‘Voices’ is a short story made up of seven short bursts of prose which each follow a separate character. They are all linked by one event which occurs one evening in a seaside town. I enjoy experimenting with short pieces because the tight structure not only sets you a challenge with language but also makes the words you use far more powerful. A little like poetry I suppose.
1/ It’s easy pickings. Summer in a thriving seaside village. Neat little side streets that lead to nowhere.I know this place like the scars on the back of my hand. Tonight’s no different. They wander aimlessly, exploring sea stained buildings, ambling from restaurant to bar, looking out over the bay at the glistening waves washing gently over children’s feet. Unaware of the chaos that an October day can bring when they’ve gone back to the city. I watch them, full of holiday laughter. I wait for the footsteps. It takes minutes to be sure. Little footsteps can be so deceptive.
2/ Mum and Dad want to go to the police. I said no. I don’t want strangers asking me questions. They won’t believe me anyway. Mum says it’s important that I see someone. I keep telling myself that it’s normal. Maybe this happens to people like me. If I’d listened to Mum and not wandered off, I wouldn’t have got into trouble. Or if I’d let Sarah come with me… Sarah says she wishes it was her. I tell her not to be so stupid. She doesn’t argue back. Why won’t anyone tell me that it’s my fault?
3/ It was probably nothing. I probably imagined it. It’s always busy this time of year. People get drunk and mess about. But if felt so real. Why didn’t I do something? So no one else heard it? Does that prove that I didn’t? It’s too late now anyway. If something did happen…. But I could have stopped it. If someone was in trouble, I could have helped. Why did I have to hear it? Why me? What am I going to do? I can’t go to the police. I’ve no proof. Do I really want to be involved?
4/ That’s the third one in a matter of months. What are the details? Any witnesses? Sounds familiar – same area, wandered off, no one heard or seen anything. Vague description. We’ll put a notice out for anyone in the area at the time. Someone must have heard something. Tell them I’ll be in shortly. And Marcus, make sure they don’t hear about the other cases. They’ve had enough of an ordeal.
5/ They tell me they’re still searching. Every day they’re getting closer. New evidence is being discovered. A lady came forward just last night. But it proves nothing. No one else heard or saw anything. It was such a busy night, my cries wouldn’t have stood out. Two months have passed and nothings been solved. The police think I scared him away. They keep telling me how lucky I am. A cracked rib and lacerations to your face and arms is nothing when your life is hanging in the balance. They told me I’m the only survivor of these attacks.
6/ I found it this morning, tucked in the drawer behind his underwear like only the remnants of a sordid secret could be. My body went numb. A voice inside me seemed to say, ‘you washed his clothes, emptied his pockets and said nothing.’ Now I was staring into this plastic bag like it was the barrel of a loaded shotgun. ‘Don’t make him suspicious.’ I wanted to run. My eyes wandered over his fat body, questioning how I’d never seen it before. As I lay in bed next to him, praying he wouldn’t touch me, I was haunted by those faces. In the morning they came for him.
7/I’m five today. Mummy bought me a big cake with number five on. Granny and Granddad took me to the fair. I rode the horsies. We came home and had cake and ice cream. Mummy said that when I am big and strong like Granddad she will tell me about Daddy. Daddy went away because he’d been bad. She looked sad. But I wasn’t to worry. I was going to be a good healthy boy and have lots of friends and be good to Mummy. I had a badge. It was red and blue with a big number five.
Published in Wicked Words (Accent Press 2005)
The oak Tree is a short story focusing on the relationship between a father and daughter when the daughter returns home to visit and they must both confront events in the past.
The Oak Tree
The blast of a car horn stirred me from my thoughts, I opened my eyes to see that the
light was green. It wasn’t until I had reached the outskirts of the village that I had begun
to have doubts. I had been on the verge of doing a u turn in the middle of the busy
road, until I had remembered my father. He would be waiting for me. He would be
counting on my support. As I drifted by the old roads that I had once travelled on
daily to work, I took in the changes that had taken place in the three years I had been
away. The council were building new houses on the old waste land where we used to play
and there were a few more shops on the way into town.
As I came closer to the town centre, my heart began to race. I wondered if the old
house would be the same, if my father had made any changes. I braked sharply at the
sign of another red light. I remembered my father saying something about a diversion.
The village seemed so small compared to the city. Everyone knew each other in a place
like this, knew each others business. I hadn’t kept in touch with my old friends, I had
made a clean break; started a new life that my old friends weren’t part of. I thought of
Jess and Sonia, I felt bad that I had kept things from them. This time I caught the light on
amber and rolled forward through the traffic cones. As I passed the workmen, I turned
my head slightly, and let out a sigh of relief when the faces were strangers. I hadn’t
expected Mark to still be working construction, he was probably onto better things by
now. I cursed myself for being so petty. I tried to focus on the task in hand. I would stop
overnight, would do what I could, then I would leave. I wouldn’t have to come back, my
father had promised to visit.
I followed the diversion through the town centre and eventually found myself on the
old road out to the house. There were fewer cars on this road out of town. I noticed
that new traffic calming measures had been put in place, as the houses drew near 30
signs dominated the roadside. I was the only car in sight now. I followed the
road down past the river, over the little hump backed bridge and turned into Sunny
Lane. I felt my hands grow sweaty as I followed the road down to the house. The first
thing I saw, leading me into the drive, was the huge oak tree at the front of the garden.
My father had changed. He looked much older. He was thinner and his hair had
grown fine and grey. He smiled when he saw me, hugged me tightly for all the
years I’d been gone. His eyes had gone from dull and tired when he answered the
door, to bright and excited when he had seen me standing on the doorstep.
‘Come in, Kathy, come in’ he repeated, as he widened the door for me. I stepped
inside and walked into the hall. The house had the same smell. A mixture of age and
the countryside. I could still smell my mother. Five years and her scent hadn’t
weakened. It made no difference that the summer breeze swept through the back door
and whispered through the rooms. The house was the same as she had left it. The hall was
long and cool, decorated in the same fading antique wallpaper, which peeled at the
corners. The cloak stand still held her coat, as if she had gone out for a walk and left it
behind. The staircase stretched to reach the upstairs rooms. My mother and father’s room
stood at the top. The door was shut.
He took me into the front room. Although dust decorated the shelves, I could still see
photographs peering out underneath. I wiped the cobwebs from my family. My father
made excuses for his cleaning. The hearth rug was turned over at one corner. I slipped my
shoe over it while he asked me how I was.
‘I’m fine. How have you been?’
He let out a heavy sigh and sat down in the arm chair. I brushed dust from the shelves
as he spoke.
‘To tell you the truth, Kathy, I’ve been better.’
I felt his eyes on me. He was waiting for me to talk, to admit my feelings maybe? I
didn’t trust myself to open up, to let the words out.
‘It takes time, to get over things. We all have to try and move forward.’ It was a
cliché, it was what everyone said. My father didn’t seem to notice, he nodded.
‘I wish you hadn’t moved away. I miss your company.’ He swept a hand through his
unruly hair and forced a smile.
I didn’t know how to answer. The truth was that I was glad that I had moved away,
and I hadn’t thought of him for a long time. I turned back to the shelves to take my
frustration out on them. My father coughed. I hated the tension between us.
The quiet that had fallen since our greetings had passed. It was this house.
‘I moved away because it was what I needed. We all deal with things in different
ways.’ I paused, took a breath, felt the emotion pressing down on me. I turned back to
face him. His head was raised, expectant. I fumbled for words. ‘I’m here now.’
He smiled. ‘Yes, you are, and I am so glad.’ I felt the emotion in every shaky word
that he had spoken. Yet the distance remained between us. The initial excitement and
emotion that had gripped us when we first embraced seemed to have drained away.
My father stood up, for a minute I thought he was going to move closer, and then he said.
‘Can I get you a drink? Are you hungry?’
‘I’ll have a glass of water, I ate before I left.’ I thought of the half empty soup bowl
that I had left behind.
Ok, won’t be a minute,’ my father smiled and went into the kitchen.
I turned back to the hearth, the photographs had all been wiped clean now. I stood
proud in all of them, with my mother and father and my sisters.
I was looking at myself in the past. I had been a skinny and spotty child. Now I had
put on weight and cut my hair. I wondered if my father had noticed the change. It was
surely extraordinary. But the change I felt was not so much on the outside, as it was on
the inside. I felt that I was a completely different person now, to that naïve and
innocent little girl who stood smiling in the photographs. And time could never erase this
feeling. I wondered if this was what growing up felt like. Life looked a lot different from
this side of the glass.
I looked at my sisters and me hanging upside down from the oak tree in the front
garden. We had grown up with that tree, had swung from its branches like bats.
The photograph had been taken when I had been young and carefree, brave and fearless.
Everything had been a game; the tree had been a game. It meant something far different
to me now, as I looked out at it, its long, thick branches stretching towards the house. I
wondered if it still held the deep gouge in its side.
My father reappeared from the kitchen with our drinks. He saw me standing at the
window and his expression changed.
‘I hardly notice it now’ he said, as he stood beside me and saw what I saw. He passed
me the glass of water and I sipped from it slowly.
‘I’ve got some food in for dinner’ he said, as I moved away from the window.
I sat down on the settee, a cloud of dust stirred with the movement. My father sat in his
arm chair. ‘And I have some of that wine you said you liked.’
I nodded and smiled, putting my glass down on the table between us. ‘That sounds nice.’
‘How is everything up in Cardiff?’ he asked me. I hesitated to answer. I wondered
what to mention and what to leave out.
‘It’s been ok.’ I said, ‘I’ve been working in a café in town, just taken some time out.’
‘And how’s the course going? What was it again, business management?’
I sighed. ‘I decided it wasn’t for me.’
‘Oh.’ He seemed surprised. ‘Well, as long as you’re happy, I suppose.’ His eyes
wandered over my face, as if searching for evidence to confirm this. I looked away.
The silence hung between us for a moment.
‘You do still like cottage pie don’t you?’ he asked me.
‘Yes, it’s fine.’ I replied, watching him drain the last of his coffee.
‘I’m afraid it’s not home made.’ He said, laughing softly, ‘I bought a frozen one from
I smiled, ‘sounds great. I’ll give you a hand in a bit.’
My father’s smile widened into a grin, he was so happy for my company, and yet I
felt as though I couldn’t wait to leave. It felt like we had no connection anymore, it
had been severed when my mother had gone. I looked at my father, sitting in the
armchair, he looked small and helpless; his narrow eyes seemed to plead with me to
reach out. And I couldn’t.
We talked until the food was ready, and I helped him set the table and pour the wine.
We sat in the kitchen where we always had, the clock ticked through the silence as we
ate. I could see him watching me drink the wine. I had had three glasses to his one.
When I reached for another, he put down his knife and fork and looked at me. I felt
my face flush and I dropped my hand. It hadn’t been a problem at home. Living with
two girls who would come and go all hours, and drink as much as I did, they didn’t notice
why I should be any different. He took the bottle away and I cleared the plates. I
looked at our half eaten meals, and empty wine glasses, and felt the emotion tighten
itself around my throat. I excused myself and went upstairs to the bathroom.
As I sat on the edge of the bath and tried to control myself, I heard the clanking of
dishes downstairs. I went out onto the landing, picked up my bag and pushed the
door open to my old room. It was just as I had left it. The pink wallpaper still
decorated the walls and various souvenirs lined the shelves. Old photographs of
my friends were still pinned to the notice board. My bed had been made up with fresh
white sheets and my father had placed two pink towels on the end of the bed. I had to
take a sharp breath in to try not to cry. I felt like a vulnerable child in a strange
environment. I put my bag down beside the bed and went out into the hall.
I was at the top of the stairs when I heard my father’s voice. I listened for a minute, he
was on the phone to someone in the kitchen. I turned back towards the landing and
looked at the door opposite. I walked towards it and tried the handle. The door clicked
open and I went inside.
It felt strange to be in my parent’s room again. Like the other rooms in the house, it
hadn’t changed in the time I’d been away. The dresser still held my mother’s make up
bag, her perfume and jewellery box. I walked over to it and sprayed the old fashioned
perfume bottle. Her scent surrounded me, and I half expected her to appear like a ghost
from the shadows. In the mirror I could see the bed behind me, the pillows and duvet
were plain. My mother’s nightdress still lay on her pillow. I got up and went over to the
open window; the net curtain had slipped through the gap and was being tossed by the
wind. Below, the garden was wild and unkempt. The flowers were dying with lack of
water from the hot summer. A noise behind me made me turn around. My father was
standing in the doorway. I felt my face grow hot. My father looked at me, he seemed
‘I’m sorry’ I said, moving towards him. ‘I didn’t mean to….. I just wanted to…’
‘It’s alright, I understand,’ he smiled weakly at me. I moved past him and out into
‘Who was on the phone?’ I asked, as he closed the door behind us.
He paused for a moment. ‘Your aunty Lyn.’
‘Oh.’ For some reason I was surprised, I hadn’t spoken to aunty Lyn since … ‘How is
‘She’s ok, she was just checking in to see how we were.’
‘It’s getting late’ my father said, ‘I suppose we should try and get some sleep.’
‘Yes, I’m pretty tired after the journey.’ I replied.
He smiled, ‘I’m really grateful that you’re here Kathy.’
I forced myself to return the gesture, and felt a small smile form on my lips ‘see you
I went into my room and closed the door. As I stood there in the darkness, I listened,
it was a few seconds before my father moved from his place in the hall and his own
door clicked shut.
I woke to the sound of a cockerel crowing in the distance. It was 7am. I had forgotten
about the noises of the countryside having been away for so long. I went downstairs to
find that my father wasn’t yet awake. I searched the cupboards for food, and found empty
shelves. I showered and dressed, and grabbing my purse, I left the house. As I drove
down the drive to the road, the oak tree swayed with the breeze in the corner of my
vision. When I turned my head to check for traffic, I saw the patch of bare grass at the
side of the tree.
The town centre had changed quite dramatically. The main street was now paved over
and allowed access for pedestrians only. I found myself driving round in a circle to get to
the supermarket car park which was heaving because it was a Saturday morning. As I
stood in the queue, behind families with trolleys piled high, with my seven small items,
my mind began to drift. I didn’t notice the lady approaching me. I didn’t hear her words
I turned my head and caught the dazzling green eyes, the open smile and pale skin.
‘Kathy! It’s Claire.’
It was Claire. My old friend Claire, Claire who I hadn’t seen or spoken to since I’d
left. I thought of her number in my old address book, hidden away at the back of my
cupboard. Six digits, next to other digits which were fading from my memory, slowly
but surely with will.
‘Hi, Claire.’ I mumbled, feeling my face grow warm. I wanted to be out of here, to be
striding across the car park, hidden behind an anonymous car. It was too hot, too
busy, too long ago to start a conversation.
‘How are you? I haven’t seen you for ages, what are you up to these days?’
The questions flooded me, I opened my mouth to answer, swallowed, forced a slow
smile. Claire was waiting. The old lady behind us with her ready meal for one was
waiting. They were all waiting to hear how I was feeling, how I was coping, why I was
here of all places after three years of silence.
‘I’m’ I paused. Claire’s eyes moved over my face, ‘I’m fine, I’m good.’
‘How are you?’ I asked, out of politeness, anything to move the conversation away.
‘I’m good. I’ve given up work for the time being, we’re expecting our first child.’ I
looked down; her hand was resting on the bump beneath her sundress. ‘I wish you’d told
me you were in town, I’d love to catch up.’ She had slipped it in when I had been
‘We’re still up at Mayor Bridge’ she said, ‘looking for somewhere bigger, but there’s not
much about right now.’
The family in front of me were packing the food for their herd. I willed them to hurry up.
‘Our number’s changed recently’ Claire echoed behind me, ‘I’ll jot it down for you,
let me find a pen.’ She rummaged in her bag. ‘Oh, I must have left it in the bank. Have
you got one?’
I shook my head and pretended to check my bag. ‘No, sorry.’
Claire looked disappointed. ‘Well, you know where we are if you want to pop in for a
coffee, before you go back.’
‘How long are you down for?’
‘It’s just a short visit. I’ll probably be heading back later tonight.’
‘Oh.’ Claire looked saddened. ‘Well, like I said, if you have time, any time, I’ll be in.’
The family were leaving. I moved past the cashier, she forced a smile and started to
put my items through the till. I grabbed a bag and started to throw them in, bread and
shampoo, croissants and washing powder. I didn’t care. I felt the sweat form in beads on
my brow. The cashier recited the total and I fumbled for change in my purse.
‘Are you alright, Kathy?’ Claire asked me.
I nodded, my head down to hide the tears forming in my eyes. ‘Yeah, I’m fine. There
we are.’ I passed the money over to the girl, a false cheeriness in my voice. She rattled it
into the till and ripped off my receipt.
‘Thanks’ I squeaked quietly, and moved down to let Claire reach the bags.
‘Well, it really is great to see you.’ She said as she began packing her things. ‘I hope
we keep in touch, I’ve missed our chats.’ She smiled warmly, her smile seemed to say, if
you need to talk, you know where I am.
‘Bye Claire.’ I said, before turning and walking away. I could just about hear her
friendly reply, amid the noise that followed me from the store.
As I drove back to the house, my mind was reeling. The sky had clouded over and it
looked like rain. I hadn’t wanted this. I hadn’t wanted to cut people off and suppress
my emotions until they became suffocating. I had wanted to talk to Claire, to tell her
why I’d left, why I hadn’t been in touch, why things were so awful. But I’d faced things
alone for so long, that it felt easier this way. I was good at shutting people out, not talking
about how I felt, pretending things had never happened. But the world and the people
around me didn’t play the game. The new shops and houses that I passed now, were only
a disguise, a pretence that the town had changed. I had made a mistake coming back. I
hadn’t listened to my intuition. I’d messed up once more.
I felt myself turning into the diversion and looking at the sign. A car horn honked
behind me as I read the directions. I found myself turning right, away from the town
and out into the country. I couldn’t face going back to the house. I couldn’t face the
silence with my father, my mother’s face staring up at me from every photograph. The
final image of her face had stayed with me, more real than the memories that were kept in
that house. The pain and fear, the desperation to keep us calm. There was nothing they
could do. It had been a tragic accident. An accident which could have been avoided,
which would never have happened if the car had been travelling at 30.
I recall the screech of the tyres, the horrible noise of the impact. I had been helping
my sisters with dinner indoors. My father had been outside in the garden helping my
mother to plant seeds. His cry still rang in my ears; I dropped the dish towel and ran
outside, my sisters behind me. I remember seeing the mangled piece of metal at the
base of the tree and thinking, like when I had seen a fox among our chickens that
summer, that it was out of place somehow. I saw my father running forward,
his head in his hands. I looked for my mother, but I couldn’t see her. My father
shouted at me what to do, I remained rooted to the spot, numb for a minute. I told my
sisters to go inside and call for an ambulance and fetch some blankets. I came
forward, my dad told me to stay back.
And there was my mother. She looked like a rag doll; she was sat against the tree by
the car. There was blood on her face, I couldn’t see her legs. I could smell burning
rubber. When my sisters came back out, I had to calm them. My father had placed a
blanket around her, she looked pale and cold. I sat next to her and smoothed her damp
hair from her face. She had been laying seeds by the fence, she hadn’t seen the car.
She was sorry. My sisters were hysterical, I was numb. I was floating five feet in the
air and this wasn’t happening. The ambulance was a long time, five minutes my
father said. Five minutes too late.
My father spent the evening scrubbing the tree with bleach. The white cloth he used
was stained red. He grieved by himself, never in front of his children. I believe I never
grieved at all. I was numb, hollowed out, consumed by emotion which I was unable to
express. My sisters cried in their beds every night for a month. Their pain eased, they
began to smile again. They went back to school and got good grades.
The funeral was held in the local church, the wake at our house. People paid their
respects by leaving bouquets under the wide, colourful branches of the oak tree. My
father and I thanked the guests and everything went back to normal. Except, how can
things ever go back to the way they were when a loved one is torn away from you in a
split second of someone else’s mistake? And how can you ever feel that justice has been
done when the person who is responsible was buried on the same day as your mother?
My friends were too suffocating, our family too concerned. Within a few weeks I had
detached from my old life and travelled eighty miles to build a new one.
It had worked for a while. I could tell people whatever I wanted and they had no reason
to believe otherwise. But it was always at the back of my mind, I tried so hard to push it
aside, to get on with things and not to feel guilty about what I had done to my family. I
was young, naïve and selfish. I was dealing with something huge, except, I wasn’t. My
new friends had no reason to think there was anything wrong. My whole life was a lie;
they were living with someone they didn’t even know.
And then my father’s call came out of the blue. I hadn’t heard much from him since I
had left. I knew that my sisters had left home and started their own lives. I imagined that
this would have hit him hard. But I had still never felt compelled to visit him. Not until
now. Something had changed. Something had made me decide to come back. I still
wasn’t sure what that something was.
I had come round in a circle to rejoin the diversion. I took the road back to the house,
flicking my wipers on to sweep away the fine drizzle that was beginning to fall.
The rain had become a heavy drizzle by the time I pulled into the drive. I grabbed the
shopping from the boot and hurried across the garden to the house. I was surprised to find
the door on the catch. When I went to open the fridge to put a small carton of milk inside,
I saw the note that he had left me.
Kathy, gone up to the allotments, shouldn’t be long.
will bring back some lunch for us. See you soon. Dad x
I pulled it from the magnet that was holding it to the fridge and smoothed my hand
over the ink. It smudged a little with the rain from my fingertips. I put the note on the
side, picked up the polish and duster that I had bought and went through to the front
room. As I sprayed the shelves and wiped the dirt from them, I listened to the rain on
the window. It had become heavy and more consistent now. The clock chime rang out
through the silence causing a moment of fright to stir up inside me. It seemed oddly eerie,
ringing into the empty room. I stopped wiping and looked out of the window. A lonely
car passed by, its wipers swaying swiftly on the damp windshield. The tree stood tall and
wide, enjoying the beating which it knew would never bring it down. I felt hot tears
spring to my eyelids, and a jolt of anger took me in its grasp. I launched the polish at the
window and it bounced off with a clunk. I had half expected the window to shatter, but it
stood still, little tadpoles of rain water running down to its base.
I walked from the room and out into the hall. I wrenched open the cupboard under
the stairs and searched for a few minutes. I found a waterproof jacket, which was a
little big, but it would do. I opened the front door and trudged out into the garden and
round to the garage. I pulled the door hard, it was locked. I went round to the side door, I
tried the handle. It was stiff, the door wouldn’t budge. There was a window just above
my head. I looked around. There were bricks loose at the side of the drive. They had
fallen from the small wall separating the houses. My father’s trees shaded me from view.
I picked a brick up and launched it at the window. It smashed on impact. Once inside I
found what I needed straight away and opened the door out to the garden.
I stood on the lawn for a minute to catch my breath. The rain pelted my coat. The
hood was large and blew back with the wind. I moved forward. The tree was standing
tall and ominous at the edge of the garden. As I came to rest in front of it, smoothed
my hand over its bark, I could see the deep gouge in its side, the place where my
mother had been pinned to the tree. Rainwater mixed with tears on my face. The mark
was uneven and pale, having lost most of its top layer of bark. Small strips were
beginning to grow back across the wound, like scars. Underneath these new bits of
bark, I could still see the blood which had become trapped under the surface, like dirt
under a clean fingernail. These parts my father had failed to reach.
Feeling a sudden lurch of pain, I launched the axe at the tree, cutting deep into its
side. My hand fell heavy and I launched again, swinging it with all my strength until it
connected with the trunk. The tree seemed to groan with the action, as it swayed to the
wind. I swung again and again, over and over, the sweat trickling in my forehead as I
placed every moment of suffering along the length of the axe and passed it through
the skin of the tree. Branches fell around me as I screamed through the wind. My
hood had blown down and my head was being pelted with rain, but I didn’t feel it. I
only felt the driving anger to take out my pain. I swung again, catching a small branch
which stretched out towards the road, it dropped to the floor at my feet and I trampled
over it to get closer. I didn’t hear the car pull into the drive for the ringing that
occupied my ears. I swung again at the bark, and felt the axe connect, I screamed,
My father was shouting at me, running to me, pulling the axe from my grip. I felt the
blisters on my fingers burn as I snatched it back.
I swung again, felt everything light as I missed the tree and hit mid air. The axe came
back down with a crash to my side. My father pulled it gently from my grasp, and it
fell with a thud to the damp soil. He was standing in front of me. He was talking.
I felt a sob escape my throat. I was in his arms. He was crying now too.
‘We’re going to be ok, we’re going to be ok now.’
As the rain pelted us from every angle, I felt a small voice reply, ‘Dad, I…’ I raised
my eyes, trying to get the words out.
As we huddled there together, comforting each other, my father said
‘It’s ok, Kathy, I know.’