Shelley Hastings

I am a freelance writer, artist, creative producer and problem solver. I have written about performance for Unbound, Live Collision and This is Tomorrow. Previously I worked at Battersea Arts Centre for 15 years as the Artistic Associate.

E-mail: hello (

Twitter: @peckhamshell

Family Life


It’s past midnight. I lie in the corner of the bed with a cushion under my arm and my face toward the wall. Pete comes in late from work. The room is dark but out of the corner of my eye I see his clothes land on the floor. When he climbs into bed, he makes the springs jump. He rolls around as he can never get his pillows the way he likes them. The more he moves, the stiller I am. Too still and stiff to be asleep. Even with my back to him I can feel that he is looking at me. He goes quiet and then makes a low growling sound and leaps up and starts pulling on his clothes. He says in an angry whisper that he is going for a walk. Muffled by the covers I say, ‘What? It’s the middle of the night’.

He is muttering now, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. He’s going to wake up the kids as his voice is starting to squeak in frustration and he’s thumping around, closing drawers, willing me to react. Our daughter calls out and I let him deal with it. I hear his voice drop to something soothing.

He’s gone for a while. I’m almost asleep when he comes back in and I can feel that the anger has left him. As he climbs into bed he says, ‘I’m sorry. I’m just wound up from work… I need a holiday’

He reaches over and puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes it. I hold it lightly and wait for his breathing to deepen so I can move his hand away without waking him.


It’s breakfast time and the kids are fighting in the kitchen. I’m hiding in the toilet with my phone. I scroll through twitter and stop at a Scottish man called Alistair. I don’t know him, but his bio says he is living in Barcelona and a joke he made has 20,000 retweets. I look down his timeline and see that he has arranged to meet an attractive woman in Cyprus in the autumn. I think about how free these decisions are when you don’t have a family. I look at the pictures on the toilet wall. The recent portrait of us all in pink wigs and comedy glasses at the junior school fair. Pinned up next to the mirror is a sign from my fortieth party under a glittery blue arrow – Room 2 -Time for a nice sit down. My son walks in, cereal on his chin, saying his bum is itchy and that he will be late if I don’t hurry up.


I’m meeting the artist for coffee and he is late. I need some information from him for a project at work. I sit in the window waiting, my leg jittering under the table, scanning the e-mails on my phone. When he arrives, I stand to greet him, my jacket falling to the floor. He’s wearing an old crumpled grey t-shirt and running shorts, and he looks like he has just woken up.

I am meeting him in person as he ignores my e-mails. Whatever we are working on together usually feels better once we have met in person. But today I am under pressure to get things sorted. We talk for a bit about our summer holidays, and the meal he is planning to cook that evening. Eventually I make a joke about my deadline, the real reason I am here. He looks hard into the bottom of his cup, his bottom lip jutting out, then promises to send me what I need by the end of the day.  When he gets up I can feel an impatience. I know I represent something ordinary. He’s a maverick and I’m part of a system. I feel like he’s disappointed in me, that he can feel my desperation. We walk in silence down the high street and I leave him outside a supermarket and walk down to the train station. I am trying to keep everyone happy I think. I am trying to be charming. I am trying to be good at what I do. On the train into work I push my thumbs into the muscles on my thighs that have been tense with worry all morning. It really doesn’t matter, I think. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.


My son has worms and says he feels like he has a squirrel inside him. I find him bent over next to the mirror in his room trying to look down his bum hole. I give him medicine, but he can’t stop itching. I know I am restless like him. I am trying to see inside myself. Get to the bottom of it all.


We go for family weekend away to a caravan in Kent near the sea. It is filled with pottery trinkets, Jesus candles, pink shiny pillows. We go cycling along the front, past the sailing club. The wind blowing through the knots in my daughter’s hair. In the evening I make big bowls of pasta and light the candles and we watch the small telly squashed together on the sofa. The toilet inside the van isn’t plumbed in, so at bedtime we take the torch from the peg by the door and head to the block in the next field.

My son wakes up early the next morning needing to poo. We creep across the field, his trainers half on. He is wide awake with excitement, so we climb the concrete steps that run along the sea wall and onto the beach. The tide is far out, and we are the only people here. We take off our shoes and walk carefully, avoiding spiky rocks and seaweed and listen to the slap of the mud on the soles of our feet. I crouch down and press my face to his red hair. We can see far along now, past the town and caravan site and the eroded concrete to the wind turbines in the distance.

‘Wow. It’s like we are the last people on earth,’ I say. I stare at the sky and he is looking down, his pink fingers prodding the wormlike patterns in the sand.

‘That would be so cool,’ he says, ‘If everyone else was dead.’

He hands me a fragment of a shell with a pattern on.

I feel its soft sides with my thumb. ‘Shall we keep it?’ He nods and pulls at his bottoms. The elastic is loose. The ends are soggy with salt water.

‘I’m cold now, Mummy.’

The sun is above the houses now, streaking across the sky, the light changing on the water. I bend down so he can jump on my back. Then I run, pretending to gallop, splashing across the mud flats making him laugh.

‘Stop it,’ he gurgles. I catch my breath and feel the animal warmth of his body on my back.

When we reach the path, one of the beach huts at the end has a door open. There are two young men inside. As we walk past one of them is holding a fork and a tea towel. ‘They must have been sleeping in the hut,’ I whisper. My son turns and flattens his cheek on my back, hiding his face.

‘I’m starving,’ he says.


I’m sat in Kate’s kitchen as our kids run around upstairs. Her washing is hanging everywhere, off the back door, off her sideboard, socks and pants draped across the back of my chair. She gives me some wine in a warm glass and we talk for a bit about her holiday in Pembrokeshire, how it made her realise she wants to leave London. That she needs to be closer to nature. She thinks her son would be happier, that some of his problems at school wouldn’t happen if he could get outside more.

‘I want him to be able to run free. He loves getting muddy. All this concrete can’t be good for any of us.’

I nod and gulp down the warm wine and it sits on the top of my stomach. The Mamma Mia soundtrack is playing in the background. I fiddle with my keys and tell her that I think I am burnt out, that I want to change my job. ‘Post-holiday blues,’ she says and fills up my glass.

‘You could be a childminder?’

‘I could…’

She starts listing other things I could do, and they are all completely wrong. I listen anyway, agreeing.


I lie next to my son in the dark. He is curled up surrounded by of all of his ‘guys’- his collection of animals with big staring eyes. His 7-year-old legs and cold feet are tucked around me. He pinches the top of my hand as he has done since he was born. Taking my freckled skin between his fingers like plasticine and checking I’m there. I lie feeling the pull on my skin and listening to his breathing slow and the click of the night outside his window. Eventually his pinch gets softer and his hand falls, open cupped on his pillow. I untangle myself in slow motion and kiss the soft side of his palm. His eyes flick open,

‘No. Stay. Settle me,’ he says, reaching out for my hand. I kneel next to his bed. My head lowered, my hands offered out on his pillow, so he can pinch them. Like I’m praying. My back is stiff and aching and I’m hungry. ‘Please,’ I say, ‘go to sleep.’


I am curled up in ball on the living room floor. I have my period and  have been crying as I put away the washing. I sit up and check the news on my phone. I feel restless. I decide to go to the hairdressers to get out of the house, but I don’t want to pay for her to wash it and I’m also worried I can’t sit still that long without feeling panicked. But I can smell my hair, it’s greasy. I lean over the bath and wash it with the shower head, towel draped around my shoulders. Then I rough dry it and walk up the street. It is a cheap barber and there is a Bulgarian woman there who trims my hair quickly for £10. In the summer she had a baby girl. She asks after my children and she shows me a film of her eldest daughter tickling her baby. We watch it for a while.

‘So sweet,’ I say.

‘She is a very good baby,’ she says holding up her comb in the mirror. ‘I am very lucky.’

I think she looks exhausted. I feel a rising panic this will take longer than normal. ‘I just need a quick cut,’ I say, ‘my fringe, I can’t see properly. It’s too long.’ She nods. Music videos are playing on a big screen in the corner. Christmas songs. She turns it up and fiddles with the lights on the plastic tree she has up in the window. The floor is dirty with hair and tissues. As she combs through my knots, I look at the metal shelf attached to the mirror and it is stained and dusty, circular marks crossing over from mugs of tea and hair grease. The place needs a deep clean. I try and think about nothing as I look in the mirror at the dark circles under my eyes. I look like my mum. Soft jaw. Face melting into my neck. She cuts my fringe into a curve and it looks strange, misshapen.


I dream about Pete and my boss and the artist and all the others. They come back to me in one loud slobbery mess. They loom over me. Smothering me. I wake up dehydrated, anxious. Frightened about being lost and getting everything wrong. Pete is away and I sit up shouting into the night, damp with sweat.

‘WHO’S THERE?’ I shout, ‘WHO’S THERE?’

I wake up the kids. They both crawl into bed with me, squashing me. My head in the gap between two pillows. My sons open mouth on my cheek. My daughter’s arms across my chest. She whispers, ‘Your heart is too fast mummy.’ I hold her closer. ‘I know. I’m okay. Go to sleep. Please.’


I start to think I have these headphones on, big cans like they wear in radio. All the men in my life whisper into them with their deep, soft, reassuring voices. I live in fear of them, of their criticism. I go giddy with their praise. I go out drinking with the young women at work and try to explain my theory. I tell them I am sick of it. That I want to get rid of the voices. That I am thinking of a change in direction.

‘I want to take the headphones off, I’m going to take them OFF!’ I say, my face overheating, downing my wine.  ‘I’m going to leave them on a table and just walk away…’ I am laughing now, taking large theatrical steps across the room. Miming my freedom to everyone in the bar. They laugh too, confused.

‘Yes! You should go for it! Take them off!’ they say, raising their glasses. Probably wondering which one of them will get my job. ‘Yes!’


I organise a babysitter, so Pete and I can go out and talk. It’s the silent teenager who sits on the sofa watching television and eating biscuits. We go to a local bar. We order burgers and fries and a bottle of wine and we talk like any normal couple. We have a table in the corner, me on the soft bench and him on a stool. His hair is shiny with cream. I am distracted by a woman at the bar in a long-patterned orange dress and big earrings. She is surrounded by people, laughing, air kissing, raising her arms in the air in delight at each new arrival, her bangles jangling down her arms. Pete watches her too. It takes us a while to get served as the bar is packed and this woman and her friends are taking priority.

We get the bus home and go for a nightcap at the pub on the corner. Pete is talking about his shoes, how he needs to change them, how he is a daggy dad, he wants a refresh. He is waving his feet in the air, being loud, trying to make me laugh. The manager tells us the pub is shutting so we go home. We put the teenager in a cab and Pete pours us vodka and coke and puts on the tele. I am a moody drunk and have gone quiet. We sit on different sofas. He disappears and comes back with a snap bag with some old pills someone gave us that have been in my pants drawer since Christmas.

‘Let’s take these,’ he says. We gulp them down and then run out of vodka and start on the gin. We are watching a thriller and a woman is being chased through a forest. The volume is too loud. I stand up to find the remote and stare at the piles of Playmobil on the shelf. Then I am in the bathroom and I am very sick. I kneel down, my head bowed and think about taking pills when I was young and how I enjoyed throwing up. How I would go back out into the dark of the club and feel re-born, ready for anything. Here there is no music to carry me away. The telly is blaring, someone is screaming. I escape upstairs to the bedroom and lie down and I’m sick again. All over the floor and on my diary and books. It feels endless, just keeps coming.

I fall asleep and when I wake up it’s the morning and my son is in the bed with me asking to watch TV. ‘Yes, yes. Just go.’

Pete gets up and goes downstairs to make them breakfast. I can hardly move, I need to change the sheets. My daughter is worried about me. She holds me in bed. ‘My poor mummy is very sick,’ she says, stroking my brow. Pete takes them out to the city farm and I fill the bath with hot water and lie in it, swollen, finding no comfort in any position. I get too hot and climb out, hair sopping, and pull on some pants and then lean over the bed and start to strip the sheets. I drag the bed to the side of the room and get a bucket of soapy water and kneel on the floorboards and scrub away the smell. I keep stopping, taking deep breathes. I take my diary into the bathroom and fill the sink with water and strong-smelling lemon shower gel and try to wipe down the pages without ripping them. It is stained, and the paper goes wavy, my words smudged. Once I have finished and the bed remade, I climb in, propped up as if post birth.

I sleep sat up for a while. The door slams and the kids rush upstairs and tell me about how they fed baby goats but that the piglets had been stolen in the night. I listen, eyes closed, holding them in each arm and then they get bored and go downstairs. The story of the stolen piglets has disturbed me. I am guessing they were stolen to be eaten. I imagine the mother pig in the night, squealing. I wonder if it’s the financial crisis.

Pete is cooking downstairs. He comes up with a mug of tea.

‘Can you eat anything?’ he says. I shake my head.

‘Oh dear.’ He seems cheerful.

‘I’m surprised you didn’t get ill’ I say, ‘We mixed our drinks.’

‘I know, I feel fine,’ he says. He picks up an empty glass and leaves the room.


I go running in the cemetery. My trainers squeak on the broken tarmac of the path. I look at the dark splodges that run alongside the gravestones and I imagine, as I always do, that these marks are the secretions from the bodies of everyone buried here. It’s so quiet. No movement but me and the crows that fly off as I pass. The noise of the road is absorbed by the allotments and bushes that cover the far side.

As I turn a sharp corner the mist lifts and standing under the trees are the men of the cemetery. The grave diggers and the leaf blowers and others in high-vis jackets holding tools. An elderly man is smoking on his digger. I have seen them before, clustered around fresh mounds of earth and rubble. Shoulders sagging, rarely talking. I wonder if they are doing community service or if the sombre nature of the job means they only talk in whispers. I nod at them and don’t loop round as I usually do. I don’t want to seem like I am asking for attention, taking the same path twice.

As I leave the priest is standing on the steps outside the crematorium, his black dress spread out behind him. There are black traffic cones and men in hats waiting in a hearse. I see the patterns on my leggings reflected in the shine of the car. When I reach the high street, I think how one day I might fall into a hole and they would cover me in rubble. I wonder about the power of GPS. How far deep I could go for my phone to still work.


I’m on the train to work and I’m listening to a podcast of a story read by a famous American writer. The story is about a charismatic pimp and a young woman. When the story finishes the presenters of the podcast start to talk about it. About the dark humour, the descriptions of landscape, the writer’s connection to the seedier side of life. I reach Clapham Junction and get off the train and they are still talking, but I have stopped listening. I pull my headphones out and stand on the platform for a moment to let the rush pass. I feel heavy, like I have stones in my pockets. I think about the drowned woman in the story. The description of her mute blue eyes and waxy arse. A child shrieks and I look up. A small girl is trying to see over the platform edge, her mother is holding her back as she squirms, her other hand on a heavy pram behind her. The train rumbles in and a sea of commuters get off, pushing past the mother and the girl. She lifts her pram through the doors and then turns quickly to her daughter, who is still now, her arms raised above her head, waiting to be lifted, like a spell.


I get in late from work and I haven’t eaten. There’s no food in the fridge and no leftovers. I clatter round the kitchen pulling stale crackers out the cupboard and make myself some tea. Pete is watching television. I stand in the doorway.

‘We haven’t got any milk for the morning,’ I say. I grab my purse, slam the door and go up the hill to the shop. When I get back, I sit next to him on the sofa and watch the programme till it finishes. Someone has escaped from an aircraft hanger that inside is set up like a fake village with cottages and a volleyball court. I don’t understand what’s going on.

‘They have come from Germany to make a meth lab but that old guy is homesick,’ he says impatiently when I ask.

When it’s finished, he turns it off and tells me about our daughter’s gymnastics class and how she is the shortest one there. About how he peeked through the window and saw her falling off the vault.

‘She got it in the end though,’ he said, ‘she is determined, like you’. He smiles.

‘It’s good that you are taking her.’

He looks tired and his shirt is stained. I put my legs over his lap and we hug for a long time. I rest my head on his shoulder and look at the crumbs on the floor and my mug of tea that has gone cold.


‘Not now,’ he says, ‘I don’t want to talk now.’

I stay with my arms draped around him. It is the closest we have been for a long time.