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Ros Barber is a novelist and poet. Her debut (blank verse) novel The Marlowe Papers (2012) won the Desmond Elliott Prize, jointly won the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award and was long-listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize. Her second novel Devotion (2015) was shortlisted for the Encore Award.
Her poetry collections include How Things Are On Thursday (2004) and Material (2008), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies including Faber’s Poems of the Decade (2012).
She lectures in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Moving to the New Forest had been his wife’s idea. How could she feel useful to a man who cried silently into the butter at the breakfast table? Who, since his daughter’s death, lay flat and unresponsive as a piece of cold toast in their marriage bed? Who considered work, not wife, his sole salvation? She would move him.
Not emotionally, Lord save us from the pull of the impossible. But physically, out of the anchored location of memories that followed him round like statically charged apparitions. Flora’s favoured kitchen chair which no longer rocked onto its back legs against his irritated exhortation; the two crescent-shaped holes in the lino mirroring her grin as she ignored him. Flora floating down the stairs in a backless dress, turning, Don’t be soppy, Daddy. Flora on the hall phone, twisting its old-fashioned umbilicus around her fingers, swaying to the music of her blood, calling her invisible boyfriend an adorable arsehole.
Logan was chained to these memories as a human sacrifice is chained, waiting for the dragon to devour him. Time flowed on around him, without him: he remained with the boulder. The lives of others moved on; the sense that his had stopped was palpable. It is a commonplace that time slows for a kettle’s boil, worm-crawls during an anxious wait, creeps snail-like towards an execution. But when a parent loses a child, time simply breaks. Severed the moment he learnt of Flora’s death, his thread of time had separated from the world’s. His wife, his friends, his colleagues, continued to be dragged forward into a future he could not envisage. Logan was left where he was, experiencing time only as an eddy created by other people’s wakes. Clocks continued in their business without him. The moon orbited and the earth spun, and Logan stayed exactly in the second he learnt of his daughter’s death.
He told Jules none of this. He had no way of describing it. And as the days passed, with her in them and him outside of them, their separation grew. But Jules was a qualified social worker. She had been awarded a distinction for her dissertation on grief. And she discerned in him a growing morbidity.
So, though he barely registered the process, she attained his careless assent to a series of questions. As devoid as he was of any appetite for living, the easiest route through any day was to murmur Yes; she left him alone sooner, he discovered, than if he said I don’t know. Legally speaking, he now recognized, he was not of sound mind. The only consequence he had desired was for Jules to stop asking him things. But from his initial assent, the questions just became more numerous and trivial. Was this house better than that house? Was this conservatory too ugly? What about the Brockenhurst house? Was he bothered by the absence of a mains gas supply?
How could any of this matter when Flora, beautiful, astonishing, Flora—
An absence, a whooshing of air. Restraining straps loose, flapping in a violent draught. The cargo doors open. Whatever was here has just gone.
Whatever you think, he said. Don’t ask me any more.
Now he found himself on Saturday mornings padding through tracks in the forest with the new dog she had also arranged because, she said, it would get them out. Dog owners, she said, chat to each other. It will help us integrate. Not acknowledging that integration was beyond him; that despite the move, perhaps partially because of the move, he was disintegrating even faster than in London. Flora’s ghosts were smoking angrily on the back step, refusing to come in because it was hers, Jules’s; they were swearing under his breath, It’s a bit fucking green, isn’t it? These were the Floras he was making up to fill her absence. He knew the real Flora was in London, disintegrating herself as the new owners stripped the staircase back to bare wood, replaced the kitchen lino with modern flagstones. Her favoured chair had been eBayed. Even now, Flora’s last skin cells were being damp-clothed from windowsills.
The Floras he invented to keep him company were fractious, resentful. There’s nothing to do round here. A six-year-old Flora: But I want to go to our playground. The one with the rocking lion. We’re miles away, Daddy, MILES AWAY.
Work was also, dangerously, miles away. He could write reports at home but the longer journeys to his London office left his head trespassing on the shoulders of strangers, his mind accidentally boarding trains of thought that were hurtling, driverless, into the dark.
Jules was left to steer them through a pretended normality. She would pick him up from the station on a stream of chatter that gave misery no elbow room and drive him overcautiously back to the place she insisted was home. In his head, it was still The Brockenhurst House. London was home and he’d given his key to a stranger. The Brockenhurst House, wood inside, wood out, pine, ash and oak, smelt like a coffin. It was the place Flora wasn’t, and hadn’t ever been. The name of the village – had Jules not noticed: broken, hearse? – was the only quiet echo of his loss.
It was a family house without a family. They had a second reception and received no one. They had four bedrooms when they would only sleep in one; two if they argued. There was a bathroom each and one for the cat.
When he noticed the pulley the previous owner erected for hoisting their canoe out of the way in the garage, his ears began ringing. They rang as loudly as the TV stations of his childhood sang after shutdown; the same note, the note you’d wake to. This house could be the end of him.
When night fell, you knew it. No protective sodium glow to dim the pitiless shining of stars, the same points of light that had glittered over breathing, digesting, dinosaurs.
I am completely alone, he said to himself in bed.
His wife clicked her teeth beside him.
I am alone. As a heart is alone. As a knife in a heart is alone.
I am alone. As a tongue is alone. As a tongue on the seabed’s alone.
I am alone. As a stone is alone. As a stone in the air is alone.
– April’s journal, 20 March
There’s a pinhead of light in her eye. A deliberate nothing. A blank that she dares you to read. What is she thinking? A full stop with no words ahead of it. Or three: an ellipsis, three dots to mark the moment we can only imagine.
She entered the bus…
April. You entered the bus…
He waits, but she doesn’t complete it. Her hair is folded over her right eye like a pirate’s patch with the help of a frogshaped clip. Though she is nearly twenty, half of her is twelve.
The other half is God. The Old Testament God, returning sinners to their maker to be remade. A silent God that isn’t in, doesn’t answer to prayer or special pleading. A God whom she operates through her left hand; her own sock-puppet deity.
April, I’m not the police. I want to help you, not prosecute you. I want to understand. I want to help.
I, she says. I, I, I.
Mocking him. This isn’t about you, mister. This is about me.
But she spoke. Only a vowel. Yet it’s something.
He starts again.
When were you born?
Her eyes assault him with a violent impatience.
April, he says.
Her face mimes stupidity; the shape that says, Duh.
Are you Aries or Taurus? You believe in star signs?
Her eyes flick to where a window would be, were this anything other than the interview room of a secure psychiatric unit.
He doesn’t believe in star signs. He knows some young people do. That especially for misfits like April, horoscopes can look like chapters from life’s missing instruction manual.
You believe in God, I know that. He will continue his side of the conversation for as long as it takes. We all know that. But I know more, April, about your relationship with God. I’ve read your journal.
A flinch. Then the heart-holding stillness of a creature who has given its position away to a predator.
God talks to you, yes?
Her gaze turns in on itself. He suspects she is listening to Him now. And He is saying, in April’s journal voice, Keep shtum, April. Don’t let the bastard psychologist crack your nut open.
Logan refills his glass with water.
Your silence might be seen as incriminating. Not by me. By the police. By the Crown Prosecution Service.
What did you mean, as a stone in the air is alone? How is it in the air? You mean it’s falling?
She floats her eyes to the ceiling, pushes herself back, chair and all, with a violent squeak, and begins to bang her head against the wall, rhythmically, deliberately.
When he was a baby, he is told, he did this. He doesn’t know why, and doesn’t remember it. His parents didn’t know why either, but they told him the story more than once. How they bought a piece of yellow foam rubber from a market stall and glued it onto the headboard of his cot. How, by the time he was two, he had worn a hole in it.
You can’t save her, Jules said, stirring the bolognese.
He tugged his tie from his throat, draped it over a chair like road kill: flattened, finished.
You can’t save her if she won’t save herself. If she won’t even talk. What do you have to go on? You can’t prove she’s insane, only uncooperative. Maybe she wants to be convicted of murder. Maybe it suits her plans.
As always, he wished he’d said nothing. He knows this is her way of trying to connect with him: follow him to the place he has retreated to, his work. But he doesn’t want her there.
I’m not sure she has plans, he said.
You can’t be sure of anything if she won’t talk.
It’s early days, he said. I have a few sessions with her yet. And it’s not just assessment, either. I have an idea.
He had no intention of sharing the idea, so he laid the table. When he’d finished, Jules, who insists on making fresh spaghetti, was turning the handle of the pasta maker. Addressing herself to the unwinding worms: I really hope this isn’t about Flora.
A surge of emotion, so wild that at first he had trouble naming it. Breathe, Logan, breathe.
How would it be about Flora? And in his head, Please, God, don’t use her name.
She pulled the last worms out of the contraption, slid them from the bowl into boiling water.