Hinterlands #4: Cracks in Safe Walls

Oxford Writers' HouseFeatures2018MarchHinterlands #4: Cracks in Safe Walls

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Hinterlands #4: Cracks in Safe Walls

Some of the children couldn’t speak. Some would have a drifting attention that could only be captured by calling their name. Others’ disabilities would peek out at the most unexpected of times, like when Jamie’s stream of consciousness turned into a pressure-washer targeted at LEGO Batman, or when Ella failed to realise that the younger children had a threshold at which tickling stopped being fun, and that threshold was far lower than ten minutes.

Michael once spent a whole day shooting a four-year-old with a water gun, chasing her around a park, pulling her back up a zip wire after she had rushed down it, exhilarated. It was so simple to let joy take him over. The after-school club reminded him of that. It reminded him that a flow of air around his running body was so beautiful, so purifying; that sometimes, it is okay to forget about what every other person thinks of you, and that it is acceptable to distill someone down to a single aspect of themselves, so that hearing their laughter is the only thing that matters. And fuck if they don’t love you, because you love them, and you might be able to make their day one worth waking up for.

Michael was called into a room with all of the other staff. One of their smallest and youngest girls had passed away. Michael had not met her: she had been in and out of the hospital for the past year, and he had only worked at the centre for eleven months. She had Down syndrome, and died of heart failure. The news-bearing staff member’s tears fell as softly as snowfall.

When he graduated from university, Michael moved on to working with the elderly. He had learnt all he could from those who had just stumbled into life, naive: he wanted to see if people who had been through it all were equally as wise. Michael was comfortable with the idea of working in a care home. It was always good to know where the clients would move to: the children would go to halfway homes when they turned eighteen. The old people would die. He liked the fact that he was not going to influence any outcomes. Michael was just an assistant to their life cycles. A part of nature.

He was as good at this job as he was the last. If you asked him, Michael would’ve told you that pure intentions and patience were the only traits a good carer needed. So he could fiddle with the mood lighting in a room for an hour for a silent wheelchair-user, and he could play Scrabble with a man who had a vocabulary magnitudes greater than his own. Michael could joke about vampires and werewolves and he could break the ice with a new resident whilst wandering by a river.

Michael could joke about vampires and werewolves and he could break the ice with a new resident whilst wandering by a river.

Dora was eighty-four years old. She didn’t want to go for walks or play Scrabble or talk to her new housemates. She would thumb through large-print novels and photographers’ coffee-table books, lingering on each page, taking as long to drink in photos as she read words. Michael only saw her really beam when a volume of Fitzgerald’s previously ‘lost’ stories was released. When Dora first came in, she still had the knack of putting on ruby-red lipstick, that kind with the blue undertones so that it didn’t clash with the paleness of her skin. As soon as she noticed that she was becoming more of a Monet than a Botticelli, she stopped. She could not stand the thought of smearing her most precious possession over her face. Michael didn’t know. He thought she had lost the need to show off to her housemates and friends. 

Michael kept interrupting Dora when she was reading. He asked her questions about Martin Parr, about why she loved American literature. He asked her if she had lived in London all her life, and if she liked music as well as photography, because those artistic types often like both, and she seemed like she had a creative twinkle in her eye. He offered her tea, English breakfast or peppermint. When she was forced to go to the zoo, he tried to ask her if she liked any wild animals, or thought all animals rodents (because London was full of those).

It was the morning after they returned from the zoo. He came to ask if she wanted breakfast. Everyone else was tired. Any other person would have thought she was having a lie-in. Not Michael. He had seen dead people enough times to develop a sixth sense of sorts. He carried out the normal procedures, with one abnormality. Michael wept over Dora. He did it in his bedroom. Holly had pushed the door gently open and seen her husband hunched over one side of the bed, half of him comforted by the streetlight’s glow, and she had retreated.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how quickly we can get to know someone? It’s all a matter of context. They say that you should watch the way first dates treat waiters or talk about their exes or do battle with rush hour traffic. They are subtle little hints into someone’s character, intuitive ways of navigating other people’s minds. We are allowed to peek into them. Then there are the little pockets we make for ourselves, away from the world like green spaces in cities. The private places, when we are just us, when we are just human animals, and there is no one around to tell us otherwise.


Holly’s pocket was a sixth-floor room, twenty minutes away from her house. She liked to walk there. It gave her a space between the spheres. She wanted to immerse herself in the streets around her, so that she could check and analyse her thoughts in the contexts of the places that triggered them. Holly needed that grounding. She needed to remember that her safe space, her tiny room with two plush chairs and Tilda and a small table with a box of tissues and some fiddle toys, was still on Earth. She needed to remember what happened there, what she had learnt there. She needed to take it out onto the vast and hurried English streets, spread it, Evangelical and proud.

She needed to remember that her safe space, her tiny room with two plush chairs and Tilda and a small table with a box of tissues and some fiddle toys, was still on Earth.

“God,” she thought, on the eve of her appointment, “what an idea. Pride in how I make Tilda deal with all my chatter, pride in what we both notice, trying to learn from the things that keep coming up, parents, Michael, feeling never quite good enough… it’s all the time, I should learn. It’s so simple, yet I can’t quite get it.”

“You can’t be good at being counselled, Holly. These things take time,” said Tilda. It was the next day. Holly’s counsellor sat opposite her with her legs crossed. Holly wondered if Tilda acted this way in business meetings, too.

Holly slotted her hands together and rested them on her lap. It gave her something to look at whilst she talked.

“Michael cried last night. I saw him. In our room, all hunched over, shoulders shaking, the lot. I don’t know what could’ve upset him like that, y’know? He was so quiet. Like he didn’t want me to hear.”

She met Tilda’s gaze. Tilda waited for Holly to go on.

“I … left him. Like that. Can you believe it? My husband, sobbing, and I left him, because I didn’t know what to do, because I didn’t want to ask.”

“Do you know why you didn’t want to ask?”

“Well, I didn’t want to know.”

Tilda waited.

“What if he’s like me, I guess, was what I thought… what if I’ve brought him down to my level, made him like this? What if he’s not sad for any reason at all?”

“And what can you do, if he’s sad for no reason?”

“I … I can listen to him, I guess. I can be there for him. I think it might bring us closer.”

“Would you like that?”

“Yes. Yes. I’d like that. Not for him to be sad. I’d like to hear about his feelings, y’know, I’ve said before… he never opens up, really. He doesn’t like talking about himself.”

“But you said that you might’ve brought him down. Could he confirm that?”

“He wouldn’t. Even if I had dragged him to my level. He’s too kind to say that.”

“Do you think it’s reasonable to think that you’ve dragged him down?”

Holly nodded. Keeping her hands in the same place, she looked up, her voice close to breaking. “He’s not perfect, but God, I’m so lucky to have him, and I’m scared I’ll ruin him, I’m scared I’ve stolen something from him. He deserves so much better than me, and I don’t think he knows it.”

“If you want Michael to open up to you — if you want to be closer — what do you think you’ll have to do?”

Holly swallowed hard, and though she cringed, she looked at Tilda again. “I think I’ll have to open up to him.” She looked down, her shoulders raised, trying to disappear.

Half an hour later, Holly returned to Earth. She stayed on the verge of tears for the whole walk home.

Tomorrow night, she decided, she’d destroy the space that was once hers and hers alone. She was tearing down the wall of the sixth-floor room, and it was dangerous, and it was necessary.

The most perilous place on the planet was a cream sofa in their living room. Two people who let others down, curled up close, confessing, letting their flaws seep out into the real world.

“Tomorrow,” she thought. “When Michael finishes early and we’re both well-rested. Tomorrow.”




Tilda drove home. Her home was just right. She never ran into her clients, but she wasn’t too far away from work.

Tilda lost her auntie yesterday. She was upset, but not so upset that she had to take leave. She’d save that for her mum, whose passing, Tilda sensed, wasn’t too far off.

Dora had been old, anyway, and grumpy. More so with age. It gets harder and harder to stay positive, right? With all of the shit that people throw at you, with all of the trying to hide every little thing that we’re ashamed of. The things we share. It’s so tiring.

Tilda smiled. Maybe she’d had a role in making one person less tired. That was a good thing, for sure. If one person could wind up a little less bitter, Tilda had done a good job. If that person could end up hating the world a little less (or loving it a little more, on the luckiest of days), then that was even better.

Tilda unlocked her door and pushed it with her shoulder. She changed into her pyjamas, made herself some tea. Tilda flicked through the TV channels, settling on something trashy. It was the ad break. She muted it. Tilda put her head in her hands and ran her fingers through her hair, massaging her scalp.

She relived a moment from the day before. The man who had talked to them, who started to ask about funeral arrangements, was lovely. He’d clearly been through the conversation many times before, but it seemed to not be a chore for him. Caring for people seemed to be his calling, much like it was her own. It was all too much of a blur. Tilda didn’t catch his name. He said he’d come to Dora’s funeral next week. He said he might bring his wife.

Khazna Chami

Khazna Chami

Khazna Chami was born in 1998's London and grew up in Newbury, Berkshire. She is currently reading Human Sciences at Mansfield College, Oxford. Her career aspirations lie in the intersection between the social sciences, biology, philosophy and literature.

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