Segun Lee-French, Polly Atkin, Ruth Allen Chris Culshaw, Andrew McMillan, Jennifer Copley

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New writing from North West England

Colophon
This edition published in Great Britain in 2009 by Flax, Storey Institute, Meeting House Lane, Lancaster, LA1 1TH. Tel: 01524 62166. All works © their respective authors The Crowd Without © Flax All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher and the individual creators. Flax is the publishing imprint of Litfest Lancaster and District Festival Ltd. trading as Litfest. Registered in England Company Number: 1494221 Charity Number: 510670 Editor: Sarah Hymas Design and Layout: Martin Chester at Litfest

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Contents
Foreword Segun Lee-French
Ruin, near Delphi Not sleeping, my brother My blood so sweet

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6 8 10

Polly Atkin
Jay Tumble Moon Salutation heart

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13 15 16 18

Ruth Allen
Bay Rock Square metres for acreage Reclamation

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21 22 23

Chris Culshaw
Jigsaw Bagatelle Compass

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25 26 27

Andrew McMillan
the three of you now you’ve left inconsequential moments that disprove pessimism #1

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29 31 32

Jennifer Copley
Repercussions Dolls Singing Grace Stolen

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34 35 36 38

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Foreword
Back in 2006 I remember talking to Andy Darby and Sarah Hymas about Lancaster Litfest’s new publishing initiative Flax. I was impressed that this was not just a way of showcasing work from writers in the North West of England, but also a way of supporting writers through a range of professional development initiatives. At the time I was Literature Development Officer in Dumfries & Galloway, and I was happy to arrange an event for the launch of Square Cuts, the first Flax digital anthology. Now in 2009 I am living and working in the North West myself and the success of Flax is evidenced by the fact you are now reading Flax 018. In these digital pages you will encounter six distinctive voices. Each of them is represented by a coherent group of poems that shows a particular vision. Segun Lee-French’s vivid narratives are cinematic depictions of the difficulty of being caught between two cultures. Events following the death of the narrator’s brother are detailed with the precise intensity of someone who doesn’t quite understand what they are seeing. In the final poem the poet tells us: I can’t even speak the language of my gods. Polly Atkin’s poems show us the familiar in a strange new light. Whether it be a landscape or a jay’s feather, she draws the reader in to an unsettling new world until we feel: unable to go back, ever. Ruth Allen’s poems find that perfect moment during a day, whether it is a moment spent in a loved landscape or a stolen moment feeling the texture

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of a new carpet. The moments when: tossing in your ballast at last. We watch it plunk, plunk away. Chris Culshaw uses extended metaphor to paint portraits of individuals with considerable empathy and without sentimentality, capturing those moments: where a reef can surface with sudden, shuddering force. Andrew McMillan’s work has a perfect blend of sound and sense with his striking images and internal rhymes and alliteration, such as: a smile passed down from person to person like a baton in a race where the runners only ever want to finish third Finally, Jennifer Copley gives us glimpses of a dark childhood with a subtle understatement that makes the poems genuinely moving: At school we’re writing about families and we have to draw them, say what jobs they do. I copy what Julie is putting, just change the names. And there you have it. Enjoy the work of these writers and watch out for more from each of them. Andrew Forster Literature Officer Wordsworth Trust

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We live in a time when people are acutely aware that meaning is fluid; certainties can crumble into dust from one day to the next. Such uncertainty and ambiguity are the essence of poetry, what makes it so unpredictable and inspiring. Poetry can literally set us free, by inciting us to reimagine the meaning of what we previously accepted as commonplace. Read more of Segun’s biography Listen to Segun read My blood so sweet

Ruin, near Delphi Not sleeping, my brother My blood so sweet

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Ruin, near Delphi
This house is covered by the blood of Jesus. A rusty shack, with corrugated zinc so dented, looks like a giant hand reached down & smacked the roof for daring to decay. I hesitate, my father pushes back the gate, steps into the dark. - Ekule sah! My eyes adjust to shade. The babalawo leaning back in a ragged rocking chair, has a missing tooth. They talk in Yagba, my father’s dialect, a plainsong blur. The baba laughs, rummages in plastic bags, rolls out grease blackened cloth that once was white. Inside, a steel chain of cowrie shells.

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The chain is cast. Three times. The baba squints, pushes shells, straightens the tarnished chain & sucks his tooth. He speaks to me, – Ibeji ti ku … your twin, dead. I wait, expecting insight. The silence mundane. He grins, Yagba again. My father takes swift notes in a torn blue book. Outside, the sun is killing the shade. We climb into the car. We need to buy a goat, my father says. I look back. A boy in dirty shorts hangs on the gate. The car, resurrecting dust, passes rusty shack after shack with Jesus stained walls.

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Not sleeping, my brother
We bury him with red beans fried in palm oil & white beans fried in groundnut. Honey & molasses seal the earth & I taste him in the babble of village voices beside my father’s house. My aunts sit me in a torn armchair, by chickens & goats. They feed me beans & honey by hand. I wipe my lips & my fingers drip persimmon red. Six months before, my brother told me to take his body home. Head shaking, goosepimples, face coated in sweat, my lips said he felt cold, in a pauper’s grave with strange, old men.

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A boy laughs, eyes inquisitive craning his neck through the hole in the broken wall of my father’s compound. The crowd grows, their laughter spreads. My mother looks proud. I try to smile. My brother’s fingers slip from my heart. That evening, my father asks if I enjoyed the party. You mean the ritual for my twin? – No, he says, it was for you. A week later, my brother whispers from heaps of dust in a hotel gift shop. His words are hard, black & unyielding, nails in his eyes, arms folded like a swan. My father haggles with the shopkeeper, puzzled by my choice, says: This ibeji doll is no good, there should be two.

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My blood so sweet
i I swear, these insects make a map & take it back to show their people where buried treasure lies. Each sticky morning, their offspring greet me with swelling hymns. A choir of raw red bumps, they march up & down my calves, yelling hallelujahs, scarlet & bright in itchy uniforms. They stain my skin, bruise me with sermons, colonise me, bulging my arms with cubist curves. If I were like my aunts, bitter flesh like kola nut, my mouth would be a needle & my blood would poison all who bite. ii My sainted aunts’ dream: I go back to my godless land, infected, imagining my ancestor’s blessings to have prophylactic powers.

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But one day, I awake with a burning bush on my brow, their latent evangelist fever devouring brain cells like fire ants. Rice paper wings split my stubborn back, compound eyes sprout like afro puffs, I see their God & I vomit antediluvian prophecies with a persistent twittering buzz. iii Who am I to contradict half digested scriptures? I can’t even speak the language of my gods.

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I’m not sure I can put in words the impulse behind my writing. I suppose everybody starts writing to articulate something they cannot say out loud, and by the process of writing to make sense of it. It begins as a private activity but is always also a public activity: if we did not wish to communicate those thoughts we would not write them down. Read more of Polly’s biography. Listen to Polly read Tumble.

Jay Tumble Moon Salutation heart

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Jay
i. feather Gradating from white, bone-white of the quill-tip, white as a dove’s feather, deepening strand by strand through every quiver of grey, to charcoal to black to more than black: oil on water. You could be plain as pigeon, but for your brand, tattooed on the darkest stretch, right of centre: seven bright windows of pure ultraviolet; swatches of day in the night, blue-white as snowlight, darkness between. By this I know you. I know your name. ii. body It fell from nowhere. I have never seen you in the sky, in flight; in a tree; alive; only your feathers fanned in a wheel, small bones for spokes, severed head fixed like a pin in the middle. You are not an oracle,

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or the key to the sky. But in my mind when I think of your body, you are not so much bird as light. iii. bird Say I was waiting on the stony path a long long time, seeing only my loss how I’d thought the body in air was everything, how I’d thought of only how fine it was to be the flare of blue in all weather, and how death of course was to fall from the sky, never to regain height. Then footsteps and you arriving. I watched through eaten-out sockets, you photograph absence as though it were something worth having. I knew then we choose where we’re chosen. You gathered the small blue fish of my tailfeathers, slipped them into your pocket like tickets.

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Tumble
I’ve been practicing staying, standing against the yellow light on autumn evenings, my feet lengthening like brushstrokes sweeping down down, long lines of black petering out; the forked root of a back-tooth pulled from its gum. Deadened. But this is shadow-play. All my growth is above ground, reaching. Nothing is spared on brakes, anchoring. Having no roots I have no choice but to keep on the move, tumbling from one day into another and further, wherever the tumbling takes me. Having no roots is to be at the mercy of external forces. The wind changes: you won’t see me for dust. It won’t be because I don’t want to be where I am. Understand, there are so many other places: having no roots is dangerously free. Ask me when I’ll settle and I say soon soon. What I mean is never. Leaving is what I do. And you, you would not really want me to stay, though you cannot stop yourself grasping. I’ll tumble on, in this endless cycle of falling.

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The deep ineradicable taproot survives.

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Moon Salutation
This is what you came home for, you and the mountain and the forest and the stars in the dark, and the moon, half a blink from full, low, white and cool as the eye of a jackdaw in the feathered night. You climb slowly at first, where the trees block the light. The snaking wood expands to swallow you contracting you down the gallery of its ribs. Your tight breath is a hiss in your ears and as strange as the voices you catch spilling up from the village, mixed with the hoots of an owl; the crunch of your boots on leafmeal and gravel. Arriving back into the open is a birth or a revelation. It’s bright as day, but not at all like it. The world has been silvered, fixed in reverse: a daguerreotype portrait. You stop at each curve in the path and stare. You recognise nothing. The valleys are gone, drowned under floods of fluorescing cloud. The high ground around you glints and shifts. Noises rise like sounds above surface caught under water, distorted: a shout,

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a single motorbike revving, the church clock striking midnight. You count the chimes

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and carry on climbing, thinking yourself far out at sea, dreaming land from the ghost of a ships’ bell tolling. You’re scared of falling, but more of sinking. You keep pushing uphill. Your bare arms shine like armour. You’re a crescent, waxing. A few feet further, half an hour longer and you’ll be complete: a perfect mirror, spheroid and luminous, reflecting everything, unable to go back, ever.

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heart
Build then your ship of death … And die the death, the long and painful death that lies between the old self and the new. DH Lawrence. If I sat alone at the window of your heart, absorbed by a pale wave of sun, spilling up from the lid of the lake, its eye reflecting the sky and the yellow leaves falling, and thought that your heart, its two chambers, was mine, its windows, its fireplace, its weak golden light, what can I say? I was given the keys instructed to open its doors to the street and sit there a while, just being within it, still as a hole, quiet as a bullet. Sit in a heart, any heart, for a time and you’ll start to believe you have always been in it. This heart, your heart, was built, not grown. It is older than both of us. Lent, not owned. You built your ship. Its mirrored soul filled it. But what heart cannot fit another heart in it? I found it precious, smooth to the touch. Cold as a derelict. Caked in dust. I built up a fire of oak and ash. The wood was green. It would not catch,

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but through the glass the sun was strong, even this late. It kept me warm, or warm in my heart. Warm enough. And yes it felt a lot like love, like home, and other Romantic stuff. Sit in a heart, any heart, for a beat and you’ll start to forget what one beat is. You’ll alter, unconscious, your rhythm, to match til you start to believe that its pulse is your own: this is the place you belong, you are home, here, in your heart, with your mirrored soul. Lie down in your boat. It was made to hold you. You have the whole world and its beauty before you. So there you sit, patiently, watching. Just look at the sun; the lake, reflecting the darkening sky, the yellow leaves falling.

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Writing is a way to logic when science fails me. My background in geology crops up variously in my work. I like the voice in the poem to explore places in the silence. I suppose they possess a certain melancholia and my obsession with the need for wilderness. Read more of Ruth’s biography. Listen to Ruth read Reclamation.

Bay Rock Square metres of acreage Reclamation

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Bay Rock
Salty days on the front and the flipping of sugar dough into a burning pan. The blue buoyed keels. Walking up and down the front watching the Seasonals, pretending we weren’t the same, taking ownership. We stretched our legs and wings, rallied in groups rattling troll machines and bouncy ball dispensers to impress the boys and save money for the Arabian Derby. Sitting on the wall, chipping away graffiti with our heels we watched daily pedalo pushers and disdainful swans, red-faced adults around stands with postcards and rock, keeping kids back from the harbour edge, doling out chips. Listening to the craw, craw of greedy gulls shuttling between rope-scattered land and pulling in the day from the sea, way out there from who knows where. We counted how many cargo carriers could crawl along the same horizon that seemed just a mile or two wide; calculating our limits and pushing them beyond the gold-cap cliffs. Dreams percolated through our sand-angel-casts to the bedrock. Some days the sky seemed to be waiting for us to get older, holding out clouds to keep us from the siren of the sea. On days when a stone skipped five beats on the surface you could break me open and see what was written right through.

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Square metres for acreage
Face down on the carpet isn’t a bad place to be and grow as a person. Synthetic threads remind me of sand that day in Southend when the moving started. Sniffing up the cord like dead air on the promenade, but realising Turkish bugs could be exploring me. That new shop smell isn’t as evocative now. You say change happens when we want it. I disagree. The shift happens when you’re face down drawing in the hessian. All parts pressing into the underlay I unroll it. Recalling the early beats that kicked out of all my corners. Like you were doing last week when the lumps occurred, and how we giggled at the bruises on your knees. Ultimately, I will have to get up and brush this off, get on with the moving and be a bigger person but while flecks tickle my nerves, I can ruminate face down on the carpet isn’t a bad place to be.

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Reclamation
Winding through low patchwork we make for the rumped coast. Trees hang their boughs for a whisper of newness, their tips rippling over the countryside’s Braille: pot holes and pebbles. Onions and cabbage on the air, take root and cook in our noses. The long swathes of grazing marshes and wet woodlands stretch out to a wilderness of polders, hidden in the peat, drying out. Defiant windmills call Look, how we made it! to each other through the wind, turn the sail and white slats, pump a broad sweep of grasses on the Norfolk flats. The Wherry sails lonely, patrolling. About recovery he was right, Ted Ellis. Here is “the breathing space for the cure of souls”. We sift sand, self-raising flour carried on the wind. Everything here survives for itself, nothing goes adrift. A White Dog stays to play in the froth; encouraging change. Bacton-blue sky, parcel wrapped with contrail string, pulls the whole universe in around us. Groynes dig in their heels. You had us once, won’t take us again. You stand stoic on the post. I photo you with the gulls, throwing stones; tossing in your ballast at last. We watch it plunk, plunk away.

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When I was young I thought I could write about anything. Now I’m older my palate is more restricted because of having more of a sense of what’s worth writing about. For me the challenge is in trying to wrestle the snake of an idea into submission and pin it down into lines on a page. Read more of Chris’s biography. Listen to Chris read Bagatelle.

Jigsaw Bagatelle Compass

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Jigsaw
A thousand pieces, each no bigger than a tot’s thumbnail. Clouds of apple blossom, an acre of thatch, head-high hollyhocks, a girl asleep in a hammock. A day’s work. Trial and error and trial. Her carer stands behind her chair, coat in hand, watching the clock. Dusk presses at the window. Nine hundred and ninety nine small triumphs pressed home. The last piece – the sleeping girl’s slack face – she sets this aside, orphaned in the box lid.

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Bagatelle
Things are going round in my head, she says. This isn’t a good day. She remembers a bagatelle brought down every Christmas from the attic room. Brass numbers set into glassy mahogany. The ding-ping as the chrome balls teased the maze of pins. Her delight as they slowed, to be trapped by sly cups. Today the balls go their own way, the pins are mute, the brass cups blind.

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Compass
The drug stops his compass needle’s careless pirouettes. Without Prozac he’s lost; his sextant can’t catch the noon or snare the unhinged horizon. Time loses its sea-legs. Continents would yawn and shift at whim. He’d be adrift in fractured waters, where a reef can surface with sudden, shuddering force.

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There’s not one point of genesis I could pinpoint and say that’s it, that’s the reason I write. I like poetry to deal with the unpoetic, with the everyday and the mundane. I like the rhythms of people’s accents and the wonderful things that ordinary people on the street say to each other. Read more of Andrew’s biography. Listen to Andrew read from inconsequential moments that disprove pessimism #1

the three of you now you’ve left inconsequential moments that disprove pessimism #1

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the three of you
for her you left behind i the one with all the grand designs who’d crawled across the Irish Sea, turned up with a rucksack and a plan, the one who laughed about life in the factory over spliffs, who circled jobs like he was playing Battleships, the one who smiled when he was signing on, proud not of what he was, but what he might become ii the one to who pre-6pm was just a dream that smelled of rusty springs, who wrapped himself in sheets as though they were the Banner he wanted to protect, the one who cut his hair until his baldness was an insurrection to the room, the one who never spoke, who looked like broken heel of shoe, who looked like Samson, power gone, betrayed, wearing stubble like a great excuse

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iii the one who left, ran out like a rumour, the one who took the dog and the money and the atmosphere that’d skulked around the borders of the flat, the one who, weeks later, we hear is going to be a father, whose outlines stained the fabric of the walls, whose absence burned with what he’d left behind: the un-made sofa bed, the drawing of Batman, wings clipped by the frame

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now you’ve left
and the country is set between us like a table, you should know that I’m o.k. sat either end of this boiling skin of boots and cats and televisions you should know that I am coping in this softly-sculpted distance hunched over work your face one half a shattered plate, the other cupless saucer, you should know that I am almost happy because here the rain blooms and falls against the window, a moose passes me as though he were a milkman I’d known for half my life and you should know how the water stretches long as trees to where it faces down the sky and folds into it like a jumper

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inconsequential moments that disprove pessimism #1
train 4pm Lancaster slips away like a lover at a station and only quiet a man looking at me with a softness that says he’s never seen me naked and only quiet only clothed and buttoned quiet wrapped around the carriage like a scarf and then a baby’s laugh and a smile passed down from person to person like a baton in a race where the runners only ever want to finish third

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Having lived for many years in my grandmother’s house where I feel deeply rooted, gives me a stability which is critical for my writing. I suffer from a recurring nightmare of being torn away from home. A lot of my poems are about a childhood over which hangs a sense of menace. Read more of Jennifer’s biography. Listen to Jennifer read Repercussions.

Repercussions Dolls Singing Grace Stolen

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Repercussions
We didn’t like the sound of them. Aged five and six, we decided to disappear before they got us so we made a hole in the world and tumbled through. It was dark in the beginning but if we closed our eyes it wasn’t too different from being asleep. We grew silver stars on our foreheads so we could see each other. Our food was sweet black earth. Angels trimmed our hair. They sewed on our buttons and gave us vodka for colds. The repercussions never found us. Sometimes we hear their feet but they walk right past having no idea at all.

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Dolls
When we fall down at the end of the day and there is no health in us, we forget the morning sun, the breakfast of strawberries, cannot get the black sky out of our heads. We should have known something was coming from the moment we were shrieked at for putting our new school shoes on the table, bringing a peacock feather into the house. In the cabinet we still have our dolls, as old as us but looking as crisp and fresh as when we pulled them from the box. Their china-blue eyes are pitiless, their cupid-bow lips full of scorn. You should have taken more care, says the one with the glossiest curls who knows she’ll be beautiful for ever.

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Singing Grace
Breakfast There was a new bruise at the corner of Mum’s eye. She saw me looking, pulled her hair across. Then she could hardly lift the teapot, spilled in every saucer. Before he came, we used to sing Thank you for the world so sweet … with the door open so the chickens could hear. At school we’re writing about families and we have to draw them, say what jobs they do. I copy what Julie is putting, just change the names. Miss Burrows says my hand is improving but I must learn to do shorter sentences, not let my words run on and on, smaller and smaller till no one can see them but me. Lunch appears on the table as if by magic. Mrs. Turner is a witch and when she shouts Lunch! and claps her hands three times, it happens, I’m a ‘free dinner’ and today I eat hardly any of it. I sit by Julie and watch her open her foil-wrapped sandwiches, lovely fresh-looking bread with the crusts cut off and ham spilling out.

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She also has a milk-shake, strawberry. She gives me first sip. I let it lie on my tongue as long as I can. Mrs. Turner’s bent nose comes poking but she doesn’t see us sharing. Mrs. Turner makes us wear our coats even if it’s sunny. We can’t run about properly and let the wind rush through our cardigans or hang upside down on the climbing bars, light as feathers. Tea Julie and I walk home to her house. I love you, I say but she doesn’t hear me. She runs off down her path and disappears. The path fills up with nothing again. The shape of her shoes has vanished. Soon she will be sitting at the table having a boiled egg with butter on her soldiers. Her father will come home from the office and pretend not to see her put her empty shell upside down in his eggcup. He will make a big fuss about cracking it and finding nothing inside. Everyone will laugh. Then everyone will have cake.

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Stolen
Today I forgot my brother had died, dreamed he’d been stolen by gypsies and was running around, a child again, his home a brightly painted caravan. Muddy-kneed, a hooped gold earring in one ear, he was happy, I could see that, riding the pony, cracking a little yellow whip. The wheel-spokes, decorated with moon and stars, spun round as they travelled. It was like watching the heavens on a winter night. Morning came and they stopped to water the horses. My brother began to paint dragons on the shafts. When I saw him holding a brush between his teeth I remembered everything: the bathroom, the toothmug smashing in the basin, the pupils of his eyes as he lay on the floor – black pinpricks in all that blue.

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