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May 07, 2007

A half–empty bottle of scotch

So I’ve written a story – a story I quite like, actually, that I’d like to put in my portfolio next week. But I don’t think it quite works, and I don’t know why. If you want, have a read, and see what I say at the bottom.



A vase of tulips exploded against the wall in a thunderstorm of blue porcelain and cold water.

‘FUCK!’ screeched Claire, reaching for her favourite lamp, ‘FUCK!’

A starling fluttered onto the perch outside the window, a flicker of wing briefly slipping a shadow over the pregnancy test on the dresser.

The base of the lamp burst like a meringue against the corner of the bookshelf, a blast of ceramic dust frosting over the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

The starling ruffled its feathers against a whip of Spring wind, and flicked its head sharply to the recently re-filled bird feeder that had been installed two years earlier by Mac a week before the accident.

Claire had blamed herself. Freak winds had brought in a cold spell that descended upon them from across the moors in a tide of sleet and snow so sudden it made them dizzy. He’d broken her mother’s mug. They’d been having coffee, which had been significant for a reason she could no longer remember. The mug, long associated with afternoons at her mother’s house in Henley, lay in green and gold shards over the flagstones, and Claire was angry. She stormed upstairs and slammed the door to the bathroom with a whiff of blossomy bubbles and watched the snow begin to brush against the window as her toes popped from under the lather at the other end of the tub.

Mac had had to do his show, and had left, knowing better than to try and interrupt her brooding. Had they been speaking, she would have warned him to drive safely, and somehow by the funeral that omission had transfigured itself in her head to become guilt. He might have driven a fraction slower had he been thinking of her as he traversed the icy corners, Claire thought.

She wasn’t to know that that wouldn’t have helped. Mac’s death was the responsibility of the cigarette he had been smoking at the time to help him overcome the nausea of driving at night. When he had been seven, a rabbit had caused his mother to swerve the Vauxhall from the tarmac in a fantastic cacophony of moonlight on spinning metal that had landed the car inverted in a lake of algae and autumn leaves. The terror of icy water, the desperate rattling of the seatbelt buckle and the scream of his mother becoming a gargle in the vicious grey darkness repeated themselves in his brain as he turned out of Claire’s snowy driveway and the lighter flared under his Lucky Strike. Four miles outside of Maidenhead the third smoke of the drive collapsed in a cough from his lips and burned sharply his thigh through his smart trousers. His hand shook on the wheel and the car slammed side-on into a truck parked at the side of the road.

But Claire didn’t know, and shivering in the graveyard, pock-marked with beds of dead flowers slaughtered by the un-seasonal snow, she had cried with guilt into her brother Patrick’s brown woollen jacket that smelled like the back of his car, and reminded her of driving to Oxford in long summers with him and Trent, cannabis smoke coiling up the windows against a rush of dappled sunlight through deep greens and rapid sky blues. Trent would do the outward trip and she’d drive them home, leaving them to kiss each other on the back seat, and listen to the rustle of their shirts and hair as she made sure not to drive too fast so that the journey would last a little longer.

She slept at Patrick’s after the funeral, listening to distant sirens float up seven storeys to the window, and thought about meeting Mac in the sweet shop when she was fourteen. His mother Angela employed her, and Claire would dispense sherbet lemons and bonbons from tall glass jars, weighing them out how Angela told her she remembered them doing in Cornwall when she was growing up. The shop was a Henley curiosity, and the days were slow. Claire spent them listening to Angela tell her about her son – the son who wants to be an athlete, wants to be a writer, and is today an actor, whose performance as Macbeth will win him a nickname that will last a lifetime.

He ended up on the radio. He was four years older than her and came around on Friday afternoons. She’d blush when he sneaked a fruit gum from behind the counter and gave her a wink. He’d tell her his dreams by the river, after Angela began closing up and made him promise to walk Claire home.

Somehow through the tangle of university they’d become married, insanely, in Cardiff, with such spontaneity that only five friends and her father were able to make it.

Nine years later there were no children. Her dead father’s house was filled instead with a burgeoning collection of hand-crafted figurines. These were all that she was able to think about as she walked around Patrick’s sitting room at four o’clock in the morning, wrapped in his musty duvet and eyeing his layout of framed photographs. Their mum and dad, before the divorce. Patrick in South America. Claire graduating. Her, Patrick and Trent grinning at a picnic in University Parks.

Trent had moved back to the States when he was twenty-three, leaving Patrick a letter, his jacket, a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations signed by one of the dons and a half-empty bottle of scotch. Patrick had spent nine days on her floor in Bath until the warden discovered him and he had to leave. He went travelling a month later.

The water from the tulips dripped gradually towards the carpet as it soaked into the wallpaper, and Claire sat back against the bed, exhausted. The clock chimed in the next room and she thought of how long she had until Harry returned, flicking her eyes to the shopping list she’d written out that he had forgotten to take. Avocados. Milk. Disposable biros. Bird-seed.

Her feet were cold. She left the bedroom, its covers still askew from their morning scuffle, and looked out of the kitchen window at the empty driveway as she had done two years ago. the kettle whistling and reaching a fragrant screech.

She wondered when he’d be back.


Okay, so that was it. Now the problem: it’s not sad enough. I wrote this a few months ago and I think it’s so desperately sad, but in a way that doesn’t shine through. The love of Claire’s life has died, she falsely blames herself, and now, two years on, she finds herself pregnant in a relationship with another man who’s just an inferior replacement – a man who can never match up to Mac, but with whom we are led to believe she will stay, because Mac couldn’t give her children.

Does this work, at all? Feedback much appreciated. And if you have no idea but enjoyed reading it anyway, brill. Glad I made your day better.

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