THE WELL by Andrew Stott (2nd place, Jul20)

The swallows fly into and out of the well. There must be a nest down there. Whyever else would they fly down into it? I have looked down over the top. There is mesh there, to prevent a human being falling in and falling to their doom, but there is a small hole in the mesh. I wonder if a swallow has picked it apart with its beak – broken in – entered the depths – the unknown. What is down there? What do they know that I don’t…

Sometimes, I stand there, at night, looking into the well. The black of the well is darker than everything else – you can’t even see the mesh. But it is there – protecting me – protecting me from a fall to my doom.

I look for them. I try to see the swallows. I try to see the nest. And then I switch my torch on and everything is illuminated – the mesh is bright and brown and clear. And I think I can see the reflections of water down below. I want to see the nest. I want to see the bright eyes of the chicks but I cannot make anything out. I call. And then they come at me. I fall back as the bats stream up from the well. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Going up in a huge column. The end of days. It has come. It is all over.

I stand beside the cooker and I watch my egg boil. It jitters around in there. There is a trace of white in the water. I pierced the end of the egg with the sharp point of my smallest knife. It is to release the pressure – to stop the egg from cracking when it enters the simmering water. It sometimes works. It has worked this time – the egg has not cracked. But there is still a small wisp of white from the hole. I look at it. It is like semen in water. I feel like I want to stick my fingers in and lift it out but that will scald my fingers and I will have to hold them under the cold tap – or – worse – take myself to A & E because my flesh is falling off.

Not a good idea.

I decide not to do it.

In the lounge I sit with my feet up on the pouf. I continue with my knitting. Knit one. Purl one. Knit one. Purl one. I keep going… I enjoy it. I turn the knitting counter and start on the next row.

Downton Abbey is being repeated on ITV and I like that. I keep waiting for Dame Maggie Smith to reappear. She is the only one I want to watch. The other ones bore me somehow. Knit one. Purl one. Knit one. Purl one.

I sit on the toilet and wait. Sometimes it takes ages. I eat too many eggs. I know that. But I like eggs. And wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you do everything that they tell you not to do? Why be like that? Why follow their rules? It is my life. I only want to be free.

In the bedroom I pick up the picture frame. I stare at him. He is not with me anymore. I love him. I feel like he is with me when my hands are on the picture. And then I feel this overwhelming sense of loss, and I curl up on the bed and I wrap myself into myself and I hold the pillow and I cry.

It doesn’t last long. I uncurl and lie down. I look at his bed, no longer occupied, over to the right of me. I imagine him there. I imagine his chest rising and falling. I imagine the little snores emanating from his mouth. A huge creature, a monolith. A creature from the deep. A beached whale, in the bed next to me, with the special bars that go up and down and the electronics that raise the back end of the bed, and the front end of the bed, on hydraulics. I think that is what they are called. You could squeeze him into all sorts of positions with those buttons. But usually you didn’t. You just raised the back and then gave him his pills, and then helped his feet find the floor. You put his hands on the walker and you helped him stand. You talked through with him which foot he was going to move next and where he was going to put it and – gradually – over time – over quite some time – he made it to the toilet. And then he was stuck. Because he couldn’t turn round. And just before you got him there it was all over and running down his legs and it was okay… it was nothing to worry about… just sit down… and once he was sitting down you got the shower head out of the shower connected to the really long hose and you washed him down until he was clean and he just saw you. He just looked at you. No longer really connected to anything else. A broken darling. A bird on the wing. A swallow heading down deep into the well – never to return.

There is life down there. I know it. The swallows are breeding life. You can see them during the day and you sit on the step in front of the patio. They fly into the well and they emerge from it. Is it the same swallow? Is it a mummy swallow? I don’t know. And I wish I did. I wish I could place my hand on it. I wish I could hold it. I wish I could see it.

I stare at the monkey puzzle. I like those trees with their crazy branches. I planted it twenty years ago. It is doing well.

I cut my nails. I snip off the hard bits of nail that I have softened by sitting my feet in a bowl of water for twenty minutes with the funny salt in it.

The nails I place on a piece of paper. I am still alive. I keep growing. Look at me grow. I have to keep cutting pieces off myself.

I didn’t think that I would still be alive – so long after he died. I still feel it. Why do I continue to exist? It doesn’t seem right. I treat each day as a gift. Because it is. There are no children in my nest. They have grown up and have left home. They come to visit sometimes. And I make them my roast lamb. They like it. They bring the mint sauce from Waitrose. The expensive one. It works really well.

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