Edited by ‘What If YOU Spoke’ competition finalists from Libraries Unlimited.
We are four writers who submitted entries to the What If YOU Spoke? competition led by Libraries Unlimited in Devon in partnership with Pen to Print, the University of Exeter, Africa Writes and Literature Works as part of Exeter UNESCO City of Literature.
What If YOU Spoke? is all about giving people the chance to tell their story and have their voice heard. In noisy and unsettling times, that feels a really significant thing! After taking part in a series of online masterclasses led by authors, poets, journalists and illustrators, we submitted pieces that were judged by a panel of experts in their field. The masterclasses are still available to access online for free and we’d encourage everyone to try them out!
Each week throughout May, we’ll take it in turns to showcase various winning and runner-up entries from the competition, alongside contributions submitted to Write On! directly. This week, I (Rue Ronan) start with some pieces that explore uncomfortable human emotions.
My piece is titled A Chapter On Grief, and is an excerpt from my novel manuscript. It follows the narrator, 17-year-old Mathilde, as she enters her father’s study for the first time after his death six months earlier.
A Chapter On Grief
Our house in Verbonne-sur-Esteron had been in Papa’s family for five generations. We’d visited it every summer for as long as I could remember – to begin with, to visit my grandmother, then, after she died, as an escape from the bustle of London during the tourist-heavy summer months.
Papa was a writer, and he loved to sit by the river for hours, scribbling in leather-bound notebooks before returning to the house at dusk to hole himself away in the study with a typewriter all night. I loved to read his writing; occasionally, when we woke at the cusp of dawn before the rest of my family had even stirred, he’d greet me at the breakfast table with a glass of orange juice and the latest pages, slid silently my way to be read over a bowl of cereal. It was strange to me, that he picked me to be honoured with his pages – my elder brother, Simeon, had always displayed a natural flair for English, whereas my interests lay in architecture, but I enjoyed the intimacy of knowing Papa for each morsel of his mind, so never contested it.
My father was not a man of many words, at least in conversation, but in his writing he displayed a vocabulary wider than you’d find in any school dictionary. I always thought of him as a painter. He could bring to mind the most exuberant of oranges when writing a sunset, or place you in the depths of melancholia when describing a love lost.
I struggled to sleep for the first few nights of that summer, the silence shrouding me in the skin of an insomniac. I hadn’t realised how much I relied on the clacking of Papa’s typewriter to lull me to sleep here until I no longer had it. In London, I could doze off to the sighs of passing cars, the wails of distant sirens, the incoherent chatter of strangers walking down the street. Here, the quiet was eerie, in a way that it shouldn’t have been. It was like the void Papa left was a vacuum, inhaling every sound and choking the life from it. The house was old, yes, but it was the furthest thing from gothic you could hope to find, and the serenity that surrounded everything here could make it feel like you were living a life tied up in bubble wrap. The issue was that the stench of death was a knife, slicing through every layer.
On the third night of lying awake on my bed, my naked body tangled in the thin white sheet I used as a blanket (it was far too torrid for anything else), I began to wonder what had happened to Papa’s study. Had the lawyer who came to find the copies of his will taken his endless pages of writing, too? Did someone, Mama most likely, send Old Magdalene in to tidy everything away into drawers, or – God forbid – onto the fire heap?
My curiosity bested me, and in less than a minute I was tiptoeing across the lopsided floorboards, the T-shirt Simeon had bought me at a concert the year before thrown over my head. That was one of the last good days, a month before ‘The Accident’.
Scientists generally agree that animals know when they’re about to die; like they have a sixth sense that serves wholly to count down the time they have left. I think humans have it, too. For weeks before The Accident, Papa was particularly philosophical, filling every spare moment with conversation, as if he knew there were a limited number left to have.
Part of me found the concept comforting, that Papa had seen it coming and he wasn’t afraid. On the other hand, I wished he’d told me. I wished I’d stopped him from going out that day. If I’d asked him to watch me play the violin, or take the bus to the cinema with Henry and I, or settle whatever argument Simeon and I were probably having, maybe he would have stayed. Maybe he would never have got into that stupid old Mini he loved so much and died in it.
The door to the study was locked. There was a drawer of keys downstairs that unlocked various things in the house; houses this old had locks in all manner of odd places, from store cupboards to windows to the dumb waiter that ran from the kitchen up to my parents’ room. Mama’s room, now. However, I doubted Papa would have left the key to the study somewhere as obvious as the kitchen drawer. He was protective of his work when it was unfinished, and if we ever wanted him whilst he was in the study, we would have to knock and wait for him to come out, not go in ourselves.
Silent as a ghost, I slipped into the bathroom across the hallway. Old Magdalene had cleaned in here; I could tell from the sickly scent of lemons that lingered vaguely over the sink and toilet, and as I turned the cold tap on to cool my face, I caught my reflection in the window. It offended me how much I looked like Simeon: dark hair and dark eyes and a permanent frown scarred into my face. I’d always been envious of Mama, and longed to look like the photos of her she kept in the albums on the top shelf above the TV in the London apartment, from when she was my age.
There was one photo I particularly loved: it had been taken by Papa in Edinburgh, the winter they met at university when she was 19 and untouched by even the thought of hardship. She was stood on a snow-swept cobbled street, with the castle in the background, looking like nothing less than the melting Snegurochka. Frozen forever in Papa’s camera lens, she smiled with effortless poise, looking over her shoulder in such a casual movement that it could have been an advert for her outfit in Vogue magazine. I’m sure I still have it somewhere, tucked away in a box of things I don’t want to remember, but also refuse to forget.
The moon was almost full, and it was as I admired it through the forehead of my reflection that I saw the glint of metal from above the cabinet, and realised that the key was hidden up there. Balancing my bare feet on the closed lid of the toilet, I reached over and knocked it to the floor with a few flicks of my hand. It clattered, and for a split second I worried about being caught, until I remembered that the only other light sleeper in my family was Papa and there was no amount of noise in the world that could rouse him from his slumber now.
My wrist ached by the time I got the lock to move, its untouched mechanism stiff and rusted. The door was heavy, as were they all in this house, two and a half meters tall and a good 20 centimetres thick, made from solid wood. Once it was open, I stood as still as Mama in her photograph, merely staring into the mirror of last summer.
His things were just how he’d left them: an organised mess of journals, paper and ballpoint pens on every surface, with novels and last year’s newspapers scattered on the floor. Papa had never had time for tidying; he said it was pointless if things would just get messy again anyway. The sofa in the corner was unmade, the throws crumpled and the markings of his body still pressed into the gap between the cushions. I touched the blanket, inhaling the smell of him and coughing it out. I loved how Papa smelled: tobacco and grapefruit and sandalwood. It was bitter now, rotten, because I knew he’d never smell this way again. He didn’t exist beyond memories now.
“Oh, Papa,” I whispered, feeling somehow closer to him here than I had when I saw his body at the funeral. This is who he was. His essence lived in the trinkets he kept on the drawers, in the half-drafted poems, in the pile of unwashed shirts on the floor. But he didn’t live. He was gone.
I straightened out the sofa. I took the clothes to the bathroom and dumped them into the laundry basket. I wiped all of his little snuff boxes and ornaments and put them neatly on the windowsill. I took the books he’d dog-eared and piled them onto a shelf. I swiped the tip of my index finger over the keyboard of his typewriter until every last letter and punctuation was cleared of dust again. Finally, I sifted through the endless pages of writing, collecting them into a messy bundle that I placed on his now-tidied desk.
At Sunday School, they drilled the idea of Heaven into us like a drug – as though they could hook us with a promise of eternal life so we’d buy into the rest. I had no problem believing in God, in Jesus and His teachings, in the goodness that He encouraged within us but, try as I might, I’d never been convinced about Heaven. Papa did not reside in the wind that whistled through the crack in the study window, or in the creak of the desk legs. He wasn’t hiding in the pen pot, or folded like an unread letter in the drawer. As far as I was concerned, when you die, that’s the end of the line for you. No amount of unspoiled space could bring you back.
It was in his writing that I would find him, I was certain. Somewhere in the scribbled down stories that carried in them the innermost workings of his mind, Papa still was. That was why I left them unread, to turn to dust with him between the walls of his self-made sanctuary. Papa didn’t talk much; not because he was a shy man, but because he was a reserved one. To invade his psyche now, to steal away with parts of him he never intended to be seen by another living soul, seemed wrong in every sense of the word. If Papa had secrets, I didn’t want to know them. They were his to keep. I was glad to let him carry them to the grave.
Suddenly, Papa’s study was not his study any more. It was just another room in a house that I lived in. The door slammed as it shut, but I knew no one would wake. I turned the key, flushed it down the toilet, and went back to bed.
© Rue Ronan, 2021
On first reading, this poem seems to show the antithesis to Mathilde’s emotions – until it is read backwards. I loved that! The clever use of reverse poetry really emphasises how a person can outwardly seem all right, while falling apart inside. This is what is happening to Mathilde in my novel; she holds herself together for her mother’s sake, but struggles to come to terms with her own emotions and grief.
How Are You?
Fine, thanks for asking
So no, I am not
Overwhelmed by it all
To be honest, I just can’t stop
Genuine laughter taking over my soul,
Life is truly worth living and
I cannot even remember me feeling
Broken, gloomy, drowning in the water of a glass
Hiding in the shadows of a blade of grass
Just look at me, a smile on two legs
“All’s good, I’m sooo happy,” I say
While tears stream out of my eyes
(From too much laughing, I mean)
I sit at the bar all day
Immersed in a bathtub of noise
I joke, I laugh, I cheer with strangers until the street is
But to me, the glass is always half
My life feels pretty
How are you?
(Now read from bottom to top)
© Fillipo Rossi, 2021
I also love this image, which is the opening to the comic strip, A Better Way, by Betsy Weymouth. The image depicts a girl in her bedroom, overcome with deep emotion, which is similar to Mathilde at the beginning of the extract.
That’s it for this week!
To read the entries in full, visit Evolve at Libraries Unlimited: bit.ly/WIYS2022
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