Introducing: ‘Chemistry’ by Catherine Sleeman

The Arts Section has started a brand new segment called ‘Our Creative Community,’ in which writers will have the ability to showcase and publish work that has a personal meaning to them.

Here is the inaugural entry: ‘Chemistry’ – a long-form poem written by Catherine Sleeman.



HeTests the water with the back of his hand, like mam showed him. “If it hurts, you know it’s hot enough” she told him, while the residue from the bottom of the saucepan floated up to itch the rim of the kitchen sink.

Thinks about her now: worm-nested beneath the churchyard. Wonders if she’d ever imagined that her words could last like this when she poured them into him. Feels closer to her here than he ever did when she was alive. Her kitchen. Knows it’s still hers even though the property documentation pretends otherwise. In taking on the house he has taken her on, and he now lives in steady companionship with all her old sayings. Holds on. Hoards. Doesn’t know which scrubbing brush would manage to scour the remains of her from her kitchen. It’s this room where he finds the biggest pieces of her. Handles them with care, puts them away in the cupboards.

Recalls the ways she used to talk to him; rivers of conversation that wound him round and down into sand by the ocean. The currents were full of scraps and scratchings and grit. Salt and pepper. Christmas cards in the post office. Jerseys. Stains. Dairy cows. No tidal waves or waterfalls; just rivers.

Considers that perhaps she’s still talking and that the reflected streakiness of the sunset that congeals in bubbles of Fairy Liquid is nothing more or less than her continuing dribbles of advice; spearing down through the sieve of heaven.

Stands behind the rose-lit window pane while burnt stew unsticks itself from the dish. Questions if it’s him or mam who’s motionless.



Watches unseen from the doorway; the five-foot-nine fly-on-the-wall. Remembers the warnings about how love loses itself inside a marriage and turns them over in her mouth like she’s trying them for sourness.

Realises now that her friends were right when they told her it was a matter of tolerance.

Realises she’s come to a point where tolerance is all she knows how to do. Laments the way that white dresses and royal icing do not stay unspoiled and the way that the man who necessitated them spends his thoughts on dead women rather than living ones.

Debates whether to break his reverie and knows that it’s foregone conclusion because neither party knows anything more than compromise. Wonders how long he’d hang there if she left him, waiting like a telephone receiver, and crept away. Pictures the half-finished smile he’d use to answer his name if she decided to use it. Hears the scripted exchange that would follow:

“Good day?”

“Good day.”


“I’ve already eaten. Sorry.”

“It’s fine. It’s just how things are at the moment.”

“Yours is under the grill.”


“You look tired. Are you OK?”

“I’m OK.”



Leans her forehead against the frame of the door in a practiced manner, a manner indicative of the number of times her head has found itself incapable of holding strong. Studies the way the light makes his face look almost beautiful again. Pensive. Radiant with mellow highlights. Doesn’t know if he realises how hollow they both are these days.

Does he hear it in their ‘good’s and ‘OK’s or does he only really open his ears when ghosts are speaking? Has he sensed the way that they are both blown eggs who, by intuition, know not to touch the other’s frailty? Or do the customary questions simply fall out of him un-thought? Would his words realign themselves if she misremembered hers or would he simply recite his piece and return to his preoccupations?

Has no answers.

Imagines what she’d say if she thought he had the capacity to improvise. Can’t be sure whether she actually wants to expose herself like that because sometimes staying the same and sealed like an envelope is easier. Can’t envisage how the house would change if she explained about the girl in her year ten Chemistry class who’s forgotten how to eat. Or the teacher who drugged himself to sleep last month and the way the whole school still fumbles around that man-shaped crevice in the Geography office. Or if she suggested that he didn’t have to eat at six-thirty anymore because he no longer needed to follow his mother’s schedule of meals and medication.

Decides that the air would turn foreign if she did.

Decides that tonight is another night for departing unannounced. Leaves him with his hands in the sink – holding onto his mother’s.



Feels her there again. Wants to extend himself to her but doesn’t; like a child groping under the bed for a fear that isn’t quite tangible. Permits her leave instead and logs the way her feet are heavier on the stairs than they used to be.

Left, right, left, right. Familiar.

Mind’s-eye watches as she goes – the sag of her whittled youth is stark these days and it bruises him. Explores the wounds they leave on each other and knows that stagnation is no less hurtful than shouting.

Almost calls out to her retreating back but realises he would no longer know what amends he could make with his voice. Wouldn’t know where to begin or what to say first.

Feels like apologies are all he’s good for but can’t make himself feel genuine remorse. Can’t remember what it felt like to feel guilty for spending too much of their time on mam although he knows he felt it once. Before all those weekends in the hospice ceased to require excuses.

Hasn’t any excuses now, despite the way the footsteps on the stairs plead for them, but it’s all too habitual for change.



Remembers how he used to make her feel like potassium dropped in water. Now she shows that exothermic reaction to her year sevens and feels the tug of grief that reminds her that those kinds of reactions always have the same conclusion: the reactants give away everything and leave themselves spent.




About Catherine Sleeman:

I am a second-year Dance and Choreography student, who enjoys writing about how people interact with other people and the world around them, in particular how they respond to the difficulties that everyday modern life presents. A lot of my writing draws on use of metaphor in order to explore and unravel human emotion and behaviour.

Recently, I have become interested in how my two art forms can be melded together and the relationship that can be found between words and movement.