E. R. Murray

Loss, Lost, Losing

We begin with a lost notebook – and panic.

The loss feels like an invasion – and potentially dangerous. 

What if it contains something that offends the person who reads it? 

I don’t know when this worry over other people’s thoughts began, though it was definitely in the last decade, and this last decade has been spent in a small village in West Cork, and that is where my notebook has disappeared. 

I can only hope that my illegible scrawl will deter anyone from reading – and that I added at least my name in the cover. 

(I’m a woman. I would never put my address.)  


What is loss? A negation? A void? What if you didn’t ‘have’ in the first place – is it still a loss or something other? What if a person does not have access to clean clothes or privacy? Or the right to work? What if a child has not received enough kindness or care – what do we call that? 

Things I’ve lost:

Keys, a leather satchel, money, a huge porcelain doll in traditional Chinese dress, my parents, sleep, several necklaces, patience, connection with place, my temper, friends, a wallet, interest in a project (this is happening more frequently), my birth certificate, humility, a cheque, belief, an ability for small talk, focus, two diamond rings (that’s not quite true – see ‘Diamonds are not forever’), confidence, friends – and now, a notebook.  

The one thing I’ve never lost:

My way. (Though the path often remains hidden.)


11.23am, overlooking Colla Pier, West Cork, Republic of Ireland.

Today, I was told this joke. 

‘An English grandma takes her grandson to the shop for a birthday present. She explains that she doesn’t have much money so he can only choose one thing. In the shop, he scans every corner, every nook and cranny, and points out a book. ‘A book? But you already have one of those!’

When I don’t respond, the woman, a retired teacher with a holiday home in the village, repeats the punchline. I tell her I’m not sure what I’m meant to be laughing at – the uneducated or the poor?

‘You’ve lost your sense of humour today haven’t you?’ she replies.

You can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends

In my teenage years I had an unlikely close friend; let’s call her M out of respect. She lived down the street from me and was of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage. I knew which once and feel terrible that I cannot remember now. My memory is severely distorted from that time – I could not guide you through the streets, show you my route to school or local shops, for instance, or tell you who our direct neighbours were – but it doesn’t make this gap in memory right. 

I remember that M’s parents ate with their fingers and invited me to join them, at first only when her father was around and later, only when he was not. I remember her mum didn’t speak any English but her father did and spoke for the family. I remember that M was nervous of her father but I thought him charming. 

We would walk to school together and M was terrified of traffic and crossing roads. She would jump and shudder when cars passed by and there weren’t that many cars on the road at that time because no one could afford them. Buses were also too expensive for most, and so we walked the couple of miles to school and back each day, with M growing increasingly nervous. Even the little green man pips at the crossing set M trembling, and she would only stop when we reached ‘the Rec’; a wild expanse of field that led to our school grounds. 

M was terrible at sports and when you threw the ball to her in netball it would hit her and people would laugh. I don’t recall M being particularly good at much, except making herself invisible. I tried to help M improve her ball skills but we only had snippets of time, like the rare occasions we reached home earlier than usual. My attempts to help always failed; she would get clumsier with every throw. After a while, I realised she didn’t want to improve, she just wanted to get home. Because the one thing more terrifying to her than traffic and being bad at sports, was her father. 

Sometimes I had clubs after school – netball, recorder, art – and M couldn’t wait for me because of increasingly strict rules on what time she had to arrive home. On these occasions, I had to abandon her to the road alone. After one such evening, I called for her to walk to school the next day. Her mum shooed me away. Her eyes wild and skittering, she resembled M in a way I hadn’t noticed before. I tried the next day and the next, but no one answered the door. It was several weeks later when M eventually reappeared. She had a giant purple bruise on her cheek and a cut shaped like an upside-down smile across her forehead. 

It turned out that on the way home alone she had been run over. A car had mowed her down and dragged her along the ground. She was lucky to be alive, we were told, but something in M had changed dramatically. She was slower than before and even more frightened. The cut healed to a scar, but the bruises continued to show up, bright and glossy. Then, they’d fade, only to be replaced. I was used to hiding bruises of my own, so I showed her how to cover up for school so no-one would ask questions. 

When M disappeared completely, my lack of realisation of what had really been going on was my biggest regret. Bigger than not escorting her home that day after school. I learned that the change in M was not because of the accident, but a birthday. She had turned old enough to marry and her parents had been arranging a wedding. One day, she was just no longer there and when I knocked on the door, I was greeted by her dad. He told me she was gone and I was never to knock again. Like their daughter, I had outstayed my welcome. 

I don’t know if M remembers me or if she is still alive. 

But I remember a girl called M.

I remember her. 

I remember. 


Patrick DeWitt’s novel, Ablutions, centres around the endless array of hopeless characters who have in some way, lost their selves, their way, their truth, their appetite and drive – and found their way into the same Hollywood bar. In particular, Curtis, ‘someone who has lost, is losing, and who will continue to lose for the rest of his life until he is dead and in the ground.’ (p13). I grew up aware of too many of these people, and perhaps that familiarity is why I’m drawn to them in fiction* – but I was always determined not to join their ranks. Where I’m from, this is called, being up yourself. In Ireland, this is called notions.

*I also love second person narratives. The way they make you feel immersed yet removed. 


There is no news of the notebook.

I have a blank on its contents.

I remember sketching wildflowers and writing about solitude and safety.

Is it fear that makes me feel so grasping? 

Is the lost notebook really a loss?

School crisis

You are watching a video online about UK schools having to install washing machines to help wash their pupils’ clothes. About breakfast clubs for starving kids arriving in school . Of rickets having returned – the result of malnutrition. Of volunteers in holiday time opening up schools to provide basic needs.

You think back to secretly scrubbing the neckline of your school shirt and trying to dry it on the gas fire / struggling to concentrate late morning because you haven’t yet eaten and you’re killed with the hunger / joining clubs (dance, choir, hockey) so you can go on first dinners and get your meal sooner. 

And you wonder why things haven’t moved on with economic growth. It seems ridiculous that this problem has only grown, the needs of children just as great, if not greater than ever.

Diamonds Are Not forever…

  • One diamond ring lost in a costume jewellery shop called ‘Bijou Brigitte’ trying rings on for a friend. 
  • The other an engagement ring, chucked out of a fast-moving car window on a motorway.

Divorcing the Past

Recently, a friend was asking me how we change things. How we, as people from under class or working class backgrounds, can improve our own lives and then use this to create a space for future generations to improve further. It was a lengthy discussion and heartfelt, with plenty of anger and more than one threat of tears. 

Our conclusion was inevitable: we had no idea. She said to me, ‘the more we talk about this, the more bleak it feels,’ and I replied, ‘that’s how I’ve felt my whole life.’

Through life experience, including education, and an array of jobs and professions that have ultimately led to becoming a writer, I have become estranged from my past. It is clear that I am no longer considered of the same tribe. I have in many ways moved on, although that wasn’t quite my intention. For some this signals hope, for others it creates fear, but either way, I am no longer seen as part of the original whole.

And yet, there’s another side to that removal that, until recently, I hadn’t considered. In her various public talks and speeches, Jasvinda Sanghera, a survivor of honour-based abuse, talks about having to divorce herself, not just from the pain, but also ‘from all the wonderful things about my tradition because of the pain. And I miss that.’ 

For many years I tried to extricate myself from where I was from and so, the painful reality is that I have estranged myself. I saw the environment as the cause of hurt. And yes, some of it was to do with class, and a lot of it was to do with poverty, but my own neglectful childhood home was not mirrored in those around me; it was unique among my friends and peers. 

And so, Jasvinda’s words encouraged me to try and think about the positive. To try and stop blaming the place I grew up in for childhood trauma and to remember some of its goodness. 

A list of (almost forgotten) goodness:

  • Neighbours sitting on the step, gossiping and chatting, kids playing the middle of the road
  • Carless roads (no one could afford them)
  • Washing lines in the alleyway, permanent Daz-scented bunting
  • Ball games like kerby, spit on the base, Kingy, bulldogs, twosey,
  • The rattle of the pop man truck; crates of brightly coloured bottles signalling his arrival, then stealing the empties while he delivered our orders so we could get 10p back per bottle from the shop
  • Watching the old men tend their lofts and allotments in the pigeon park
  • Marbles on the grate (milkies, boingies, biggies, oilies – remember any other names?)
  • Waterfights, rain or shine

The ultimate loss we are taught to fear

Death. Our own, and that of others. But why, when death is our only certainty? 

Which do you fear most – being lost or losing?

I think of grief as a dying star

A star collapses when its fuel is used up, and so does the human heart. Not only in the physical sense, but also the nebular, nuclear stuff that we attribute to that particular organ. Grief can manifest in many forms, but it is always ascribed to loss; of a person, self-respect, hope, dreaming. We can grieve many things, and often do, but we tend to pack it deep inside as though always ready to move on, without experiencing any impact.

But the truth is, most stars take a million years to die, and in the same way grief will linger. From months to years to generations; grief can pass down through blood, song, and stories, an intuitive memory that weaves into century after century. War, colonisation; these are difficult griefs to forget. I was born in England and feel its terrible past keenly; I know I will apologise for its history until I die. 

If you take a photo of a galaxy 100 million light years away, you are recording that galaxy as it looked 100 million years ago. Likewise, when someone dies, we time travel. Whoever dies, we seek a return to their best selves, even if it means delving back decades. It is important for us to care if we are to grieve, even when the person has done terrible things. It is a positive trait of the human condition. 

Yet we also have the power to grieve a person long before their death, if they injured our heart deeply enough. This means we can experience loss without additional pain. People who are meant to be close to us may die, without that death impacting us in the way society expects. It is entirely possible, for instance, to not attend your parents’ funerals and to do this without anger or enmity. Which in many ways, may be the saddest grief of all.  

My father was absent during my childhood, until I met him aged thirteen. He died after a few visits, yet I celebrated that we had actually gathered a few precious memories. His absence felt no different than before. My mother was violent and tyrannical, and I had finished mourning the absence of her love by the end of my teenage years. When she died, I felt only relief and empathy – she had finally left a life that she always seemed to despise. I wonder if I am capable of grieving? Or if, unknown to me, I am grieving still?

By the time we see another person’s grief, we witness only the tip, a glimmer of its true depth. And in that glimmer, we see a hint of ourselves. Grief is dealing with phantoms in all their forms. And just as we tend to forget to acknowledge the stars as we go about our daily lives, we live as though we, and everyone we love, is invincible. As though the one true fact of our lives – our death – does not apply. 

Humans and stars are dying all the time. When we look at stars with the naked eye, they have already gone, and we are seeing an illusion; a ghost of their greatness. If you crashed a spaceship into a star tomorrow, you’d be long forgotten before it was even discovered. A buried piece of history. Like the ruins that litter landscapes, your successes and struggles and woes reduced to rubble and dust. The leftover glimpse of a star.

Now, don’t be sad about all this death, because people and stars are being born all the time too – even if we won’t see them in our lifetime. It is in our nature to worry about what will happen to the world when we’re gone, but death does not have a definitive end. There is always a legacy, though it may exist in a different galaxy. Whether our life (and death) affects one person or thousands, our example can burn bright and linger, falling as a phantom star, ready to be captured in the hearts of future generations even a million light years away.

More of the goodness that others had to remind me of:

  • Off-season trips to Flamingo Land,  the rollercoasters and Viking ship to ourselves
  • Babysitting and waiting up for a beef curry from the Chinese takeaway as reward (we liked the crunchy onions)
  • Gymnastics shows in assembly (we were the stars)
  • Sleepovers, topping and tailing
  • Pouring over Argos catalogues, planning what we would have in our future homes
  • Creating abominable designs with a fashion wheel
  • Playing elastics (two types) – one you jumped over in time to rhymes / the other you made into shapes on your fingers (also known as Cat’s Cradle)

Any Given Sunday

You know, when you get old in life, things get taken from you, that’s part of life, but you only learn that when you start losing stuff.’ Tony D’Amato (played by Al Pacino)

But we begin to lose things from childhood – and what if you have very little in the first place? Is the loss even greater? 

Scenario 1: a businessman loses face from let’s say, an affair. Or a bad investment he knew was dodgy. Or a terrible urge. He loses his business, his family, his self-esteem.

Scenario 2: At the same time, a woman loses her child. It could be through a road accident, still birth, miscarriage. It could be through addiction and neglect, or her husband’s terrible urge.

Scenario 3: At the same time also, a child loses face with a friend, or their parent/s, or their innocence. Stolen by a businessman who has lost face, his business, his family, his self-esteem.

What parameters allow us to decide which loss is greater? Is this ability, and desire, to judge our fundamental strength or flaw? Will it save us as a species, or will it be our demise?

What if…?

We ensured all children were safe / we welcomed all cultures without judgement / education was truly available for all /we chose to halt the damage to the earth / we allowed people to pass from one place to another freely / class systems were stamped out / abuse was stopped in all its forms / could we begin again?

What then?

Would we still lose?

What could we gain?


We end with a notebook found. 

Discovered on a rock (name inside) it was brought to a local bar.

I collect it, unsure how I feel – relieved? Uncertain?

Inside, the first words I read: 


E.R. Murray writes in multiple genres for adults, children, and young adults. Her books include Caramel Hearts and the award-winning Nine Lives Trilogy; The Book of Learning (Dublin UNESCO Citywide Read 2016), The Book of Shadows (shortlisted Irish Literacy Association Award & Irish Book Awards), and The Book of Revenge. Recent anthology/journal publications include Mslexia, York Literary Review, Women on Nature, Ponder Review, Paper Lanterns, Reading the Future, Terrain, Not Very Quiet, Elysian: Creative Responses, Autonomy, Popshots, Banshee, and Ropes. Elizabeth lives in West Cork, Ireland, where she fishes, grows her own veg, and spends as much time as possible outdoors. Learn more at www.ermurray.com