Digital Poetics #34: University of Nottingham Student Showcase 2021
Work produced as part of a workshop held by Kashif Sharma-Patel and Azad Ashim Sharma
Prompt: Write a poem about your hometown.
If we’re talking about what you’ll see when you go there
I guess it’s just like a postcard
for the sort of place the travel agents tell you
will change your life if you agree to
pay for it for the next two years.
White beaches and curved palm trees
and endless cocktails served in coconuts.
Idyllic and predictable.
The Caribbean as you expect it to be.
But if we’re talking about the first thing I think
when I think about my island
it’s face of the girl who disappeared at carnival
the year I turned five.
Her photo was all over the news,
and we prayed for her at the start of every school day.
On the seventh day she was found
shot dead on the sand.
If we’re talking about the scenery I think
of the drive out of town.
Two minutes to get
from white colonial mansions and turquoise pools,
roads lined with jewellery shops and yellow law firms,
to white breezeblock skeletons with blue roofs,
dirt tracks lined with abandoned bin bags and grey expanses.
Two minutes to travel
from somewhere it is safe to walk alone
to somewhere it is not.
If we’re talking about my experience I think
of the last time I was there.
Of the time that someone stole time from me, somehow.
I think of emerging from a blackout.
Curled foetal, with wet sand between my legs.
Limping towards passing headlights.
Cold sidewalk under my soles.
The shape of a man.
Of trying to run back into the darkness.
Of seeing myself for a second,
taking his bullet to my skull and bleeding out on the sand.
If we’re talking about my hometown I think of
the smooth hands that helped me up.
The wide syllables that asked for my address.
Tara Anegada is a Nottingham-based writer and director, currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham. Tara has written and directed a number of plays and short films with the Nottingham New Theatre, and has recently started her own theatre company; Anegada Theatre, which focuses on experimenting with theatrical form.
Prompt: ‘The face is our most potent symbol of personality’- Mina Loy. Write a poem or a piece of flash fiction about a facial expression.
A mouth before language
You made your grand
entrance from an earthy cave
with your mushroom cup mouth opening
and closing. Practising your latch suspended in space.
We stayed home over winter and solved puzzles without words
only sounds, shapes. My favourite expression was tent mouth—with shadows
for guy lines and a roof that blows up and down because no structure is permanent.
In that curved roof your great-grandmother was reborn, and I learnt we are all our ages at once.
When the sun came, we took you to see swans on the lake. Your mouth contracted into an M-
a slack shape, a shy shape. A mirror to the quiet watchfulness of the flock. The swan
at the edge arched its wings, lifting its body skywards as though angel,
or dragon. Serenity is only a moment, clearing the path for
restlessness. You made an eye of your mouth: seeing
through sucking. My little Japanese koi,
bubble-blowing boy: this is your
mouth before language.
Naomi Alder is a writer based in Nottingham, where she is completing an MA in Creative Writing and working in public sector communications. Her work has been published by The Fiction Pool, Nottingham Poetry Exchange and BBC Radio Nottingham.
Prompt: Write a poem about your hometown
I leave my house
wearing my green cotton
trousers and turquoise sandals,
down the road that snakes
down towards the square.
I’ve got music
in my ears
Old women sitting on
plastic chairs stop
gossiping as I walk past
their courtyards and
curved black railings.
(A colony of houses painted with azure and orange and yellow
pastels. A sunset splashed on walls and crevices)
Old men in ochre camps
over thirsty crops
to dry the
off their foreheads.
(The air - sheer
Even the kids stop
They hang down trees that grow on the cracked cement and on the faded zebra
As I descend the hill, (its head crowned with conifers and jewelled birches)
I gaze at the water
now drained, a few spots
of dump mud
away in the shadows. Frogs, like salamanders,
rest on the tops, poked
by some kids too
relentless to let the heat win over their curiosity.
The square is empty when I reach it,
noises coming from the bells
of the cathedral striking 3pm
and the shouts of men watching
the football match at the cafe just opposite.
to the shop windows
where piles of objects
wrestle to gain the spotlight.
never been touched,
just like this town, forgotten
by the French tourists
outside the Saint Anne festivities.
‘Vuoi comprare qualcosa, ragazzina?’
The old woman
catapulting herself outside her shop.
‘Magari un peluche, neh?’
the “-gn” and longer “-e”s of our dialect
rippling in my ear drum.
I walk away with a
“Stavo solo guardando”
smiling at her tanned wrinkled
face and honey eyes.
I grab my red purse
and buy a focaccia,
by the panettiere
in the back of her yellow and green
- a 5x4m niche made out of stones and scents of olives and rosemary and mimosas.
pick up the pace,
run over the main street,
the heat -
upon the road.
(my other self)
I used to
cross that road
with oily fingers
plastic bag with the focaccia
where I would sit
on that wooden bench underneath
a green parasol
made out of oak and hazelnut trees,
how I would
gaze at my mountains
(their white tops like steel helmets)
thinking that I would
at those peaks -
the guards of my hometown -
Michela Villano is an English Masters student at the University of Nottingham. An emergent writer, she loves reading and writing experimental poetry and fiction that combine words with music, art, film and video-games. Her poetry has been published in Voices and her self-published works include Three Coins Left, an interactive Twine narrative.
Prompt: Write a story or poem about an experience you’ve had with nature.
I left the house to find myself today.
And made a list of all the names of the canal boats moored on the right?* side of the river.
Land’s End (but we are not in Cornwall)
Ben the Boat
Water Quest (that might have been the branding though)
One of the unnamed ones had a little battery powered light house on top, like a river police car. The batteries were running out though and it was flashing in morse code. The pattern went as follows:
It spells U B T E M D T // G K L E
I tried out some variations of this:
LEUT (Dutch for joyfulness, pleasure, lunacy) DEBT MGK (An American Hip-hop artist).
MUTED BLEKT (Swedish for bleach) G.
MEET TUB GKLD (A Sydney Hip-hop artist)-
Then I stopped because I got distracted by a man fondling his partner’s left?* boob on the riverbank. They smelt like fireworks.
I guess that says a lot about subliminal messages.
Or that God is a big fan of hip-hop.
*Disclaimer: I may have mixed these up.
The water becomes greener. I catch a glimpse of my reflection. The light on the water greets the green me. An albino fish rears its ugly head his eyes almost human. Sad and well-learned. Like a middle-aged man flicking through tinder. He says its good to get to know me like this. On a more personal level.
I reply in my sexy voice saying I never asked to be loved so deeply.
Outside the boat with a thimble chimney lies a cacophony of crudely painted ornaments. Together they have formed a love-sick cult. From across the river they dance in fairy circles and worship the ground I walk on.
A ribbed frog with one eye lusts for me from across the river.
A stone angel caressing a toadstool offers me a drink from across the river.
A gnome with a flailing fishing rod winks at me from across the river.
I think this must mean that God wants to fuck me.
I find this offer incredibly hard to resist.
There is fire and feral cats and smoke and men on stolen pub chairs. Big strong men who smoke Marlborough reds and drive and race their wheelbarrows in desolate allotments.
I would like to tell you more but none of this really interests me. Instead, I shall tell you that I like to drag my elbows through the bramble that lives here. I think people might empathise with me more if they see me do this.
Nobody ever does.
Help is such a naughty word.
The wind chime glints and rattles. It is signalling to me that there is a wingless bee at the tip of my toe.
I can tell you two facts about the bee:
It looks very small.
It is moving very slowly.
I wonder if a child plucked its wings off. I wonder if it is dead. I wonder if google has the answer.
This website here:
says it might be born like this. And that its lifespan has been reduced.
I can tell you one more fact about the bee.
It looks like it is miserable.
I toss a coin between stepping on it or burying it. The coin says the opposite to what I want to do. I bury it in the moss and mourn for another lost member of our modern-day hive
and the water changes once more —
Rosiella Sutherland is an Oxford based MA Creative Writing student at Nottingham University. Published in the Nottingham Poetry Exchange’s Voices 2020, she writes focusing on the abstract and surrealist poetry revival. A National Student Drama Festival selected actress, she is currently working to combine her passion for theatre and poetry.
Prompt: ‘The face is our most potent symbol of personality’ – Mina Loy. Write a poem or a piece of flash fiction about a facial expression.
The marriage lasted fifteen years. They met in halls at university. He wore old fleeces and too much aftershave and told dirty jokes like her Grandad. She liked the colours that appeared in her mind when she thought of his name, glossy and autumnal.
It’s funny, isn’t it? she said.
What? he replied.
How the birds all know where each other are going. How they move as one, like they’re linked in thought.
They were in the park. Above, a crowd of starlings rippled like a wave, changing paths with the wind and cluttering the sky. She leant back against the railing, black bars warped as though they’d melted in the sun.
I don’t see how that’s funny, he said.
He wasn’t looking at her. He was chewing on something and checking his texts. She looked at his face, the bleach-blank ruin of it. Like the face she knew, but crooked somehow, bent into abstraction. Softly lidded eyes like two frozen lakes. The mouth, a country she’d never been to. This was how she noticed it was ending.
After that she noticed other things: that he no longer reached for her hand at traffic lights, or, half-drunk with sleep, used his thumb to map out the contours of her spine. He told fewer jokes and stopped buying her flowers on the day when she most missed her mother. It was the year she learned the price of unused thoughts and the weight of her own tongue. The year she took to holding and holding her breath until all that was left were words - still-wet ink dripping listlessly into different books.
She tells him, too. Much later. When the others have filed back to their houses in lines like black ants, leaving lilies in their wake. And the sky has darkened to the colour of a fresh bruise. She is sitting on the cool grass, holding an old fleece she found in the loft. It smells of mildew and university. She tells him that she had known it was all over, that day in the park with the starlings.
It’s funny isn’t it? she says to his stone. How such a small thing can reveal so much.
The smell of grass and soil drifts in the wind. Darkness pools out into the sky like black water.
In her mind he is sitting there with her, twenty years old again. Knees tucked up and gazing at the stars. His face looks like home. She puts on the fleece. Without turning, he reaches out and takes her wrinkled hand.
Yes, he says. It’s funny.
Lois Payne was born in Shropshire. She has a BA in English from Nottingham and is currently pursuing an MA in Creative Writing, also at Nottingham.
Prompt: ‘The face is our most potent symbol of personality’- Mina Loy. Write a poem or a piece of flash fiction about a facial expression.
A beam of sunrise invades from the shut shutters and lies on her eyelids. She must have fallen asleep in the chair. She stretches the muscle pain away and rests her gaze on his face. She has always been jealous of his nose; it’s so delicate and petite. No other part of him can be described as such.
There is a knock on the door. She rolls her eyes, but they return back to him.
‘Catherine,’ the whispered syllables are mixed with the screeching of the door.
‘Go away,’ she doesn’t recognise her own voice.
To her surprise, there is a shy bang and then silence.
She stands up and approaches him, wishing to see him attempting to make his three forehead lines touch. But in his sleep, he remains still.
Her foot kicks the wooden foot of the bed he’s lying in. She concentrates on the sharp sensation of the pain. Her toes have blushed. Her skin is throbbing as the blood in her veins responds to the emergency call.
The same bodily reaction made him kneel in front of her and plant kisses on her ablaze foot once. The memory makes her climb up the bed and get on top of him in a plank position. She leans even closer to him and lets her lips trail on his forehead, his temples, his cheekbones. She lingers on his earlobe; he loved wet kisses there. She is drained at the moment. She feels feverish, but she enjoys his coolness.
She stops just for a moment to readjust her weight on her elbows, but her body refuses to resume the kissing ritual. Her eyes command her brain to photograph his face. He has never reminded her of a statue before. No muscle twitches even though she is so dangerously close. Not even the slightest nostril movement is made to register her almond-scented shower gel. If only she had stuck with her ocean mist one; its freshness might have been contagious. It’s his complexion that causes her heart to shiver. His vivid palette of red cheeks surrounded by light brown skin is gone. His whole face is grey, the lightest purple hue. The more she stares at him, the more inscrutable his expression becomes. One minute she can see him shouting at her to open the window, and the next she feels the warmth of his smile. She would sign any deal with the devil as long as he opened his eyes —even for just a minute— so that she could read his thoughts. At that moment, another sunbeam intrudes the room and strokes one side of his pitch-black hair. The word serenity lights up in her brain.
She cannot hold her weight any longer. She lays on her side, pressing her breasts against his biceps. She covers him with her arm like a summer blanket. She embraces him. The room is full of cracks and tiny openings that let the wind in. They let the outside whispers in.
The noises become louder and clearer. She clings onto him. Words are turned into curses, and they are thrown at her as his relatives barge in to the room. Two strong arms pull her away from him. A diminutive female figure dressed in black kneels in front of the bed and places her wrinkly hands on his chest. Catherine tosses her whole body back and forth, but she cannot escape the man’s grip.
‘This is what he wanted,’ she screams.
The old woman raises her head, but does not turn to look at Catherine. A deathly silence hangs over the room for a moment. ‘I know. But what is the point now?’ The woman bows her head and her tears splash on the wooden floor.
The man releases Catherine and goes to tap the woman’s shoulder. Catherine staggers back to the chair in the corner of the room. A salty and silent stream floods her face as a thought sinks in; she has been more like this old woman, whose name she cannot remember, than him since last night. A new word wants to emerge from the abyss of her mind, but she cannot spell it out.
Panagiota Xenitidou is an MA Creative Writing student. She has published film and book reviews online. Her biggest dream is to make a living by writing novels that are as beautiful and impactful as Wuthering Heights and i’m thinking of ending things.
Prompt: Write a story that deals with a current political issue.
Not All Men
It’s late. Early, even. He strolls under the artificial glow of the deserted city towards his warm bed and a well-earned lie in. He takes a shortcut through an unlit alley, yawning as he pops out onto the main road. The street lights seem oppressively bright now and he briefly wonders why he hasn’t the power to dim them. The road, busy in the day, is now empty. Businesses, shuttered and dark, flank his right, with newly-built student flats over the road to his left. It’s lovely tbh. Quiet. A short flurry of blossom falls around him, enhancing the smell of spring in the breeze, of nature coming back to life even within the concrete landscape. There’s someone up ahead, walking in the same direction as him.
She hugs herself tightly; like that gag, the one where it looks like someone else’s arms from behind. She does this due to the cold, she tells herself. She hopes there’s no-one to see the joke. The street is well-lit, thankfully; eerie though, in contrast to its daytime counterpart. There were sporadic rectangles of light in the student flats a few moments ago, but the houses she now passes are lifeless. The near-silence has a weight to it, spring-loaded, while anthropomorphic shapes manifest in the street’s darkest spaces. The wind picks up, for just a moment, and spins a glass bottle like a ghostly version of the teenage kissing game. The tinkling of glass against concrete seems more klaxon than wind chime here. It stops, pointing at her. A taxi speeds past, it’s leisurely rumbling obnoxiously taking centre stage for several seconds, and she thinks it would’ve probably been worth the £7. She maybe hears footsteps, faintly, behind her and quickens her pace; thinks of her pepper spray, thinks of those self-defence classes a few years back, hugs tighter.
He thinks ffs; literally in text speak, just the letters. Followed by a laugh-crying emoji, perhaps. The pavement is narrow and she’s super slow. Meandering. A long, deserted street and he gets stuck behind the only person on it! It’ll just be awkward when he has to get past her. Why couldn’t she have just been on the other side of the road? Several feet from her he prepares to overtake, and (ffs!) she chooses this moment to speed up. She’s still slow compared to him, but he is now forced to temporarily hang back as he realigns his route around her. He huffs, he puffs.
She wishes for bricks.
He closes in again, finally, and he steps onto the road and he overtakes her.
She tenses, wide-eyed.
Chill out, love. He shakes his head and rolls his eyes, speeding off towards the finish line. He just wants to get to his warm bed. Not all men are killers and rapists ffs.
Harry Wilding is studying for a Creative Writing MA in Nottingham. He used to make short films but started writing prose and poetry again due to the smaller budgets involved. He has had work published by Popshot, Flash Magazine and Ink, Sweat & Tears, among others.
Prompt: Write a poem about your earliest childhood memory.
Beasley in Retrospect
Dad says, Wait here, and walks slowly to the flashing spirals of blue and red. It’s three months before my third birthday—five months before 9/11— and our black Labrador, Beasley, has been hit by a Chevy. I’m in the back row of Dad’s 4Runner, strapped into a car seat, next to my brother. Sun’s coming through the windows, rays sliced by dried mud. The cup holder’s got a dead ladybug at the bottom. The image is filmy, overexposed, still developing. Maybe Dad told the cop how Beasley had run through the white picket fence as he’d opened it. How Mom was still at work, seven months pregnant with twins, weeks away from bed rest. How it was the same day I’d wrapped my jacket sleeves around Beasley’s collar—us, the same height— and smiled while Dad wound and snapped a disposable. How it was the first day I wasn’t afraid of big Beasley, though I was only beginning to develop the words for it.
He just wanted a joy ride around the neighborhood, sniffing littered McDonald’s cups and old dog shit. Dad tells the cop, Can you take him? I’ve got my kids in the back. We’re tugging on the seatbelts, the ones Dad pulled taut against our shoulders, leaving red marks. I never saw Beasley’s limp body next to the clogged storm drain. Dad made sure of that. Maybe he looked like he was sleeping, maybe he was mangled by metal and tires. Dad always wanted a big dog. But big dogs aren’t big enough to walk away from Silverados.
Two weeks later, we’d move across town, to a house with more bedrooms, an invisibly fenced-in yard of forsythia and crab-apple and rhododendron and woods of tall oaks— for the dog. Moot point. Now I am the dead ladybug in the cupholder, turning over in the breeze of an opening door. I am the seat belt, holding me back from my memory. I am the picket fence, ultimately guilty. The police officer, the storm drain, the Silverado. I am all these things. Beasley would be diminished to a ceramic black Lab doorstop. Don’t stub your toe on Beasley! He’d get dropped one day, his front right paw breaking off. I’d tell the twins, You weren’t there, you don’t remember. I’ll never learn where they take the bodies of dead dogs. It's one of the questions I don’t ask. You were protecting us, Dad. You didn’t want us to see. That’s the first thing I remember.
Born in Connecticut, Katharine Yacovone is currently pursuing a Creative Writing MA at the University of Nottingham. She has a BA in English from Marist College in New York. Previous work of hers has appeared in Marist’s Mosaic literary magazine and Fleas on the Dog.
Prompt: Write a protest poem. Choose a political issue and tackle an imaginary adversary.
Ghazal for Ella Kissi-Debrah
South Circular smog clogs lungs. An unknown child
seizures again, seizes up. An ungrown child.
Healthy until seven. School runs past tanning shops
while gridlocks smoulder – London’s emission-zone child.
Who plays by the schoolyard fence as nitrous dioxide
gathers in plastic jars, like noxious cologne? Child.
She’s sprayed, splutters; splays. Paramedics clear the air-
ways, crack ribs with matchstick fingers – fractured bone child.
Mother in orange kente cloth implores:
What clung to the flooded lungs of my own child?
Seven-year campaign is snuffed in stuffy courtrooms.
Seven million snuffed by fumes, and a lone child.
Black fists raised to grey sky by Lewisham Town Hall.
Cause of death: pollution. Legacies are sown, child.
Born in south-west London, Joe Holmes-Milner is a Nottingham-based poet looking to make his first foray into publication. His self-published pamphlet 'ginger' will be released in the scarily-near future.
Prompt: Write a story about your name.
It’s 1986, there’s a song playing on the radio. It’s a familiar song, a familiar voice. The young couple looks at each other and stops to listen to the tune. She smiles. She has always loved Waylon Jennings’ deep voice. She places a hand on her swollen belly and moves it in a slow circle.
“The baby is moving.” She whispers, guiding his hand for him to feel.
“I like this song,” he tells her gently rubbing her ever growing stomach.
They fall silent, their joined hands resting where the baby appears to be dancing to the slow country song, the notes fading into that day’s news headlines. They’d heard that song before. It had been played time and time again over the past decade. Somehow, this time was different. This time it meant so much more.
Over the following weeks they caught themselves humming that twangy hit.
That year the entire area was caught off guard by an unexpected flood. A vigorous low pressure system found its way east from the Pacific. It created a Pineapple Express (a persistent flow of moisture in the atmosphere) which drowned Northern California in an unprecedented amount of rain. This phenomenon lasted to the end of February. Everything was a mess – people were forced out of their homes, roads were closed – even months later.
By early May, her due date was fast approaching. They’d been scheduled to go to the hospital on the fifth, they were finally going to meet their new little girl. That spirited baby girl had plans of her own, however. She wasn’t willing to wait a few extra days. She was anxious to meet the people who were attached to those voices she was so well acquainted with.
As they drove to the hospital – a long drive on an ordinary day, not that it was an ordinary day – that same familiar song, sung by that familiar deep twangy voice played through the speakers. The couple sang the words. She breathed deeply between contractions and tried to use the song as a distraction from the growing heat of pain coursing through her body.
A few hours later – following a frenzied arrival and rush to the operating room for a cesarian section – the woman cradled her beautiful baby girl in her arms. She held the baby’s tiny little hand. She stroked her round rosy cheeks. She squidged her chubby little thighs. In the eyes of this couple, their baby was perfect – a squidgy round ball of perfection – and she was beautiful.
The only time the parents tore their eyes from their squirmy little bundle was when a grandmotherly nurse entered the room. The nurse gently took the baby from her mother in order to check her over.
“Awww, she’s truly adorable, isn’t she?” The nurse cooed, checking to make sure the baby was adapting to the outside world. “And what’s the name of this little beauty?”
At that moment, a familiar melody played through the hospital sound system. The parents locked eyes, sharing a knowing look. They knew there was only one choice for the name of their baby. Somehow they had always known. He squeezed his wife’s hand softly, tears glistened in his blue eyes – the same eyes his little girl was currently using to study the nurse who held her – and for the first time, he spoke his daughter’s name:
“Amanda. Her name is Amanda, and I know she’ll be the light of my life.”
Mandy Baker is an American studying Creative Writing in the Master’s program at the University of Nottingham. Her work has been published on various military based websites in the United States. She is currently editing her first thriller novel which she hopes to have published in the near future.
Prompt: Write a story or poem about an experience you’ve had with nature.
Ode to the Creator
Perching on a fallen trunk amidst the forest green
my senses all awake at once as if from deepest sleep,
seeking to become as one with You, as yet unseen.
My eyes perceive, my mind discerns a sublime love so deep
for life with You abiding in this most sacred space,
where choirs of birds above my head their noisy vigil keep.
Industriously spinning a web of finest lace
a tiny insect teaches me of patience, grit and art -
generous gifts so freely given from Your abundant grace.
A rustling in the undergrowth causes my eyes to dart
towards the sound of timid life reluctant to appear
like words, when I Your guidance seek but don’t know where to start.
Motionless, I hold my breath and watch as Muntjac deer
spring forth into the dappled grove as if in Eden still
where once all creatures of Your hands roamed freely, without fear
of being hunted to extinction against Your supreme will;
the two, a spritely russet doe and her bespeckled fawn
in my direction shyly glance, then trot away to fill
their bellies with the shoots and shrubs which from Your earth are born.
I breathe again, and deep inhale the bluebells’ perfume sweet
which floats aloft, like incense, Your presence to adorn.
Kneeling now on holy ground, in reverence at Your feet:
“accept”, I pray, “my thanks and praise till face to face we meet.”
Sue Waterston was born in South London in 1959 and currently lives in Nottinghamshire where she works in the voluntary sector for a charity challenging homelessness. Her creative writing reflects her passions of social justice, theology and history.
Prompt: Write a story or poem about an experience you’ve had with nature.
It felt like … nothing, at the top. I guess I don’t know what I was expecting. Some kind of euphoria, a sense of accomplishment, a deeper appreciation for the world and everything in it. But nothing came. It was just cold. The wind was howling and the exposed skin on my face burned red. The others were all smiling and throwing their arms around in giant circles, making their eyes wide and turning about like they hardly had their balance. Like the altitude sickness had finally struck more than just Miss Burns.
The mountain was beautiful. I’ll admit that. Perfectly snowcapped and sprawling in every direction, right down to the dry heat of the plains and the tropical forests below. You could see the climate in layers, like a heat map, see it standing on its own, just the earth in every direction, save for a few shelter huts here and there. And us.
We took group photos, stakes in celluloid to lay our claim, to say we conquered it, quietly framing out all the porters that packed our tents away every day and prepped all our meals. I found people at my sides, saying all the things you might expect, like ‘look, we’re really here’ and I just kept thinking … yeah, where else would we be? I tried to copy people, guess at the right combination of actions that would satisfy. A wide smile, a hand over the eyes to better squint at the horizon, placing a hand on the flag to see that, yes, it was indeed a flag. Sometimes I wonder who else was faking it. Because I’m sure we were all feeling it. This hadn’t been the trip anyone had expected.
There had been a blizzard the previous night. We slept still dressed inside our sleeping bags, to the sounds of banshee screaming and the snap of tent fabric. The plan was to summit for sunrise, watch the light spill over the earth, see everywhere it touches, like that scene in the Lion King. We rose at 2:00am, shivering, fumbling with thermal leggings and warring with sleeping bags that refused to fold even after weeks of practice.
“Sean, fucking move.” Lawrence, my tentmate, elbowed me as he tried to smash his roll down into its drawstring cover.
I ignored him and kept trying with my own. My sleeping bag was a weird shape and you had to fold a corner of it first, then hope it stayed put while you rolled. It usually took me a few tries even when it was warm enough to feel my fingers.
“Not even packed yet, are you?” he stood up. “Andy’s just been round with the altitude tablets. You haven’t even been outside.”
“He’s pissed at you. Going to rage again. Watch.” “If you’re done, fuck off outside, thanks.”
There were 14 students on the trip, plus Andy and Miss Burns, but most were from the year above. Lawrence was the only person I could really I say I knew prior, and even then, it was more that we had the same friends than anything. We’d been paired as tentmates, and he’d been fine enough. Personable, most of the time. But sometimes when it got quiet, he’d look at you weird and come out with some cutting remark. It was like he just went dark. He’d been in whatever that place was from the moment we reached the mountain. Then, everyone had been pretty low ever since Andy told us about his satellite call. The strain of the climb had only made things worse. We were all tired, and sore, pushing our bodies further than they had ever gone before, and doing so on the thinnest air we had ever breathed.
We huddled into the small wooden shelter, breaths steaming, clutching mugs of stove coffee thick with sediment, and waiting for the porters to be done with our tents. They’d taken to weighing the guy lines down with huge rocks, instead of the tent pegs the wind could easily rip out of the ground. We were all bleary eyed and sat mostly in silence, conserving our energy for the climb ahead. Yawns ripped through me one after another. As had become habit, I’d stayed up way too late again, reading by the light of my headtorch.
After the porters were done and we shuffled outside to gather our packs, I realised I was missing something. I had left my walking pole outside the tent the previous night, and now it was buried. It should have been easy to find, but now the tents were all packed up and I couldn’t remember where ours had been. It all just looked white.
I shouldn’t have told anyone, especially not Lawrence. But there had been a lot of ground to cover. Before I knew it, Andy was on me.
“You really are a marvel, Sean. A fucking marvel.”
I shrunk. “It was around here somewhere.”
“What were you thinking? You notice the weather?”
I didn’t know how to answer. I forgot. Plain and simple. Once the snow began, I was just focussed on getting warm. Besides, it was right outside the tent. It should have been easy to recover. I’d dug plenty, but it was like it had just vanished. It had been the same thing when I lost my money belt. Looking back, that was probably the moment I fell into the bad books. It just disappeared one day while I showered. No one around. No explanation. I’d been begging people’s personal funds ever since.
Andy kicked at the snow. “Look at this. Could be fucking anywhere. Can you remember where your tent was?”
“It’s fine. I’ll be okay.” Honestly, the pole was useless anyway. Theatre. One of those things they flog you at outdoors shops to make you feel like you’re part of the culture. Some of the stragglers in the group used them to take some of the weight off their feet when they were flagging, but that wasn’t me. I was fine on my own.
“Sean. It’s rocky. It’s dark. You’ll slip.”
By this point, Andy had developed his own ideas about me. Plenty of people in the group didn’t have poles, but he wasn’t concerned about them. To him, I needed one. I didn’t bother trying to convince him I had good balance. I’d done martial arts for 10 years, and had been quite athletic before I’d given up tennis. It didn’t matter. He’d already grouped me in with the weak links. I dug through a random patch of snow, hands freezing, until he said I could stop. Then we turned to follow the porters to the base of the rocks, with him shaking his head and staring off at something I couldn’t see.
It had been about a year and a half since the trekking company first came to our school. A special assembly, promising the trip of lifetime if only we were willing to part with our parents’ hard-earned cash. An exotic country, a whole month away, climb mountains, white water raft, get fit, see the world. Be independent. The planning would be up to us, they said, some of it at least. Once we got out to Kenya, we would take turns leading the group, handling the budgets, planning and cooking the meals. There would be a guide from the company present to keep us out of trouble, but largely we would police ourselves. I don’t know whether that was really ever meant to be the case and our guy never got the memo, or if it’s just the kind of thing you tell teenagers when you’re trying to hook them into a package deal. Either way, I think it was clear from the first time we met Andy that he would be more hands-on than had been previously advertised.
He was a stubbly guy, with a close-shaved head, typically adorned by those wraparound sunglasses you see in all the outdoorsman shops and a smile that bared his teeth. He was shorter than you might expect and clearly put effort into compensating for it. He did things like clap his hands hard and rub his palms together when he stood up, and when he sat, he perched – one arm slung forward, ready like a sprinter on the starting block.
We all liked him at first. It was a comfort, in such an unfamiliar place, to have a strong character around. Someone that could bark an order and get us in line. He was funny. He liked all the 70s rock music most of us were just discovering. And on our fifth day, when he screamed full in Ed’s face after the kid tripped over a rock, we were thankful that someone was so concerned with our safety. He was right, a broken bone could be a serious thing, out, as we were, miles from anywhere. We had to be careful.
The ascent was slow going. Rocky. The closest we’d had to real climbing. The blizzard made certain parts of the usual path unnavigable, and plenty of the rest had to be cleared of snow before we could clamber across. We negotiated several parts in a chain, each of us reaching for a helping hand from a porter one by one. My fingers were red raw from grappling in the snow. I had gloves, but they were thin and the ice sank right through them. The outdoors shops recommended these polymer monstrosities, but it had seemed like a waste before we were here, when it would be blistering hot for the other 29 days of the trip. One of the guys in the year above was like a youth scout leader or something, one of the weird adventure-junkie subgroups with the confusing names. He reached down to lift me up a rock, with these reflective snow goggles suckered to his face. He said something about wanting to come back with real climbing equipment one day and make short work of this thing. I wondered if I could trip him without anyone seeing.
We didn’t make it for sunrise. We were still struggling up the final stretches when the light burst over the horizon. We pretended it didn’t matter.
I don’t know how long we stood up there for exactly. An hour, maybe? We all ran around, acting thrilled to be there, linking arms and looking at the sun. There’s always that moment when you go to a landmark, some special place. You’re walking around, you’re looking, taking it all in, then … you’ve done it. It’s over. You’ve seen all the special now, and you’ve used it up, in a way. It will never be new again. And as we wandered around for that final bit before we left, I just kept looking up at the two taller peaks, the real ones that you can’t just walk up, their shadows just starting to fall over the face of their sister.
We didn’t go back down the same way. We had spent the past 4 days following a long loop up the mountain, going in peaks and troughs to adjust to the altitude. The other side was nearly a straight shot down. Without sickness to worry about, we could go a lot quicker. And there was plenty of day left for walking. The schedule had us doing almost our whole descent today. A lot of the group raced off once we were finally given our marching orders. We could see the cabin we were set to have breakfast in from the top. All we’d had that day so far was coffee.
Of course, the mountain had other ideas. The way down wasn’t a rocky climb like before, but the path was narrow and piled with snow, with steep drops on either side. Worse, as the group trampled over the fresh snow and compacted it into the ice below, those of us at the back started drifting further behind as we struggled to find purchase.
The first time I slipped, I barely even registered it before my hip smashed into the ground. It was like teleporting. Andy, right behind me, cursed softly. I pulled myself up, stumbling under the weight of my pack. I brushed off the snow. Nothing crunched under the skin, so I kept going.
Two minutes later, I was down again. When I tried to rise, my foot flew away and I crashed in a twisted heap.
“For god’s sake, Sean,” he muttered. “What did I fucking tell you?” He tried to lift me up, but I shook him off. I was fine. I didn’t need his help.
I carried on, feeling his eyes boring at the back of my skull. I could see him without looking. The way he was grinding his jaw, his eyebrows drawn to slats.
It had been better not knowing. That much had been clear right away. Weird, yeah. When his mood started to turn and none of us knew why. When he started asking us to shut the music off in the evenings, and stopped joining in with cards. When Louisa threw the group budget off by buying twice the chickpeas we needed for dinner, and he chewed her out for a full hour then scrapped the whole leadership rota because we couldn’t be trusted. At least before he’d come clean and told us what the satellite call had been about, we could answer back. Tell him this was our trip, we could do what we liked. Fuck him, he called this professional? Now we were supposed to be grateful to him there was still a trip at all. He could have pulled the plug if he’d wanted. Raced home. Straight to the hospital. But he’d stayed. For us. It felt like … supporting him, letting him yell. Like it was the least we could do in return.
With all respect due to his family, it felt like I’d been supporting him a lot lately.
The next time I fell, I picked myself up then elbowed my way to the front of the line where, with each step, I felt the fresh, powdered snow crunching under my feet.
It took 4 hours to get down off the peak. 1k per hour, winding back and forth down an icy switchback, with the cabin in sight the entire time. More tantalising than the promise of food and a break, was the bare rock on which the cabin stood. No snow. We could see the melting point as we walked. We could feel it too, warmer with each step. Hats came off. Coats unzipped. It was still quite wet here – the mountain attracted a lot of rain, especially compared to the country surrounding it – but it was something closer to the climate we had adjusted to over the past few weeks.
We ate big for breakfast. We’d been going for 8 hours. Basically a full trek day. Now we had another one right ahead of us. We stowed some of our more extreme winter items away, then gathered up to press on.
The trail from here followed the rocky beginnings of a river. Mountain scree rolled underfoot, and tiny tributaries spilled out of the gaps in the stones like capillaries. We watched the thing form before us, over miles, millimetres deep at first, slowly gathering to a stream, then rushing, raging. We were told all we had to do was follow the river. That was all the porters kept saying. Follow the river. The camp would be just around the corner.
I don’t remember who started the singing. Ed, maybe. Or Steven. One of the louder guys in the year above. We were numb. Mentally. Walking had started to feel like an automatic process, something we couldn’t turn off even if we tried. My limbs tingled, blood pooling. We’d resorted to pestering about when it would be over, like children on a car ride. The phrase ‘just around the corner’ beat in my brain like a drum. It was a welcome distraction when the four lads in front of me burst into the chorus of Living on a Prayer, voices raspy and shaking, and wildly oscillating in volume as they each looked about to make sure they weren’t alone.
For the next hour they cycled through all the karaoke hits of the 70s and 80s. Journey, Soft Cell, Aerosmith, and, of course, given our location, Toto. I didn’t have the air in my lungs to join in, but every now and then they’d blank on a line, so I began feeding them the words when they got stuck. I got a weird look the first time, but they got more grateful after they’d blown through all the classics and into the back catalogues. After a while, I practically felt part of the group.
Getting low on suggestions, we attempted Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones. We were halfway through the second verse when another voice chimed in unexpectedly, deep and honeyed, immediately taking charge of the melody. We turned. Andy’s head was raised to the sky. He had a hand on his chest, eyes half-closed. The lads faltered a moment. They looked about each other, half-expecting this to be some weird prelude to a tirade, but nothing came. He just kept going, like he hadn’t even noticed they’d stopped. They watched, slack-jawed, they slowly found their way back in, quieter now, letting him take lead as he soared through the final chorus.
“Didn’t know you could sing like that, Andy,” Ed said after it was over.
“Yeah mate, nice one,” another, Declan, half-muttered.
“Oh, just grew up with these songs,” Andy said. “My dad’s favourite, the Stones.”
That turned them silent again.
He clapped his hands and rubbed his palms together. “So, what’s next? You boys know any Creedence?”
They didn’t, but agreed to try it all the same. They’d pick it up, he promised. I watched him croon for a few minutes, with the others mumbling alongside him, then quickened my pace.
There was a porter up near the front. I asked him how much further.
“Just around the corner,” the man said.
Another hour and several corners later, we had to stop and catch our breath a minute. At this point, we’d walked for roughly 12 hours. The sun was starting to dip, and here near the equator, it fell fast. We’d soon be walking in darkness again.
The river hissed as we sat and passed out snacks. It was deep now, angry, cutting a swath through the ground. It twisted, snaked. It seemed to know this is where we would say goodbye to it. A wooden bridge stood by where we rested, and once we crossed, the path would hook right and break away.
I got up for a toilet stop before we left. I walked down the bank a while, until it curved. Some of the other guys were just over a ridge, doing the same. I did my business, then turned to go back. Andy was stood right in front of me, ears steaming.
“What is wrong with you?”
I looked around. “I …”
“The constant disrespect from you is astounding.”
I didn’t know what to reply. I didn’t even know what I’d done.
“This river is the drinking water for HALF A FUCKING COUNTRY!” He was shaking. Purple. “You’re an embarrassment!”
I blinked. Stunned. The others, the four lads that had been singing, had done the same maybe 5 yards further from the bank. I looked at them, then stared, as they walked back to the group, but none met my eye.
“They … I was …”
“You represent our country out here, you know that?” He gestured to the porters. They’d stopped. Everyone had. “Look at these men, doing everything for you. Carrying your tent, cooking your meals. Now look at you. Disgrace,” he spat. “You’re going to apologise to every single one of them for poisoning their water with your filth.”
I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t help it. This was ridiculous. It’s not like I’d gone in the river. Just the ground nearby, and so fucking what? I’d have loved to know where he thought our waste went when we were on top of the mountain, or at the cabin next to the river source. There were no pipes here. Damn thing was probably half piss already.
He grabbed my arm. “You think I do this for no reason, don’t you?” he said in a low voice. “Look at me. You are the architect of all this, Sean. Only you. I’ve never, ever, met someone so oblivious to their own fuckups.” He breathed deep, snorting like a dragon. “You wander around, not considering how your actions affect you or anyone else, then you’re shocked when something bites you on the arse. You think I’m your problem? You’re your fucking problem. Christ.” He let go, throwing my arm down like it disgusted him to touch.
I looked back at him, feeling my eyes go hot and prickly. I clutched my arm where he’d grabbed it. He stared at me, searching my face for some remorse, or fear, or deference. I met his gaze. It took everything in me, right then, not to tell him I hoped his dad croaked before he made it back to see him.
I stayed still, not blinking. He snorted, then turned back to the group, all of whom hurriedly found something in their pack, or some blade of grass, that needed careful inspection.
After we crossed the bridge and split from the river, a short hill took us to a vast plateau with a sharp cliff edge on one side that curved into the distance. A wide dirt path followed its arc. A porter pointed to the horizon, where the path disappeared around a corner obscured by some hedges. There. That’s the camp. Just around the corner.
A quiet murmur built up among the group. Word went around that it was roughly 2 miles. Not that far, considering our day. Suddenly, most of the lads and some of the girls in the year above broke into a run. They were ungainly, their packs bouncing heavy on their backs, feet scraping on rocks in the dirt. But, still, they went. Charging toward a long-awaited rest, and the promise of a hot meal.
I thought about it. I poised, feeling that coil of energy that preludes a big step shoot down my legs. The hammer thumbed back. But I couldn’t make it strike. The thought of how their eyes would shift when they saw me alongside them. That hint of concern. Could he keep up? They didn’t know me. I told myself I would pass them soon enough anyway, in 50 yards when they were all keeled over. Idiots. This was the smart decision.
Night fell somewhere between then and when they disappeared around the corner. It couldn’t have been long. I stumbled along, dragging my feet. It was suddenly much harder without anyone to keep pace with. My legs felt like fire, like the growing pains you get when you’re a kid. Like a howl in the bone. There was a pain in my hip now too, sharper with every step.
There were 5 of us left walking. Me, Andy, and three of the slow ones. Some preppy girl who owned horses, another with asthma, and one very weedy guy with a Michael Cera moustache. The weak links. All three limped along, double-fisting walking poles, like crutches. I tried to speed up. Push myself away. This wasn’t where I belonged.
Despite the lack of sun, I was sweating overtime. The others had all taken their thermals off after breakfast, but I hadn’t wanted to deal with lacing my boots again. I’d been wearing mine all day. They were drenched, and itched like they were trying to crawl off me. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. I plodded on, guided by the speck of light my headtorch afforded me. Then that started to flicker too.
Andy looked resigned to it when I called him over. He walked a few paces ahead, angling his torch just slightly to the left to light a way for me. “Was it a good book?” he said at one point.
I hadn’t cried on the trip, but I felt close then. It was somehow worse when he stopped berating me. Just accepted it instead. We walked like that for what felt like a long time. I kept hearing him mumble Stones lyrics to himself.
“Andy,” I said eventually, surprised at my own voice. I sounded thick, snotty. “Am I the worst person you’ve ever led?”
He sighed. Somehow, I could hear his eyes close. It must have been a minute before he spoke again. “That would make you feel real special, wouldn’t it?”
He waited for a response, and when I didn’t give one, he quickened his pace and strode off ahead, leaving me alone in the dark.
I don’t know when it was that I finally made it to camp. Somehow, I wasn’t the last. Moustache trailed somewhere around a quarter mile back. I worked by a combination of moonlight and just not caring anymore whether I fell or not. My pack felt like lead, cutting thick welts into my shoulders.
I rounded the famed corner, and for a moment there was nothing but more black. Then out the corner of my eye, I caught a flickering on my right. Our campfire, obscured behind the outlines of a few tents. I cupped my hand to my eyes to see where Lawrence and I had been pitched. They were all just shadows, but one in particular looked more familiar than the rest.
I smelled mystery soup coming from the campfire, as had become the custom after we ran out of all the fresh stuff. It wasn’t much, but right then it smelled like heaven. It seemed the rest had tucked in already, too hungry to wait. They were singing again. Craning my head, I caught a glimpse of Andy, hunkered in his usual squat, grinning and raising his head to bellow at the night sky. Whatever song it was, I didn’t know the words. There was some weird sound under it too, like a ringing. Was someone playing an instrument?
My stomach rumbled. I needed to get my pack down first. Sort my sleeping bag, find my bowl. I took one step toward my tent, and smashed my face straight into the dirt.
My knee exploded with pain. I’d hit something hard. I rolled on my side, hawking up a wad of soil and dribbling gritty brown spit. I looked around. Something had tripped me. Something taut. There’d been a ripping sound.
I felt in a circle with my hands, fingers brushing earth, then fabric. A tent. And before I even saw, I knew. This was Andy’s tent. I could just make out a jagged gash running the whole length of a seam, top to bottom. A guy line hung limply from the fabric around the tear. I followed the now-slack string, but I knew what I would find. It had been weighed down with a rock.
I looked back. The gap was cavernous. The whole structure sagged. Panicking, I grabbed both sides of the tear with my hands to … I don’t know. Fold them somehow? Stick them with my spit? I squeezed the fabric tight, in a bunch, until it cut lines into my hands. My palms were slick with sweat. My knee screamed.
I let go, slumping to the ground. I was dead. I was deader than dead. He would know this was me. No question. He wouldn’t even need to ask. I stared at the hole. I could see right into his tent. The dim outline of his sleeping bag, a little blow-up pillow ready near the top. A pair of screwed-up, dirty socks. His pack, half-empty, the contents torn out, discarded as he raced for his eating utensils. Then, in the pile, something light and flashing. Ringing.
It was the satellite phone.
Stood on its end, brick-like and grey, with a short antenna pointing to the sky. The display flashed a dim orange. And in black lettering. CALL INCOMING. It hadn’t rung since …
I rose again, craning to see the fire. They were still singing. All of them. They hadn’t heard anything. Hadn’t seen me fall. Some had linked arms, bellowing. Laughing. Andy was clapping Ed on the back, swaying side to side.
Slowly, I lowered myself back down. Then I reached into the hole where the tent sagged, and pulled out the phone, still flashing. I held it in my hands. My fingers hovering over the buttons. Ringing. Ringing.
I flipped it over. There was a panel on the back.
Keeping low, I got up and walked away from the camp, away from where anyone could see. When I was far enough out, I went to my hands and knees. I felt the grit of the earth cover my palms. There was no snow this far down the mountain, but I was sure I could make do.
Simon Flower was born in 1995 in Lincoln. A mathematics graduate in a former life, he now studies an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham. He writes short stories and is currently working on his first novel.