|The Scottish Arts Council is proud to present this short story by Regi Claire - read more about her and the inspiration behind this story.|
She was in the wire cage again, exercising like a rat in the wheel. The late summer sun glared down into the yard, and most of the other women drooped in heaps on benches or lay sprawled on the grassy oval in the centre, dozing.
Stamp-stamp-stamp went Laura's feet. The wire cage had been erected next to one of the tall surrounding walls, in the shade of a beech tree. The handrail was slick with sweat. Sweat runnelled down her cleavage, slithered over her stomach, greased her back. It dripped from the blonde stubble on her head, swamped her eyes. She wasn't wearing any jewellery, not even her ear studs or the nose ring. They'd taken those away from her – just in case.
Glancing around the yard for an instant, Laura caught sight of a thin figure shambling about at the far end. A figure that reminded her of someone from Outside. But the face was turned away so she couldn't be sure. Maybe it was a mirage, the sun was harsh and hot enough for that. She grimaced, then wiped the sweat from her eyes and concentrated on the workout.
Her black trainers were blurs on the treadmill. She'd cranked up the incline to 9% and upped the speed from the previous day. With hypnotic regularity the red numbers of the LED display flipped from running time to distance to running time . . . until they became meaningless smears.
Stamp-stamp-stamp went her feet, deep inside an imaginary forest. The pine needles on the floor were the colour of a fox's pelt and their springiness bounced her on and on through the warm woody air. The scent of resin was all around her. She felt cocooned within its golden transparency. Safe. It seemed to preserve her as something hard and enduring and – if left alone – quite harmless. For a moment she felt almost happy.
That was the best Laura could achieve these days: a sensation of almost-ness, and she was careful to treasure it. Not too much and not too little – joy, rage, despair, love, hate. Bandit was her only indulgence. He received the surfeit of her love, never her hate. He was the reason she carried on with the chore of living.
The scent of resin was getting stronger with every stride and there was a rustle of wings now, velvety soft, as two blackbirds joined her, flitting along like shadows conjured from the undergrowth. A squirrel twitched its tail at her, chattering. No bad thoughts, it seemed to say. You don't have any bad thoughts. Sunlight slipped across her cheeks – a caress of sorts.
Stamp-stamp-stamp. Abruptly, the magic forest transformed itself into a sports ground and she was on a cinder track, speeding past other runners every so often. She could see them quite clearly. Smelt them on her very skin. The fat, knock-kneed women with slack mouths and flabby arms, hobbling rather than jogging along. Stupid women, forcing themselves on for the sake of vanity. The kind of women who painted their faces every morning, come rain, come shine. They were the ones she hated most. Mustn't hate too much, must be wary, stay on an even keel. Undignified, weak and cowardly they were. Bump into any of them by accident, and there'd be a shriek and a fall. Scared wide puppet eyes would stare up at you . . .
Oh yes, you know that look – and the raised hands, the sweaty palms. Every night you see them. See the two ghost women crouched at the foot of your bed, one to the left, one to the right, with a gap in the middle where SHE should have been. Their voices rasp like flames over dry wood. They keep asking you something, keep pleading with you. Pleading and asking, they remain crouched there, thick red drops leaking from their bodies. Their pupils getting larger and larger. Their hands still raised. Twitching hands . . . No, you don't want to see them. No! No!
The red numbers leapt into sudden focus: 5.63 kilometres. Unless Big Martha decided otherwise, she’d do at least five more. Her body was a well-oiled machine. It was the only thing she could trust – apart from Bandit. Laura felt a wave of tenderness wash over her. For a moment she wondered whether she had ever loved anybody as much as him. She'd do anything for him, absolutely anything.
Stamp-stamp-stamp. Placing her hands on the side rails, she lifted her elbows to push herself further, make herself lighter. Soon her arms would turn into wings. Soon she'd be able to fly off and away, wherever she wanted.
But she didn't really want to travel beyond these walls. Didn't really want to leave, full stop. If it was up to her, she'd gladly spend the rest of her life Inside. She’d told them so in court, implored them almost: 'Please don't ever set me free.'
Generally she didn't even want to mix with the others. Much better to stay in her own cell with Bandit. Maybe do a spot of dusting – she took pride in how clean her cell was – some spraying and polishing to let the surfaces flash back the light, and not a single cat hair to mar the reflection. Or she'd browse through her library shelfload of travel guides. Watch TV. Request a session with the live-in psychiatrist – he always welcomed new titbits for the casebook he was writing, on women miso-somethings. Or she might listen to some punk-rock on the radio, to get rid of the tension she could feel compressed inside her like so much explosive in a hand grenade. Snatching up Bandit from his basket, she would cradle him in her arms, would fling herself round in time to the beat, shouting and stamping her feet until they were on fire.
You adore fires. Adore the lick of flames, their shivering, greedy feeding. You imagine yourself dancing inside their roar, all the way to oblivion.
Why the hell hadn't they allowed you to become a policewoman? Nothing bad would have happened then. Nothing. Because you'd have ended up on the right side of the law. Instead, thanks to their goddamn rules and regulations, you were branded from the outset. No immigrants, they said. You were born here, for chrissake, wasn't that good enough? No criminal record, they said – and that included teenage fooleries like smoking dope and disturbing the peace. No broken-off apprenticeships, they said. But one glance at the Schuster woman, your first employer's wife, had told you she’d be a jealous bitch, down to the pus-yellow eyes, hooked nose, flat chest, and sharp, long fingernails.
'OK?' Big Martha's sallow face hovered centimetres from hers, showing nicotine-brown teeth. There was a pimple on her chin.
The meter said 9.35 kilometres. Stamp-stamp-stamp went Laura's feet, slower and slower. As she came to a halt, she swept her hands over her head in a quick scissor motion that scattered drops all over. With an ingenuous grin she watched Big Martha pull back (not fast enough). Then she bent to slap the hard, bunched-up muscles in her thighs and calves. Her black Nike T-shirt, she noted with satisfaction, was drenched.
Straightening up again, she asked: 'You’ve heard of Nike?'
Big Martha nodded. 'Sure. I got trainers at home.'
Laura just shook her head and smiled. Big Martha was a clod. She'd no idea about goddesses. Or victory.
Before she was let out of the cage, Laura did a quick survey of the yard: the mirage woman had vanished, probably never existed in the first place. Forget about her. Just forget about her. She fastened the chains around her ankles and wrists, dutifully, the way they had taught her. Then Big Martha reached in through the specially designed hatch, to double-check. This time Laura's grin was knowing.
So much fear, what a laugh! No therapy will ever chisel away the pleasure you get from people's fear. Beating up those idiot policemen in May was a mistake, of course. They weren't scared of you after all, not even afraid. They were merely doing their job, trying to take you to court. But they needn’t have been so damn clumsy about getting you into the van; no wonder you blew your top. One woman against three burly uniforms, for pity's sake!
The workouts are certainly paying off. Still, you've put on six kilos since spring. The food's too good. Six kilos. Why can't they let you starve like in the bad old days? Six bloody kilos. Answer: because they prefer you sluggish and slow, a shifting mass of uncoordinated flesh – a sack of rubbish.
But you won't give in. Won't ever let your body go soft and rotted.
They'd done her cell while she was out. A chemical stink was coming from the toilet and someone's cloth had left careless smears on the gleaming surface of her table. The bedspread she'd so painstakingly smoothed was rucked up near the pillow, with the telltale imprint of a fat arse. Bandit was coiled on top of the wardrobe, his eyes lurid with impotent fury. Usually he met her at the door, purring and preening himself, having been alerted by the familiar clatter of her chains.
'F*** those slags!'
The Judas window slid open and Big Martha looked in: 'What's the matter?'
'I clean my own f***ing place, can't they get that into their stupid heads? Next time Bandit will scratch their eyes out! Tell them that!'
When Big Martha hesitated, Laura banged a fist on the door: 'Piss off!'
Afterwards she smiled to herself; thank Christ they’d leave her in peace now for a while. She undressed, stepped into the shower and let the water reach scalding point. Her skin went pink and blotchy; her scalp started to burn. Finally, she switched to cold. The clash in temperature felt soothing.
As she rubbed herself dry, Laura flicked the bath towel out the shower-room door. 'Hey, Bandit, play time!' He streaked down the wardrobe lightning-quick. Jumped and bit into the fabric so it snagged on his teeth, then shot off, his rear end fishtailing across the wet tiles. She giggled. By the time she got to him, he was already up on the bedside table and nibbling at the apricots – a present from Coco, the journalist. In between nibbles he seemed to grin at her.
'Wicked boy!' She picked him up and kissed his shiny black nose, touched it with the very tip of her tongue. He miaowed, finished chewing a tiny shred of fruit, then draped himself round her neck, purring and gurgling softly with delight. He felt warm against her chilled skin. Every time he moved, his tail swished over her bare breasts. When he began to lick her left earlobe with precise, sandpapery strokes, she went quite still. She didn't want him to stop. Like a statue she stood in the middle of her cell, one arm lifted to steady him, her face straining sideways, closer to his, while a thrill of affection ran through her. He was flesh and blood. A furry bundle of life. Her life.
'Bandit,' she whispered, 'my sweet little Bandit. What would I do without you?'
The newest guidebook she'd borrowed was about the Middle East. Colour pictures of markets with red and orange and yellow spice pyramids, precariously stacked plastic buckets, bowls, drying racks and clocks in the shape of minature mosques. Oil refineries and pipelines across endless sandlands. Mirror-glass high-rise towers next to minute palm trees and canals full of toy boats. Camels with single humps. Men in white, baggy trousers, long white shirts and white headscarves fastened with black rods like snakes. Heroes straight out of Arabian Nights. The women covered in black. Scurrying scarecrows. Only slits for eyes or some sort of mesh.
You should have become one of them after leaving school. Should have hidden yourself under layers of black. You'd have been invisible. Invincible. A dark shape. A devil in disguise. They wouldn't have caught you then, would they? If every woman was wearing the same outfit, how would they be able to tell who was who? Nothing to identify anybody, except perhaps the shoes. You could have gone about your business unscathed. The anonymous impresario laying on a free spectacle for the masses. A fire here, a fire there. That was later, though. After the women. By then everything was spinning out of control and you were a car without brakes hurtling down a mountainside. And you still are. When you're not on your guard. Fighting it.
Laura pushed the book back into the gap between the guides to Morocco and Argentine on the shelf above her bed. Bandit had curled up on her pillow. Cuddling him with one hand, she ate a couple of the pockmarked apricots. Their flesh had a spongy texture, firm yet yielding, vulnerable with a sweet fragrance that, combined with the downy skin, almost made her retch. She spat the last mouthful into a paper tissue and burrowed her face in Bandit's fur. She loved to breathe in his clean cat smell, it restored her to herself. His flank rose and fell, rose and fell under her cheek.
After a little while she put on the bedside radio. Started slewing through the stations, round and round, until her finger stopped. Already, she could feel adrenaline pumping through her. Sweat pearled under her arms, on her upper lip, between her breasts. Her heart was racing in a staccato rhythm she had no power over. Someone seemed to have flipped a switch inside her and she was off again, hurtling down that treacherous, never-ending mountainside.
The music isn't music any longer. Wind instruments snarl at intervals. Snarl-snarl-slash – pause – snarl – pause – slash. Violins scrape, scream, yowl. Whatever the instrument, it must be meant to imitate a knife. You've begun to shake, your hands clench and unclench, then your right slices through the air, flat and precise as a blade.
'Shut up, stupid woman! Shut up! Stupid, STUPID BITCH!'
Two rows of parked cars and a chunky concrete pillar hide you from the underground lifts and stairs. The woman is on the ground now, her designer handbag spilling its guts next to the front wheel of her BMW. You're kneeling beside her. Your left hand's clamped over her mouth, her throat. She barely struggles any more. Just some weak attempts at biting. There's a patch of motor oil near her outflung palm. Brighter colour is seeping from her clothing. Her eyes are looking up at you. Please, please, please, they say, Don't kill me. You're a woman. We're women. Women don't kill women. Her pupils are so black they appear white. An almost solemn moment. You tighten your grip over her mouth. Raise the knife. She flinches, jerks her head, rolls her eyes like a frightened horse. The pupils have grown so large there's nothing but whiteness now.
That's when the knife plunges back in. 'Stupid bitch! There are women and women!' Flecks of spittle have landed on her upturned face. 'Equality! Solidarity! What crap!'
Pain ripped across her cheek. Laura's hand flew up. Bandit! She must have clutched him too tight and he'd fought back with his claws.
He’d got away unharmed, of course, up the bookshelf and on to the wardrobe. His eyes were burning sulphur in the blackness of his fur.
'Sorry. Sorry.' She reached out to him tentatively, but he only slunk away further, right up to the wall. 'Here, sweetheart.' She rattled the box with the salmon-flavoured biscuits, his favourites. He pretended not to hear, never even twitched his nose. She tried to miaow at him, again and again. He remained stubbornly silent.
Nothing worked today. Nothing. Not the running, not the library books, not the music. That least of all, it seemed. Not even the TV. So tense she was. Could be the heat. Or seeing the mirage woman in the yard. Or too much bloody food. All that meat they’d served her for supper – a woodcutter's steak, for God's sake! She was sure they used special E-numbers in the seasoning to make you overeat. She'd fed a mouthful to Bandit, once he’d recovered from his sulking fit, and flushed the rest down the toilet.
Perhaps if she wrote to Coco, the journalist? Her most recent letter had arrived a couple of days ago, just after they'd met for the first time, and she'd not yet bothered to answer it. Journalists were the worst, she'd found. Nosy. Always grubbing in the dirt. But Coco seemed all right. So far. She'd given her the apricots – with a clump of dope inside the most luscious-looking one. 'To help you sleep,' a tiny note said. The nightmare vision of the two ghost women with their rasping questions and the drip-drip-drip of their blood must have haunted Coco, too.
After a drink of tap water liberally sprinkled with dope, Laura felt calmer. She’d write to her parents, she decided. Her confession and the subsequent prison sentence had shocked them into a state of near-senile debility. On their last visit, a month ago, they'd been holding hands, their interlinked fingers scrabbling shakily against the security glass. They'd smiled and smiled; asked was she treated all right, did she get enough exercise and proper meals? Still, they'd always stuck by her. That was something, wasn't it? They'd rejected fifty grand from the biggest-selling Sunday tabloid for their side of the story.
But there is no story, goddammit. Except that you should have been allowed to join the police force. Instead, you’d ended up dating a detective. Which meant you heard all about the investigation as soon as they discovered the second body. (Stupid bitch couldn't expect anything less than a scare, could she, walking alone by the river at night?) A few weeks later you got Roland to discuss the leads they had on the spate of fires in your home town. The napkins were no news to you, of course. Nor the large-print messages on them in red ballpoint pen: I AM AN ARSONIST. WATCH OUT. THERE'LL BE A BIG BLAZE IN X. TONIGHT. You for your part made Roland laugh by describing how you would go about setting an office block on fire. Or a public toilet:
When the outer door closes, you listen to the retreating steps for a moment, then start to dismantle the toilet roll holder. You rip out the roll, loosen it into a flabby nest of paper, scatter some lighter fluid on top. A quick glance outside the cubicle – no one around – and you strike seven matches (it would have to be seven, wouldn't it, for luck?). You drop them and run. There's no CCTV here, you checked that out beforehand. (In reality you always used a candle to ignite the fluid, to make it more of a ritual.)
Roland had never suspected a thing – he was in love with you, poor soul.
Laura slid the sheet of pale green paper under her pillow, for destruction later. As she lay there stroking and nuzzling Bandit in the dark, lavishing kisses on him, the words she'd written to her parents seemed to come smouldering through the pillowslip and the polyester filling:
Wasn't I a nice little girl? You tell me. Wasn't I normal? Even my misdemeanours as a teenager were normal, weren't they? But our life was such a bore. Our street was boring. Our town. The school. My various apprenticeships. A terrible stuffiness that bloated me until my skin grew thin and tight as a drum. I could hardly bend my legs any more or swing my arms, turn my eyes. I couldn't concentrate. Changing jobs every few months was merely a symptom. Going to the gym helped. My skin felt a little looser, but the dullness inside remained.
Eventually I forced myself to walk about town. I walked and walked. Mostly at night. Flexing my biceps, skipping, and pulling ferocious faces nobody could see. The stalking started quite by chance. The rain came down in buckets that evening and there was no one about. Then suddenly a woman cut from a doorway right in front of me. She never looked round. She had her hood up, no umbrella. I was about to stride past when I slipped on something and half-knocked into her. She shied away with a choked cry, then bolted.
That was the trigger. I began to follow lone women. Gauged the level of their fear from the way they stiffened their necks, pressed their precious handbags to their breasts and quickened their step. I made them jump like startled deer. I craved their fear. And despised it. For a while I felt good and my skin sat more easily on me. But I needed to keep seeing their fear. Over and over and over.
Is there a genetic defect in our family, perhaps? An evil seed sown way back in the past?
Next morning Laura was in the wire cage again, exercising like a rat in the wheel. She'd been sick the previous night, after eating the sheet of pale green writing paper, torn into neat, palatable strips and helped down with several gulps of water. Maybe she was allergic to the ink, the chlorine, the dye. Or the words themselves. She'd spent half the night washing the pillowslip, then scrubbing the floor next to the bed, then the whole cell because by that time she was wide awake. When she tried giving Bandit a spot of grooming, though, he'd hissed at her and escaped under the wardrobe.
Only 2.83 kilometres and already the heat was becoming oppressive; the air around her seemed charged with electricity. If she didn’t want to die of sunstroke, she'd have to stop soon. Not that she gave a damn about her life; she knew she could never trust herself Outside again. But Bandit, what would happen to him without her?
'Loony Laura, Laura Loony, Loony Laura,' a voice suddenly squeaked behind her.
Laura yanked her head round. She couldn't see anyone; was she going insane? Had the two ghosts started persecuting her during the day now as well?
A screechy giggle, and there was the mirage woman peeping round the beech tree: thin and old and unsavoury, with long, straggly grey hair and a scar that ran from below one eye right across the beaky nose and the other cheek. Unquestionably real. Laura's heart tightened. Surely, it couldn't be? Why would SHE be here?
Stamp-stamp-stamp went her feet, a fraction slower now.
'Mrs Schuster?' she heard herself pant as she stared at the scar, fascinated.
The 'Loony Lauras' got louder.
The woman sounded crazy. And crazies couldn't give testimonies in court, could they?
Abrupt silence. Then the head nudged further round the tree trunk, exposing a blotchy, lined throat with another scar that started just below the left jaw and snaked down into the collar of the blouse. The eyes had narrowed and assumed their old pus-yellow; the nose seemed to hack at the tree bark.
The eyes blinked rapidly – open and shut, open and shut. They had no lashes, and their corners were gritty with sleep. All at once, the woman raised her arm and, bony thumb and forefinger shaped into pincers, began plucking first at her naked lids, then the scraggly eyebrows.
Laura was getting angry now. What the f***'s she playing at? Should be glad she's still alive, stupid old . . . Suddenly she noticed how lopsided her running had become. Her right hand was up in the air, brandishing something invisible. Over by the bench ten metres away, Big Martha shifted from one foot to the other, gazing blankly. Laura forced a smile, forced her hand down by degrees, forced her fingers to curl round the rail once more. Stay on an even keel, girl, an even keel.
'Loony Laura, Laura Loony!' the squeaky voice resumed.
For a few seconds Laura managed to focus on her feet pushing away from the treadmill, but the continuous movement made her dizzy. When she glanced up, the old woman was standing in front of the tree and jabbing her fists at the wire cage, her tongue lolling with the effort to keep pace. Her well-cut beige skirt and the cream blouse hung on her body. She looked emaciated, like someone from a hunger zone. Laura couldn't help laughing, despite the fear she felt coiled inside.
'So that's where you've got to, my dear.' A warden had approached the old woman and tugged at her sleeve to pull her away, out of range. 'The people here – they're dangerous, some of them. Very dangerous.'
As the day progressed, Laura's tension rose. She tried to convince herself that Mrs Schuster had lost her mind, couldn't possibly have recognised her. Her own first name was an open secret, after all. It was pure coincidence really that the old woman had strayed near the wire cage. And yet . . . she couldn't be a hundred percent sure.
The missing one percent is all that matters. It unbalances you. Maybe they sent her here on purpose. To torment you. Because no doubt they know who SHE is. Full of venom and jealous harassment until that final showdown. You'd left at once, with half a month's pay still owed you.
But the so-called 'lake-front assault' was an accident, a complete accident. Seven at night, a gathering of pink-purple cottonwool clouds in the western sky. A balmy summer's evening. You'd no idea it was HER sitting on that bench by the water's edge. No idea. You'd been jogging along the path quite peacefully when, for no reason at all, she started to scream. For no reason at all, stupid, stupid woman.
What pleasure to see the terror in those yellow eyes, like a sting going in, again and again. She couldn't have recognised you; you'd had your hair cut off by then and given up on the heavy make-up. And it was over in seconds anyway. There she lay, face up so you were able to watch her fear to the last, half in, half out of the shallows, the red of the sky mirrored perfectly in the reddening swirls of the water. Back home you chucked the knife into the rubbish and next morning the bin men got rid of it. Simple. No weapon ever found.
Then you heard the impossible: the woman was still alive. How could she be? You'd been so thorough. But she hadn't recognised you – that was your silver lining.
You've never been charged with that attack. And you've never confessed. It's your one secret. The gap at the foot of your bed, between the other two. No need confessing to a botched job. A failure, to be honest. A failure.
Cradling Bandit in her lap, stroking and kissing him, Laura murmured, 'A failure, a failure, a failure.' He only yawned, arched his back and stiffened his legs. She lifted him up to her face. Nuzzled him. 'Come on, my boy, give us a kiss. A kiss. Please.' As he turned his head away, the whiskers scratched her lips. 'Please?' The tip of his tail flicked up and down, against her arm. His paws had spread a little apart and the claws showed, bone white. She let go of him. 'Silly boy!' Her laughter didn't sound quite as hearty as she would have liked. So, on with the TV for a little distraction. MTV.
The video clip was one of those surreal numbers using computer-generated imagery. Vampire bats homing in on a blonde singer. Wings and webbed feet getting tangled in her hair. Gleaming incisors tearing at her lacy black top, grazing the tattoo on her throat. Then the music took off. Screeched and shrieked into the universe, shredded by multiple echo effects. Bandit rushed up the bookshelf.
Now the music's got inside you. It's filling you, cramming itself into you until you begin to gag. Your skin's grown so tight you're ready to explode. You leap to your feet, seize the cat, ripping him bodily from his retreat on the wardrobe, and start dancing. The girl's face in the video changes every few seconds; first she's young and honey-skinned, golden-haired, then young and black, with dreadlocks and big swelling breasts, pierced nipples, then older, greying, her looks decaying, messed up by age and modern technology, the lips getting bloodless and thin, the fingers arthritic, the nose more and more hooked, the eyes glaring until they go yellow and scream at the screen. Scream at you, poison-bright.
'NO!' you fling yourself down on the bed with Bandit. When he tries to scramble away, you put him under the pillow for safety. When he tries to wriggle from underneath, you hold it down. For safety. But reflected on the pillow you can still see that face. Madeleine Schuster's face. Leering and stupid. Accusing.
You sit on the pillow. Hold it down on either side. Press your body down on it. Down, down, down. To erase what's there.
The Judas window clangs open.
'Laura, what the hell's going on? You're unsettling the others! Calm down or else –'
Down, down, down or else . . .
Muffled shouts along the corridor. Radios and TVs at full volume.
'And where's Bandit? Hiding up on the wardrobe again, is he? Poor Bandit. Just think of him, Laura. Think of how much you love him.'
Fists and feet hammering and kicking against doors. Heads hitting themselves against walls, over and over. And over . . .
||Regi Claire was born and brought up in Switzerland. English is her fourth language. She has published two books: a collection of stories, Inside-Outside, which was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book Award, a novel, The Beauty Room, longlisted for the Allen Lane/MIND Book of the Year Award.|
Regi was also winner of the Edinburgh Review 10th Anniversary Short Story Competition (previously unpublished writer) and major prize winner in Cadenza Short Story Competition. She has also received Writer's Bursaries from the Scottish Arts Council, Thurgau Canton and Pro Helvetia (Swiss Arts Council) as well as the UBS Cultural Foundation Award.
Regi is currently completing a new novel and working on another collection of stories. Her work has been translated into several languages. She lives in Edinburgh with her husband, the writer Ron Butlin, and their golden retriever.
Regi says 'Fighting It is loosely based on a recent murder case in Switzerland. I read some of the newspaper coverage and found myself trying to imagine what it must feel like to be trapped inside a world without penitence or redemption. That's how the fictional character of Laura came into being. Laura - who lavishes all her love on her cellmate, a cat. Laura - who knows she is a killer and can never trust herself Outside again. Laura - who pushes her body to the limit, but cannot stop her mind from playing its terrifying games.
Much of my writing gives a voice to people on the fringes, people who don't quite belong, often catching them at crisis point. I have always been fascinated by the darker side of human existence, particularly the casualness with which we hurt each other and ourselves. I suppose the sense of not quite belonging reflects my own situation, living as I am between two countries and several languages. Even my mother tongue, Swiss German, is only a spoken, not usually a written language. Switzerland itself, of course, is a case in point: stuck in the middle of Europe, landlocked, politically independent (or should I say neutral?), it doesn't really belong either.'