In a split second, Jenna Gray's world descends into a nightmare. Her only hope of moving on is to walk away from everything she knows to start afresh. Desperate to escape, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of a cruel November night that changed her life forever.
Slowly, Jenna begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her, and the consequences will be devastating...
When I wake, for a second I’m not sure what this feeling is. Everything is the same, and yet everything has changed. Then, before I have even opened my eyes, there is a rush of noise in my head, like an underground train. And there it is: playing out in Technicolor scenes I can’t pause or mute. I press the heels of my palms into my temples as though I can make the images subside through brute force alone, but still they come, thick and fast, as if without them I might forget. On my bedside cabinet is the brass alarm clock Eve gave me when I went to university – ‘Because you’ll never get to lectures, otherwise’ – and I’m shocked to see it’s ten-thirty already. The pain in my hand has been overshadowed by a headache that blinds me if I move my head too fast, and as I peel myself from the bed every muscle aches. I pull on yesterday’s clothes and go into the garden without stopping to make a coffee, even though my mouth is so dry it’s an effort to swallow. I can’t find my shoes, and the frost stings my feet as I make my way across the grass. The garden isn’t large, but winter is on its way, and by the time I reach the other side I can’t feel my toes. The garden studio has been my sanctuary for the last five years. Little more than a shed to the casual observer, it is where I come to think, to work, and to escape. The wooden floor is stained from the lumps of clay that drop from my wheel, firmly placed in the centre of the room, where I can move around it and stand back to view my work with a critical eye. Three sides of the shed are lined with shelves on which I place my sculptures, in an ordered chaos only I could understand. Works in progress, here; fired but not painted, here; waiting to go to customers, here. Hundreds of separate pieces, yet if I shut my eyes, I can still feel the shape of each one beneath my fingers, the wetness of the clay on my palms. I take the key from its hiding place under the window ledge and open the door. It’s worse than I thought. The floor lies unseen beneath a carpet of broken clay; rounded halves of pots ending abruptly in angry jagged peaks. The wooden shelves are all empty, my desk swept clear of work, and the tiny figurines on the window ledge are unrecognisable, crushed into shards that glisten in the sunlight. By the door lies a small statuette of a woman. I made her last year, as part of a series of figures I produced for a shop in Clifton. I had wanted to produce something real, something as far from perfection as it was possible to get, and yet for it still to be beautiful. I made ten women, each with their own distinctive curves, their own bumps and scars and imperfections. I based them on my mother; my sister; girls I taught at pottery class; women I saw walking in the park. This one is me. Loosely, and not so anyone would recognise, but nevertheless me. Chest a little too flat; hips a little too narrow; feet a little too big. A tangle of hair twisted into a knot at the base of the neck. I bend down and pick her up. I had thought her intact, but as I touch her the clay moves beneath my hands, and I’m left with two broken pieces. I look at them, then I hurl them with all my strength towards the wall, where they shatter into tiny pieces that shower down on to my desk. I take a deep breath and let it slowly out.
About the author...
Clare Mackintosh is an author, feature writer and columnist. She has written for The Guardian, Sainsbury's Magazine, The Green Parent, and many other national publications, and is a columnist for Cotswold Life and Writing Magazine.
Clare spent twelve years in the police force, working on CID, in custody and as a public order commander, and has drawn on her experiences for her début psychological thriller I Let You Go. She is currently writing her second novel, out next year.
The benefits of writing groups
It is often acknowledged that writing is a solitary pursuit, and for the most part that is what I find most appealing about my job. I am happy in my own company, don't crave conversation, and find enough gossip and controversy on Twitter to satisfy any longing for an office environment. I like working variously in pyjamas and high heels (seldom together), and find the dog sufficiently sociable as an office companion. There is, however, no doubt that being on one's own for too long is A Bad Thing, and when I start muttering to myself and stop brushing my hair, I know it's time to get out and see some real life people, not just the ones in my head and my phone.
Once a month or so I meet up with a couple of author-friends with whom I have formed an unofficial writing group. The advantage of spending half a day at this group is that I can tell myself I've been working (after all, I am a WRITER, so going to a WRITING GROUP is entirely justifiable) even if all I've done is eaten biscuits and bemoaned my lack of inspiration. It's the second time I've been involved in some kind of writing group, and whereas the first attempt didn't work for me at all, my current group works brilliantly. In fact, I'd be lost without them.
With such different experiences, I wondered what it was that made a writing group work - or not - and concluded that it is a hugely personal affair. If you're considering finding, or forming, a group, consider what it is that you want to get out of it. My first group had relatively small sessions - perhaps 6-8 attendees - with everyone reading a small piece of writing for feedback. The usual caveats were given: this was a safe, supportive environment, where honest feedback would be given in a kind and balanced way. It sounded good in principle, but the reality was that I rarely heard any negative feedback on anyone's work, and received none at all on my own. Marvellous! you might think. My book must be perfect! Except, of course, it wasn't. No one's is. And this lack of constructive criticism meant that an evening at my writing group was simply a rather jolly social evening. Nice if that's what you're after, but it wasn't for me.
My current group is focused and specific. The other writers are both published, both understanding the relationships of agents, editors and authors. We are all working on different projects, and at different stages, but we all have a good handle on each other's work. If I'm struggling with how to layer in some tension, or working on resolving a plot hole, the others know enough about what I'm writing to be able to offer constructive suggestions. Feedback on anything I share is honest and supportive, but also brutally honest. What's the point in any other kind of feedback?
No one can exist in a vacuum, and although I think it's dangerous to share work-in-progress with too many people - especially if you're already getting clear editorial input from a literary agent or editor - ongoing feedback is hugely beneficial and encouraging. I regularly email chapters or plot ideas to my best friend, as well as bouncing them around at my writing group, and this peer support keeps me buoyant and acts as a barometer for what might work for 'real' readers.
I wrote I Let You Go without the support of a writing group, but with regular feedback from a friend who was also writing a crime novel. We exchanged passages, competed on word count (she always won), and provided shoulders to cry on when things weren't working out. By the time I was at the editing stage I had joined my small but perfectly formed writing group, who cheered me on from the sidelines as I wrote book two, and are now helping me thrash out the plot for book three.
Writing is solitary, but writers don't have to be.