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Tanya Shadrick mending her old tweed coat

Welcome to the second issue in Season Two of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book which you can read in full over on my free substack. This month’s theme concerns hands: what have you made, mended or broken with yours?

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.

Home from school, she watched as I practiced my handwriting.

‘You could be a hand model’, she said. I took it as a compliment, although others later tried to persuade me it was an insult. She knew how to give those, but never to me.

In the care home, an old bloke had threatened her. ‘You’re too old to punch a hole in a wet Echo‘, she scoffed, covering her fear.

That was as true for her now, hands crippled with arthritis. She liked to chat and knit, but neither small pleasure was on offer, shut in as she was with the demented, her hands as stiff as her whisky.

She would wait for my visits, threads of stories forming in a mind more active for being trapped in an unwilling body.

There was the time she made my cousin a pair of gloves from scraps of old wool, each finger a different colour. Soon they were all the rage. Children would turn up at her door, leftover wool in their pockets, asking for a pair to be made. All of them, making ends meet. She, a local hero.

I wanted to be as effortless as she had been, but every time I took up the needles, I counted each stitch as if it were a child, and I a worried teacher on a school trip. I wouldn’t know what to do if I lost one, so vigilance was key. I wanted to be as bold and as brave as her, but there are things that can’t be handed down so easily.


I grew up in a house with no books, no awareness of art except as something that ‘others’ did.

And yet I loved to draw and paint. I used discarded cardboard and cereal packets, as buying paper for a child to draw on was unthought of, unthinkable.

At 14 in the top stream of a grammar school I was told I had to give up art as a subject and do sciences instead. I was heartbroken. I would never be an artist now. But no one understood so I had to grieve quietly and coped by not picking up a pencil or brush for forty years.

Then I did a weekend course in drawing and found it was all still there. I’ve become pretty good but what is also still there is my family’s incomprehension, their refusal to see any worth in it. I got accepted for an MA and they sneered.

This time I chose the drawing and gave up the family.

[Editor’s note: you can see Stevie’s artwork over on instagram]


We walked through the dark fields, following the beam of my father’s torch, and scanned the small flock.

The light focused on one ewe, over by the ditch, and we headed in that direction. Even to my child’s eye, it was obvious that she was in some distress. I can still see the whites of her eyes rolling in the beam of light, and hear her ominous grunts.

‘She’s in trouble’, said my father. ‘Hold the lamp.’ I directed the torch as instructed, and my father examined the sheep.

‘The lamb is stuck and my hand won’t fit. I’m going to need your small hands here,’ he said.

Though I was a farming child, I was quite innocent and had never been involved in the birth of an animal – we only had sheep, who were generally trouble-free, and horses, who were usually taken away to the stud farm for the births. I had seen them being scanned, but no more than that. I had a general idea of the process, but wasn’t prepared for this.

Shining the torch on the sheep’s vagina, my father directed my hand. I initially baulked at the gory sight and sensation of the moist redness, but I understood that it was this or lose the lamb and maybe the sheep, and my father was patient. Thankfully, once my hand entered the birth canal, I quickly felt a leg, and followed my father’s guidance to find a second one and to pull straight outwards at first. Once the feet were out, my father took over and delivered the lamb hind legs first.

As he checked the mother and baby, I gazed in wonder at my small, mucus-covered hands, utterly awed by their contribution to the safe delivery of this little creature into the world.



 Yes, that is a very bad impersonation of a Spitfire aircraft attacking, all guns blazing. It is the sort of mimic a daft nine-year-old might deliver to annoy a teacher who may, or may not, have been a Spitfire pilot at some time in the past. This possibility really isn’t the actual point of the bad impersonation; an incendiary response from the teacher – let’s call him ‘Eric’, for that was indeed his name – is the modest ambition of the daft nine-year-old.


So, here’s the thing, I was that daft, very annoying, nine-year old. Rooted somewhere in the depths of this dark tale of wasted schooldays lies the genesis of a story I tell myself.

I tell myself that I am useless with my hands.

As I say whenever the question of home improvements arises: these are office hands, not DIY hands, gesturing with smooth palms and unblemished fingerprints as if to prove my point.

Was it really then, back in those long-distant schooldays, when the myth became a reality around which I shaped adulthood? Was the distraction technique for my Craft teacher an early blow in my fight (who was I fighting anyway) against the rigours of manual endeavour? 

I was SO annoying to Eric, the craft teacher, that there was no chance of me getting to use anything more than a blunt chisel, a tenon saw and a tiny bradawl. Without the tools, I was reduced to making a tray to offer my mother at the end of term. You will by now have surmised, correctly, that a tray is, in essence, a flat bit of wood (pre-cut by the craft teacher) and some beading glued on to act as the handles. That masterpiece mostly kept me out of mischief for a 10-week term. We won’t dwell on basketry class (in 1976) which was spent (usefully, I feel) learning all the words to Bohemian Rhapsody. Pottery class … the same sort of direction but without the end product of a memorised hit of the day – I am reasonably confident that the combination ashtray/pipe-stand I offered up to my father met its demise with the first sharp crack of briar against frail glazed clay.

Thus, our not-so intrepid hero enters adulthood with a firmly fixed notion that all crafts, the making of things with deft hands and a well-held tool, are beyond his competence. 

Perhaps this is how all our truths are born.

 We think them … they become so.

There is little to counter the notion.

Sure, there is the racing bike I stripped down, resprayed, and reassembled. It made the trip from the edge of Dartmoor – ironically, the first pedal stroke of which was from right outside the craft shop within which those bad Spitfire impersonations first echoed – all the way to Cognac and back again.

A succession of Airfix models, gently assembled, painted with an eye for detail; every ounce of value squeezed from a process funded by extremely limited pocket money.

Ah, yes, the exquisite tortellini I made on a week-long cookery class in these years during which I have started to imagine I might possess some creativity after all.

A few examples, and there’ll be more if I stretch my mind to it.

Here’s the weird thing though; when I pick up a pen or a pencil (in this hand which I believe to be clumsy and incapable), words flow. Of course, the words flow from my thoughts, my mind, my sub-conscious … but something guides the nib; something manipulates the tool so the words unfold. I wrote the outline for this piece by hand, confident in my ability to translate intention into well-crafted end product.

There was no hesitation.

No sense of ‘I can’t do this’.

Deft hands, well-turned phrase.

Maybe there’s more that can be done with my hands than I think possible. Perhaps it is not the ‘manual block’ I imagine it is; it is looking increasingly like a mental block.

It’s not the hands that matter, as such, it’s your belief in what they can do that counts.


The human hand has 17,000 touch receptors…

and the star nosed mole has 6 times that just on the tiny forward facing star, this star that never shines, never grants a wish, a full of feeling star.

Think of how my hands might explode when they picked a wildflower if they had this power. What would happen when they scratched my dog behind her ears, this dog full of dirt and bits of burdock and raucous joy? Would they leave imprints on the shell when I pull a warm, freshly laid egg from the nest box, slip it into my pocket, and soon after crack it open for my children’s breakfast? Maybe sing when they pick wild black raspberries and turn them into jam? Sizzle wiping away tears?

I like to think my hands, these hands that brown in the summer, short nails, no paint, plain hands, no taper to the fingers hands, the pointer finger a little pudgy compared to the rest, blue veins popping hands, hands supporting these fingers, these carved away fingers, would sigh with relief as they write my story, each ridge of a fingerprint like growth lines in a tree, another story to tell. Perhaps, on a good day, these hands would giggle with delight, with truth.

[Facts about touch receptors and the star nosed mole from Great Adaptations by Kenneth Catania.]

Sheila knell

So constant aren’t they, our hands?

We see them so very often, a look at or a glimpse. They are such a reminder of ourselves. What we’ve written, touched, held. How we’ve loved and how we’ve got through the days.

I never used to like mine. So critical of them – too old looking, too dry, too chubby. Nails too long or too short. Not a bad dislike, but no real affection there.

But I’ve changed my mind. Now I’ve grown to love the familiarity with them. What they’ve experienced.

That scar on the knuckle of my right index finger where I scraped the skin along the school radiator. At Y-Bont-Faen where I’d play in the toilets at play time, crawling on the floor to sneak under doors. Not really sure why, but we felt so naughty; me and my friends.

These same hands I type with now, they held on to Dad’s, Mum’s, Cousin Emma’s. They picked daisies, they made dens from sticks and moss and drew with felt pen on those pattern pads we all had in the 70s.

They’re a constant, aren’t they?

These days my Welsh-gold wedding ring feels a part of my left hand. The ring we chose in Cley that day amongst the paintings and the pottery. Feeling so adult as we admired the simplicity of the design, the choices we had.

They’ve also been pivotal in my many jobs. From the cook at the old people’s home to the teacher to the Camp America nurse and the nanny to Richard in 1985.

The most important though has been to hold my own beautiful boy. And now to reach up to his grown neck and hug him, to feel his back bigger than mine while I tiptoe to hug him.

Louise Stead

I pick up the needles and it all comes back…in, out, pull through, push the stitch off.

And I wonder why I’m so awkward, so clumsy, and how I will ever figure out how to knit the pattern backwards on the purl side, because I could never be like a Shetland lady and do it as easily as breathing.

And I try and I try, until one day I think: Why not put one colour in your left hand?

It feels all wrong but I persevere, pink on the left, green on the right, and suddenly the circle is closing, the tube is growing, a little clumsy but I’m getting there. And then I remember, or maybe I realise for the first time ever – my granny taught me to knit (or tried to). And she was right handed. She taught my mother too, and my mother was left handed, like me. My mother remembered the teacher coming around the class and taking her pen out of her left hand and putting it into her right, over and over.

Sometimes the problem isn’t us at all. It’s other people.

Miranda R Waterton


My fingers are barbs that cling onto my world, dig deep into its fabric and connect to its core. My fingers guide me in the dark; embrace the earth’s textures, slide over a myriad of surfaces and sense the dangers and pleasures that stream over my skin.

I feel through my fingers. ‘You have healing hands, Steve. The touch of an Angel.’ I have led a tactile life and without touch there is no nourishing of the soul. I have touched and been touched in return; not a fondle, fumble or a false stroke, but a feathery sweep of skin on skin. The faintest of touches that bristles the love layer.

A brief encounter with a stranger’s skin, a personal barrier and private space that has my therapist’s respect for the profound connectedness between us; the most intimate of human contact will need total trust and faith in the power of touch.

Me, a white-coated healer fixing that which was broken; a heart, a friendship, a stream of creativity; re-kindling a fire within that was quenched by sadness. My conducting-rod fingers pouring in the fullness of life, repairing and re-balancing. A thousand-finger cascade igniting a billion nerve cells, triggering a seventh heaven..

The skin becomes a sensory sieve, filtering the emotions; filleting out desire and arousal, leaving only a blissful landscape for the splendour of a transcendental moment to grow.

Can this really be so? Can a body be so fixed? Can fingers weald such power? Can the body be so easily persuaded? Yes! Yes! Yes! Something deep, profound and primordial bridges the skin divide and bonds after the slightest of touches.

It’s all alchemy, the fingers awaken the sparklets of sensation when unacquainted skin fuses with unacquainted skin.

Steve Harrison

After his eyes, it was his hands that I fell for.

Pressing my stubby fingers firmly along the edge of a table to increase my span, I would watch the silken skin slipping over neat knuckles to the tips of his slender fingers which effortlessly spread tobacco along the length of a fine cigarette paper. This he would then roll, lick and light with elegant precision.

In time we worked side by side. My right hand would move between thin black pens and thick white paper, while his soldered a circuit board or shaped the stamens of a Fuchsia bud, in silver.

His were hands that could turn any screw and mend the washing machine, stretch the thinnest dough for a pizza base and fillet a mackerel, build a tiny model of an enormous factory and ease the bellyache of a sick cat. Mine could play Philip Glass on the piano and sad tunes on the tin whistle, dye calico and shape it into dungarees, gild the Lord Chancellor’s carriage or restore a broken urn.

My freckled fingers sat comfortably in his strong hand.

When our children were little my hands held them to my breast, to my flesh, to safety as we crossed the city streets. He would sit them, in turn, on his right hand which he would raise slowly to the sky. There they would balance, like the torch in the hand of the Statue of Liberty, surveying the world below.

This evening it is quiet; lightly rustling leaves, a small fire crackling, a supermoon rising. On the shore a curlew is calling as waves whisper against the sand. My hands are putting a new D string on my guitar. His hands are holding a penknife which he is using to fashion driftwood into the handle for a rake.

Sheila de courcy

When my son came to live with us, I knew something about what he had experienced at the hands of his birth family.

The first night he was here, aged four, after I had read him a story, I asked if I could stroke his back. I needed his permission. It might help you sleep, I said.

My son said yes. I gently put my hand under his pyjama top, which was blue and covered in tiny spaceships. His back felt warm and soft. I traced the nubs of his spine, very carefully.

Draw something, he said. He knew. He knew what he wanted, what he needed. I drew a cat. 

Talk it, he said, and so I did. This is the head, I said, as my index finger traced the shapes on his warm skin. This is the body. I drew stick legs, ears, eyes, whiskers, and a long tail. My fingers on his back. The connection was building, the safety, the love.

More, he said. His voice was becoming drowsy. I drew a house with four windows and smoke curling from a chimney. I drew a tree. I spoke the trunk, the branches. His breathing deepened. He was asleep. My hand kept moving.

I am drawing my heart, I said. I love you.

He’s sixteen now. Stroke on my back, he says sometimes, in the mornings, when he can’t get out of bed for college. Most of all he wants me to draw the cat. The first steps we traced together. Our bonding animal. Our love.

Kerry Whitley

‘Would you like to cut the cord?’

Would I? I didn’t know.

It was so unexpected; the move to the theatre, the Caesarean, her words – ‘Can he be put straight in my arms.’ Then: ‘Give him to Mum, please. I’m going to be sick.’

And there you were. Such beautiful eyes. A squishy, messy, bundle of newness.

And there were the scissors. It was not a gentle snip. That cord was gristle and strength in my hands. I needed help to sever you, to finally help to deliver you into our world.

Measured and tested, then back to your mum. In her arms where you belong. And me, hands still helping.

Jean Wilson

The cool earthy clay fills my hands and I still. My breath slows as I shape a ball of possibilities.

The bamboo hook takes the wool through my fingers, fibrous hues form blankets of calm. Purls and plains encircle needles of connection, a chain of moments joined together for now. All is good.

I live to make with my hands. I am grateful for each day that I can make expressions of my life.

There was a time when I lived for the touch of another hand. The merest brush of another’s whorls and ridges grazing mine, by chance or design. To be guided, held. Sharing, exchanging, teaching feeding. That friction between souls through body parts…

Now my hands echo my mother’s, weaving textile dreams for others. My fingers turn the earth’s body into endless vessels, shoals of ceramic fishes and the odd grog goddess.

But I am grounded in their existence and am capable of holding my own hand now… mostly.

jan hillier

Hands in line, our hands were demanded for viewing.

Our Brownie uniforms placed us on a Tuesday afternoon around the mushroom of shame. Remarks of disgust tore at my soul, just as I had bitten my nails and picked at my quicks. I was constantly reminded of my ugly hands, so I swooned at long painted nails in magazines.

The disdain my mother expressed was for nails and hands like mine.. as well as the luscious red-lacquered elegance of ‘harlots’ and ‘common girls’.

Herein began my neuronal pathways of all-or-nothing threads. I busied my hands with making, they became my heart’s reflection. Ideas materialised into clothes made of face-washes and hankies, shoes of masking tape and a cork floor-tile that snapped on first step, forcing a second-generation design of wood with a butterfly-embossed leather top. I knitted, crocheted, sewed, painted, drew and created endlessly.

My father helped with my more unusual inventions; his broad solid hands, so like mine, were bigger, rougher and male.

Making became me, I became the maker.

Later in life I had my nails done, red and shiny, stunning bits of fabricated extensions earning me the sophistication I dreamed of – and the ire of Mother. But making went clumsy.

Yet again and again throughout life I would see my ugly hands, my ugly self, and succumb to the cycle of false-nail illusion. I’m late middle-aged now. My hands are still broad, my fingers still short, my nails worn down. But my heart is woven from the warp and weft of the love of making, softened through time, coloured with the fabric of ideas, and blessed with my long sought acceptance of hands that gift me beauty from the studio of imagination.

andrea day

She wondered what she might say about her hands. She watched them going about their business, admiring their quiet confidence in whatever came before them, and remembering how they used to be.

They used to be hidden away, tucked tightly into pockets or up under long sleeves, gnarly and scarred, and worn and weathered before their time. There was nothing dignified or delicate about them at all, there never had been.

They belonged to workers, someone said. Someone had been right. They had always been expected to turn themselves ready and willing for whatever was waiting for them. They hadn’t allocated anything to the too-hard basket; such was their fighting spirit, their courage and strength.

When they were busy she could forget about how they looked and, instead, admire the way they weaved their magic and how they made her feel. They could clean and scrub, feed and fetch, wash and wipe, but also calm and comfort, help and hold, settle and soothe.

They knew how to reach out and touch when words were redundant and how to hold, and how to heal. They just knew. They knew too how to keep hanging on, hoping against hope, stubborn and steadfast, and then they knew that they could release and relinquish, run.

These days – now that everything else has caught up with them – they fitted in rather nicely, she thought. They finally looked at home with the rest of her and she celebrated them. She adorned them with rings and edged them with crystal bracelets, held them to her heart and thanked them.

tracey mayor

I had my hands full. Fourth child, a busy one. Always getting into things and climbing anything he could grip with his chubby hands. A surprise mole appearing as if by magic once the true baby fat unfurled a crease at his wrist.

How could I be expected to knit an entire hat with the others at this mum and tot class? Their children crawling gingerly about and plunked down contentedly with a basket of silks for the hour, whilst my hurricane knocked over block towers and grabbed at the knitting needles, attempting to insert them into his ever-exploring mouth.

I was sweating, the teacher scowling, as I attempted to negotiate my stray needles from his firm grip. Haltingly, I knit a few rows each week, intermittently redirecting my son, and glancing enviously at the progress others were making on their seemingly flawless creations.

Once my son was down for the evenings, I worked feverishly on that hat until I hit a snag my novice hands could not repair. Then, forced to let go of my completion anxiety, I’d wait until the next class to sheepishly ask the parent mentor to set aside her project and help me repair mine.

The thrill in my fingertips as she handed my project back to me. A relief to be knitting again! I wondered at this strange new urge for ‘busy work’ as my mother mockingly called it, for the repetition, the feeling of fabric growing in my hands. Now, many stitches later, I revel in the meditative process of knitting and whenever I cast off experience a drop of regret mixed with the pride of accomplishment.

That first hat fit perfectly. He called it his night cap and wore it to bed unfailingly for years. It magically stretched just enough to grow with him.

Oakley Torrens

My hands have made up my face with black liquid eyeliner and silver or gold sparkly eyeshadow and black mascara, as a mask or defence to head out into the world.

My hands have made seemingly endless cups of tea, slightly less coffee, and have filled hot water bottles during winters that seemed to last endlessly themselves.

My hands have made abstract paintings, with plastic cards scraping the paint across the canvas or paper.

My hands have mended my husband’s tartan pyjama bottoms with a patch, sewed lovingly.

My hands have mended my own fractured mind, by writing down my hurts, rants and other frustrations into numerous journals.

My hands have broken teacups that fell onto hard kitchen floors or cracked in washing up bowl as they bumped into other crockery.

My hands have broken up stitching from recent attempts to remember how to knit, as my late mother taught me.

My hands have been busy creatures – making, mending and breaking many things. How much more will they do in the next half of my life?

Sharon C

I look at my hands and see the hands of generations of women.

I look at my hands and I see my mother’s hands. I took a photo of them a few years back whilst she was in the depths of dementia. She’d allow me to massage them with scented hand cream, to trim and paint her nails. We sat quietly together in communion. No words, just touch. A connection that I’d found hard before she got lost in her own world. She’d look at me with eyes filled with gratitude.

My mother’s hands were always busy with needle and thread, embroidering the most exquisite things that have outlived her and surely will me. I learned so much about craft from her. Her legacy to me.

I look at my hands and I remember my grandma’s hands, her ridged nails, her raised veins, the age spots – all of which I have now. I remember how she’d massage my hands one finger at a time, gently pushing back the cuticles, taking care of me in a way I’m not certain she did for herself. She taught me to take care of my hands.

My grandma’s hands were often covered in earth from tending her garden. I remember the smell of tomatoes on her hands as she brought them into the kitchen to make the most delicious tomato sauce, the recipe for which sadly went with her to the grave.

I’m told by the nurses that my hands have good veins as I offer one up to be cannulated for my weekly chemotherapy. My hands now have bruising and puncture holes along with the age spots and brittle nails. I remember to look after my cuticles and massage hand cream into them at night.

These hands of these women have held and nurtured children, caressed lovers, they have wiped away tears of both joy and sadness, they have created meals and knitted sweaters. These hands have planted seedlings and made homes. My hands have touched my heart in gratitude and been pressed together in prayer. I look at my hands now with the deepest love and respect for all they’ve done for me these past almost 60 years.

Rebecca perkins

The thing with my hands I hated most was cutting and polishing my polio-paralysed mother’s fingernails.

I wasn’t a teen yet and had no patience or skill for it. And her inert blue-white hands felt like the rubber chickens in my brother’s magic set.

Fast forward forty years, long after childhood memories were replaced by those of single-parenting my own family. Now tired of a meaningless desk-job, I went to night school to study therapeutic massage.

A woman in my cohort (whom I’ll call Carrie) had previous medical experience and cheerily explained things like ‘the distal end of an axon’ as we sat around Starbucks on breaks. ‘Our hands have thousands of touch receptors,’ she said, ‘which is how we feel energy so well.’

We returned to class stoked on caffeine and comradery, usually late. The instructor frowned at us as we waltzed in and took our places at the massage tables, snapping our sheets in the air.

Tonight my exchange partner was Carrie, and I knew I must slow down and be serious. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘you know exactly how to work the muscle.’ But I’d never done this work before.

In the middle of the night a squelched memory burst open – massaging my mother’s arms and hands with my child hands, rub by rub, trying so hard to warm her blood, feeling her slack muscles, how they sagged here, how they clung to the bone there. O mother! Lifeless parchment arms, fiery now in spirit world, hold my human heart.

Anna Marie laforest

My dad had made himself proper working hands – gnarled and roughed through heavy use as a joiner. Tools and wood had hammered and shaped them, honed their seasoned character.

I every so often rub my finger tips over my hands and feel again just how different mine are to his – delicate, soft, never mastering labour.

There’s a story my mum told of how he stopped me using my left thumb. I’d sucked on that thumb possibly from the moment the family doctor advised her to stop breast-feeding me as the cure for too much milk leakage. One day when we were out walking somewhere, my dad just said – Tommy, that’s dirty – and the story goes that I never sucked that thumb again.

The one time our hands joined in work together was when he got the job of making a wooden casing for cement to fill on the wall down by our local chip shop. The cement was to be put in there coming to a point at the top to stop children walking along the wall. I could see this was the purpose and felt like a traitor but was still so glad to be up early and working with my dad.

I’m not sure how useful I was to him but I did take pride over the years at seeing the fruit of our labour.

He’s gone now. At his funeral I gave a eulogy cased around the lyrics from his beloved Neil Diamond’s famous song ‘Sweet Caroline’. I didn’t have this memory in the eulogy but now I see it’s there – hands touching hands…reaching out…touching me…touching you…

I’m rarely back up our housing estate but it’s still there, stopping the few kids left from walking that wall, the cement memorial of our work together.

Tam Dean Burn
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