten years younger, she thought. If there was anyone here to see me.

She rolled up to sit cross-legged, following the voice through several breathing cycles, until it signed off. Namaste.

Eleanor stood, her thoughts going to her scar as she stopped her hands from doing. Eleri hadn’t asked to be conceived, hadn’t wanted to be born. They’d opened Eleanor up, the doctors, and let the darkness in.

She bent over slowly and rolled up the yoga mat, propping it in its corner. Time for bed.

ShutUp30.12: A Matter of Perspective


Denny’s, Sunday. Suzuki-san, Hiromi-chan and the kids. Daddy is nowhere to be seen.

The kids hardly see their dad these days. Most mornings I’m unsure whether he’s even been home. If he does warm his side of the bed for a few hours, it’s cooled again by the time the sun comes up. How easily we slipped into being mum and dad.

“Mama! Mamaaaa!” Mi-chan shouts, at exactly the pitch and volume that somehow plugs straight into my nerves. She’s coloured in a picture of a wiener on legs that comes with the kid’s meal. She’s coloured the wiener green. “Cute!” I say, in chorus with the other mums.

Across the restaurant from us, there’s a couple. Japanese guy, Western female. She’s tall and leggy, with brutally cropped hair, and hasn’t made much of an effort to look feminine. He’s tall – very tall, for a Japanese man – and wearing dark jeans and a dark sweater, the kind of clothes you’d wear to commit a highly visible crime.

They’re clearly a couple. They clearly spent the night together. But there’s an absence hanging over the table – of energy, of flirtation, or comfort. Neither looks happy. They look like they’re each tired of not being happy. There’s a sadness clinging to the corners of her smile, a resignation in their playfulness.

“Waaaaah!” says Yu-kun, Suzuki-san’s younger boy. He’s somehow slipped down into the high chair, to the point where the plastic cuts into his legs, and is kicking wildly. It’s only driving him further down, which is winding him up further. The volume increases and we three mums crowd over him, smiling broadly, coaxing soothingly.

By the time he quiets down, somehow, their relationship is over.



We built our kingdom
on the swings,
thrilling to the danger
of the air through our hair
and the void beneath,
learning solidarity
through gravel-scarred knees
and disapproving glances.

I’ve watched you rise and fall,
and lose a few teeth
to cold stone and concrete.
When you swing harder,
your feet tread clouds,
leaving footprints on the sky.
I won’t let anybody hurt you
not then, not now, not ever.


Prompt: This would be her last meal with them

Empty wine glass

Welp, that didn’t go sho bad…

This would be her last meal with them. It didn’t take a genius to realise that. Mr and Mrs Hamish – her with her squeaky-white pearls and blue rinse and he in his three-piece suit, more mustache than face, both sat up so ramrod straight they probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid if you inserted a pole up each of their arses – they hadn’t exactly warmed to her. She didn’t entirely blame them.

No, she blamed Hamish, the man himself, currently attempting to burrow himself into his ridiculous pseudo-artsy cravat before either party could decapitate him. What a coward. What a wretched, craven, sexy, sexy coward. There was no way he would ever wrap his sexy, sexy coward’s body around hers again.

“Och well, might as well make the most of a bad joke”, she thought, reaching across to where they’d parked the frightfully expensive Chateau de Collapso and pouring herself as generous a measure as physics would permit. Mr Hamish had earlier pronounced it “really rather splendid”, before – and she swore she hadn’t even touched a drop by this point – whinnying to himself.

She looked up, laughing to herself, and froze. The entire table was staring back, except Mr Hamish, whose eyes had become unfortunately fixated on the squid captured in mid ink splooge tattooed between her breasts as she’d swooped on the vino.

“Did I say that out loud?”

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.