The Three Muses
"Sing, O Muse" - Homer
Let’s put it this way: when it came to Harry Turner, if you could imagine it, it had probably happened. He had one of those faces. The kind of skin time forgot, and a hairline which, despite what his mother foretold, refused to recede. Eyes which sang of late nights jumping on the milk train to Manchester or stealing police tape from traffic collisions. The kind of man you’d want to know. The kind of man who could tell a story, and often did, no matter who was listening.
Harry was three years old when he wrote his first story. Twenty when he published his first poetry collection. Shortly after, his first novel. A two-time winner of the Hawk Prize for fiction and former Poet Laureate, he wore recognition like a badge of honour. Smiled each time someone came up to him in the street and never shied away when asked for an autograph. Words were tossed around. Good words. Words with a certain rhythm. You know the kind. Concordant words—not words like ‘sham’ or ‘dunce’. Honest words.
“Not one of those phonies, you know.” This was often said. “He’s a real artist.”
Harry Turner enjoyed being real. He bought whole bars a round of drinks in the early hours of the morning and he gave a budding poet one of his collections for free, only after asking to see her own scribblings.
You’ve got potential, he wrote.
His work was labelled as ‘visceral’ and ‘necessary.’ And when he did get a rather cutting review from an editor, he invited her inside his home.
“If you’d prefer the real thing,” he said.
No one minded this show of bravado, least of all his wife. In fact, she relished in the attention her husband and his indiscretions brought. It was easier to operate her charitable causes and partake in protests and rallies if her husband knew a few strings to pull. She didn’t mind using him. A marriage was two-way street after all. He was a pillar of the New Romantics, a group of poets who met in a backroom near Lord Byron’s former London residence. And he always came home to her in the end. That was their arrangement.
“My muse,” he called her. They’d lie together like it was her first time—every night. Oh yes, he always came home
Of course, there were others. That was never in question.
“People aren’t naturally monogamous,” he said during an interview. It was for a documentary, about the New Age Poets. His wife sat beside him, nodding along.
“I mean, we’re not swans. Shelley had the right idea.” Everyone knew he meant Percy and not Mary. His wife chuckled and added,
“He’s not a saint. But no one likes a saint.”
A year after the documentary aired, Harry Turner disappeared. His offices in central London and his townhouse just off Hampstead Heath were thick with rumours. But it was the marsh behind his Staffordshire residence where they found his body. They lifted it from the reeds and rushes, bloated but still horribly recognisable. Lucky the flooding hadn’t dislodged it, they said.
They never would have found him if not for some geography students, on a school trip with their department to measure water levels and catalogue plant species. They stabbed deep with their metre sticks, almost piercing the body’s abdomen. When they realised it was not a bird or buried treasure, they phoned the police.
“We’re lucky he’s in such good shape.” Two Detectives were assigned to the case. Harry Turner was a public figure after all and they knew the moment the press got hold of this story, people would be battering down their door for answers.
“Shit.” His wife. Ten years she’d been waiting for her husband to return. They drew straws for who would tell her. It was one thing to be a cuckhold. Being a widow was another matter entirely. Better than divorce, but not by much. People thought death followed you once it touched someone you loved.
The body was moved. They had to wait for DNA results, but everyone knew it was Harry. Still, they had to be sure. There was a reason Harry Turner had set his first novel in those marshes. A reason he did all his writing in his Staffordshire home. In the back room. In the Dark Room, the one he’d built himself. That’s where he did his best work, he said in an interview. Because his muse was always there, beside him. His wife couldn’t stand London.
The body was in good condition. It was in such good condition that the coroner had no trouble pinpointing the cause of death. As if the marsh had gift-wrapped him, she said. Thanks to the Doxey Marshes, Harry would join a Wikipedia list of strange and mysterious deaths.
Laid out on her slab, the coroner turned down his collar.
“Look here,” she said. His artery had been punctured.
“It looks like… A pen,” she said. “But here’s the interesting part.” She’d cleaned the body’s chest; it had become leathery in the Doxey Marshes.
“You got any idea what this means?” She ran her hands over the name. It had been carved into his chest, with great care and attention.
The moment the name touched their eyes, they knew that had to find them. They had to visit Harry’s wife and give her the terrible news. They had to find the woman who’d almost ruined him. They had to know if it would make a good story. They had to know if everyone was right, and if Harry Turner’s marriage to the mad witch of the marsh had spelled the end of more than his career.
Each month, her mother would drive eighteen miles to her aunt and uncle’s house, where they’d eat lunch on the large veranda, and she’d watch her cousins in the pool. She knew better than to go in, not when she couldn’t swim without armbands and anyway, her cousins said they made her look fat. Her aunt used to say the same thing when her mother had first married.
“You’d do well to lose a little weight, Eden. I know this great place just down the road.” And then her husband left, and Aunt Lydia switched to,
“You’re a ghost, Eden. Let me take you to dinner—get a little meat on them bones.” They’d laugh it off together, Aunt Lydia smiling as Eden picked at her plate.
Persephone watched her cousins flick chlorinated water at each other. They swam over once or twice, trying to pull her in.
“It’s so warm!” They’d do this often, trying to coax her into the shallow end. Persephone smiled and sat back, counting the minutes till it was time to leave. Her uncle lay on the chair next to her, a hat over his face. It was never sunny up here, but the lights above the pool were solar powered, and the floor was heated. With the right of amount of effort, it could be a beach in Ibiza.
Persephone sat and wrote in her notebook, the first (and last) present from her father. She’d filled almost every page and had taken to writing with microscopic precision, squishing her letters together until they gasped for air.
“That’s a lovely pen.” She looked up to find her youngest cousin, Ellie, leaning on the edge of the pool.
“Didn’t we give that to you?” her other cousin, Will, chimed in. He was nine, a year older, and very wise by Persephone’s standards. Persephone nodded. Last time she’d visited, her cousins had given her their old stationary set. Aunt Lydia stood over them, arms folded.
“You’ve barely used them. Come on now.”
“They’re lovely pens,” said Persephone now. “Thank you.” Beneath her, the tiles were cold. She shuffled and put the notebook to one side.
“Do you want to play a game?” Ellie asked. Persephone sat up. She liked Ellie’s games; she always won something. Last time, it was Who could load the dishwasher the fastest? The time before that: first person to climb into the neighbour’s garden and touch the Alsatian. This time, Persephone didn’t know what Ellie had in mind. Ellie could be cruel, but it was all in the name of fun. Ellie knew Persephone couldn’t swim, and so did Will, who was doing the backstroke in the deep end. They wouldn’t let her get hurt—they were just curious. And Persephone couldn’t blame, not really. Everyone else had learnt to swim years ago. She couldn’t even tie her own shoelaces.
Next to her, Uncle Andrew snored. Persephone didn’t want to wake him, so she crawled closer to the edge of the pool.
“What kind of game?” she asked.
“You’ll love it. But don’t cheat.”
“I never cheat,” said Persephone. “I’ll beat you fair and square.” She didn’t like to say she’d won every game so far. She couldn’t afford to ruin her chances.
“Are you ready?” Will called from the other end of the pool. Persephone nodded.
Ellie snatched her pen and threw it to Will, who dropped it in the pool. Persephone watched it sink.
“First one to find it gets to keep it,” said Ellie. Persephone straddled the edge of the pool. She kicked off her shoes, searching for another way. Her mother always said to work smarter, not harder.
She spied the net, which leaned against the wall. It was used to dredge the pool and had picked up numerous treasures like Ellie’s verruca plasters and Will’s goggles. A sure-fire way to retrieve her pen, she decided, and made her ways towards it. The pole was long enough, and it was plastic, so it wouldn’t be heavy.
She didn’t run—Aunt Lydia said never to run near the pool. She was halfway to the net when Will grabbed her ankle. She looked down. He was tutting.
“Cheater,” he whispered. “You’ve got to get in or you’ll be disqualified.” Persephone thought about reminding him that she couldn’t swim, but he’d only call her a baby. He’d learnt to swim years ago, and Ellie was planning to join the local team that September. She could hold her breath for a whole minute!
Persephone sat on the edge of the pool. She stared at the deep end.
“It’s not that bad,” said Will. He sculled the water, legs dangling like tinfoil. “Hurry up. Ellie’s almost there.” Ellie was, in fact, still down the shallow end, watching this exchange. But because Persephone was so focussed on the pen (she could trace its outline at the bottom of the pool) she didn’t notice. Slowly, she slid into the water.
The water was cold. It hit her insides, slipping between the gaps in her thighs. She clung to the edge, kicking. William dove beneath the water. He’d reach her pen in no time if she didn’t get a move on.
She held her breath and sank. She opened her eyes against the sting of chlorine and found that the pen – a blue biro – was within her reach. She stretched. Once her fingers closed around the it, she started to kick and flail, furiously trying to climb to the surface. Will and Ellie were nowhere in sight, and she would have smiled if she had the strength. They couldn’t do it. They were going to lose, again.
Black spots appeared. Persephone flinched. She began to panic. She kicked harder and harder until finally, she emerged, gasping, from the water. She paddled like a dog until she reached the side. William and Ellie sat on the edge, clapping.
“You won!” Will was smiling. He and Ellie exchanged a look. “Will you write something for us? You could write about your glorious victory.” Shakily, Persephone climbed out of the pool. She snatched the pen and cradled it to her chest. Her lungs burned.
“I told you too to keep the noise down—what are you doing? I thought you couldn’t swim.”
Persephone’s uncle was all stretched skin and Botox, giving his face the richness of a statue. He was still lounging on the chair, staring at them. Persephone coughed. Her mouth had a funny taste—like foam and spit and raw onions.
“We were teaching her how to swim,” said Ellie. “She was great!” Uncle Andrew nodded. He lay back.
“Alright, then. Just be careful. Next time, lend her one of your costumes. She’ll have to change those clothes.” He glanced at Persephone. His strange little niece. His sister’s child. He didn’t talk to her if he could help it. No one should have a stare like hers or read so much that she knew what ‘axiomatic’ meant. It was a horrid combination: to know so much and yet so little. Not to know that her mother was a divorcee and that meant something in this neighbourhood and yet to know the circumference of Mars. It meant bets would be placed against the girl. It meant there would be whispers in school corridors, wondering where the father went and how old the girl would be when she ended up in Belmarsh. It was an unspoken hierarchy, and his sister was at the bottom. The child below.
Persephone scuttled past her uncle. He was large and hairless, like a baby rat. He didn’t look her in the eye when he spoke, and this unnerved her somewhat. It were as if each time he addressed her, he was addressing his own daughter’s shadow.
Persephone grabbed her notebook.
“Please,” Ellie was saying. “We love your stories. Write something for us.” Persephone tried to smile. She opened her notebook, then dried off the pen. She thought for a moment. Ellie liked stories about animals, but Will preferred pirates and kings and betrayals. He was learning about the Tudors at school, so perhaps she should write something starring King Henry VIII.
She tried to scribble a quick title, but the pen remained silent. She pressed harder. A sliver of ink bubbled out. She looked at her cousins. Their laughter chased her from the pool.
Her aunt and uncle owned a house just outside Stafford. As well as the indoor pool, they had a balcony and three cars: a family car, Uncle Andrew’s car and Aunt Lydia’s soft top. They had all this curtsey of Andrew’s position at the bank. He’d always been good with numbers, Persephone’s mother said. Aunt Lydia, meanwhile, didn’t have a job. This was something Persephone pretended to understand and coped with by refusing to bring it up. Her mother, on the other hand, worked nights at a motorway garage and days at the local library. She also kept a book of home cures and rescue remedies, passed down through the family. She sometimes sold them to the neighbours.
“Goodness me. You’re all wet. What happened? Did you fall in?” Aunt Lydia was a lithe woman with hummingbird eyes, eyes which constantly darted between her two children. She was slim – not thin or anorexic as she so often dubbed her sister-in-law – but happily slim, owing to her morning Yoga classes and her afternoon Pilates.
“I was running. I slipped. I didn’t mean to,” said Persephone.
“Oh, dear. Let me find you some dry clothes.”
What Aunt Lydia saw in her husband’s niece was hard to fathom. The girl was mousy and quiet, but she was stout and big boned, with a grandfather clock chin. In fact, she could easily be mistaken for a boy. Mistaken for her father, in fact. She sat in the corner, head buried in that notebook of hers, and refused to engage. Perhaps Aunt Lydia thought she could re-mould the girl—teach her something useful, how to live in the real world. The girl needed skills her mother could not provide. She needed guidance. Aunt Lydia often brought Persephone to her room and sat her on the stool opposite the vanity. She re-shaped the girl’s face, and then planted her in one of Ellie’s old dresses.
“You’ll grow into these. Trust me. Your body won’t betray you if you make an effort. It comes with age,” Aunt Lydia would say. “Andrew and I met at University, you know.” Aunt Lydia often spoke of things like true love and first times—things that Persephone wanted to understand but found easier to ignore. Writers didn’t have time for love, she told herself. She could share her stories, but certainly not herself.
The day of the pool, Aunt Lydia helped Persephone into one of Ellie’s new dresses – a blue smock with frilled cuffs. She gave her some new shoes too—they were Ellie’s old shoes and closed around Persephone’s feet like two snapdragons.
“Much better,” said Aunt Lydia. She led the girl downstairs, where her sister-in-law was waiting. Beside her were several boxes. One contained Ellie and Will’s hand-me-downs—clothes and shoes and the like. The others contained kitchenware for Eden. A few books, though the girl clearly had enough. School uniforms and toys—everything from dolls to train sets. This happened every month and it didn’t take long for Ellie and Will to realise where their items were going. They knew to expect it now and days before Persephone arrived, they’d cut holes in the clothes and snap off the heads of those dolls. They tore pages from notebooks and let the pens dry out and carved divots in their old shoes with a cheese knife. Persephone once opened those boxes to find China horses with their ears missing or a teddy with a hole in its head, stuffing unspooled. She hid the broken the toys under her bed and never told her mother, or Aunt Lydia.
Instead, she waited until her mother bought a house. She’d got it on the cheap because the walls were fat and tipsy with soil.
“Don’t worry,” chuckled the surveyor. “It won’t sink till your granddaughter’s fortieth birthday.” Eden hadn’t laughed, but she’d bought the property anyway. It was a small, dilapidated bungalow on the edge of the Doxey Marshes. Far enough from her brother’s house that she could no longer justify the drive.
So, in the February after Persephone turned eleven, they took their last trip to see Uncle Andrew and Aunt Lydia.
The lunch was large and extravagant, needlessly stuffed with roast potatoes and overcooked carrots. Ellie and Will had grown tired of their games and had set about ignoring Persephone instead. Which was why they didn’t notice her slip away.
Persephone made her excuses. She walked upstairs and took what she wanted. A new pair of trousers from Will’s room. A pair of shoes—still in the box! Model horses, plastic guns, a wooden archery set. A dress with the price tag still on. She chose one of each and hid them in her bag.
When they returned to the marshes, Persephone couldn’t bear to unload her bag of shame. She placed it under her bed and never wore the dress or used the archery set or worse, the trainers she’d taken.
This was the first story she ever told Harry Turner. It was the same story which convinced him to marry her. The same story which won her that Staffordshire house, where she came to know those marshes as if they were family.