The Write Stuff: Head for the edge by Kate Tough

Just a routine operation, they said. Maybe it was. Maybe she could carry on with the daft blethering of ordinary life. But maybe she couldn’t. An exclusive extract from the opening chapter of the powerful debut novel by Kate Tough

Illustration: Grant Paterson
Illustration: Grant Paterson

Having done what he had to, the doctor has left the room. The nurse remains. Slowly I pull on my underwear, wool tights, skirt and boots. I’m unable to hurry: arms enfeebled (sort of hollow from trauma) coupled with a need to demonstrate self-care. I’m the child who’s been treated harshly and told it was for its own good. And I have the same dependence on the perpetrators.

I can only go through the curtain if this doesn’t come with me.

Lizzie smiles with all that she has when she sees me. She reaches out her arm and draws me in. She doesn’t ask. After a minute, I say, “It’s not painful. More of a deep ache. Maybe when the injection wears off I’ll know all about it.”

She rummages in her bag with one hand. “Want one?” she asks, passing me a packet of painkillers. “It mightn’t get painful if you’re not worrying about whether it will.”

I press out a pill and swallow it with a swig from her water-cup.

“I asked at the desk,” she says. “There’s a taxi rank round the corner. No rush, though. We can sit here till you’re ready to go.”


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“Now’s good,” I tell her.

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Lizzie puts a mug on the coffee table and asks what I fancy for lunch. I know immediately. “Scrambled egg.”

“Buttered toast, baked beans?” she asks.

“Yes, please.”

“Kitchen table or on a tray?” she asks.


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“Kitchen’s fine.”

“I’ll shout you when it’s ready.”

Lying on the couch, head propped on the armrest, I reach for the newspaper. It’s folded over with the crossword facing up. I see three unanswered clues but I don’t read them. The pointlessly obfuscated riddles, the barricaded solutions, would put me back in a funk.

In the kitchen, we sit with two plates of perfect lunch. At the first mouthful I put my fork down and look at her. “So tasty. How did I forget about scrambled egg?”

“Because you don’t have kids.”



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“Oh? Yet is it?”

“I don’t know where that came from. Must be delirious from the medication.”

“One Nurofen?”

“What’s for pudding?” I deflect.

“I didn’t think about a dessert. What have you got?”

“Don’t know. Oh yes I do. Curly Wurlys.”


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“All that’s missing from this lunch is toddlers to eat it,” she says, then rests her cutlery. “Your procedure was minor, in the scheme of things. What I mean is; it won’t affect you getting pregnant. If you’re worried.”

Her delivery drips with that mumsnet worldview hijack; the demeanour of ‘we who know the sacred sacrifice of birthing and rearing’.

I touch her hand and say, “I know,” because that’s what will comfort her.

She lifts our plates to the sink.

She’s right. Treatment for dysplasia doesn’t threaten pregnancy. Other things do that: day-dreaming, game-playing. Pride. Waiting for your boyfriend to propose while he waits for you to come off the pill.

“I brought a DVD with me,” Lizzie says, encouraging suds with her hand.


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A feature in my five-quid magazine referred to the shortest story ever written. Not hard to remember: ‘For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.’ I’d counted the six words by Hemingway, thinking, I know a story with only four; ‘Healthy womb. Never occupied.’

Lizzie wipes her hands on a tea-towel. “Hey dozy girl, I said I brought a DVD. Feel like watching it?”

“Aye. Perfect. What is it?”

“Terms of Endearment.”

“Very funny. What is it?”

“Who Will Love My Children.”


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“Stop it! Tell me what film you brought.”

“The Man With Two Brains.”



Settling back under a shared blanket, Lizzie takes my hand and says, “I barely sit down during the day – cleaning and shopping and washing and cooking. This is some treat.” She gives my fingers a squeeze and releases them onto my knee.

Whether it’s the pill she gave me, or her sing-song laughter at the film, the pain never materialises.


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I wake up with late April, clear-sky light punching through the curtains. I can’t wait to get to work.

I’m cleaning my teeth, thinking, It’s gone. I’m putting a banana in my bag, thinking, completely gone. I’m walking to the bus stop, thinking, I’ve things to be getting on with. I claim a double seat to myself, thinking, Onward and upward, thinking, This is the point I will look back on, thinking, This is the day I point my arrow.

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At my desk, I listen to messages while my PC comes to life. One is from Donald. “Jill, quick call from the train. I’ll be in Manchester till Friday. There’s a situation with County Constrem, best not say, in public. Raymond can tell you. Hope your, eh, thing, went fine. Speak later?”

My arrow sets itself between the string and the bow. Donald’s absence frees up time to prepare for my appraisal. There’s mileage in the school idea, I know it.


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By Friday, I can’t wait any longer and email him something to read on the train return:

As you know, a barrier to efficiency savings in the public sector is a prevailing culture of resistance. In Denburn’s favour, the Head is keen. If he can re-deploy the Deputy Head’s teaching commitments for a couple of months, that’s two designated staff members leading the reform agenda which, previous examples suggest, make it likely to succeed. Leading change from within etc. etc.

Couple that with Muffin’s expertise on integrating streamlining into strategy and it couldn’t fail.

Granted, we don’t make our usual percentage, but we don’t lose either. On my figures, this is still profit-making. Two days per week of my time, for two months. After that, you can decide if it was worthwhile.

Don’t say no before we’ve tried it.

Let’s talk, at least.


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After pressing ‘send’ my mood’s too high to focus on anything mundane or work-like. I must discharge this zippity energy first in web-surfing.

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By mid-afternoon, FerrisBuellerSenior has sent a reply. And he continues to reply for a week.

Thanks for the wink…

…it’s made an old man very happy … and I totally agree with the comment in your profile about a distaste for endless e-mailing. When should we marry?

Actually that is the LAST thing on my mind.


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Re your cat – do you ever play the eye narrowing game with cats? That’s fun.

Lovely photos JBGlasgirl

Mr. Bueller x

Re: Thanks for the wink…

A proposal! Wait till I tell my mum! Oh at last! A proposal!

I phoned the registry office and they had a cancellation, so it’s all set for Tuesday!


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(Probably shouldn’t make jokes like that to a man of your years – blood pressure and all that...)Joking aside, thank you for replying to the wink. ‘Old man’ you said? Pshaw. You’ve still got all your hair. Unless it’s a wig…

Re: Re: Thanks for the wink…

My life is complete – I never thought it would be this easy. Tuesday can’t come too soon. You don’t feel rushed into things do you? I’m so glad.

Yes, all my own hair, teeth, limbs – just the one eye though… in my forehead.

Can’t wait to Tuesday – regards to Mum.



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Mrs F Bueller

My dear Mr Bueller,

Just to let you know, Hi There magazine would like a few photos afterwards and wondered if we’d mind posing with some Aztec Bars. I said I didn’t think you’d mind at all!

Then Wetherspoons is expecting us at 3pm. We will be met there by all 57 members of my immediate family (where your cycloptic eye will pale into insignificance, trust me...).

Mum can’t wait to meet you. She wants you to call her ‘Maw’ straight away. You’re like a son to her already.

Till tomorrow...


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Re: Mrs F Bueller

My cherub – I too have been busy and have managed to attract interest from Barmulloch’s premier freesheet “Hullorerr”. In a joint sponsorship deal with Greggs it seems we will be awash with steak bakes and fudge donuts!

I look forward to long outings in the sea air of Scunthorpe, you pushing me in my bath chair, laughing all the day at your hilarious knitting stories.

Your mother must be on the brink of ecstasy – I imagine it will take all her concentration to lance her boils tonight. God bless her.

Until tomorrow then my cupcake... when I hear your familiar foot slap gait coming up the aisle, see the faint outline of your hump against the stained glass windows and inhale the unmistakable whiff of Mycil foot powder mixed with Tweed Eau de Toilette... sweet dreams mon cherie.

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All I remember from the letter is the term, ‘negative margins’. They needed them. They didn’t get them.

I think it’s referring to my biopsy tissue but it could be a budget report from my in-tray.

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He habitually raises his hands out in front of him when he speaks. A representation, perhaps, of the fact he is delivering information. My attention is taken by the way he hooks his third fingers around his pinkies while his other fingers point straight ahead. I’ve never seen anyone do this. It looks effortless. I move my own hands under the table to emulate his digital posture. I can feel I’m not achieving it and look down at my hands to see where I’m going wrong. The third and fourth fingers will not move independently of each other. Maybe his abilities are genetic. Maybe it’s like tongue-rolling. I manipulate my tongue inside my mouth, to see if I can still do it.

“I can see this is upsetting for you,” he says. “It will be, without doubt.”

Am I showing any signs of being upset? Am I crying?


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“There are things we can do to enable a pregnancy in the future,” he continues. “A purse-string stitch is the usual method. What’s important right now,” he goes on, “is your well-being. And we’ve identified it early, which helps. Like I say, a cone biopsy is successful in the majority of cases.”

I raise my eyes, meet his gaze and smile. He has an unfinished feel about his face. Not in the common ‘very fair eyelashes’ way, but in some other way. I count his features. They are all there. He reminds me of raincoats I sometimes see in rush-hour with belt loops but no belt.

I nod my head, indicating, ‘Go on.’ Tell me what you have to tell me, Mr. Medicine, so I can leave you to it. We are both busy people.

“The surgeon would like to operate next week. I know that’s short notice but we don’t recommend waiting. Usually people find their employers very sympathetic.”

My face bunches up in an effort to hear better but he carries on, not adjusting his volume to compensate. Can he not hear this high pitch? This keener’s wail banging around my skull?

“The things in your schedule; you’d be surprised how many of them don’t need doing, or can be taken care of by someone else.”


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The things in my schedule, Dr. Death, are how I orientate myself in the world. They’re how I know who I am.

“You’ll stay in overnight after the general anaesthetic, but you’ll be home the next day. The hospital has a cancer support team, to answer all your questions. They’ll make sure you know any sources of assistance available. They should be your first phone call.” He holds a leaflet out to me, realises I will not be taking it and lays it on the table between us. I know who should be my first phone call, but I don’t have one of those anymore. Are we done yet?

“It’s a lot to take in. If you need anything explained, or have any questions, please call the clinic and I’ll phone you back as soon as I can.”

I smile again. Nod once. Then a few more times.

I’m not often in this part of town. Walking through the small park to the station there’s a long grassy slope to my left. It sweeps up, bright green and uninterrupted by tree or bench. It occurs to me I have never seen what’s on the other side. Not in any hurry, I start up it and within a minute or so I’m at the brow.

Sometimes it’s better not to know what’s over the hill. Sometimes, it’s just more of Glasgow.


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Kate Tough holds a Scottish Literature Residency at Cove Park in 2014, and was writer-in-residence of the Wigtown Book Festival, 2009. Her work appears regularly in anthologies, magazines and exhibitions, and she’s received two awards from Creative Scotland to develop her work (2009 for fiction, 2013 for poetry). Kate is based in Glasgow, and Head For The Edge, Keep Walking (2014) is her first novel, from which this is an extract.