Thursday 27 June 2019

Featured Poet: Helen Calcutt

Helen Calcutt's poetry and criticism has featured in publications including the Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Brooklyn Review, and Southbank Poetry. Her debut pamphlet Sudden rainfall was published by Perdika Press in 2014. It was a PBS Choice. Her full-length collection, Unable Mother, described as 'a violent and tender grapple with our cosy notions of motherhood' (Robert Peake) was published by V. Press in September 2018. It was re-created into a dance-theatre performance, and then into short film, by Redstorm Productions under the title Naked.

Helen was awarded a professional development grant from Arts Council England to write her second poetry collection A mountain that is your grief you can't utter in April 2019. She is creator and editor of acclaimed anthology, Eighty-Four (Verve Press, 2019), a book of verse on the subject of male suicide, grief, and hope. It was shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards 2019.  Helen is also successful dancer and choreographer, working with a specialism in the conversation between text and movement. She also works as a tutor and mentor for the likes of Poetry By Heart, Writing West Midlands, and The Poetry School, and is a visiting lecturer in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. Her website is:

Below you can read a poem from her collection, Unable Mother


This stable feels like a boat. Its roof rocks the hollow. 
There are windows on every side, concealed.  
Though it feels like a heart exposed, 
if hearts are water.
There are horses hanging like oars. 
The darkest pool touches their eyes, 
where their lives are suspended. 
My hands are trembling. 
I imagine they’re wings. That my mind could navigate 
the darkest crossing, 
if these crossings were waters, 
or a drowned field –

and by field, I mean
the resting place of my daughter. 
The animal world that keeps her, 
before I wake her.  

Thursday 6 June 2019

Featured Author: Louisa Treger

Louisa Treger is a classical violinist who turned to literature, earning a Ph.D in English at University College London, where she focused on early-twentieth-century women's writing and was awarded the Rosa Morison Scholarship 'for distinguished work in the study of English Language and Literature.' Louisa's first novel, The Lodger, was published by Macmillan in 2014. The Dragon Lady is her second novel (Bloomsbury, 2019). She lives in London. Her website is

About The Dragon Lady 

Opening with the shooting of Lady Virginia 'Ginie' Courtauld in her tranquil garden in 1950s Rhodesia, The Dragon Lady tells Ginie's extraordinary story, so called for the exotic tattoo snaking up her leg. From the glamorous Italian Riviera before the Great War to the Art Deco glory of Eltham Palace in the thirties, and from the secluded Scottish Highlands to segregated Rhodesia in the fifties, the narrative spans enormous cultural and social change. Lady Virginia Courtauld was a boundary-breaking, colourful and unconventional person who rejected the submissive role women were expected to play. 

Ostracised by society for being a foreign divorcée at the time of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, Ginie and her second husband ,Stephen Courtauld, leave the confines of post-war Britain to forge a new life in Rhodesia, only to find that being progressive liberals during segregation proves mortally dangerous. Many people had reason to dislike Ginie, but who had reason enough to pull the trigger?

Deeply evocative of time and place, The Dragon Lady subtly blends fact and fiction to paint the portrait of an extraordinary woman in an era of great social and cultural change.

You can see more details about The Dragon Lady on the publisher's website here, you can read a review of the novel on Everybody's Reviewing here, and below you can read an excerpt from the opening chapter. 

From The Dragon Lady


I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, yet the smallest thing takes me back to the time the Dragon Lady was shot. I was thirteen years old and living on a forest reserve near the Mozambique border. My father, a naturalist and forestry consultant, visited her regularly, but it was the first time he had taken me.

Her house was long and low and painted white, with a turret on one side. It was like a castle in a storybook, unexpected and incongruous in a remote Rhodesian valley. The interior was all hushed, cool spaces and we had to wait a long time for the Dragon Lady to see us.
At one point her husband, Stephen, came to talk to us. He had a stern face, but there was a glint in his eyes while he spoke to Dad about the new trees he had planted. I had a boys’ comic tucked under my arm and he wanted to know why.

‘Cathy doesn’t like girls’ things,’ Dad told him. ‘She plays with tin soldiers and a train set.’

My father’s words caused a pang. I’d grown out of trains and soldiers a long time ago, but he hadn’t noticed. I was about to retort that I was too big for toys, but I saw Stephen was smiling; he found it funny. He left, saying that he had a meeting in town, but that his wife wouldn’t be much longer.

We sat in silence. It was hard not to fidget, and soon Dad suggested I go outside and have a look around. I walked onto the veranda and down a flight of steps, and found myself in a never-ending garden.   

It was beautiful and eerie, not like a garden at all to me. My school friends had gardens with mowed lawns and tidy hedges. This was wilderness with paths and deep shade, dense with trees, ferns and flowering creepers. Under the spreading branches of an old cypress tree, I stumbled against a protruding object and nearly fell. Righting myself, I looked down and saw a moss-encrusted grave so small it could only have belonged to a young child. There was no headstone or inscription. The only decoration was a posy of white roses made out of porcelain. 

A cloud slid across the sun, shrouding everything in a gloomy light. The wind came up, making the tree branches writhe back and forth. The dry rustling of their leaves was like a whispered warning and a chill snaked up my spine. Turning away, I hurried back to the house in time to see Dad and the Dragon Lady exiting the back door.

I stopped at the edge of the lawn to watch them. Her real name was Lady Virginia Courtauld; Dad called her Ginie. She was gesturing and calling to a gardener to show him something. Tall and thin, she wore a long-sleeved blue dress; her face was in shadow under a large hat. 

Beneath the swish of her dress I could make out the famous tattoo. It was this that had earned her the nickname Dragon Lady, though the creature on her ankle was in fact a snake: a savage thing, heavily inked in black, its head rearing up, jaws open, ready to strike. People whispered that it went from her ankle right the way up her thigh and no one but Stephen knew where it ended.

I had a vague impression that she was agitated or anxious, fidgeting and walking up and down; her voice was vivacious, fractured. I was used to observing my own mother’s unhappiness and I saw something there that reminded me of her.

The monkeys in the treetops started up a tremendous disturbance: shrieking and chattering; flinging down gourds from the oyster nut vines that split open as they smacked the ground, scattering seeds over the grass. 

‘What’s bothering them?’ asked the Dragon Lady, shading her eyes with her hand as she looked towards the trees. 

At that instant, a loud noise splintered the air. I only realised it was a gunshot when I saw the Dragon Lady’s body jolt violently and the garden boy screamed. She seemed to bow down and one hand went out as if she was reaching for something. She toppled over with a choked cry and I saw the wound in her side. Her body tensed and convulsed, her limbs sprawled gracelessly, blood spilled onto the ground. 

For a few moments, there was an unearthly stillness. Then things moved quickly: my father was bending over her, his ear by her chest. He stripped his shirt off and pressed it to the wound, tying to staunch the bleeding. Blood poured out regardless, soaking through the fabric: a scarlet rosette blossoming grotesquely on khaki. 

‘We must get her to the hospital – quickly!’

A servant came running with blankets and they lifted her, a limp shape wrapped in soiled blue wool, and hurried her away. Moments later, I heard the cough and rattle of our truck start up and speed off.

I leaned against the rough bark of a tree and watched a pair of bright red and green lizards darting through the grass. High above, a company of hawks circled in a flawless blue sky. With my teeth, I took hold of a ragged piece of skin at the edge of my thumbnail and pulled. It came away in a long strip. A drop of bright blood welled up in the cuticle and ran down my thumb, though I felt no pain. 

I waited for my dad, but he did not come back. The light deepened and spread, staining the trees gold and casting stripes on the grass where it slipped between them. The glow lingered on the treetops, while the shadows of dusk began to creep over their lower branches. A bird called and crickets started up a low, persistent creaking. Two poodles appeared and made their way towards the house, agitated. They paused by the rust-coloured stain the Dragon Lady had left on the grass, sniffed at it and started to lick it. I realised that they were as forgotten as I was.

Tuesday 4 June 2019

"The Vicar's Beard": A Story by Mathew Lopez-Bland

The Vicar struggled, hacking away at his white beard with a pair of old scissors. It was important that he looked his best for the Bishop’s visit.

Every minute or so the Vicar would successfully free a clump of white hair and smile as it fell into the sink. Eventually, a scruffy, stubbled face smiled back at him from the mirror.

He walked through the Vicarage to his bedroom and took a cut-throat razor and a pair of tweezers from a drawer beneath his wardrobe. He had bought the tweezers especially the day before, but the ivory-handled razor had been given to him by his father years ago, as a gift when he had been ordained.

Watching the way the razor caught the light, he smiled again as he walked back through his home. Feeling pleased with himself, he lifted the razor to his face and pressed it to his cheek bone. The razor sliced straight through his skin. He swore as a trickle of dark blood rolled down his cheek. He cupped his free hand beneath the hot tap and tried to dab away the blood, but the cut continued to bleed.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, to the accusing face in the mirror, ‘but it has been a few years.’

He tore a small piece of toilet paper from the roll and stuck it over the cut. A red dot began to soak through the paper as he lifted the razor to his face again. Pressing the edge of the blade lightly against the skin above his top lip, he dragged the razor up toward his nose before dipping it beneath the tap, washing away the hair, and repeating the routine several times. On the third stroke the razor nicked at the ridge of his philtrum, opening up another cut. Again, he began to bleed.

The Vicar cut his face five more times before he finished. He placed the wet razor down on the rim of the sink and inspected his face in the mirror. It looked older than the last time he’d seen it. His naked jowls hung like a dog’s and his skin was liver-spotted and grey.

He splashed cold water over his face, cleaning his pores and washing away the scraps of toilet paper. None of the cuts were deep but they all stung and continued to bleed.

‘You look so old,’ he said to the face in the mirror. ‘Your beard suited you. It’s a shame the Bishop doesn't like beards. Sandy always liked them.’

A drop of blood fell onto the Vicar's white pyjama top, from a cut somewhere on his second chin. He tutted and covered the cut again with toilet paper.

‘You’ve got more chins than the rest of the parish combined,’ he sighed, and reached for the scissors.

The scissors chewed at his wiry eyebrows, twisting and pulling but not cutting them. Giving up on the scissors, he held the long hairs between his thumb and index finger and sliced them through with the razor. Within minutes his eyebrows, which had once curled round so far that, were it not for his glasses, they would have poked him in the eye, looked nicely trimmed.

‘That’s a lot better,’ he smiled.

Another drop of blood fell onto the his top, this time from the first cut he’d made, high up on his cheek. He reached for the toilet paper and covered all of the cuts, again.

‘Now comes the worst,’ he grimaced, taking the tweezers from the rim of the sink.

He swore as he plucked his first nasal hair and tears stung in his eyes. He went in for the second and third hairs before he lost his nerve, but the pain broke him before the fourth. He turned away from the sink and the mirror and scrunched up his eyes. He wondered if it was worth the effort. He remembered, three or four years ago, Sandy had asked him to pluck his nasal hair, but he had refused.

‘Come on Mr. Vicar,’ she’d goaded him, ‘you know you’d look even sexier.’

The Vicar had liked Sandy; not many people spoke to him like that. But he had always doubted how much Sandy had really liked him. Not that it had mattered; Sandy wasn’t the right sort for a Vicar. He knew from their more candid conversations that the parish gossip about her promiscuity was well-founded. Nevertheless, he had wept for days after her funeral. That was one of the hardest things about having such a small parish, he thought, turning back to the mirror: you were always burying someone you loved. 

He plucked a further ten nasal hairs, pausing only once. The pain helped him forget about Sandy.

‘Nearly there,’ the Vicar grinned, laying down the tweezers and blowing his nose. ‘Just a quick tidy up-top and then you’re done.’

He splashed hot water over the bald top of his head, tilting it down toward the sink and hunching over. He picked up the razor again and began shaving his head, lightly tracing the outline of his skull. As he reached his crown, where the wreath of hair that encircled the back and sides of his head began, he stopped. But he struggled without the aid of the mirror, confused as to where he was shaving and where he had already shaved before. By the time he finally straightened up again, he felt nauseous.

The face in the mirror had gone a deep red and most of the cuts had bled heavily while he was hunched over, causing the scraps of toilet paper to fall away.

He sat down on the toilet, blood trickling down his cheek, and leant his head back on the cold wall behind.  He thought of the Bishop coming to visit later that day. The cuts would need to stop bleeding before then or all the Vicar's suffering would be for nothing. Several drops of blood dripped onto his shirt, and continued dripping. He hoped that the Bishop hadn’t changed her mind about beards. It had been so long since he had last seen her that she might have. 

‘Sandy was still here the last time,’ the Vicar heard himself croak. 

He wondered if the Bishop would remember Sandy. He hoped she wouldn’t.

Mathew Lopez-Bland studied English with Creative Writing at the University of Leicester as an undergraduate, before undertaking a Master's degree in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. He now works full time at being unemployed; the hours feel infinite but he enjoys being able to work from home. He writes short stories, screenplays and the occasional poem. His work has previously appeared in Writing Magazine, Writing Short Fiction and The Jawline Review