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Bitterhall

Helen McClory is the author of two story collections: On the Edges of Vision (Queen’s Ferry Press), a winner of the Saltire First Book of the Year award, and Mayhem & Death (404 Ink), as well as a novel, Flesh of the Peach (Freight, 2017). The Goldblum Variations – a collection of experimental micro-fictions – was published by 404 Ink (2018), and Penguin (2019). Her short stories have been listed for distinction in The Best of British Fantasy (2018), The Best of British and Irish Flash Fictions (2018/19), and nominated for the Pushcart prize. Helen is a part-time lecturer at the University of Glasgow and co-founder of writing retreat Write Toscana.

BITTERHALL

A Novel

by

Helen McClory

First published in Great Britain in 2021 by Polygon,

an imprint of Birlinn Ltd

West Newington House

10 Newington Road

Edinburgh

EH9 1QS

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

www.polygonbooks.co.uk

Copyright © Helen McClory, 2021

The moral right of Helen McClory to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

The excerpt on page v is taken from Stigmata (1998) by Hélène Cixous.

Printed with permission.

ISBN 978 1 84697 549 3

eBook ISBN 978 1 78885 375 0

The publisher gratefully acknowledges investment from Creative Scotland towards the publication of this book.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library.

Typeset by 3btype.com

Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, Elcograf S.p.A.

And to think that there will be readers of our book. They will open it. And they’ll make fun of the murkiness of our night. Says the author – We, for so many years, see them, trying to find themselves, get lost, a hundred times on the point of finding themselves, seeing themselves, looking at themselves, recognizing themselves; finally tearing away the lovely, thin veil that blurs their vision, the guardian of truth, and thus living for years, on the edge, quivering with desire, that is, fear, that is, desire.

Hélène Cixous, Stigmata

Daniel Lightfoot

Autumn Soft

I am on the swing in the garden, under the oak bough, late August night, a couple of beers tipped over beside me in the short mossy grass and my heart is a neat bundle of sticks in love with the dead and the unreachable. Up in the house a single light shines; first floor, the bedroom, my bedroom, so it looks like there’s somebody up there. And I, hazy, imagine them looking down on me, and at the same time down on the whole of this city, with some dispassionate warmth, like a God.

My head lies against the swing chain, the fabric of my scarf at my throat grey in this light, blue indoors, I’d grabbed it on leaving the new housemate and his girlfriend at a strange moment all together in the kitchen. I think how he, Tom, is legendarily good looking. Only later will I see Tom unravel and almost fall, and I will catch him.

Work is just beginning to launch itself to its full purpose, and I think of the objects I will handle, which I have seen in the catalogue or taken out of packaging and put into the safe, so frail in my careful hands; I think of the monumental paperwork, the email chains to and from absent bosses mostly floors above my soundproofed basement room.

I feel for the metal chain of the swing and kick off again, a gentle sway, a little more, wind in the face, cold, and the ground makes a good sound when I kick it. I don’t think about the thing I am trying not to think about. Shhhh. I think for a while about this ground, leafy, dirt in footprints, old scuff-mark furrows from swing-riders, and of the tensile strength of the chains, and of the cold of the seat. All I can think, just for a moment, is: Just be calm. Bed soon. Back up to the diary I am reading and I do not yet know of everything wild that waits above us to kick off, with my housemate, his girlfriend and me.

I want you to love me, if I’m being honest. That’s why I start so gently, in the garden, in the present tense. A good story begins tipsily in a garden, and carries on through well-proportioned rooms in the past tense in which blood is being spilled and was spilled, is measured out already, and the possessors of that blood were embarrassed at its spilling, and hold their hands over the wounds, pretending everything was fine. When exactly is this happening, and to whom is it happening, and who is making it happen? We begin to become tricky, don’t we, when I write in the first person. What tense do my intrusive thoughts manifest in? Somewhere between the first and second, like a harsh note in a piano recital, a piece so often played it should be clean of errors, yet here and here again the wrong note spikes in the same predictable, always jarring way, repeating itself, a bad inorganic refrain.

Intent is the issue, too. It’s a holiday to take up a different tense, a different perspective. But I’ll let you decide who is who, who is not who, who is real (real enough, then?). For a clue (as much as I’ve got), there is a centre to this whole thing. It’s up to you to mark it.

Aside – everything is an aside. Except the centre. That is the centre. Find it. Come along and around me. Us. Fill the edges of this thing.

The Self

In the garden at night, opening my eyes after closing them over, and keeping the drunkenness and feeling all

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