You always return. You have trained me to wait for you like a dog by the front door. Chewing your shoes and your coffee table when you’re gone for too long.

You’ve starved me before, for months; and I wagged my tail so gleefully when you walked in as if you’d just popped to the store. I was just skin and bones.

Yet again, locked in, so thirsty.. I’m listening for the creaks outside and staring at the walls. But I have so much faith in your return.

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Set

I sit, staring at the horizon, counting the waves and the flickers of light from another sunset. I gather my limbs and wrap them around me to embrace the approaching night. They walk past; children, couples and dogs, dare not look at the body turning to beach, but stare out to the same sea. Their eyes are not searching; they see the sun and the coast; they don’t count the waves.

A few nights ago, when my lips crumbled, I had resolved to leave. But I saw a hand out there by the ships; or was it a bird.. then I noticed the seagulls flying off with my feet and I resolved to stay.

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There’s a beach near St Ives where we sat one clear night in September. You won’t remember it, but you were there, leaning on a rock too close to the waves and the water filled your trainers and I laughed, alone..

There’s a bar in Naples near the gulf, where we sat drinking Merlot one rainy afternoon. You won’t remember it, but you were there, the wine left crimson marks on the corners of your lips and I laughed, alone..

There’s a lake in Annecy where we hired a boat and wandered. You won’t remember it, but you were there, it started to rain and the water dripped from your curls and I laughed, alone..

I’m still chosing the place to let go of your ghost..

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Earliest heartbreaks

I’m six years old, it’s July and I’m playing in my grandmother’s back garden with the newly-hatched baby ducks. She’s shouting after my brother to be careful and not step on the little things as he runs.

I don’t run. I sit on the broken stone slabs and watch them; I give them names, figure out their personalities. There are six, yellow and black; The larger one has pale feathers and is bossy, she doesn’t get a name. The smallest one is mostly black; she gets left behind all the time and trips over the bits of stone on the dusty path trying to catch up. She’s called Jackie.

My mother shows up from around the house wearing her red sleeveless shirt and the jeans she’d cut into shorts earlier. I’m holding Jackie in my hands and she wants to take a photo. I stand, tilt my head to one side and slowly bring my hands near my face. I look at her little beak, her moist black eyes and I see her. She’s fragile, she’s strong – she’s Jackie. The camera clicks and mum walks away absently.

I spend the rest of the day taking Jackie on adventures. She goes in the vegetable garden where the ducks aren’t allowed to go and gets to walk on the scarce patches of grass under the trees and eat bits of lettuce and cucumber. She sleeps in my lap on the street bench by the gate, while I watch the older kids play hide and seek.

It’s early evening. Jackie and the ducks are back in their little enclosure and we all sit outside eating cold soup made with green beans and lemon. Mum smokes, grandpa sits quietly, his head bowed over the metal bowl while grandma tells him off for yet another thing he forgot to do.

I eat quickly and think about her, decide where we’d go before it gets dark. I finish, I stand up, take the five steps to the duck enclosure, open the gate in a hurry. I look for her on the other side, not near. I step over the little fence and inside. But the earth is soft, it squeaks, it crushes. It moves so slightly under my shoe and goes limp, flat, lifeless.

I know. I don’t breathe, I don’t look. Oh dear god, please, don’t let it be Jackie. I lift my foot slowly and stare at the still black feathers and the stretched out neck. Her beak is crooked, her eyes open and moist. I die.

My limbs gather themselves, my arms squeeze around my knees; an enormous lump fills my throat and my chest, my muscles tense, my eyes widen, my ears ring. The wail finally escapes, it rings through the garden like an air raid siren. They rush and stare, someone comforts me, someone laughs. The duck is picked up by her tail and held high for all to see. ‘Third one this week’ my grandma says casually while my mother insists that I must stop crying. I must!

They take her. But where? I can’t speak. I must dig a grave, make a cross like my father did for the little bee we found in the water pail last year. I have to speak. I can’t speak. My swollen eyes follow my grandma, she goes to the side garden towards the latrine; she walks fast, I can’t stop her. I close my eyes, squeeze them, bury my head between my knees.

‘Come on silly; she says walking back empty handed, ‘it’s nothing, forget about it!’

She’s gone.

It’s evening. I’m curled up around a pillow in the cool room, crying softly. My face itches, my head and my muscles hurt. Mum walks in and she’s strange, her face twitches and she stutters, can’t bare to watch me in pain, can’t figure out what to say, how to stop it. I sit up and look at her ‘Maybe she’s in heaven’ I whisper between hiccups, and smile. ‘I’m sure she went to god and she’s happy..’

‘I’ll be okay, mum, really!’

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Heartbeat

And there, on the edge of the high hotel bed – holding your head against my chest, curling your hair around my fingers – my heart learned a new rhythm. It’s a strange beat, uneven and convulsive. It shoves the blood to my head and halts the air in my lungs, numbs my fingers.

When I remember the look in your eyes or the reflections, the damned thing beats as if it wants to come out. It rings in my ears and shakes in my limbs, turns me stupid. I stand and I stare; I wait for the madness to ease, but lately it seems to grow longer.

I wish I could restore the old rhythm, but it’s lost. I left it at the door when I couldn’t knock. I left it on the bathroom sink when I sprayed your perfume on my arm and it burned; it still burns…

That night – our last – I cried in the shower, watching you wash off my burning skin, not knowing that you had crawled under it. I can still smell the perfume in the same place, where the skin is now peeling.

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