Jo Duffy

Jo studied for her BA in English Literature at the University of Birmingham, before moving to Hackney five years ago. Her debut poetry pamphlet Other Troubled Creatures was published by Bare Fiction Press in 2016, and she’s currently writing a short story collection. She works in London as a copywriter and is the proud parent of three house plants, two of which are thriving.

joanna.duffy (


From Inside the House


The summer I was sixteen, the furniture in my parent’s house began to heave. To roll not quite in or out on itself, as if it were struggling to swallow. It was unnerving but gentle at first – as if the house had been nudged loose from some shore, or digested then reassembled inside a not-quite-satisfied stomach. I mostly tried to pretend it wasn’t happening, because what else can you really do?

I’d sit in my usual chair for dinner and just about feel something shifting in the backrest, like the knots of a spine slowly uncurling in preparation to stretch, and I’d carry on resolutely chewing food until it could slip safely down my throat. When I walked into the living room, if the overstuffed red armchair where my dad used to sit had become a sore, bloated mouth pursing itself together, trying to contain something that wanted to pulse upwards and belch out of it, I didn’t turn and slam the door as I ran out. Not in those early days. I would sit down, turn the TV on and surf through the channels until I found Homes Under the Hammer or DIY SOS, even if my hands were shaking so badly that it took a long time for my fingers to connect with the right buttons.

But the thing is, soon it was waking me up. And I mean I’d open my eyes as suddenly as if someone had clamped a hand over my nose and mouth; as immediately awake as if I’d never been asleep. Whatever dream I’d been having drained instantly without leaving any peripherals, and although I could see nothing, the darkness itself seemed to roll like eyes behind closed lids. Everything in the house was straining. I knew in the pit of my stomach that although there was no breeze anywhere that summer, the curtains downstairs were twisting, gasping outwards with air and then flattening suddenly against the glass of the windows; that the wood of the kitchen table was crawling with some unknown disturbance, like a ruptured ant hill.

It’s hard to describe a terror like that, because it pretends to come from a distance even as it sits beside you, as if you’re looking at it through the wrong end of binoculars. It climbs so suddenly yet so carefully inside your body – is such a skilled intruder – that you don’t instantly notice it has overwritten your nervous system and made you all terror and false distance bound up together. In the morning I would shower with my chin titled towards the jets, eyes open and pointed upwards, until the blur of the speeding water was all that I could sense moving.

It all got to be too much pretty quickly, and by the end of June I was spending as much time out of the house as possible – lingering in sun-scorched parks, the sticky backseats of cars, in friends of friends houses where the decor was cheap and blissfully still. I stayed out doing and taking and smoking things that made me so tired and confused I could often barely walk upstairs when I got home, much less detect the faint stirring and pulsating of the furniture – but soon even that wasn’t enough.

So I did the only other thing I really could do: I found a flatpack boy, and then he was mostly what I did for the rest of the summer.



‘Where’d you find him, though?’ Asked Anni, a week after I found him, directing the leap of flame from her lighter at the already parched ground of our ragged patch in Bilbury Park. It was study leave, mid-GCSE, so we were coming there every day. ‘And why do you call him flatpack boy? He aint even a boy, is he? How old?’

‘Twenty-three,’ I confirmed. ‘But he thinks I’m nineteen. And I met him in The Eagle, obviously.’

She passed the flame over the tip of a long, dry blade of grass until it caught, racing in a brief orange hieroglyph to the bottom, expelling a thin trail of smoke. I could feel the jealousy coming off her – sudden then controlled, like a gas ring igniting. ‘You’re well lucky your mum lets you work at The Eagle. That’s where proper men are. Jamie can’t even drive yet, and he don’t even like football.’

I nodded, smug. The Eagle was where the football men in our town went, and they were nothing like Anni’s pale, gawky Jamie, who took computers apart in his bedroom and worked behind the fish counter at Sainsbury’s; who always smelled faintly of mackerel beneath the choking scent of Lynx Africa, and who considered eye contact with anything but the floor to be a mortifying accident.

The men of The Eagle, meanwhile, came in two main types: there were the older ones, with soft, swollen bellies and flinty, recessed eyes, who came in at midday and leaned against the bar as if they’d climbed a mountain to get there as they ordered the same pints of ale that they always had and always would. They would look at you openly – some of them like they were assessing the rarity of a steak on the grill, others like old men simply trying to remember something.

Then there were the younger ones who crowded in together later on, who looked like boys grafted onto action men, with their muscles and tattoos and wet-look hair and coiled-spring energy. If they were on their own getting a round in, they would pretend not to watch you – they’d call loudly over to their mates, or glare at their phone screens or the TV – but you could feel their eyes darting across you like insects when you turned around to retrieve a glass, or unscrew a bottle.

Then when the football came on, that was all any man in The Eagle watched without exception, and that was when I got to watch them. I loved the way the movement of the ball puppet-mastered their bodies, as if they’d all simply become the cells of a much larger one; eyes all tracking the same way, forearms tensing and fists clenching in unison. Groans of the same suddenness and pitch.

Afterwards though, if the score was no good, there was rarely any unity in loss. Instead there would be tense exchanges, scuffles and ejections, sometimes smashing glasses and a night that slid blurrily into a finale of police sirens and streaks of blood turning pink and soapy under the mop. But if the right team had won, there would be men returning to the bar with a kind of generous glow about them, ready to chat, no longer pretending not to watch you. That was how I’d met the flatpack boy.

‘Why flatpack boy though?’

‘Because, babe,’ I ran my thumb over the stubble of scorched grass, ‘he fucking loves Ikea.’

She stared at me blankly. ‘What do you mean – loves Ikea? The big, the fuckin’… furniture place?’

I nodded. ‘Loves it. Everything in his flat is from there, all flatpack. Literally everything.’

Something moved behind her stare – ‘What, you’ve been to his flat already?’

‘Nearly every night.’

She sat up slightly, brow furrowed. I realised a beat too late that I’d misjudged this completely – the gratifying burn of jealousy was gone, replaced by a familiar concern. Carefulness.

‘But – so,’ She swallowed. ‘Is everything at home still..? I mean is your – is – ‘

‘It’s fine.’ I cut her off in a weird, strangled bark. Anni’s expression shifted from concern to something like alarm. I could feel the blood beating behind my eyelids; the now-familiar sensation of a normal moment quite suddenly tilting on its axis, tensing to plummet away from normality and into somewhere airless if I let it. I closed my eyes for a brief second to stop Anni and the park and the moment from crowding into them.

‘We better go back to school. Got my French Listening at three.’

I began gathering my books up, shaking charred grass and loose tobacco off them. After a few seconds, Anni followed suit.


The flatpack boy’s real name was Josh, and he was personal trainer. He loved football and the gym and Ikea and music that sounded like grinding machinery forced through a metronome, and all of this was fine for me – perfect even, because his body was as sharply sculpted and ungiving as a warm marble statue, there was no hint of malevolence or pain in his furniture, and when he put his music on it was impossible to hear myself think.

After that first time when we met at The Eagle, we rarely met anywhere except his flat, and was perfect for me too. When he’d answer the door, football was always on the TV in the background. If the match was important or the score was tight he’d barely look at me; would jerk the latch up hurriedly and already be heading back to the sofa as I edged inside, his eyes glued to the screen, occasionally muttering something about 5 minutes left of extra time or beers in the fridge if I wanted one. However if the game rumbling on behind him was a sure thing or a shit team, the door would barely be open before he was pulling me impatiently inside, pushing spade-like hands up under my clothes and catching corners of me between his lips and teeth.

Although there was a certain thrill to that, I preferred the first scenario. While he was glued to the football I could wander freely around his flat, running my hands over the shallow curves and valleys of teak wood, skating my fingers over the glittery frozen lakes of the faux-granite kitchen islands. In his bedroom I would force my nails into the cracks and joins of pre-fab drawers and wardrobes, feeling the way they fit together, relishing their total absence of movement and presence even under relentless probing and pushing. Everything in his place had been put together from flat cardboard boxes and detailed instructions and if you wanted to, you could take it apart piece by piece – right down to each individual screw, and it would never actually be broken; would still be the sum of its parts. If you leaned in close, all you could smell was absence – faint, sterile notes of chemically treated woodchips, lemony cleaning products and stale, long-undisturbed space. No flesh, no rotting matter or straining cells, no sweat or unreleased howls of fear or sun-baked blood stench.

One time he walked in and found me cross-legged on the floor with my head lowered into the empty bottom drawer of his bedside table, greedily sniffing its musty-clean absence, pulling it into my lungs.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

But his suspicion drained as quickly as it has spiked when I stumbled to my feet with my skirt riding up, muttering about searching for a missing deodorant, and soon we were writhing and fumbling in his bed the way we did for most of the summer, clothes peeled and flicked away like dead skin. Later he asked ‘Why are you so obsessed with furniture anyway?’ and before I could deflect it I found myself saying something true: ‘My dad was a carpenter.’

‘Oh yeah?’ He glanced up from the columns of football scores on his laptop screen. ‘Does he design stuff for, like, Ikea?’

He’d missed the past tense and I felt a twinge of relief. ‘No,’ I said, ‘but he built all the furniture in our house.’

‘Cool’, his eyes had already drifted back to his screen. A few moments later I left, although I hadn’t planned to.



Mum used to say that Dad was a better carpenter than Jesus with a worse temperament than the devil. Her strict catholic upbringing left her with a fierce hatred of anything to do with religion, but sometimes when she was very stressed she said things like that. In the last few years she’d been saying things like that quite often.

When I was small, though, I think he was quite successful. He worked a lot then, but consistently, from early morning until late into the night in his woodshop in the garage. Mum always says that when I was a baby, I couldn’t settle in the evenings unless there was hammering or the monotone growl of a drill in the background.

He sold a lot back then – chairs, bookcases, fitted cabinets. Custom pieces made to order for upmarket homeware stores or boutique furniture shops, usually with signature flourishes that hadn’t been specified in the brief – cupboard handles carved into intricately peaked, whipped cream-style whorls. Chair cushions crimped into strange geometric patterns, fastened by polished brass studs he’d found at some craft market. He’d take me to markets like these most weekends, following them around the country like a bloodhound, me strapped in the car seat. When we got there, he’d haul me up onto his shoulders so I could see what he could: a patchwork of stalls and open car boots bearing unspooling rolls of fabric, glittering piles of antique door knobs or brass locks, shelves laden with wood samples and trays of multi-coloured tiles. Gripping on to handfuls of his hair as he strode from stall to stall, I could almost feel the excitement revving beneath his hairline; static shocks of the first sparks of new ideas erupting in him with each discovery of some new treasure. I had to hold on tight, because he’d forget to hold me back once the spirit of the hunt took hold – his hands would be busy haggling, holding samples up to the light, rifling through drawers and displays.

On the drive home he’d still be fizzing. Eyes bouncing from me to the road ahead and back again, he would talk non-stop. He’d say things like ‘the thing about furniture, Saph, is it should never feel like furniture. That’s why it needs to be built with your whole soul. Do you understand? Your hands are your tools, ok, but they must be servants to the soul. Those who

use their hands without engaging their soul – without even consulting it – make me sick. Those people are the ones who spend their weekends going to fucking Ikea to buy the same flatpack fucking chest of drawers that every other insipid prick this side of Sweden has in their front room, assembling it from the manual’ – he always spat this word out as if it had burned his tongue – ‘look at the manual, pick up a screw, look back at manual, what now? Oh, screwdriver. What now, hmm. Scratch my arse – wait did the manual say I could do that? Idiots. You see, Saph? Manuals are the antithesis to the soul. Any furniture built from them is just varnished-up scrap wood.’

As far back as I can remember, he always spoke to me in this way – fast and furious, sometimes agitated or animated to the point of incoherence, but always as if I was his intellectual equal or creative contemporary; someone to usher into a shared frenzy of new ideas and schemes. For a long time I just assumed that this was the way all men spoke to children – to girls.

Once back at home, he’d set about making frantic amends to whatever he’d been working on for the past week. Sometimes these were small – he’d etch delicate but time-consuming embellishments into a lampstand with a new engraving tool he wanted to try, or finish a desk with a darker varnish than had been briefed.

Sometimes, though, he’d return from the markets – or simply wake up in the mornings – in such a frenzied state that he’d dismantle his previous weeks creations entirely and rebuild them from scratch. Often these reinventions barely resembled the briefs – in fact they barely resembled anything you’d usually classify as furniture. They were wild, enchanted pieces that seemed lifted straight out of fairytales, carved into life from his imagination and whatever notion had taken hold of him that day: a desk chair with towering angel wings carved from driftwood and somehow attached to the backrest, when he’d become enraged by the thought that someone might sit in this chair and not feel moved by the possibility that it could fly. A kitchen table with legs that segued into claws at the bottom, because four legs standing without any feet had suddenly struck him as unbearably barbaric.

If I had to pinpoint the piece of furniture that marked the beginning of the true weirdness, though, it would have to be the red chair. It began with the roll of plush, plum-coloured velvet that he found going cheap at one of the less reputable markets. The vendor – sallow and sharp, with baggy, uneven shadows beneath his eyes – said it was because it was stained, and winced when Dad unrolled the length of it for closer examination. ‘Where?’ He demanded. ‘I see no stains.’ A furtive, whispered explanation followed – several times I thought I caught the hiss of the word ‘blood’, but later figured I must’ve imagined it because of the way Dad’s eyes lit up. ‘I’ll take it’, he said.

Back at home, the project he’d been working on – a candy-cane striped armchair, commissioned by an upscale homeware store in West London – was immediately set aside. He became consumed by the red chair in a way I hadn’t seen before. It was no longer just the manic monologues while me and mum tried to watch telly, or the hours on end spent in his workshop sanding, sawing, drilling and varnishing. Now there was something new – something frightened and obsessive hardening at the core, causing him to stop mid-monologue and dissolve into frowning murmurs that didn’t seem addressed to us or to anyone we could see. Now it wasn’t just hours in the workshop – it would swallow him for whole days and nights at a time. Drills and hammers would sound intermittently, but it was quiet in there more often than not.

One morning, after the third night in a row that he hadn’t come up to bed, Mum went in. Two minutes later she came back and sat at the kitchen table with the claws for feet, her face hard and blank. ‘He wasn’t even working on it. He was just – just sitting there, on the floor, with both his hands on it and his eyes closed. Like he was praying or – communing with it or something.’ She twisted her wedding ring sharply on her finger. ‘No one will ever pay him for that. We’ll have to bloody keep it, like the last two chairs.’ She was right. We put it in the living room, and it became the only place in the house he’d sit for longer than two minutes.

After the red chair – and West London furniture boutique’s scalding review of his reliability – the commissions dried up. He said that he didn’t care, that it was a blessing in disguise, actually, because to sell furniture that you’d invested blood, sweat and tears in – that you’d imprinted with your own soul – was grotesque, now he thought about it. That furniture should be in your home, should be its organs, and his new project was to fill this house with only his furniture – every last inch if it killed him. He’d wasted too much time neglecting his own kingdom, slaving away on the orders of others – well, no more!

Mum took a job at the library.

Over the next few years, the house gradually transformed around us. It began in the living room with the red chair, soon followed by an oak TV cabinet lifted by wrought-iron wheels that he claimed to have salvaged at a scrap yard, then a bookshelf embedded with a hundred pieces of smashed mirror, spraying broken fragments of light across the carpet. ‘It’s for luck’, he told me.

‘Aren’t broken mirrors bad luck?’

‘No, the light they reorder is for luck.’ he said. ‘The light in this room was too stagnant.’

Light was now a particular theme. He’d obsess over the shadows cast by his creations at different times of day as the odyssey of his project moved onward through the house – a hat-stand in the hallway carved into the tunnelling spiral of a tornado; a series of sloping, undulating chairs for the kitchen which, when stood side by side, formed the crest of a wave about to break. You might find him crouching by these at any given time, brow furrowed as he assessed their position in relation to the morning sunlight streaming through the window, or moving a torch slowly over their contours in the evening.

Only he could really know what he was looking for. He’d gnaw his lip and mark things down in a notepad. Sometimes he seemed satisfied or even elated by the results, but at others he’d become so agitated it was hard to be near him as he paced and ranted, opening and closing curtains and hauling the furniture into different positions. I’d hear fragments of his sentences burrowing out from under ragged breaths and scraping wood, warning about souls, flesh, blood, light and filling the house before it was too late.

One night I came home late from Anni’s and found him perched atop one of the wave chairs. A dimmer switch lamp was tucked under his chin, and he slowly twisted its dial so that shadows collected in valleys along the newly-sunken contours of his face, then gradually evaporated. ‘Day following night. Light should be natural,’ he murmured. ‘That’s why we need to get up to the roof. Once I’ve filled this house –’

The following day, I got the job at The Eagle. I told them I was eighteen so I could serve behind the bar, but I could tell they didn’t care. They were short-staffed and wanted an extra pair of hands to pull a pint, and I wanted to be out of the house and around men who simply sat or leaned or occasionally thumped their fists on furniture and thought nothing more of it.

Privately, I was intrigued by everything that the other bargirls hated – the mottled tattoos and furtive stares; the tang of BO and the slowly-heating stovetop atmosphere of the football games; the brutality and predictability of the fights. I took all the extra hours I could get, working up to 14 hour shifts some weekends. It’s hardly surprising that I was there the day Dad finally reached the roof.

We heard the sirens go past. A cheer went up as their wail thinned into a whine, everyone having assumed that they’d be stopping in our carpark as usual. Wigan were two–nil down, and it was the hottest day of the year so far. The first day that really felt like summer.

Two and a half miles away, the police cars screeched to stop to find compass-splayed limbs; an expanding pool of blood already beginning to bake into the hot tarmac. From inside the house, someone was screaming one long, disembodied syllable of shock, broken only when the ambulance arrived and she finally managed to text me through shaking fingers:

come home.



There’s a time in every evening that is both day and night. The sun has usually sunk already, but the darkness still has some daylight left in it. The colour of it is something else – rich, electric-dim, sad. I was born at this time, and Dad named me after the colour. Sapphire.

It was at this hour, too, that I walked back along our road for the first time in weeks. The flatpack boy had dumped me unceremoniously in the matching twilight hour of that morning, after I’d woken him up one too many times, flailing and shouting in my sleep again. He wouldn’t tell me what it was that I kept shouting, only that he thought I had ‘too much baggage’ for him to handle right now. Watching him chew uncomfortably through a few well-worn break up lines I realised that ‘baggage’ was the same as clutter to him, and fair play because you’d never find any in Ikea. Certainly not in his flat.

I’d stayed there for as long as I dared after he’d left for work, though, savouring the particular stillness of its showroom sterility. I’d watched the shadows warp around the futon and the granite kitchen island in slow-motion. When the light began to turn pink at the edges, I got up. My legs felt like chewing gum but I walked around the flat twice more, running my hands over everything slowly – sensuously. I thought about taking all of it apart, piece by piece. I thought about it.

Then I left.

The closer I got to home the more I slowed down. There was a pulsating that seemed to be running through fault lines deep below the pavement, directly through my feet and up my

body. I was sure it must be coming from the house – that the furniture would by now have coalesced into one simmering presence behind its walls, watching for me through the many eyes of its windows.

I carried on putting one foot in front of the other, but at the tip of our driveway, I froze. In the dark mouth of the doorway, a red, tongue-like mass was pushing outwards, straining grotesquely as if trying to escape its own body. I recognised it as the red chair a few terror-stricken seconds before I saw Mum behind it. Her face was damp, hair sticking to her forehead and her whole body pursed with effort.

Everything seemed to turn in on itself as I stumbled towards her, plunged my hands into the lining and pulled. As we both wrestled with it, I couldn’t tell where anything was coming from: the gasping, the heaving and straining, the low screaming and the steady thumping just below it. All I know is that when we’d finally hauled it clear of the doorway into the driveway and flopped down beside each other in the grass, all that was moving in the half-darkness was us.

For a while we didn’t speak, chests rising and falling in unison as we tried to catch our breath. In that long moment, the chair was just a chair in front of us – faintly absurd on the gravel, dyed in shadows.

‘I just couldn’t stand it.’ she said after a while. I nodded and reached for her. There would be questions – lots more questions and not enough answers, and more tears and raw-eyed silences and half-waking nightmares, more ignored texts – but not right now.

For now, we sat on the lawn together until night had fallen properly. Then we went inside and turned the lights on.