– I’m down maybe five feet. I take a moment to thank the leaf-filled rectangle of sky, and with the muslin settled over my mouth and nose I yank on the tarpaulin and the black mound falls. Then I pull the tarp out from under the covering layer, scrunch it down my side, and delicious hunks and crumbles of dug earth say: welcome.


I allow a last minute of earthly thought and congratulate myself on this ingenious arrangement. The spot in the forest, far from anywhere. The tarp and the spade. The digging – a long hole, deep enough to work, deep enough to be right – and the piling of the soil on the tarp with a good strip hanging over the edge of the hole for easy tugging. The hurried discard of clothes, my body a chilly worm. Turns out it starts to get warm quite soon as you go down; a reminder you’re entering a living being.


Here’s the idea, which you’ll agree is simple and elegant: stay here, breathing with care, and make a long, long count to five in the glorious black. See what happens. At some point my wish will come true and I’ll bud; a tendril will burst from me and wrap me into the world. From my flat edges, roundness.


After a while it will be time to push up and out into the mossy night. Ejected from under the skin of the world, I’ll be real again, greener, humming with mitochondria. A twig in the nest, a bee in the hive, a member of the family, a body in a body-shaped space –


No three toadstools/porn-fae yet that day, but from spin to spin I’d got a decent number of gnarled oaks coming up on paylines. Even one five of a kind. Only Qs, but those five Qs brought me even. I’d had a celebratory drink at that point. I’d had a celebratory jelly snake from the top desk drawer. I noted rhythmic splashes coming from outside, so I bent and twisted to raise the blind for a little dose.


From the low window of my little attic office I could get a clear if uncomfortable view of the pool. Craig was bombing the deep end and I watched Stephen pull himself out of the water, stretching as he stood. How he had grown. Speedo, dark line running down towards. I shifted, crossing my legs the other way. On the one hand: he was still a teenager and I was his 39-year-old aunt. On the other: no actual blood relation, so.


I sat up, clicked, clicked again.


In Enchanted Forest time sank away with a sigh. My skull grew a sweet new lining as my finger kept clicking Spin. Reels falling with that jaunty bounce: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Over and over. Doink doink doink doink doink.


I liked to start with 500 credits. Though one credit equalled one actual pound sterling in some universe – like, our in-lieu-of-any-kind-of-pension, savings-account universe – it wasn’t a universe I wanted to deal with while I was playing. Thanks but no thanks. I knew I was down overall; I didn’t need to torture myself with the detail. In that unacknowledged realm I was also hollow with hunger, my bladder a hot balloon of pain. But it was good/painful, painful/good, holding me somewhere still, light, like being inside a meringue cooling on a marble surface in an empty kitchen. I was at peace with my dead parents, my defunct ovaries, in the smooth flat world of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.


An email came from Funsoft – feedback from Mel in Animation – and I twinged. If they knew I was on a PlayHouse game? On work time? I clicked, spun again. Work time was flexitime. And there was just something about those toadstools.


Spap. An IM: it was Warren, on his laptop in the living room. World calling Danielle… Coming down? : – )


A pause. Spap.


Drinks & nibbles being served… A&N doing dinner.


Lovely Warren.



– Numb ears in the silence. Lost eyes in the dark. Bliss.


But oh. There’s a niggle. A bother.


It was that thanking the sky thing: it’s a habit from my parents. Doing that, bringing them into it, has got me a bit… I mean, I can breathe okay – there’s plenty of air when the earth’s well dug – but actually, I think, oh, I do, I feel quite sick. Stuck on my back. I didn’t plan for that. As it happens I’m nauseated from the whole rollercoaster weekend. Trying not to think about it makes me think only about it, and the thinking makes me want to literally vomit, as I lie here –

His cosy IM tone, the winks and ellipses and ampersands, the entreaties to come down, all were designed to get me off my chair. Warren and my office chair were sexual rivals; he admitted as much during the one row we’d had since we moved. Otherwise we coexisted fine, me and my easy ways, him and his straight, heavy cleanliness. If I thought about Warren I sort of zoomed in and out on him, for fun, like one of those macro pictures made of other smaller pictures that softens as you pull away and reveals its detail when you get close. I bet if we’d had kids together I’d have had my nose pressed to that detail every day.


Be right down! Just finishing up!, enter.




X, enter.


Leaving off or including the X was a switch I could flick. He always noticed, distancing to a certain smooth resolution if I left it off. But I didn’t want to stir things up, not with his brother and everyone here.


A text came to my phone and I ignored it. I clicked Spin. Doink doink doink doink doink. Okay, nice, four fluffy bunnies. Maybe time to go down. But downstairs there was food to negotiate. People. I still had a mouthful in my glass and I was owed a few jelly snakes, so one more click. Here was one toadstool, two toadstools and?


In a way, we had to admire PlayHouse. Their games owned you. Enchanted Forest was a 20-line I’d had to try out for professional reasons, and three months later I was still trying it out. Daily. It was nothing special: standard 10-J-Q-K-A for a base plus the required set of icons, the little squares of metonymy that illuminate the theme. You know where you are with a game like that. Apart from the five-of-a-kinds (saucy Bambi heads the best, winning you 5,000 10p coins) what you hoped for and kept spinning for was three toadstools boinging into position on reels 1, 3 and 5; these started a bonus round in which you moused a sort of porn-fae character over flowers to ‘pick’ them for their hidden prize, until you hit one that turns out to be a dandelion clock which blows itself out and frightens the porn-fae away, and that’s the bonus round complete and back you go to the pregnant Spin button, and during that time the planet drops out of the galaxy and you seem to have no heartbeat though something must be forcing those martinis of adrenalin and dopamine through the scrawled lines of your system.


No. No third toadstool, not this time and not the last eight times either, so surely soon? Dull, dull, stupid, stupid Enchanted Forest. Maybe switch to Underwater Adventure? Those little dolphins, they can make your day.


The light seemed to have softened. I bent to raise the blind and yes, the sun had dropped way down below the tops of the pines, spiking the pool with shadow. Stephen lay on a lounger on his front with a book. My eyes licked the length of the long dip that marked his spine.


A sudden bloop-de-bloop! made me drop the blind with a clatter and I straightened back up to my desk.


Funsoft Office calling – Answer with video?


Hm. He’d know it was nearly seven here. I minimised the game and answered the call, and O’Really’s moustached head filled the monitor. I hurried to close the corner window in which my own face darted, tiny and pale, like a guilty haricot bean.


OK, nightmare, said O’Really. It’s a no from the Bronte people. We tried.


Shit. So. Plan B.


Sign-off by closework Monday. Sorry, Danni.


My mobile buzzed the arrival of another text, which I ignored.


Can we keep the creaking gate? And the sheep?


They can stay. Better think of something else for the interfering slash caring housekeeper, though. Maybe a sexy maid? Nice weekend.


I IMd Warren.


Work just sent more work! Enough for whole weekend!! Sorry. : – ( Down soon. X


O’Really, because he never believes what you say about what you’ve been doing all day, had been reluctant to let me move here to (as he put it) quotes-work-from-home, but I’d finished three new games in the last year. We were becoming contenders. Our most successful so far was 1984tune!, for which I’d worked up a grim, grey-jawed Winston and a domestic but hot Julia (headscarf and lipstick). I’d storyboarded the whole bonus round: the player had to keep releasing rats into Winston’s prison-cage, where he screamed and rattled the bars, and with each additional rat your prize increased, until – jeopardy! – you released one rat too many, and Winston fainted and you lost half your total. So there was a element of control/risk. Players loved that.


Funsoft’s internal slogan was simple: Keep Players Playing. Hook them, thrill them, seduce them, cover them with a snuggly blankie of soft narcotic sensations. Own them. Get them to bury themselves in you. All to be achieved through two dimensions of bright, zipping video candy.


The literary slots were a new thing, and Funsoft management thought they were on the way to out-sophisticating PlayHouse. I didn’t think so. But when we got round the copyright stuff there was a rich seam of symbols to be mined.


Plan B on the new Wuthering Heights slot meant a total remodel, not impossible, but fraught with the pangs of artistic compromise. Thundering Moors. We’d change all the character names too, and take the graphics back to an ideal point where they were still recognisable but not in actual breach. I fired up Photoshop and started tinkering with our new main characters, Wycliffe and Kitty. In my little blinds-drawn attic, a thousand miles from O’Really, I worked with eyebrows raised, a tilt to my head, expressing my distaste for the task.


In this way, from my chair, I rebelled.

– I can’t deny it now: my chin’s going tight. I’m dying to move, but thinking of movement just stirs up the ugh. It’ll be okay, though, with an empty stomach you can’t actually be sick, can you? The icons of Prize Picnic whirl by: a helter-skelter ice cream cone; a cupcake’s cherry nipple; the plump bronze curves of roast poultry. Or can you? There’s always bile. Oh god. Little square pictures of my own mouth bubbling yellow, my eyes wide with choke.


I hear their voices: Now, Harmony Meadow, just shush and lie still.


I hear Warren: For Christ’s sake, Danni, what were you thinking?


Please, more air. The soil’s heavy, heavier than I thought. I ease a finger into a crease in the tarpaulin and tug, but it stretches, comes to tearing point instead of shifting anything. My heart flags up the growing trouble –


Nick and beautiful Antonia and their two boys were here for one more week, and then they would get to go home. Family and friends liked to visit since we moved to this village idyll. So pretty! We were so lucky – on holiday all the time!


Except even if you’re retired, which we were nothing like, you can’t be on holiday all the time. Stay anywhere longer than three weeks and you have to face things as they really are. The washing machine breaks down and the plumber rants for ten minutes about ‘les noirs’. The post goes on strike, and when the wind blows from the east it brings a smell of rotted meat. You witness, one day, someone throwing what looks like a puppy out of a moving car. So you retreat to your cool office space which with the blinds down could be anywhere, and skulk over to the expat shop you swore you’d never enter, paying twelve euros for Marmite.


Not really boys. Strange and sort of miraculous what happens. Last time I saw them, back in England, they were short and puny, and Craig at 13 still was. Self-conscious Craig, full of throaty protest, fists in the air with each tiny triumph over his older brother. A nice kid, but he was his father’s son and, thankfully, forgettable. But Stephen, you wouldn’t believe. How had Stephen, 6’2”, clear eyes like truffles, skin of toasted hazelnut, grown into this tranquil masculinity that he wore like a tux? How did he know how?


I’d been good, really working for a full half hour, and when I stretched I noticed it was properly dark. I heard Warren’s feet on the wood of the staircase. Quick, I had to click off and make sure nothing was visible in email and where was my phone? In the drawer: okay. I x-ed out of Photoshop and in my hurry clicked No to not save because I was thinking No to Warren’s footsteps, shit, all that work I’d put in, thanks so much Warren, who was now pushing open the door with the gentle nudge of a PlayHouse doe.




It was Stephen, oh Stephen, suddenly fleshing out the room. I felt twin compulsions: a) to cover myself like a nun, b) to rip off everything.




We were wondering if you’re coming down? Yeah, course!


I was already rising from my chair.

– I’m sorry and everything if you’re getting queasy too, all this spinning, and zooming in and out, bending and straightening and getting up off chairs, and raising and lowering blinds. All the indulgent oversaturated description. I understand it may not be your idea of a good time but I’m afraid we’re in this together. Just so you know, I feel pretty awful as well.


It’s disgust making me tight and green and sorry. Down here my body’s still; I mean nothing’s swinging, revolving or swooping, but oh, those internal oscillations: boom-boom, flush-flush, boom-boom, flush-flush –



As the relentless dinner passed its peak, Craig begged for a second beer and I went into the house to get it. I was cooling my head in the drinks fridge when a deep, woody scent stirred the cavern of my insides. The skin of my back was pulled into a spiked pelt of longing, the world blown, bellowed, into three pulsing dimensions. Stephen was behind me, offering a hand. I passed him beers. The strong curve of his hand grasped the shaft of each bottle. I would not think about this later. I would not think about it ever. There was no way I’d mess everything up by acting on it.


I followed Stephen back out to the garden. The grass was cold and wet: Craig running around earlier with a water gun. Cicadas or crickets or whatever scraped the air to shreds. Stephen bent to relight the citronella coils, but beside their lemony tang there was a sort of emotional smoke in the air. As I sat down, everyone else’s movements slowed and stopped, dropping into place: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.


At the end of the table, glowing in her white linen shirt in the candlelight, beautiful Antonia put down her glass. Danielle honey, she said, we want to talk to you.


You have been talking to me.


Danni –


Nick reached out and almost touched my hand before he stopped himself, saying, all gluey, It’s good to see you, D. He has that kind of overgrown gentleness sometimes, like a mother gorilla. We want you back, Warren said, staring at his empty plate. This is because we care about you, Antonia said.


Then it clicked: Everyone around, looking at me? The quiet that had fallen over the remains of dinner? This was one of those whatchamacallits.


We miss you, said Warren. I miss you. His family all turned their heads away, giving us a notional moment alone in the chirruping dark.



I’d made a mistake somewhere. Which one of the axes I juggled had hacked this sudden sickening gash into my day? Undeniably, there were things that might have been uncovered or admitted, correspondence opened, activities come to light. I threw a silent apology in Stephen’s direction, in case. They all watched the tilt of my wine-pouring wrist.


OK. Well. So what do you want me to do?


What do you mean?


What do you think it is that’s wrong with me?


They were all staring at me, like how can you not know? Then Antonia counted off on her long fingers. The starving yourself, my love. The working all day and all night, or whatever it is you do in there. The endless quipping, not being straight, talking in riddles. Sweetie. The avoiding. The drinking, when you do finally show your face.


At least there were no specifics: no names, no numbers.


I don’t actually starve myself. I had a huge salad for lunch –


Salad’s not food, D.


And I eat sweets all the time. You know I like those jelly snakes. I eat.


I didn’t like my thin voice. Warren said quietly that it all had to change, and I said sorry, then I said it again a different way – sometimes you have to try a few keys in the door before you find the one that fits. But Antonia kept pressing me, batting away my responses. It was like being the kid the other kids all turn on in a snowball fight and realising they’re led by your beloved class teacher.


Antonia overflowed with lucky loveliness. Her velvet dark-brown skin and firm convex body came from jackpot Cuban/Guyanese genes, she had two international postgraduate degrees, and being a mother had made her both more solid and more tender. Her husband seemed blind to his incredible good fortune, always signing off his emails with one kiss too many. Maybe his obliviousness kept her attracted. Maybe she was just one of those Good Faithful People.


Craig had his phone halfway out of his pocket, glancing at it under the table. Stephen dug him with an elbow. Was he on my side? I wanted to ask him out loud, but, Danielle, sanity.


– No, no, no, no, no, soil’s got in. Soil under the muslin, creeping into my nose. I try to downsnort like a horse but it won’t move. I know I mustn’t breathe in hard, though everything in me burns with the wanting. The swirling poison rises to my throat. This is ridiculous. Why are we stuck? Oh god. I must have a good push in me that’ll dislodge the weight on my stomach. I must.


Damp disks of black cool my eyelids, coins of the dead, as I push down through the backs of my legs, achieving a tiny edge, perhaps a couple of centimetres. A tickle of crumbs shifts around my calves. I’m so sure I’m going to vom. I should have kept my body strong; I shouldn’t have dug the hole so deep; I should have remembered I’m not a worm, that I’m made for elsewhere. I should have considered the sheer weight of the soil.


But no, I have to think of it as not-weight, as weightless. The soil a mere illusion –


They might as well have been asking me to perform a skeletal transplant on myself, but I said okay. Okay I’d do better, I’d change, stop drinking, stop, whatever, being the person that was letting them all down. As proof I chewed a hearty chunk of bread.


Then Warren said, What about the chickens?


Everyone looked at him.


We were going to start a little smallholding, start with chickens; she was supposed to look into it, start it off, get the eggs or whatever.


Nick said, I don’t think you get chickens from eggs.


Everyone looked at him.


You know what I mean.


I said okay again. We would talk about the details, but fine. Then Antonia said if I meant it I’d do yoga with her in the morning.


Yoga? I mean, I don’t even. I don’t do that stuff.


A yoga-themed game? Yes. Why hadn’t we done one already? PlayHouse hadn’t. I could see the reels dropping: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; all bendy limbs and primary leotards. But you wouldn’t just have a load of people in poses; you have to differentiate your icons (speed of comprehension equals speed of play). Maybe turn the metaphors back on themselves, have a real downward-facing dog, a real cobra. Spinning, I don’t know, locusts. Well, it would need work.


Something physical then, darling. You have to do something for your body.


They thought I was still there at the table, saying yes to Antonia. Smiling, above ground, back in the fold. Happy and calm under their corrective gaze.



Surrounded by four thousand square miles of forest I wanted to go on a rampage, to crunch through it all like a giant. To snap it into twigs, twiglets, and shovel them into my mouth with a fist, get that chlorophyll blast of life into my flesh. It had been so long since once upon a time. The sap bolstering the blood, the humming mushroom mulch of the forest floor plumping up my liver and lungs.

Five miles from home, the path soft under my boots, I took a taste of newness onto my tongue and thought of nothing. All right, yes, I did feel better. And they would all be at home feeling better about me. Doves sat eight inches overhead and watched as I passed. A hairy railway of processional caterpillars chugged along unbothered. The air was almost minty.


I wrapped all my limbs around a fatherly beech, clung there up off the ground like a primate. PlayHouse have a zoo game: the elephants (5,000 coins for five of a kind) have long eyelashes and a slutty smile. A playing player will lap up flirtation from anywhere. I gripped tighter, thinking I might crack or open up, sprout something from my solar plexus or between my legs, vibing with the hopeful hum of the tree.


I’d meant all my promises last night. I really could let much of it go, no problem. From now on, things would be clean, clear and healthy. The bastards would see I could live without any of it. I’d have a month, three months, with no drinking and no sweets and no extracurricular game playing and when I got a stab of hunger I’d eat something. Something with butter on it, and I’d work no more than my contracted thirty-five hours, and no weekends. A life like a smooth white stone. It was fine! I still had my little attic room, and the dropping squares and rhythms of my work and my thoughts. The seesaw of deprivation and indulgence I was riding – too much in one direction, swinging, too much in the other direction, swinging, too much etc – I’d simply step off.


I knew they’d done it for me, their loving inquisition, to help me live better. It made sense in the same way my parents made sense of what they did to us. Actually it must rather have hurt them, my gentle parents, who were not at all dead as far as I knew, but farming quietly into their old age, chickens and all, somewhere near Totnes. It must have hurt them all five times, to hear their children whimpering and begging to be dug out.


I couldn’t hold on long up the tree. I walked on.


The burial ritual was for the benefit of all beings. Our direct knowledge of suffering would increase, and so in turn would our compassion, which would then ripple out to the world. We would benefit, though we were soft and small, and frightened.


I think my mother tried to explain it in those terms in her last letter, but since I read it once through an agonised haze and threw it away, I’m not sure. She may have said they felt we should be inoculated against the corrupting ego. There was definitely a phrase about stimulating the sympathetic response – one of their homeopathy concepts – and how the ceremony was a kind of memento mori, an unforgettable lesson that not only do all beings suffer, everything ends in death.


An unforgettable lesson for 7-year-old Harmony Meadow Daniels. I ditched HM finally at sixteen, salvaging only the scrap of surname as I gathered up my mental rags and ran for adulthood.


Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame my parents.


I stopped to pee, stepping off the path to squat though there was no-one around. In my innocence as I darkened the sand I looked up at the forest canopy, and all at once the woods were overwhelmingly massive, just too numbersome, about to collapse on top of me. I ducked, nearly toppled.


Like a frantic fly hammering a window, I had to get out.


But I was already out.


I would survive if I got back to my desk. For comfort I pictured home, but the picture came through as Bates’ Motel hunched on the hill in a swirl of choking mist, due to last night and the ripping away of all my compensations, my consolations. Two doves fluttered up and bumped chests overhead and then my knees went, I buckled to the sand, and I was down on my hands and haunches, with my pants still round my ankles, wracked by the Hole.


You know. The Hole. It won’t take the honest flesh of a decent name, but it’s the reason we have so many other words, the sickening excess of words and the endless heinous lies of the mind.


Little tongue-blades from broken pinecones dug into my knees and a slick of drool spinneyed to the ground under my melting face. My body was a trap I’d stepped into, laid by a hunter expecting something else. I coughed out my own name, insisting, Danielle, Danielle, still running from that other girl. Leaning on the two hard fists of pine-needley sand at the ends of my wrists felt good/painful, painful/good. Maybe this was what it meant to be alive.


If so, well, thanks and everything, but.


I wrestled my clothes back up and semi-stood. I really needed my chair.


Off the path now, I was facing spikes of acacia and piney brush which fell over each other in a way that looked designed, enticing. I pushed through to a flat, clearish spot, looked about, dragged over some fallen branches. With some scrabbling the sandy clods of ground came away, and soon I had a shallowing I could lie down in, scuff-brushing the loosened soil and leafy branches over me as best I could. It was too bright, too gay with birds, but what could I do.


Then, closed eyes and stillness. Slow breaths coming. There would soon come a tipping point: surely I would shoot, germinate, in spite of it all. I just needed to keep at it. After a few minutes I touched myself, or maybe it wasn’t me doing it, it was more, how can I… A force. A waning part of my mind tried picturing Stephen, but the signal was weak, the data corrupted, and it all got outflooded by some savagery of the forest itself sinking its jaws into the scruff of my neck and I let go.


It was good and everything, but honestly? I was unfulfilled. It wasn’t enough. I brushed off my walking clothes and set off for home, slightly ashamed to be upright, like I was over-evolved.


Then it all got messy.


– The soil is a mere illusion. Not matter as such, but a dream. In this way mountains can be moved. See, Harmony? You can move a mountain. Shitshitshit I am under a mountain No. Calm. Breathe. Don’t be sick.


Breathe just a bit. It’s all I need. I chose this. I am all-powerful. I am the universe. I could do a game based on the gods. A game based on consciousness itself.


Fuck the games.


I wriggle a finger and feel the earth settle tighter around my hand. I veer from stabs of hope to the soft murmurs of submission, and back. The hope is worse than the fear. Then no, no, yes, this is it, here it comes, the eruption –



In the night quiet we stood amongst the trees behind the house and an owl yelped right above us, I mean right overhead. As if it knew.


He said, Let’s not do this.


As I reset my thin dress straps onto my shoulders, giving Nick five minutes’ grace to get back into the house, I’d stopped thinking about Stephen. I was thinking of a new game: bankers? Bailouts? You’d get a nice pun with, you know, bonuses. It’s because he’d said something over dinner about financial instruments, so now I was seeing a marching band of money: Euro tubas, coin-topped snare drums. But it fizzled out. I used to be able to entertain myself with this stuff. Now things had taken a turn for the three-dimensional and I’d lost my taste for it.


I moved back into the cool dark of the garden and sat on the edge of a lounger, watching the moonless night ruffle the pool, tapping musky fingers against my lips. Nick’s six-month pursuit by text and email; my six months of coy-mistressing, and that was what it had come to: an after-dinner tryst, a sad, sober grope. Kissing that started with mutual wet interest but fell out of sync. My hands hoping for a glimpse of the son in the dark, finding only the fluorescent pudge of the father. Yet it was Nick who’d stopped it.


I lay back, about to go in but imagining how it would be to stay out all night, exposed to insects and the awful eyes of the stars.


Sunday lunch undid me. I was about to offer Stephen lamb from my fork (as I did sometimes, his harmless aunt) and instead some unfathomable instinct made me hold it out to Nick, and with my other hand touch his wrist. Warren watched, froze, caught my eye, then looked as if the cells of his face were crumbling beneath his skin. And beautiful Antonia saw, did a minute shake of her head, and placed down her knife and fork. And I, worm, welcomed the spark of victory fizzing in my guts.



I skulked around the house in the afternoon snooze. Heading for my attic room I paused with a foot on the bottom stair and overheard.


You’d better not just, like, forgive him.


They weren’t trying to hurt anyone. Not me, and certainly not you.


But how can we stay?


We don’t even know what happened, darling. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions. I don’t even get it. She’s not even nice-looking.


Now, come on, Stephen.




Don’t cry, lovey.


I couldn’t climb the stairs. Down was the only way for me. Down was a direction, or dimension, I didn’t normally use. That’s when the plan dropped into position: note, woods, spade, pit, root.





It’s been three days. Her boss has flown over. He says everyone at Funsoft is frantic about her, though Warren suspects the panic is more to do with her unfinished work. But O’Reilly seems like a decent man. Chunky. Fills a room. Warren offered him the outbuilding bunk bed but he demurred and, after a tense evening at the house, has opted to stay at the run-down hotel in the square. A couple of journalists seem to have set up camp there too, no surprise. It’s normally minor thefts and mayoral elections, and now they’ve the disappearance of a young étrangère to arouse themselves over.

But Warren wishes O’Reilly had stayed with them, solidifying the situation, keeping it urgent for the others. An outsider like him might bring some clue, be some help. The boys have sunk into their gadgets, Nick keeps offering to make tea, and in her noble, non- hysterical way, Antonia is blaming herself. None of them can help with the infuriating one- line note Danni left.


Of course he has cooperated with the police. There only seem to be two or three in the whole commune; when they come round they act like friends, taking black coffee and smoking freely in the garden. But friends who might turn. Warren tingles with the awareness that he must behave as the innocent he is, which makes him say and do many things he wouldn’t normally do. He corrects himself, which makes him look inconsistent, and in quiet moments he feels he may be dissolving, becoming a kind of mirrored mirror image of himself.


They used to pass each other in the rooms of their home, exchanging spaces with mechanical precision, like a weatherhouse man and woman. Now his one body is lacking its other, and there’s too much space. Though she was tiny, his wife, she countered him with her compulsions and excesses and evasions, and her bloody insistence on living through symbols and metaphors instead of facing real life. Without her Warren has lost his ballast. He swings and swoops, a horrible pendulum.


– I feel it go, not from the stomach but pushing through the back of my left knee, slightly sickening yes but now already so natural, thin as a candlewick but strong, rooting down through the soil, finding its way blindly through the complex of grit and black and the cool webs of fibre and the first hints of the heat of the heart of the earth. The root slows, tapers to a stop. Then for the next few hours it will swell, bit by bit, pressing the knee open and open and more open, until the pivot point, when I let go and give in and allow the knee to split completely and stop being a knee. You’re free to go. And at that moment there’s the sweetest relief –


's short stories have won various awards including The White Review Short Story Prize 2014, the 2013 Prolitzer Prize from Prole magazine and a Bridport Prize. She is Associate Editor at The Writing Disorder. She lives in London and is currently finishing a short story collection.