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Canticum Exterminabitur Mulier

Jay McKenzie

Here’s one: you and Ben grinning for the camera on a shell-speckled beach. It looks cold, too cold to be shivering in linen shirts, but though there are salt pools bracketing your eyes, there’s heat in your smiles.

Marnie and Ben. MarnieandBen. MarndBen.

Is this the one you both shyly save as your profile picture, giggling, ecstatic when you realise that this virtual stranger you’re falling in love with maybe feels the same? There’s a roiling in your stomach when you think about it, so you grip the book, flip the page.

Another: Koh Samet. Maybe Koh Samui. A Koh, and you’re sipping the juice from a coconut through lime plastic straws. You’re both there, hammocking the coconut between your brown hands, eyes fixed on one another. Behind, there’s a redolent sunset, and you have frangipani tucked behind your ear and the gentle honeydew mound of Sammy challenging the seams of your dress.

Who is she, this girl, with carefree hair and a smattering of freckles peppered across her nose? You search her face for traces of yourself. This stranger is you, and the thought steals two, three of your precious heartbeats.

You close the album, but don’t place it back on the dusty bookshelf you’ve been meaning to clean for a fortnight. Instead, you rest it on the edge of a table strewn with vocabulary jotters and milk-filmed glasses. Your hands are itching to flick some more pages.

A kettle, boiled twenty-plus times a day signals its eagerness to serve another flavourless tea. You drop two Lipton bags into a mug, tip the water in and check your watch. Another hour before you have to pick up Sammy and Ella, deposit Ella at Jen’s, take Sammy to his match, pick Ben up from the station, go back and watch the game’s second half, wait for Sammy to get out of his tacky boots and into the car, pick up Ella from Jen’s and hope the slow cooker hasn’t killed the pork you’re sure will be dryer than a satchel. The sigh puffs out of its own accord.

On the corkboard where you pin money-off coupons and gymnastic timetables is an ad you ripped out of the paper yesterday. Women Sing, it says. Choir for women of all ages who want to sing in a fun, friendly environment. You used to sing in the church choir, notes lingering long after your belief in God had died.

Drop thy still dews of quietness…

It comes out louder than you anticipated. You glance around the messy kitchen, afraid the appliances might be judging you.


You squeeze the tannins into your cup, plop the twinned tea bags into the bin – each pocket sags, and you think of Ben. Some of the milk slops onto the counter. You won’t be able to make order from chaos before you need to go out. Still, the guilt gnaws. You sit at the table, slap your cup against the ruinous city of family life, open the album to a random page.

Sammy’s birth. It’s a terrible picture, obviously – framed by machinery that had both saved and ended lives before you came to inhabit the space. Faithful shepherds at the bedside of a potential messiah. The baby is crumpled and angry. Ben grins furiously, his face waxed with sweat and split like a nut shell. And you, smiling vacantly. It wasn’t just your child that exited your body between your legs on a slippery garnet sea.


Next page: Sammy on a yellow plastic slide. He’s beaming, the light giving his curls a luminescent halo. Out of focus and partially obscured by a large canvas bag is your blurry outline. A fading watercolour version of you. You remember that ugly skirt, the only thing that fit at the time.

Ella’s birth. A similar setting to Sammy’s, but this time, Ben’s done a selfie. Ella is a rosebud in Ben’s arm below a toothy smile. You’re in it, the picture, but right in the corner. Your catheter-pierced hand lies on the blanket, and your chin is there, but you can’t see the rest of your face because your features have been cut out entirely. You remember wondering if you were dead.

The tea is hot and insipid as expected. You hate Lipton: told on a tour of a tea plantation in Sri Lanka that Lipton bags are made from the discarded dust of the real tea and you hate that Ben insists on buying it.

This one’s from that semi-derelict holiday camp in the Dordogne: Sammy and Ella are building sandcastles, a beach breeze plastering hair to their sun-caked cheeks. Is that your leg? It must be, shapeless and white as a church candle. Your flesh reminds you of the goosebumpy chicken carcasses you bulk buy from Tesco.

You sip your tea and flick and sip and flick: Sammy, Ben and Ella at Aunty Jen’s wedding; Sammy holding up a medal; Ella dressed as Wonder Woman. Sip, sip, flick. You hum too. This little light of mine…

Sip, flick, sip, flick: Ben finishing the Great North Run; Sammy and Ella in a glass-bottomed boat hull blowing kisses to magnified clownfish; the pair in ghost sheets clutching badly carved pumpkins.

I’m gonna let it shine…


The back cover of the album is an insipid mint spotted with blue love hearts. It’s curiosity that makes you work backwards, scanning for the face of the stranger that is you. No, not there. You click through dates in your head, five, six, no. Seven. That picture of your pasty calf was seven years ago.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…

You fire a message to Ben: you got any pics of me on yr phone?

Working, Mar.

You drain the cup, wincing at the brown ring staining the base.

Before you leave, you pluck the stupid choir advert off the corkboard and throw it in the bin.

Jay McKenzie’s work appears in numerous publications, including Unleash Lit, Cerasus and adda. Winner of the Exeter Short Story Prize and others, she was shortlisted for the 2022 Exeter Novel Prize and the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her debut novel Mim and Wiggy’s Grand Adventure was released in July 2023.

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