Winners: short story competition 2010/11

Our thanks to all who sent entries for the Exeter Writers Short Story Competition. The judging is complete and the following are the winners – our congratulations to them all. The winning stories are online; follow the links.

First prize:
Until planets slip their tracks by Joanna Campbell

Second prize:
The precious things of Imogen’s library by Douglas Bruton

Third prize:
Looking for Michael by Sarah Hegarty

Runners-up: (not in order of preference)
A library full of of murder by Simon Whaley
My name is George by Veronica Bright
The cubbyhole by Linda Mitchelmore
Letter to follow by Norma Murray
Into each life by John Morley
Looking for Iago by Bruce Harris
Moving backwards by Sarah Evans


wordcentral just contacted us with updated information. As Exeter Writers is currently full and not accepting new members, this is a possibility if you are looking for another writers' group that meets in Exeter.

What is wordcentral?
wordcentral is a friendly, informal group who meet to read and discuss our work and share information, contacts and news.

Who can attend?
Writers of all genres are welcome – fiction, poetry, non-fiction – come along and find out what we're like. We're a self running group with writers from all genres who have some experience.

When do we meet?
First and Third Thursday of the month from 6pm to pm.

Where do we meet?
The St James room at St Sidwell's Community Centre, Sidwell Street, EX4 6NN.

How much does it cost to attend?
Members are asked to donate £3 per session.

For more information please email or visit our blog:

Please note this is not a class but a self running group for writers with some experience. Contact Exeter College for information on creative writing classes.

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Until planets slip their tracks / 1st in 2010/11 Competition

Until planets slip their tracks
by Joanna Campbell

Nate knew how to hypnotise a chicken. But he knew next to nothing about me. Didn't matter none when we were growing up in Stone Gap. Still had the same old dirt in our dungarees nigh on every day. Long dusty summers never ended. But only I knew how I loved the bones of that boy.

Our classmates whooped when Nate laid the chick in the dirt, holding its thin feet firm in one hand. Mouths wide, they watched his finger trace a line in the earth, straight from the beak. The bird's beady eye followed the course of Nate's line like it was leading him to Heaven. Twenty full seconds it was down there in a trance.

All I recall is how tender Nate held it, his fingers curved around the frail wings before he let it free.

Me and Nate had a baby, but we didn't know a thing about that. Just saw I was looking bonny and kind of ripe in the months after the rains.

"Have to shelter us in the cow-shed, is all," Nate had said. And I swear he had no notion in his head but keeping our hides dry. Our clothes steamed in the straw while our bodies took charge of one another.

He didn't know he was in my head all the time. When we were playing out together or running errands to Hardwick's Mercantile, he didn't know I was thanking God in Heaven for my friend Nate. When he found the tender side of his self one June day by the lake, making may-apple flower chains to lace round my neck, I paid no heed to the twisting ways of my heart. It would always feel that way. And I just prayed Nate would feel it when we were grown.

Nate could swim in winter waters. He stripped and dove in, long white body scoring through the blank lake. Used to cut right in there with him when I was a little child.

But when we were fifteen and the baby inside began to show, my shame grew right along there with it. My swaying belly weren't fit to be seen naked.

"Get in that water, girl," Nate said. "I like it."

He held out his hand and I went in. The cold lake lapped over the little mound. Nate wrapped his fingers round it. He was the first of us to feel the baby squirm.

Never swam after the birthing. I missed the quickening of new life in my soul. And the love burning through the shame. And I was lost after the baby was buried. Fit for nothing. If I'd stepped into that water, I'd have kept right on walking in deeper and deeper to the middle, until my head was under and my memories soaked through.

Nate knew the stars. He had a connection with them, like he was in a book, a magic-boy with a string binding him to the Milky Way.

Some nights we lay on the wet grass by the lake and drifted up there. The sky came right down low above our eyes. The more we stared with no blinking, the more stars we could see. Like they were fire-spiders pulling us up inside their web, weaving us into their blue nets full of light. I was less off-course on those nights with Nate. I felt found again.

On our last day of school, we roamed our best places until dark, feet bare and holding hands. Nate rolled up his certificate like a telescope.

"I can see for freakin' miles," he said. His voice was rasping with hopes. And I could feel a tremble in his thigh against mine. Starred nights were Nate's favourite time.

"I can think straight. See a path."

That's what he always said. His destiny wouldn't be at the coal-face always. He knew it and so did I.

Never wanted nothing more than to walk that path with Nate. Never did say it though. Had no right to push myself on someone with a brain and a dream and a path.

And that's why Nate knew nothing about me. He could read the stars. He could bewitch a chicken. But shutters were latched on my thoughts. No folk allowed there. Not even Nate.

All the lake days and waist-high cornfield days and blue-star nights went away when school finished.

"Get that broom sweeping, Carrie. Don't pay you for thinking, do I?"

That's what Aunt Lawrence always says. She thinks I'm lucky to have work. Lucky my folk didn't kill me when they saw my little baby, blue in the bedclothes. She puts the mop in my hand before I'm up her steps. Before I'm level with the stone lion by her door. Thrusts it at me like I'm wild boar rampaging on her dandy lawn.

That's my life. A circle, it is. Day begins in the old chicken-house in back of Aunt Lawrence's. Round to her door, my head hanging low in gratitude. The two mile track up to my old school to boil dinners. Down the other side of the valley to Hardwick's to bruise my knees wiping the butchery floor at the tail-end of a day's slaughter.

Hardwick likes me using rags, watches from behind while I'm down there, backside in the air. Sassy Clements works on confectionary by the window. Other end from me. You need clean pig-tails and white petticoats for that. Hardwick gave her a straw hat with silk ribbons. 'Hershey's Milk Chocolate Kisses' is what's printed in pink on the brim.

She gives me a hard smile when she finishes for the day. Bites off the head of a sugar mouse. Pitches the hat on a hook behind her counter. I watch it swing after she skips out the door, the shop bell jangling long after she's gone.

Now we're grown, I strive to get a glimpse of Nate. When I stand up to rinse the bloodied cloths, I see him pass by. A flash of his moon-lit yellow hair on winter nights as he strides home from the coal-face. A dark blur of wide woollen shoulders when the fog comes down.

In summer I see more. The air is sweeter. Coal dust like black powdered sugar frosts the hedge-rows. And he looks in and waves. Sassy spins round and waves back. Looks at me with triumph blaring from her pebbly eyes. But, sure as slow-worms, that wave of his is meant for me.

One day he goes by clean. His face is peach-skin, like when we were kids. Sassy rustles her Baby Ruth candy bars and nestles them in a box. She turns to blow him a kiss. And he smiles at her. Then at me. It's a sorry smile.

I never had a sorry from no one before. And it means he knows. He must have cranked open those shutters of mine without me realising. One of those times by the lake where skunk-cabbage and squirrel-corn brawl over the moist earth, leaves lolloping all over. One of those times when we looked into each other and Stone Gap all but disappeared. Alls I knew was how deep I loved him. And he must have known it too. I can tell now by his sad smile and by his eyes travelling in sorrow over Sassy's white apron.

Sitting in my coop that night, I heard the overgrown grass whisper. Still knew his tread. He came in there and smoothed the hair from where it fixed wet to my cheeks. He kissed both my eyelids. His lips left a print only I can ever feel. Then he took my hand and we went out together for the last time.

"We can have us a marriage ceremony right here. One that the good Lord won't see, sorry to tell. Private for just you and me," he told me.

So down we went to the edge of the lake and let the sky be our witness and the screech-owl our preacher. This was just how the first wedding in the world must have been. Nate said he'd love me even when the planets slipped their tracks.

And he fashioned a bit of old metal into a circle that fitted my finger fine as any ring from Fancy Goods. And we looked way out over the glass surface of the water that was begging to be broken by our bare bodies.

"That sure as God is perfect," Nate said, eyes on me.

I began to pull off my dress. He stopped me with his hand, gentle on mine.

"Best keep it that way," he said, looking to the horizon that marked the endless beginning of his journey. A firm faraway line separating the smooth water and the endless reach of the sky.

And that was where our marriage had to end.

His wedding to Sassy took place next day in a cloud of rice. Day after that, he became Teller in her Pa's bank. The baby was coming by Christmas. He had his path laid out neat, did Nate.

And I stayed under his spell. Always will. Said 'I do' and meant it. Just the same as Sassy meant it when she spoke the same words in her lace gown and orange blossoms.

Cleaning, boiling, toiling, kneeling. Round in a circle like a chicken in the yard and back to the coop every day. Sundays tending our baby's little spot under the lime trees, shady side of Stone Gap church-yard. Thinking how my Nate out there in the city knew me all the time. Wearing my wedding ring 'til the planets slip their tracks.

© Joanna Campbell, 2011

The precious things of Imogen’s library / 2nd in 2010/11 Competition

The precious things of Imogen’s library
by Douglas Bruton

Imogen makes paper from the wood of mulberry trees. It is sometimes called ‘rice paper’, though it is not the kind that sticks to the bottom of currant buns in the baker’s shop, brittle and melt-on-the-tongue paper. No, mulberry paper, used once to make packets for rice, is something beautiful and strong, and all the words written there will last beyond her life and his.
            Imogen writes him letters, always has. That’s what it feels like, at least. She writes him letters on paper she makes from the stripped bark and the white inner fibres of mulberry trees, and the deckle-edged paper is as white as snow can be, or clouds, or swan feathers. White as white, until she writes, his name first and then all her words, all the words she has to tell him she loves him. And each letter is drafted and drafted until it is right, and all the not-quite letters she writes are folded and tucked into the leaves of books in her library, a surprise to the reader when the page is turned and falls out a sheet of mulberry paper and the words written there are almost perfect, the shape of them, the straightness of the lines, and the shiny black of the dried ink, shiny like it is still wet, still new.
            The pen she uses was a gift from her grandfather, a nib of chased gold and the handle carved with flowers and butterflies, so that she thinks of summer when she holds it. At first she did, when love was new, and every day was a little brighter because Imogen loved. And the letters she wrote then, were all dancing ink and skip-skipping words, to tell him what he was to her.
            Imogen, alone now in her library, sits at her writing desk, bent over her writing, and the light of greyer days falls on her paper. The scratch scratch of her pen is sometimes the only sound, each word written in her held breath, so she is dizzy a little at the end of each line, and she lifts her head to see what she has written, and she breathes then.
            Black is the ink, and never fading, for she makes the ink-sticks, too. Imogen follows an ancient recipe, written in a book, a Chinese recipe. ‘Words written with ink made this way, will be forever-words,’ her grandfather had said. ‘So take care that what you write is true, for it can never be erased and will be true for all time.’
            In a small wood-burning stove she once set to flame selected pieces of pine and the smoke carried soot to settle on the surfaces of inverted bowls she had placed high in the flue – the finer soot travels furthest. And the soot, feather-soft and light as breath, she mixed with glue made from the boiled horns of young deer, the spit-bubbles breaking on the surface of the pot and hot as fire on her skin, making black blister tattoos if she was not careful. Then the mixture was slow-cooled into moulds, shaped into sticks that she keeps in a velvet-lined wooden box. She added a musk scent before, to the glue, so that the letters she wrote then smelled of flowers and all the words she wrote were made sweet in their reading. Now she adds spat-bile and sometimes the ground bodies of dead spiders or the stings of wasps.
            He wrote to her, this Imogen-loved-man, once he did. A letter a day he wrote. Lost days now, except she has the letters still. One letter for every day of their first year, and only. Imogen remembers the rattle of her letterbox and the rush to see, and all her world, in those moments before opening, before reading, made fragile as ice flexing on the skin of shallow water, and she held the unopened letter in her hand, as if she could measure its contents by the weight of it. And all those one-a-day letters are laid out on the floor in one corner of her library now, each letter open and weighted down with a fork or a spoon or a knife. And the folds and creases in his letters almost tear the paper, and the ink is fading and fading so that his words are disappearing, thinning to nothing, like hot breath hanging in cold air. Lucky it is that Imogen has each of his letters learned by heart and can see the words on the page even when she closes her eyes.
            Dear Imogen, dear dear Imogen, and dearest Imogen, and darling and sweetheart, and back to dear, and then just Imogen. Those letters are a map of his love for her, fuller and fuller at the start, and then lighter and lighter, until the lightest of all and his last: ‘Imogen, stop’.
            But she has written a letter for every day since, thousands and thousands, all the drafts tucked into the books of her library, sometimes two in the same book. And her folded mulberry paper letters, years of them now, are as crisp and new as the day she wrote them, and the black-ink-words seem new-scratched.
            Imogen grinds the ink-stick over the wetted surface of the ink-stone. Wet with clearest, coldest water once. Wet now with her tears, and they are cold too. The ink-stone was handed down to her, like the pen, and the secret of ink, and the recipe for making paper. A dragon’s tail stone it is, from Wuyuan, dark and smooth, and carved over with skulls, their mouths open and grinning. And Imogen works the ink-stick over the flat surface, grinding, grinding, and the soot mixing with her tears makes the black ink for her pen.
            He came to her, years back, dissolving years. He came to her some nights when the moon was sleeping and the night was inky dark, though never as black as the ink she makes. He stood below her window and called her name, and wrote poetry on the air with what he said, and those words have thinned to nothing too, for they were only breath. And on those sweet-breath nights Imogen lowered a key tied to a ribbon, so he could come inside.
            There is a letter hidden somewhere, in one of the books, on one of the shelves, and in it Imogen describes just the sound of his feet on the stairs, on the first and second and third, on all thirteen of the steps that brought him to her bedroom. Each step was a different sound in her head and is still. In another letter she describes his undressing and in another the noise of his clothes falling to the floor as he danced out of them and danced into her bed.
            Some nights now, in the shuttered dark, and the shuttered silence, she listens, and thinks again she hears the soft step step step of him, and the dancing, and the shush shush of his clothes falling from him.
            Another letter and another, so many letters, tell of his love-making, the touch of his hand, on her, of his fingers, in her, like he was playing music into existence, or like he was drawing breathless fish to the surface of still water. And the music rising and falling, and the water playing through his fingers, and Imogen’s breath coming short, and that was like dancing too, the wreckless rush of dancing, towards something. And then the weight of him on her, pressing her, flat as paper, and grinding and grinding, and hard as stone it might be, and hurting her, burning, like the spat blisters of breaking glue-bubbles. And she calls out his name, still she does, her mouth making the shape, but no sound coming, only gasping, for air, like a tickled fish when it is snatched out of water, and cannot breathe.
            And afterwards, as he slept, Imogen wrote her love into the creases of his skin, behind his ears, buried in the hair under his arms, out of reach high on his shoulders, and beneath the dark curls at the back of his neck. A small brush she had beside the bed and a well of soot-black ink. Then, when he had gone, she imagined another woman, discovering the messages she had written on him, and every word would be a wound in that wife-woman’s heart.
            ‘Imogen, stop’. That was his last letter. She ran her fingers over and over the page as if there might be more he had written, and the maybe-words were merely invisible, penned in lemon-juice or tears. ‘Imogen, stop,’ was all he wrote, and sting enough there was in that. But Imogen could not stop. For weeks afterwards she sent letters to his home, protesting her love, and replaying all he did with her, in the dark of no-moon nights, and calling his name, and calling calling, till he came again, one last time. Not in dark this time, or in night; not sneaking in with her ribbon-hung key, but come knocking, at her door, knocking hard enough she hears it yet, like an echo sounding down the years in all the rooms of her house. And the tap of his shoes made a different sound on the steps to her bedroom that day, and he did not undress, not like before, though she begged him to.
            There is a letter she never sent, the first not-sent letter, given over to describing the roughness of his coat on her bare skin that not-night visit, the coat he kept on, and the shut-buttons of his trousers pressed into her thighs, leaving bruises there like small coins, small change; and the dirt from his boots writing scribbled messages she could not read on her clean sheets; and he kissed her, at least in her memory he did, not like before, but if she closes her eyes, it is something the same, she thinks.
            ‘Imogen, stop,’ he said, like in the letter, and his tears fell onto her cheek, or maybe not his tears, but the spittle of his spat words. And he tried to push her from him. ‘Imogen stop,’ the words of his last letter and the last he spoke, the last he would ever speak.
            The letter-opening knife she used, to write her name into his forever-heart, was once her grandfather’s knife, and now sits on a shelf in her library, with the paper she makes, and the ink-sticks, and the pen, and the Wuyuan ink-stone. And his dried blood is a deepening blackness on the blade of that knife.
            And the blackest ink of all - and here‘s a secret that is her own - the ink of all Imogen’s last-years letters to him is made from the soot of his burned heart, burned black and brittle as coal, and that soot is the finest of all.
            Imogen sits at her desk. Long hours she sits, grey on her now, her hair thinning to something like smoke, and her hand shakes between the words she writes, her breath held as before, and she hears a different rattle, sometimes she does, not her letterbox but something in her, and then she is wracked with a hacking cough afterwards. Still she writes, and writes, and all her black words are full of spite and hate and curses, against his leaving, against him cold now in a secret-garden grave, heartless, just bone maybe, and all the rest made to ash or dust. And the letters she writes to him, all her letters, are also full of love, not easily deciphered perhaps, but there between the lines and the words, and every slow-writ word is both a beautiful and wicked thing. And the brief and briefer letters she writes, these her last, she tucks into envelopes, same as before, his name scratched on the front and the letter slipped between the pages of the books in Imogen‘s library.

© Douglas Bruton, 2011

Looking for Michael / 3rd in 2010/11 Competition

Looking for Michael
by Sarah Hegarty

‘What brings you to Africa, Jill?’ Dana’s voice rises and falls behind me in the afternoon heat.
            She appeared at my door ten minutes ago, opening it as she knocked. I was sitting at my desk, thinking about Michael. Now I can tell she’s scanning the small room, searching for photographs of grandchildren; maybe an airmail letter; proof that someone cares.
            I keep my back to her. ‘Oh, you know – to do my bit for humanity.’
            At least I’m conforming to type: the stuck-up Brit, cold-shouldering the friendly Aussie. Since we arrived, a week ago, I’ve watched her working her way round the other volunteers, extracting their stories with a cheery smile and a pat on the arm.
            I hear the bed squeak. I turn round. She’s parked herself on the thin bedcover, her thighs spilling out of her shorts. I imagine her sweat on the sheet.
            She looks up at me, her wide, freckled face innocent as a child’s. ‘Do you have a medical background, then?’
            ‘Yes.’ A long time ago, but that’s none of your business.
            Beside me on the desk lies Morag’s farewell present, in its worthy recycled paper; a flat, square parcel, ticking like a time bomb in my heart. I was about to open it when Dana burst in. I presume it’s a book: my daughter-in-law has a book for every occasion. She pressed the package on me as we kissed the wrong cheeks on what feels like the other side of the world. My grand-daughter hugged my knees. I was glad when the taxi beeped at the gate. I walked down the path without looking back.
            Dana’s foot, in its pink flip-flop, lands on my copy of Out of Africa. She picks it up. ‘What’s this about?’
            ‘Haven’t you read it?’
            ‘I don’t think so?’ She shakes her head and her mousy hair, in two ridiculous bunches, swishes at her jaw. ‘Is it good?’
            ‘I used to think so. It’s – poignant. Love and loss in colonial Africa.’
            Her face closes down. ‘Not exactly relevant to us, then.’
            Maybe not to you, I want to say. It’s certainly a different world from Good Hope Clinic, with its endless stream of enthusiastic volunteers, applying a sticking plaster to the continent’s gaping wound.
            I turn back to my desk and take out my notepad and biro. I had half-thought of keeping a journal here, although I don’t know who would read it.
            The bed sighs as Dana stands up. ‘Time for my shift. I’ll let you get on.’
            ‘Okay.’ I turn round and smile a thin smile.
            She opens the door. Cooler air drifts in from the corridor. ‘Well, you take care, now, Jill. If you ever feel like a beer, just give me a call. Tutaonana!’
            ‘It means, see you later.’ She looks exasperated.
            ‘I thought it was kwa heri.’
            ‘That’s goodbye.’
            ‘Oh. Tutaonana, then.’

I intended to learn Swahili before I got here, but I’m not a natural linguist. I envy those who can tune into different tongues. I would rather people who spoke to me in broken English said nothing. But then, I’ve never been a talker. Not like Michael.
            They didn’t stress, at the introductory session, that we had to learn Swahili. My age didn’t matter, either. I was interested, and I had the funds. When they found out I used to work in paediatrics – even though my qualifications were out of date – they were keen to sign me up.
            I didn’t mention Michael on all the forms I filled in; just said I had no dependants. My reasons for volunteering? I lingered over that one. To understand what my son found in Africa. In the end I wrote, To give something back. But then I wanted to scratch it out. Haven’t I given enough?
            On the way from the airport, as our minibus lurched and crawled through the Nairobi streets, I searched the gaudy billboards for a picture of Michael, or his name. That sounds stupid, I know. And there was nothing: just ads for mobile phones and Coca-Cola, and warnings about Aids. He wasn’t news. And how could he be? It was months ago.
            There were five of us on the journey: me, Dana and a Swedish girl were coming here; two young French guys were being dropped off on the way. While they tried to talk to each other I stared at the city through the open windows. The smell of heat, fried food and diesel fumes drifted in. I wanted someone to look me in the eye. I wanted to ask them, What do you want from us? But everyone was preoccupied. Women in brightly-coloured dresses weaved through the traffic, loaded baskets on their heads; others bent over stalls piled with vegetables and fruit. Skinny dogs hunted, nose down, in the gutters. Was this what Michael saw? Cars and trucks came at us like images in a computer game. I suddenly remembered him, as a child, sitting cross-legged in front of the screen, playing his favourite Super Mario game; lost in a parallel world. I was always glad when he was occupied. I squeezed my eyes hard against the picture. I put my jacket behind my head and tried to sleep, jolting in and out of disjointed dreams.
            Five hours later, we pulled up in front of the clinic. Its squat, white buildings sat in a strangely familiar landscape of grassland and flat-topped trees. I recognised Dr Mboto, the medical director, from his blurry picture on the photocopied letter. ‘Welcome to Africa!’ he shouted, as we stepped down onto the worn grass. He offered each of us a crunching handshake. His eyes were tiny behind milk-bottle glasses; his round, shiny face split by a smile.
            We trailed behind him, dragging our luggage, as he led us through the clinic grounds to the accommodation block. ‘We are very pleased you come here,’ he called over his shoulder.
            It was late afternoon, but still hot. I thought of Morag and Lily at home with the central heating on, windows and doors shut against the cold, and my heart tripped.

Just walking from my room to the main block makes me sweat. I’m glad to reach the cool of the dispensary. Tumi, one of the medical assistants, is standing under the ceiling fan, laying out tubes of eye cream and antiseptic ointment on a battered tin tray. She smiles, and looks me up and down. Under her worn white coat she always seems to wear her Sunday best; I’m sure she despairs of my drab outfit of t-shirt and loose trousers.
            When I reach for a pile of leaflets on how to prevent HIV, she puts her hand on my arm. ‘Good girl! You leave your rings behind.’ They advised us not to bring anything valuable.
            ‘I don’t have any rings.’ My eyes start to sting.
            She puts down the tray and stands, hands on hips. ‘No husband?’
            Through the open window we can hear the women chattering, kids calling and shrieking.
            ‘No. Just a son.’ I open the door to let her through.
            ‘I hope somebody care about you.’ She swings through the door to the clinic.

Our patients understand the meaning of the word. They walk miles to get here. Then they wait, immobile in the boiling shade, chewing thick black lumps of molasses or stalks of sugar cane. Their children run in the dust, kicking up tiny sandstorms. The older ones look at me with serious eyes when I check their pulse, or take their temperature. They don’t speak.
            It’s a long afternoon: eye infections, diarrhoea, fever, racking coughs, complications from poor nutrition. We do what we can, with what we have. The contrast between the supplies we ration and the contents of the medical bag in my room strikes me again. I’ve got tubes of antiseptic and antihistamine cream; stuff for diarrhoea; alcohol swabs for scratches and bites. I’ve had all my jabs. Even though malaria isn’t rife here I’ve taken my anti-malaria pills, just in case. A line from Out of Africa comes back to me: something about white men trying ‘to insure themselves against the unknown and the assaults of fate’. But that’s not true. Michael didn’t.

It’s early evening by the time we finish. I’m stacking chairs in the waiting room, so I can mop the concrete floor, when an old lady shuffles in. She puts a rolled-up bundle on the table by the door, on top of the pamphlets on hygiene and how to use condoms.
            ‘Salama, daktari,’ she starts, through stumps of teeth. ‘Tafadhali, naomba msaada?’
            ‘Salama. Sisemi Kiswahili.’ I stumble over the unfamiliar words. I repeat it in English. ‘I don’t speak Swahili.’ But I can guess what she’s asking. I put down the chair and walk over to her.
            The bundle is a threadbare blanket. She opens it slowly. In the folds, curled like a fossil, lies a small boy. She strokes his arm. ‘Mother dead.’
            The child’s closed eyelids flicker. His skin is hot and dry. ‘How old?’
            ‘Mbili.’ She holds up two crooked fingers. He looks less than one. She picks him up and holds him out to me. He doesn’t cry.
            Without thinking I take him. He weighs almost nothing. I feel his bones against my chest. He smells of vomit.
            The old lady prods my arm, and signals that the child’s bowels keep emptying.
            He’s dehydrated, and feverish; he should be on a drip, but I doubt his body would take it. Our supplies are very basic. I stand, holding this new burden. I wonder how many times Michael stood in a room like this, and looked into an old face, or a young face, and said – what? Did – what?
            The old lady picks up the blanket and drapes it over her shoulder. She looks at the floor; at the door; anywhere but at me. And now I see. This is her grandson. She’s a grandmother, too.
            ‘Okay.’ I touch her arm. ‘Okay.’

I get a clean towel and wrap the child in it, and carry him to the dispensary.
            Tumi’s checking the contents of a cupboard against a list. She looks up when I come in.
            ‘Can you give me some rehydration salts? He’s had vomiting and diarrhoea.’
            She comes over, takes his hand and checks his pulse. She shakes her head. ‘No good.’ She touches my shoulder.
            I shake her off. ‘Look. I’ll do it.’ I can see the boxes, behind the glass. ‘I won’t need much.’
            She shrugs, then passes me a box.
            Still holding him, I tip the salts into a tin jug and measure in the water. It takes longer, with him on my hip; strange, to be doing things one-handed again, after all this time.

At the back of the clinic is a room with a couple of empty beds, a small table, and a chair. I put the jug on the table and sit on the chair, the child propped in the crook of my arm. He feels like a husk. I dip a spoon in the jug, and touch the tip of the spoon to his mouth. A trickle of water slides in. I do it again; keep giving him tiny sips. Some of it goes into his mouth, some onto his skin. He barely moves.
            Tumi peers in, and gives me a look that says I’m wasting my time, but she comes back with a bowl and a cloth, and I touch the cloth to his hot forehead. I give him more sips of water; slowly, slowly. They stay down. He seems to be cooler. I knew it would work. Common sense: that was all. His breathing is shallow, but regular. I keep putting the spoon to his lips, dripping water into him, willing him to survive.
            The room darkens around us. I switch on the lamp. Then I remember what I used to do when Michael was ill.
            Closing my eyes, I can see the first line: ‘I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…’ I tell the child about the trees, the flowers, the problems of growing coffee. I give him more sips of water. He seems more willing to take it. I lay him down on the bed, and put a thin sheet over him. I remember the story about ‘the big chief Kinanjui’, and start to tell him how the chief held court, smoking cigars; and wore a cloak of monkey-skins. It feels odd to say that. ‘Things were different then,’ I whisper.
            In the shadows I suddenly see Michael, his face creased in disbelief. Look around you, Mum. Here’s the legacy of those days. Can’t you see?
            Yes, Michael. I see. But look, I’m doing something. I’m trying to do what you did.
            I’m proud of myself, sitting in the gloom with this little boy: sliding water into his mouth; gently swabbing his limbs with the wet cloth; watching the thin skin on his ribcage rise and fall.
            Fever’s unpredictable, you see. It always spikes up, in the small hours of the morning. But the child is calm. He lies still, curled under the sheet.
            I’m flying over the Ngong Hills, to collect Michael and bring him home, but the plane is old and slow. There are no lights, anywhere. I look to my right, and through the window see a vulture. It comes in close, its head touching the windowpane. I look into its eye. The socket is empty. If I can get the plane to go faster, I’ll get to Michael before the vulture does. Then we’ll talk: the words that burn in my chest, day and night. But the plane is so slow I’m drifting through the air, sinking. And the medicine in the hold, that will make Michael better, is sliding out. I look through the cockpit as I fall down. I open my mouth to scream but no sound comes out. The engine stutters and shudders. The ground is coming up fast.
            ‘Jill!’ Someone’s shaking me. I look up, into a freckled face. ‘Go to bed! You’re bushed.’
            I don’t remember where I am. My heart’s racing. Slowly the panic of my dream settles into the familiar dull weight in my chest. I look at the bed. It’s empty. The sheet is soiled.
            ‘He’s gone. His grandmother’s taken him.’ Dana moves between me and the bed, as if to break the spell. ‘You need to sleep. Come on.’ She reaches to help me out of the chair. I take her hand and get up stiffly, my legs as spindly as a puppet’s.
            We walk like two old people back to my room. The sky is lightening, birds starting to chatter and call; soon the relentless heat will be back, bringing a new day.
            ‘This bloody country.’ I want to scream. ‘Do you ever get used to it?’ I feel stupid, as if I’ve been in a waking dream that everyone has tried to tell me would end this way.
            ‘I don’t know.’ Dana is weary. ‘You know about hospitals. It’s just worse here.’
            ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have come.’
            ‘That depends.’ She stops by my door.
            ‘What do you mean?’ I look down at the wall. A small black spider is inching towards a crack. My eyes and throat are burning.
            ‘Depends what you came for. But we’ve all got our reasons.’
            ‘Yes.’ Suddenly I see Michael, for the last time, on my doorstep in the grey rain: Don’t try to stop me. You don’t understand. A thick, hot bubble rises in my throat. I push the door hard, stumble into my room and lock the door. I fall onto my bed and howl, stuffing the pillow into my mouth so no one can hear. I sob myself into a feverish sleep.
            I dream of nothing.

When I wake, still in my clothes, the room is hot and bright. My eyes sting and my throat’s sore. I sit at my desk and drink the remains of a bottle of lukewarm water. Morag’s present is still there. I’m sure it’s a paperback: an eco-friendly guide to sight-seeing in Africa, or something practical about bereavement.
            Why do my hands shake as I rip the paper? But it’s not a book: it’s a photograph album, with a dark blue cover. On the first page is a picture of Lily and me, at Christmas, Lily wearing the red cardigan I knitted her; then there’s a photo of her and Morag. Clumsily I separate the stiff pages, but the rest are blank – no doubt for my adventures here. Where’s Michael? I’m about to fling the album across the room when I see an envelope, under the plastic on the last page. I imagine Morag’s rounded, childish writing. What’s she going to say? My heart knocks as I tear the flap. But there’s no letter. I pull out a photograph. I’ve never seen it before: it takes a while to work out. It shows a group of people, some wearing white coats, standing outside a low-rise building, like the ones here. There’s a big, empty sky, and trees at the edge. I search the faces. Then my heart thuds. There he is: my son, with his colleagues, on his last project. He’s laughing in the sunlight. Perhaps he’s just made a joke – everyone else is laughing, too. I flip the picture over. There’s a date on the back – August 12, 2010 – six months ago.
            I stare at the wall. I picture Morag and Lily, wrapped up against the cold, hurrying to playgroup in the dank Edinburgh morning. I think of Michael, who had to come back, just one last time.
            Kwa heri, my son.
            Now I can’t stop the tears and I stare at the picture, stare at his eyes, at his smile, until his features blur into the face of the person next to him, and behind him, until I can’t see him any more.

© Sarah Hegarty, 2011