Chick-Lit: The Cover Up

My article about the misconceptions of chick lit has appeared in Know Magazine, an independent online literary magazine which is devoted to artistic expression through art and writing.

NEW! Feature: “The phrase ‘chick lit’ first appeared during the 1980’s. The term took off after the 1995 anthology titled ‘Chick lit: Post-feminist Fiction’. More recently everyone refers to (or blames) Bridget Jones instead. Defined as ‘sex,shoes and shopping’ by some media, this often overlooked and disparaged genre actually contains some of the best, deepest and most well-written literature beneath the often frivolous covers and sleeves,” writes Clare Doran.

Read the article at:
http://www.know-magazine.net/index.php/feature/94-chick-lit-the-cover-up

To find out more or to submit to KNOW Magazine email  info@know-magazine.net.

Publication in The Subtext Anthology

My short story Drought has been published in an ebook. The Subtext MagazineSubtext Anthology is now available on amazon for kindle. This Anthology is a collection of works including short fiction, poetry and essays about the process of writing, written by a new generation of writers.

Overview of Drought:

Dealing with the theme of loss, I take this to the apocalyptic extreme through the journey of two boys who have lost everything and who are trying to find safety. But one of them has a dangerous secret and not everyone will work together for survival in this new world.

It’s available at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Subtext-Anthology-ebook/dp/B00C9GDZTG/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1365461994&sr=1-1&keywords=subtext+anthology

You can follow Subtext on Twitter @SubtextUk or facebook

Read my short story in Argument and Critique

My short story ‘Dancing at Discos and Holding Hands on Day Trips’ has been published in Argument and Critique.

This is an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed, open access, international, online journal. The articles aim to stimulate debate and critical thinking around controversial topics. They welcome submissions at any time from academics, service providers, service users and campaigners. They are interested in research papers, creative pieces and writings that focus on social reform in policy and practice.

You can find my story here and please also check the website for details on how to submit your own work: http://www.argumentcritique.com/published-articles.html

The Barber of Our Lady’s

I’m working on a collection of stories with the theme of ‘Living with Learning Difficulties’. It shows the viewpoints of the different members of one family. The latest story below shows an experience in school from the perspective of an outsider. To read the first story which gives us an insight into the world of Margie, the Mother in ‘All Day Breakfast’ click here

The Barber of Our Lady’s

At primary school, I was ready with words.  But I ended up writing and crying on the first day and I think that set the pattern for my life really. I drew out each letter of my name carefully, chewed on the pen, felt the uncomfortable plastic chair struggling even with my small frame.  But I was ahead of myself, and unfortunately ahead of the teacher, Mrs Hedgerow, who hated me for it.

‘What are you doing you stupid little girl?’ she ripped the page of carefully formed letters from my desk and watched me cry.

Of course I was the opposite of stupid, especially in that school. Someone on my table had even started eating the paper like a rabbit. I had picked up the pen and passed six months of her lesson plans.  School made me slow down.

Neil Thompson played tick with me on the first day he arrived. He turned up one day a couple of months into this madness, just out of the blue. Me, Neil and Jenny Roberts who had long golden hair and regularly wet herself, ran around the playground with a sense of freedom that later became unknown when the Rat Pack established themselves as the leaders of our school year.

Thomas O’Brien was the male lead and insisted on being called Uncle O’Brien by everyone, at the age of six.  He ran a kind of playground ‘Sopranos’.  Lisa Matthews, ran the WAGS section of this.

One day she made everyone sit down so she could cut their hair. I look back on that scene and see Lisa as the perfect camp commandant.  She even had the listless eyes.

Snip, snip, snip. The teacher noticed two haircuts later.  Jenny Roberts was the first victim. Yellow hair mixed with yellow wee.  I was victim number two. I had been a willing victim.

Dad was livid. Absolutely did his nut. Mum told me I didn’t have to do things to fit in. I felt like telling her that nothing would help me fit in. I didn’t want to fit in with these people, playground Sopranos and Sweeny Todds like Lisa Matthews.  Although I did really. The haircut was a moment of lonely madness.  I did something far worse than the haircut anyway. I cut off Neil, not his short locks of brown hair, but his friendship, constant smiles and podgy hand ticking at my school jumper.

He was good at tick but not at anything else. The teacher had trouble pinning him down, getting his hand to fit around the pen, make letters on the page.  A few weeks in and Neil was only coming to our school a couple of days a week, Our Lady of Martyrs, no one who came out of that school was a martyr believe me.  We asked Mrs Hedgerow, we all referred to her as hedgehog more as childish simplicity than precociousness, where he went on those other days.

‘Bunny-rabbit school.’ she said, lips closed around the words inviting no questions.

Everyone was jealous.  This made things worse for Neil.

He would be dropped off by taxi, walk up to the school entrance with a woman who was not his Mum, because she came at the end of the day, knock on it and be let in. He never came to morning playground. One day, the door opened before he could knock and a person came out. Rather than go in through the open door, he returned to the taxi and began the routine again. The woman would follow and say nothing.

We were the three misfits, except Jenny reshaped herself after the haircut.  Nobody minded the occasional slip of wee through the knickers. She became a twat when she realised that was the way into the Rat Pack, losing locks was not enough to sustain her new position. She soon found it in Neil.

‘It’s cool this.’  Jenny said about the new line tick game we had invented.
’It’s not cool at all. I’m really warm.’ Neil had answered smiling.

Jenny laughed. ‘Haha he’s a mong.’

‘He must be a mong.’ That was the word on the playground. No one really understood it apart from that it was bad. Jenny was proud that she had brought this in. Lisa Matthews let her play with the Rat Pack. We were overheard.

‘Who taught you that word?’ Mrs Hedgehog asked, glasses on the end of her nose.

‘My Dad,’ she answered with unsure pride.  A letter went home.

Neil loved art.  I say art but we were all finger-painting nightmares. He used to draw attention to himself by refusing to wear the shirt to protect his clothing – the feeling of the fabric against his skin caused him distress. His parents agreed with his school that he can wear a loose-fitting apron instead.

‘Mrs Mong,’ Lisa Matthews called him.  Everyone laughed.  She said it just to us so that the teachers didn’t hear. I was one of the ‘us’ by that stage.

Even for those two days a week in Our Lady of Nutters, his life must have been hell. Neil tried to smile at everyone again even when the word didn’t leave.

‘Eee stay away from that big, fat mong.’

Uncle O’Brien pushed him away from the games. Neil looked at me hopefully, touched my arm in a tick. I looked away from him.

‘Are you with that mong?’ Lisa Matthews persisted.

‘No.’ I couldn’t look at Neil. I was allowed to join the game.

We were like cats on that tarmac playground, fought over territory and never helped each other out; line tick, running across the white lines while the boys kicked footballs past us and at us.

Neil’s Mum came to the school.

‘Georgina is your friend isn’t she?’ she said pointing at me. I wanted to be. But I wasn’t. Neil shook his head from side to side. His Mum wasn’t looking.

At dinner times Neil went back to the classroom and sat with the teacher. We sat in the canteen with lumpy mash and sad sausages, cakes that looked like they’d been around for too long, icing tainted with boredom, cherries that were glazed over instead of glazed, fudge cake that was fudged when being delivered and was always squashed against the plate, ice cream that drooped in bowls. I didn’t know what mong meant but it was bad. Neil’s smile faded.

Dinner time bullying was dished out for most people anyway.

‘Want a sweet?’

‘Suck your feet.’
‘What’s a mong?’ I got there before the letter. Mum had a pinny on which was layered with drawings of cakes and loaves of bread. She never cooked those things in her life.  The deep fat fryer with its globs of white-yellow fat, the freezer with its ready food and the microwave were her main weapons.

‘Don’t use that word.’ She looked at me for a moment. ‘Who’s taught you that?’

‘Lisa Matthews was saying it in the playground.’ I lied. I couldn’t say it was Jenny.  I invited Jenny around for tea instead of Neil. I wanted to be just like all the other kids, a cruel bastard.

‘Oh the barber of Our Lady’s learning new words now is she?’ Mum never liked Lisa Matthews.

‘Can I have a friend around for tea?’

Mum smiled, thinking I meant Neil.  She must have thought that I was turning over a new leaf.

When I was younger I just thought things had to be. I didn’t know about choice. I didn’t know that I could be friends with Neil anyway if I wanted to be.  Jenny enjoyed tea at mine but Mum would’ve had Jamie Oliver in tears.  We had hot dogs from the tin warmed in the pan and chips cooked in a deep, fat fryer.  There was no mention of salad.  If it couldn’t be frozen, deep-fat fried or microwaved it could feck off basically.  But I loved that style of tea. My lunchbox which was only ever healthy, fruit and sandwiches.  The only benefit was that years later when I laughed I had no fillings and all my own teeth.

Neil was beaten up in a park when he was fifteen. I imagined him smiling at the wrong people and the next thing finding himself on the ground in a ball taking punches. His face was in the Liverpool Echo, black and blue and unsmiling.  What they didn’t mention was what happened next.  His Mum met mine in ASDA buying Alphabites for deep-fat frying.  We got the story from her. Neil had walked, crawled or whatever he must have done to the local youth club that he had started going to. It was in a rough area; it had bouncers that gobbed at the pavement and glared at newcomers. They liked Neil because he was so straight-forward. They found him funny. When they saw him arrive that night battered with blood streaming from his mouth where a smile usually formed, they went vigilante. Neil told them what had happened as they called an ambulance then a group of them tore down to the park and found the first gang they encountered and proceeded to break their faces, kick at their bodies.  I prayed, which I never do now but I did for this, that they’d got the right people.

Our punishment in Our Lady’s all those years before was that we all had to go to church and repent for using the awful word. We all had to go to church with school anyway so they made that up for a start.  No one really minded so it didn’t feel like a punishment. Even Lisa Matthews loved her Communion dress so she wanted to practice for the ‘ceremony’.  A letter went home still. The school secretary typing out that word that ostracized Neil and copying it out again and again for the parents to say in their heads or out loud at home, cutting into their lives for a brief moment.

Screaming without Noise

Introducing Lydia…

This is a behind the scenes story about Lydia, one of my tropical fish in ‘The Dictionary of Departures’.  This will start to give you a taster of who she is before you meet her.  Writing mini stories revealing life snippets is an exercise I’ve been playing about with to get to know my characters. If you’re a writer, does this process work for you?

Like the main character Gina, you probably won’t like her, until you see where she is coming from and also where she has been.

Here is one example of what led Lydia to become who she is…

Screaming without Noise – a back story for Lydia 

I heard the screaming outside from the bathroom. It was really clear as the window was open. A sound that cracked the air, not human. I fell down the stairs, a pain on my side that I wouldn’t feel until much later. I opened the door and his body was swinging from side to side, blood on the pavement, some splashed on the wall of the house, on the car. Jimmy’s strong shoulders hunched over, set wide. The tips of his teeth showed, but the rest sunk into white fur.  The white fur was still moving, in and out, trying to get enough air in to survive this. He was screaming without noise now, all the fear in his eyes instead pleading for help, seeing me and seeing some hope. But then they flashed past too fast, when his body was thrown from side to side again.

I grabbed the nearest thing I could and threw it at Jimmy. He just looked at the splattered Yellow Pages, all broken pages on the floor next to him. A second later they were dotted with blood.

‘Please, please, let him go.’ I could still see something like life in the white ball despite the lines of blood from the neck down to the legs, pouring faster. It didn’t look real – like Halloween blood or raspberry sauce.  Maybe this wasn’t real. I would wake up.  The eyes were closing now, falling silent.

And then he dropped Oscar at my feet and sat back on his hind legs, waiting for a treat. I clenched my fists up, watched Jimmy’s stupid, slobbering face as he licked the blood off his lips. It looked like he was smiling.

He lost interest and stood panting and smiling as I tried to lift Oscar, wanted to bring him in and clean him up, but the broken bits of him were leaking out everywhere. His eyes were closed and everything about him stopped, his body warm but he was gone.  It felt like the street was just the three of us. When people hear trouble around here they stay inside. Mum came out then.  I could tell she felt bad as she thought it was just kids arguing again, me shouting at them to break it up. She got angry at me for doing that but I could never just leave a fight.

Then a whistle from the field and Jimmy was gone. I knew that whistle. Jay brings Jimmy out as part of our gang and lets him hang his thick jaws around the swing poles. ‘training him up’ He lifts him up, makes him lock those lips and teeth over the poles and then leaves him dangling. The grunting and the growling and his look of pain gets hard to listen to and then finally Jay lets him down.

Mum disappeared and then came back and picked Oscar up in our checked tea towels and moved back in without looking at me.  I sat down on the step.  She came back out for a second and I took the bucket of water and rough brush.

‘Those horrible bastards…’ she was muttering to herself but she looked at me.  We wouldn’t talk about it yet but we both knew who it was. A brick through the window, a firework through your door for calling the police at least. So we didn’t call them.

I put the bucket down and traced the marks on the ground with my finger. I noticed the claws then. There were three of them spread out at different scratches, clutching across the pavement.  I put my face on the concrete slabs between the claws and scratched along until it felt like my skin was being pulled off and I imagined the claws sticking into my forehead, my cheeks, my chin. I wanted to feel it, a panic so big that I would scratch my nails deep into the ground trying to get away from it, a fear so massive that it would take little parts of me with it.

All around the annoying sounds of kids playing together, shouting in the distance continued and when I entered the house, the shouty sounds were replaced by the noise of ground being shovelled to make a hole in the little bit of earth we had in the back garden.  It was so gentle.  Mum lifted Oscar in the box with the blood in just as gentle a way, like the cardboard was made of the same easy break material as the ornaments Nanna left us, one with her in it, like a pile of black dust. I opened it once and felt this once, warm woman, dry on my fingers. By accident I breathed some in and felt it choke down my throat. For days I thought I was walking around with Nanna’s arm regrown from the black dust in my stomach, but the pokey outerdness was probably just my worries.

Death smelt like metal and mud today. Oscar hanging in the jaws, limp, like a toy. The image stayed in my head like the start of a DVD when you don’t press play and the intro just keeps rolling and rolling.

After we’d buried Oscar I went upstairs.

I looked out the window and could see the round buildings trying to pinch the clouds right out in town.  Jay was on the field, waiting. There was a screaming in my head in the quiet bedroom, building up louder. I knew and he knew what was coming, except he didn’t this time. I was going to recreate enough fear so that he would need to grip the ground until parts of him fell off.

Me head’s chocker

Good writing has a place. And by that I mean a town, city or region. I used to make the mistake of being too vague.  So I decided to set my novel in Liverpool, because I know it and also because it is such a great setting for a story.

What I didn’t know is just how Liverpool to make it and by that I mean slang, idiosyncratic terms, dialect and dialogue.

Would I alienate people from outside the city by calling things ‘boss’ or ‘sound’, saying that someone had ‘lost their bottle’, using the bizarre phrase ‘alarse’, calling every kind of alcohol ‘ale’ and adding, ‘lad, la, kidda’, and ‘is right’ and the occasional ‘proper’ and ‘pure’ before words to make a point about just how boss something was? It was proving to be a tricky mix. So what to do abar (about) it?

In my novel – The Dictionary of Departures , Gina is a scouser and I’ve been working phrases and words familiar to the city into the story, but in a way that doesn’t exclude readers from other places.

I found some useful tips on the Daily Writing Tips website that suggested writers ‘should pay attention to phrases and idioms that pertain to a character’s geographic location…’ It reported that this won’t slow the reader down, distract or confuse them.

I wanted to use one of their phrase examples “she’s dumber than a bucket of hair, bless her heart,” but that places someone in the American South. My offering could be– ‘she’s proper dozy her la’?

I looked to three other writers for help.

God, them fishfingers are gorgeous

I’ve just finished All She Wants, the debut novel by Jonathan Harvey. This does use phrases and words particular to Liverpool with occasional explanations. The main character Jody explains ‘trainees are trainers’ but ‘arlarse’ is left alone.  This book takes a lot of its humour from the very scouse way the characters talk but often this is in such a way that any reader can detract their meaning. When Jodie first works on an advert one of her phrases in fact haunts her for a while – God, them fishfingers are gorgeous. The main point is that the reader always gets it.

Not very casual West Country

In The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling a lot of debate has centred on her harrowing and dark departure from Harry Potter but I started to study the dialogue. One of the characters Krystal Weedon is characterised by her language and so are her family. The setting is the fictional West Country village of Pagford but it has clear West Country accents. Rowling has been criticised in The Guardian for creating underclass characters all using a kind of generalised, Dickensian lower-order-speak e.g. “I takes Robbie to the nurs’ry”; “Tha’s norra fuckin’ crime”; “No, shurrup, righ’?”.

Rowling reportedly drew on her own mildly unhappy West Country childhood, in a village outside Bristol and then later outside Chepstow.  It was a great book in my opinion but I did get the point about the Dickensian dialogue.

Irishy stuff

Marion Keyes said in her newsletter that the late Maeve Binchy gave her the confidence to ‘write with an Irish accent’. She said: ‘I personally owe her a debt of gratitude because when I started writing, I was appalled to discover that I was writing in an Irish accent – I thought nobody other than a few Irish people would be interested in reading my Irishy stuff. Then I remembered Maeve – she wrote in an Irish accent and most of her books were set in Ireland and it hadn’t done her any harm – she was beloved worldwide. So she gave me the confidence to ‘write in my own voice’.”

One thing is in common for all of the above – they all write where they know or have known. That is already what I am doing. But how to make this authentic…?

So Me head’s chocker and you can help 

What scouse words and sayings would you want to see in a book set in Liverpool? And how would you spell them? Tweet @ClareDoran or email clare12doran@yahoo.co.uk with any ideas!

Bagsy all the best ones for my book.

This has nothing to do with the above article but I found this overheard in Liverpool phrase quite funny and I’m going to have to use it somewhere, perhaps if I become a scapegoat for bad scouse sayings in my novel: 

‘They can fuck right off. I’m no one’s escaped goat.’

Hugs

This short story was highly commended by the Writers’ Forum in November 2012 and recently made the Longlist for the Fish Short Memoir Prize 2013. Although I entered it into a memoir competition, this is fact mixed with fiction as the competition states:

A memoir gives licence – to interpret, to create, to fabricate, to make sense of a life, or part of that life.

A revised version will also form Chapter H of my novel, ‘The Dictionary of Departures’.

Hugs

Hug1  v (hugged, hugging) 1. to hold or embrace tightly in one’s arms 2. to move parallel and in close proximity to. >>huggable adj.

Hug2 n a tight clasp or embrace.

Hug3 an ornament that looks like a piece of shit >>shit-hug

Hug4  the type that kills, a love you to death. >>death-hug

Hug1 and Hug2 (official definitions from The Penguin English Dictionary)

Hug3 and Hug4 (additions from Gina Ellis)

I didn’t get the bus the night it happened. Dad drove. There was no rain, no melodramatic weather. It was just cold.

We were in the hospital earlier that week when I said, ‘That ornament looks like a piece of shit.’

Mum laughed but it hurt her. I could tell.  We were starting to get each other’s humour, but it was already too late. The ornament, a get-well gift from a friend, sat on the hospital bedside table, a brown goblin-type-thing that someone had stuck the word ‘hug’ under and framed in a small cardboard gift box. As though you could stick hug on anything to hand and sell it.  A shit-hug. That ward would have provided other marketing inspirations that day of dried-up vomit on the sheets of the next bed, blood-phlegm in a paper bucket opposite us or malignant tumours hidden in the bodies of the patients.

The smokers-with-the-drips came back into the ward, slippered feet lugging their failing bodies and trailing medical equipment feeding their last days. They brought the smoke from outside the hospital back in with them.  I could almost taste it, feel those last desperate ‘fuck it’ drags on my tongue. All the women-smokers mainly looked the same to me; thin, fat, whatever, but they were all raspy and craggy in some form.  But I remember one with shoulder length; fudge coloured hair in a hospital bed-head style. I can’t remember her name though. She’s certainly dead now. None expected to live. Surrounded by the dying and I was still being class-conscious.

The nurses walked the ward, ‘angels’ with stern faces. They brought the tea-time trolleys behind the smokers. We slipped in and out all the time, us relatives of the dying. The nurses rattled the plates and one brought over a mass of Spaghetti Bolognese that looked and smelt as though it had suffered during the cooking. She put it onto the tray that stretched across the bed in front of where Mum lay and cleared away a dirty cup. Another nurse moved to the side of one of the end beds and pulled the blinds closed. The view of the city of Liverpool, that glimpse of Paddy’s wigwam, closed into white blinds. This daily routine was like a version of the game show Bullseye, when they reel the main prize out to the losers and then take it away again. Patients, there’s a life out there you could have had, watch it leave.

‘Ye alright Marie.’ The smokers said as they moved back to their beds. Mum just nodded. I don’t know if she was jealous they could still walk.  Her legs were the size of balloons.  So was her stomach.

‘You look pregnant.’

Why did I say that? She just smiled and said. ‘I wish I was.’

Sometime I can’t even think about it.

I was in hospital ten years before what happened to Mum. I must have about seven, and I should have learned something from what she said and did, always comforting and reassuring me.  Mum had nursed me through a two-week hospital stay, a stint in a wheelchair and a long course of antibiotics that turned my teeth yellow like the smokers. When it was her turn in a hospital bed I made accidental insults like the shit-hug comment or over-polite conversation.

‘You got your place in the hospice then?’

‘Yes. I’ve got a place in the hospice.’

 

Dad observed every traffic light rule, every roundabout pause, although the roads were quiet.  We pulled into the car park and Dad parked between the lines.  I ran ahead, across the car park. Everything except me went into slow motion. The wind was cold and whipped against my cheek but there was fire beneath my feet.  I heard a couple more cars parking up and somebody shouted me. ‘Gina.’ I didn’t stop.

I don’t know what I expected. But it wasn’t what I saw.  Mum drowning.  Her eyes were closed and she was struggling to breathe.  Her head moving from side to side as she lay in the bed.  Her eyes were closed.

Nobody knew what to do.  Dad came in behind me. I remember him standing there in his Liverpool shirt as I turned around. You’ll never walk alone.  He certainly didn’t in the years that followed with his new wife Janet as they hiked the hills, watched views of towns and cities, gazed out of hotel windows. And nobody shut the blinds.

‘She insisted I went,’ he says, ‘I should have spent all day and night with her.  But she insisted I went.’ It was the match. Mum had told him to go, said we all needed a break and to come back the next morning. But at that moment when more people came into the room, we all felt that we shouldn’t have left.  Mum’s best friend Anna Harrison came and moved me forward with a gentle nudge, towards the bed. In the blank-wash of faces behind I saw Dad start to take steps forward too, letting me lead. Anna and her husband Tim stepped back.  The room smelt of the lilies crawling out over the vase on the table.

I remembered being told that the last thing that goes is the hearing.

That night with Mum seemed like a series of badly edited film scenes. One minute some of us were the hospice.  Then without warning, we all appeared a pub car park watching a limousine pull up.

It hadn’t been able to fit into the hospice parking area.  A few people were leaving the pub, eyes drinking us in with drunken confusion. A girl in a miniskirt fell on the pavement. A pink thong. Taxis hailed.  Smells of beer and burgers, grilled gammon, chunky chips, cheap two-for-one meals blasted out hours earlier and still lingering.

Charlie and Frankie got out of the limousine, picked up from a neighbour’s with young, confused faces.  Aunty Lesley and Uncle Malcolm always travelled in one for their scaffolding company’s annual charity dinner.

Charlie and Frankie in pyjamas and coats. Uncle Malcolm dressed in a full dinner suit. Aunty Lesley in a glittering dress with matching bag, and a fur coat over her arm.

‘Why did you make me go to that dinner you shit? We should have been there!’

That fur coat. She’d had it for years. When I was a child I thought she had slaughtered a hundred and one Dalmatians for it. She never reassured me, in fact the opposite.

‘Where did you get that?’ I would ask.

‘There was a litter of puppies no one wanted.’ She would reply. There was a cruel bastard quality to her and there still is. I was so good when she babysat us.

We sat in the children’s play area for a bit.  The three monkeys of grief together. Charlie with her hands over her eyes crying; Frankie with his hands over his mouth in-between being sick and me, might as well have had my hands over my ears, not hearing anything properly and understanding little.  I remember sweets being offered around, chewy fruit bursts that seemed too cheery in our mouths.

Frankie has never been interested in food anyway. He prefers structured activities to eating. When he was little he created concentration camp for worms and ants in the garden. He tried to make them concentrate and work together to find a way out, not yet realising that he had got the notion of those camps wrong.  Frankie is concentrating himself now, within four walls.  He has grown into a scruffy, duffel coat-wearing, shaggy-haired and pale socialist, constantly fighting causes. Dad said he was just going where the fights were. But even Frankie doesn’t know why he left Comet with a plasma TV during the riots last summer.

These days Charlie is unshakeable.  She’s built a lot better than me, mentally and physically.  Her brown hair with copper streaks is shaped well around her pale face, splashes of freckles soften her. After university she came back here like a homing pigeon that felt obliged to an owner who had looked after it. But I never really looked after Charlie, even after Mum. None of us could. I don’t know why she came back. She’ll fly off again soon when her job in retail management gets boring and she remembers that she’s a tortured artist. She’s not scared to ask when she wants something.

It was Charlie who asked if they could go in and see Mum.

The priest who turned up asked if mum was a pensioner. Aunty Lesley hit him with her jewel bag. A piece of glitter went in his eye and the nurses had to come over and help him. And all the time there was a dead body in the bed surrounded by people dressed for a dinner party, some kids in pyjamas accidentally posing like monkeys and a priest everyone wanted to kill. At least she’d gone before all that arguing kicked off.   I thought about what to do next, who to tell about what had happened, what I had done.  Others had been there, but it was only me who was close enough to know.

There was no Facebook back then and I’d like to think that I wouldn’t leave a status. But who knows? I could have joined the countless ‘There’s a star in heaven shining for new angels’  ‘RIPs to Mums and Dads, Nans and Grandads’. Bereavement shout-outs.

I would have posted something like that (but not that night). What I wouldn’t have done was update everyone on the whole process. One girl, Debbie Matthews, took Facebook through her Granddad’s first night in hospital (she checked in at the Royal on every visit). The finale was the uploading of a photo album featuring all the flowers at the grave. Shout-out for my popular dead Granddad.

I did call Jennifer.  When you’ve lived through so much with an old friend, you think they should also be there for all your deaths in some way.

She text me a few hours later.

me and me mum have been so upset for you.

She never thought about her choice of words. But I was wrong to expect her to.  Of course other people still had Mums.

Before all this, I did what I did.

Afterwards I went straight outside and found it was still Saturday night. No one came after me. It was freezing. There were people sitting on a bench, one of those for people who have paid to be remembered. The light from the children’s room reflected off the plating. Matthew Hunter reduced to a gold brass plate on a hospice courtyard bench since 1997.  I’ve been back and sat on the bench since.

Two men and a woman stood by that bench. The woman looked exactly the same as one of the hospital smokers. Her face was worn down, with a mouth sunken back and pocket holes for eyes. She spoke like she was only allowed a limited number of words a day, wheezy, cracked and harsh tones that seemed forced out.  It was like being back on the ward. I had to wonder if they produced these women like Stepford Wives for council estates.

The craggy woman was in my face.

‘Here love, have a drop of whiskey,’ she said then turned to the first man. ‘She’s still shaking. Give her your coat.’ I stood for a moment shivering.

‘She’s blue. Give her your coat too Kelvin. I said now!’ she said to the second man.

‘Here love have mine, I’ve got a cardie underneath.’ When we’d finished It felt like one of those attempts to get on a Ryanair flight when your baggage is too heavy.

I woke up the next day back at home with them all on the floor by my bed.  There must have been some people who left that hospice, tainted by grief but also freezing and furious at giving their coat to me. Even back at home I could smell lilies as though the stems had crept in through my nostrils in the night and were growing from my stomach, each breath from me a victory for them.  The smell of death on a Sunday morning. My hospice hangover.

I’d never taken on the word death before. I was seventeen years old. Great aunties and uncles who died were hard to feel anything about as a child. Once upon a time death had nothing to do with me and then it was personified, became a person I knew, and then became people I knew.

I don’t even know what the word ‘Mum’ means anymore. I’ve lived a third of my life without it, feeling like a fraud if I say it. I can’t have that word. It isn’t mine.

Anna Harrison’s gentle nudge. That was when I moved forward to Mum and did what I did. I hugged her.  Told her nice things, that I’d want to hear if I was scared and dying and nobody could do anything about it.  I told her she could go.

It could have been the words but it was like the hug I gave made her colder, stopped her breath, made her leave. I felt the last ten seconds of life in that hug, stilled her weak but thrashing movements. The scent of bed baths and final cleansings mixed with the lilies in my lungs. Then those last few breaths, against my face.   When she finally stopped, I moved with her, placing her head back onto the pillows that had held her up for the eight days of her hospice stay. My arms fell to their sides.  A one-way hug.  I took everything.  A death-hug.

I stepped back onto the shit-hug which had survived the journey from hospital to hospice and it shattered across the carpet next to Mum’s rosary beads.

Ten years later the heaviness, that ball and chain from my throat to the stomach which started with the hug was still with me.  It went up and down like a see-saw in my stomach.

I watched someone die from cancer sitting in a pub on Coronation Street once like it was nothing.  In reality it takes time to heave out the last signs of life, a gurgling from the lungs building into a sound like a soul being ripped from a body, which can be helped with a hug, a Love you to death.