What We're Reading: Matilda by Roald Dahl

words: Aimee-lee Abraham

 

When I was small and relentless, my mother would occasionally threaten to call up Agatha Trunchbull, enquiring about vacancies at The Chokey. Sometimes, she’d get as far as punching the “special number” into our landline – slowly and deliberately, for added suspense. It never proceeded beyond that, though, because I’d melt into a teary, hot heap of sorry on the floor by the time she hit the third digit, hysterical at the mere mention of her name. In case you have never read Matilda (also known as The Gospel for Bookish Girls Everywhere), let me explain. Trunchbull is the fictional headmistress of Crunchem Hall Primary School, where Our Saviour Matilda is imprisoned. A fine educator, Agatha is also a heavyweight athlete, and likely a psychopath. In 1972, she competed in three separate Olympic events – Shot Put, Javelin, and Hammer Throw – skills she is still perfecting decades later, swinging innocents by their pigtails, chucking them into “Chokeys” of nails and smoke – a child’s incarnation of Dante’s inferno, hand-built with care.

What makes Trunchbull so enduring and terrifying is the maelstrom of pain she embodies, representing every childhood injustice we have collectively experienced distilled into a single dictator. She represents mushy vegetables piled high, and is probably to blame for the existence of frogspawn tapioca. She stands for every premature bedtime – for the loneliness of being banished to a single bed, listening to grown-ups laugh and live beyond the forbidden glow of the hallway. She’s in every sibling squabble that was somehow your fault, even though they started it. She’s in every toy ripped from your helpless grasp, in every summer holiday cursed with rain, in every privilege inexplicably removed.

To revisit Trunchbull is to remember how it feels to exist in a world so impenetrable and vast it makes your head hurt, where adults insist they know best, but behave in ways that seem spiteful, nonsensical, or both. Trunchbull is big and you are small, Trunchbull is right and you are wrong. There is nothing you can do about it. In that sense, she is a lot like the US President, but even more sartorially challenged. To this day, I occasionally dream of her, directly or indirectly. Sometimes she appears as a phantom, bearing coffee breath and spinach wedged between teeth. Sometimes she manifests in enclosed spaces and closed minds, in visions of stunted growth, shards of ruined potential cutting my feet. Her power is timeless and strange. It clings to ambitious girls like tar. 

 

Pick up a copy of issue 35 to discover three more books with strong characters that have stuck with us – for better or worse.

Sunday Reading: Green, Green Grass of Home

words: Becky MacNaughton
photo: Liz Seabrook
 

I’ve lived in the same house for over 20 years, but it’s still thousands of miles from home. My second home, I should say – the one I reach for when it gets too much.

In moments of crises I often think about a yellow piece of paper. It bears a name and a date and a birth weight, and it lists a place an entire ocean away – a town which is sandwiched somewhere between a lake and a harbour. But what it doesn’t say in ink it says in hope: that there’s a second chance and a fresh start, and a right to both.

I left Canada at the age of five, in the murk and the muddiness of my parent’s divorce. There are things I remember from this time and things I do not. Enough moments to span a day, maybe, but they are not the things that adults usually recall. I lined up boxes in the basement of our house like a train, for example, and ate grape bubble gum from a roll, wedging it in the pocket of my hand luggage. It was a backpack shaped like a cow. I carried that thing around with me for years.

I remember other days, too, but sometimes memories blur with dreams and I wonder, really, what I’m remembering at all. We went fishing once and we played basketball and there was an outdoor pool that I briefly jumped into, my brother catching me in his arms. But did I really watch the glass of a vending machine implode? Did candy explode across the floor and we take it home, like loot, shoving as much and as many as we could into a paper bag?

That’s where they stop, more or less, the snippets of things. They’re merely photographic – flat and glossy, they struggle to reveal the real weight of things.

Yet I tell myself almost every year that I’ll buy a ticket home. When people leave or die or fall out of love, it seems like the only thing to do: green grass is a better thing to look at than heartbreak. Sometimes I even pick the time of the year to go – Fall always looks best, I think, nestled under leaves of auburn and amber and gold, just before the snow rolls in. Because that is also something I remember: the banks of it, the bitterness, the need for hats and scarves and matching mittens.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it would look and feel and smell like. It’s a type of wanderlust, but it straddles the line between going somewhere new and returning home. The house and the library and the play park will not be the same. Twenty years changes a place, least of all a person – it reshuffles the bricks and reforms the land. But on bad days, I still look at flights and I plan routes and I wonder, at the back of my mind, just how long it would take. To settle in, to carve a life, to make it feel like home.

On good days, though, it’s a different story. The thought doesn’t cross my mind. On these days, I realise that it’s the promise and the pull of it that matters to me most. And then I wonder: settled there, would I need another place to go? Another ocean to cross and another route to plan? It seems so simple then, barely even a question: I’d return here, to the really green fields.



Becky is a reader, a writer and a constant work in progress. She keeps a blog, here, which is about being all three. Discover more tales of return in issue 34 of Oh Comely

Sunday reading: Return to a concrete jungle

words: Tijana Ostojić
photo: Lara Watson

A fortune-teller once told me that I would marry and have kids at the age of 25. Looking at my palm, she predicted that I would have a loving husband, who will fail to understand my ways of being. I will have a dog, a car, a backyard where I'll read, and so she went on to list a daring number of things that did little to spark joy within me. Only one of the things she listed caught my attention.

"My ways?" I interrupted her, my eyebrow raised, unapologetically unimpressed by her reading. "And what might those 'ways' be?"

The woman tightened her grip. Then pointing at a single fading line, she mumbled, "Mhm. Yes, indeed."

Feeling uncomfortable, I snatched my hand from hers and shook my head in mockery. But before I stood up, she waved her hand dismissively and told me,

"You are strong headed; it may happen that you'll find your feet muddled as you walk down the road less travelled." Then seeing my dismay, she continued, "Some might not be quick to understand your restless search for a place you will care to call home. Be wise to remember that when you decide it is time for a change."

It wasn’t until one particular Saturday night, nearly two years ago, when my clumsy feet led me home from a downtown bar, that the fortune-teller's last words came to me uninvited. By then, I already knew she was right.

*

The sound of my feet sinking into a muddy puddle broke the hollowing silence and echoed throughout the valley. Murky water seeped into my shoes, and I leapt fretfully. With fingers, damp from the drizzling rain, I snatched my phone from my pocket and pointed it at my feet. My suede ankle boots were caked with mud. I blinked twice, my vision blurred and I let out a cry of angst. Recognising its owner's helplessness, my phone reminded me of the battery's 2% life. After that, it went dead. I was standing alone in pitch-dark woods somewhere in the Norwegian mountain range. And then, the drizzling rain turned into snow.

I swallowed my tears and began walking, knowing it would take five more kilometres before I saw a place that for now, I called home. With each step I took, I struggled to shake a feeling that those who disapproved of my decision to abandon my job and move from a city to the Norwegian countryside might have been right. I felt ill suited for the environment. But, even then, I knew that the decision to leave was the right one. I had never felt as helpless as I did before I chose to leave and seek something new.

On my first trekking trip, with a family that embraced me as their own, I learned to light a bonfire and set a tent. I treated blisters and aching feet, walked for miles, and for the first time I slept in a tent. My salary as an au pair, although significantly different, was spent on hiking clothes; skiing equipment; boots better suited for mountains than my booties were; a rucksack, a bag that I never owned before. Weekends served for adventures, and with a first autumn, I went hunting. I began writing, finding joy within the stories of our adventures, but struggled to explain the same to my friends and family I had left behind.

The fortune-teller's cautionary warning did come true. While searching for a place I will call home, I adjusted and found long-sought happiness in the most unexpected of places. I am always delighted to hear about the success of my friends, but I no longer feel the envy of “what if I stayed."

Finally, as I am packing my suitcase and returning to a concrete jungle with a better pair of boots, I look with pride on how far I have come along. 

On completing her Master degree in law, and having firmly stepped onto her career path, Tijana decided it was time to follow her passions, seek adventures and discover stories the world has to tell. She has recently written a book, and - while waiting for the right publisher to come along - she enjoys hiking and skiing, reading books, and devotes her time to writing. If you are curious to where her travels will take her next, follow her on Instagram

For more stories of Return, pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34

Oh Comely in Sainsbury's

We are very pleased to tell you that Oh Comely has just become a lot easier to find. We are now available in 122 Sainsbury's stores up and down the country as well as all the usual places.

Here's the full list of our new Sainsbury's stores:

  • ALTON, Draymans Way
  • ASHFORD, Simone Weil Avenue
  • ASHTON-UNDER-LYNE, 2 Lord Sheldon Way
  • BANBURY, Oxford Road
  • BANGOR, 10 Balloo Link
  • BARNSTAPLE, Gratton Way
  • BASINGSTOKE, 3 Wallop Drive
  • BEACONSFIELD, Maxwell Road
  • BELFAST, Kennedy Centre
  • BIRMINGHAM, Longbridge Lane
  • BISHOP AUCKLAND, St. Helen Auckland
  • BLACKPOOL, Talbot Road
  • BOGNOR REGIS, Shripney Road
  • BOLTON, Cricketers Way
  • BRIERLEY HILL, Sandringham Way
  • BRISTOL, The Village
  • BRISTOL, 111 Winterstoke Road
  • CAMBERLEY, Blackwater Valley Road
  • CANNOCK, Voyager Drive
  • CARLISLE, Church Street
  • CHEADLE, Wilmslow Road
  • CHELMSFORD, White Hart Lane
  • CHICHESTER, Westhampnett Road
  • CHIPPENHAM, Bath Road
  • COLCHESTER, 1 Western Approach
  • COLNE, Windy Bank
  • COVENTRY, 330 Fletchamstead Highway
  • DARTFORD, Stadium Way
  • DERBY, 1 Peak Drive
  • DURHAM, Arnison Retail Centre
  • EDINBURGH, 185 Craighleith Road
  • EDINBURGH, Cameron Toll Shopping Centre
  • EDINBURGH, Inglis Green Road
  • ELLESMERE PORT, Kinsey Road
  • EPSOM, Kiln Lane
  • EXETER, Alphington Road
  • FAREHAM, Broadcut
  • FOLKESTONE, Park Farm Retail Park
  • GILLINGHAM, Hempstead Valley
  • GLASGOW, 110 Kings Inch Drive
  • GLASGOW, 10 Darnley Mains Road
  • GLASGOW, 3 Kingsgate Retail Park
  • GLOUCESTER, St. Ann Way
  • GRAVESEND, Wingfield Bank
  • GUILDFORD, Clay Lane
  • HAMPTON, 303 Uxbridge Road
  • HAYES, Lombardy Retail Park
  • HIGH WYCOMBE, Oxford Road
  • IPSWICH, Felixstowe Road
  • IRVINE, Ayr Road
  • KIDDERMINSTER, 2 Carpet Trades Way
  • KING'S LYNN, Scania Way
  • LEEDS, White Rose Shopping Centre
  • LEEK, Churnet Way
  • LEICESTER, Grove Farm Triangle
  • LEICESTER, 501 Melton Road
  • LEIGH, Parsonage Retail Park
  • LINCOLN, Tritton Road
  • LITTLEHAMPTON, Rustington Retail Park
  • LIVINGSTON, Almondvale Retail Park
  • LONDON, BECKTON, 1 Claps Gate Lane
  • LONDON, DULWICH, 80 Dog Kennel Hill
  • LONDON, FULHAM WHARF,  27 Townmead Road
  • LONDON, LOW HALL,  11 Walthamstow Avenue
  • LONDON, MERTON, 1 Merton High Street
  • LONDON, NINE ELMS, 62 Wandsworth Road
  • LONDON, SYDENHAM, Southend Lane
  • LONDON, TOTTENHAM, 28-48 Northumberland Park
  • LONDON, WANDSWORTH, 45 Garratt Lane
  • LUTON, Quantock Rise
  • MACCLESFIELD, 61 Cumberland Street
  • MANCHESTER, Heaton Park Road
  • MANSFIELD, Nottingham Road
  • NANTWICH, Middlewich Road
  • NEWBURY, Hectors Way
  • NORTHAMPTON, 20 Gambrel Road
  • NORWICH, William Frost Way
  • NOTTINGHAM, Sir John Robinson Way
  • NOTTINGHAM, 11 Castle Bridge Road
  • OLDBURY, Freeth Street
  • OLDHAM, 60 Union Street
  • PLYMOUTH, Plymouth Road
  • POOLE, 4 Alder Park
  • PRESTON, Cuerden Way
  • PRESTON, Flintoff Way
  • PRESTWICK, 125 Ayr Road
  • RAMSGATE, Dadson Way
  • READING, Bath Road
  • ROMFORD, 1 The Brewery
  • SALFORD, 100 Regent Road
  • SCARBOROUGH, Falsgrave Road
  • SEVENOAKS, Otford Road
  • SHEFFIELD, Archer Road
  • ST. ALBANS, Colney Fields Shopping Park
  • STIRLING, Drip Road
  • STOCKPORT, London Road
  • STOKE-ON-TRENT, Minton House
  • SUNDERLAND, Silksworth Lane
  • SUTTON, 287a High Street
  • SWADLINCOTE, Civic Way
  • TAUNTON, Hankridge Farm
  • THETFORD, Forest Retail Park
  • TORQUAY, Nicholson Road
  • TRURO, Treyew Road
  • WAKEFIELD, Lower Trinity Walk
  • WARWICK, The Shires Retail Park
  • WASHINGTON, The Galleries
  • WHITLEY BAY, Newstead Drive
  • WIGAN, Worthington Way
  • WOLVERHAMPTON, Raglan Street
  • WREXHAM, Retail Park
  • YORK, Jockey Lane

Sunday Reading: Take it from me

words: Gabriella M. Geisinger
photo: Liz Seabrook

I am a professional listener of music. Years of practice in self-isolation, my headphones lost beneath a mass of curls; hidden – during class, on walks, in the locker room at swim practice. Before technology had caught up with my sleuth listening capabilities, I carried a disc-man around in a knit turquoise bag. I could fit three jewel cases inside with it. Each day, three different CDs. One morning, a classmate nicked it off a bench and hid it. When I realised it was gone I burst into tears in front of our entire middle school. Sobbing, I searched for my homeroom teacher to fix this egregious trespass. Only when the disc-man was safely in my hands did the crying stop. I was 12. I should have been embarrassed, I was embarrassed by nearly everything – but I wasn’t this time. Music was everything.

My life had one continuous soundtrack – the royalties I must owe! – and in all that time, music grew with me. I never allowed a single moment – or person – to taint a song. To mark it with their humanness; sully it with the visceral ephemera of a memory.

The moment my father died was one devoid of music. He folded up the New York Times, and set it beside himself on the sofa. He looked at me and said, “you know, I really love those shoes,” – my brown, well worn, strappy sandals; then he went for a nap. From that point on, my brain only conjures up trauma flashes – frantic, fingers gripping our cordless phone, the tremble of my heart in my chest as I spoke into the receiver ‘my dad is dead’ to the nameless 911 operator. I stood in my apartment. Once there were two people here, now there was one.

With such striking clarity, I remember the sunshine the next day. It was June 2008, and I was going to tell the Fitzgerald children why I couldn’t babysit them this week, the first people outside of my immediate friends and family to whom I had to say those little words. My dad died. As if they explained anything – everything. In the elevator, I slipped my headphones in.

/what can I compare you to, my favourite pair of shoes/

With no warning, my life in this moment was inexorably linked with a song. Too late to stop it happening, its harmonies pulled from me the tremulous grief in my bones and solidified it there, rewriting the notes of myself. For three minutes and 53 seconds I stood in the middle of the street and wept.

There were very few moments after that when I could listen to this song. The opening notes ripped from the depths of me that single moment, standing on the street outside the diner – crying in the sweltering summer heat. No matter where I was, the world would melt away and I would be on the same street in the bright June sun, almost 19 years old, weeping.

I am sitting in Italy, the land of my mothers. I am writing in a house on Via Ciambrelli in a small mountain town called Bucciano. The sun is warm despite Christmas’ approach. I have Take It From Me playing on repeat. It was the second play that brought up the tears. So much time has passed since that moment, the grief has further to travel – more scar tissues to work through. More life to navigate before returning to the surface to breathe. But it is always there. There is no quicker way to tap it – oil from a well – than this song. It is etched deep into my skin, into the crisscross of veins in the back of my hand.

/come on take it, take it from me (we’ve got a good life)/

So many songs move with time. The I’s and You’s and Here’s and There’s shift like visions in a dream, relevant only to things in this moment. Music is malleable that way. It is magical that way. This song, on the contrary, is a door that only opens into one room. Its power and beauty exists in its ability to bring me back to that summer afternoon – a window through which I can look at my past, feel it with only an eddy of grief, not a crashing wave.

The sandals have long since gone. I no longer live on that street, or in the same country. I don’t even have an iPod anymore. But nostalgia is powerful, and music more so – and when those notes begin, I am standing in a pair of brown strappy sandals in the blinding, heart-warming heat of the summer sun. 

 

Gabriella M Geisinger is a freelance writer specialising in music, societal commentary, and poetry. For her MA in Narrative Nonfiction at City, University of London, she completed her memoir, The Many Lives of my Father. She uses words like bricks, building houses that keep you safe for a time. You can follow her on twitter, and visit her website

 

For more tales of return, pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34

Issue 35 playlist: Songs to power up to

Words: Marta Bausells

Music has the mysterious power to lift us up – when all else fails, it provides a visceral, intuitive type of escapism that boosts our energy like no other remedy. You just have to find the tunes that do it for you – when you do, make sure to cherish them, take them with you on runs, walks and private dances, and keep them safe for a future pick-me-up.

From the energetic songs that bookend the list to the calmer positive, affirmative messages that run through it, this list reflects the eclectic tastes of the Oh Comely staff. While we are in the depths of winter after a tough year, we are resorting to these songs to brighten up our days. Enjoy!

Power up and listen to our issue 35 playlist on Spotify

The Oh Comely Book Club

You love books, we love books. We thought it was about time we started our own club

While reading is an intimate, meditative experience, huge pleasure comes from sharing the thoughts, emotions and reflections derived from it. It’s so much fun when a friend happens to be reading the same book, and we can analyse it over and over! So we are excited to start a book club with you and all join in together.

Starting in this issue, we’re going to propose a book we love and think you will, too. We hope you’ll join us in reading it during the two months between this issue and the next, and that you’ll share your thoughts and pictures with us on social media using the hashtag #ohcobookclub. You can also email us at ohcomely@icebergpress.co.uk or send us a letter at Iceberg Press, 40 Bowling Green Lane, London, EC1R 0NE.

Book 1: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

To kick us off is the breathtaking debut novel Homegoing, by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi. Set in Africa and America, the story starts in the 18th century with two sisters, Effia and Esi, who are born in different villages in Ghana, and suffer two completely different fates: the former is married off to an English slaver, the latter sold into slavery. The novel follows their descendants and  their journeys, jumping from generation to generation as it advances through chapters – and… Well, we won’t spoil it for you! It’s an incredible, captivating story of the legacy of slavery and the importance of history, and we bet you’ll be hooked from the opening line. 

We’ll publish a selection of your thoughts in our next issue, along with a Q&A with Yaa.

WIN!

The publishers of Homegoing, Penguin Viking, have kindly given us fresh-off-the-printer copies to give away to five lucky readers. To be in with a chance of winning, simply click here and answer the question before 6 March 2017 so we have time to send you your book before next issue. Good luck!

Win! £200 to spend at Madia & Matilda

Launched in 2013, Madia & Matilda bring sustainable womenswear produced in the Cotswolds straight to your everyday wardrobe with effortless style, care and attention. 

The current collection brings together cool embroidery, pastel tones and soft structuring. Dramatic single standout pieces for evening complete a comprehensive and creative collection that showcases how versatile sustainable and ethical fashion can be. See more of its subtle style at www.madiamatilda.co.uk

Want to win a £200 voucher code to spend at the Madia & Matilda online shop? Simply click here and fill answer the question before midnight on 13 April 2017. Good luck!

Sunday Reading: Hiraeth

words: Helen Duncan
photo: Liz Seabrook

It was the views that did it for me; held in the frames of the large sash windows that dominate the upstairs rooms. That’s probably the reason why I chose the house on the hill. Look North and your eyes meet Wytham Woods on the horizon. Look West and the land stretches further into the distance. Your attention rests for a second on a glint of silver as the light hits Farmoor Reservoir before moving on to the bluish rise of land beyond.

West. And that old familiar call. It’s only recently that I learnt there’s a name for it.

Hiraeth.

It bubbled up from within my subconscious. And in certain locations, where the landscape seemed somehow familiar, I would feel a deep longing for another place. And that is still how it hits me today, each time I gaze from those upstairs windows, or when I travel North or West.

I can feel strangely at home in new places. And yet home feels far away. I might recognize the bent silhouettes of windblown trees outlined against a wintery sky, or near-horizons formed by land close to rising in a sharp ascent.

Crashing waves, and a glittering sea that stretches far and wide, tug at a part of me. Newly-ploughed fields hold distant memories in their ridges and furrows, and long shadows, cast across fields in the golden hour of midsummer or on a crisp midwinter’s morning, stretch out as if to meet me, pulling me back to the place from which they spring.

Perhaps it is the tilt of the earth or the angle of the sun that causes such feelings. Or perhaps the lives of our ancestors continue to resonate in places; their very existence running through the landscape still, like a live wire: a frequency that some part of me, from somewhere long ago, remembers and receives. I have been out on the moors before, and moved between the mountains: the primordial crackle tuning and retuning as it tries to reconnect to some memory within. Where is home?

Come and sit with me for a moment on another hill, among the grey stones of Tre’r Ceiri hill fort, high on Yr Eifl on the Llŷn Peninsula. Here you can breathe in the 360-degree view of land and sea as easily as oxygen. Imagine the wonder its Iron Age inhabitants must have felt as the sun rose and set, and the weather fronts rolled in; as the moon waxed and waned, and the stars made patterns in the night sky. Did they feel this same yearning?

North and West, West and North. I am almost there.

But my home, it seems, is always just beyond the horizon, waiting.

 

Helen Duncan is a freelance writer and grantseeker based in Oxford. Her writing is inspired by the natural world, special places, folklore and fairytale. She celebrates life’s simple pleasures and seasonal living on her blog The House at Nab End and on Instagram. Discover more stories of finding home in Issue 34 of Oh Comely - Return

 

Meet the author: Emma Flint discusses Little Deaths

If we’ve got dark circles under our eyes, it’s because we’d been staying up all night to read Emma Flint’s compulsive debut novel, Little Deaths. It’s a story of love, morality and obsession set against the backdrop of 1960s New York. We spoke to Emma to discover more about the book and her experience of being a debut author, as well as gleaning some advice for aspiring novelists.

 

Could you tell us a little about the plot of Little Deaths and why you wanted to tell this story?

It’s set in suburban Queens, New York and is based on the true story of a woman who was accused of killing her children in the summer of 1965.

My narrators are Ruth Malone, recently separated from her husband and juggling single motherhood with shifts as a cocktail waitress, and Pete Wonicke, a rookie reporter from Iowa who’s desperate for a big story to make his name in New York.

One hot July morning, Ruth wakes up to discover a bedroom window wide open and her two children missing. After a desperate search, the police find the body of her four-year-old daughter the same afternoon, and then the body of her five-year-old son weeks later.

The police take one look at Ruth’s perfectly made-up face and provocative clothing, the empty bottles and love letters that litter her apartment – and leap to the obvious conclusions, fuelled by neighbourhood gossip. Covering the story as his first big break, Pete Wonicke at first does the same thing – but the longer he spends watching Ruth, the more he learns about the darker workings of the police and press, and the more he begins to doubt everything he thought he knew: about Ruth and about himself.

It’s a book about love, morality and obsession: I wanted to explore the capacity for good and evil in everyone, and how most people have a sense of morality that isn’t clearly black and white.

What drew me to the story was the sense of injustice that pervaded it, and my impression that the real-life Ruth was condemned for who she was, rather than what she’d done. I’m not sure that society, particularly certain areas of the media, has moved on a great deal in that respect over the past fifty years: I wanted to highlight how women are often still judged on their appearance and their sexuality more than anything else.

Emma Flint

Emma Flint

 

With the true story in mind, how much did you feel you had to stick to ‘the facts’, and how much did you allow yourself artistic freedom?

I stuck to the true story as much as I could, and the basic facts of the case are the same as in Little Deaths but I’ve condensed the events between the murders and Ruth’s arrest into four months. In reality, the case stalled for over two years as two grand juries failed to indict her for murder. Then in November 1966, one of Ruth’s neighbours sent an anonymous note to the prosecutor’s office, saying she had witnessed relevant events on the night of the children’s disappearance. When interviewed by the police, she gave essentially the same story recounted on the witness stand in Little Deaths.

Most of the key characters – including Ruth Malone and the children – are based on real people, but I’ve changed their names and embellished them with fictional details. The police officer, Charlie Devlin is a composite of several officers involved in the initial investigation. Pete Wonicke and a few others are my own inventions.

I think writing about a real crime is similar to any other historical fiction: it’s my job as a novelist to take the basic facts and breathe life into them so that the reader can experience them in a new way. The key is to make the characters real, and the past immediate and familiar, by writing about situations and experiences that the reader can relate to. We all know what it is to experience sadness or loneliness or fear: as a writer, you need to make what your characters are going through vivid enough that readers feel it too.

Of course, I had to select which facts to include and which ones to leave out, and I found it interesting that there were some things that happened in the real investigation that my editors felt weren’t believable enough, which I then had to leave out and work around!

 

The book finishes (without giving too much away) without the satisfaction of justice done. Why did you want to end on a note of ambiguity?

Partly because that’s how I felt about the real case on which the book was based. Although there was a conviction, there were three trials before a final verdict was reached, which indicates in itself that the evidence wasn’t cut and dried.

And also, that’s how real life is: it’s rare that all the ends are tied up neatly, and it’s rare that the bad guys get their just desserts and the good guys live happily ever after. Whatever the legal outcome in a murder case, the family of the victim are still left dealing with their grief and with the absence of their loved one: I imagine that any feeling of justice is always tempered by that sorrow.

 

You capture the claustrophobic atmosphere of a New York summer in the 1960s perfectly. Can you tell us about the research you did to get the period right?

Thank you very much. I read two excellent books about the original case, as well as dozens of relevant newspaper articles, but most of my research was done online. I used Google Maps and Streetview to ‘walk’ down the streets in Queens where the story is set, to look up at the buildings, and try to get a sense of the neighbourhood where Ruth lives. I listened to Queens accents on YouTube, and I looked at thousands of photos of suburban America in the mid-60s.

I also kept thinking about my own childhood: I grew up in a quiet and sometimes claustrophobic suburb on the outskirts of a city. I think anyone who grew up in an environment like that will understand the closeness of that kind of neighbourhood, and how anyone different stands out.

 

The public hear about the murders – and by default Ruth – via newspapers and gossip. How would you think the judgement on her would play out today, with rolling news and the internet?

I imagine it would be similar, but more intense. News changes more quickly now – we can see photos within minutes of them being taken, or hear news as it happens. I think you only have to look at how Kate McCann or Amanda Knox have been judged on social media to see what would have happened if this particular story had played out fifty years later.

 

Little Deaths is your debut novel. How did you fit writing it around ‘regular’ life? What does it feel like to have it out in the world?

It took a long time and a lot of sacrifices. I started writing in 2010 and I gave up my permanent job in 2013. I was lucky that I worked in an industry with a lot of contract opportunities, so I could work for 5 to 6 months, then take time off to write. I didn’t have a holiday for six years, and I had to pass on a lot of evenings out and weekends away. It was hard. Writing can be very isolating – you’re the only one living in your fictional world for a very long time.

Seeing Little Deaths out in the real world is incredible – and quite surreal. I never believed it would be published, but I was determined to finish it. I knew if I gave up I’d regret it. And now it’s out there, existing independently, and being read and thought about by people I’ve never met. It’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me, and I can’t imagine ever getting used this feeling.

 

On your blog, you write about the experience of being able to declare yourself ‘a writer’, and the associated insecurities in doing so. What gave you the confidence to believe that about yourself?

Recognition and acknowledgement from other people whose judgement I respected: other writers, my agent, and then my editors.

 

What advice would you give to any aspiring authors?

Read, read, read. Read as much as you can, as often as you can. Find writers you love and work out why you love them. Find writers you don’t like, and work out why. Read other books in the genre you’re working in, and read outside your area of interest. Read poetry to find new ways of using language. Read drama to understand dialogue. Read non-fiction to give your fiction credibility and authenticity.

Find a writing group. It’s impossible to write a first novel in isolation: you need support and you need feedback from readers you trust. I also needed the accountability of writing a certain number of words for my writing groups by a certain date. Most people write a first novel about something they’re passionate about, and you need the objective judgement of others to tell you whether that passion translates to the page.

Find a routine that works for you – whether that’s writing 1,000 words a day, or 5,000 words a week, or spending ten hours a week with your novel. Work out when you’re most productive. Set aside lunchtimes or two evenings a week or find childcare for half a day each weekend – but carve out the time and then use it.

And don’t give up. Writing is a long slow process – it took me three years to write a full first draft, and there were eleven more drafts before it was finished. To make time for that amount of work, you have to believe in what you’re doing and that you feel you have a story to tell that only you can tell. That belief will get you through the rejections and the lack of free time and the slog and the utter exhaustion. Belief in what you’re doing will also help you decide whether the criticism you’ll get is fair or not: only you can know if changes that others suggest are right for your book.

 

There’s a long tradition of women writers being the masters of the crime/thriller genre – Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and through to today – do you have any thoughts on why that might be? Why are you drawn to it as a genre?

Recently we’ve seen a rise in domestic psychological thrillers, which are mostly written by women, and I think this is down to two things: firstly domestic settings and events are now seen as ‘valid’ subjects for novels, and secondly, I think women are becoming more open about the fears and threats they experience. We now have spaces where we can talk about how it feels to walk down the street and be catcalled, or how it feels to be stalked, or how it feels to be afraid to end a relationship. We’re all more aware of the existence of domestic abuse, and most people know that two women are murdered every week by a current or former partner (ironically, awareness is increasing at the same time that refuges are closing down and domestic violence charities are losing funding). Of course men are abused and killed by women as well – but specifically in relation to female crime writers: more than 80% of crime novels are bought by women, so it makes complete sense that a lot of crime novels focus on the deepest fears of women – being hurt or killed by someone close to them.

I think most of us like to experience extreme emotions ‘safely’: whether that’s terror when we watch a horror film, or falling in love / lust when we watch a rom-com, or a creeping sense of unease when we read a psychological thriller. It’s the same for writers: a lot of us choose to explore extreme emotions, or emotion in extreme situations, and I happen to like writing about the darker stuff! I’m interested in the point where love becomes obsession, or fantasy takes over real life, or when someone chooses to act on one of those moments of fury we’ve all had. I guess I’m interested in how someone gets to that point of no-return – and what happens afterwards.

 

Who are some of your favourite writers?

My favourite writers are ones who write about crime and about history: those are the subjects that interest me most, which is why I read about them and why I write about them.

I love Megan Abbott and Tana French, who write novels about crime, but who I don’t think are crime writers in the traditional sense. And I’m a huge admirer of Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel who both excel at recreating history and making it immediate and real.

 

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m working on my second novel, which is set in England in the 1920s, so I’m reading lots of fiction written in that period and non-fiction about that period. I’m trying to immerse myself in the social conventions and language of a very different time, and understand a society that was still reeling from the aftermath of the First World War. 

Looking forward to reading it! Thanks Emma. 

 

Little Deaths by Emma Flint is published by Picador. 

Contribute to our 'Awake' issue

 

Vitality, greenery, everything in bloom. We're opening our eyes to possibilities this season, looking at the world afresh and seeking out new experiences.

Issue 36 - out in April - will be themed 'Awake' and we're looking for your contributions. For this issue, we're especially interested in your first person stories of awakenings. 

To be considered, email a 100-word outline of your idea to ohcomely@icebergpress.co.uk, along with two samples of your work by Monday 30 January. Please state 'Issue 36 contributions' in the subject header. 

Unfortunately we don't accept fiction or poetry samples. 

We look forward to hearing your ideas! 

Sunday Reading: Poached peaches with cold cream

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Words: Bre Graham
Photo: Femme Run

Every great romance in our lives is not just left in our memories, but in the physical things that remain long after that love has left. What we own, where we live and who we are, linger longer than the people that we hope might stay. Because sometimes when relationships end, they don’t just break, they completely shatter.

It’s the first stage of losing love, when even the thought of a thing can bring them back. Something as small as a scent jolts us straight back into that scene, and our pasts can open up again in an instant. It’s why for some, the summer stings of flings, outfits once loved collect dust and hide beneath beds and favourite restaurants are no longer frequented.

Recently, at the end of a relationship, one that was delicate and maybe doomed, I felt the best way to move on was to find a new way to walk to work. We had first met on a night out where we poured our whiskey like wine, swapped sweet nothings for hours and finally first kissed in a busy bar beside my apartment; the same bar I still pass every day going to my office. From our first meeting, to when goodbyes were said, I had built a guide in my mind to things that would remind me of this time; things that I knew, even when they were happening, would hurt hard to remember when it was over. Maybe just one of the downsides of being a writer is that I don’t want to forget a single thing, and most of the time, I don’t. The list was long, from bars to books, to songs and what Sunday mornings felt like, from the toast to the type of soap.

On our last good night together before things finally broke, I grilled steaks and we ate poached peaches with cold cream in an August heatwave, in a room full of unpacked, smoke-stained clothes from his week away. But I know, that for now, while I might try and block out these memories, at the time they were beautiful. Soon enough though, a peach will just be a peach and the end of August just a time when leaves change. When we least expect it, things we think we lost return renewed.

In the end, the stories that we build upon others dissipate. We can forget why once something as superfluous as a bathtub made us weak with regret, and the memories stop shocking us. Because what time reveals, is that the things we attach to others really just represent us at a moment in our lives. Maybe they’re just memories of being young and foolish, or maybe something more serious. No matter what they hold, they are stories as much of you, as they are of what you lost. Because everything we lose when we love, ultimately will return.



Bre Graham is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently living in London working on her first novel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34 for more stories of return. 

Sunday Reading: Home

words Danielle Morgan
photo Ruth Allen

I don’t remember there being the awkwardness of a new relationship; those embarrassing moments when you are not totally sure of one another never really came. The butterflies flitted about the empty recess of my stomach, but they aren’t the kind that jump into your throat and made you feel sick and dizzy. They’re the docile kind, the ones that drift aimlessly about, resting softly in the pit of your belly. Occasionally, when a subtle moment of seeming insignificance swells a feeling of insurmountable love, they let me know that they are still there. They flap their delicate wings and remind you that they will never truly leave. Not when it is real. Not when it feels like this.

While I was at university, my head tucked into the dog-eared pages of The Picture of Dorian Gray or The Master and Margarita, consumed in the fictional lives of others, he was zipping about country tracks on his old Vespa, a little rusted around the edges, weather-worn and unkempt, but always reliable. A bit like us. Old school. The back wheel spinning as though in silent motion, kicking up the dirt as if he were disappearing into a cloud of muddied up fog down lonely lanes and roads ransacked by the wind and rain. When I think back I picture these moments as if in a movie; two main characters going about their daily lives completely oblivious to the paths they will take. The unassuming bookworm and the intrepid nomad. With no reason for the paths to cross, as fate would have it they do.

We sit opposite each other, the bluster of early autumn rain pelting against the window outside, the rusted fishing boats bruised and battered wedged at awkward angles into the damp sand. “Would you like to go for a drink?” he said. “Alright then, that might be nice,” I replied. The tide of feeling draws ever closer to the shore, I sip my stout and watch his lips as he recites stories about how we would fleetingly pass in the school corridor. We had never said more than a hello. Funny how things pan out, how the past revisits you in unexpected ways and ordinary chance turns to anything but ordinary luck. A twist of fate, like the unfurling plot of a movie, or one laid out within the well-thumbed pages of the books I would so often and fervidly escape into.   

A calmness unexpected in fledgling love took over, but perhaps that is because it wasn’t young or inexperienced at all; the seed had already been planted long ago. We just didn’t know it yet. Like the broken spine of a tatty paperback, or the moth-eaten hem of a shabby overcoat, it already felt familiar. Lived in.

A love that feels lived in is a league all of its own. Sometimes you are not perfect on paper but you know love when it feels like home. I had returned to mine, in a place that I never knew it had been waiting for me all along. Before the butterflies, or the fantasy worlds of my paperback heroes, before the dusty dirt track and the misty seaside adventures, but as all stories start: at the beginning.

Danielle is a writer living on the outskirts of London. She is a self-confessed book worm and tea addict. Follow her on twitter to keep up with her work, or just for the odd tea fuelled bookish escapade @_gigglingginger. Pick up a copy of Oh Comely 34 for more tales of return. 

Sunday Reading: Coming Home

words Anna Souter
photo Lara Watson

When I discovered the Welsh word hiraeth, I realised it filled an important hole in my vocabulary. There's no direct English translation, but it's used to describe a kind of nostalgic homesickness that is peculiarly Welsh. The word is also loosely associated with a sense of satisfaction caused by travelling west, towards the sea.

My father, a boy from county Durham, was first brought to west Wales by my mother when they were 15, to the small farmhouse bought by my great-grandfather in the 1950s. The cliffs of Ceredigion somehow spoke to him, and he fell unconditionally in love with the area. It's a place that gets under your skin and becomes part of your soul. The scenery is rural rather than wild, and the coastline undulating rather than dramatic, but it's perhaps the very ordinariness of its beauty that touches anyone who spends time there. When my sister and I came along years later, it became the scene of every family holiday. My memories are filled with impossibly long summers, a TV with only three channels, and beds made up with scratchy Welsh blankets.

As we got older, however, it became more apparent that my father was ill. A “bad leg” became a neurological problem, and the steep Welsh stairs and quirky cupboard-sized door to the bathroom in the small house became a permanently looming challenge.

On what would turn out to be my father's last trip to Wales, we decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the house. It had been a day of tears and shouting, my father on his hands and knees, swearing because he couldn't get up. We saw in the new year in our pyjamas, watching the countdown on the flickering television.

Just after midnight, we opened the curtains to find the garden and fields blanketed with snow. “It only snows down here once in a blue moon,” my sister and I told each other as we rushed out, wellies and coats pulled on over our pyjamas. The full moon was shining brightly, bathing everything in a magical blue light. It made the scenery shimmer with a haze of unreality, and feel far removed from the mundane sadnesses we'd watched during the day.

Most of the snow had melted the next morning, and we drove home in silence until the radio announcer began to report on the real blue moon that had been shining over the country's new year celebrations. It seemed our surreal moment really had been magical.

Soon after our return, my father was consigned to a wheelchair, which he would have to use for the rest of his life. His illness robbed him of his strength with a slow surety that was impossibly hard to watch. Finally, one Christmas five years later, my mother, my sister and I were returning to the house in Wales with my father's ashes in a jar.

He'd been very clear before he died: he wanted his ashes scattered on the cliff tops that had enchanted him as a young man. Far from pristine snow and moonlight, this time we battled against the wind and rain beating our faces and freezing our hands. The raging of the Welsh weather left us with the ironic certainty that it was only in the ending of his illness that he had found peace. We left him on the cliff top, in the knowledge that the next time we came back there it would feel like coming home.

 

Anna Souter is a writer and editor based in London. She loves art, travel and all things Welsh. Follow her on Instagram or read more on her website. For more stories of Return, seek out a copy of Oh Comely issue 34

 

What we're reading: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Photo: Liz Seabrook

Photo: Liz Seabrook

In issue 34, four writers shared the books they like to dip into, again and again. Here Jason Ward shares why, for him, December always means returning to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. 

 

It’s surely not a coincidence that our most ebullient rituals occur during the bleakest days of the year. As winter batters its fists upon the windows, tradition is a friendly face at the door, a comforting visitor to help us ignore the darkness outside. Without even noticing, Christmas rites accumulate naturally around us. We listen to the same songs every year as we put lights on the tree, make the same biscuits we always make, watch the same Christmas specials that we could recite by heart. For the satisfaction they bring, we observe these events as closely as if they had been ordained.

Here’s a ritual of mine, then: every December I listen to a different audiobook of A Christmas Carol. An unabridged reading takes around three hours, so I’m able to get through it over a couple of crisp, lonely walks. In keeping with the oral tradition that fomented literature, A Christmas Carol is not a story you’re meant to read, but rather one you’re meant to have read to you. Dickens himself did this for 127 audiences during his lifetime, including his final public reading.

Like a bicycle or the zip on a jacket, we take A Christmas Carol for granted because it works perfectly. Possessing the quality of a fable, the story unfolds with such pleasurable inevitability that it’s difficult to imagine someone actually sat down and toiled over its nouns and verbs, that Ebenezer Scrooge and his misery didn’t always exist somewhere. Not wasting a moment, its elegant narrative works like a machine: there’s a reason why two centuries later we’re still telling the story to ourselves, not just through adaptations but versions starring everyone from Bugs Bunny to Fred Flintstone.

Despite the Bob Cratchit in my head bearing a striking resemblance to Kermit the Frog, however, I am helplessly, joyfully drawn to the original text. I love how its opening line – “Marley was dead: to begin with” – manages to be spooky and witty at the same time. I love that it’s written with a noble purpose and yet Dickens can’t resist showing off how clever he is. Most of all, I love the meaning of the tradition in my life. Every year, wandering the same city as Scrooge once did, I’m provided with a reminder that change is achievable, and that it is always possible to be one’s best, most compassionate self. 

 

For more tales of Return, pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34

Sunday Reading: Holidays Away From Home

words Jordan Hernandez
photo Maren Morstad

Holidays were always a big deal for my family growing up, particularly Christmas.

Every year I would always climb into the front seat of my dad’s car as we set out to pick out the perfect Fraser Fir tree for our house. I would always be wrapped up like a mummy in my many layers of wool and cotton, giddy with excitement. On the way we always talked and listened to Christmas music on the radio, with the low hum of cars whizzing by and sometimes the pitter patter of rain falling onto the windshield. The car rides to and from picking out our Christmas tree were always our time, my Dad and I. It was during these quiet moments that I got to know things about him that remain special to this day. I learned how to pick out a tree that would be sturdy and long lasting. I would watch my Dad’s strong hands as he shook them all, watching to see which trees scattered pine needles to the ground as quickly as moths swarming and clinging to artificial light. One year I learned that my Dad’s favourite Christmas song is ‘The Little Drummer Boy’, and that some years it even makes him cry.

Christmas traditions growing up meant baking cookies, stringing multicoloured lights and garland on our banisters, sneaking things to be wrapped into the dining room and shutting the door. And then going to Christmas Eve candlelight service at church, hot chocolate on Christmas morning, phone calls from far-away relatives and a big lunch, of course followed by a long nap. Our traditions as a small family were always simple. But no matter how small our traditions were, they were always ours. They were comforting, they were expected, they happened like clockwork. I never questioned them because they were all I knew, they were our own version of those snow globes, the kind you shake and shake but everything remains the same within the glass bubble.

This year will be my first Christmas away from my own kin. I am going to another family’s home and partaking in their holiday rituals. I will be thousands of miles away from own home in Oregon, and then still thousands of miles away from my family in North Carolina. The geography of it all seems confusing, but in my heart the only map of Christmas has always just been a dot of a little town in North Carolina.

But I also find something most exciting, and in a way – romantic about extending one’s self further away from my family unit and immersing myself into a loved one’s. This means stripping away traditions and rituals that are second nature to me, and observing a new way of celebration and togetherness. To me it’s not so much about the bed I get to wake up in or the table in which we all gather around, but that the waking is slow and sombre and the gathering happens together in communion. Breaking bread every evening and taking turns with the dishes. I have also found myself overwhelmed at the sight of my beloved existing and functioning as a member of his own clan. The way he tenderly picks up and cradles his niece and kisses her forehead, going out on a boat with his brothers, wrestling with his nephews and softly talking with his Mother over morning coffee.

If this tumultuous year in society has taught me anything, it’s that home looks different for everybody. I hope no matter what home you spend your holidays in, it treats you warmly and most kindly. Perhaps home to you is surrounded in a forest of trees, or a good book with creased pages. Gathered around a fireplace with close friends or family. Floating on your back in the depths of the sea or in the arms of someone you love. Work at making that place your own. Spend time shaping and honing the goodness it offers. Learn to be patient if you must muddle through a season of temporary living. Find solace in the makeshift. I once read somewhere that home is defined as “the abiding place of the affections.” Find a place to gather or distribute your affections and let them soak there. Don’t squander all that you have worked with your hands to create. Spread your roots and never fear the coming cold.

 

Jordan is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregan, and the founder and managing editor at Sapien Magazine. Read her welcome to winter in issue 34 of Oh Comely, out now. 

 

 

Sunday Reading: The nostalgia of belonging

words: Aoife Inman; photo: Lara Watson

It’s not late in the evening but the clouds above me have gathered like a crowd, enclosing on the day with ever increasing speed. They turn my world to sepia.

I am stood with friends. We lean against the railings of the damp car park overlooking a swirling ocean. We have wrapped ourselves in every layer imaginable but still the wind is biting, fierce. The vast expanse of blue that stretches out before our eyes is breathtaking and it fills our friendship with silence for a moment. It’s my first sight of the ocean in a long while and words escape me. I fumble with them, puzzle pieces, but their jagged edges are all too harsh.

The last few stragglers are dragging beach-bags past us to traipse on up the coast path, retreating from the gathering storm. But with our arms laden with blankets, Tupperware and optimism, we trek against the tide to nestle just below the dunes. All three of us watching as the day melts before our eyes.

It’s this spell of familiarity that has numbed my tongue. I realise that I have forgotten the call of sanctuary and only in this echoing, drowning cry of wave upon stone do I remember.

The beach café pulls closed its shutters as we light driftwood fires and unpack, sticky brownies, bean burgers and soft rolls that mix with the sand and leave the grainy tang of the sea on our tongues. The sky is saturated with fresh grey; the murky paint-water of the afternoon. The fire grows higher, wood smoke clings to our clothes and we huddle closer. The smell is dirty, musky, bitter and it tastes of comfort.

We run towards the shoreline as the sea mist curls its toes over the cliff edges; brushing us with salty tongues. I am freezing but it doesn’t matter. The cold embraces me, whips my trousers in spirals round my legs as I laugh. We share stories, recount old friends and joy melts into unexplainable grief at the time I have lost here.

Eventually even the surfers, slick as seals, have ducked under their last waves and are dragging their boards through the grass and dirt up the misty hill. I press my dry lips tight to quell their chattering and sink my chin to my knees. We are three girls curled against the storm, our blankets billowing in tandem with the night. Sand burns our feet, our hands, our eyes and we blink out tears of belonging in a fragile world.

This sanctuary is tender, unforgiving, and I am rocked in the spell of its embrace, bewitched by its splendour.

 

Aoife Inman is a final year undergraduate history student and freelance writer. Her short story ‘A Pawn in Spring’ is due to be published in the Electric Reads’ Young Writers Anthology later this year. Follow her on Instagram @aoifeinman

Pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34 for more tales of Return. 

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Issue 34 playlist: Comfort songs

words: Marta Bausells

The songs we come back to are like old friends – they can be quirky, loud, make little sense, but they’re always there to lift us up. The songs chosen for this playlist are some of the comfort songs of Oh Comely’s team members. Each for a reason, they soothe us, bring us up and assure us everything is fine just the way it is – and we hope they’ll do the same for you in this colder, darker season. 

Some are celebrations of life and friends, others laments of heartbreak, other declarations of intentions like Billie Marten’s “I want to see things I’ve never seen, quietly happy and live by the sea”. Some are 90s hymns to self-assertion like No Doubt’s ‘Don’t Speak,’ shouts about when to draw the line like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’, or roadtrip memories like Jeffrey Lewis’s ‘Roll Bus Roll.’ Others are sensational new songs we can’t stop playing, like Solange ripping her heart out and singing “sometimes I don't wanna feel those metal clouds” and Frank Ocean beautifully declaring an open, non-possessive love. 

The common thread is acceptance, peace within the chaos. We’re here now, and we’re not supposed to be anywhere else. As you refocus and think of the year ahead, snuggle up, light a candle, turn the music up, and relax. You’re home.

Wrap up cosy and plug in to issue 34's playlist on Spotify

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