And If The Line Breaks

Shannon Savvas

Short Fiction

Dark sky, dark room, dark heart. Only the mad noise of the pre-dawn birds in the shadowy trees outside her childhood bedroom window tells her she lives, breathes. That her heart beats on. The house is cold. Alice burrows deeper under the duvet. When she arrived last night, Dad ushered her in, barely speaking, not from grief but from habit. 

The death of her mother is not the worst thing to have happened to Alice these past years, but it is most fortuitist. Ironic her mother alive could never bring her home but her mother dead guaranteed her return. To sit through a funeral with her crappy relatives and their easy-voiced grief will be worth it for in exchange for hot showers, fresh food and quiet dark hours in her childhood bed, sweet with the promise of solitary occupancy, to spade the worms out of her head and to stitch the holes only she knows gape behind her ribs. 

In her backpack, she carries a pay-as-you-go cell with no credit and an overdraft so big it’s a toss-up what she is running from more – life, Dev or the modern-day equivalent of debtors’ prison. Folded in with her clean knickers and spare tee shirts is an idea to pocket Mum’s jewellery to sell in Attenborough’s pawn shop on Bethnal Green Road near her digs; she remembers a pair of bright earrings, possibly gold bangles, and her gran’s eternity ring with specks of stones. The idea sickens her but she has nothing else. 

With a bit of money, she could head south. The seaside would be good. She knows folk down the coast, Brighton or Bognor Regis. Load her pockets like Virginia Woolf. Load her gut and brain with vodka, unlike Virginia Woolf. Yes, that would be a good way to go. No need for murky internet purchases, with money she hasn’t worked out. She’s heard Portsmouth is good for any shit going, if she’s lucky. If she’s not lucky, she’s already scouted a dolly mix of panic attack pills and sleeping tablets in her mother’s makeup bag of old lipsticks, dried mascaras and hardened nail polishes to give her the courage or stupidity to walk straight in to the icy Channel waters. 

She’d taken her old sheets and quilt cover of stars and moons, folded and ironed from the linen press late last night. Dreams that never lifted off the cotton. Aspirations which faded in the washing machine. From their smell, they’ve been recently laundered. As if Mum was expecting her. Why would she do that? Alice hasn’t been home for more years than is decent.

Alice drifts off and wakes to the taste of tinned sardines in the back of her throat. It will sour the rest of the day. It leaves her nauseous, fearful. There is something malevolent about a meal she hasn’t had since childhood. The memory has been coming more and more frequently; the image of the flat tin, her mother peeling the lid with the absurd key for their Friday night suppers, mashing the silvery grey corpses and ghostly bones into a bowl with pepper and salt, spreading butter on burnt toast and piling the fish on top finished with slivers of raw onion. The taste and crunch of miniscule bones still inhabits the mucous membranes of her mouth as does the almost physical memory of pain in her knees from the Friday night hour of pious kneeling and fingering the rosary beads in front of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, flagrant and savage on the wall above the fireplace while Michael bunked off to Scouts and her father sat in front of the television, six o’clock news turned up, whisky in hand, waiting for his fish supper. And while the sting in her knees is different to the burn from the sexual favours paid to Devlin and others before him, the taste of semen, come to think of it, is not that different from the sardines.

The funeral today will be a challenge. There will be questions. She can’t tell her aunts that the last couple of months have been a mudslide. That she has no job, no money, no friends – they’ve either died, or, pissed off by too much weather, too little moolah or a gutful of Alice, have hitched down to the coast, the Continent or fuck knows where. 

She can’t tell her cousins that these days when she stumbles into the pub after tanking up on the Tesco Expressspecial of the week – wine, beer, spirits, she doesn’t care as long as it’s cheap and potent – no-one opens their arms to hug her. On Giro days, no-one shares their measly social benefit or unemployment money with her, shouting her a drink, a drag or as used to happen, once in a while, a line. She owes everyone too much money. A couple of hanger-on girlfriends have gone respectable, removed their piercings, bought long-sleeved tops to cover the ink and scars and latched onto some boring money earner to swap nights getting off their tits for nights in with a curry watching yet another riveting series of No One Has Talent. She doesn’t blame them. 

She can’t tell them she too is tired. 

Lately she’s seen Dev’s sidewinder glances when he thought she wasn’t looking. Silly bugger. She’s a woman ageing. High alert is a permanent state. So many years together and he doesn’t know she registers his every breath, every sigh, every fidget purposeful or not to unsettle her, that she tallies the rejections calculated to make her try harder, and Elastoplast’s the cuts with bravado until they heal over and the scars barely show. Problem is, they still hurt.

That she knows her days are numbered. She’s seen his up-down slake of younger, fitter and let’s face it, more willing women. It’s no surprise. She’s lost every ability to compete, to camouflage, to masquerade. Fashion, ink, piercings and hair dyes have reached tipping point – no longer rebellious just ridiculous. The bluebird inked on her breast slurs, a dermal drunk on her skin where her boob no longer sits up pert like a new kid at school. Only God and Dev know where the butterfly on her butt has migrated. She’s tired of fluorescent hair colours and wonders what is her natural colour now. She’s faked it beyond her sell-by date never imagining her use-by date would come. Come it has. A sentient thing, like a crotchety cat or a tired old dog sitting by the back door waiting to be let out. 

Rejection, the world’s and Dev’s, that too has a physical presence – it irons out her body, presses her back against hard surfaces, traps her the way years ago she was cornered by lust. And like lust, rejection is never soft. It’s curdled her belly for months. 

She can’t admit that she tried to buy time. Lost weight, cut her hair, grew out the chemicals. Her hair has matured to a walnut colour which an optimist would, but for the slivers of silver, describe as honey blonde. Nice, she thinks. She got a not-so free make over at the House of Fraser Chanel counter. She knew, yes, she bloody knew the lights and mirrors and Cosmetic Barbies were all designed to flatter, but her reflection kindled a flicker of optimism that all was not lost. Before the illusion snuffed out, she’d bought a load of magic potions wrapped in earth-savaging packaging to cleanse, firm, de-age and rejuvenate her tired skin. More make up than she’d ever owned but the woman groomed and polished to plastic perfection assured her it was subtle and suitable for a woman of her age (that bloody hurt). And when did she become a woman as a first port of reference rather than a girl? She also bought a couple of long boho skirts and loose tops in the new florals which depending on the day, the mirror and the state of her hormones, disguised or enhanced her widening girth but the changes bolstered her unstable confidence. All restorations were piled on the card she normally kept below the maxed-out limit for emergencies. She’d reasoned if she couldn’t consider herself a worthwhile emergency then what would qualify? 

Just when Alice thought her personal refurbishment and Dev’s innate male laziness spurred by his increasing alcohol consumption had guaranteed her safety, four failed fucks in a week threw her life into freefall. The fourth time, both of them off their heads, he blamed her. 

‘Fucking slag. Fucking old slag. Fucking sucking me dry.’

It crossed her mind to tell him that fucking was entirely the wrong word, but she doubted he found her funny anymore. 

‘Yeah, well getting shit-skinned on Asda’s two-for-one cider is fucking responsible for your fucking failures,’ she said. ‘Not me. Arse.’

He kicked her out of their bed onto the floor. ‘Get the fuck out of my fucking life, cunt.’

 After a week of nights, sitting at home alone and Devlin sleeping on the sofa when and if he came home, she realised he was on the prowl again for more inspirational meat. Scrunched supermarket receipts in his dirty jeans for party-grade booze purchases, parties held elsewhere and to which she hadn’t been invited took her beyond a point of who-the-fuck-can-be-bothered return. 

She didn’t blame Dev. They’d had a good run. Mostly. He’d been kind. Mostly. They’d laughed. Now and again. She thought they’d loved, but now, thinking about it, she guessed not. He picked more and more fights with her. Dev said he wanted a break. Which meant he’d lined up a new keeper but she wasn’t ready to go gracefully. Grace had never been a necessary skill. She was determined to screw him with one last gesture.

But here is the curious thing: There is no Wikipedia page to tell you how to live your life. There is one to tell you how to end it. Alice knows, she looked; nineteen sections on suicide, starting with bleeding and ending with indirect suicide. Zilch for living. Perhaps no one could be bothered. It pisses her off because surely, surely living is more important than dying? Hanging from his door jamb or bleeding over his vinyl collection might be higher impact but she’s a coward. And in the dark hours alone in the flat, she’d looked for ways out. Ways that wouldn’t hurt too much. 

Decision made, she undertook obscure and forbidden searches on the internet, determined that her blissfulignorance of such things would no longer thwart her intentions. She stumbled down a funnel of dark web horror. Unimaginable rooms of torture, perversions and vomit-inducing nightmares but she kept looking. She sought ways to buy what Nitschke termed as the peaceful pill; the choice of the right-to-die folk and even though she wasn’t terminally ill, she was, is terminally tired of living. And in her labyrinthine travels in the dark corners of the night, alone and lonely, she found the snake-oil sellers offering ways to buy the pills that promise peace. She had in mind a picture. In the bath. Not quite Millais’ Ophelia but close. Tragic. Graceful. Perhaps. Perhaps not.

But before she could gather in her fear of being rooked or trapped by police alerts, not to mention finding the money to purchase Nembutal via a convoluted series of virtual Chinese whispers across Europe all the way to Mexico and back, she got the phone call at three o’clock in the morning. Her phone screen lit up like a North Sea drilling platform in the black of the night. 

Home. Not home. Once home. Still home.


‘No. Your mother’s dead. Car accident. The funeral will be on the fifteenth.’ 

She hadn’t spoken with her father for over ten years. 


‘Be here. Be sober and look like a normal human being. It’s the least you can do.’

The line went dead. 

And so, it came to pass, after a phone call to her brother, Alice learned that her mother Colleen, sober as the proverbial judge, inexplicably drove across the central barrier of the M4 in Berkshire and straight into the metal embrace of an Eddie Stobart truck called Edna Jane, and in doing so not only displayed more courage than Alice but also saved Alice’s life. 

Back in the dawn, if her body ever warms enough to move, she will rise and endure her mother’s friends and relatives. Endure her father, brother, nieces and a new nephew apparently. Everyone will want to talk at a funeral. Like it’s some sort of catch-up happy social occasion. Why can’t people who don’t bother from year to year, just roll in, sing a hymn or two, shake hands, mutter the clichés about loss and better places, then bugger off back home? Why? 

She wishes it would rain. 

It doesn’t. 

An hour later, she pads down the hallway to the shower and stands like a river rat under its scalding needles. Today, she will stay sober. She clears the mist from the deckled mirror and removes most of her piercings and slaps on some of that high-price war paint she bought months ago. She puts on the high-necked, long-sleeved shirt she bought for the funeral to keep hidden the history on her skin; deliberate and accidental. 

She will be sober in every way. 

She will show him.

Post-funeral, back at her parents’ house, she navigates egg and cress finger sandwiches, ham and pickle baps and industrial quantities of tea, coffee. In the sunroom on the QT, her father pours single malt for himself and his favoured few – her brother, the vicar, his golf club buddies. For the plebs and the women, the kitchen tops are crowded with the wine boxes and beers brought by those who felt a contribution was needed. In the fridge, Alice notes two bottles of chilled Ruinart. She has a nasty suspicion they might have been bought by her father. Since arriving she has sensed an underlying mood of celebration crawling for out like an insect trapped behind his sealed lips. 

‘Fuck him.’ She pops both bottles and weaves between her aunts’ doppler tut-tuts and roller coaster eyebrows, filling glasses whether asked to or not. She’s damned if her father will get to celebrate anything. Alice ignores her brother Michael’s mouth stitched white with fury that Alice has dared to turn up. She joins the periphery of an audience gathered around her father, who is quietly drunk, giving a superb am-dram performance, talking about his lovely Colleen as if she’d been the love of his life. Spotting Alice hovering, he opens his arms.

‘Your old dad could do with a hug from his wee girl.’

Fond smiles all round.

It had always been the dangerous time, when he called for her. And when at seven years old she’d refused to be his baby girl, he taught her the shape of all the bad things in the world. From the bunch of his fists, to his puffed-up bulk backing her up against the edges of the washing machine, the stink of his whisky-saturated breath washing over her and the gravity of his anger welding her to the laundry room floor. 

C’mon, baby girl. Give your daddy a kiss. 

Do as you are told, you little devil. Here, look at this, touch it, rub it. 

Don’t be a bitch like your mother. Be nice. You better be nice.

‘Where’s my little Alice?’ 

She turns and walks away.

Friends and family part like the Red Sea.

Alice claims sanctuary in the cold laundry room, crouched on its uneven flagged floor. Two drags in on a cigarette she’s pinched from her cousin’s handbag, Alice remembers her mother also walking away, disappearing into the sunroom whether the sun shone or not. She remembers her mother playing blind, deaf and dumb. Unsoiled. She never, ever looked Alice in the eye. Merely begged her forgiveness or was it understanding with small treats; a bag of Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts under her pillow, a new pencil case or tiny rainbow ponies in her school satchel when she was at primary school and later, in her teens, rolled ten-pound notes wadded in her jean pockets. Alice and her mother never spoke of the offerings. Payment given; payment taken. Both understood. Alice perhaps not as much as her mother because it was only years later when she examined her father’s rage, did she realise how cheaply her mother bought Alice’s silence. 

One wintery November morning, Stir Up Sunday her mother called it, when Alice was thirteen or fourteen, she sat in the kitchen while her mother made the Christmas cake and puddings, more whisky going down her mum’s throat than in the mixes. Alice asked, with the lack of subtlety or awareness of a brooding teenager, why they had waited so long to have her after Michael and hadn’t had another child after she had been born. Her mother, loose and splashy, flushed and dithered and mumbled about Catholic duty and men’s base urges. Suddenly, she’d gripped Alice’s hand, crushing it and stared hot and panicked into her daughter’s eyes, her mouth wet with Macallan’s and spit, opening and closing like a goldfish. Alice waited but her mother failed to articulate whatever urgent thoughts clogged on her tongue, finally pushing away her daughter’s hurting hand and mumbling you’re too young, don’t ask again, before turning back to tie the greaseproof paper around the Christmas pudding. 

It took a couple of years and whispered conversations at school before Alice clicked just what her mother had been paying for. Perhaps, Alice thought, she should be grateful his frustration stopped at the satisfaction he got from slaps and shoves, punches and fierce Chinese burns on her wrists after he’d guided her baby hands on his groin because when she understood what he really had wanted from her even when she was as young as seven, it made her sick to be in the same airspace as him. It also made her wonder how much her mother might have been prepared to pay if he had really overstepped the boundaries.

Out in the hallway, she hears Michael calling her. A lecture from her father’s one boast-worthy child is more than she can cope with and after a while her brother, ten years older working in something wonderful and complicated and lucrative in the city gives up. He gives over to herding his children, and his crocodilian wife who has spent hours swabbing her leaky eyes. The perfect family leave loudly and tearfully in his top-of-the-range whatever. A few stragglers hang on, old friends but soon they too shuffle out with murmurs of take care, call us and if you need anything, Marcusfollowed by engine revs, tires on the gravel and finally, the last door slam. 

Her father finds her on the floor, back against the damp wall, smoking. His face crimps with an exaggerated sniff. 

‘Thought you’d have found a better hiding place by now. Still stupid, then?’ He blocks the doorway, stares at her. But unlike long ago and not so far away, he doesn’t scare her anymore. 

She’s pretty sure prostate cancer and surgery a few years back have left him impotent in more ways than one. The muscles which once pumped his forearms have shrunk, reduced to stringy sinews barely rippling under pale and slack skin, and the thick black hair which used to give her the creeps resembles a recently felled forest with no prospect of renewal. His eyes, no longer bright with fury and unrequited lust, are now rheumy with alcohol and loss. 

‘Did you drink my champagne?’


She can’t work out if his loss is about him or Mum or that Michael is too busy with his other, better life. She wonders if it is about her. What does he want with her? 

She gets her answer.

‘I expect you gone by tomorrow.’ 

That’s it. Nothing more. He doesn’t say, I forgive you, or forgive me. He doesn’t ask, how are you coping. The only thing she gets is his drunken breath poisoning the space between them.

‘I was planning to go anyway, so you can’t throw me out again, you piece of shit.’ 

In the periphery of her vision, she feels rather than sees the curl of his fist when she swears, but he holds back. A first. Odd.

‘Don’t speak to me like that.’

‘I need money.’ 

‘Not from me, you don’t.’

‘You owe me,’ she says. Where the hell did that come from?

‘Jesus Christ. Your mother’s dead. Can’t you give me a pass this once?’ 

No, she can’t. Won’t. 

He gives her the long look. The one she can’t read. Never could. He taught her a lot of things but what went on behind his eyes was never one of them.

‘You want money? You’ll have to earn it.’

That frightens her. How much will he ask her to pay? More to the point, how much, is she willing to pay?


‘Sort all her books and papers. Take her junk to the dump.’

‘Get some fucking house clearers in, Dad.’ She flutters her hands as if plucking a solution from the air. ‘Or ask one of her friends from the Church. They know her better than I do.’ 

‘This is personal, family.’ 

Now she understands. Not a power shift. A power weakness.

‘Scared a stranger might discover your dirty little secrets?’ Alice risks a smile.

‘Still a little bitch, eh?’

Alice chooses silence. She doesn’t want to speak with him and tries to push past, out to the kitchen. He is stronger than he looks. 

‘Sort your mother’s stuff and I’ll pay you a hundred quid.’ 

‘Five hundred – like I said, you fuck-king owe me.’

He agrees to three hundred. 

Alice shakes her head, but she knows, despite the years of cutting loose and conning herself that she is free, freedom needs money. She will accept his price. It’ll be enough to take her somewhere else plus she is curious why he is prepared to pay her to do something that anybody, even a stranger could sort; clothes, trinkets, and a wall of paperbacks off to the local charity shops. Her mother’s meagre hoard of jewellery duty purchases by him for appearances, she’ll pawn in London or at one of the hock-shops down the coast. As for her mother’s scribbles, euphemistically labelled diaries and letters, they’ll make a grand bonfire. Is that what he’s afraid of? A stranger reading what her mother has written about their family? 

Her life has come to this; choosing her abusive father’s home and his thirty pieces of silver rather than cling on to her drunken, impotent boyfriend’s bored body in their cold bed. She takes the train back to London, packs a suitcase and in the search for her laptop charger finds a pair of impossibly small nylon knickers on the floor by the sofa. Knickers of the sort fifteen-year-old girls buy from Primark thinking they’re sexy not realising they breed thrush and discomfort in equal measure. She stuffs them inside the toaster. No one will miss her, nor she suspects, notice she is gone. Without waiting for Dev to return on her second-possibly-third-hand bicycle because neither he nor the bike is worth the humiliation of waiting, she depresses the toaster handle, walks out the door and catches the early evening train back to Reading. 

Alice goes home one last time. For the money and for the breathing space. 

The days and nights blur. Avoiding, avoiding each other. He prowls the night until some witches brew of Macallan’s, honey and boiling water smothers his hacking cough and dwindling bladder. The satisfaction she feels that his cough sounds serious is small and mean. With dawn not far off, Alice rolls over and sleeps.

She wakes too soon and has to wait for the rattle of his golf clubs, the slam of the back door, and the growl of his car engine before unclenching her teeth and rising. Is he avoiding her or she him? Whatever. It works. She needs coffee but goddam him without fail the kettle is empty, the sink is cluttered with whiskey tumblers, mugs and plates and great globs of soggy toast crusts. Ants swarm in the honey pot he left uncovered. Nauseated by the mix of sweetness, formic acid and whisky dregs swilling in the sink, she wipes away toast crumbs, spoons the ants off the jar rim, flicking her hand in temper as the little fuckers scurry across her skin and washes his bloody dishes like she’s some sort of skivvy. Coffee steadies her. One cup. Two. Outside with a cigarette. Her lungs open, the tension bruising in her muscles, arms, legs eases. Another cigarette kills the oxygen overload. Time to tread across her mother’s privacy. 

Three days in, no challenges except she’s buggered and itching to leave. The drawers stuffed with paperwork, postcards, bankbooks and bills she empties on the bed together with the dusty supermarket bag of old notebooks found stashed under the shoeboxes in her mother’s wardrobe. What the hell did her mother have to say? Alice has neither heart nor stomach to find out. So many words. They can wait. The ornamental kitsch, middle-aged, middle-spread clothes and a curious mix of thumbed romances and high-end pristine literary novels are all boxed or pummelled into black garbage sacks. Her only reaction is a mumbled when did Mum get so cheesy, so cliched? 

On the fourth day, she sits with the mess of papers. Most are trashed. In the notebooks, the early ones soon after her mother’s marriage are written in old-school copperplate which as the years pass her sporadic entries become tight, cramped, scrawled. Oh, for the love of nothing, nothing at all, Alice finds out what her mother had to say. She sits bewildered unknowing what to do with the bloody things she never wished to know. That she and her brother were defiled conceptions. Her father had resorted to rape in the face of her mother’s twisted, sexless Catholicism. Is that why he came after Alice? Is that why her mother damn well let him, offering her daughter as a diversion and a punishment? How dare they, she thinks. I was their child. They knew better. They did! They were adults with so-called morals, intelligence, reason. None of which apparently applied to her. That would explain the weirdo Confirmation name Colleen had chosen for Alice: Maria Goretti, the Italian virgin, stabbed fourteen times rather than submit to a neighbour’s unholy advances. 

Jesus, Mum. Thanks for the inspiration. Didn’t bloody work though.

What had happened to her mother to make her think she could have a marriage without sex? Who had happened to her? 

Alice’s brain shuts down. 

By morning she realises, she doesn’t care who did what or why. She has no heart for more secrets. She burns the journals in the garden incinerator and catches the late train to London. Then what? Maybe a cheap flight to Cyprus, because she has had enough of England and miserable weather and pale tight people. Clubbing capital Agia Napa has all the forgetfulness she can afford and a warm sea to get lost in. 

Except there is one more secret.

She shuffles the invoices and a grip of blue bankbooks held together by a thick rubber band to one side to leave for her father. One chinks her brain. A savings account in her name: Alice Maria Goretti Truman. Deposits made courtesy of her mother’s signature, strong in the early years, shaky and spindly in more recent times. The last deposit, a big one, the week before her mother died.

She goes into town and checks at the bank. Yes, it is for real. Yes, it is her money. Yes, she can do whatever the fuck she likes with it – her words not the bank’s. She transfers the balance to her current bank account, the one so overdrawn the letters from the manager smell of blood before she even slits them open; the new balance will probably give him a month-long orgasm. Thirty-five years of deposits. Enough to send Alice singing, swinging, raging into the best oblivion ever or to start her life over. For real.

Can she be bothered to start over? There are no guarantees she’ll make a better job of her life second time round. She made her choices deliberately first-time round. She dropped out of uni because one high-achiever in the family was enough and for sure Michael got there first by dint of birth and ambition, something she had lacked. She had chosen the free-wheeling sex with the free-wheeling Andrews, Lauries, Mikes and Joes. For a brief time once a Michelle before finally, best of all while he lasted, Devlin because it had been fun to feel and laugh and get high and not give a damn. The only thing she would change if she could would be the whole getting older thing and money wasn’t much help in that. Especially not her mother’s guilty conscience money. Already she feels the burden of the credit line. To make good, do better, be happy. Happy she’d realised long ago was over rated it never lasted and always disappointed. 

In London, Alice heads for Heathrow. Cyprus forgotten, she buys a ticket to Christchurch, New Zealand. The long-haul flight will give her time to think but in truth her mind is made up. She’s heard Queenstown is the party town of the Southern Hemisphere and by God, she has money to burn, baby, burn. A bungee jump at the bottom of the world. The sort of idiotic stunt she has hankered for all her life without knowing such longing nested in her measly heart. The longing to be of consequence once in her life.

Somewhere over the vastness of Australia spreading below through her crizzled window, Alice weasels her courage. Tests it. Taunts it. Puts it through its paces. The thought of throwing herself off and out into the void grows, becomes exhilarating. She tells herself and her uncertain courage it would be the grandest of gestures. An affirmation of faith in herself and her fuck-you to the world.

And if the line breaks? 

No worries.

Shannon Savvas is a New Zealand writer, whose Irish mother brought a particular set of challenges, now divides her life and heart between New Zealand, England and Cyprus. A nomad since childhood, she struggles still to find where she belongs and to understand who she is. She was the winner of the 2022 Fish Short Story Prize, the 2017 Reflex Fiction Prize, and the 2019 Cuirt New Writing Prize, and has been named to several shortlists and longlists. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and can be found online at the following locales: Twitter @ShannonSavvas; Instagram @carmelsavvas;

Photo Credit: Yoal Desurmont on Unsplash

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