Scream Queen | Julia Armfield | Granta

Scream Queen

Julia Armfield

In the video, a woman stands with her back to the camera, leafing through a magazine pulled from a gas station rack. From this angle, there is little to distinguish her – hair of indeterminate colour, the shirt an amnesiac shade of magnolia grey. The video is being shot on a phone, which accounts for the quality – a shuddering handheld aspect, the image seeming to rise and fall along with a series of breaths.

She could be anyone, though shortly after the video goes up someone will post in a message board that they knew from the beginning that it was her because of the shape of the vertebrae down her neck. pervert, someone will post in response, only for the site mod to swoop in and repost the community guidelines on kinkshaming and a link to a full list of site regulations for those with an urge to learn more. we operate a zero tolerance policy on intolerance, the mod will add, and several people will immediately feel the need to point out this tautology before the joke just as suddenly runs stale. i just meant, the first poster will add some time later, that i recognise her neck from the horror movie where the guy cuts her head off with a surgical saw.

Whoever is filming ducks behind a row of sandwiches when the woman makes a move to turn around, re-emerging when she doesn’t. In centre frame, the woman sways and moves to place a hand against the rack as if to steady herself. The image shifts leftwards and only then does the woman’s face appear in profile – that celebrated cheekbone, the cheek and eye and tilting chin so perfect it seems to render the concept of all other chins ridiculous. For a moment, the camera holds her face in its grasp, then the woman sways again, grabs out for a rack of five dollar sunglasses, doubles up and vomits on the floor.

It is LA, three days before Thanksgiving, under sunny skies.



All the lights are on in the kitchen – the overhead, the LEDs under the cabinets, the glow from an open laptop on the island beside the fruit. It’s bright outside, despite the fact that it’s getting on for December, and I spend a minute or two walking round switching off all the lights before pausing at the laptop where an article has been left half-read. Golden Girl Spills Guts, runs the headline when I scroll to the top – the video embedded below the byline: Coral’s face frozen in a Blair Witch rictus, too bright, too close to the lens.

We are back in the house in Pantelleria, half-unpacked, half-settled after a series of connecting flights. On first arrival, Coral threw her clothes onto the bed and dove into their midst, turning back to grin at me. I’m Scrooge McDuck, she said, just swimming in all my worldly possessions. I wanted to point out that this was hardly true when the house was one of three she owned outright, but then Coral has always had a flair for the dramatic. I bent to grab a shirt that had slipped to the floor, held it up like someone’s mother. Why can’t you fold things properly, I asked and she smiled at me again, rolled over in her pile of clothes. Why don’t you make me. 

I snap the laptop shut, turn towards the screen doors to look out onto the patio. It’s too cold to swim this time of year, though the pool is still uncovered, skimmed clean three times a week by one of the abstract concepts of people who teem about the lower echelons of Coral’s employ. When I ask her how she finds these people, she typically waves her hand, asks how I think anyone finds anyone. I am not one of these people – these people who clean and keep the lawns and hedges and arrange for food to appear and outfits to be couriered – though I don’t think this is always so obvious.

‘I could make the fish thing tonight, if you wanted.’

This from Coral, who meanwhile has materialised in the kitchen in her usual all-at-once sort of way (her collective term like that of any animal: a bloom of jellyfish, a cackle of hyenas, a suddenness of Coral). She has changed out of her plane clothes and is holding the cat in her arms in a way that seems to dress it in a bonnet and christening gown. The cat, as always, seems surprised to find itself anywhere. My emotional support animal, Coral had offered in the airport – the voice she uses on uniformed officials, on talk show hosts and her therapist and, occasionally, on me. The artless note of sweet abjection, teeth tucked beneath her lip. Please, she seems to say, you’re all the friends I have in the world. Whoever let her take the cat on the plane simply bent the way we all do, his will to object reeling backwards as though punched in the face by the sheer force of her intent.

‘I think we’re fine,’ I say, moving around the island and opening the fridge door to inspect the contents, ‘someone left us a whole cooked chicken and most of a salady thing.’

The salad is strawberries and balsamic – the only thing Coral would eat for most of the time she was filming the movie about the woman who wakes in a locked room with her tongue cut out and no way of calling for help. I remember this period, Coral’s mouth stained red for most of the month of September – stage blood and strawberries – the way she would kiss my cheek on purpose, lick the tips of my collar to leave a mark behind.

‘I’m fine if you’re fine,’ she says now, dropping the cat onto the island and holding her face out patiently until it touches its nose to hers. Typically an intolerant animal, the cat makes the same exceptions for Coral that everyone else does, submitting to her frequent invasions and even seeking her out to rub its face against her cheek. With everyone else, it maintains a frosty reserve that extends to hostility only when interfered with. Between us, there reigns a mutual lack of respect rendered harmonious largely by the fact that I seldom go near it. Coral calls us her two great loves – has done so several times on Instagram – and we accept these labels each with the understanding that the other has done less to earn it.

The sky is running pink with the threat of evening, the hills illuminated; fogged-window effect as the heat begins to dissipate, the last of the day bleeding up into the air. South of Sicily in the wintertime, Coral had said, might be warmish, might be fun. Sort of bohemian. Much better than rehab, anyway. I had told her that no one was saying she needed rehab and she rolled her eyes at me. I know that, Jenny. Sort of rehab of the mind. Get myself back into fighting form, shut you all up.

‘How are you feeling,’ I ask her now and she looks at me, doesn’t look at me. Tilts her face towards the cat.

‘Don’t be silly,’ she says, and I imagine her mouth growing red again, the seep of strawberry seeds between her teeth.



Coral is a scream queen. They marathon her movies at the repertory cinemas: the one about the cheerleading camp, the one about the werewolf, the one about the woman who cuts off her face with a flensing knife. When she bleeds, there is a specificity to the action. Critics like to call her singular, as in singularly revolting, singularly entertaining. When people recognise her in the street, they mime chainsaws and hold their phones up, asking her to scream. She usually demurs, claims she is losing her voice, but signs their napkins and notebooks, scrawls her name along the insides of their arms. She is well-behaved, as icons go, she toes the party line. I don’t mind being typecast, she says when people ask her, if people get enjoyment from watching me do the same thing over and over, who am I to complain?

Once, in a movie, I watched her crawl through a river of blood towards the mouth of a cave that seemed to recede as she approached it. It was the final minute of the movie and obvious she wouldn’t make it before the credits began to roll. In the dark of the movie theatre, Coral took my hand and leaned sideways to touch her nose to my jaw, then to the place where my jaw met my cheekbone. Don’t you think, she whispered, in the tone she often took about her own movies, at once attention-seeking and a little scared, that it looks like she’s going to get there in time?



Coral is asleep and her agent is texting me. I’m going to say ‘rest cure’, he says, just if anyone asks. I’m trying to detract attention from the vomit, specifically. People don’t like that kind of thing. I’m halfway through doing the dishes and don’t have a dry hand with which to type a response. Sounds good, I want to say, and also, why are you telling me this.

Morning light like something wrung from washing, screen doors open, the smell of chlorine and damp grass. I rinse a plate and try to picture how we are supposed to spend our days here, the break from life we have agreed is necessary, the sensible period of time in which to get well. I can’t imagine sitting down to read a book, to watch a television programme. I feel unaccustomed to the rhythms of an unfilled day.

Do you think, Coral’s agent types, that you could get her back here within the month. I’m honestly not being a dick, he adds, it’s just pressure, you know. I don’t want to be one of those assholes, I swear.

I set a plate on the draining board, wipe my hands on a cloth.

I’m doing my best, I text him.

What are you really expecting, I don’t.

Coral comes down in her dressing gown – disordered hair, the look of a flower half crushed in a fist.

There you are,’ she says, as if she has spent all morning searching the backs of wardrobes for me, ‘Is there coffee? I had a dream you were David Letterman and you strangled me to death.’

She leans against the counter and drums her nails on the breadboard.

‘How’s the pain?’ I ask, and she raises and lowers one shoulder. The spaces beneath her eyes are purplish, one cheek pillow-creased. She has been waking in the night a lot, just recently, struggling up as though pulling herself from water – dreams about being chased, being questioned, about her own movies.

‘Oh, you know,’ she says, though I don’t and can only picture what has been happening recently – Coral folded double, grasping for the lip of the bath. She tips me a smile, the kind she gives to the women who do her hair and nails, who come in with machinery designed to scrape away a layer of skin, to leave her pink and unblemished and somehow smaller than before. She smiles at me like this and tells me nothing and shortly after leaves the room to go and find the cat.



Coral pauses at a crosswalk, pulls her hair from her shoulders and winds it round her fist. The camerawork is poor, lens held at hip height as though the person filming is hoping not to be observed. This angle is not, in fact, unusual – I’ve seen people affect not to be filming us in restaurants and in delis, in florists and in cinemas, in hospital waiting rooms. What is funny is the exposure, or something about the quality of the light that seems to render Coral very much herself yet somehow other. At the crosswalk, she stands on one foot and then the other, tilts her head in an unfamiliar way. The pedestrian light is red and she watches the traffic, pulls her hair so her eyes stretch back. For a moment, the skin between her brows seems to tug, pulling her eyes apart to an almost unnatural distance, but then the pedestrian light is green and there is nothing wrong at all.

‘When was this?’ I ask, the way I often ask when a video surfaces. Coral squints at the website, a practiced tilt to her look that I recognise, her gaze cut judiciously upward to blur out the comments below.

So beautiful, what a gorgeous young lady, the total package, hair looks great

hi maam i love tattoo

did anyone see that movie where the guy hangs her upside down and chainsaws her open i loved that one

nirvana my beautiful love my heaven i feel the energy run through u

idk looks fat to me

‘I’m not sure,’ she says after a moment, ‘I guess LA sometime.’



Coral turned twenty on the set of a movie in which she was eaten from the inside out by a parasite. I don’t remember much about the plot, though I do recall the way she looked into the camera, the way the parasite looked too – white eyes and the suggestion of a smile.

People like to watch Coral because they feel like they know her. She brings a cosiness to cruel situations, a sense of something nailed down, unassailable. Her familiarity is key to her effectiveness, someone wrote in a compendium of essays released to accompany the tenth anniversary of a film whose name I now forget. Whether or not you’ve seen her before, you feel like you know her, and that knowing invites a level of empathy that itself begets a level of violence. You know her, you love her, and in knowing and loving, you become complicit in whatever comes afterwards. In feeling so comfortable with her, with watching her, you feel comfortable watching what happens to her and what happens to her is never less than grim.

In a movie, once, I watched her swallow teeth – not her own but those of a woman she’d kissed and then bitten, then started quite methodically to eat. In a movie, I watched her pull down her lip to find the beginnings of words carved and creeping down the back of her gullet. In a movie, I watched her turn towards the camera, reach out as though she knew I was looking, as though she meant to show me how that felt.



Coral lies on a rattan chaise by the poolside, feet bare and palms facing upwards, though there is no sun to speak of and the afternoon is turning cold. I watch her from the doorway – her hair and the long pale line of her body, the way she tips her chin up as if seeking to catch her best light. She has been OK today, has kept her food down, which is something I’m currently prone to see as an achievement. Still, I feel uncertain of the mood to strike or how to behave on this holiday, which is not really a holiday. It has seemed better, in the weeks leading up to this point, to ignore it. Better not to touch upon the vomiting and the pain that cannot be diagnosed or even entirely located, since it makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict to bring it up and watch Coral change the subject. It’s most likely nothing, she has said more than once when I’ve tried to find my way to the centre of things, suggesting work pressure, poor diet, a tapeworm – and if it’s something then I’m sure we’ll know before too long. I have said that I’d rather know now and been kissed for my trouble, told that it isn’t my job to get so upset.

I have seen her, more than once, on the floor of the bedroom, holding her gut or her face as though beaten. I have seen the video – seen her vomit on the floor at the gas station, the same twitch of pain in the space beneath her gumline, lips drawn back, tide of white in the corners of her mouth. We don’t know what it is and nor are we likely to. Coral won’t see a doctor and talks with a coolness that borders on the pathological about the movie she starts shooting in the spring. You must never worry about me, Jenny, she will say and then kiss me and I will let the relief of each time she feels well count for more than it should.

My phone pings, and a link appears in my messages. I thumb through to the site without thinking, watch it struggle to load on the patchy Italian wifi.

In the video, Coral is arguing with a woman in the forecourt of a Chinese restaurant. It is daytime, patently Los Angeles, and the woman makes choppy and repeated gestures towards a dog who, as the video progresses, it becomes clear she is claiming Coral just kicked. I don’t know what kind of person – I hear, and then the video cuts, and the comments are already ticking up into the hundreds.

I look up, towards Coral on the sun lounger, then down at my phone, click back to the original message and realise I have no idea who has sent me the video.

What is this, Coral’s agent texts, and it takes me several seconds to clock that this is happening now, that the video has only just surfaced. Where the fuck are you, I thought you said you were in Italy.

The comments below the video continue to multiply: Nah she didn’t kick that dog / rich bitch acting like she owns the place / omg was this today, i was literally two blocks over / it’s actually really fucking cruel to raise pugs, those dogs are BRED to have difficulty breathing and walking.

‘Any chance of a coffee?’ Coral calls across the pool. It is her Lady of Shalott voice – drooping, winsome, artlessly suggestive of an imminent demise.



The videos – for they are plural, two more after the one with the dog – make no sense. They arrive as before, texted to me from a number I don’t recognise, each suggestive of a fact which simply cannot be the case.

In the narrow frame of a handheld camera, Coral drags a key across the paintwork of a stranger’s car, steps back as if to observe her handiwork, lifts the key to try again. In a video shot on iPhone, lens half hidden by a thumb, Coral grinds her heel into the pavement, looks left and right, spits a string of something viscous to the ground.

The images are wrong, though there is nothing to disprove them. The video shot on camera bears today’s date in its bottom left-hand corner. The Corals in each video are my Coral – the hair and face, the way she holds her neck as if unglued from her body – yet still impossible, a Coral flung out of the universe and returned incorrectly, set down in an improper place.

Deepfakes, Coral’s agent texts me, and then, Deepfakes, right? I don’t know. I don’t really know what Deepfakes are.

She’s here with me, I message back, I don’t know what to tell you.

Coral is in the living room, flipping through a magazine and talking to the cat. I look around – stranger in a house we barely use and barely recognise. The chairs that seem surprised to find themselves sat on, the rug picked out by someone hired for that purpose.


‘There’s something funny going on,’ I say and Coral nods at me, rolls one shoulder, lifts the cat into her lap.

‘I know,’ she says, ‘The videos.’

‘I don’t think it looks like you.’

‘Oh it does,’ she says, ‘That’s what’s so funny.’

‘It can’t be you,’ I say, ‘Even if someone took them before we left and then altered them so it looks like they happened today.’

‘Are you saying you don’t believe I’d allow someone to film me kicking a dog?’

‘Well you wouldn’t.’

Coral snorts, rolls her other shoulder.

‘I feel like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.

‘That’s a stupid thing to say.’



6am – hour of prehistoric stillness, the hills beyond the drop-off obscured by heavy mist. I sit with my feet in the swimming pool and try to concentrate on images of Coral (upward twitch of a smile, perfect nose, double blink when taken by surprise). I think of her in the movie I didn’t like: throat stoppered with charcoal, her eyes stitched shut with yellow thread. I think about what counts as my Coral and what doesn’t, the parts of her owned by others – a look, an expression, the timbre of her scream held entirely in the public domain. I open my phone to the video of her spitting something into the street and I pause it several times, trying to make sense of it.

The cat wanders out of the house and crosses to squat at the poolside, stretching a paw to its fullest extent and then retracting. I raise a hand to it and it hisses, which is not unusual.



Coral’s agent issues a statement when the fifth or sixth video emerges. There is a Coral bleeding from the mouth on Sunset Boulevard, clouds white and fast above her, the camera dipping to show the day’s newspaper, as one might to prove the date in a hostage situation. The tabloids, of course, have picked up the story.

It’s Britney 2007 all over again RIP to a real one, I read beneath an article titled HORROR QUEEN MELTDOWN.

In the video, Coral appears disorientated, lurches from one side of the street to the other before seeming to notice the camera. I watch her move closer, imagine the sour milk smell of blood capsules, split lip sting of strawberries and balsamic.

In his statement, Coral’s agent says Deepfakes with more apparent confidence, stresses that the images are manufactured. He says we’re looking into this, although we aren’t, to my knowledge, and then this is an issue emblematic of a wider issue, which doesn’t really make any sense.

I sit in the kitchen with my coffee and scroll through the gossip sites until I am unable to stomach any more and switch to Instagram. Pictures of Coral from months before: holding the cat up to the camera, performing a complicated yoga pose, baring her teeth at a caramel apple, preparing an afternoon meal. In a back room, Coral is singing along to a song on the stereo and as evidently not taking things seriously. I have an urge, she had said earlier that morning when I found her in the walk-in closet, to don something crimson and obscene and go out into the town, but since then she has done little but wander about the house in her dressing gown and talk in riddles to the cat.

It is not unusual, of course, to find ourselves (or Coral, and myself by proxy) under scrutiny. Not unusual to find things we have done and said repeated back to us from unfamiliar angles, in an unforgiving light. The accrual of fame, I have often felt, is akin to nothing so much as the gradual progression into the depths of a system of caves whose walls echo your words right back to you. To be known, really known in the way that Coral is known, is to have every secret whispered once into the curving rock and then whispered again, over your shoulder and down into the dark.

‘Does it ever end?’ I look up and Coral is standing in the kitchen doorway, still in her dressing gown and tapping at the floor with her toe to get my attention ‘Or does it just go on and on and on and on and on?’

I blink at her for a moment and wonder how to answer, but then I realise that the music on the stereo has switched to a song I like by Deep Purple and she is making her usual joke about the fact that it never seems to stop.



The new video is clearly not LA, which is troubling. It is the East Coast – Boston, perhaps, though it’s hard to be certain – and Coral is standing very still against a wall, arms splayed as though in anticipation of gunfire. For a moment the image shivers and then distorts, and when it clarifies again she has moved off, walking quickly, the sole slapping loose on her shoe.

I flick back to the message that relayed me this video – same anonymous number – and I think about going into the bedroom, but Coral is feeling unwell, hands tight against the railings of the bed, blank, nauseated, and sometimes it seems they pass quicker if I’m not there to watch.



There is a man outside, cleaning the pool in a denim shirt and leggings. When I raise a hand to him through the sliding doors he squints for a moment as if to confirm whether or not there’s a smudge on the window and then returns to his work.

It is easy to get used to being someone’s additional person, the version of myself that exists as secondary to Coral, tangential: a walk-on part in a movie made about her. I don’t mind, for the most part. When she posts pictures of me captioned bae and my best girl, people respond with rainbow flags and fire emojis – omg my dark queen did u hear about elvira and that’s fine, by and large. I don’t have much to say about it.

‘I don’t know why he’s cleaning the pool,’ Coral says, coming into the kitchen in yoga pants and a sweatshirt, bearing the cat on her shoulder like that’s an ordinary thing to do, ‘No one’s been in it since we’ve got here.’

‘There are dead leaves,’ I say, ‘and wasps. I don’t know why you don’t just have him cover it over. It’s too cold to swim anyway.’

‘So here’s my theory,’ Coral says, ignoring me and resting her elbows on the island. On her shoulder, the cat sways precariously and wraps its tail around her neck, ‘I’m astrally projecting myself to all these different places and I just don’t know it. Like how in space movies people can be in one place and holograph themselves to another. I’m talking about the videos,’ she adds, as if this isn’t obvious.

I look at her.

‘It’s a theory.’

There have been two more videos since last night. The first still seems to be somewhere in America and the other doesn’t – Coral lying on the pavement in an unfamiliar city, moving only a little when the person filming nudges her with the toe of a boot. Both arrived within a couple of seconds, one texted to me and then the other, both online before I could even tell Coral what I’d seen. The message boards appear to be tiring of the whole situation a little: fam, if this is a publicity stunt for something, i’m lost. I don’t know what to do about it. I’m disturbed, but not enough, I suppose, because how can it be anything other than a stupid joke. And if it’s a stupid joke, what’s the harm in it. The graffiti on the wall behind the prone Coral appears to be in French, though it’s hard to be absolutely sure. As the person filming nudges her again she springs to life – lunges forwards as the picture disintegrates.

Maybe I should sign this Coral, her agent had messaged me, in tones of mild despair. That wasn’t a bad jump scare.



Coral kissed me once, in the dark of a movie premiere, watched me watch her onscreen and then pulled my face towards her, licked my cheek and told me not to take it all so seriously. I could see you getting wound up, she said later, at a party she was throwing for the cast and crew (Coral’s parties – thrown the way other people threw plates – unexpected and difficult to clean up after). Doesn’t matter how many times you watch me in a movie, I can tell you think you’re going to look to your left and find me with my throat slit in the seat beside you. I remember that night, the party after: low lights in the LA house and someone playing the piano, people passing me in corridors, touching my elbow, telling me I must be very proud. I remember the way Coral looked – deep slash of a dress and holding court the way women with no fillings and no obvious pores will do. The cat winding around people’s legs and hissing when anyone bent to stroke it. I remember thinking about the scene in The Exorcist where Regan comes downstairs at her actress mother’s party and pisses all over the floor.



I know the first video was real because I was waiting in the car while it happened, waiting outside in the forecourt while Coral threw up and departed in confusion, without paying for the gas which I would later have to settle by phone. The fact of this makes everything else more complicated, the fact of one truth amongst a gallery of copies. I have rewatched this video many times, trying to detect a point at which some ineffable thing breaks off and becomes autonomous, the moment where the Coral throwing up on the floor becomes two. I imagine the real Coral walking out and the other one leaving via some alternate exit, wandering out into the light to be filmed again, over and over: at the crosswalk, kicking a dog by the Chinese restaurant, in the city with the French graffiti on the wall.

I think, and then dismiss it, and then think again, that it is as if the first video spawned a sort of duplication, a knock-on effect like the infinite reflection that occurs when two mirrors face each other. A face behind a face behind a face. I think about Coral’s illness – the pain and the vomiting accruing for months – think of it now as in some way the key to this confusion, a depletion that has built and built until it was caught on camera, hatching a whole other person, this subsidiary Coral, alive and wandering around. In the dreary threads of an afternoon already too cold to warrant a particular evening downturn, I lie by the pool and consider this series of Corals, each one somehow more unreal than the last one, more unlikely, more clearly unsane.

I’m not sure how to explain this to Coral – the fact that it ought to be a joke and yet isn’t, the fact I don’t think it’s a prank or a trick, or not entirely. I remember once, on the set of a movie, smoking cigarettes in the backlot with Coral’s body double – a woman in a wig approximate to Coral’s hair in shade but not in texture, long scar etched down her neck in stage makeup. I remember her curious duplicity of gesture, the way she seemed herself and yet otherwise; holding out her lighter, cupping her hand around the flame. So there you are, the real Coral had said, coming out with her real hair and her equally fraudulent scar, still sticky in stage makeup.



The video is Italy – not our Italy, but close enough. It takes me some time to realise that this one does not appear to have surfaced online and has only landed in my inbox. Not sure what you’re on about, Coral’s agent replies when I text him, but if there’s more please god just keep it to yourself. 

The Coral in the video is curiously calm, strolling some yards ahead of the camera – no bleeding from the mouth today, though her feet are bare and the soles an unpleasant consistency, as though the asphalt has melted beneath her and adhered before hardening again. She doesn’t face the camera, only continues to walk – smartly and without checking pace – and it occurs to me that this could actually be a video of anyone, though I know that if the figure walking away from the lens were only to turn it would be just the same as always, and I become briefly and irrationally terrified of the thought, to the extent that I close the video before it actually comes to an end.



When Coral is having an episode, she hunches over in a way which seeks to protect all of her tenderest internal systems – digestive, lymphatic, endocrine. When it happens, I imagine long webs of things being wrenched from her; hook and line from the mouth of a fish. I imagine someone reeling her nervous system out from inside and wrapping it round a fist for safekeeping. I imagine them taking what’s vital and leaving her there, hollowed out, unlike herself, not mine.



There are too many videos on my phone and I’ve not been sleeping well. In the dense December twilight, I flick through images of Coral in Tuscany, in Umbria, in Lazio. Swift unease like a stranger’s hand passed through my hair and then retracted; the videos are moving south.

Coral is in the bath, humming along to the radio, which I keep telling her she shouldn’t balance so precariously on the edge of the tub.



In bed, I touch the back of Coral’s head, imagine her turning towards me as one of the Corals from one of her many movies – lips sewn together, eyes wide, face hewn apart from jaw to temple. She turns in her sleep; soft tilt of chin and face the same as always, linen-crease along one cheek, burrowed down into my neck.

At their core, all horror movies carry the same message: we’ve been told that we’re going to die but we haven’t listened or we haven’t understood.



I sleep less. I’ve stopped opening my phone when it buzzes. This seems to make things easier, though I’ve started to keep an eye on the doors.



Coral switches on the television and curls on the sofa with the cat, who purrs its way through much of Meet Me in St Louis without objecting to my presence in a chair across the room.

‘I should post a picture,’ Coral says, sleep laced through her voice like a flavour, ‘To show everyone what a nice time we’re having.’

I tell her she can do this later, if she wants, and she nods at me.

‘I feel so sore,’ she adds, ‘And I’m sick of it. But maybe we can fix that next year.’

‘You know that thing people say,’ I say to her, after several minutes of silence, ‘about how cameras steal a piece of someone’s soul, or split it, or fuck it up, or whatever the story is?’

I say this, but she is already asleep, of course, and Judy Garland is singing on the screen.



Coral is across the pool from me, half-lit by the lights gauzing up beneath the surface of the water, looking straight towards the place where I am. I’m not sure how I came to be out here – full dark, Coral’s smile like something caught on a barbed wire fence and yanked sideways. We face each other across the water. She doesn’t speak to me, only rounds the pool – bare feet sticky on the tile, expression somehow unfamiliar, though there’s barely a twitch or muscular tic in this face I don’t know. When she reaches me, we stand for a moment, little more than a foot apart, and I realise she is wet from the pool, sharp sting of cold and chlorine stabbing hard against the backs of my nostrils. I think, in a strangely flat manner, that this must be the first time anyone’s used the pool all year. We regard each other this way – her perfect Coral nose, damp lick of well-loved eyebrows – and then she opens her mouth and I move my hands to her throat before she can make a noise that I feel suddenly sure will flay the skin from my bones with the force of its unreality.



In the morning, I make a cup of coffee, sear the feeling off the surface of my tongue. The body at the bottom of the pool will need to be removed before the man arrives to skim the surface, and I think about this in an abstract manner for several moments before taking another sip of coffee and wondering where it was I left my phone. The cat is on the island, ignoring me in favour of batting at a wasp it appears to have caught and killed, and I think about moving to sweep the insect away when Coral emerges in her dressing gown, moving an awkward hand through her hair as though feeling for a bruise.

I smile at her, offer her a cup of coffee.

‘Just a little one,’ she says, ‘I feel wide awake already.’

She moves towards the island, reaches a hand towards the cat. It hisses, flinches back and dives from the island, skitters across the kitchen and out via the patio door. We stand together for a moment, this Coral and I, and I watch as her face begins to rearrange.


Image © Helen Briggs

Julia Armfield

Julia Armfield is a fiction writer from London, author of the story collection salt slow. Her work has been published in Lighthouse, analog magazine, Neon and The Best British Short Stories 2019. She was commended in the 2017 Moth Short Story Prize, longlisted for the 2018 Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award and was the winner of the 2018 White Review Short Story Prize.

Photograph © Sophie Davidson

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