Maude sat at her dressing table in her nightgown. She had been sitting there for an hour, since the first light crept around the edges of the heavy curtains, and gave her permission to get out of bed. She hadn’t slept well, hasn’t been sleeping well in fact, but tried not to wonder why. She got up with the intention of getting dressed quickly and making her way down to the library before the rest of the house, but once she sat down to begin she found she couldn’t get up again. There would be no one to help her dress until Liv was ready, but Liv rose so late that Maude was used to dressing herself, so her inertia was not due to that.

She reached out and touched the back of the hairbrush, and the engraved silver was cool under her finger tips. The mirror that matched it had been broken in her trunk on the way here. When she had lifted it out she had cried, because it wasn’t the only thing to have made the journey and suffered. Aunt Edith had held her hand, not unkindly but not warmly either, and said it would be sent to be mended. It had never come back. She was younger then and hadn’t dared ask about it. She remembered Liv in the doorway, her long arms stretched up in an effort to reach the top of the doorframe, oblivious to Maude’s distress.
She lifted the lid of her jewelry box, another possession of her mother’s, and pushed at the meagre trinkets inside. Her mother’s engagement ring was the only thing of real value, even if it was ugly and old-fashioned. Maude closed the lid before she could think again about selling it, taking the money and running off to a small village somewhere to teach in a small school, or taking a boat to Canada. No one would follow her to Canada.


Kevin saw it first. Mam was still shouting at Heather, and Heather was still shouting at Mam, like they had been for half an hour and half Heather’s existence on this planet. Trixie, funny little dog that she is, was barking and jumping up and down in the middle of them, like it was a game to see who could be the loudest.

“How man, look at that.” Kevin was looking out of the window, all five foot six of him silhouetted with the sinking sun, hands on his narrow hips.

“Steal from my purse again and you’ll be out on the street!” Mam was shouting.

“How! Would youse stop yellin’ and look at this,” Kevin shouted over his shoulder.

“What?!” Heather and Mam said together.

“Canny rainbow that, like.” Kevin nodded at the window.

Heather went to stand next to him first. “Ee, there’s two of them,” she said in surprise.

There was almost silence for a minute. Trixie was panting and trotting round Mam’s legs, til Mam decided to go and have a look herself. “Double rainbow,” she said. Then she went and picked the key off the top of the picture frame and opened the door to the balcony. I followed her out and stood next to her, looking across the city to the double bands of colour prettying up the sky. Kevin and Heather came out, and shut the door on Trixie. She hadn’t wanted to come out here since we moved into the high rise, but you never know with a dog like Trixie. She stood at the door, wagging her tail, barking intermittently.

“Knew there had to be summat good about moving to this shit hole.”

Mam reached around me and clipped Kevin round the ear. “Mind your language.”

“Well, man,” said Kevin.

He had a point.

(A note on the dialect: I’m a Geordie though you’d never know it to hear me speak, but I can lapse at any moment into a full on Cheryl Cole, given a glass of wine. It’s a difficult thing to replicate a dialect like Geordie, when a word like ‘how’ is used to mean ‘come on’ or ‘please’ or ‘stop it’, and ‘man’ is used constantly, often as an exclamation of frustration. I don’t entirely expect everyone to get it, but it makes sense to me.)


The end of a long day and John opened the door to his shared house with no expectations. It was dark everywhere, and he flipped the lightswitch, thinking he must be the first one home. Nothing happened.

“John? Is that you?” It was Ivy calling from the kitchen.

“Yeah, it’s me. What’s with the lights?”

“No power. Come and have a drink!”

John threw his bag down on top of the pile of shoes at the bottom of the stairs, shed his coat and threw that on top of the bag and went down the hall. In the kitchen a single candle burned in a wine bottle on the table, where Mark and Ivy were sitting. Lenton was propped up against the fridge, wine glass in hand.

“Johnny!” Mark threw an arm up in the air, and scattered half the playing cards he was holding. “Welcome home.”

“He’s pissed,” Ivy said, handing John the glass of red she’d just poured. “He’s been on his own all afternoon.”

“Power went out around four, came back from the offy around five. You play poker yes?”

“Yes.” John sat down, took a long drink.

“Then come and relieve me of my money!” Mark banged the table and started to shuffle the cards.

“It feels wrong, taking on such an easy mark.” Under the table John kicked off his shoes.

Lenton snorted. “It won’t when you’re winning.”

Ivy grinned. “Too right. That fifty quid is feeling mighty fine in my pocket.”

“All right then. You have a new player. Lenton, you’re in as well?”

The tall man folded himself into the last chair and tapped the table. “Deal me in suckers.”

The Photograph

They say it’s a family photo so Newton has to be included, even though he isn’t in costume and everyone has been merely polite to him all evening. He looks across at Maude, who has been jollied into a kind of feathered head-dress. She is in the same trouble he is, he thinks, cast out onto one end of the family group, while he has been cast out on the other. The middle is taken up by the young, the rich, the amusing and the important. Some of his cousins are all four at once. Liv is right in the centre, of course, newly-wed but still flirtatious. She flicks her legs up onto the couch, making room for Laurie to lie down on the floor beneath her. Laurie isn’t family, but he is always there and, as Newton knows Liv would say, ‘three hundred times more interesting than Newton’. He doesn’t think Laurie is at all interesting but he’s certain the feeling is mutual.

Philip has squeezed in behind Maude and is leaning over the back of the couch and over Liv to pull on Laurie’s collar, saying something about straightening up. Newton watches as Maude has little option but to shuffle a little more to the left. Liv shrieks with laughter at something Laurie has said and looks over her shoulder at Maude, saying ‘It’s so delicious, isn’t it?’ Maude’s face brightens with her best smile as she agrees. Only Newton is still looking when her face falls again, revealing how tired she really is. She glances over at him, and his heart booms as their eyes meet. There is a second when he thinks that any artifice is gone between them, that they are locked in a look that says they know exactly how the world works and what it thinks of them, but they are still worth something. But then she gives a little shrug and a tiny smile and she looks to the camera, playing her part in the family gathering as she always has.

Loony Doctor

In the great green room there was a couch and a small table and a lamp and a very expensive ergonomic chair, the kind that is supposed to make you grow taller by three inches when you sit in it. Or something. Maybe not exactly that. I’d been going to the green room for almost three months, twice a week. It was a dark mossy green, which I supposed was in the calming section of the colour chart, far away from the angry, knife wielding reds and eye burning sun yellows. I lay on the couch (it’s very traditional) and Dr Coffin (yes! His real name!) sat in the chair. Sometimes I lay there just looking at the quality of the decorating, you know, where the green walls met the off white cornice. Very straight lines. Mesmerising. I could get caught up for endless minutes thinking about the man (most likely a man) with his steady hand and paint kettle, up a ladder, or maybe on stilts, or on a movable scaffolding rig, taking pains to get the line just right. Dr Coffin was a patient man. Though he was paid at the end of the hour regardless so I guess it might have been as much smugness as patience. I besmirch him. Unfairly. He really wanted to help.

(Inspired by a phrase in a column in Time Out, with thanks to Goodnight Moon.)

Hat Box

Newton Branch took a sip of his tea and place the cup carefully back on the table. He was alone in the parlour, and had been ever since his arrival twenty minutes earlier, though some unseen hand directed a tea tray be brought to him. The girl who brought it was new, held upright by the crispness of her uniform, her neck shrinking away from the stiff collar, and when she set down the cup and saucer there was a noticeable rattle. Newton had smiled at her to say thank you, but he had forgotten he was in England, and the terrified girl had simply lowered her head even further.

He was chasing a hat box all over London, and he had come to a standstill. Perhaps the hat box knew it was being chased and was deliberately hiding. He drummed his long fingers on his thigh, and considered getting out his book, but uncertainty of the reaction of the host kept his hand away from his jacket pocket. Laurie wouldn’t worry, of course. He’d just do it and fling the darn thing over his shoulder when the hat box finally showed itself.

Newton tried to remind himself that the person and the hat box were separate things.

His thoughts tripped back to Laurie, and to the ever following Philip. They had what his Grandmama would call swagger. They behaved as if they owned every room they walked into, though perhaps that was true often enough to warrant it. Newton shrank into the walls of any room that tried to hold him, his efforts at joining the conversation always too quiet or too loud. It was incredible that they were at all related. Not for the first time, Newton considered the possibility of being a changeling, swapped in a moment of hospital madness by a Nurse out of her head on laudanum.

As his confidence in himself once more plummeted, the door opened and the hat box came in.

“Maude,” he said, standing up, feeling a moment’s relief that he did so without tangling his limbs.

“Oh sit down, dear Newton. Liv will be down to see you in a minute. I just delivered her new hat and she’s preening. Is that tea?”

Newton’s mouth flapped. They always assumed he was here for his cousin, trying to preserve the familial bond in his fathers stead.

Maude sat down in the chair opposite his, and rattled the tea pot lid. “Yes, I do believe it’s tea, and hot too.” She smiled up at him. “Well, come, sit down, and tell me all about the museum.”

Newton obeyed, unable to stop himself.