Installment in the Turbine Hall of the Tate

A single red ball

rolls to stop.

It sits alone for a while,

some people come and look at it

and slowly, it gains friends,

balls of all different colours joining it

piling up, spilling out,

each one filled with a secret to be learnt

only by inquisitive strangers,

secrets detached,

the weight released from their bearers,

left floating in the void.

A problem shared is a problem halved;

these secrets become millionths of the size

they used to embody to their bearers,

and minor curiosities for visitors.


Some of them come back to visit,

curious to see what the others have shared.

They never find their own secrets

and indeed, never remember them.

They are lost in a sea of regrets and things better left unsaid.


The balls are recycled, after it’s all over,

forming pens, bottles, all manner of things,

their secrets hidden forever.


The first red ball returns

to the pocket of its creator,

becoming a memento of when things so trivial

carried more significance.


The Gallery

Footsteps pass in front of them first, the workers:

the milkmaid carrying two urns of milk under a glowing moon,

the farmer leading his cows down to the river, burning in the heat of the rising sun,

the watchful shepherd, shivering, hungering, and waiting.

Through the glass doors, the girl stares from under fifteen layers of petticoats,

curious as to the events taking place on the other side.

Her brother scorns her, young though he is, knowing that their role is in this room,

talking to the old man and woman whose powdered faces lead them to an early grave –

they all look down their nose at the glass doors.

The dog by the girl’s feet yaps, yearning to break free and paddle in the untamed stream

that passes through the workers, sick of the neatly trimmed grass

being the only outside beneath his paws.

These huge oil figures are immortalised apart,

destined for years of separate rooms, seperate lives,

no matter where their gazes may lead.


‘And a reminder of this morning’s top story – there are reports across the globe of people waking up with what can only be described as super powers. The official notice at this present time is not to be concerned, and to visit your local authorities if you or someone you know is showing signs of something out of the ordinary.’

I yawned, covering my mouth with one hand as I grabbed a bowl and a box of shreddies with the other. The final week of uni was hitting me like a rubber mallet, and I was so happy that I only had to get through two more days before I was free for Christmas. My housemate Jo was sprawled over the sofa, still in her pyjamas, and had the news turned up at full volume.

‘Can you believe this? I want to have super powers!’

‘Ah, but with great power comes great responsibility,’ came the voice of my other housemate, Freddie, from the stairs. She was already dressed, had her backpack on and was wearing bright yellow gloves and a bright yellow scarf to match. ‘Anyway, I’m off, keep me updated if you guys get super powers!’

‘Freddie, it’s 9am. You’re not going to the library already are you?’ I asked through a mouthful of shreddies, incredulous.

‘Yup, gotta get some work done, bye!’

‘You make me sick!’ Jo called after her before flopping over and screaming into the sofa cushions. She lifted her head an inch and turned to me. ‘How come it’s Christmas time and all I can think about is uni work?’

‘Because lecturers are sadistic.’ As I spoke, a tiny drop of milk dribbled out of my mouth and hit my t-shirt. I swore and put my bowl on the countertop, looking around for a cloth. I froze as I noticed a blue and white striped jay-cloth hanging in mid-air next to me. I reached out and poked it, and it span in place. ‘Jo…’

‘What?’ she groaned as she turned over. I could tell that I wasn’t hallucinating by the way she screamed, ‘Holy shit!’ and jumped up to stand next to me. She stared at the jay cloth, and poked it herself. It span more.

I reached out and grabbed it out of mid-air – it was slightly damp. I sponged away the milk on my t-shirt. As soon as all evidence of my disgusting dribble was gone, the cloth vanished.

‘What. The. Fuck,’ Jo whispered, ‘you have super powers.’

‘Alright, let’s not get too over-excited, for all we know I could be Cloth Woman.’

Jo thought for a moment. ‘Well, what happened before the cloth appeared?’

‘I dribbled milk on myself.’

Jo narrowed her eyes, grabbed the spoon out of my bowl and flicked shreddies on to me.

‘What the hell?’ I went to grab the dishcloth off of the side when I noticed another cloth hanging in the air. I grabbed it and started sponging myself down again. ‘Quite a useful super power to be honest.’

Jo’s eyes glinted with mischief. ‘We need to test the limits of it though.’ As soon as the second cloth vanished, she tipped some of the now very soggy cereal onto the floor in front of me. This time, a mop appeared in front of me. She tried to grab it, but as soon as she tried to pull it from the air, she shrieked and pulled away. ‘It shocked me!’

I grabbed it and pulled it towards me. ‘It feels like a normal mop to me.’ I offered it to her, and she warily poked it before taking the handle again. Just like before, as soon as she moved it, she yelped and dropped it.

‘Guess it’s only for you to use.’

I shrugged and mopped up the milk, and just like the cloth, the mop disappeared. ‘So I’m now Cleaning Lady.’

‘It would appear so.’ Jo shrugged. ‘Still pretty cool though.’ She picked up her phone.

‘You better not tell anyone until I have this figured out.’

‘Relax, I’m just telling Freddie. And anyway, if Twitter is to be believed, there’s no point “going to the authorities” or whatever that newsreader was saying. They’re swamped.’ She turned round the screen to show me the pictures of the police stations, a queue that looped right around the building filling most of the screen.

‘Fuck that, I have a seminar to go to.’ I handed Jo back her phone and took mine out of my pocket to check the time. As I unlocked the screen, the ‘low battery’ notice appeared and my phone turned off. ‘Great.’ I walked towards the stairs, and heard a thunk behind me.

A charging pack with a cable to charge my phone floated in the air behind the bannister. It was slightly dented, presumably where it had hit the bannister, but as soon as I plugged in my phone it came back to life.

‘Maybe it’s just anything that I need, it provides me with?’ I wondered aloud.

‘Whatever it is, I’m very jealous,’ Jo replied, scrolling through Twitter.

By the time I got to uni and realised that I had forgotten my pencil case, I almost expected a pen to be floating next to me. I grabbed it before anyone could notice and got my paper out ready for the seminar to begin, tapping my newly acquired pen on my paper. All that anyone was talking about was the super powers news, and I noticed a few people absent from the seminar. I began wondering what super powers they’d woken up with, whether we were all the same or whether they were sending tornadoes tearing through campus as we sat there.

My seminar tutor, Rachel, had just begun speaking when Claire, my only friend in my seminar, and the girl I had had a crush on since the day I met her, squeezed through the door, mumbling apologies about her tardiness. She sat down next to me and I smiled and said hi, trying to appear calm whilst I focused all my energy on not making anything appear. I’d been trying to find away to tell her that I liked her for weeks, so god only knows what this newfound power was going to make me do.

‘As you all should know, there’s a pair presentation next semester, in which you have to analyse one of the texts we’ve studied using one of the theorists’ essays that we’ve looked at so far. I thought I would put you all in your pairs now so you can start researching over Christmas. So if you could all find a pair… ’ Rachel looked around at all of us, looking ready to leap in and force any stragglers together at a moment’s notice.

‘You want to be partners?’ Claire turned to me, beaming, and raising an eyebrow.

‘Sure – what shall we do our presentation on?’

‘I think we’re assigned topics.’

I made a face. ‘Hopefully we get a good one. I’ve got enough work I don’t want to do over Christmas already, I don’t want something else to add to that.’ I leant back in my chair to scoop my hair into a ponytail, and it was then that I noticed it, growing from the ceiling.


I didn’t have time to wonder why this wasn’t floating like everything else had, I just willed it to go away with all my might. It stayed there. I risked a glance around; it appeared that no-one else had noticed it. I was just going to have to pretend it wasn’t there.

‘So, got any plans for the Christmas holidays?’ I asked Claire, trying to look as nonchalant as possible.

‘After all this news this morning, I’m going to try and see if I have super powers.’ She wiggled her eyebrows at me. ‘Want to help in my experiments?’

‘I would have to travel for like an hour and a half.’ I tried to pretend that I hadn’t already worked it out in the hope that she would ask me to visit her.

‘I hope you’re more dedicated to our presentation than that – besides, I could come to you. Or we could meet in the middle.’

‘Right, are you all in pairs? Good. So I’ll go round and assign you each a topic – Claire and Stevie, you have the Judith Butler essay…’ I tuned out of what Rachel was saying as I scanned over the handout with the task on it again.

‘This is going to be interesting,’ Claire said, reading through the list of texts we had to choose from.

No-one seemed to notice the mistletoe in the rest of the seminar, everyone too busy brainstorming with their partners. As I was packing up, I looked up and was relieved to see it was gone. I started to walk out of the room, but Claire caught my arm as we stood in the doorway. ‘Hey, I just wanted to ask you something.’

I bit my lip as the mistletoe respawned in the doorway just above our heads. ‘Mmm-hmm.’

‘I was wondering if – sorry, let’s move out of the doorway.’ As she turned, I took the opportunity to leave before she noticed the mistletoe.

‘I have to run, actually, I have to meet my friend, but message me, okay?’ I took off down the corridor, moving as fast as I could without it being suspicious.


‘Hey super girl, how’s it going?’ Freddie asked me as I walked through the front door.

‘The worst. You know I told you about Claire? Well, my super powers decided to give me a helping hand today.’

I heard Jo’s voice as she stampeded down the stairs. ‘Oh my god, what happened?’

‘Mistletoe happened.’

‘How festive, I love it.’ Freddie smiled wistfully.

‘You wouldn’t if you were me. At least she didn’t notice it on the ceiling, but in the doorway was almost an entirely different story.’

‘I think you should just tell her,’ Jo said, folding her arms, ‘I, at least, have listened to you whine on about this girl for months. Just tell her you like her.’

‘A little late now, don’t you think? “Oh, don’t mind this mistletoe floating between us, it’s just because I suddenly have super powers and I really want to kiss you” doesn’t sound weird at all.’

‘You said it was on the ceiling and in the doorway, so it won’t float.’

‘She has a point.’ Freddie smiled.

I groaned. ‘Fine. I’ll talk to her. But not under the mistletoe – only somewhere with a high ceiling.’


The next day, Claire messaged me.

‘Hey, don’t know if you’re free but wondered if you wanted to go through some of the presentation some time today? x’

I looked up to check the ceilings at my spot in the library – they were certainly high enough. I’d managed to avoid suspicion thus far, snatching the sandwich out of the air before anyone could notice after my stomach grumbled. The only use of my newfound super power other than that had been performing the same demonstration for Freddie that Jo and I had used as an experiment the previous morning. I was taking advantage of people randomly developing super powers and everyone else being scared of people with super powers by spreading out in the library, so I already had a double desk space. I typed a response to Claire and hit send:

‘Sure, I’m in the library and was going to be here all afternoon. Second floor, let me know when you get here x’

A minute passed and the chair beside me scraped back. I was about to tell whoever it was that it was occupied when I saw Claire’s dark curls and stopped myself. ‘I was about to yell at you for taking that seat.’

Claire laughed as she pulled out her notes. I glanced upwards and there it was, on the ceiling a floor up, the mistletoe. I had a sudden rush of gratitude for the weird open-plan design of the library, and turned back to Claire.

We spent the next hour working on our presentation, interspersed with many tangents and a lot of chatting. The topic of super powers came up again, and I changed the subject by shrugging and saying that I didn’t think that it was that much of a big deal. Claire looked at me like I was crazy, but I stopped her from saying anything by going back to talking about the presentation.

‘I’m getting kind of thirsty, you want to go get some coffee?’

I looked at my water bottle on the table, which I didn’t even bring with me, that had refilled every time I felt thirsty. ‘Sure, I could do with a coffee.’

We packed everything up and headed down to the café in the library. I swore under my breath as I noticed that all of the tables had low hanging lights above them. I ordered a coffee and realised I’d forgotten my purse. I held my hand in the air next to me and the exact change fell into it. I made a mental note never to take money out with me again, picked up my coffee and followed Claire to a table.

Claire was talking about the super powers that she’d heard that people had got, and how amazing it all was, and I tried to focus on what she was saying, but my eyes kept returning to the mistletoe growing from the lamp between us.

‘Are you alright?’ Claire asked, putting her hand on my wrist on the table.

‘Yeah, sorry, just-’

‘Oh, I hadn’t even noticed that, sorry…’ Claire didn’t meet my eyes, pulling her hand back and folding both her hands in her lap. ‘Now it looks like I picked the table with the mistletoe and I didn’t, I’m sorry, I find mistletoe really weirdly pressuring, I didn’t mean to-’

‘Sorry, it’s my fault, and anyway, just because it’s there I don’t think we have to-’

‘What do you mean, it’s your fault?’ Claire looked up at me, eyes narrowing, frowning.

I sighed, my heart thudding. ‘Um, I meant… I-’

‘You don’t have weird powers that make mistletoe appear, do you?’ she said, laughing.

‘Not… specifically mistletoe.’

‘Wait, what? You have super powers?’

‘I think so.’ I bit my lip, now taking my turn to avoid eye contact. ‘I seem to be able to make things appear when I need them.’

‘Why would you need mistletoe?’ Claire’s voice wavered as she spoke.

I wished in that moment for a time machine so that I could avoid this situation and say no to coffee, but I couldn’t avoid telling her at that moment. Besides, she already knew, I could tell as it hung in the air between us, unsaid and unrecognised. ‘Because I like you. And I guess my subconscious, or whatever force controls this dumb power, thinks that this is the way to acknowledge that, I guess. Sorry, I didn’t mean to make things awkward, I just…’

I looked up, fearing the worst. Claire was smiling. ‘So you didn’t run away from me earlier because you were scared I was going to ask you out?’

‘You were going to ask me out?’ My voice squeaked with surprise.

‘Yeah, but you ran away so I thought you just were too polite to say no.’

I laughed. ‘No, I ran away because this happened.’ I pointed at the mistletoe, and she laughed too.

‘I must be the most unobservant girl ever.’ She picked up my hand that still rested on the table, holding it with hers. She leant across the table, so she was directly under the mistletoe ‘So, Stevie, did you want to go out with me?’

‘I would love to.’ I leant forward just far enough to close the space between us.

When we broke apart, I looked up to see that the mistletoe had disappeared.


My favourite books: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was recommended to me by many people before I actually read it. If I’m completely honest, I only got round to it because it was on the reading list for one of my modules this year (it was subsequently removed, much to my dismay, but that’s another story). I don’t know why it took me so much convincing – I love Greek and Roman mythology, I love the Iliad, and I’m always excited to read books with LGBTQ+ representation, and this book ticks all of those boxes. No wonder then that before I had even finished it, it had made it into the list of my favourite books.

This book is just beautiful. I cried throughout the book – I started bookmarking every time the book made me cry, which considering I knew the ending, and how Miller consistently foreshadows the ending through Achilles’ happy arrogance and Patroclus’ reluctant happiness, was a lot. I ran out of post-it-note bookmarks. This, coupled with the gorgeous poetic descriptions of the landscapes and events of the novel, makes it into one of those books I stayed up until 2.30am to finish, at which time I messaged my friend in tears and she immediately knew what I had just finished reading.

I don’t feel that my love of the Iliad was a necessary pre-requisite for reading and loving Miller’s novel either. Most of my friends that have read the book and love it had no idea what was going to happen, giving them a completely different experience of reading the book. Either way, I do not know a single person who has read The Song of Achilles and not enjoyed it.

This book is the book that I always recommend to people without exception when they ask me for book recommendations, so I felt it most remiss not to mention it here on my blog when I have this favourite books series. If you haven’t yet read it, do so. I sincerely promise you that you will love it.

The Turtle

She shuffles, head bowed

through the rain, desperate

to make it back home.

The shell on her back gets heavier 

with every step,

she pauses, 


and starts again.

She tries not to complain, 

for this is the baggage she chose to bear

but there are days like this

when the weight becomes difficult to shoulder.
She persists.

Surrounding yourself with creativity

Recently, I found myself in a creative slump. I wasn’t motivated to write anything – the ideas for the novel I’m working on were still ticking over in my brain, but I wasn’t actually writing, and I hadn’t even considered writing a poem for months, other than those I had to write for my seminars, and they were turning out flat and lifeless. I lacked motivation, I lacked inspiration, I lacked drive.

And then I went to my local poetry night at the local pub.

It was like a switch was flipped; I got home and immediately wrote two (admittedly godawful) first drafts of poems, and I wrote two more today. Just being in a creative atmosphere made me want to write again. I got my drive back.

It’s worth noting as well that I think it was partially that I was so invested in writing this novel. Not that I don’t want to write it, but I think after being so focused on one thing – especially when it’s taking so long to write given my lack of free time – I needed a little break from it to allow some of the other ideas I’d had in the mean time to work their way out.

So if you’re feeling like you’re in a bit of a writing funk, all I’m saying is that it might be worth stepping back from what you’re working on, and surrounding yourself with people who inspire you with their creativity. Easier said than done sometimes, I know, but it just might be what you need.

The Sim

The world seemed to buzz around me, disintegrating before my eyes. The pavement blurred into the road and the screech of brakes crackled towards me. I looked up and blinked. The walls of a room I didn’t recognise came into focus.

Something started beeping next to me; a high pitched chirp joined it in a disharmony my brain couldn’t process. People ran into the room, I counted three, cloaked in lab coats and lanyards and plastic gloves. I knew none of them.

They talked amongst themselves, barking words at each other that I couldn’t derive any meaning from. I tried to sit up, but my brain didn’t reach my body, and I remained stationary.

The beeping stopped. The people took a breath. They smiled. One of them stepped closer to me, the other two left the room.

‘Hi, Elspeth. How are you feeling?’

I frowned. She checked her notes.

‘Who are you?’

It was their turn to frown. ‘Elspeth, it’s me, May.’

‘Who? Where am I?’

‘You’re in your dorm, Elspeth,’ she said, her voice rising in confusion, ‘do you not remember anything?’

‘I remember a car.’ I grimaced. ‘I remember a lot of pain.’

‘What about before that?’

‘Could you be more specific?’

‘Before your life in the sim, Elspeth, what do you remember?’

‘Life in the what?’

She clutched at a walkie talkie strapped to her waist and spoke into it. ‘Doctor Fisher, I need assistance.’

‘Who’s Doctor Fisher? What is going on?’

Her voice shook slightly as she continued. ‘You don’t remember anything?’

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about! Where am I?!’

‘You’ve just woken up.’

‘What do you mean?’

Another person shrouded in a white entered the room. ‘What appears to be the problem May?’

‘Will someone please tell me where I am?’ The panic swirled in my gut as the two people remained silent, exchanging glances.

The man, who I presumed to be Doctor Fisher, turned to May. ‘Does she not remember anything?’

‘It doesn’t appear so, sir.’

He turned to me. ‘Elspeth, what year are we in?’


‘What are the names of your parents?’

‘Maggie and Steven.’

‘And your siblings?’

‘I only have one brother. George.’

He turned back to May. ‘This is an unexpected hiccup.’

‘Will someone please tell me what’s going on?’ I yelled, my fear transforming into pure rage. May flinched at my outburst, speechless.

‘You’ve just woken up from a simulation,’ Doctor Fisher explained.


‘You’ve been in a coma for just under six months, during which you have experienced twenty years in a simulation we’ve been running in your brain – like a dream that we can control. It’s been very interesting. But we expected you to wake up and remember your current situation, as you would after waking up from a dream, but as you now know, that is clearly… not the case.’ Fisher’s voice was a monotone, his face remaining emotionless.

My breath quickened. The nausea clawed its way up my throat; a cold feeling spread from my scalp through my body.

‘What do you mean, my life is made up?’

‘The life you think you have is. Your real life is here in 2546. You are twenty-five years old.’ He consulted a clipboard, before snapping it shut, pushing his glasses up his nose and frowning at me. ‘If you wait here, we will decide the best course of action, hopefully reinstate your memory somehow.’

With that, he and May left the room. I tried to get up to follow them, but I found myself unable to move. I removed the blanket covering my legs and I felt the blood drain from my skin as I saw what little was left of my legs. They were reduced to skin and bone, none of the muscle that I had come to know and be so proud of as a triathlete remaining. It dawned on me that I hadn’t actually done that training; the years of hard work and dedication were no more than a dream.

Tears spilled over my cheeks. I tried to move, but my muscles barely twitched.

As I waited, I resolved to attempt to remember my life in this reality. Nothing revealed itself. Whilst I could remember a few times in which the world I knew suggested to me that it was not quite real, I could not remember anything of this one that I had been given as a replacement.

I focused on May – from her reaction, I clearly knew her well. I pictured her face in my head and searched for her somewhere within my memory. I found a glimpse of something, but as I pulled at it I lost the source. I was sure that I had met her before, but where, I did not know.

I looked around, beginning to doubt everything. If I hadn’t noticed that I’d been living in a simulation before, who’s to say I would realise now? The thought began to overwhelm me as the minutes ticked by.

May walked in just as I the walls started shrinking closer.


She looked up, startled. There was an almost imperceptible glimmer of hope in her eyes. ‘Yes?’

‘If I’ve been living in a simulation for years and had no idea, how do we know that we’re not living in a simulation right now?’

‘We don’t think we are, but who knows?’ Her eyes snapped back to the clipboard she held in her hands as she leafed through the papers attached to it. ‘If we are, then one day we’ll wake up, and that’ll be that.’ She looked at me, her face paling as the words lingered in the air between us.

‘Well. Yeah. Kind of insignificant, I guess.’

When May next spoke, her voice was barely audible. ‘You did choose this.’


‘You volunteered. I can show you the records if you like – Fisher thinks it may be too overwhelming, but…’

‘That should make me feel a bit better, I guess,’ I sighed, ‘but I don’t even know the person I was before this whole situation.’

May let her clipboard drop down to rest against her thighs.

‘She was great.’ May smiled, looking at me, but clearly seeing the me that she knew. She cleared her throat. ‘Anyway, we need to get you into rehab as soon as possible, redevelop your muscles. That’s the only thing the old you was afraid of – you had spent so much time getting as fit as you were. We had no idea how long the experiment was going to last.’

A flash of memory suddenly came to me as May sat there, of a girl, of a blurred night, and a morning spent feeling quite sorry for myself. I felt my cheeks flush.

‘May, how did we – do we – know each other?’

‘We were really good friends.’

‘Just friends?’

It was her turn to blush. ‘Yeah, just friends, why do you ask?’

‘Just something that must have happened in the simulation.’ My mouth fumbled around the word like it was cotton wool, objecting to calling every memory I had fake.

May wouldn’t meet my eyes. ‘I think I know what you mean. Anyway, if you want we can unhook you from this equipment and take you down to rehab now?’

‘So, you saw everything that happened in the simulation?’ My face felt like it was on fire as memories flashed through my mind that I had presumed no-one would ever know about.

‘We had the ability to, but obviously we gave you some privacy.’

I really didn’t want to find out exactly what it was that they had and hadn’t seen, so I dropped the matter. ‘You were saying about rehab?’

‘Yes, shall we go?’

‘Sounds good.’

May slipped the various needles and sensors out of and off me whilst I lay there. I let out a shaky breath as she turned from me, pulling the walkie talkie from her belt and requesting assistance moving me. Two people walked into the room, beaming smiles on their faces.

‘Hi, Elspeth, how’s it going?’ The greeting came from the taller one of the two, his bulky frame nearly too big for the doorway. I had never seen him before in my life.

‘Um, hi.’

The two people looked at each other, frowning. ‘Don’t you recognise me, Elspeth?’

‘Sorry, I don’t.’

‘You recognise me though, right, Elspeth?’ The other person had long hair the colour of daffodils, swept up and out of the way in a ponytail that reached their waist.

‘You look just like my friend Lizzie.’

The woman’s expression transformed, the ends of her smile flopping to her chin, the lines on her forehead deepening.

May sighed. ‘I did warn you she doesn’t remember anything. Elspeth, this is Amanda, and this is Peter.’

The two of them seemed quite lost for words.

‘Hi, nice to meet you. Can we please get to rehab? I’d really like to be able to move again.’

‘Sorry, Elspeth, this is all just a bit strange, is all.’ Amanda was almost speaking through tears. She and the guy took positions at the head of the bed, whilst May grabbed the front.

The rest of the building that I could see as I was wheeled through it was pretty much the same as my room – plain white walls, white linoleum floors, everything spotless. There was an occasional window set into the wall, and I took every opportunity to glance out. All I could see was unreally turquoise blue skies. From this, all I could discern is that we were high up in the building. Not that I was likely to know where we were even if I did see it – Doctor Fisher had said that this world was 500 years farther in the future than anything I had memory of living in.

The building was labyrinthian, with twists, turns, ups, downs, all down corridors that looked no different from each other. The sound of laughter emanated from some of the rooms, cries from others.

‘Where are we?’ I asked.

It was May who answered. ‘London General Hospital.’ With that, we pulled into a large, open room, not dissimilar in appearance to a gym.

I stored the knowledge away that London still existed and tried to focus.

‘See ya, Elspeth, and good luck!’

‘Good luck, Elspeth!’

I smiled at them through the mirror as they waved and left the room. My life must not be too bad here, I thought, if I was friends with them.

‘We have a lot to be going on with, so let me just grab Kim and we’ll be getting on to it.’

My question of ‘Who’s Kim?’ died in my throat as a man I recognised very well walked up to the side of the bed.

‘Hiya, Elspeth.’ He looked uncomfortable, leaning towards me slightly as if to hug me before stopping, halfway down, patting my hand with his and stepping back. ‘I’ve been told you probably don’t remember me?’

‘I have no idea who you are,’ the next words came out before I had a chance to consider them, ‘but I remember dating someone who looked very much like you. In the simulation.’ Sadness washed through me as I remembered that Logan and I hadn’t left things on the best note.

‘You and Kim dated for a couple of years when we were all in school,’ May explained, ‘He’s your physiotherapist.’ She looked over at Kim. ‘Are you all good here?’

‘I think so. Ready to start, Els?’

The nickname made me cringe. ‘Would you call me Elspeth, please?’ I murmured.

He cleared his throat. ‘Right. Sorry. Elspeth.’

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ May said, writing something on her clipboard before turning and leaving the room.

Kim and I struggled through the session. I didn’t know how much he knew about my life in the simulation, but he fed off my awkwardness, touching me as little as he possibly could, which, given that I couldn’t move at all, was still far more than I was comfortable with. We had barely managed to move me out of the bed before May popped her head into the room.

‘Time’s up. You don’t want to over-exert yourself.’ She walked over to us. ‘How did the session go?’ The question was directed at me, distracting me as she handed the clipboard over to Kim. He made some quick scribbles.

‘It was alright. Frustrating, mainly,’ I admitted. I glanced at Kim.

‘Well, it’s a long process. We hope to have you walking again in a few months, but we can’t promise anything. You ready to go back?’

May took the helm again as Kim helped her push me back to the room. She hooked me back up to some of the machines, ‘for monitoring purposes’ and pulled up a chair to sit next to the bed.

I noticed someone had placed a bouquet of ruby and yellow gerberas in a vase on the table at the side of the room.

‘Those flowers are beautiful.’

May blushed. ‘I thought they would brighten up your room a little bit.’

‘Aw, thank you!’

‘You’re welcome,’ she said, walking over to the chair against the wall. ‘Dinner will be here in a bit. I thought I could keep you company.’

We both knew that what she really meant was that she was staying to help me eat, but neither of us acknowledged it. ‘Yeah, that would be nice.’ I took a deep breath. ‘Can I ask you a few questions? Y’know, about my life here?’

The question seemed to take May slightly off guard as she placed the chair next to the bed. ‘Of course, what would you like to know?’

I tried to pick from the infinite questions that were whirring through my head.

‘Who are my family? And where are they?’

‘You were an only child. Your parents didn’t quite agree with your decision to pursue the research you were doing, so you haven’t talked to them in five years. I heard that they… they passed last year. Car accident. I’m sorry.’

I mulled this information over in my head. I couldn’t imagine life without my brother; we fought a lot, but he was one of the best people to go to when I needed cheering up. As for my parents, I couldn’t imagine a life without them as a part of it. My simulation self – and myself now – couldn’t contemplate not attempting to reconcile with them after an argument, no matter how big. But we had never had an argument that big.

‘What was the point of this experiment?’

‘That’s a pretty big question.’

I waited for May to continue.

‘Well, it started off as an experiment to see if we could put anyone in a simulation. How much we could control, how much control they had. We designed most of it for you, but anytime someone from this real world, for lack of a better word, appeared in the simulation, it was your subconscious taking over.’

‘So that means that my subconscious remembers everything in this world?’

‘That’s what we think.’

‘So, there’s a chance I’ll remember?’

‘Hopefully. We think it’s likely, but we can’t say for certain yet.’

‘How did we meet?’

‘We’ve been friends since school.’ May rested her head on her arms, folded on the bed. ‘Primary school. We met in the first week, us and Kim. We were inseparable.’

‘Why is Kim no longer our friend then?’

‘I never said-‘

‘You didn’t seem very familiar with him when we saw him earlier.’

There was a knock at the door. May got up and grabbed what looked like mush off the trolley at the door, thanked the person manning the trolley and returned to her seat next to me.

‘Sorry, it doesn’t look very appetising, but it’s the only option really, unless you want to be on a drip.’ She opened the bottle and sniffed. ‘To be honest, it actually smells quite good. Can we try with a straw?’

I opened my mouth and she placed the straw inside. I sucked at it and the mushy liquid hit my tongue – in fairness, it didn’t taste that bad.

‘In answer to your question, once you two broke up, we just kind of… drifted apart. It was hard to stay friends with both of you, you didn’t exactly break up on the most amicable of terms.’

I wanted her to expand, but the straw in my mouth prevented me from saying anything. I tried to prompt an explanation with a confused look, but May just laughed at me. ‘I think that’s enough information for one day.’ She looked at me hopefully. ‘I don’t suppose it’s triggering anything?’

I shook my head as I swallowed the last of the weird smoothie.

‘To be honest, I’m just getting more confused.’

She laughed. ‘Alright. I need to run some errands, but shall I come back after I’m done?’

‘Sure. I could use the company.’

‘See you later then.’ She smiled at me, taking the cup and straw with her as she walked out.

I hardly had a chance to pause for breath before Doctor Fisher walked in. ‘Hello, Elspeth. How are we feeling?’ He twiddled his thumbs and paced awkwardly around the room, checking things but not really looking at anything.

‘As well as I could be.’

‘What a positive outlook.’ He smiled at me. ‘I have a proposition for you.’

His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. As he looked at me, a feeling of unease slithered its way into my stomach. ‘What?’

‘How would you like to go back into the simulation?’

‘Back into the…’

‘You see, Elspeth, the experiment isn’t really finished.’

‘But I just woke up!’

‘Yes, but you realised you were in a simulation and woke yourself up.’ He spoke slowly, as if to a child, ’We still have more tests to run. Don’t you think some closure would be good for you?’

‘But it’s not real, is it?’

He shrugged. ‘This could all be fake. What’s the point of anything? You were happy in that simulation, Elspeth. Don’t you want to be happy?’

‘Can’t I be happy here?’

He shrugged again. ‘Eventually. We only want to run the sim for a couple more years, until you die naturally in it, that’s all.’

I considered it. I needed closure, at least, it wasn’t so bad to want that, surely?

‘A couple more years, you say?’

‘Yes, that’s all, and then you can live your life here.’


‘You’ll do it?’

‘Yes. I’ll do it.’

‘I knew you were more sensible than May! I have the injection ready, let’s get this done quickly now.’

‘Wait, May doesn’t want me to go back under? Why not?’

He came towards me, needle readied, frowning and dismissing my question with a wave of his hand. ‘I don’t know, Elspeth, just hold still now. Focus on the moment before you died in the sim.’

My eyes went to the flowers on the table at the side of the room, and a horrible sense of dread set in as I felt the needle prick my skin. His words brought the moment to my mind, the wind whipping at my face, the dampness of my ankles from cars splashing through the puddles next to the pavement, my phone clutched in my hand…

I looked up from my phone just in time to stop myself from stepping out into the road as a van screeched around the corner. I looked again and crossed the road. As I stepped up onto the pavement the other side, I noticed a bouquet of red and yellow flowers lying on the asphalt. I picked them up and placed them on the bench at the side of the road before continuing with my walk home.

© Alyx Hurst 2017

Reflecting on my first year at uni

Having just finished my first year at university, I thought it might be good to reflect on it and share some of my tips for people who are in the position that I was last year – terrified, excited, and almost completely clueless as to what they’re going to face come September.

There’s not much that I can say in terms of workload that hasn’t already been said a million times over – university learning is self motivated. No-one is going to chase you up if you don’t do it, it’s your loss, so discipline is super important – although the occasional nap (or daily in my case) won’t hurt you. At least it won’t if you do a low contact hour subject like I do!

Also, if you do the reading for the lectures, you will understand them far better. Granted, there is some reading that is a little redundant, but it is far better to do it if you have the time to start off with, and then later use your time doing more useful things. Just try to do the reading – you don’t want to be the person that turns up to the first seminar absolutely clueless. Like I said before, university is self-lead teaching to an extent, so get as much out of it as you can by doing the reading.

Realise you’re not necessarily going to get a first. I have a lot of friends who were very high achieving students at school, and they got to uni, got a 2:1 for a piece of work, and were really upset. I’m not saying you’re not going to get a first, you might do, and well done you if you do, but a first is not the be all and end all, and even if you don’t do so well in first year, learn from it. You’re there to learn, after all, so see a lower grade a chance to improve yourself. Go and ask for help if you don’t understand your marker’s comments, and if you need it, ask for help with your essays from the services that are available at your uni. Friends can be invaluable for this, especially with creative writing. Exchanging work and reading through each other’s helps both of you, both in proofreading and in seeing how they responded to the same prompt.

Make sure that you know where you can go if you need help – I have been in the fortunate position not to need any help this year, but knowing where those services are can be really helpful in those times of stress and panic, so you – or someone else – can do something about it.

Here comes another cliché – don’t be afraid to try new things. I started Ballroom and Latin American Dance this year through university, and it has honestly been one of the best experiences of my first year at uni. You don’t have to commit to everything that you sign up for – I signed up for four or five societies after my uni’s societies fair, but I now only regularly attend two of them. And the societies expect this dropout – it’s far better to try these new things and then decide you don’t like them than to not try anything at all and wish that you had come March. Most societies even offer a free trial session, or don’t require you to pay membership until a few weeks in, so you might as well give them a whirl. Societies are also one of the best places to meet people, as you’ll be with people with similar interests to you, and you’ll meet people from across the uni, across departments, across years, postgrads, undergrads… Basically, socieites are great, so sign up for them if you can.

But also remember that it is okay to say no. I was feeling a bit rough the first few weeks of uni, especially in Freshers’ Week, so I went to two quiz nights and one night out. My flatmates asked me if I wanted to go out every night, but as I don’t drink I was quite daunted by the prospect of going out with a large group of complete strangers, so I stayed in my room instead, and I was far happier for it (as was my bank account!). I’m not saying don’t go out, all I’m saying is that if you really don’t want to do something, you don’t have to do it. Try to do new things, but if you’re really not feeling it, no-one is going to hate you for saying no. I’m still good friends with my flatmates, so if my experience is anything to go by, there’s nothing to be feared in saying no.

On the topic of flatmates, remember that you need a little give and take, but at the same time you can’t be a doormat. If you have a 9am you have to get to, or like me have to get up at 4am to get ready for a dance competition, and they’re hosting pres, blasting music and yelling at the top of their voices, just go in and talk to them. If they’re decent people, they will offer to move pres (it’s not like there’s likely to be a shortage of accomodation in walking distance that they can use). If they don’t, just remember to make as much noise as you can getting ready in the morning. (I joke, of course). Do your washing up, tidy and clean up after yourself, take the bin out, but don’t let your flatmates leave you to sort the state of the kitchen or any other shared areas in the flat. I was really fortunate with my flatmates, we’re all quite clean and tidy people. I do, however, have friends who live with flatmates who use their stuff and leave it disgustingly dirty, ruin it, or (the worst flatmates I’ve heard of) don’t take out the bin, rather taking out the full bin liner and leaving it on the floor until it spawns maggots. So basically, good luck with flatmates, and try to be a good flatmate yourself.

Chat to people. There is never an easier time to meet people than the first few weeks of uni – everyone is out to make friends, no-one knows each other. I walked up to someone because I saw them wearing a Welcome to Night Vale t-shirt in freshers’ week, and we’re now really good friends. Granted, some people I spoke to in freshers’ week I now only see on occasion when scrolling through Facebook, but I didn’t lose anything in talking to them. And if you aren’t making that many people during Freshers’ Week, it’s not an issue. It becomes so much easier to meet people once term properly starts, and you have lectures and seminars that force you with groups of people.

Don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not. The best way to make the best friends is to be yourself, as you’ll end up with friends who are like you. That’s kind of general life advice, but from what I’ve experienced, it’s especially true at uni.

My biggest piece of advice to anyone who isn’t enjoying uni within the first couple of weeks is to at least stick it out until Christmas. What will you lose by staying at uni for a few extra months that you would gain by dropping out after a few weeks? It’s a rollercoaster of emotions – you’ll feel fine for a bit, then you’ll feel a bit wobbly, then awful, and fine again – not necessarily in that order. As I said in my previous post on change, I would quite happily have not gone to university the morning of travelling up, and I would have quite happily gone home many a time during the first few weeks. But now I’m home for the summer, I miss uni terribly. I miss my friends, I miss the city, I even miss my lectures and seminars. So give it your best shot, it can feel really hard at times, but before you know it, it will be the Christmas holidays, and if you don’t feel better by then, then uni probably isn’t for you. Which there is no shame in, uni definitely isn’t for everyone. But at least you would have given it a good go, and you know for sure.

On a more practical note: budget. I sat down with my mum a few weeks before uni started and we worked out what allowance I would need on top of my maintenance loan and the savings I had from working over the summer. I opted for uni accomodation with an en suite, which was expensive, I’m not going to lie (it worked out ~£700 a month, bills included, on an 8 month contract), but I am personally glad I did. I then had to budget a lot, because my loan didn’t even cover my accomodation, so I had to watch my pennies. My recommendation would be to cook as much as you can, if you’re going to be on campus all day, take a packed lunch with you, and find the cheapest place to shop locally. I’m lucky in the sense that I am a vegetarian, and vegetarian food from the supermarket is so much cheaper than meat in my experience. I didn’t go out very much, and when I have gone out I’ve never paid more than £5 for a ticket to get in, and never buy any drinks once I’m out. I also don’t drink alcohol (a personal choice), so I didn’t have that to pay for either. I would add at this point that you don’t have to drink if you don’t want to, you can drink occasionally, no-one really cares. I was convinced prior to going to uni that there’s a massive drinking culture at uni, everyone drinks, and you’re considered weird if you don’t drink, and whilst yes, there are a lot of people who like to drink a lot at uni, they don’t care if you drink or not. It’s your business. And, at least at my uni, there are a lot of societies opting for more non-drinking events – laser tag, bowling, and trampolining, to name but a few. So if that’s a concern of yours, don’t worry.

I hope this has helped someone, and I wish everyone going to uni in September the best of luck, and I hope that you enjoy the experience as much as I do!

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: brilliant inside and out

I had heard about The Girl of Ink and Stars many times from many people before I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave – it was Children’s Book of the Month not once but twice at Waterstones, (later going on to win Children’s Book of the Year), was a Financial Times Book of the Year, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Award, and was shortlisted for both the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award. Not only that, but many people I trust for book recommendations and follow online, such as Carrie Hope Fletcher on YouTube, read it and recommended it. And I, as an aspiring young adult author, really wanted to read it.

Initially, many other books got in my way. Naturally, studying an English and Creative Writing degree, I had a lot of poems, novels, short stories, and plays to read for my course, and these obviously took precedence. Everytime I walked into my local Waterstones, there was a lovely display of copies of the book, in windows or on the tables, and I desparately wanted to pick up a copy, but just… didn’t.

But then I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She came to do a guest lecture at my university about writing “children’s” fiction was inspiring, especially for someone like me who sits working on my young adult novel whilst my friends work on amazing pieces that sit nicely under the label of ‘literary fiction’. She was incredibly lovely, no pretenses that the process was easy as she projected the word counts of her numerous drafts to show how the first draft was never the finished product, frank talk about the effect of mental illness on her writing process and how she battled through it, and information about the way things are done publishing-wise either side of the pond. She also discussed with us how ridiculous it is that some books are considered better than others due to their genre, a sentiment I very much share. Needless to say, The Girl of Ink and Stars jumped up my reading list, and I bought a copy almost immediately. And I am so glad I did.

The first thing that amazed me was the beauty of the whole book. The cover itself is gorgeous, but the pages themselves are where the true amazement lies. Each page is decorated like a map in keeping with the protagonist Isabella’s dreams and her father’s job as a cartographer. The result is that every page feels like a step on the journey that the characters undertake, mapping out the unknown of their island. I’ve never seen pages like it, and I urge you to pick up the book if only to see the pages.

The only potential issue with a gorgeous cover is that sometimes the contents don’t quite live up to their presentation.

This book definitely did not have that issue.

The story centres around the character of Isabella, who volunteers to guide a search for her friend after she gets lost in what the people of her village call ‘The Forgotten Territories’. More than eager to explore the island and chart it on a map, following in the footsteps of her father, a cartographer, she ventures in to the Forgotten Territories with the search party, and finds herself facing a lot more trouble than she initially expected.

The exposition of the story is slow and subtle, revealing a world that is not too dissimilar from our own – after all, Kiran Millwood Hargrave does say that the places in all of her novels are real places, but they obviously feature some slight embellishments. The relationships between the characters are great – I particularly enjoyed seeing the friendship between Isabella and Lupe, as a focus on friendship rather than romance is so refreshing to see. The mythic elements were really interesting, and tied well into the rest of the plot.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I feel it could have been a little longer. As it was, at just over 200 pages, I felt the world wasn’t explored to its full potential. I would love to have seen adventures spanning over the whole island in depth, as there are some villages displayed on the map that are barely visited, only for a page or two, and some that are not visited at all. The world of the book was so great, it just seemed a shame to leave it at what felt almost like the bare minimum exploration, especially when the protagonist talks about how much she wants to explore the entire island of Joya throughout the novel.

Overall,  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy and adventure, and wants to read something refreshing.