Saturday 12th August
Jen was the first reader at Story Shop 2017, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.
Her appearance on Sat 12th August 2017 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent was also broadcast live through the Periscope app.
Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
A short bio
Jen is an Edinburgh-dwelling-Glaswegian-raised-Dundonian.
She was a finalist in the Great British Write Off and SMHAFF Awards. Her plays have appeared at the Traverse and Piccolo Theatre of Milan.
She’s been published by New Writing Scotland, Bare Fiction, and 404 Ink’s Nasty Women.
She can be found on Twitter as @JenBitesPeople.
The Story She Read
a short story by Jen McGregor
They chose a beautiful place to be buried, I’ll grant them that. You can’t beat the west for scenery. Dense forests, eddying mists, slate-grey lochs, the works.
The faded red phone box flashes past me on my left. I’m almost there. Down the hill, over the bridge, past the tiny whitewashed church where the minister did the services in doom-laden tones. Caravan site on the right, then a stretch of forest, then… there it is. A tumbledown church surrounded by crooked gravestones, all abandoned in favour of the “new” kirk some time around 1800. Beyond that, a recent extension to the graveyard with just three or four occupied plots. In the spring it’s picturesque and carpeted with bluebells. Now, in October, with the light beginning to fade and the fog rising from over by the loch, it’s… atmospheric, shall we say?
There isn’t a car park or anything, just a dirt layby on the opposite side of the road. I pull in and get out of the car. A fine drizzle hangs in the air, not quite committing to being rain. I retrieve the flowers from the back seat. I take a deep breath. Last time I was here was for Dad’s funeral. It’s taken me nearly eighteen months to work up to this. I cross the road and approach the heavy wrought iron gate.
It’s fucking locked.
I’ve driven for six sodding hours to get here, three of those spent sitting in bloody traffic jams and the bastarding gate is locked.
Why is it locked? Why would you even bother to lock a gate out here? Surely nobody for miles around is going to be the slightest bit interested in breaking into a barely-occupied graveyard on a damp October evening? The nearest town is about 25 minutes’ drive. That’s a long way to go if you’re looking for trouble, and if you’re hell-bent on breaking in then a locked gate isn’t going to stop you, you’d just climb –
The wall isn’t very high, should be easy enough, and there are plenty of hand and footholds. It’ll make a mess of my nice black trouser suit, but it can’t be helped. I’ve come all this way and I’m not going home without visiting my parents’ grave. Grasping the flowers in one hand I stick my toes in one of the gaps, push myself up, and find out the hard way that the ground is lower on the other side. If there were anyone around to see me land, my pride would be wounded.
I go to lay the flowers. It’s my first grave visit and I don’t really know what to do. I feel like I should stay for a while, so I take my time over everything – walk slowly up to the grave, carefully read the inscription, remove the dead flowers left by some other relative, place the fresh flowers in a hastily-improvised ritual arrangement. That kills a couple of minutes.
I try to replay the funerals in my mind, but then I decide against it. I think instead about when they were alive. But I think about them alive quite a lot, just in everyday life, so it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do at the graveside. I wonder whether I’m supposed to talk to them. I briefly envy religious people who could just bust out a prayer at this juncture. Instead I chat self-consciously for a minute or two, telling them about what I’ve been doing since they’ve been dead. This only serves to emphasise their absence. I stop. It’s been less than ten minutes, but it’s enough. It’s getting dark, anyway. I scoop up the dead flowers, leaving only my fresh ones, and prepare to climb the wall.
The drizzle has taken steps towards becoming rain and the stones are slippery, so I don’t think it’s a good idea to climb with the flowers in hand this time. I throw them over the wall in a shower of dead twigs and desiccated petals. I freeze. Then I think I hear something on the other side. Then I relax. It’s nothing. What can it be? A hedgehog or something. I begin to break back out of the graveyard.
I reach up over the top of the wall, clutching at the mossy stones. As I pull myself up my long, damp hair falls forward and sticks to my face, and I curse inwardly at not having worn it up. With my free hand I push it back, catching myself in the eye and leaving a smudgy streak of black mascara across my skin. A wordless growl of frustration escapes me.
And that’s when I see her.
And that’s when she sees me.
She’s staring straight at me. Stock still. Blanched. Eyes wide. Face aghast. Watching me, watching this, climb out from among the dead.
And she screams. Of course she screams. She doesn’t run, can’t run, the freeze response has kicked in.
I scramble down, panicked noises that are meant to be comforting spilling from my lips, my blood-red lips, why couldn’t I wear fucking taupe and butterscotch shades like a normal person, why couldn’t I have left my hair dark blonde, dark blonde would look so much less alarming in this situation, she’s pointing at the dead flowers, the dead flowers that I threw, that rained over the wall like a prelude to a jump scare, and now I’m babbling at her –
It’s all right, it’s all right, I’m not dead, look, check my – well, my pulse is notoriously hard to find so maybe don’t do that, but look, I’m – oh god I see your point, my hands are cold, really cold, but that’s just because I was by the grave for a bit – not my grave! No! My parents’ grave, they live here – well, not live here, haha, but they are here, look, it’s that one there look through the gate, it’s that one there, see? Jackie McGregor, Bill McGregor, and I’m their daughter, Jen –
Yes… yes, that is my name below theirs. But only to say I put up the stone! Really! There’s no dates or anything and you’d see that if you just look… Maybe you can’t see from here, but if you go in and check – no, no, don’t scream, please don’t scream, I’m not trying to get you to go into the graveyard with me, I didn’t mean that, I’m sorry –
Look, I’ve got a car! If I were dead, would I have a car? See, I’ve got the keys and everything! You’ve got a backpack, you must be headed for the hostel near Strachur, can I drop you there? Make up for scaring –
She runs. Finds her feet at last and takes off, and the last thing I see as she vanishes beyond the bend in the road is the little Australian flag sewn to her backpack.
I get back into the car. My hand rests on the steering wheel, pale and knuckly. My face in the rear-view mirror is not the most alive-looking face anyone ever saw. The screaming girl may have had a point.
I wonder whether to follow her and make sure she’s all right, but I think I’ve done enough damage for today.
I wonder whether, somewhere in Australia, there’s a woman who tells stories of the time she visited Scotland and saw a rather stylish corpse rise from the grave and invite her into an urban legend.
I wonder whether we’ll ever do a sequel…
(c) Jen McGregor, 2017
The 10-minute Story Shop performances will be streamed live online, so if you can’t make it to the Spiegeltent, you can still get a front-row seat.
Simply install the Periscope app from Google’s Play Store (android devices) or Apple’s iTunes store (iPhones and iPads) and keep an eye on the #storyshop2017 Twitter stream for broadcast announcements around 3pm during the entire festival to get your virtual front row seat.
Recordings of the performances will also appear on the City of Literature’s YouTube channel at a later date.
Who is behind the project?