Some things, in the course of 2017 slowly trickling into 18, have changed. My favourite coffee shop is now Caffe Nero instead of Costa. Instead of catching the 34 bus, I catch the 142. My hair is short again. I take fluoxetine instead of sertraline. And I’m a student again.
I’m working on a novel. Working on a novel is easy when you’re fifteen because you don’t know what a self-indulgent piece of work you are then. I wish I could buy back that mindset, but my loan doesn’t stretch to time travel. Writing as a craft is hard, but it’s technical, and you can learn how to get better at those techniques. Writing as something you – rubbishy, inadequate you, who can’t even remember to take your bins out properly – sit down and do, is another kind of difficult. And it feels indulgent to talk about, because when I talk about it, I’m saying (silently, under the words) please tell me I’m good. My self-concept is Jeb Bush, shoulders slumped, asking you to: PLEASE CLAP.
I wanted to share a very Nottingham, very undergrad story. I wrote this for a workshop where we were meant to work on a piece inspired by Jon McGregor’s collection, ‘This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You’. When I read it back, it makes me feel like I’m in the Trent Building again on a Friday morning, counting how long it is until me and my friends can get an early lunch. It couldn’t feel any more campusy if one of the grey squirrels from Portland Hill delivered it by hand.
A short story, after Jon McGregor
And sometimes it happens like this: she can feel her phone vibrating in her pocket but the mums who just finished their part-time shift are arriving one after the other and fast, scooping up babies from cots and arms and floors. It’ll be O2, doing a customer survey; it’ll be Cancer Research, talking about her direct debit. And she is so busy, the sort of busy people who don’t have a baby staring full in their face and clutching their hands would not understand – Lily-May, eleven months, ruddy-cheeked like a farmer, has been on the verge of taking her first steps all week. The other nursery nurses have been cheering Lily-May on in high voices, but she does what she did when her own children were learning to walk: moving away, inch by inch, quietly and carefully, until entire rooms, houses, continents have been traversed.
She thinks about her son, two hours ahead of her, and how he will leave her in a month’s time with the remnants of his tan and his A-Levels and his duvet and his newly brace-free smile. Lily-May makes a wild shrieking noise; her small, damp mouth is open in a grin. She sits heavily on the ground. She’ll want a nap soon, anyway. The babies need an almost unlimited supply of naps. They are always in blankets; they are always crying in the dry, crotchety way tiredness makes them.
But her phone is still vibrating and so she tells Tanya she’s just popping to the loo, and there she pulls her phone from the pocket of her plain black trousers and that’s how it happens, amongst a mise-en-scene of toilet paper and dripping taps and a hissing, murmuring cistern. She hears a girl’s voice. She hears a seagull cawing. She hears men shouting to each other in a language she doesn’t understand. It had happened earlier but this is when it happens to her and in that distinction it becomes, somehow, real. A young man (a boy) lying face down in the ocean. His limbs hanging loosely beneath him. Face down and breathlessly still.