Let Me Tell You A Story

Let Me Tell You A Story

Hi everyone, I hope you’re having a great
week. I’m here today to have a chat and also to
tell you a story. I wanted to film this outside because it’s
so beautiful at the moment but it’s also very windy, so I decided that wouldn’t be
a good idea. So instead I’m inside with our new houseplant
child, Hagrid. He’s a mistletoe cactus. Before I get started, I’m doing two events
in the next couple of weeks in London if you’re nearby and would like to come along. The first is on Thursday 7th November and
is on the history of fairy tales. I’m giving a talk on the history of fairy
tales and it’s going to be leads of fun. Later this month I’m running an in-person
poetry workshop at Clean Prose as well. Details are in the description box down below. If you’d like to come along, that would
be great. Today, as I’m uploading this, it is Halloween,
so I decided that I would sit down and read you a slightly scary story. So I am going to read you the first story
from my book The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, which is called Animals. I don’t think I’ve ever read it on this
channel before. I was having so much déjà vu but I went
through all of my videos and I couldn’t find it. I think I read the first couple of pages when
the book came out but I’ve never sat down and read the whole story to you. The first story is inspired by Frankenstein,
so I thought it would be quite a good thing to read on Halloween. If you’re not going anywhere and you just
want to listen to a scary story, I’m here for you. If it’s not Halloween when you’re watching
this and you want to listen to a scary story, I’m still here for you. It’s the first story from the book. If you would like to purchase this book, that
would be amazing. 1. Because I hope you will like it. 2. Because it helps me eat and pay the rent and
all that good stuff. You can find it in any good bookshop, and
if you would like a signed copy I often do events, and I ship signed copies from my website
and I can dedicate the book to whoever you like. I’ll leave lots of links down below. What do you think, Lola? Should I read a story? She doesn’t look that excited. She’s just keeping me grounded. Ok, so this story is called Animals. No… can you hear that? As soon as I started… building work! No! I think we might have to move to a different
location because that noise is going to annoy me and annoy you, too. Let’s find somewhere quieter. Ok, I’ve come into my bedroom. The light is not as good in here but maybe
that’s good for a scary story. You want it to be a little bit dark. Let’s hope roadworks won’t start on this
side of the house. Keep your fingers crossed. Maybe I’ll have to change rooms every time
I change scenes. Who knows. As I said, this short story is called Animals
and it’s the first story in my collection The Beginning of the World in the Middle of
the Night. These days, you can find anything you need
at the click of a button. That’s why I bought her heart online. It was delivered this morning along with my
groceries, tucked inside a cardboard box, red oozing out the sides. They’d tied a half-hearted bow around the
edges, a tag with promises of customer satisfaction and a thirty-day warranty. ‘Our hearts are played classical music from
the moment they begin to grow. Bred to love. Built to last.’ It is crimson. I lift it out and the heart spreads itself
across my palm like an octopus. I tickle one of its valves and it flops down
onto the kitchen counter, panicking. I pick it up again. I’ve heard other men talk of fishing and
hauling. Of holding gasping flounder in their fists
that they then throw on an open fire. Perhaps this is it. The heart flutters. There isn’t anything quite like holding
love in your bare hands. I read the blood-soaked leaflet stuck to the
bottom of the box. This heart is from a swan. Good. They say birds are easy to tame. ‘There there, little one,’ I say. ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I stroke it gently with one finger and whistle
birdsong. It visibly calms. First things first. You need to treat hearts the same way you
treat pets, that’s something my mother understood just fine. You shower hearts profusely and then stop. The stopping is important. You have to wait for the heart to become desperate;
wait for it to think you’ve forgotten all about it. Then – and only then – do you smother
it again with love and affection. It’s the only way. It’s how hearts grow. It’s how they learn to never leave your
side. Hearts also need good nutrition and plenty
of exercise. If you purchase one, make sure you keep it
hydrated. If you’re new to this, you need to buy yourself
a heart case until you decide whether or not this is The One. Hearts come in all different shapes and sizes,
of course, but they don’t need bespoke sleeping quarters. Just somewhere warm and damp, close to human
skin. My mother said, correctly, that love can fill
any room. I’d recommend keeping your heart case strapped
to your chest under your clothes to stop dogs chasing you down the street. Make sure you buy your heart from a reputable
source, too. I once bought a faulty one that took on a
will of its own and tried to bury its way under my skin. I’d never felt pain like it. That was the last time I took a seller recommendation
from my next-door neighbour. Mind you, he’s been using glass hearts for
the best part of a year, now, and neither he nor his partner look happy about it. More fool them. I slide the swan heart into my heart case
and hide it under my jumper, feeling the pulse of both my heart and the swan heart, slightly
out of sync. Love needs to be trained in warmth and rhythm
and reliability. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I rinse out the box the heart came in. Cora always likes to say I use too much washing-up
liquid but there’s no crime in wanting things clean. I slot the box into the recycling. Recycling is important. You shouldn’t litter the world. That’s why I’ve kept her. Most of her, anyway. I check on Cora, and go into my study to Google
‘swan’. The Celtic goddess of sleep transforms into
a swan every other year. There are seven types of swan, including mute
swans and tundra swans. Swans aggressively protect their nests. Swans mate for life. Swan meat was a delicacy during the reign
of Elizabeth I, reserved for the wealthy and noble. The word ‘swan’ comes from the Indo-European
root ‘swen’, which means to sound, to sing. I do like it when Cora sings. I put on my shoes to head to the park. On the way out, I spy Thomas watering his
garden. He’s humming a tune I’m not familiar with
and stands in a sea of blue forget-me-nots. He raises his hand in an effort at hello,
but he’s looking elsewhere. I raise a hand back, just in case he sees,
and stride away. Many hundreds of years ago, a poet was walking
along the Boyne river in Ireland, and saw a flock of swans flying high above him. He picked up a stone and threw it in their
direction and one of the swans tumbled out of the sky. The poet ran to catch it and saw that it was
no longer a swan but a woman. Her arm was broken and she looked up at him,
wildly, and said: ‘Thank you. Demons came to my deathbed and turned me into
a bird. I have been trapped ever since and flying
for so long. I didn’t know if it would ever end.’ The poet held her close, then took her home,
and her heart was thumping, thumping, thumping. The number 81 bus is a hive of misery. The woman sitting next to me is attached to
a portable oxygen machine. She tries to hide it under a blanket, but
it’s not something you can easily conceal. She’s been sitting down for at least four
stops, but I can still hear her breath rattling. She constantly checks her pulse. Every so often she heaves as though her organs
are trying to propel themselves out into the world. I grimace. We all do. Stupid woman. I can almost smell the meat rotting away inside
of her. We turn our heads to the window in unison
and pretend she doesn’t exist. I do a gentle lap around the pond when I arrive
at the park. My resting heart rate is approximately fifty
beats per minute. This is impressive, of course, but I try not
to tell too many people (though inevitably it slips into conversations). I don’t want to make others feel bad about
themselves. I try to focus on my breathing as I jog. I think of two swans and their necks meeting
to form the shape of a heart. I think of Swan Lake and mistaken identities. I think of Zeus, tumbling down to earth to
cause chaos as a god hidden in a swan’s body, and I yell as a flyaway football narrowly
misses the side of my chest. I cross my arms, and continue running, blood
pounding in my ears and the swan heart beating so furiously it sounds like it’s trying
to take off. At the far end of the park, there is a bandstand. People are cluttered around a brass quartet,
who are blue in the face, and a man in a ridiculous heart costume. He dances on the spot, both to keep warm and
to draw attention to the moneybox he is shaking in people’s faces: ‘All proceeds go to
the British Love Foundation! Please give generously!’ Give me strength. I dodge the crowd and, finally, find what
I’ve been looking for. A young boy and his mother are feeding the
ducks, and next to those squabbling ducks is a swan. Huge, white, majestic. The swan heart strains to the edge of its
case at the sound of water and other birds. There are many people milling round. This might cause a scene. Then again, they do say that love loves an
audience. So, I pick up a stone from the side of the
path, take careful aim, and fling. The young boy screams and someone drops their
tuba. Most people pretend not to notice the dead
swan draped over my shoulders as I walk back home. They part to let me through, some tutting
as they do so. The swan is heavier than it looks, and its
wings keep trailing along the ground, tripping me up. I hoist it higher. Its neck dangles down, beak bouncing off the
case of the swan heart beneath, which is practically chirruping. The bus driver refused to let me on, miserable
bastard, but the exercise will do me good. I’m sweating, in spite of the wind. Thomas is still watering his garden when I
get home. There are pools forming around his ankles. ‘Hey,’ he says, waving with the wrong
hand so the sprinkler he’s holding dowses his clothes. ‘Oh! Nice swan.’ ‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘Is it all right? It looks a bit . . . floppy.’ ‘It’s dead.’ ‘Oh!’ He shudders. ‘Doesn’t the queen own all the swans in
the country, or something?’ I fumble for my keys. ‘Bye, Thomas.’ ‘Oh, OK. Bye.’ I slam the door behind me and let the swan
tumble to the floor. It stares up at me, blankly. He’s right, though, Thomas. The queen technically does own all unmarked
swans in open water. Not that she’d ever exercise her rights. They don’t make queens like they used to. There was a time when jealous queens ate the
hearts of their daughters. Elisabeth of Austria, a real life 19th century
princess, used to sleep with raw meat on her face, to keep her skin young and freckle free. She had hair that took hours to brush, and
she would wash it with egg yolk and brandy. At the age of sixty, she was stabbed through
the heart by an anarchist who thought she looked ugly. Her corset was so tight that she didn’t
die for several hours. Her heart bled out slowly, twitching in a
cage. Birds and hearts are similar in so many ways,
you see. I nudge the dead swan with my foot. It’s like poetry, really. I check on Cora, who hasn’t moved, and drag
the bird into the kitchen. It takes an age to pluck, as I try to keep
the feathers whole. I’ll get Cora to make a skirt with them,
one that sweeps the floor. She can wear it, along with her bearskin coat
and wolf-tooth crown, and I’ll take her dancing. The white feathers gleaming against her dark
skin, the two of us never breaking eye contact so everyone else feels uncomfortable. We can arch our necks and point our feet. Parade across the floor. Swans were sacred to Druids, who thought they
represented the soul. They believed these birds could travel between
our world and the world of the dead and, because storytellers brought news from all worlds,
they were given ceremonial cloaks called tuigen, made out of songbird feathers. The hoods of these cloaks were decorated with
the feathers of a swan. Cora loves stories; she deserves a cloak of
feathers. I take off my jumper, and unstrap the heart
case underneath. I don’t want to distress my newly bought
heart by keeping it on me as I dissect my kill. I can almost hear it resisting as I put it
down, away from the warmth of my body. It shudders slightly. It misses me. Good. I pull on an apron and close the blinds. I sharpen my knives. Butchery is an art form lost on many. The six o’clock news filters out from the
radio. ‘Today’s headlines: US scientists remain
sceptical of North Korea’s claims it has created the Elixir of Love. A video from a woman in northern England has
gone viral, in which she says she is willing to donate her heart to save someone else’s
relationship. The suicidal forty-two year old from Northumberland
is currently accepting couples’ CVs via email, so she can pick one to donate her heart
to.’ I slice through the breast meat. ‘The Aphrodite Heart Factory in east London
has seen a record number of animal rights protestors, after its announcement that it
will be opening five new branches just north of the city. The activists, who have all rejected animal
heart transplants, choosing instead to suffer with heart disease, petition for the abolition
of the animal heart market. The Prime Minister calls for calm, insisting
that these new factories are simply a precautionary measure, not a sign that love levels are plummeting
to an all-time low. ‘He released this statement earlier this
afternoon.“Whilst we continue to manufacture hearts for our own needs, we must also take
great care to cater for others, by sending out hearts and doctors to those suffering
in foreign lands. Love translates into all languages, and should
know no bounds.”’ I locate the swan’s wishbone and put it
to one side for later, then I pull the swan heart out from its rib cage, blood congealing
on my fingertips. It’s a special moment. It’s still warm. I lick my lips. It’s not unusual to eat animal hearts. Dare I say it’s not unusual to eat human
hearts, either. There are odd people out there who place adverts
looking for strangers to eat their hearts while they struggle to stay alive, which is
hardly arousing, but the actual act of eating human hearts goes back centuries, probably
millennia. One eccentric in the 1800s, William Buckland,
used to eat all manner of strange things. Bluebottles and toasted mice, panthers and
puppies. At least I don’t do that. Mind you, William did also eat the heart of
Louis XIV, which had been embalmed for a hundred and fifty years. He simply grabbed the silver container on
display at dinner, ripped out the contents and swallowed it whole. That’s not something I’d recommend. Hearts should be fresh. Still beating, if at all possible. I trim the fat from the edges of the swan
heart and begin working on a marinade. My favourite is a simple one. Two tablespoons of olive oil, one of sherry
vinegar, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, a pinch of salt, oregano and black pepper. I chop the heart finely and line it in the
marinade. It’ll need to sit for an hour or so. Enough time to clean up, freeze the carcass,
make a side salad and check on everything downstairs. The swan heart I bought online still sits
on the counter top. It’s beating slower than before. Every so often, it jumps in its case, trying
to get my attention. I wonder if it’s concerned I’m about to
cut it into tiny pieces, too. Part of me feels sorry for it, like a fool. I make soothing noises and reattach it to
my chest. The heart sighs with relief. We’re bonding. Once I’ve cooked and eaten tonight’s meal,
we’ll bond further. Independent studies have shown that if a human
consumes a heart from the same species intended to be put inside his or her lover, then there
is a greater chance of creating a lifetime bond. Love consumes you, so you must consume it. I carry the chopping board to the sink, squeeze
in a good amount of washing-up liquid and relish the silence where a reprimand would
be. Through the kitchen blinds, suds up to my
elbows, I spy Thomas and James in their living room. They’re sitting side by side on their new
designer sofa. No doubt they deliberately left their curtains
open so the world could see. A poster image for a glass heart relationship. Like a bloody art installation. The water’s a murky red, so I drain it and
refill. Thomas and James appear to be watching television,
though their expressions give nothing away. They were far more interesting when they argued
and fought and cared about each other. I’ll never understand glass hearts. Glass may be recyclable but it’s also cold
and weak. Amorphous, with no clear shape or form. Charles VI of France believed he was made
of glass. He carried pieces of iron in his clothing
to protect himself from breaking. Fragile and precious, his subjects called
him Charles the Mad and Charles the Well-Beloved. That’s not the kind of love I want, even
if it does sit on a designer sofa. I look around me. The kitchen floor is covered with feathers. There’s a bloody handprint on the freezer
door. You can’t say that’s not exciting. I grab the disinfectant. It’s dark outside and every house on the
street is glowing like a planet. Every house, that is, apart from the Drurys’
at number 143. Their semi-detached is a black hole. I’m not one for gossip but last month I
heard they’d opted for a joint heart replacement, after it emerged that Mrs Drury had been somewhat
unfaithful. They thought it would be romantic to go under
the knife together, and wake up with two new hearts. French Angelfish hearts, to be precise. They’d picked them out together, genetically
modified to beat as one. I gather a fistful of feathers. Love doesn’t work like that. Love needs the dominant one to take the lead. Couples have tried to have their hearts replaced
simultaneously before, even lying side by side on an operating table, falling asleep
while holding hands, but they’ve all woken up and looked at each other and not known
who it is they are looking at. Their hearts simply not in it any more. I haven’t seen the Drurys in weeks, though
I spied their daughter packing her car with suitcases at the crack of dawn on Tuesday. She’s one of those awful New Age newbie
arseholes, who have made a pact to focus on their own well-being. To never settle down with anyone, lest they
get their hearts smashed to pieces. They blame the older generations for turning
the world into a loveless place. They say they can make it on their own, that
they don’t need other halves. They wear badges that say things like ‘No
Love, No Problems.’ As though life can be that simple. Not that it’s safe having a youthful, perfect
heart, anyway. Wandering the streets all shiny and new. We’ve all heard the rumours about small,
remote villages that have been ransacked overnight by groups of expert thieves. Whole pockets of civilisations that have had
their hearts wrenched out of their chests to sell on the black market. Some say that these villagers keep on living. Wandering, listless. Unable to love. Unable to die. Homes of heartless quiet. The closest we get here is jealous lovers
turning to murder. But that’s nothing new. Then there are the swingers: couples who want
to swap hearts with other couples. Just for fun. But why bother to go out and find someone
else, when you can mould what you already have? I hang up my rubber gloves and stroke the
heart case. The swan heart purrs. Cora’s still sleeping in the next room. Her head wound is healing nicely, her chest
a gaping hole with a pump firmly attached. I still need to unpack her open suitcase,
though most of the garments are strewn across the carpet like human feathers. Like the times we’d hastily undress and
fling our clothes across the floor. What animals we were back then. Biting each other’s lips. How vicious. How unpredictable. I inject Cora with a fresh dose of anaesthetic,
tuck her in, kiss her forehead, and tell her another story. Once upon a time, a girl’s father married
a witch. The witch turned her six brothers into swans,
and they flew away. Worried she would also be turned into a swan,
the young girl packed her suitcase and hid in the deep forest, where the sunlight rarely
visited, and there were many eyes looking out at her from the bodies of trees. There, one of the swan brothers found her. Flapping his wings, he told his sister that
she had the power to save them because her heart was so good. He said, if she sewed six tunics made of flowers,
they would put them on and turn back into humans. He said it was a secret spell, and she wasn’t
allowed to talk to anyone until the tunics were finished. He said, if she did, the spell wouldn’t
work. So the girl collected as many flowers as she
could and began to sew. She sewed sitting in a tree so the wolves
couldn’t get her. But the world is a dark place, full of many
kinds of wolves. A group of men, out hunting, found the strange
girl sewing flowers and asked her what she was doing. She couldn’t speak, so she smiled, but that
wasn’t enough. She threw them her bracelet, which they caught,
but that wasn’t enough either. So, she took off her clothes and dropped them
to the floor, in the hope they would see her good heart shining out of her chest. Then they smiled back, and climbed up the
tree, and decided to take her home. She was taken to the young king of a neighbouring
realm. He looked at this silent girl with her good
heart, and bought her immediately. She married him without speaking a word. The king’s mother was angry about the marriage,
because no woman was good enough for her only son. For the next few years, this new queen continued
to sew flower tunics without speaking. But the task was taking a long time because
her mother-in-law destroyed every tunic out of spite, and she could only sew during the
spring and summer months, for during the autumn all the flowers died. ‘That silent girl is full of secrets,’
the mother-in-law muttered. ‘My heart is stronger than hers will ever
be.’ When the silent queen gave birth to a child,
the mother-in-law stole it and ordered that it be killed and baked in a pie. She smeared blood on the queen’s mouth and
told her son that his bride had eaten their daughter. ‘Did you do it?’ he asked his wife. She shook her head but said nothing. Crying, she went back to sewing tunics made
of flowers, and the mother-in-law kept burning them, one by one. When the silent queen gave birth to her second
child, the same thing happened. The mother-in-law smeared blood across the
queen’s mouth and ordered the baby be killed. ‘Did you do it?’ the king asked. The queen shook her head but said nothing
at all. ‘Her silent heart is a trap,’ the king’s
mother whispered to her son. ‘My heart is better. Time to burn her so she finds her words. Time to burn her until she shouts and screams.’ The morning the queen was to be burned, she
walked down to the courtyard. She’d been up all night sewing as fast as
she could for, several weeks earlier, she’d found a secret place to hide the tunics. This time they hadn’t been destroyed, and
now she had enough. She carried five tunics made of flowers and
a sixth nearly complete but with one sleeve missing. As the fire was lit, she threw the tunics
into the air and six swans appeared on the horizon. They swooped down and pulled on the tunics
and immediately turned back into her brothers. The sixth still had a swan arm attached to
his human body, which he flexed and admired in the light of the sun. With the spell broken, the mute queen was
able to speak. She told her husband how his mother had murdered
their children. How she’d chopped them into pieces and baked
them into pies. The king clasped his chest and declared his
mother a witch. They tied her to a tree and burned her at
the stake. Her skin melted in the heat, and her blood
began to boil but her heart was so cold that the fire couldn’t touch it. The king pulled his mother’s heart from
the flames and put it in a jar. He placed it on the mantelpiece where it shone
blue in the dark. Then swan boys danced, and the silent girl
sang, and the king wondered at the strangeness of the world. I keep Cora’s hearts in the basement. They hang, suspended, in vases of alcohol. Her original heart is on the far left, vaguely
purple. Then the wolf heart, glistening silver. The deer heart, turning blue. The fox heart, shrinking slowly. And her most recent, the bear heart, growling
quietly to itself. Is it terribly clichéd to think of this as
a room filled with love? Failed love, obviously, but love nevertheless. I like to come here when I need reminding
that everything can be fixed. That the world just needs medicine, and people
can change. People do change. I’ve seen it. I’ve made it happen. It’s not unusual to keep hearts. Royals once demanded their hearts be buried
apart from their bodies, and butchers and cooks were hired to cut them free. When Henry I died in Normandy after eating
poisonous eels, his heart was sewn into the hide of a bull and taken back to England. The rest of him was left in France to rot
under the ground. Home is where the heart is. I found Cora ten years ago. We both had articles published in the same
journal. Her essay was on the history of fairy tales,
mine on the poetry of the Romantics. In my essay, I’d touched on the death of
Percy Shelley. How, when he was cremated, his friend Edward
Trelawny had reached in and pulled his heart out from the flames. His wife, Mary Shelley, took him to court
and fought hard to get the heart back. She won and she kept it in her writing desk
until the day she died. And people wonder where Frankenstein comes
from. That evening, as Cora listened to me, not
saying a word, I could see her good heart shining out through her chest. Thundering and garbling like some underwater
train. Vines sneaking up to block out the world and
her homemade floral dress glowing amber in the dark. In the Middle Ages, people believed that a
heart contained a person’s soul. That all of their beliefs, thoughts, feelings
and memories lived inside there, as though written inside a book. God was thought to have a copy of everyone’s
hearts, with records of how good or bad they were scribbled inside. Sometimes, he would write on these records,
and this writing would transmit to the replicas in human bodies on earth. There are legends of saints who were said
to have images drawn on their organs by divine power. Touched by the hand of God. So, when we say we are ‘turning over a new
leaf’, we are referring to the book of our heart. It means we are starting over. Making fresh starts. New hearts. This swan heart will be Cora’s fifth heart
in ten years. Her fourth in the last two. The fox heart made her nocturnal. The deer heart made her flee. The bear heart made her possessive. The wolf heart gave her rage. The swan heart clamours in its case. I head back upstairs. The house feels like it’s breathing. This is home. This is home. This is home. My mother’s heart sits on the mantelpiece. Baby blue, encased in glass. Next to it, my wedding present to Cora. A replica of a French tapestry from 1400,
called ‘The Offering of the Heart’. It shows a man giving his pulsing heart to
a woman as a symbol of his devotion. Love as an art form. In 1956, Erich Fromm wrote a book called The
Art of Loving. In it, he argued that the active character
of true love requires four basic elements: care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. ‘Love is a decision, it is a judgment, it
is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be
no basis for the promise to love each other forever . . . Love isn’t something natural
. . . It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.’ Cora said my mother loved me an unhealthy
amount. Whilst the world was running out of love,
my mother was trying to hoard it. She clung to me so desperately, Cora deemed
it unnatural. For that is what love is. She told me I’d better deal with it or else
she’d leave forever. So I did. I admit it felt strange, holding a pillow
over my mother’s face like that. How, when I carved her open to extract her
over-flowing heart, her body was still twitching. How I used five bottles of washing-up liquid
to get the blood off the kitchen floor. How I burned her body in the back yard, and
sprinkled her ashes on the orange trees. When I came home, carrying my mother’s heart,
Cora screamed. She claimed she’d never meant for me to
go that far. She yelled she’d only meant that I should
talk to her. She cried that just the thought of what I’d
done made her sick. That’s the first time she tried to leave. Despite Cora’s protests, all her academic
research into fairy tales had shown that for love to flourish, parents needed to die. And as I grabbed her by the wrist and dragged
her back inside the house, I reminded her of that very fact and spat: ‘Aren’t all
of us just trying to find our happily ever after?’ Hundreds of years ago, when French kings and
queens died, their hearts were mummified in silver urns and hidden in various cathedrals
across the city of Paris. During the French Revolution, these were stolen
by revolutionaries, and some hearts were sold in secret to artists. They liquidised them, mixed them with myrrh
and created a highly sought-after paint called ‘mummy brown’. They say a mother’s love is truly unconditional. If these factory-created animal hearts keep
failing, perhaps I can put my mother’s heart inside Cora. Perhaps that is the answer. I take the swan heart out of its case and
place it on top of Cora’s cold skin. It twitches, as though trying to get back
to me. It’s wondering where I am. Hearts are babies. Beating, blind, vulnerable babies. I scoop the heart back up and it shudders
with pleasure. I throw it from palm to palm and watch it
switch between panic and joy. Then I stroke it, and hold it close and it
curls up to go to sleep. When this heart cannot survive without me,
when it consistently whimpers and diminishes if away from my side, that is when I will
place it inside Cora. And Cora will come back to me, wide-eyed and
so deeply in love that she won’t know how to function properly. She’ll need me. Really, truly need me. No shouting, no packing her bags, no trying
to run away from a man she says she can no longer stand. She will love me. I will make her love me. The timer in the kitchen pings. Long ago, there was a giant in Norway, who
kept his heart outside of his body so that he could live forever. But keeping his heart somewhere else had its
down side, too. He turned men to stone in rage, for they could
love and he could not, and he locked a princess inside his house to stop her marrying the
sons of kings. One day, a prince, whose six brothers had
already been turned to stone by the giant, entered the giant’s house and found the
princess there. She told him they would have to find the giant’s
heart and destroy it so she could be released. The giant said it was buried under the floor,
but that was a lie. He said it was in the cupboard, but that was
a lie, too. Finally, the giant laughed and said he kept
his heart on a faraway island, inside a warm egg, in the nest of a swan. The prince went in search of this faraway
island, and at last found the giant’s heart, inside an egg, in the nest of a swan. He squeezed the egg and the giant cried out
in pain, clutching his chest. He sank to his knees and asked for forgiveness. The prince gleefully demanded he release all
his stone victims and the princess, first. The giant did so, so scared was he for the
fate of his heart. The men became human, the princess was free,
and the giant wept, believing he was saved. But then the prince smirked and crushed the
giant’s heart anyway. Because hearts are meant to be crushed, and
you cannot hide them anywhere for love, nor money. Especially not love. I stroke Cora’s cheek, her new heart dripping
in my hand. Rejoicing in the giant’s death, the prince
married the princess, and they loved each other. Until the love ran out. Then they fought, and they cried and they
filled themselves with hatred. Thank goodness we no longer live in a world
like that. I hope you enjoyed this story. If you’d like to purchase The Beginning
of the World in the Middle of the Night, that would be lovely. I’ll leave links below. I’m not sure why I’m whispering. I’ll speak to you soon. Lots of bookish love. x

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  1. You've read "Animals" on an Instagram livestream. That's probably the reason for the déjà-vu. But I don't mind listening to it again at all 😍 It's one of my favourites. I wish there were a full audiobook for "The Beginning of The World…".

  2. Those first few lines get me every time – such beautiful writing! I've always meant to comment this, but initially I was kind of hesistant to pick up short story collections, after reading a few ones that didn't quite do it for me. I commented this on one of your short story videos I think, but you said that there's a short story collection for everyone, so I picked up your collection and it turned out to be one of my favourite short story collections of all time! It's absolutely wonderful, and I find it so cool that after you told me to continue reading collections that it was your collection that truly captured my heart!

  3. My friend bought me the book as a birthday present and I really enjoyed it! Also the fact you can see Lanny in the background makes my heart sing a little

  4. I actually just got your book for my birthday a week or so ago, and immediately grabbed it and read a long. It was lovely. Thank you.

  5. This is great and it's saving my sanity. I'm in bed with a stomach bug and Jen Campbell is reading me a story. 😍The marvels of the Internet.

  6. I had to stop too 😂 the bus for my residential college came and an ambulance went past at the same time and I was like arrrgh! I enjoyed being able to read along with my own copy too, it’s nice to hear the author’s voice and how they read a story 😊 (this was also a great break from my uni essay on Frankenstein and Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ so great timing ☁️) love your work Jen Xx

  7. There is something so magical about hearing an author read their own work aloud! This story was so engaging! Thank you for sharing, and happy Halloween!

  8. Thank you Jen, this was so lovely. Such beautiful writing, it reminded me so much of magical realism.

    Love from Spain.

  9. Captivating and thought-provoking! I don't normally like stort stories neither do I like horror and/or very bizarre narratives …and this was both… but in a whole different and unique way! It was weird enough to stand out but clever enough to make sense! All the extra layers…the way tales and myths were interwoven into the story…the thoughts and comments about love, life and relationships…not to mention the nice pacing and the great sense of humour … Just brilliant!Thank you for sharing,Jen!

  10. I picked up your short story collection when I visited Scotland last year. It has proven to be one of the most useful souvenirs ever 🙂

  11. I’d just finished reading this story yesterday – hearing it read aloud, the way it’s intonated and what’s emphasised, really adds a whole new meaning to it and I’m so here for it

  12. This is exactly the kind of book I'm in the mood to read right now! I placed my order for it as soon as the video was over <3

  13. Hello Jen can you please do a recommendation video for books about loneliness? That might contain some characters who feel lonely or lost in their lives, I trust your taste the most and I'd really appreciate it if you suggest me some even in comments.

  14. This story is one of my favourites in your collection so listening to this made for a great break in weekend chores! The Bluebeard-esque room of 'failed love' is deliciously horrible

  15. Loved this and rushed off to buy your book! Thank you so much for the lovely reading. I need your help with a bookish matter! My five year old son is currently obsessed with 'Franklin and Luna and the Book of Fairy Tales' but there is one fairytale character that we can't name… Please share who the knight in the fortress is! Will I kick myself for not knowing?

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