THE BUTCHERS by Jonathan Morrow

I like to walk after therapy. I don’t feel ready to be normal again, or like I want to let go of the conversation yet. I follow the train line to the next station, or the one after that, depending on how it went. The city is coming together in my head. On this walk: the Vietnamese restaurant where I met Mary Lou; the roastery where I did coffee training; the kebab shop where Ross explained to me what a HSP is. A map of personal landmarks. For the first time I consider if Melbourne is my home.

There is a butchers by the next train station. Today I walk on its side of the road. There is a sign in the window seeking a cleaner in the evenings. It would fit in with my other job. I feel embarrassed to be looking at the advertisement. But I’m desperate for money, and here is an opportunity. I take a photo of the email address with my phone while a man walks behind me.

            I come back next week for a trial shift. I smoke outside to pass the ten minutes until 4 o’clock. I don’t know why I’m unsure of myself. I think, It’s just a cleaning job. I meet Matt, who takes me to the back and shows me where to put my bag and where to change into the uniform: a black chef’s jacket, a grey flat-cap, white wellies, a blue plastic apron. The apron is too long on me and I have to hold it up when I walk. I can keep on my own trousers.

            Matt shows me a laminated sheet on the wall – the cleaner’s tasks. He’ll help me out today and show me where things are. I clean a hundred black trays, scrubbing off meat, fat, blood and marinades, making sure I get the corners, then rinse away the suds and stack them to dry on the shelves above the sink. I do the same with deep blue and white buckets, ten or so, but wash them on the floor because they’re too big for the sink, and stack those to dry too. I take apart a saw, a mincer the size of a bath, a smaller mincer, a burger machine, a sausage machine and a tenderiser with a big American flag on the side. I wash the components in the sink, then scrape off the bone dust, cartilage and leftover flesh from the machines themselves, and scrub away the bloodstains and hose them all down with hot water until the stainless steel is shining and the air is thick with steam. I empty four bin bags and put them in a dumpster, and break down the cardboard boxes from the day and put them in too. I lift the heavy bucket of animal waste into a yellow dustbin kept in the chill room, and clean that bucket too. I scrape yellow fat off the long plastic cutting boards, douse them in white bleach and rinse them, and wipe the splattered blood off the walls above the counters. I put the machines back together. I clean the sinks. I mop the floors with water and red soap, and pull the suds and bits that everyone has dropped throughout the day to the drain in the middle of the floor. I empty the basket from the drain, wash it, and put it back.

            It takes longer than the three hour shift. Matt tells me I will get faster, and helps me to finish when it’s almost 7. For all three hours I try to ignore how humiliated I feel. I try to walk more naturally in wellies that are too big. I try to think about something else when I push the dumpster through the car park and see my reflection in the shopfront of the IGA, when I catch the eye of a man getting out of his black Porsche, and a woman in athleticwear tying her beautiful Golden Retriever to the tree outside the laundrette. I fear Im not better than this.

            Matt and I stand next to each other in the back after everyone has gone home and survey the room. He tells me it’s a good clean. I say that’s great. He asks me if I can come back tomorrow, and I thank him three times. I change out of the uniform and say, See you then. I walk to the station. I smoke two cigarettes waiting for the train. I tell myself I deserve them. 

I work at the butchers three or four nights a week. I don’t make friends with anyone. There’s little opportunity to because I work in the back. And there is a hierarchy in our uniforms that I feel as keenly as being new. I tell myself I like the break from talking and smiling to people all day in the cafe. I can put in headphones. I only need to say hello and good night. I can think or daydream or eavesdrop. I tell myself they’re dull anyway, working in a butchers, that I’m not missing out on any real craic. On Thursdays, there is a guy who reads out quizzes on his phone. I say the answers to myself, and get more right than they do. I am above them and beneath them.

            There is one guy who sometimes talks to me. I think his name is John. I don’t have much choice if he decides to start a conversation. He finds me at the sink, and asks questions that have one word answers and segue into another story, fact or opinion. I guess he’s in his early 30s. He always makes self-deprecating jokes about his height, like when he asks me to pass him one of the black trays I’ve washed from the shelf. When he serves a customer who annoys him, he turns away at the end of the transaction and paces to the back and shouts, What a fucking whore, or something, after the automatic doors have closed.

            On Valentine’s Day, John asks me if I’m doing anything after work. No, I say. I don’t want anyone to know me, as if that will make my time here less real. Then I repeat, No, nothing really, because I feel awkward in the silence between us. Me too, he says. Just me and my dog at home. Doing the three C’s together. He waits for me to ask him what the three C’s are, which I do. Cocaine, cocktails and ketamine, he laughs. I smile at him.

            I move through the cleaner’s tasks faster now, like Matt said I would. Today I finish before 7, and say good night as John is still putting cling film over each tray. I take the tram to Ross’. I can smell bleach and blood on my hands, on the sweats I’m wearing. I have to get off early when a ticket inspector comes on because there’s no money on my Myki. I wait 15 minutes for the next one.

            I pick up some dinner from the store and walk the rest of the way down the high street. It’s getting dark, but it’s still warm. I feel excited to see Ross. I wonder if he will have got me anything, but I know he won’t have. I don’t have anything for him. There are a lot of hairdressers in Toorak village. Barbers with leather sofas, mini-fridges stocked with craft beer, dark wooden floors. Salons are painted white, with good lighting and magazines and indoor plants on side tables. Every chair in every hairdressers is taken. Everyone is preemptively dressed, in tall shoes and shiny shoes, looking clean. I like looking in the windows. I find this funny and sweet, and think of all the ways it’s important and unimportant. I see my reflection in the clean glass. When I reach the end of the high street it’s dark, more quiet.

            I pick Ross up when he lets me in and we kiss. We are staying in because I said we can’t afford much else. He orders an ice cream sundae on UberEats while I shower and change my clothes. I sit down with him and find a film to watch on the projector. I wait to press play until his housemate finishes talking and goes back to their room. I tell him about the hairdressers, but he doesn’t laugh or seem to find it interesting. I think it’s because it was Australian, and he is Australian. We are quiet, and I feel sore. I wanted him to laugh because it would make me feel like he understands me.

            He falls asleep next to me while the film is still on. There is a pool of ice cream left in the box, but the thought of hearing the spoon scraping the styrofoam is unbearable so I put it down on the floor. I can still smell bleach on my hands. I do not watch the film. I’ve already seen it. I imagine walking past restaurants in the dark, seeing two sat either side of a small table with a bottle of wine. I tell myself it is natural to feel left out. I wonder if Ross feels that too but didn’t say anything.


Jonathan Morrow (@jonathanmorrow0) is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and theatre. He is Irish, but has lived in the US, Australia and is now based in the UK. His work is due to appear in The Rumpus.


I keep paints and brushes and bottles of solutions around to remind myself that I am an artist, or, rather that I want to be an artist or to just be considered one. As though through the surveillance of the items on my desk, I can be encouraged to see myself that way. I have bottles of things with fancy names like gouache and varnish and I know what they do but I’m not totally sure I’ve ever used them correctly. I have a wooden paint chest that was given to me as a gift by someone who looked at me once with my messy hair and eccentric clothing and thought “I know just the thing.” 

I have based my artistic pursuits on the idea that all art is art, or, art is whatever you want it to be, or, there’s no such thing as bad art. I do not actually believe any of this is true. The truth is that I like looking at the art materials on my desk and thinking “an artist lives here” and the artist in that sentence is me or some version of myself that I am perhaps creating or molding myself into through the things I have purchased from the little shop on Old Brompton Road (near the hospital) which allows my dog inside and smells like old books and clay. The thought pleases me because it makes me see myself as an outsider would; like I am a character in a film which makes me feel capable of transforming my circumstances into something more interesting for myself, the me who is also the viewer. 

The truth of the matter is that I’ve hated anything I’ve ever created with the exception of blind contour drawings which is only because there’s no accountability when you’re drawing without looking at the paper. Talent doesn’t really come into blind contour – there’s no need for finesse or exactitude or understanding perspective or depth or shadow or hint or hue. These things are necessary when you’re drawing perhaps a building or a basket of fruit or a sad child or a running deer, etc. but not when you’re just moving your pencil or charcoal or pen around on the paper while staring at a thing.

I was once tasked with drawing a crystal bowl in an art class I was taking and I couldn’t catch the light, I couldn’t form the shape I needed out of pure illumination. It was frustrating in a way I still can feel when I think about it. I tore a hole in the paper with erasures. I wanted to be able to draw the light, goddamnit. I’ve felt since failing at that exercise that real artistic talent will always be out of reach but I feel important when I gesso a canvas. I feel significant when I mix a little bit of linseed oil or turpentine into my oil paint. Here’s a girl who knows what she’s doing, I think as I struggle to create something I’ll be happy with knowing full well I won’t. 


Claudia Lundahl is a writer from New York City who now lives in London, England. She has a husband and two dogs. Find her on twitter @claudrosewrites.


Christmas 2020 didn’t go with much of a swing.  Like everyone else in the country, I celebrated it in my family bubble – husband and both sons plus the youngest one’s girlfriend, who was a bit sad and depressed because she couldn’t go home to Peterborough.  We did our best but it was a poor, shadowy phantasm of Christmases past and although we dutifully played games and pulled crackers, no one’s heart was really in it.  

As Mark and I sat with a last drink on Boxing Night after the boys and Eve had gone to bed, I had a sudden, vivid and almost hallucinatory sensory flashback.  Something must have set me off, and I think it was the smell of the port my husband had poured himself, the thick sweet bouquet from a small glass of crimson liquid cradled in his hand as he drank it in one and said, “Well, here’s to next year. Can’t bloody wait”.  He never drinks port, and I never usually buy it but in the space of one inhalation I went back 55 years to the old  family home, getting ready for the Christmas Night party at my aunty Sylvie’s when I was 10 years old.

Home for me, my sister and mum and dad was a ground floor three bed council flat on a new-ish estate in Swiss Cottage with a pocket hanky sized garden. Like everyone we knew, we had Christmas dinner at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, so we could watch the Queen’s Christmas message at 3.  It was always turkey, cooked by mum in the tiny kitchen in a gale of stuffing fumes and hectic red cheeks, and my sister and I took full advantage of the one-day-a-year special treats, little glass dishes of cubed cheddar cheese, sharp vinegary gherkins and a bowl of Twiglets.  The parents dozed over the Queen, we watched the circus, and all the time we were thinking about the party at Sylvie’s house.

Sylvie was Mum’s eldest sister, and she and her husband Harry and their son, my cousin Peter, lived in Ordnance Hill, St Johns Wood, a short walk from us. Today a NW8 postcode indicates wealth, probably great wealth, but in 1965 a lot of the Wood was populated by working class families like us living in social housing.  The Eyre Estate owned and rented out great chunks of property, including the house where my maternal grandparents brought up mum and her three siblings.   My Auntie Eve still lived there at number 47 with her husband and Sylvie and Harry rented number 43, next door but one. I’ve just had a look online – number 47 changed hands last year for over three and a half million quid, something that, if I could only summon Mum and her family back from the grave, would make them all screech with disbelieving laughter. 

There was a glass roofed scullery at the end of the long narrow hall (which was always called “the passage” and never “the hall”) that leaked in the rain and led to a door into the garden, at the end of which you’d find the outside loo.  Also off the scullery (we called it  “the glass house”) was the kitchen, a room so inadequate that if you described it as shocking you’d be giving it a compliment. Baths were taken in there. Upstairs was Harry and Sylvie’s bedroom, with a chamber pot under the bed, because neither of them would trek out into the garden for a loo visit in the night, and frankly, who could blame them? Luxurious it wasn’t. But every Christmas Night for all of my childhood and indeed for a quite a while afterwards, Sylvie and Harry welcomed a large assortment of friends, relatives and neighbours into their home for a party that pretty much defined my idea of what a good night out would be for the rest of my life.

Coats were left in the middle room, halfway up the passage, which was where Peter slept. They were piled high on his bed and all other surfaces. And hats. Loads of hats. All the men wore them and most of the women too. Drinks and plates of snacks and sandwiches were in the kitchen, and the main action happened in what an estate agent might call the front reception, but we called the parlour.  Guests started arriving at about 7pm.  I remember we walked over from Swiss Cottage, about a fifteen-minute journey, all bundled up in winter coats, Dad clutching a bottle of Dimple Scotch Whiskey, which when empty I hoped would be given to me to collect sixpences in, and Mum with a bottle of port.  Both of these went on the kitchen table along with the Watney’s Party Sevens, the rum, the vodka, the sherry and more Scotch.  No wine, because wine was for posh people.  Mum and Dad helped themselves to drinks – beer for Dad, a whiskey for mum – and my sister, who was nine years older than me, got a vodka and orange and then they all disappeared into the parlour, leaving me to have a look at the soft drinks and find them wanting.

I didn’t want a fizzy orange or a Coca Cola.  I’d been drinking those all day, and now, with the grown ups  elsewhere, I was thinking about treating myself to something more interesting.  Specifically, some port.  I’d seen the adults drinking this with lemonade, and so trying not to look round guiltily and draw attention to myself, I poured a glass.  It went a nice colour, and better than that, it tasted like pop.  I drank it down. Lovely.  I poured another and then went to join the party, hiccoughing only slightly.

In the parlour, lights were blazing from the ceiling fixture and the record player was on full blast. Fats Domino was doing “Blueberry Hill” and the room was full of swaying bodies and the smell of cigarette smoke. Party hats were slung round jowly chins with elastic straps, conical shiny things looking tiny on big bald heads, some with coils of crepe paper dangling from them. The Christmas tree – a small fake one – stood at a drunken angle with its fairy clinging on tight. Uncle Harry, in a three piece pinstripe suit and a fob watch, was wearing a fez and smoking a big cigar. He looked as if he was on the verge of doing his famous Winston Churchill impersonation.  I weaved over to the corner where my parents were, but was intercepted by my cousin Robert, who grabbed me by the arm and lunged in for a kiss. 

“Hallo, it’s the baby,” he roared.  All the cousins were much older than me because Mum was the youngest sibling and hadn’t had me until she was in her 30’s, so technically I was the baby of the family, it was true, but it irritated me beyond bearing to be reminded of this. “Shut up Robert,” I said and he laughed and ruffled my hair. “Oy, Auntie Peg, the baby’s in a bad mood!” And mum rolled her eyes, and drew me away to the safety of our corner where I took another big pull of my port and lemonade and started to feel very fine indeed.  “Blueberry Hill” finished and someone put  “From A Jack To A King” on and everyone knew the words.

“From loneliness to a wedding ring,” crooned a man they all called Banana Charlie, “I played an Ace and I won a Queen….”

“….And walked away with your heart”, bawled someone else.  

“Aye aye!”, shouted Jack The Gas, “Banana Charlie’s after your wife,’Arry!”

“And he’s welcome,” Harry said, hitching up his fez and taking a puff on his cigar. “D’you hear that Sylv?”

“Gertcha!” said my Auntie Sylvie, and the music swelled again and the crowded room squeezed itself round a quarter turn. Mum and Dad had a dance together and Peter came in with a plate of ham sandwiches on soft damp bridge rolls, along with a bowl of cheesy footballs.  He knuckled my head as he went past and said, “Still taking the ugly tablets, I see” then moved on before I could think of a reply, because for some reason my thought processes were quite fuzzy. Outside in the tiny front garden I could see Dave Chennary, a retired bank robber, and his wife Kath having a row.  My port and lemonade was nearly gone, so I shouldered my way through to the passage and past a knot of people blowing smoke rings, into the glass house and then to the kitchen.  Might as well make it a large one, since I was feeling delightfully woozy by now, but most unfortunately my sister, coming in for a vodka orange refill, had spotted me.

“Is that PORT? I’m telling Mum! You can’t have that, you’re a baby!”

“It’s Tizer.”

“It flaming isn’t! Caroline, seriously, don’t drink that.”

“You’re not the boss of me.”

“Oh make yourself ill then, I don’t care.” And off she went down the passage as another group of guests came in on a gust of cold air.  In the parlour Harry had embarked on the Winston Churchill, and someone had turned the record player off so as I tottered back I could clearly hear him declaiming, “We shall fight them on the beaches…” which was pretty much the extent of the act.  He actually did look a little bit like Churchill, being portly and bald, and fond of a cigar, and it was his party piece at his own party, so everyone indulged him. The record player started up again, Stupid Cupid by Connie Francis. Somewhere the Beatles were huge and the summer of love was just around the corner, but here the music of the 1950’s held sway, a pile of big, fragile 78’s waiting their turn.  There was a fug of smoke hanging just below the ceiling, which was stained yellow-ish from years of nicotine, and underneath it the dancers, squashed together like a rush hour tube carriage, gyrated through the haze. I began to feel a bit ill.

“Them strides a bit tight, Colin, or what?”  This was Jim Proudfoot, one of the members of Dad’s darts team and he was talking to Colin Burnett who’d just arrived with his new girlfriend on his arm. Colin gazed down at his trousers in an affronted sort of way and said: “No they ain’t.”

“Yes they are, because I can detect that you’re so bleedin’ bandy you couldn’t stop a pig in a passage.”

And Colin, who was actually very bandy, roared with laughter and steered his girlfriend towards the kitchen to get a drink.  My mum came up the passage and gave me the maternal eye. She was a few whiskeys down herself, but she could spot a squiffy 10-year old when she saw one.

“Time we made a move I think,” she said and my Dad appeared out of the middle room with the coats. And behind my Dad, coming in the front door and respectfully wiping their boots on the mat were two enormous policemen.

“Could I have a word with the householder, please? We’ve had a complaint about the noise,” said one, adding politely, “Merry Christmas.” 

Those two coppers became family friends, and they appeared, in civvies, at most of the parties afterwards. Harry and Sylv never found out who made the complaint though.  On the walk home I stopped to be sick, and my sister grassed me up to the parents. I never from that day to this could drink port again, which is why I never buy it, so its presence at Christmas 2020 was a bit of a mystery. They say that music and smells are the two things that can transport you back in time and they – whoever they are – are right about that.  When Sylvie got ill and the parties stopped, no one took up the slack.  Christmas Night reverted to its old dull stodgy full up self.  And now Harry, Sylvie and Peter and pretty nearly all the guests are long gone, except for me and my sister. But if I get a whiff of port, or cigar smoke, or if Fats Domino comes on the radio, I’m back there in an instant and I’m sure deep in my heart that there’re all having one cracker of a knees up in the afterlife.


Caroline is in her mid sixties and retired from a career as a film publicist, which sounds glamorous but wasn’t really, although it had its moments. She has been writing short stories and creative non-fiction to keep herself sane during lockdown.


FOXGLOVES by Lyndsay Wheble

Is drinking your first alcoholic drink in two years the traditional way to celebrate your daughter’s first birthday, I wondered. My parents were encouraging me to order from the wine list, so that they could too.

I looked up at the waitress, and shrugged, ‘An Aperol Spritz?’

She wrote down my order and looked to my husband, who was bouncing our daughter on his knee.

‘A lemonade, please, I’m driving,’ he said. ‘And can we get some milk for our daughter?’

The waitress pointed out the free drinks on the children’s menu and he said something self-deprecating. My parents ordered a white wine spritzer and a pint of bitter, as they always did. As if their drinks order would have anything to do with me. 

‘Uh oh, nappy time,’ my husband said. I passed him the change bag. Better-natured than me, and less weary of baby admin, he accepted it and set off with her across the blond laminate. The floor was tutti-frutti with dropped breadsticks and colouring pencils — it was Saturday lunchtime, so child-free diners were in the minority. Our drinks arrived and I ordered his food for him. I was fed up with worrying about my postpartum figure, so, instead of a salade niçoise, I ordered a large pizza with arancini on the side.    

‘So, Grandad’s all set to move in a few weeks,’ my mother said. She looked down at the table. ‘I’m meeting the auctioneer at his house on Tuesday, to see what they might be able to sell.’

‘Wow. It’s really happening,’ I said, pensively. ‘Don’t feel bad about it, Mum. It’s actually the kind thing to do. For you, as well.’

She shrugged and traced a knot in the table with her thumb.

I took a large slurp from my drink. The sugar content smacked me on the forehead. Had alcohol always been this sweet? 

‘What’s happening to his books?’ I asked, and then cringed. Mum sighed. More gently, I elaborated, ‘There won’t be room for them in the nursing home, will there?’

‘No, no, the room is tiny. I suppose I’ll take them to the charity shop. Or, maybe your uncles will want some of them.’

Back came my husband, triumphant. Our daughter bobbed up-and-down on his shoulder, in time with the lollop of his feet. The way she gripped his shoulder told me that she was hungry.

Quickly, I said, ‘Could I have a look at the books before they go? I know it’s a pain, because we won’t be in Devon for a few weeks, but remember all those botanical compendiums that they had? Those ancient Encyclopaedia Britannica? I’d love those…’ I said, as I accepted my daughter back into my arms. She smelt better now. ‘I saved Adam’s life after reading those books, do you remember?’ I smiled at my husband, ready to recount the anecdote. Grandad’s books were key to the better version of the story. ‘Adam picked a foxglove one day, up on Dartmoor,’ I said, ‘when he was little. It was really bad.’

I left a gap for my parents to chip in.

‘Don’t you remember?’ I asked, looking at each of them in turn. Dad took a sip of his pint. Mum sighed.

Oh, it’s my imagination again. Right. I sat back in my chair. 

Clearly, they’d hoped that motherhood had put an end to all that.


 I had been playing shop when it happened. It was the summer of 1994 and heatwave-hot — hot enough for me to have eaten my breakfast out on our swing set that morning, dropping toast crumbs down the front of my sundress. Mum and her friend Maggie had obtained great bundles of sartorial overstock from somewhere, and they planned to sell it off in a shop space that they’d hired on a short-term lease. That day — a Saturday — was the day we would set up, ready for Monday’s grand opening. My diary entries for the preceding week were swaying fields of exclamation marks. I took the fact that they’d asked me to help them as proof of my burgeoning sophistication, which no-one else could see, because I was nine. My younger brother, Adam — childish, unsophisticated — had to stay home with Dad. 


We set off for the shop early, dew still twinkling on the lawn. My fairytale-loving heart exploded at the sight of the shop space: a rickety attic above a bike shop, spider and cobweb-sprinkled, and only accessible via a wrought-iron spiral staircase. Dust motes glittered in the air and I spun and spun with my arms stretched out. A haystack of bin bags towered over us, delivered the day before. I ran uphill to the tiny window and waved at the people in the tanning shop opposite. Here I am! I have a shop!

I’m the Tailor of Gloucester — come forth my little mice! 

Or Mrs. Pratchett, in her glowing sweet shop. Though I won’t be poisoning anyone.

I curled my dirty fingers around a handful of imaginary sweets. I grimaced at my customers…

‘Sweetheart, stop that. You’re here to help,’ Mum snapped. 

I pouted, chastened.


All morning we worked to turn our witch’s tower into a viable shop. The blue zero on the till point glowed like a Catherine wheel. The telephone, with an old-fashioned dialling wheel, was plugged in, and actually worked. Polyester clothes tidal-waved across the floor, unstoppable. In my memory’s eye, all the clothes were paisley. Long skirts and blouses in whirling blues and greens, gauzy scarves with red pointillistic specks, swimsuits in fish-swim turquoise and orange. The swirling patterns seemed so hot to me, so romantic. The people who might buy these clothes, the sandy beaches they might be worn on, the perfume, the starlight, the suntanned skin… 

‘Earth to Dolly Daydream…’ my mother sang. 

I shook my head to snap out of it, desperate to be a credit to her. Should the racks be positioned here, or here, we deliberated, together. Should they be side by side, or against the walls? I placed my hands on my narrow hips, chewed my lower lip and contributed. They used one of my ideas and I nearly burst open. I began to sigh meaningfully, like my mother. 

By midday, the room was sweltering. We ate cheese and pickle sandwiches by the bottle-glass windows. Outside, the bonnets of Rovers and Escorts bowed under the sun’s glare. I imagined my friends burning themselves on the metal clasps of their seatbelts. I sweated around my hairline and under my arms. We were making good progress: Maggie, my mother and I.

Our grand opening was assured.

After lunch, Mum and Maggie started clock-watching in the deliberate manner of women with young children. It prickled me: didn’t they want to stay and enjoy this special time, in this special place? 

Did this all mean nothing to them?

‘Where have Steve and Adam gotten to?’ my Mum asked, urging my dad and brother to appear, so Dad could help with the heavy lifting. 

I don’t care, I thought, slumping in the sharp corner with my lip out, my arms crossed. They will break the spell. I never want to leave. 

I hope they never come.

Mum looked at me and sighed.

Bang, bang, bang — my father’s trainers on the rickety metal staircase. Tap, tap, tap came my brother’s feet, a little moorland pony trotting obediently behind. My father stopped at the top of the staircase to let my brother come in first.

And that’s when I saw the flower.

Long and pink, its little bells shaking — a foxglove in my brother’s hand. Panic burnt through me. I lurched forward, about to vomit. I knew all about foxgloves from Grandad’s books, from the stories.

‘You can’t bring a foxglove indoors,’ I screamed, ‘the fairies will murder us, they’ll be so angry!’

They looked at me.

‘The foxes will come for their gloves,’ I shouted, appealing to all of them in turn, ‘that’s a dead man’s finger, those are dead man’s bells! If they start ringing, Mum, we’re all dead, not just Adam. The witches—‘

But I got no further, as my mother laughed. She laughed at me. Looking me in the eye. Laughing.

My insides crumbled like a dry leaf. I ran towards Adam and lunged for the flower, keeping a sliver of space between the foxglove and my own precious skin. The physical suggestion moved no-one. They were bent over, full of mirth. I was frantic — these stories clouded the damp moorland air. My parents had given me a cloth-covered book of Dartmoor legends, just a year or two before. The tors really did look like witches—

Adam started to swish the flower through the air, like a sword.

Danger bit at the back of my throat — I shouted again, ‘It’s poisonous, he needs to throw it away!’ 

In my mind he fell dead to the floor. My breath was racing, as if I was the one who’d been poisoned: I’m asthmatic, but didn’t know it then. Mum grabbed me by the shoulders and ordered me to calm down. She smeared my fringe off my face and used nearby garments to blot my tears. Still, my brother held on tight to the foxglove. He was sobbing into Dad’s shorts, frightened by me and my histrionics.

Through my panic came a thought. No-one could ignore an expert. I pictured the foxglove page in Grandad’s book: pink, flicked-edge bells, arching green stem. Beneath it was its scientific name: digitalis purpurea.

I squeaked one word out: digitalis. 

This was an adult word, carved from Latin, so I was aware of its power. And the power of me uttering it. Stupid girls didn’t know words like that, just like stupid girls weren’t suddenly hysterical for no reason. It was the name of a drug. A genus. I felt the weight of responsibility lift off my shoulders. The carpet came back into focus. Once I had defined the problem in adult terms, I felt sure that they would act.


Had the foxgloves rung for me and my daughter, just a year before?

The view from the hospital’s fifth-floor had been all sixties’ flat rooftops and bandage-white sky. Not a foxglove in sight. Devon folklore still clung to me, though I’d moved away.

We stayed in hospital for two days after her birth: a catastrophic reaction to the epidural had killed us both, briefly, and then they’d whipped her out of me with a knife. Nine hours after being sliced halfway through, I was back up on my feet, smearing tar-black meconium up my arms as I struggled to change my first nappy. The woman in the curtained bay next-door spoke on her phone all night, complaining about her boyfriend, who hadn’t been in to see her, or their baby. I was shaking and my breath was coming fast. Just call him then! I screamed at her, without words. Everyone around us was crying. Every time I picked up my daughter, I soaked her in sweat. Every time I tried to feed her, she screamed in horror at my breast.

Keep her at the nipple, the midwives chanted, as they hurried from bed to bed, folding blankets. She will latch when she’s ready. Had my milk even come in? They gave us a private room to reduce the noise on the ward. Night became day became night. Forty-eight hours’ of feeding attempts later and I could barely focus on the red-haired midwife who watched us through the door’s glass panel, and then came in to suggest that we were ready for discharge. I looked at her. Her skin was back-lit by blankness. A subtle black shape swooshed by.

‘I don’t think we can go home, she’s not feeding,’ I said, amazed that I could still make sounds. She put her cold hands on my breast and squeezed. Gold-top dotted on my nipple.

‘Well, your milk is in,’ she said, Irish. ‘Let’s see your latch.’

I held my daughter horizontally across my ribcage and did an impression of mothers I’d seen breastfeeding their babies. My daughter took my nipple for two seconds, maybe three. Enough to lick the drop away.

‘She’ll feed when she’s hungry,’ the midwife said, already back on her feet. ‘I’ll go and do your paperwork.’

Somehow, my daughter’s reticence to feed became normal. She’d recently died, I reasoned — who could blame her for not being hungry? We drove home with her, through the December night.

Something black followed me into the house. Malevolence pulsated up the stairs. A creature, perhaps — I glimpsed it as I changed her, as I rocked her, as I offered my breasts again and again and was answered with apoplexy. She gripped me like a goblin, scratching at my neck. On the fourth day, we called a lactation consultant, who advised me to hand express, and to keep trying — we were only one feed away from success! She made me promise to repeat breast is best to myself in the dark moments, and I did it. Remember, breastmilk is what is best for your baby, she’d said to me. Without it, how do you expect to bond?

On the fifth day, the midwife visiting my home discovered that my daughter had lost sixteen percent of her body weight since birth. Up to ten percent is acceptable. Flustered, she gave me a print-out about breast pumps and suggested I visit the children’s centre. How can I get there, I wondered, as she picked up her leather bag and left for her next appointment. I just had a caesarean section — I can’t drive for six weeks? I hand-expressed fifteen millilitres that day, and fed it to my daughter with a Calpol syringe. She drank it and I was proud of myself for fixing the problem. (Newborn babies need one hundred and fifty millilitres per kilo of weight, per day, to survive. She was over three kilos then, just about. I learned this ratio months later.) Giddy with fear, I told my husband about the dark shadows that swooshed around the eaves of the house, the eyes that could see me, always. I might even have laughed about it.

‘Are you okay?’ my husband asked. He frowned, jittery. ‘Maybe tonight we’ll get some sleep…’

On day six, she was eighteen percent down on her birth weight. She was dying, again. Had I noticed the cessation of her scant cries? Had I? The skin on my face was a mask. We were admitted to the sixth floor of the hospital, this time. Exactly one floor up. Now, the black shapes were witches, clear-edged, crashing into me as I released her to the hospital, as they turned my limp and sunken girl into a crisis, into jagged spikes on a chart. I waited in a side room as the witches crushed me, blackening my eyes—

It was Aptamil that brought her back.

After the worst was over, the doctor sat down on the end of my bed. I’d pulled the blinds across the single-glazed window, so he and my daughter — sleeping now — were striped in lines of morning light. 

‘So, Mrs. Wheble, what do you think happened?’ he asked, the non-judgemental face of public health.

How far back should I go, I wondered. Back to our deaths, the week before? 

To the black shapes that screamed at me not to leave the hospital with her? 

To the stiff hunger of my daughter’s hands? 

To the witches? 

The foxglove?

The consultant waited, folding over the end of his silver tie. I noticed a faint paisley pattern on it. He wasn’t going to get me like this — I was old enough to know by then that people didn’t like it when I said things, without reason. 

Folklore is never the answer you give.

Into the silence, he said some words of science. 

Flushed with relief, I answered in kind. 

We spoke of tongue ties, of the shock of traumatic birth on the body, of the drugs that were administered to us both, and might still reside in her, making it difficult for her to feed. Egged on by his approval, I went further, speaking of sleep deprivation, flattened nipples, until I was, without forethought, spitting expletives of science, words that a nice girl like me shouldn’t even have known: exclusive formula feeding

microwave steam steriliser

fast flow teats. 

Thrilled by these words, he patted my hand and went off and ticked a form somewhere.

When my daughter was back up to a healthy weight, we went home.


My mother didn’t remember that day in the shop. She had no memory, she said, of the bags of clothing, or my hysteria, or my brother casually wandering about, clutching a poisonous flower. There was no way, she said, taking a sip of her white wine spritzer, that she and my father would need their nine-year-old daughter to tell them about Dartmoor’s toxic flowers, having lived two minutes away from it their whole lives. 

As if she’d let her son keep hold of a freshly picked foxglove.

I, in turn, took a sip of my Aperol Spritz. 

I could sense my mother thinking, fanciful child. And, is this still entertaining, at thirty-two?

But with a little probing, she did recall the bin bags of clothing and those rickety metal stairs. 

Although we weren’t selling the clothes for our own benefit, or for profit, she said. And you weren’t nine.

My daughter’s picture book clattered to the floor and I bent down to pick it up.

A second-hand clothes store in Tavistock had gone into liquidation, she said, and she had persuaded the proprietor to let her sell the bankrupt stock and keep the profit for the local playgroup. For playgroup to still have been a relevant concern, she said, my little brother would have been, at the oldest, three years old, making me a maximum of six. If I had been nine, playgroup would have been nothing more than a memory.

Our food arrived at the table, steaming. 

I used a slicer wheel to cut up my pizza as she talked.

They had used the room above the cycle shop to sell this bankrupt stock — she tilted her head to the side, with a long ‘oh yeah’ at the memory — and the summer had indeed been scorching. She’d enjoyed the experience so much that she and Maggie had enquired about taking on the permanent lease of the shop. But our children were too small at the time, my mother said, matter-of-factly, perhaps forgetting that one of the small children was me. 

‘Do you remember laughing at me?’ I asked, tender.

‘Why would I laugh at you?’ she laughed. ‘I mean. Maybe you over-reacted, but you’ve always been a clever girl,’ she sighed. ‘All that reading.’

I asked more questions, trying to pin down the details. 

She answered, variously, ‘Yes, we had an electronic till, a great clunking thing that rammed your hip if you stood too close. Why would they all be paisley? There is no way,’ she said, elongating the words for emphasis, ‘that your father would let your brother pick a foxglove. That part is ridiculous. We would never have let that happen,’ she said. 

My Dad, eating quietly, shifted in his seat. For a while, we were all occupied by our food.

Despite my mother’s focus on the implausibility of the foxglove, I wondered if it was my position in the narrative that made her reject it. I looked at my daughter, who was merrily stuffing penne bolognese into her cherub mouth. Was this foxglove story a comfort to me, because I saved a child once? Parenthood had paired the angels with the witches, after all. Bright day with dark night. Perhaps I’d needed a spell, since then, to ward off the evil that I could always see, lurking out of the corner of my eye. A charm to keep the despair at bay. I knew that bad things could happen, and do. 

In the absence of any religion, perhaps my foxglove story was it.

I pushed on with my questions, but my mother had had enough. She regarded me with good-natured side-eye. She was humouring me. Further probing exasperated her.

Come on, Lyndsay, is one of the things that she didn’t say.

Others included, are you trying to make your father and me sound negligent? 

And also, you do like to write stories about your life. 


Our empty plates were taken away. My daughter was getting fractious. Nap time was looming and we’d be foolish to delay. We worked together to facilitate the end of our meal: someone paid the bill, someone else tidied the table, the person with the short straw changed her nappy, again, and then we all checked under the table to be sure that nothing had been left behind. Clipped into her pram seat, she was instantly asleep. As we filed out of the restaurant, Dad said that as a child, he and his four siblings used to pick foxgloves all the time. They were allowed to bring them home and have them in their rooms because his parents — my grandparents — trusted that they knew not to eat them. They’d grown up on the moor, so they knew what was dangerous, he said. So, yes, he would have allowed my brother to pick a foxglove. 

Why not? 

He’s not stupid. He wouldn’t have eaten it.

My mother choked on her takeaway coffee. She glared at my shoulder bag, which contained my notebook, my pencil and their freely-given words; I thought about it too often not to write about it. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. The words woke up on the page. 

My Dad, a quiet man, kept talking:

‘My Mum always said that old wive’s tales kept on because they had truth in them. We used to make fun of the way she spoke, but she kept us all going, didn’t she? She could talk about things that had no reason — things that were difficult to say.’

I looked at my Dad. Mum shook her head with derision. My husband fiddled with the straps of the change bag. I burst into childish tears.


Lyndsay Wheble’s work has appeared in Litro, Belle Ombre, NEWMAG, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Oxford Writing Circle Anthology and elsewhere. She won the Reflex Fiction Prize Summer 2018 and has shortlisted for the HISSAC and Yeovil Prizes. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes.


It’s no surprise that I find myself confronting a lot of hard truths lately. These uncertain times that we find ourselves wading through on a daily basis have that effect on people, I guess. It’s the waiting around for the unexpected, with the abundance of free time making the restrictions more imposing because we suddenly find that spending the free time with the people that the powers that be, force on to us, is not as fun as we thought it would be.


I recently tried to purge my phone of pictures but after deleting the first 100 of the 18,000 that needed to be sorted, I got extremely overwhelmed and just scrolled right through. A once upon a time friend of mine, called it the meandering of tales yet to be told. I think in my case it might rather be a case of undiagnosed high functioning ADHD. Several requests to confirm this has been shut down by local GP’s and labelled as “just” anxiety driven by stress. Medicate, medicate, medicate being their solution to unlocking the key that will slow down the skipping and sprinting thoughts that race daily through tunnels of weaving stories and lucid dreams. Lucid dreams like when I dreamt of my mother. Not frail and sick as I had last seen her, but healthy and glowing in her prime as I remembered her from when I was a child.

We went on a journey in a red soil country. The heat heavy on our brow but not uncomfortable. It made the sweat on our forearms dance with each step. We exchanged stories and songs and there was only joy to accompany our unhurried steps.

I spoke to her about her grandchildren. The eldest who she bathed as a young toddler and bestowed kisses on her head each night before we left for the Land of Blighty. How there were tears of joy when she received her exam results the week before. The exams that I wished she had been there to see her off for. I began to tell her about her granddaughter’s plans to leave me as soon as she came of age but the skies began to darken and I immediately stopped, as if to wait for the skies to clear before I could start up again.

I told her about my middle child, the one who I believe is the universe’s way of reminding me that karma is always just an arm’s length away. I told her about the way she asks me to tell her stories about her grandmother when we would sit to brush her hair. How she would ask if her grandmother had taught me how to eyeball the ingredients to a Fijian style curry. Or if her grandmother liked to clean excessively like I do. I go quiet when she asks me this because I’m afraid I have turned into you.

And then there’s the one you never got to meet. He’s a charmer that one. Just like his father who you insisted would always be your favourite son-in-law. The youngest who has this uncanny way of tilting his head to the side and looking straight at you as if he can read everything that is going through your mind. But won’t say it out loud because he loves you too much, to expose your selfish dark thoughts. Something you used to do when I’d come up with a cock and bull story on why I needed to be at a friend’s house for the weekend. Seeing right through the default excuse of my imagined puritanical façade of attending the Sunday church service. We both knew it was more the teenage debauchery of Saturday night plans that I was really looking forward to. All this I poured out of me as we walked through my dream. I looked over at you and forced myself to memorise every detail of the side of your face that I could see because I knew in my heart of hearts that this wasn’t real and I still had so much to say before the early morning would yank me up.

And so, I trudged along despairingly. Each step getting heavier and slower, the breathing from us both becoming laboured. By this time, we had reached a place that you called the pick-up spot. I stood there with my smile stretched wide like the cat in the tree from Alice in Wonderland. I didn’t want you to know how sad I was that we were parting. Sometime during that walk, you had changed into Na who was ready to rest. I held your hand and thanked you because I realised that throughout our walk, I had done all the talking while you had listened until every word that needed to slip out of my mouth had been said. Each story safely stored in the backpack you carried on your now weary back. You turned to me at the very last second before you left and whispered, I’ll be back in 4 days.

I awakened from this dream and drifted sluggishly downstairs. Lucid dreaming tends to tire the body out even after an early night’s sleep. I made myself a coffee from the shiny coffee machine that I had convinced my Nev to get me as a birthday present the year before. The grinding of the Yirgacheffe coffee beans reminded of a stuttering car. Methodical rehearsed movements of my arms moved the milk from its container to jug then to the steamer. I stared into the chipped mug as the dark liquid swirled with the cascading steaming froth and I stirred. I took a sip and felt the chipped edge catch on the scabs of my dried lips. The coffee is cold. How long have I been standing here?

The fellow occupants of this house are stirring. These thoughts will have to go back to the dark recesses they lurk in and wait for another day to meander through these hallowed halls again.


Isabella Naiduki is an Indigenous Fijian scholar and writer whose interest is in the study of the Indigenous Fijian identity & diaspora identity, and its influence on traditional story-telling within contemporary society. She completed an LLB International Law & Globalisation from the University of Birmingham and is currently pursuing a postgraduate LLM International Business Law. In her free time she writes about her lived experience as an Indigenous Fijian woman living in the U.K. on her blog – Fijian In The U.K.