Big Sky State


EMBARASSING TEEN FICTION KLAXON: Here’s something I wrote when I was nineteen. I only wrote awful Mary-sueish sci-fi before I went to uni, and this was around the transition period. I cleaned it up as some of it was just downright awful, but I’ve tried to leave most of the ideas intact.

Themes: Third millennium future/Family/Climate disaster/Bio-warfare/Teens being teens/Intersexuality/Queer ID/Pulp-apocalypse

The mist was coming in. Elyena stood and watched it. It swept across the sea in the distance, lacy wisps curling and tumbling over the dark water. The sun coloured it gold in places as it arced up high in the distance. It moved fast and thick towards the city.

Fastening the buckle at the throat of her coat, she shivered. A herm passed, little lights twinkling white, spinning as it navigated down into the lower colonies. She watched it dive until it became a speck and then slow down, moving inwards to one of the opposite towers, about a hundred metres beneath her. Special occasion maybe. Personal herm-sent messages were often too expensive for people living lower.

She looked at her watch-pin, attached to her pocket flap. The mist thickened near the outer towers and the warning lights in the distance went pinkish, blurring in the wake. Elyena breathed in deeply. The air was too sweet. She turned on her heel and ran across the tower’s metal roof, back to the square trapdoors that hid the short flight of stairs leading down to the lift. As she opened the hatch to the stairs, the herm flashed past above her, returning, lights showing blue.

 “They could have been swept off.”

“Elyena’s alright on her own.”

“I was fine.” She peered at both of them from the back entrance to the flat.

“Don’t cheek me, child.”

Olsa eyed her, from his cross-legged position on the floor, his hands clenching and unclenching, attempting to stave off the stiffness of rheumatism. Elyena stared briefly in response, then glanced at the thick blue veins on his hands and the bulging knuckles and wondered what the pain was like. There was a rhythmic squeaking as her older brother turned the wheel on the other side of the room to lock the bunker tight. He gave a final push and then let go, inspecting the palms of his hands briefly.

“Should probably get that thing repainted. You got a splinter?”

“No, it’s not that bad. I sanded it down a couple of days ago.” He briefly tightened the hairband holding his bun, and then came and sat next to Elyena. Olsa grunted in answer and rubbed a hand across his stubble, then leant forward to light the little stove in the middle.

“None for me.” Elyena muttered as her grandfather lit the stove and reached for a pot next to it. He shook his head at her, questioning. The beads in his grey dreadlocks clattered.

“You should have some, we could be in here a while.” Her brother murmured.

“I really don’t like it.”

Olsa coughed slightly. “Took me a while to like tea. I didn’t really grow into it until I was about sixteen. Des?”

Her brother was rooting in a bag next to him. He pulled it this way and that, then seemed to find what he was looking for and fished out a vacuum sealed foil package. The others watched as he fumbled for his penknife and slit it open. Elyena smelt a slight sweetness, but not chemical and sickening like the mist outside.

“Dessert?” Des looked pleased with himself as he pushed it out in front of them. Olsa laughed hoarsely in approval. As the two men reached in and started to take turns to cut chunks for themselves, Elyena, picked at the crumbs around the edge, deciding whether she liked it or not. She’d seen the sweet before, but couldn’t remember actually trying it. After a second or two of trying the texture of the coconut flakes with her teeth, she took the penknife off of her brother and cut her own piece.

A radio had been playing in the background; it looked like it was Olsa’s – held together with plastic tape with a simple digital clock on the side, that didn’t even look like plasma. The music stopped and a voice faded in.

“Evening all. I’ve just received the time estimate for this evening’s pollution-fall. Warning systems record incoming mist at eighteen hours, fifty-six minutes and a wind speed at a steady twenty-four kilometres per hour, a solid four on the Beaufort scale. Calculations indicate that air should be clear by zero hours, forty-four minutes. That’s nearly five hours, folks, so I hope you’re tucked up with some good eatin’, cause it sure is nasty out there tonight. Thankfully we’ve got some great tracks coming up…”

Elyena chewed slowly. She considered putting a piece in her pocket and finding some foil to wrap it in later. As usual, she didn’t ask Des where he’d got their treat.

There had been no war. No great disaster. Just the slow melting of the icecaps and the decline of ‘groundlife’ as the seas rose. HIV had mutated into AHIV and had eaten away at the population, rapidly changing and thwarting all attempts at a cure. This was unsurprising in the end, considering that it was widely suspected now that the virus had been tampered with as a cruel attempt to curb the booming population, and those who did the tampering had also made sure that a cure did not arise. Thankfully, nature intervened and by about the year twenty-five fifty, humanity had pretty much developed an immunity, and AHIV was a word often followed by ‘Does that even exist anymore?’

Pumped water was a luxury of the late third millennium. Nowadays, collection tanks sat at the top of the great towers and water was boiled before use. Rainfall was regular enough and the sea far below was pretty much off limits where domestic use of the water was concerned, due to the salt and the risk of catching a polluted tide. North America was a barren spread of islands, having poisoned itself to death with the overuse of chemicals and the carelessly researched disposal of waste, including reprocessed nuclear fuel. As the seas rose and the land changed, inevitably, these disposal sites had leaked.

The air was relatively clean in the last few years, even though the ocean was still avoided. Humanity had evolved to cope with its environment, but also had changed inevitably from the effects of the current and past environments. Elyena was being taught by her grandfather to become a Voyesp, a spiritual doctor. He’d made the decision to tutor her when she was born, rather than her brother, after the standard scans had shown her to be an itan – narrow hipped, and without a womb or other tissue, but fine featured – the third sex. It was an old fashioned idea that iten were better suited for community or spiritual roles, but the stereotypes persisted. Olsa always referred to her proudly as ‘the child’ or ‘they’, but once she had graduated into the upper tier of her school, Elyena had told her friends to start saying ‘she’ when talking about her. She didn’t mind Olsa’s preciseness, but it just suited her more, in her head.

The corner of the room snored. Olsa had wrapped himself in blankets and eventually fallen asleep. Now Elyena was watching her brother play with the radio. He switched it to a different frequency and the sound of a violin suddenly pierced her eardrums.

“Turn it down! You’ll wake Grandad…”

“Shit. Sorry.” Des grinned idiotically and spun the volume control to almost off, then bought it back up again slowly. Elyena opened the pot of tea leaves and sniffed it carefully, watching her brother tune it into another station.

“Take it back to NI2 a second; I want to hear the weather report.”


The radio squealed and fizzed, then levelled out.

“…President Williamson commented that action would not be taken against the rebel groups. Anyway, the time is now zero-zero-forty-six and I’ve just had the weather report handed to me. Seems we’re ninety-seven percent mist-free, guys, and that last three percent is rapidly heading off on an eastern wind. So it looks like there’s still a good portion of the evening left to enjoy. Now, tonight, we’ve…”

“Sweet.” Des stood up quickly and started to open the bunker. He swung back the door and stalked into the rest of their tiny apartment, one room and a little offshoot into the galley-style-kitchen. Picking up his coat, he snatched a piece of paper off of a pad on the table and scrawled MIST CLEAR, OUT. BACK SOON.

“Where are you off to?” Elyena leaned against the doorway, her tone accusatory.

“Got some friends waiting.” Des hovered near the front door, rummaging in his pocket for something. He didn’t face her.


“Dunno. They might not be out tonight. Depends.” Des flicked back the latch on the door and disappeared with a “Later.” The door banged and didn’t close properly. Elyena listened to the radio chattering in the background for a second, mixing with Olsa’s snores, then grabbed her boots from under the table and threw a shawl over her head, covering her soft tight curls, wrapping it over her nose, and tucking it into her collar. Lots of people would be covered up tonight anyway – the recent approach of a mist, even though they’d had a solid all clear, still made people edgy.

She stuck a little knife in her boot just in case. She probably wouldn’t need it.

“So is this Kerna pretty?” Jan fingered her cigarette and blurred Elyena’s vision with a breath of smoke. They were leaning against the side of a flower stall. Paper flowers were popular – they were easy to make and as colourful as the real thing. It was the thought that counted.

“I have no idea. I’ve never seen them.”

The night had become chill after the sunset. Elyena had tailed Des as far as the edge of the Blood Market and then managed to lose him on a bridge. The market was named so because of the large amount of fresh meat vendors who congregated there. Fresh meat was big business in North Island, as with many of the ‘tower cities’. It could never usually be eaten in large amounts, since there just wasn’t the room to breed big animals. It had become big business in the last few hundred years again, as fresh vegetables became harder to come by. People mainly ate preserved foods and dried pulses that were bought in from farms out west. Eggs came and went. Bird populations were climbing, though they were large and aggressive, so egg gathering was more seen as a sport then something practical. Elyena still had a scar on her neck from such an escapade when she was younger.

At night, the Blood Market became more a social event than a trading post. It was spread across the top of one of the largest towers in the city and had since spilled over on to smaller ones, connected by metal bridges that had been built on to the original structure of the skyscrapers. Both siblings met up with their friends there as often as they could.

“We could try and find them.” Jan suggested, smirking.
“Ugh, I don’t want to look like I’m following Des around, trying to ‘get’ with his friends.”
Jan laughed. Two older, tough-looking iten caught their eye from a stall and tried to get them to come over, and Elyena and Jan pulled up their hoods in response. Wolf whistles came back.
“Lets leaaaave…can’t be doing with this right now.” Elyena grabbed her hand and pulled her friend around behind a row of stalls, back towards the bridge where she’d last seen her brother.

Nite Flight


A short story that had the honour of being rejected from the Cambridge Short Story Prize! After a second edit, I decided it would be happy here.

She scrabbled around on the desk, knocking a compact of face powder off the edge. It hit the corner chair on the way down, and smashed into powdery chunks. Corrie held back the urge to burst into angry tears, and flattened her hands on the desk surface, willing herself to calm down. The surface was cool, and she could feel the heat from her skin seeping into the wood. It seemed pointless.

Her purse was still missing.

An encouraging whine from Jen floated from the bottom of the stairs. “C’moooooon I wanna goooo.”

“I’ve lost my fucking wallet! CHRIST!” She sat down on the edge of the bed in a full body flop, digging her fingers into her scalp. The smell of fresh hairspray filled her nostrils. Muffled footsteps sounded on the staircase.

“Corrie, it’s okay, I’ll pay.”

“That’s really sweet of you. I think there’s some cash in the mug on Tris’ bookcase.”

“Spending your husband’s money on the high life. Aww yeah.”

“Shh. I’m just going to take some for backup.”

Rain hazed in the streetlights as they clung to the stem of Corrie’s umbrella. Jen smoked a slim rolled cigarette whilst they waited for the cab that Jen’s phone claimed was just a street away. An orangey-mud city sky glowed down at them. Corrie pulled at her fringe, nervous tension in her ribcage.

“I dunno why I bothered to do my hair now.”

“Why? It’s good! Oh, he’s there-” Jen ran into the street, temporarily abandoning the safety of the umbrella, and leaning into the passenger window of a black taxicab. “Hello! Jennifer, yeah? We’re going to Buck Street. Brilliant! Yes!” She looked back at Corrie, encouragingly. The smell of the rain, combined with her excited grin, the taught faux leather of her leggings as she tripped to the passenger door, and the muffled sound of KissFM on the cab radio all settled on Corrie at once. They were doing this. This was fine. Corrie crumpled up the umbrella and ran to the cab.

[can I stay at kasia’s tonight for a sleepover? Her mum is okay with it xxxx | 11.03am]

[Yes, I think so. Who else is going, is it just you and her? Can you promise me you’ll keep your phone on? | 11.05am]

[just other girls from school! amy etc. thank youuuuuuuuu <3 xxxxx | 11.10am]

[You’ll keep your phone on and ring me or Dad if you need anything, promise? That bit is important. xx | 11.11am]

[yes i will. it’ll be okay we’re just watching some stuff and chilling. thank you! kasia says hi xxxxx | 11.20am]

The driver paused at a red light. Students ran across the road, shouting. Another motorist, a lane across, leaned on the horn, seemingly just to make a point.

“Are you worried about Marianna?”

“A bit. Tris is still in the pub. Just the one over the road, y’know. I made him put his ringer on max.” Corrie snorted.

“He’s got this. You know he’s got this. It’s fine.”

She could sense Jen’s wide smile in the dark. The lights changed. The taxi felt womblike, and her tension seeped out onto the floor, caught on the lights of late night newsagents and chicken shops, and was left behind in streaks. Corrie leaned back in her seat and forced herself to breathe out.

“She’s a good kid. Not like I get another go now.”

“That doctor sounded rude as fuck.”

“Oh he was. He was so smug. Why would you be smug when you’re telling someone they’re, y’know, officially past it?”

“Oi! Excuse you! I’ve got a year on you, at least. Hey, we’re here – HEY THIS IS IT THANKS” Jen segued from mock fury to cheery officiousness as the cab swung onto the street of their destination. Corrie slid out onto the roadside, patted all her pockets and slid a hand into her bra to find her pilfered cash. Jen had already trotted to the blue lit entrance of the club and was standing primly on the step expectantly, avoiding the rain. A couple in their late twenties rooted through a handbag a few feet away, the girl’s fur coat spikey in the wet.

“I think you should pay for me to get in with that attitude.” Jen grinned as she joined her. The bouncer cast an eye over them, and smiled, saying nothing.

Corrie shoved a twenty pound note under the perspex window to the girl in the door booth, and motioned vaguely that it was for both of them. Two pounds change came back, and no eye contact.

“Let me stamp your hands, ladies.” The bouncer muttered.

Corrie repeated the word under her breath as they tramped up the stairs. “Ladieeeesss….”

[You okay, honey? I’m going out for the evening with Jen! Last minute plans. Dad’s going to be at home if you need him. Let me know everything is fine at Kasia’s. x | 16.20pm]

[Annie? Let me know? | 16.55pm]

[love you mum xxx | 17.36pm]

The upstairs bar was surprisingly full. Brushed steel, damp with lager and a hustle of middle aged men in sleeveless tops, sporting crows feet, smattered with poorly applied eyeliner. A trio of girls that looked Marianne’s age shoved by, talking in sharps and screeches, and Corrie did a double-take. Jen crushed her way between two leather jackets and yelled instructions to one of the bar staff over the music. One of the trio of girls began shouting to her friends through a door to the smoking area, until the slim matriarch behind the bar made a furious swiping motion with her hand, and the girl’s friends grabbed her by the elbows and herded her out. Jen grabbed Corrie’s attention back to the matter at hand by shoving a plastic cup at her, and fixed her with a look. She mouthed a thank you. Jen responded with a head cock, her long earrings swinging, and made a questioning smoking motion.


[I’m back in the house now. Couple of pints with James. M texted at 9pm. Love you. | 22.55pm]

The smoking area was covered by a few sheets of corrugated plastic, but mercifully they’d installed a heat lamp. The pair shouldered their way gently through already-settled smokers, and found a leaning corner. In the breeze, with the dull thump of the base through the wall, and the hum of chat, Corrie watched her friend deftly roll two cigarettes. It still looked skilful, after thirty years. She’d never learnt to roll, but she’d also never entirely learnt to quit.

“So, he said if I haven’t bled for a year, that it’s officially the menopause.”

Jen frowned deeply, meeting her eyes as she navigated the end of her cigarette into the flame of her Clipper. “Mmhm.”

Corrie exhaled a cloud of exasperated smoke, smearing ash on her top. “I…just…I’m forty-six, y’know? I didn’t think it was time. He just shrugged and gave me a leaflet.”


“Wizened cunt.” Corrie said awkwardly, and giggled at her own rudeness, but felt hot moisture invade her eyes.

“Oh babe, but it isn’t, don’t be like this.” Jen enveloped her in a tight hug.

“I’m so glad you asked me to come out.” She sniffed into Jen’s brown curls, licking the tears that ran down to her top lip. Jen smelt like stale smoke, and rosewater.

“It doesn’t matter. You are tall and lovely and we needed to go dancing. We were overdue.”

“I think I’ve dropped my cigarette. We’re going to burn the club down.”

“I could start screaming, just for the fun of it.” Jen was still squeezing her tight.

“Wouldn’t be any different to when you used to get high.”

“Fuck you.” Jen pushed her away gently and laughed. “Anyway, that was a great tactic for creepers. The night I chased weird Ben out of your flat after he touched your boob, do you remember that?”

“It was amazing.” Corrie was laughing properly now. Her face felt warm and wet, and she dabbed it with the sleeve of her jacket.

The bass vibrations through the wall shifted slightly. Two men stopped talking, and looked expectantly towards the door. A woman in orange PVC boots flung her cigarette on the floor and darted back inside, excitedly.

“Dance? Yes? No? Yes?” Jen bounced on her toes.

They moved through the warmth of the crowd in the dark, and found a space. Moving came back easily. Jen was good at choosing places – they’d always gone out dancing together, but a cheesy rock bar was perfect for this evening. Popular enough to be busy, but not so trendy that Corrie felt like it was effort. She was done with effort, she concluded. She watched Jen put her hands in the air, and pulled gently at nothing in time to the music, eyes closed. They turned in circles, and sang at each other. Corrie felt herself being watched once or twice, but the gazes she met were mostly flatteringly curious, or just vacant – strangers looking for anonymous friends. A younger man touched her elbow, and she pulled back to look at him. He shyly mimicked a cigarette. She was about to shake her head no, but Jen waved her rolling papers at him, and he replied with a cheerful thumbs up, dancing companionably whilst Jen rolled a cigarette on the dancefloor. And then another. And another. Corrie glanced at the man carefully, trying not to stare. He had a fine bird-likeness to his face. Long muscles in his upper arms. He put a hand on her shoulder and tried to shout something. She smiled and squinted, shaking her head and waving a hand near her ear to show she couldn’t hear a thing.

Something in her armpit buzzed. Then buzzed again. She peeked into her shoulder-bag just to see the light on her phone go off.

“Jen-” Corrie looked up, to see Jen’s mass of curls bobbing through one of the doorways, and their new smoking buddy following. Someone knocked into her from the side, and she stumbled, chest tightening again. Backing up into a dark booth on the side of the dancefloor, she fished out the phone from the bag, and winced as the bright screen shocked her eyes.

[3 missed calls]

[M seems a bit upset? Coming home early. Tx | 02.48am]

The club was full now. Prickles washed over her. She shouldered her way through the crowd, and briefly got caught in a group of women shrieking along to a power ballad. Excited and drunk, they tried to draw her into their circle, and pawed her limply when she waved her hands frantically and crashed through the other side of the group. Their euphoria seemed frightening at this point.

Outside, Jen was on the edge of the smoking crowd, in easy reach. The bird-like boy was gesticulating with his cigarette. Her lips had pulled into a wine stained smile. She was enjoying the attention.

“JEN. I…something’s up with Annie. Marianne.”

“Shit. What. Do you-” Jen pulled her cigarette from her mouth and ashed sharply.

“I gotta go, I’m so sorry, she’s called me – it’s her second sleepover, I really need to go.” Other people were looking, feeling her panic. Corrie turned and ran, heat welling up through her. Tearing down the metal stairs, her ankle wobbled dangerously on the last step, and she grabbed the rail, nearly falling and clutching the flaking paint. The cold air of the street rushed up to meet her and sharpened everything.

Still raining. A slam above her and Jen came tearing down the staircase after her.

“Hey, hey waitwaitWAIT.”

“I have to get back there, I don’t know what’s going on, I can’t not be there for her!” Carrie frantically fished for her umbrella. Her keys jingled in the depths of her bag.

“Yeah, I said I’d pay for you.”

Jen fished a couple of notes out of her wallet, and crushed them into Corrie’s hand forcefully.

“She’s probably just fallen out with her friends.”

“I don’t know that.”

“I know. I’m calling you a cab.”


[I’m home in 20 mins. is she there | 03.15am]

[yes x | 03.17am]

The dark house smelt slightly of reheated bolognaise. Corrie crept up the stairs, trying to compose herself. This was probably overkill. She didn’t care.

“…Annie? are you up?”

“Yeah.” A small voice.

“Can I come in?”


Corrie entered the dark bedroom, and felt her way onto the end of the bed. The outline of her daughter was under the covers, hair still in a bun. Clothing was piled near the door, crumpled in folds in the nightlight from hall.

“How did you get home?”

“Dad came and got me. I’m so embarrassed.”

“You don’t have to…what happened? Was it not fun?”

“No. Ugh. Mum. I think…it’s a period. I wet through my PJs. It was everywhere.”

“What? Oh. Oh god. Okay.” Relief.

“You think it’s funny, don’t you?” Her voice was sharp with accusation.

“No, oh my god, honey.” Corrie shifted in the dark to get her arms around the angry lump at the end of the bed. They were both silent for a bit.

“You know I was out with Jen tonight?”


“When we were in the common room at school, when we were fourteen, she got put in detention by Mrs. Moore for something. I can’t remember. She made her sit in her office after hours and do maths exercises for a punishment. She got her first period all over her new office chair. It never came out. She said it was her revenge.”

“…what?! Mum, you mean, Jennifer with the curls and…your best friend?”

“Yes.” “Was she embarrassed?”

“Not really. She just found it really funny. She was always up for a good time.”

A few dull taps on the window. The rain had started again. Corrie’s phone buzzed in her coat pocket and she reached for it. Marianne looked at her, faintly curious.

[is M okay? we’ll do it all again soon, promise. love you xx | 03.29am]

© Holly Nyx 2019



An essay on growing sideways rather than up, living through the 2008 recession in London and the UK, and the possibility that, for me, being a New Labour graduate was just a catalyst for mental illness.

“I always felt very suspicious of the word ‘career’. Isn’t that something you do off a cliff?”

This is one of my partner’s more effective lines. It is one they said to me quite early in our relationship when I was spending a fair bit of time crying mascara streaks over temp agency rejections, and angrily eating noodles in bed at 2pm. The most creative agency rejection I ever had (from a £7 per hour receptionist job in Barnet) was when someone mistook my backstage work for ‘out of work actress’, and a one-year internship at Oxford University Press for ‘attending Oxford University’. I quickly corrected them on both. The woman on the end of the phone told me those were genuinely the hiring criteria to answer the phone at a small law firm. She at least sounded sympathetic to my utter disbelief. This was 2010.

My partner is older than me, and is the end of the graduate generation that didn’t really have to deal with fees. Friends of his have even shown me old paperwork for their grants – little yellowy paper stubs, proof of the Government’s wish to invest in you. He has made an impressive career out of his degrees. He is bright. He tells me I am bright – but the reality is I am the sort of bright who was told too many times as a child that they were, and that this was Significant (and something to cling on to). In my mid-twenties, I was the sort that felt adrift, having searched for an adulthood that never really existed. The sort that is late to their own funeral, capable of destroying an entire company invoicing database via depression ennui, the sort that upsets half the customers because they’re not welcoming enough.

But I could stitch a hem, cook a four course meal for eight in a shoe box flat, ghostwrite other people’s job applications and get them interviews on the spot, and provide better amateur counselling than half the professional therapists I have had (not all). I’m not a nice team player – I am a loyal ally. I just appeared, the further I got through the decade, to have zero practical 21st century survival skills. “If only you’d just apply yourself a little more.” I can still hear it in my head – but any one voice owner for it is now barely identifiable.

I grew up in a beautiful part of the country, with parents who were both self-employed: one as a small time junk shop owner, the other as a cleaner. They’d bought my childhood home – a modest house with an immodest, wild, fruit filled garden – for eleven thousand pounds in 1975. I had fought my way via the 11+ exam into the ‘good school’. I’d met a nice group of girls in sixth form, and thought it was really brave and exciting that some of them, at age sixteen, went to the protest against the UK involvement in the Iraq war. I got my university place at eighteen, said goodbye to all my friends who had done the same, and dutifully left as was the plan. Graduation came and I and walked away with the desired paperwork. I hadn’t taken any drugs until I was twenty-four. I’d never been arrested. I’d never gotten accidently pregnant, or even caught an STD despite my fascination with multiple, unhealthy relationships.

I’d pretty much done everything right, from what I understood right to mean. My parents had been insistent that I strived to be a renaissance woman – saying I should travel at every opportunity, clear that I was destined for better things than them, certain that I would save and buy property with my first boyfriend like they did, and get a Good Job. Why was I so miserable, lonely, and such a skint fuck-up hiding in a little Islington flat – and why hadn’t the ideal middle class success recipe for happiness worked?

Here is some hasty ‘desk based research’ (facts from the internet) as context:

In 2002, Prime Minister Tony Blair declared the intention to carry out his pre-election promise – that by the end of the decade, fifty percent of school leavers would be entering some form of higher education. An educational report (this downloads a .pdf) published in 2012 states that Blair’s government went far in achieving their vision – 350,800 students are recorded in 2011 as present on a first degree (usually referred to as a BA or BSc, in the UK), including those attending the ‘new universities’. These institutions were former polytechnic training colleges or further education colleges that had gained the authority to issue degrees after the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, and their presence meant that university places became somewhat plentiful in comparison to a decade earlier.

As higher education became more regulated, post-1992 universities proved themselves to be able to produce research of a quality that could challenge even the oldest and most established parts of Oxbridge. This meant that a degree awarded by a new university began to be seen as not just accessible to students who might want to explore more modern subject areas, but worth just as much as an award from one of the older institutions. From the point of view of a restless seventeen-year-old in 2002, the chance to flee one’s claustrophobic hometown seemed an extremely sensible life choice. You too, could be a graduate, and earn a Graduate Salary. You could be better. You could be successful – and mostly importantly, more successful than your parents, or the people that chose not to go. It seemed unthinkable to refuse, and almost mandatory in the climate of the time.

I certainly felt this way: the school I attended was a grammar, a now heavily questioned model designed for so-called academic children with an emphasis on languages, critical thinking and a strong, Victorian bent towards self-improvement. Around age fourteen, I distinctly remember hearing that a girl several years above me was opting to train as a plumber, instead of filling out her UCAS university application form. Various friends and teachers acted like some sort of faux pas had been committed. A rumour circulated that in the sixth form yearbook, instead of having a university name written under her own as her publicised ‘destination’, there was just a blank space. She clearly hated the narrow aspirational culture of the school – on her last day she managed to climb on top of the flat roof of the main building and play her electric guitar at us until one of the fitter teachers managed to intervene. Seven years later, I started to wonder if she’d really been on to something. My graduation had been in 2006. I’d felt unable to return home to a town I no longer connected with, and obvious signs were appearing that one of my parents had a violent drink problem. I had felt utterly lost. My first relationship ended in my final year, leaving me more untethered. I submitted tens of job applications, and then slept on a friend’s sofa for several weeks after talking Manchester University Press into letting me do a couple of days of unpaid work experience, just so I had an industry relevant reference.

Over the next five years, I drifted through various house shares around the country, trying to find somewhere – and someone – to be. Work became harder to find, and permanent work was unthinkable unless I took a bar job, which I was utterly unsuited for – I was too sad to keep up, and not charming enough to hold down banter at the bar. The drunk parent couldn’t understand why it was so hard for me to find stability because I was “middle class now, not working class like I am” and also imparted the shining wisdom that “CVs are a conspiracy, I never had to have one to get a job”. By late 2009 I’d probably applied for over a thousand roles since graduation and could still count the number of interviews on just my hands – toes weren’t necessary. Temporary data entry roles paying just over the price of a pint an hour, intermittent periods on the dole, and occasionally begging the non-drunk parent tearfully over the phone for help was my bright new graduate career. The noise of the idea that I was meant, somehow, to be better than this was suffocating.

I did eventually make friends along the way. Mostly similar people, similar ages – a strange network of barely twenty-somethings who had all left little towns for big higher education focused plans. I got to ride the Sheffield Arts Tower paternoster with my ex-girlfriend – giggling and terrified. I fell in with a group of art students in Oxford who, cradled my shocking mental state and who helped me realise that I’d actually been a promising artist in my teens before I’d left home. One of them also got drunk and pulled a knife on me one evening – later citing that he’d found my loneliness and madness too frustrating and was trying, brutally, to scare me straight. It turned out very soon after he mostly just felt the same. Two of them are still my friends – and they are both still only just finding a place in the world, ten years later. A group of us moved to London finally, sick of overpriced student living in a town where the biggest employer was the university, and hoping we could find something a bit more glamorous and meaningful.

Everyone clusters together now under various alliances – where we did our degrees, what music we like, who met each other in a house share. No one grew up here. Occasionally someone appears in a friendship group who Grew Up In London, a native, a strange, secure sort who never left, or just happily moved back after a while. They have intimate knowledge of areas where an equivalent of their childhood home would now cost the best part of a million, but “their da just bought it on his council wages for 60k in the 80s”. Some are understandably miserable and angry that they can’t afford to live securely in the areas where they grew up. But they give me a weird hope that if I dig my heels in, I can have an ever stronger community here with them – which is becoming the key to solving my loneliness and my instability. One friend firmly stated his loyalty, having known early twenties isolation, with: “We can all bitch about the rent, but no one leaves. That’s the deal.”

Looking back over a decade, the idea of being a ‘young graduate’ seems very emotionally murky. In reality, what did this look like? Hundreds of young people leaving small towns under the impression a new and better future awaited them. Leaving parents, who we are now often desperate to see but unsure how to connect to when we do. We consider the idea of having children in landscapes that are totally unfamiliar, but they’re also where our friends are. Most of us feel we can’t go back – we’re now inescapably From London to those in our hometowns, but still From Elsewhere when in our huge, beloved, overpriced city.

Did going to university actually just fuck up my generations’ ability to be part of a stable community? Is it right or healthy to only be building that now, at the beginning of our fourth decade? I’m not sure we did the right thing. I am definitely sure that I’d avoid telling any possible future child of mine that they had to go to university like I was told, by New Labour, by my teachers, by my parents, by the whole narrative of the time. Why should one have to leave and go hundreds of miles away from the people they’re in love with at the start of adulthood just because they need to be ‘improved’ somehow, trained, shaped, bettered, just so they can have a little bit more of a chance of making money? I only started gaining any real wages at all when I finally had a supportive relationship, a stable home, and friends who I knew weren’t definitely leaving in a year. I still have not ‘become’ anyone, like the drunk parent and my teachers told me I had to. Uncomfortably, I actually count my biggest achievement to date to be that my partner is now my spouse.

Other friends and strangers who I read the articles of have strong, and better informed opinions on this question. I do not wish to speculate on the economic or policy solutions here – I want to explain the emotional. Apprenticeships are only just digging themselves out of the sideline that they’ve been on for the last twenty years. Any nineteen and twenty year olds I encounter now are questioning of all of this – they seem to have learnt from our sins. They want stability, they want friends, they want secure jobs, they sneer at unpaid internships, they do not have the cash to have gap years. They do not avoid higher education, but they consider it far more critically than I ever did, or felt I had the chance to. They seem so smart.

I hope they cling to each other, because that is what matters.

This piece is also published on Medium

Modern Death

life writing

Modern death smells of alcoholic hand sanitiser and unfamiliar Travelodges.

It is often kept out of sight – apart from the kitschy display windows of funeral directors, occasional social media posts by friends-of-friends featuring a picture of someone you don’t know, or its aftermath witnessed during one’s teens, via drunken forays into summer night graveyards. People can wince, or shuffle if you talk about death or the experience of dying. They say sentences that curve down at the ends, performing some sort of ideal of respectfulness, for fear they might behave unacceptably. Sometimes, after a while, they ask to change the subject to something a bit more cheerful.

I have now seen my second dead body in ten years – my father. It was a lot less frightening this time around. After a heart attack in 2016, and a year of surgeries, therapies, pills, and multiple recoveries, he keeled over sideways on a sunny November afternoon in a faux-french bistro in Bournemouth, whilst on a mini-break with my mother. His ICD fired four times, and a stranger performed CPR. He didn’t breath or beat for twenty minutes. When they got him to hospital, they put him straight into cold sleep – a drug induced coma, and a cooling of the body to 32 celsius, in the hope of preventing neurological damage.

It was the day after Halloween, where I’d arranged a party for my friends. I’d made pie, and set up an altar – my religious background is pretty mixed, with a good splash of slightly corny 1980s neopaganism. We laid out little macaroons, that I’d made for the purpose, on paper love notes for the dead in our lives. We added candles and lit them. People took photos and sent them to each other and Instagrammed it – it was beautiful. The whole ‘death party’ idea was the first time I’d decided to do it, and I was a bit embarrassed, despite feeling for years that I’d wanted to do something ‘proper’ for the 31st of October. However, my guests were surprisingly into it – some people took their note home with them after the candle had burned. No one sneaked a look at other people’s notes, out of respect. On the 1st of November, I went to a conference, and left at lunch-time. By about 4pm my mother had called me telling me that my father was in ICU.

His death seemed somewhat inevitable to me even when we were in the 48 hour period of ‘sleep’. Some people occasionally recover and wake up from cardiac trauma. Working on a degree has somewhat ruined my approach to uncertainty in that whenever I’m faced with a stressful situation, especially if medical in nature, I immediately start trying to research it. Comfort appears in understanding the boring details of an illness from end to end, or the minutiae of a procedure. Within thirty minutes of my mother telling me exactly what happened, I’d googled survival rates, and guidelines for an Out Of Hospital cardiac arrest. It seems that if your heart stops for more than six minutes, you are probably done for.

The hospital staff pegged a laminated picture of three blue butterflies on his curtains. My mum pointed at it and said “it must be a code – so not to upset people”. I spent a good while scrutinising his face up close as he breathed intermittently, trying to memorise his eyebrows, the colour of his skin, the tags around his eyes, and his long dark grey eyelashes. It is not consensual to take pictures of dying relatives if they are unconscious – but I snuck a picture of his hand with my smartphone. Bonier, but still huge and brown, speckled, encircled in the lines of his cannula. He had been extremely explicit about the reality of the situation during the summer, while he waited for various surgeries that held stroke risks: “If it all goes wrong, just turn the machines off. I’m not sitting drooling in a chair for the rest of my life – I can’t think of anything worse.”

There is a sneaking guilty feeling in me that many people could find his statement very offensive. We are brought up to guard life, no matter how limited, and to fear death. The UK is still fighting to change legislation on euthanasia and assisted suicide. The NHS does have a page on the two topics, but only really to explain how both situations are illegal under UK law, and that withdrawal of life-prolonging care is definitely not ‘passive euthanasia’. But my father was not interested in living at any cost. He was interested in living well, which one could argue was also partially what killed him quite young.

In my personal experience, the post-war generation are not particularly great at death – the people who are now in their sixties, seventies and beyond. I am pretty sure I have been shushed more than once for mentioning ‘when I die’ or ‘if [someone] dies’. It’s like saying ‘fuck’ at the dinner table, or getting overly emotional around particularly stiff-upper-lip people – everyone gets a bit skittery and would like you to Just Calm Down (please). My father didn’t make a will – even when we asked him to. Neither did my paternal Grandmother, until someone intervened. Dad literally just gave us verbal instructions at one point in August to “raid the safe, split the contents, and bury me in the garden – I don’t care, but make sure you get the stuff in the safe”. This subsequently left my mother not just with her awful, lost-teenage-sweetheart grief, but with a mountain of paperwork and no access to cash that might have paid for his funeral.

Dying is expensive. If you want to die in a socially acceptable manner, a modest cremation will set you back at least five grand. Dad’s funeral ended up costing roughly £6k, and then a little more for the wake we put on for his friends. My mother paid for the lot upfront out of her savings – like many baby boomers, she had the space to save for a rainy day. If I died tomorrow, my husband would probably have to wipe out his savings and then borrow off of her or my father-in-law to give me the send off he thought I deserved.

We should probably plan it all better, and not repeat these stresses that can be so easily inflicted on people that will already be trying to breathe from the vacuum you’ve suddenly left. It doesn’t have to be awful – it can bring unexpected sweetness. I’m still flattered and humbled by the memory of my best friend ringing me up a few years ago and announcing that she was making her will – and that would I like anything? After my initial surprise, I said she could give me back a little mouse brooch I first gave her, for safe keeping, until I died as well.

In planning death and talking about it, we can include our people and show love – in the same way that one is thrilled when their friend asks them to be a best man, to help them choose a wedding dress, to come to a graduation, or to meet their first baby. It doesn’t have to be just tragedy and destruction. It is normal to die, and it should be dignified and as smooth as possible. It is a process. In the final hour of my father’s death, I kept on repeating to myself, my husband, and once to my mother: “This is natural, it’s just birth in reverse.”