About Joanna Merifield

After a career as an actress, and then a full-time mother, the last few years have been focused on writing poetry, screenplays and, primarily, fiction. Joanna has just graduated from Brunel Joanna MerrifieldUniversity with a Masters Degree in The Novel, and prior to that she completed the Diploma in Creative Writing at Oxford University. The Lucy Cavendish Fiction prize is the first novel writing competition she has submitted to, and Joanna is delighted to be shortlisted with ‘The Second Garden’.

A miniature portrait of a family in extreme pain seen through the eyes of the teenage daughter, Stella, who has become an emotional lightening rod for her parents’ loss of another child.

Download the first the prologue here or read it below.

Prologue

She is walking down the path in her nightdress. She hugs her arms across her chest, holding herself against the winter wind, and her eyes stretch and squint as she peers through the dark. At the bottom of the garden is the gate. She steps through and heads to the tree. When she gets there, she kneels. And not for the first time.

The rain sheets down making sponge of the soil bed, and her nails quickly grow black from scooping. The ground is wet so it’s easy to move the earth and make a space, ready to swallow up and keep whatever she puts there. She’s catching her fingers on the flint, scuffing her hands as she scrapes and digs. The torch is laid flat with the beam just catching the mouth of the growing pit.

Once or twice, sitting back on her haunches, she stops to glance about: listening to check that she hasn’t disturbed anyone, that no one will see her out here. Her nightdress is sodden, and she smoothes it down like she’s soothing a child that clings.

Carefully, she removes the bundle from the shelter of her nightdress. But she doesn’t like the rain. It seems wrong, she thinks, to let the rain wet it. To surround it by earth though, that’s different. That’s all right. There is something sacred about the earth.

The bundle is so small when she puts it in. She hesitates for only a brief moment before placing it at the bottom of the hole, then she begins to sweep back the mound of earth to cover it over. She packs the mud with hard slaps, humming as the rain crawls down her hair and drips off the straggling ends. It’s not a tune she’s making, just one or two notes at a time. Just something to keep herself moving.

Her hands are caked and torn, but she shoves and pats until the hole is filled up. The air falls out of her in a sigh as she finally blends the last edges of the mud pit and the ground looks almost back to normal. Then, kneeling back, she holds up her dirty shovels and the sound of her own breath roars in her ears, reminding her that she’s alive, that even though she could easily throw herself down into that hole and follow the little one, she won’t. For a moment she thinks what it must be like from inside the hole when the final fall of earth blotted out the last of the air. It is that, the silence of the small thing in there, the lack of protest at being buried away, that keeps her sat in the rain for longer than she meant to stay. The wind relents for a moment, and inside the house someone coughs.

You can hardly tell that she’s been digging here now. She draws her finger through the soil, but even as she writes the name the rain quickly erases what she’s traced. As though it had never been.

A light turns on in the house, but she doesn’t see it. She is watching the rain as it turns to sleet.