Inspiring Women and a Wider World

Inspiring Women and a Wider World
Today I am honoured to attend the @Chwarae Teg #Womenspire18 awards, as a finalist in the Leadership category. It has surprised me and made me feel so proud to be recognised in this way by an organisation whose work I so strongly admire and respect. All of my life I have had dreams and desires – to be a novelist (tick), to be a midwife (tick), to be an academic (tick). Somehow, I have found the drive and energy needed to achieve a lot. But most of all, I wanted to become the kind of woman I always admired, to be like the women who inspired me. Can it be that I have achieved that too? It seems hard to believe, but if I take the advice that I give my students, colleagues and loved ones, I must own my own achievements and celebrate my values and abilities, and I am inspired to write this blog post not because I want to grow my ego any further, but because I want to share what it means to be inspired by women, and to inspire others.
A couple of weeks ago, facilitating a class with my amazing, hard-working and inspirational students on the HE Cert in Maternity Care, I talked about the women who inspired me. One of these was Caroline Squire, who was a lecturer when I was a student midwife, and whose passionate feminism made her an instant role model for me. She called us all ‘colleagues’ and refused to play into the hierarchy that is so often found, both in healthcare practice and in academia. She was (and is) a social critic, an advocate for women’s equality and women’s empowerment in childbearing and in midwifery, and it was she who planted the idea of becoming an academic firmly in my mind. I wanted to be like her. She understood the systems within which women work and become mothers, and she inspired us all to commit to true values of empowerment and activism. A few years later, after my first (failed) attempt at a PhD, where the biggest obstacle in my way, sadly, was that very same system, she contacted me and asked me to contribute to an academic book, The Social Context of Birth, now in its third edition. I was delighted (and terrified) and have continued to contribute my critical insight and, most recently, my research, to this book. Caroline was a fantastic editor and guide through the publishing process and the book remains the best text on understanding the social forces affecting birthing.
As I spoke with the class, as usual, I let my passion and my feelings spill out into my words, and made them visible and palpable. I have always believed that if I bring my authentic self to my work, sooner or later this will make a difference to somebody. And one of the students said, as I finished my explanation, “but Alys, that is what you are to us.” I was speechless for a moment, and overwhelmed. And frankly, overjoyed. I felt that, of all my achievements, this was the pinnacle.
To find out that I inspire others is amazing, especially when it is something I am driven to do because of my desire to give every woman the chance to become what they want to become. I conceived of and started the HE Certificate in Maternity Care at Swansea University to provide an entry into the specialist knowledge of maternity care and reproduction for anyone. There are no entry criteria, and the programme has gone from strength to strength. We started with just 16 students, and this year, we are offering 60 places. The programme is now led by another inspirational colleague, Nicky Court, who has taken her leadership to new heights. The programme will be now offered on two sites – Carmarthen and Swansea – and from this September, those who complete the programme will have the option of stepping onto the second year of the BSc in Health and Social Care. Many more people will now access not only greater knowledge about women, families, pregnancy, birth and parenthood, but will be able to enjoy and be empowered by a University education.
Also a few short weeks ago, I saw a student putting a book into her bag, and realised it was my novel, Inshallah, published by Honno Press ( Shyly, I exclaimed at the fact that she was reading my book, and was delighted that she was enjoying it. This leads me on to more inspirational women who have affected my life. My PhD Supervisors, Tiffany Atkinson and Louise Holmwood-Marshall at Aberystwyth University both recognised my drive and my ideas and gave me both roots and wings. They grounded me in the research and writing process, and enabled me to write what would become my first novel. This was such a powerful and challenging time in my life. I was working full time, first at University of the West of England, and then at Swansea, and also working part time at the Open University to pay for my PhD fees, whilst also bringing up a child in an uncertain financial climate.
Completing the PhD was a great achievement. Then I submitted the novel to Honno Press, and Caroline Oakley, Editor, changed my life. Direct, to-the-point and thoroughly inspirational, she told me exactly what was wrong with my work and what needed to happen. It was as if cogs and wheels in my brain began to turn for the first time, and suddenly I understood novels more than ever. A year later I was delighted to accept a publishing contract. Since then, Caroline and her team at Honno have continued to support, inspire, guide and drive me. My second novel, Ash, will be published this year. To me, the most powerful part of being published – which is my longest-held life ambition – is that I am published by an amazing, feminist independent press, and get to be in the company of other vital, creative and radical women writers. Ever since I first encountered Honno I knew I wanted to be published by them and now, I get to inspire others by sharing my words and changing the world just a tiny bit.
Three years ago, I stumbled across a call for papers for an edited collection by another feminist press., led by Andrea O’Reilly, who publish inspirational and radically diverse texts on motherhood and mothering, fathering, sexuality….. Having contributed to several volumes edited by amazing colleagues, I found myself with a book proposal accepted, and was lucky enough to find a Canadian Co-Editor, Jen Rinaldi, to help me bring together the work of powerful writers and artists in the book ‘Bearing the Weight of the World: Exploring Maternal Embodiment’ which will be published by Demeter Press later this year. Again, what a pleasure to be published by and with activists and critical thinkers who are rewriting the landscape of knowledge to promote better insight and equality! It seems like a dream, now, to be part of such work.
Some years ago I also had the opportunity to work with the amazing team at the Practising Midwife Journal –– and to curate the Research Series for the Journal. This has exposed me to a much wider field of activists in the arena of women’s health and also led to a blog opportunity with the Cochrane Collaboration. The world has opened up wider and wider for me as the work I do leads me to realise just how many inspirational people there are out there, paving the way.
There are hundreds of other women and people of all genders who inspire me. There was the midwife who held the space for me and grounded me when I had my first child, who made me want to be a midwife. There are the writers and artists and speakers who have opened my mind and heart, such as Maya Angelou, Margaret Attwood, Scarlett Thomas, Sarah Waters, Anne McCaffrey, Ina May Gaskin, Jenny Hall, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, Starhawk, Katherine V Forrest, Val McDermid, Barbara Erskine, Joanne Harris, Manda Scott, Susan Hill, Emma Donoghue, A.S Byatt, Alice Hoffman, Julie Felix, Sheila Kitzinger, Sheena Byrom, Hannah Dahlen, Frank Duffy, Carolyn Hillyer … the list goes on and on.
Then there are the women and men I work with, inspirational leaders themselves – Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott, Chantal Patel, Sarah Norris, Susanne Darra, Cath Elms, Professor Martin Stringer… and all of my colleagues, dedicated and driven to be the best they can be. There are organisations, such as Stonewall, whose work inspires me to keep on keeping on. Then there are my friends and family, trailblazers in their own ways – my wonderful, amazing sister, Carole Ann Mortimer, who works to support women in direst need and helps them to recover from the impact of domestic abuse, my son, Aran Henley-Einion, who is a gifted musician and unequivocally his own person, my dear friends Linda Reagan and Maeve Reagan, Jay McNeill, Lee Gale, and many, many others, friends of all genders who advocate for gender equality in every dimension, and who live their convictions so powerfully.
These are the people who inspire me. These and so many, many others have changed my life for the better. There are the hundreds and thousands of authors and activists, there are the students whose lives I am lucky enough to touch, just briefly, there are the clients in my hypnobirthing classes who inspire me to continue advocating for women’s rights, there are the colleagues in the Staff LGBT+ network and the people on campus who might feel that their individuality is not only recognised, but celebrated at Swansea University, an employer which not only allows me to be myself, but rewards me for my diversity and my uniqueness. It is no surprise to me that Swansea University is a finalist for the Employer Award at tonight’s Womenspire awards.
If I can make a difference, just a small difference, in this great, wide world, then I will have achieved everything I set out to do. If I can give one other person new insight, new knowledge, or a signpost to their own inner strength, then I have accomplished more than I ever could have imagined.
All my life, people have said to me, ‘you will never’. You will never get a degree, never get married, never be successful or have a good job. To all of the nay-sayers, I only have this to say.
Watch me.
The Wider World Awaits.
Good luck to all the finalists at the Awards tonight.

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The Reawakening

Being a writer is about so much more than simply putting words on paper in the right order. After a year of turbulence, and three years of near-hibernation, during which I have retreated into a range of forms of escape, I can honestly say that the tide has turned and the writer in me is awake.

Last month I finished and submitted the final draft of my next novel, Ash, which is to be published by Honno Press this year. It was a challenge, as it meant taking the stories of my much-beloved characters in Inshallah in new directions and looking deeply into more of the ways in which women’s lives are played out in this imperfect world. This meant more research into difficult areas, and more soul-searching about the ways in which I engage with the issues I wanted to explore. It seems that a writer is more than a wordsmith. She is a commentator on culture, on experience, on society, and I became more aware of this as I took the deep journey into a new underworld, a new landscape that was paradoxically and achingly familiar.

To awake to oneself is a powerful process, and is often painful. It was only as I finished Ash, that I realised that Amanda, the main character in Inshallah, was simply telling the story of her own awakening, and sharing the symbolism of her own becoming. And through this I was able to see that we are all, as women, on a similar journey, one which challenges us to awake from the sleep of complacency, and to shrug off the anodyne effects of quick-fixes in our lives. There are multiple routes of escape available to us, and it seems to me there is no shame in taking time to switch off, but a writer needs to be awake, to be conscious, to be aware of the impact of what she writes and to understand why she is writing it.

This has become more pertinent to me over the last two months, as I have been notified that I am a finalist for the Chwarae Teg Leadership award (  an incredible honour and a complete surprise. I have become suddenly and powerfully conscious of the impact and influence I must have in the lives of others, and fully aware of the responsibility of having such an influence. I have always loved hearing feedback from my readers, always felt honoured and humbled if my work affects them, engages them, or uplifts them. It is a part of everything else that I do, working with incredible women on various stages of their own life-journeys. But writing, creating, is a solitary and often isolating experience, and to bring your work out into the world means letting go of what you believe the story to be, and setting it free to exist independently in the minds and lives of the readers. I can only hope, as I experience my own reawakening to self, to the writer I am, which, as is the case for many women, is just one fragment of the whole self, that I can continue to create and to share my work in ways that bring some new awareness into the lives of others.

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The Year of the Woman

We surround ourselves with the objects, the symbols that represent the life we want. We privileged women, who work hard but do not always have to fear for the next meal or walk miles for clean water, we women who pursue our dreams and goals in our various ways, we have dressed our lives the way we dress a room, the way we dress ourselves. We note the symbols of the status, the identity we have chosen for ourselves, and we acquire those in order to acquire the identity they represent. We study, assimilating one set of codes which suggests a particular aspect of social identity, and follow that with an occupational trajectory that is too often delimited by social codes. The main features of our lives, however, are performed, they are displayed, demonstrated – how can we be successful if others do not witness and validate our success? I have watched women from all walks of life and their intersection with the world, with each other, and I have to conclude that we are all warriors, perhaps without knowing it, working towards some invisible summit of life. And I have to conclude, here in my 48th year, in 2018, the year of the woman as ‘they’ are already calling it, that it has always been women who have inspired me the most, women who have demonstrated true strength, integrity, love, vision, determination, capability. There are some men also, and some people of varying gender identity who also inspire me, but in this age of the shedding of many of the labels that have both defined and divided us, I believe it is more important than ever to celebrate and yes, to defend, my identity as a woman.
So this year, I am writing this blog about the people who have inspired me, and in particular, the women whose voices, words, actions and lives have pushed me to a better understanding of the true value of my own life, of my own achievements and accomplishments. These accomplishments are a manifestation of my strength, a sign and a beacon for others to use to guide them in their self-quest of becoming, of being, of freedom. I am no more or less special than any of you, just woman who has survived, has learned to thrive, has come to a day of sunlight and self-love knowing that this is it.
There is only today. Only today to do the things that we love, the things that matter to us. Only today to read the books, travel, meet with people, take chances and speak our truth. Only today to be the women we were meant to be, say the things we always wanted to say. Maybe no one is listening, maybe no one cares. It doesn’t matter. I am listening. I care. It matters enough to me to write these words down, to share them, to send them out into the cybersphere for anyone to find, maybe now, maybe some time in the unknown future. But these are for today. Today I get up and I live, savouring all that has brought me to this point, all that I am and all that I can do.

Today is all that matters. The rest is still unwritten.



Today is all that matters. The rest is still unwritten.

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2016 = Losing and Gaining

This has been a difficult year, particularly for those of us who keep watching our icons depart this earth. It reminds us of time passing. We lose people, days, weeks, months, we wonder at the years passing and how can it be that we are that old already? We feel the bite of time’s cold grip, and fight to resist the forces of ageing that remind us that yes,  Bowie was already famous when we were born, and yes, maybe we haven’t achieved everything we thought we would.

What have I lost this year?

Mostly, illusions. This has been a year where I finally understood that the stories I have been telling myself are time-limited, and I simply don’t have any time left.

I’ve lost any illusion I had about the world being a place where justice, good sense and common decency will prevail, as I watch two political systems sink under the weight of ignorance, arrogance and capitalist supremacy.

I have completed my contract as an external examiner for a great institution.

I have lost a few people too, not irrevocably, but as part of the inevitable attrition of life moving on.

I’ve almost lost a part of my body (surgery pending….)


What have I gained?

A realisation that life is way too precious to waste a minute.

Why do we waste time on things that don’t matter, and yearn for more time to do the things that really do matter?

A renewed love of writing. I have published so many academic things this year, and found that I love what I do. But I still love to write fiction, and I have completed two novels this year (just squeezing the second one in the last few days of 2016). I completed my midwifery memoir which leaves me feeling both excited and terrified.

I have gained a closer relationship with my sister and niece, who have become my upstairs neighbours.

I have gained a new insight into the rare and precious gift that is womanhood, motherhood and midwifery, and I am more determined than ever that every woman should have the chance to know and understand her body and the forces that act on it throughout her lifetime.

And I’ve both lost and gained my confidence.

The most important thing I have lost?

The need for approval or acceptance from anyone else.

And what have I gained?

Peace of mind.

So that’s how I start 2017….. peacefully. Renewed. Determined. Ready for the next chapter.



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When I am free

I can hardly believe how many months have passed since I last posted. Post-Brexit, post political disaster cum standing joke, and post chaos of teaching. Yes, it’s been an eventful few months. I have been too busy writing to write, it seems.

There is an elusive state I have been chasing for some time, that point in my life when I am free. Free to write, free to think, to imagine, to dream. Free to sit in the garden and dream, breathing in the summer air. Free to rise in the morning and follow my mind’s path through the day, unfettered by the constraints of the home or the demands of work. Free to simply be.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy my day job. I love it. I love the buzz of busy times, the energy of teaching, the feedback from students. I love the challenge of the workload, the planning, the juggling of priorities. I love taxing my brain with new challenges, such as managing a programme, fostering the development of students, supporting colleagues, and writing academic work. This spring and summer I have completed another five chapters for edited collections, and have continued publishing in The Practising Midwife. I have been studying complementary therapies, an amazing course for midwives, and discovering how difficult it is being a student again.

But I have been waiting and wondering when that elusive day will come, the day that I am free to write. Book number two has been hovering in the background for far too long, a weighty, waiting pressure that builds the more time passes. A recent editorial meeting did not help with that pressure, as I realised just how much work was needed to turn the story into a book. More writing, more editing, that skilled crafting of plot and character, building pace and depth. There never seems enough time to do it all.

When I am free, I keep thinking, I will do this. When I am free, I will do that. But the fact is, the day will never come when I am more free than I am today.

Let me describe my current situation. My garden is overgrown, although a couple of days of blessed sunshine at least has allowed me to mow the lawns. My beautiful flat is a mess, and if these walls could talk, the would be begging for some cleaning spray and a jay cloth. Spiders have taken over almost every possible corner. Something unnameable is growing on the bathroom rug. Clothes, which until a few days ago were simply piled on every surface in the bedroom, have been hung up unironed. My desk is piled with the detritus of end of course thank you gifts, notebooks, magazines and bits and bobs from the garden as it is the first surface available when I walk through the garden door. My bed is unmade. The floors need sweeping and vacuuming. I can’t remember the last time I dusted.

But in front of me is a folder, with some yellow pads inside, and a printout of the novel. The last two days I have been writing. Reading, yes, watching the odd film, washing up  and cooking, but, most importantly, writing. I hit the wall, initially. I was looking at a load of notes and panicking.  Then it came to me. Every day starts with a decision. We decide what to do first, and what to do next. And that means, regardless of the other demands on my time, it is okay, sometimes, to just write.

Everything starts with the first step.

And then another, and then another.

I’m going to need a new yellow pad soon, I’ve managed to write so much, and yes, there is more to do, but I can see my way over the wall now. It’s all about priorities, about making writing as important as everything else in life.

I know where I am going and there is no one to see or care if I am surrounded by mess, or if I haven’t done the dishes, or polished the cat. It will all get sorted eventually.

When I am free.



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Words, Tea and Synchronicity

It’s Saturday, a day which conjures up rest, relaxation, and for many people, socialising. Finding my plans for the evening scuppered, my first thought is housework (overdue hovering, a desk that needs tidying, etc). But my second thought, as always, is writing. This is the story of a writer, on a Saturday night, suddenly cast adrift again with the luxury of time and space and inspiration, who finds a strange kind of synchronicity in her work. It’s one of those times when, despite the insistent mundanity of the everyday, the siren call of the woman’s lot, ghost voices of mother, sisters and past lovers saying that a real woman has a clean home, and only a slattern would leave the hovering and the dust and take up writing, despite all of that, this woman sits down to write. Sun and crisp evening air spilling in through the open door to the garden, light on the crumbs and dirt on the rug. Shadows shift to show the clumped cat hair in the dark corner, the disordered cushions, the tea-stained mug bearing mute witness to the passing of the day. And there, here in fact, on the worn, dusty-rose-pink chaise longue with its multi-coloured throws, a woman writes. The emptiness of sudden free time is filled immediately with waiting words. Did I say waiting? Yes, they have been waiting, words formed up into orderly queues pushing at the doors of the mind, desperate to rush through. Words crowded around like shoppers who have camped out overnight for the early sales, eager and frantic. Slower words, hesitant and deliberate, plodding along with the certainty that at some point they will, inevitably, reach their destination and become real, like the puppet in the story.

Bland words, blanched words, pale like plants kept alive without sunlight, the ignored words of too many weeks and months and years. This is the writer’s lot, I think, the reordering of not enough time to write, so that these words wait in the wings and like albino spiders, become transparent and elongated in abysmal caves of the mind. Some words are sanctioned and given life, the words demanded by paid word, while others must languish until that elusive moment of ‘free time’ allows them space and egress.  And then, suddenly, the cross-over between selves, strange synchronicity, a place between words, where the creative (in this case, a novel exploring relationships between women, and in particular, the manifestations of control) and the academic (a chapter on lesbian fusion in relationships for an edited collection on women’s relationships) makes me realise that life is about synchronicity. Stories are about synchronicity. The research I do for the chapter inspires my understanding and makes the novel’s words flow; reflecting on the personal and engaging the imagination allows a more seductive shaping of the academic work. A life lived simultaneously in multiple dimensions must engender synchronicity, or else there is only chaos.

But where is the story, you say? Where are the plot, the characters, the obstacles and the inevitable resolution? It’s all there, I answer. All there to be seen. The plot comes from me, the author, and the million and one women’s lives before and after and happening now, from the Vindication of the Rights of Women to A Room of One’s own, all those words that waited in the wings and were never heard, or seen, or talked about. All those women whose stories were never read. And the women whose stories were read. And the ones like me who, despite every convenience of the modern world, find themselves alone on a Saturday night contemplating the housework because that is what women do, when I should be walking the beach, notebook in hand, uncaring, making the words, and only the words, my highest priority, because they have and always will be my first love. Instead, there are these words, and the tea-stained cup, and the two projects sitting hand in hand like twins separated at birth who turn to each other and smile, saying, I know you. A woman who writes is her truest self when she acknowledges where the words come from.

Words, tea, synchronicity. Me.


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A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

The flickering, impossibly bright Christmas lights hung chaotically on the small, artificial tree perched on the table in the corner. Anthea acknowledged its ineffable cheerfulness as she took her first cup of tea to the love seat under the window, to sit watching the grey dawn shift almost imperceptibly into day.

The radio, her constant companion, played Christmas hymns, chiming bells, and old classics from her childhood. She smiled a little, at the songs about family and love and desire. Christmas stockings and presents and family. All the things from the past. A sprig of fresh holly arched over the Christmas ornaments on the mantel – the misshapen snowman her son had made, decades ago now, and the battered old Christmas train that had emerged, year after year, to take pride of place. It was showing its age now.

As was she. She didn’t feel as old as she was, but time ticked and the year turned, and even the floods and rain of global warming, the unseasonably high temperatures the weather announcers talked about, even these did not ease the cold in her bones. She was not afraid of her age. Every day was a gift. Anthea feared only the loss of her memories. They were all she had left. Of course, there were some memories best left behind. She would erase those if she could. And yet, even those, as dark and tormented as they were, gave some comfort.

Christmas. Jolly voices and still the silliness of buying, buying , buying, the rush to fill the house with everything, for just one day. Anthea’s Christmas now featured a small Christmas pudding made to an old recipe, half a dozen mince pies, and her favourite roasted vegetables which would be more than enough for one day. That, and the text from Will. He would text, he always did, a long text, rambling, as if he had just remembered he had a mother and she might want some news of him. Forgetful, careless maybe, but he had a life and she had never wanted him to feel obligated. He would have sent a card, he always did, but it would arrive late, sometime in January, battered and damp in the ever-present rain, bearing postmarks and stamps from distant lands. Knowing this, she put last year’s card up on her mantel, next to the card from her neighbour Clay, who, like her, spent Christmas alone. Clay never said what had happened to his family, but there were too many of them, forgotten, the wrong side of fifty, traversing the rocky slopes of solitary middle age towards the beckoning finger of ‘old.’

She was not sad. She had her memories. The oldest ones, taken out and dusted off like the old ornaments, were faded, mere snapshots of childhood. The smell of tinsel, the remembrance of opening a special gift, the namesake doll she had loved until all its hair fell out. Teenage years, yes, she remembered that cusp between child and adult, and the longing to retain the security of those Christmas rituals whilst yearning for a new way of being, of being seen. Then her first marriage, and Will as a baby. All those firsts. First Christmas, first photo with Santa. First affair, first divorce. First attempt at internet dating. Being swept off her feet, and thinking she knew what love was.

Anthea smiled at the tree. Its bent wire branches were a little bedraggled now, but it was an old friend. And beneath it sat her yearly gift to herself, the stack of books wrapped in assorted Christmas paper, saved from the previous year, and the year before that, her gifts to herself. The only things she had ever wanted for Christmas. There had been that year… oh, she shouldn’t revisit it. The damp garden beyond the glass showed storm tossed trees, and her mind projected the images. All the not-so-happy Christmases. The shredded wrapping paper and the screaming, the gifts thrust back at her in disgust. The pressure to perform, all those days of shopping and cooking, preparing, cleaning the house, dressing the tree, buying the right presents, wrapping them just right. Standing dutifully whilst guests arrived, taking coats, providing drinks, snacks, more drinks, changing the music, smiling dutifully, laughing in all the right places. Years and years of it, dressing the table, presenting the perfectly browned turkey, cooking the sprouts the way she was supposed to. And waiting for the words to fall like blows when no one else could hear.

The perfect family Christmas, bookended by expectations and abuse, criticism and censure. The shining epitome of the constant abuse. Smiling and giving effusive thanks for the gifts she did not want. What had started out as a love affair had segued into a series of disappointments, culminating in the penultimate Christmas morning, when she had woken to find the large box with her name on it contained a new hoover. How she had hidden her tears that day she never knew. The fact that Will was there, aged 13, still loving the excitement and delighting in the rising drifts of discarded wrapping paper, had helped her to keep the smile in place. That and knowing what would happen later if she did not.

Happy Christmas.

Yes, it had taken her a year, but it had been worth the wait. Another year of being told she was not good enough, not cheerful enough, not sexy enough, that the housework came before her work, that her career didn’t mean anything, really, that her friends were no good for her, that her memories were wrong, and it had been her own fault that her parents were estranged from her, that her previous relationship had ended. No wonder her ex-husband had had an affair. Smell of well-stuffed Turkey and the stack of presents smaller, Will gone to his father’s that year, after months of negotiations and relationship building, dispatched with love and a sack of gifts and reassurances that she would be fine, just once, without him.

Funny how, now, she missed that concern most. He had been such a caring, loving boy, a considerate young man. But she wondered if that had been compensation for the emotional wasteland of her marriage, if he had known, consciously on sub-consciously, that his was the only light of love and affection in her life.

Anthea finished her tea, looking with satisfaction around the room, revelling in the bookcases and the many ornaments from her travels around the world, the photographs of herself and Will, the mismatched furniture and the colourful throws and cushions. It was unrecognisable as the room she had inhabited all those years ago, with its constantly replaced carpets and curtains, the matched furniture, the ornaments chosen to fit in with a style or colour scheme. This space was organic, growing with time and memory, a testament to a life lived in freedom of self and of expression, a comfortably messy homeliness. No sign now of the torment of years.

No sign except the holly tree at the edge of the lawn, planted that last Christmas, the last Christmas before she had discovered just how much pleasure there was in being alone at this time of year. That tree…. She had bought it especially, part of her gardening duties. She remembered the barbed comments about how long it had taken her to get the garden in shape, finally put some effort it. As if keeping house, managing a career, and raising a child, were nothing if she did not also maintain a beautiful garden.

It had taken her days to get the hole deep enough. It was cold and wet, as usual, and the earth was sodden. There had been roots, and stones, and at one point, the bones of someone’s cat, which she had laid back into the hole gently when she was done. She remembered the sheer physical effort of it all, how she had gloried in the ache of her muscles and the strength in her arms, relished every blister on her hands.

What was it she had been told that year? You won’t be getting any books for Christmas. No good can come of so much reading.

Anthea smiled. All that was good in her life had come from books. Books were the constant friends she had never found in people, the love that she had been denied. Books asked nothing more than a little time and attention, and gave so much back. Feelings, information, dreams and inspiration. Comfort. It was more than enough. Books were the instruction manuals for living a hundred lives. Or just one life. This life.

No more familiar rituals, not after that year. Oh, she had cooked the veggies and all the trimmings, but after that year, she couldn’t bear the smell of turkey roasting. Instead, she had baked a salmon, or roasted beef, or boiled a ham. Will hadn’t minded. Sweet, sunny Will, all he had wanted were his presents and her presence. The absence of the darkness had made their time together so much sweeter. Good memories.

Good memories.

She remembered rising early, that last time, to prepare the bird. How she had stuffed the herbs under the skin, lots and lots of thyme and rosemary, parsley and sage, to hide the taste and smell of the other herbs, the ones she had grown in secret, harvested, dried and kept for this day, this Christmas day, the day she had planned for so long. The first year there were no guests for lunch, the in-laws and the cousins having taken a trip to Florida to escape the greyness and the rain. Just the two of them, and the perfectly green sprouts, and that turkey, the smell permeating the very walls with its fleshiness, is herbal earthiness. Flesh and blood and bone and those powerful green leaves, ground and mixed into the stuffing too, and infused in the gravy. Taking no chances. There was no room for error. Of course, Anthea had been alone with all the preparations, as always. The kitchen was her domain. She was the wife in this relationship, that was her role. How she had smiled then, all fear passed in the face of the act. It had been so simple, really, in the end. Though she had taken the precaution of burying the turkey under the holly tree, deep at the bottom of the hole, covered by the bones of the cat and the sodden earth and the displaced stone. She had flushed the gravy and the stuffing down the loo. The almost clinical cleanliness of her kitchen had been no cause for concern, as family and friends had attested. It was always spotless.

And no one had known. She had read widely, done her research well. Amazing what you can find in old books, isn’t it, including the perfect poison, the one that is metabolised so fully it can’t be found in a post-mortem? You wouldn’t find it on the internet either. Just in an obscure old book bought in a second hand shop, dustily occupying its shelf space with no indication of its contents. And there were so many books, so many shelves, even if someone were to grow suspicious, it would take years to trawl through every book for a clue to how she had done it.

She remembered the table, with the festive table cloth, the new red and gold cloth napkins, the best crystal glasses. Red candles flickering. The pop of the champagne cork, the fizz of the bubbles in her nose. She remembered the toast, to another year together, to happiness, and the crackers with their disappointing contents. Silly hats and terrible jokes, and her painted-on smile. She remembered how well the turkey had carved, juicy and succulent. How beautiful the plates had looked, the bright colour of the cranberry relish, the neat pool of gravy, the golden roast potatoes. She remembered how she had nibbled carefully on a potato not touched by gravy or turkey or stuffing, whilst watching first one plateful, then a second, disappear into that mouth, that cruel mouth, those lips, the lips that had kissed her so skilfully, seduced her so surely, wooed her and lied to her and turned vicious, in the end. How the first spasm hit shortly after brought the mince pies into the living room, and refreshed the large glass of wine. She had not expected it to be so painful. Or drawn out. It had taken about 40 minutes, in the end, and she had had to turn up the TV to mask the sounds. Ample time to clean up and dispose of the evidence, scour the kitchen thoroughly, and check that the bowl of ‘leftovers’ she had prepared was pride of place in the fridge. She had washed the pots three times. She had even put her clothes and apron into the washing machine, showered, and washed her hair. Reapplied her makeup. The groans had subsided by then, which meant she could replace the phones in their brackets, put the mobiles on the coffee table, and the other gadgets could be distributed around the house, artfully. As if they have never been removed.

It had been dark when she had finally called the ambulance, concerned that the slumped figure on the sofa could not be roused from their after dinner nap. Shock, they said, when she fainted at the news that ‘they had done all they could.’ It was easier than faking any other reaction. There had been the post mortem, the funeral, the sympathy and the grief. Yes, it was tragic. No, she couldn’t quite believe it. Yes, Christmas would never be the same again.

Silent night, a choir singing, painfully poignant. Anthea smiled. Picked up her festive glass of port, left out last night for Santa, and eyed the first mince pie with anticipation. Merry Christmas love, she raised her glass to the holly tree bending in the wind, its green leaves edged with vicious spikes.

And may you rot in hell.


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