The Writer’s Room: Rachel Sanderson

I’m so excited to introduce you all to my next guest in the Writer’s Room; Rachel Sanderson. Though Rachel and I haven’t met in real life (yet), we’ve bonded through Twitter over sleepless nights with sick toddlers, finding time to write and reading great fiction. I subscribe to Rachel’s newsletter and it was there that I found out about publication of her debut YA novel, The Space Between. I snapped up the eBook as soon as it was released and promptly devoured it. In today’s interview, I ask the standard writing questions of Rachel, but also delve a little deeper into her novel. There are no spoilers, but if you’ve read the book, you’ll find some wonderful insight from Rachel here.

Rachel Sanderson has worked as a bakery assistant, cleaner, telemarketer, receptionist, yoga instructor, university tutor, researcher and public servant. She’s studied philosophy, Spanish, law and has a PhD in history. She co-wrote a documentary film, The End of the Rainbow, which won the First Appearance Award at the 2007 International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. The Space Between is her  first novel. It was shortlisted for the 2016 Ampersand Prize. She lives in Canberra with her partner and son.

You can find Rachel through her website, on Twitter, Facebook, and the book is available here on Amazon.

According to your bio you are a prolific reader and writer. You’ve had success in documentary writing, short stories, poetry, essays and now YA fiction. Is it difficult to switch between so many genres and styles? And how do you best approach your writing on any given day?

I’ve been writing for most of my life, so I’ve done lots of different types of writing but over a long period of time! I did a PhD in history and one of the reasons I didn’t want to continue working in academia is because I’ve always wanted to write fiction, and I found I couldn’t do both. It just didn’t work for me at all. I’ve had periods of writing poetry intensively but I’m not doing that at all at the moment. Since about 2012 I’ve been really focused on writing novels – it’s taken me such a long time to figure out how to get from one end of a story to another, and it takes so much focus and concentration, I find I can’t do all that much else now.

I do swap between genres though – I write contemporary young adult novels that tend to be on the darker, grittier side, and I’m also writing a fantasy series. I generally have multiple projects on the go simultaneously – something in early draft, something in revisions or resting in the drawer. I find I need to give my first drafts quite a bit of time to rest before I can work on them effectively – often up to six months. So it works well for me having different long-term projects underway. I also quite like the change of voice and style I get when I switch between genres – the tone is really very different, and I think writing fantasy gives me a break from the contemporary and vice versa.

In terms of my daily writing routine – I have a three-year-old and I work part-time and really just grab whatever time I can. Either early mornings, or evenings after my son goes to sleep. Sometimes I write on the bus. I have two mornings a week when my son’s in daycare and I don’t start work till late morning and I generally get a couple of hours then to work, which I absolutely treasure. I’m someone who works well to a routine and if it was just up to me I’d probably stick to a much more regular timetable and do a lot more hours, but it’s just not possible at the moment unfortunately! I’m always working around things and most of the time I live with an underlying feeling of frustration that I’m not getting more done, which is hard. I don’t do much of anything other than writing, parenting and working at the moment – any spare time I have is for writing. On the plus side, I think it makes me very focused when I do sit down to write now. I don’t procrastinate because the time is just so precious to me.

Have you undertaken any formal or informal education in writing? And have you found this beneficial in honing your craft?

When I was in high school I wrote volumes and did lots of fantastic writing workshops at a youth arts centre. I had someone who acted as a mentor to me there, and he taught me a lot, especially about editing.

Writing a PhD isn’t necessarily education in writing as such, but I have definitely found that the discipline I learned from my PhD is something I’ve taken into all the writing I’ve done since. That was how I learned just to sit down and write – when I was in the writing-phase I worked to a word count every day. I drafted and redrafted and redrafted and I wrote something big not knowing exactly where I was going, which was terrifying – which is how I always seem to work.

I’ve tried and failed to write novels for years. I have so many first chapters tucked away in boxes and drawers!  I just couldn’t figure out how to make a story move – how to make things happen. In 2012 I did a ten-month novel-writing course online through the Writers Studio in Sydney. It was very focused on the detail of story structure, and aligning your plot and character development and I did most of the course, then got a bit derailed by life events and didn’t finish it. I did Nanowrimo later that year and that was when I wrote the first draft of The Space Between. So even though I don’t tightly follow the approach we were taught, something in the course just clicked for me, at very long last, and helped me get to the point where I could actually finish a draft of a novel.  That was a huge relief!!

These days I listen to a lot of podcasts, and read Writer’s Digest and books about writing, as well as just reading fiction generally, so I try to keep learning more about the craft of writing that way.

Where do you draw inspiration for your writing?

The inspiration for my writing is primarily from my own life – not that what I’m writing is biographical but it draws on the colour and texture of my experiences. I’ve also read a lot, which I’m sure feeds my imagination. Often my writing starts with a very contained idea, a character or scene, something that sticks in my mind, and I gradually build it from there and learn more about what is surrounding it. It doesn’t all come at once for me – I generally figure things out slowly as I write, or more often as I re-write! That seems to be how I think best.

You recently self-published your first novel, The Space Between. Why did you decide to go down the self-publishing route, and what did you gain from that process?

I’ve been interested in self-publishing for a year or two now. I listen to a bunch of self-publishing podcasts which are really informative, and I’m involved in a Facebook group of self-publishing authors that’s also been really helpful.

My original plan was that I wanted to try to go hybrid – to see if I could traditionally publish my contemporary YA novels, which are stand-alones, and self-publish my fantasy series under a pen name, because series tend to do well for self-publishing authors. I started pitching The Space Between to publishers and got some really positive responses – it was shortlisted for the Ampersand Prize by Hardie-Grant Egmont, which was amazing, and Penguin Random House requested the full manuscript. I got really supportive and encouraging feedback from a number of publishers, but no contract.

I spent a year out on submission – and it’s a very very slow, glacial process. It takes so much patience and persistence, it’s quite draining. And meanwhile I was continuing to learn about self-publishing, and seeing some traditionally published Australian authors I really admire, like Alison Croggon, Ellie Marney and John Birmingham, choose to go down that route. I hit the one-year mark and just decided, pretty much on the spur of the moment, that I’d given it long enough and if I couldn’t get a contract I’d do it myself.

It’s been a steep learning curve but I’ve been so fortunate to have a hugely supportive author community to draw on for advice. When it comes down to it, publishers are businesses and they’re making a business decision about whether to invest in your work or not. If you don’t get a contract, it doesn’t mean your work is no good, or that you haven’t passed some threshold, it just means they’re not willing to invest in you for whatever reason at this point in time. But the technology is available through print-on-demand and online distribution for authors to make the choice to invest in their own work – to do the work and put it out there and let readers decide. I think that’s pretty exciting, and despite moments of absolute terror I’ve been generally loving the experience so far.

You’re based in Canberra, but you set The Space Between in Adelaide. Why did you choose this location, and what research was involved in getting the setting right?

I’m from Adelaide originally, I grew up there and most of my family is still there, so even though I’ve been living elsewhere since around 1999 I go back regularly. It felt like the natural setting for this story, and the place where they go for the camping trip is based loosely on a place I used to camp at when I was young. I honestly didn’t do all that much research – I spent a bit of time with Google Street View and that was about it!!

The Space Between incorporates some quite heavy topics. What was your driving force for writing this novel, and what do you hope people take away from it?

My dad died when I was eight years old, and as a teenager I was struggling to deal with a lot of unresolved grief and trying to make sense of that loss: what it meant to me and what it meant to my family. I think there’s a lot of that experience in the book. Grief can be such an overwhelming thing, and there’s no right way to deal with it. I’ve had a number of readers say they understood why Erica made the choices that she did but they didn’t agree with them, or they weren’t the choices they would make. I feel that you just don’t know, until you’re in that position, how you’ll respond or what you’ll do. And loss doesn’t go away, there’s no magic wand you can wave to make things all better, it takes lots of time and perspective for you to integrate those experiences into the rest of your life. The thing that shifted for me as I was writing The Space Between was that when I started, I thought I was writing a book about loss, about how we deal with losses that don’t make sense. And I worked on the story and worked on the story and one day I just hit a point where I realized that, for me, the point of the book isn’t loss, it’s love. The love between Erica and Daina is the core of the story, and the sense of that enduring love is I hope what will stay with people when they read it.

I found the characters incredibly realistic and well written. The way you developed Daina throughout the text without having her as a physical character in the scene was very clever. Was it hard to write her and your other characters?

It was an iterative process. I had the characters in my head, I think, but that didn’t necessarily translate straight away to the page. I found working with beta readers incredibly useful for this, because at some points they’d interpret characters actions completely differently to how I saw them, and that made me really examine what and how I had shown, and think hard about how to fine-tune them in every scene. So it took a lot of time to get the characters working on the page, but my sense of them was quite clear from the start.

Without giving too much away, the ending of the novel both resolves the main plot, but also leaves many questions unanswered. Is there any room in the future for a sequel, or are you happy to leave this as it is?

I’m not planning on a sequel but I’d never say never! For me, I feel like the story is finished, even with all the loose ends. I did have some ideas for an epilogue that I never wrote though, and these things can sometimes take on a life of their own…

What are you working on now?

I’ve been redrafting another contemporary YA novel called Mirror Me, which is a story about a girl who moves to a small town only to discover that she’s almost identical to another girl who was murdered there a year earlier. It’s a bit more of a thriller, with some whiffs of the supernatural, and quite a different narrative voice, which I’ve enjoyed. I just sent that off to the first batch of beta readers this week, so I’m happy to put it aside and not think about it for a while.

I’ve also just got my copy edits back on The Dying Flame, which is the first book in my Darkfall series, the fantasy I’ve been working on. I’m working through those at the moment (note to self: use less commas!) and am aiming to publish that book in late October. And then, start writing Book Two!!!!

Finally, what advice do you have for other writers who may be just starting out in the industry and looking for publication?

I’m very much just starting out too, but my main advice would probably be just to keep working. Try and polish a piece of writing to the point that you can send it out, send it out, then get started on something else. You don’t want to be too invested in any one piece of work. And think about what you want – there are lots of ways to connect with readers, there’s not just one single pathway to being a writer.

What a fantastic interview and insight into your writing process, Rachel. I hope this gives other authors who have been considering self-publishing the confidence to believe in themselves and not be deterred if a traditional publishing contract doesn’t come their way.

On Being a Masterclasser: Character

One of the main things Fiona focused on during masterclass was character. In commercial fiction, character is key, character is plot. Most readers of commercial fiction want to be immersed in the story, they want to feel that they are embodying your character, or walking alongside them. This is why getting character right is vital to the success of your novel.

I’ll admit, my main protagonist came to me almost fully formed. I invested a lot of thinking time into her. But this came at a high cost to all the other characters. Even my protagonist’s daughter, who is the other main character, wasn’t well thought out.

While you don’t need to know a lot about every single character that features in your novel, if you want the main ones to be successful, it helps to give them each a profile; some things that differentiate them from others, like quirky turns of phrase that highlight their background, a unique look, an intriguing habit or tick.

I have quite a few characters, but only four that will hold court for the majority of the book. Before I started the final draft of my manuscript, I created a profile for each of these characters. I use Scrivener and fortunately there’s a built in character profile template with the software. The template includes:

  • Name of Character
  • Role in story
  • Occupation
  • Physical description (Fiona suggests sticking to just 2 or 3 and letting the reader fill in the blanks)
  • Personality
  • Habits/mannerisms
  • Background
  • Internal conflicts
  • External conflicts

I used bullet points so as not to get bogged down in details that would either be irrelevant, or hard to remember as I work my way through the story.

I also did a google image search using keywords like ‘middle aged brunette’ and chose one that resembled the character I had in mind. By including a photo I now have a reference point for any time that I want to layer a scene with exposition about the character, that will always be consistent.

On being a Masterclasser: Overview

That’s what we’re known as, masterclassers. That is, the some 200 or so people who have taken the plunge and signed up for Fiona McIntosh’s five day intensive writing course. I know lots of my fellow writing peers are keen to hear how the course went, and I’m itching to share everything I’ve learnt. But not only would it be impossible for me to impart the wisdom of a seasoned pro like Fiona in the same enthralling way that she does, but it also wouldn’t be fair. She’s been in the biz for 17 years, and this is a big part of her job, her livelihood. I’m not about to take something like that away from her, or any writer.

However, over the next few posts I will share some of the highlights of the masterclass and some of the work I created whilst there.

Fiona’s masterclass is completely targeted at commercial genre fiction. So if you’re someone who writes non-fiction or literary fiction, well you may want to stop reading now. (But, please don’t!). Lots of her advice would transcend other areas of writing, but the course itself is really homing in on the commercial stuff. That is the stuff that is mass marketed and mass produced.

For me, this was a real eye-opener in terms of comparing to my previous Masters study and this. I won’t go into it, but if you are someone who wants to be traditionally published in commercial fiction, maybe don’t bother with the Masters like I did. Do some courses at your local writers centre, or take a look at this Masterclass. It really is all you need to get going.

Another great resource if you can’t afford the investment of a course like this is to pick up a writers resource like Fiona’s How To Write Your Blockbuster, or even Stephen King’s On Writing.

Some top tips for getting serious about writing:

  • Set up a writing space with good lighting.
  • Use a proper office chair with good support for your posture – kitchen chairs just won’t cut it. (I’ll admit, I’m guilty of laying in bed with my laptop, this is a BIG no no).
  • Use the best equipment you can afford and upgrade regularly. I use a Mac and Scrivener, but you don’t have to fork out a lot for decent equipment. Microsoft Word is actually the format publishers will want the manuscript in anyway.
  • Back up regularly. I am terribly guilty of not doing this. But I do have an external hard drive and I’m going to try and remember to use it. It would be devastating to lose your work.
  • Here’s the big one: Make time to write every day that you have committed to writing. Note how I didn’t say to make time to write every day period. That’s because, as Fiona says, you need a break. Writing every day can lead to burn out, just like writing loads and loads of words over 2 or 3 days can equally lead to burn out. You want to be getting into a good writing habit, and you want to sustain it. Writing in big chunks more infrequently won’t work in the long run.
  • On the days you’re not writing, let it go. Don’t think about your WIP. Don’t rewrite it in your mind. Don’t plot and plan what you’re going to write until you’re actually sitting in your chair during your dedicated writing time. Give your brain a break and enjoy your time off.
  • Exercise regularly. If you’re sitting at a computer for long periods, most days, it’s important to get out and enjoy the sunshine, get some fresh air and stretch out your muscles and bones.
  • Give up television. I know, this one hurts (some of us more than others). You don’t really need to give up TV completely, but do consider where your time is going and how enriching those hours in front of the TV really are. If you’re watching great quality drama, beautiful movies and intriguing series, by all means, set aside time for them – especially if they are relevant to your writing (era, scenery, character, etc). But do reconsider the trash. Stay away from the reality rubbish that really doesn’t serve you. It’s all contrived anyway.
  • Surround yourself with support. Whether it be a writing group, a book club or just a few friends that can cheer you on and bounce ideas around with you, support is crucial.
  • Get to know your local librarian and book seller. These people are in the know and can be your greatest allies when it comes to selling your books. They’re also great resources for research, and as potential beta readers. Librarians and book sellers generally love books, so it’s safe to say they’d be happy to help a local writer in their endeavours to get published.
  • Know your genre and read it. A lot.
  • Understand the tropes of your genre.
  • Find publishers that specialise in your genre.
  • Don’t let writing define or overwhelm you. It’s OK to be passionate about your writing, but it’s not all there is.
  • Don’t use the truth. Even if you’re writing fiction based on fact. Commercial fiction exists to entertain, so don’t be afraid to dramatise and embellish your story.
  • Relationships are key in commercial fiction. It is human nature to be drawn to interesting and dynamic people, to their conflicts and their emotions.

Over the next few posts I’ll focus a bit on the various elements of writing. Including character, description, generating ideas and publishing.

 

 

Manuscript Progress Update

Tomorrow, I’ll be commencing a five-day intensive fiction writing masterclass, facilitated by Fiona McIntosh. I’m looking forward to bunkering down with approximately 18 other writers to learn from one of the masters of Australian commercial fiction. Say what you will about her writing, Fiona McIntosh knows how to sell books. Not only that, she also capitalises on her travel agency past and has run tours to the locations of her books; France for The Lavender Keeper, Belgium for The Cholocate Tin. With the release of The Perfumer’s Secret she also hand blended and released a special perfume that featured in the book. She is more than an author, she is an entrepreneur.

I am giddy with excitement about what lies ahead for the next five days (though overwhelmed at the prospect of leaving my 8 month old for the first time). I hope to blog about each day very quickly after the masterclass while it’s still fresh in my mind. So if it interests you, be sure to check back in the coming weeks.

Right now, I am in the midst of a major rewrite of my completed manuscript. Currently it sits at just over 84,000 words. Of that I’ve edited 20,000.

As part of the masterclass, Fiona reviews both the synopsis and the first 10 pages of your manuscript. We then have a one-on-one discussion where I’m hoping she will tell me that I’m wonderfully on track and that the book is sure to be a best-seller.

Ha!

Though I do hope to get some positive feedback, I’m sure it’s more likely to be quite constructive. I just hope it doesn’t result in me needing to rethink the entire manuscript again, because I don’t think I have the stamina for that. I have too many other ideas floating around. And, after 3 years on this, I’m getting impatient to put it aside and start something new.

Into the Silence

Stepping out of her midnight blue corolla at ten pm, Abigail’s sneakered feet instantly sunk into the wet clay.

“For fuck’s sake.” She muttered.

She walked across the car park on the balls of her feet, unsteady like a toddler taking his first steps. Her heavy bag swung about her shoulder threatening to throw her off balance with each step.

At the back entrance of Oaklands Aged Care Facility, Abigail wiped her shoes against the jutted-out bricks of a nearby window pane, leaving globs of sand-coloured clay pasted to the edge. It would dry there, making Jim the groundskeeper furious when he sees it. Abigail chuckled to herself imagining the old codger in his wide brimmed hat and khaki green shirt cursing at anyone who would listen about having to hose that whole facade down and then having to clean the window with spray and wipe to get rid of the water marks. Like the residents cared if there were water stains on the glass. Most of them couldn’t even see past their own noses.

At the doorway, Abigail lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with a final injection of nicotine for the night. She was down to only four smokes and after this packet, there would be no more. Daisy had become increasingly vocal about Abigail’s smoking, ever since her principal died suddenly of cancer. Abigail’s daughter couldn’t possibly understand the difficulty in giving up something you’d done for more than twenty years. But, for Daisy’s sake, Abigail was willing to try.

With her final exhalation, Abigail watched the smoke cloud above her head before dissipating into the night air. The staleness of smoke hung like an invisible aura as she swiped her keycard and pushed through the door.

In the staff room Pete sat at the computer tapping away on the keyboard.

“You’re late.” He said without looking up.

Abigail glanced at her watch. It was true, she did walk in a few minutes after ten, but Pete had no right to call her on it. He was just a carer like her, not a manager or even a nurse.

Ignoring his remark Abigail asked, “Where’s Toni?”

“She’s been here for fifteen minutes already. She’s helping Sandy put Dora to bed. She had another fall today.”

Abigail chewed her bottom lip, resisting the urge to snap at Pete for letting Toni do his job for him. He was on the afternoon shift with Sandy, it was his responsibility to finish up the arvo tasks and then hand over to the night team. But if Toni wanted to take on the extra unpaid work, that was her problem, Abigail reasoned. She walked past Pete to the lockers and threw her bag into an empty hole.

Abigail left the staff room without saying anything more to Pete and made her way to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. She would wait until he and Sandy had left before catching up with Toni and checking the hand-over log.

Stirring sugar into her tea Abigail couldn’t help but mull over Pete’s remarks. She had decided long ago that she didn’t like any of her colleagues. If they weren’t snitching on one another to Barb, they were cavorting together like a gaggle of teenaged girls, always gossiping about someone. If it weren’t for the connections she had made with many of the residents, Abigail doubted she would still be working as a carer. She found their stories – though repetitive – fascinating. Old Dora has been a women’s rights activist in the seventies, and even Frank, though rough and completely sexist, loved a good yarn about his time in the war. It was all amazing to Abigail, who, even though she had spent years traveling around Australia with her ex-husband, Marty, felt as though she had barely even left the small town of Oaklands.

With her milky sweet tea in hand, Abigail made her way back to the staff room. The sensor lights flickered as she traversed the thickly carpeted space, highlighting the faded walls in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. A television chattered in muted tones from a distant room, keeping someone company as the rest of the floor slept.

Rounding a corner of the passageway Abigail saw a grey figure hunched over a walker. He wore old slippers that dragged against the carpet as he shuffled. An olive green dressing gown was draped over his curved shoulders.

“Frank!” Abigail called.

The old man kept shuffling, leaning heavily forward. As she caught him up Abigail touched his shoulder lightly. He stiffened what little muscle remained of his upper arms and swivelled his head toward her, eyes wide like a cat startled by a loud noise.

“What?” He growled.

“Where are you off to at this time of the night, Frank?”

“What’s it to you?”

“Well, it’s quite late. Everyone’s sleeping.” Abigail kept her voice measured. Frank was oftentimes unpredictable, struggling like many of the residents with a touch of dementia.

“Hmph. Can’t sleep. Not tonight. The fuckers will get us while we sleep. Slit our throats from ear to ear.”

“It’s alright Frank. You’re not in the field now. You’re in the hospital, safe and sound, remember?”

Frank eyed the empty space above Abigail’s hair line. She watched his jaw clench with tension as he tried to place himself in the right time, the right country. When his body slackened and his face began to relax Abigail gave Frank a gentle nudge and guided him around in a semi-circle, making full use of the width of the hallway. Frank’s door was adorned with a poster of a fighter jet, a memento of his time in the Air Force. All the doors were decorated with a personal symbol which gave the residents something to recognise so that they didn’t end up walking into the wrong room.

With Frank tucked back into bed, Abigail made her way to the office, picking up her now cold tea from the hall table whence she’d set it.

Frank had a pretty bad reputation at Oaklands. Most of the residents avoided him and the carers complained about him incessantly. He was rude, abrupt, careless and sexist. His family never visited anymore. Rumours spread quickly when he first arrived that he had been an abusive husband and father. His daughter only came to visit him at Christmas, and Abigail could see in her absent stare that she was pretending to be anywhere else the whole time she sat with him.

To Abigail, Frank was like her own father. A war veteran who was mostly absent through her childhood. Her memories of him were clouded by stories from her mother.

“Your father was a good man, Abigail.” Sheryl had said to a sullen teenaged Abigail, a year or more after her dad had died.

“He was the strong, silent type. But oh, he was so happy to have a daughter. I think he was drunk for a week after you were born!”

Sheryl had wiped a tear from beneath Abigail’s ballooning eyes, red rimmed from crying. She ruffled the top of her daughter’s head, the way Abigail imagined her father might have done, had he been there.

She’d been suspended from school that week, caught smoking behind the sports shed with Richie. Abigail was in love with Richie, but he’d blown her off after the smoking incident. His father was the local cop and he held weight in the town. Abigail watched him march into the Principal’s office, his leather boots making silent indents in the linoleum floor. He was an intimidating man and so it came as no surprise that Richie was quickly returned to class unpunished, while Abigail, with no father to defend her, was sent home as punishment.

She hadn’t even bothered to tell her mother the truth about her leaving school. She just never went back. Abigail got a job as an assistant at the local council office and helped pay the bills with what little money she earned. Marty was a town planner commissioned for a new housing estate. They were married less than a year after meeting and Daisy was born a year after that. Marty moved his family every two years chasing work, and chasing women, as it turned out. When she returned to Oaklands years later, it was with no husband, no job, and a seven year old daughter to support. She had nothing to fall back on. The job at the Aged Care Home was only meant to be an interim measure, until Abigail could work out what she really wanted to do.

“Frank’s been wandering again.” Abigail said to Toni, who was now seated at the computer.

“Hmmm, he does that” Toni replied. “Been through the notes yet?”

“Nope, coming to do that now. Anything to worry about?”

“Just the usual. Dora had a fall. She seems okay, just a little stiff. Doc’s coming tomorrow to examine her.”

Abigail and Toni made polite conversation while reading over the notes.

The next hour was quiet and the two women kept mostly to themselves. At eleven-thirty Toni stood up wearily from the computer, stretching her arms above her head. She yawned noisily.

“Are you going to have a sleep?” Abigail asked. “I’m not tired yet so if you want to sleep, you can. I’ll do first response to any calls.”

Toni glanced at the clock and nodded.

“Okay, well, just wake me if you need anything.”

Toni shut down all the internet browsers she’d had open and logged off the computer. Abigail resumed folding the linen she had brought in from the laundry as Toni slipped out of the room without another word. The door to the sleep-out alongside the staff room creaked open and then clicked closed. It was only a small room, previously a storage closet, with only enough space for a single bed and not much else. But it was dark and quiet, all they really needed to fit in a few hours of sleep.

Abigail busied herself with the laundry. While most of the other carers took every opportunity to sit on the internet, Abigail was somewhat of a dinosaur when it came to technology. She still used a flip phone which Daisy was mortified about. Whenever Abigail pulled her phone out of her bag when they were together, her daughter’s face would scrunch up like an overripe passionfruit and she would grumble under her breath.

“Mum, when are you going to upgrade that phone? It’s practically ancient.”

Abigail took little satisfaction in embarrassing her daughter, but she couldn’t much help it. She didn’t have the money for a new iPhone like everyone else. All her money went into Daisy’s schooling, her dance classes, her wardrobe and her own phone and tablet. What little support Abigail got from Marty wasn’t enough to sustain the lifestyle demands of a thirteen year-old.

“Shush you. I know how to use this phone. What’s the point in getting something new that you’ll just have to teach me to use?” Abigail teased, trying to brush off the hurt of her daughter’s embarrassment.

With thoughts of Daisy chasing around her brain, Abigail mindlessly folded all the laundry and begun ironing some of the residents clothes. It was the shrill of a call bell that brought her suddenly out of her reverie.

Even without looking at the switchboard, Abigail knew it was Frank pressing his buzzer, demanding her attention while everyone else slept.

Abigail walked down the hallway and stopped at the fighter jet. The door was slightly ajar and the sounds of the old man shuffling about the room came through the crack. She pushed the door open.

“Frank?”

“What, who’s there?” He spun his whole body around as fast as his old bones could manage.

“It’s me, Abigail. You rang your call bell.”

“What call bell? What the hell are you talking about woman?”

Frank was clearly out of sorts, perhaps even a little confused. Abigail took a step further into the dimly lit room and reached her hand out to steady the scrawny man.

“What the fuck are you doing, you should be in the kitchen, Leanne!”

Frank reeled back, raising his right fist while steadying himself against the wall with his left.

“Leanne? What are you talk-” Abigail had only a second to try and calculate what, or rather who, Frank was talking about before she felt the force of his bony knuckle meet the side of her head. She staggered backwards, a searing pain shooting through the left side of her face. Abigail instinctively put her hand to her head and felt the warmth of blood oozing thickly from a cut at her temple. She glanced at Frank in disbelief, but the man staring back at her was just a shell. His vacant eyes bore into hers with as much confusion as she felt herself.

Abigail darted out of the room and ran to the office, kicking the door closed behind her. She sat in the far corner, clutching at her head. Her pulse thrummed in her ear, hot and loud. She couldn’t move. She just sat, motionless. Each time she closed her eyes she saw a leathery fist clench and thrust toward her. She tried to reconcile what she’d said or done that might have triggered his behaviour. She searched her brain for a shred of training in what to do in this situation, but all she could see was that white fist pumping through the darkness.

Every fibre of her body told her to walk out of the building, get into her car and never come back. Shock kept her fused to the chair, waiting for the answer to come to her. Waiting for the impulse to collect her bag and leave. Like she’d done with school, with her marriage.

She hadn’t heard the door of the sleep-out open and so was caught by surprise when Toni came wandering into the office, bleary eyed from sleep. She took one look at Abigail and rushed over to the other woman.

“Abigail, what happened? You’re bleeding!”

“Frank. He was in a state, just punched me out of nowhere.”

“Holy shit. Are you alright?” Toni cupped Abigail’s face and pointed her chin upwards toward the light.

“I’m going to call Barb, this is unacceptable!”

Toni got up and made a start for the phone, but Abigail reached out and pulled her back.

“Listen, do you want to go home? You must be really shaken up. I can handle the shift myself, or call someone in to replace you.”

Abigail looked at her colleague then, for what felt like the first time in the many years since they’d worked together. She noticed a faint ring of blue that encircled Toni’s hazel eyes. She noticed the deep creases etched into her temples from years of smiling too wide. She saw the wisps of grey hair that the other woman had tried, unsuccessfully to hide behind her ears. Toni was no different to Abigail. She was just another mother, another wife, another human trying to do her best in a world that seemed to want to beat you down at every opportunity.

Abigail opened her mouth, which felt dry and tacky.

“No, no, it’s all right. I’ll stay. It’s too late to call Barb.”

“To hell with it, I’ll wake her up. You’ve been put in danger and I won’t stand for it.”

Toni’s fierceness shocked Abigail. She pushed herself up from the chair and walked to the bathroom, splashing ice cold water onto her burning face. She wiped away the remnants of blood, now drying tacky in her hair line. Her eye was beginning to swell and Abigail patted at it gingerly. She stared at her reflection, long and hard. She didn’t recognise the woman she saw, the woman she had become. Weathered from worrying about her teenage daughter. About money. Years of loneliness oozed from her pores. What had she done with her life? Who had she become?

Abigail patted her face dry and went back to the office. Toni was at the desk filling out an incident report.

“I spoke to Barb, she wants you to complete this form. And, ah, well she wants you to stay here, at work.”

Abigail watched a swarm of crimson creep above Toni’s collar; she kept her eyes trained on the paperwork. Clearly, Toni didn’t agree with Barb’s decision.

“It’s okay Toni, I’m happy to stay.”

Toni looked up then, meeting Abigail’s eyes. As they locked onto one another, something passed between the two women that Abigail had never felt before. A single tear pooled in her good eye as she recognised the feeling. The feeling of loyalty. Of friendship. 

“Come on Toni, we better just go and see if Frank’s alright. He’s probably just as confused as I am.”

As they padded down the hallway side by side, Abigail’s heart thudded violently against her rib cage. Her palms grew damp and too warm as she clasped them behind her back and then, clutched at the hem of her shirt.

“We should grab breakfast together when our shift ends.” Abigail said, distracting herself from the fighter jet looming larger as they inched closer to the door.

“Yeah, I’d like that.” Toni replied.

At the door, Toni knocked. After a few seconds of waiting, Abigail pushed the door open and they both walked, hand in hand, into the silence.