Shauna McAllister


Shauna McAllister

Shauna McAllister is the second of three daughters born to a former Catholic priest from Edinburgh and a surfer chick from Los Angeles. An itinerant childhood made her seek her roots as an adult in Scotland and California. She worked in publishing, social work, and now runs her own business. Shauna has settled in East London with her husband and their incredible son. She’s writing her first novel.
Contact: shauna.c.mcallister [at] gmail [dot] com

Tristan & Isolde


“She, whom Tristan’s ship of yore
From Ireland to Cornwall bore,
To Tyntagel, to the side
Of King Marc, to be his bride?
She who, as they voyaged, quaff’d
With Tristan that spiced magic draught,
Which ever since then for ever rolls
Through their blood, and binds their souls,
Working love, but working teen?”
- Tristam & Iseult,
Matthew Arnold

I’m meeting Isolde in the Place Sainte Catherine this morning. Usually, she gets here first, but today I’m early. Isolde and I meet at the Grimbergen for coffee in the mornings after her yoga class. We talk shop and talk shit. I love listening to her, watching her form words. Mostly I love having Isolde all to myself. I think she is at her most beautiful during these mornings, unpainted, unguarded, not trying, when the fricative depth of her voice lulls me into a sense of timelessness and ease, recalling another’s, my mother’s, soft, grainy voice hushing me to sleep as a boy. 

I texted Isolde last night after I’d received an email from an ex. I was fuming. Isolde knows how to open these kind of things, these feelings, take them out of their subtle hiding places and revolve them around her soft pink mouth. 

I see her now across the Place Sainte Catherine, leaning into the icy wind with her wool coat flapping, and her scabbard-like yoga mat on her back. This vision of Isolde against an old grey wind makes me think of a time when this would have been the grain market, and when the original fifteenth-century church would have stood guard next to tall ships on the river Senne, now long-buried and canalled, its tributaries diverted, desiccated. 

‘Sorry I’m late; Marcus Skyped, but we got disconnected,’ she bursts. 

She looks rattled, smells cold. Isolde and Marcus schedule Skypes that usually don’t work out; Marcus blames the Wi-Fi. I know that Isolde hasn’t been doing great. She has seemed preoccupied lately. But I guess you don't go out with someone like Marcus without feeling insecure. How can I say anything when it’s not my business, when he’s supposedly my friend. 

I put my finger in the air and catch the barista’s eye. She brings my second coffee and Isolde’s tea and hovers under the pretence of clearing up, till Isolde makes it clear that she should shove off.

‘So when are you going to sleep with that poor girl and put her out of her misery?’ Isolde asks. 

‘Matilde? What are you talking about? She’s all of twelve!’ 

‘She’s legal,’ Isolde toys, ‘anyway, I know what you boys get up to.’ I see her lip stiffen and I think that maybe she does. 

I look at Matilde, who is perfect in the way that young girls are: blonde, pert and bouncy. Her wide-eyed, glossy-lipped vacancy repulses me. 

‘Not for me,’ I say conclusively. And Isolde, now in her thirties, smiles quietly. Then she gets fidgety.

‘Are you okay?’ I ask. 

‘Yes, it’s just Marcus… before we got cut off…’ she shakes her head as if to get a thought out of her head. 


‘Well, he said he wants some help moving this girl out of Syria. A bride of ISIS from Birmingham… I mean, part of me is excited; it would be a great story. I’d love to interview her. But who knows, Tristan, sometimes I don’t know if can I trust him.’ 

So she can sense that things are wrong with him. Back in July, after I interviewed for this job in Brussels, I’d walked into a bar just off the Grand-Place. There was Marcus, of all people. He was drinking with a woman I mistook for a prostitute. Turns out, she was some Sudanese diplomat and was melting onto Marcus like warm caramel. I had a whiskey or three and loosened up. We got wasted on old monk’s brew. Then Khayriyya asked us both home. 

‘Go on, you take her,’ Marcus had said conspiratorially. ‘Trust me, she’s incredible.’ 

I’d thought he was being generous; we didn’t do threesomes. But, then he said he’d better get back to Isolde. Because of Khayriyya, I’d just assumed they’d split. He said Isolde was working in Brussels for the Financial Times and he used her flat as a base. 

‘Besides…’ he nodded at Caramel. 

I felt heat rising inside me and if I’d been less drunk, I’d have hit him. 

Then, I caught up with Marcus and Isolde when I first got here six months ago. I couldn’t bear seeing him. But Marcus has hardly left Syria since, and Isolde and I…

‘It doesn’t feel right,’ Isolde says, ‘He knows I’d fucking kill for a story like that, to talk to that girl, but he’s being a total prick, Tristan.’ She looks like she might cry. ‘They seem pretty familiar, if you know what I mean, and then he wants me to interview her? It’s almost as if he wants me to…’

This is vintage Marcus. It’s how he moves on. Another woman, one he can rescue. He was with a French journalist when he’d met Isolde. 

Marcus and I were best buddies for most of our twenties and early thirties – all the years we were freelance – I, a journalist; he, a photographer. We were both slaves to adrenaline and danger, and to the lifestyle of someone who doesn’t want to answer to anyone. We did what we wanted, when we wanted. It was an easy life. 

In matters of love, Marcus and I were both... well, let’s just say that we never struggled to get company if we wanted it. He’d always say he could never get attached. Women like a bad boy and Marcus never disappointed. I had more intellectual appeal, or so I flattered myself, which worked with some of the aid workers and the female journalists, and I suppose I never got attached either. How could you, when everything around you was in flux, when bullets hissed past your ear, and the smell of burnt blood and spilt guts was commonplace? That was the whole point of it all, anyway, the freedom. 

Marcus and I knew how to have a good time, and yet, we’d always kept our love interests separate. Early in our friendship, an old flame of his, a Jamaican doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières, with a lilt in her voice that always turned my thoughts to the curve of her behind, had hit on me. I’d inexplicably turned her down on the basis of our friendship. Marcus had found out – she’d told him – and it cemented something. It would have been all too easy to overlap with women, but we never did. 

‘You know, I’m not stupid, Tristan. I know what he’s like,’ Isolde smiles, ‘always have, and I know you know it too.’

I start to feign ignorance. 

‘Don’t even… I can’t bear you looking at me like that. Look, I’ve known that Marcus and I weren’t going anywhere from the start.’

‘What do you mean? You loved him,’ I say quietly.

‘Love?’ she laughs, ‘No, no I don’t think so, Tristan,’ she says bitterly, ‘Love was never part of it with Marcus.’ She looks a little ashamed. ‘Don’t think less of me, Tristan, for staying with him, it was just easier, that’s all, having someone, in the field. But now I’m here and he’s there…’

I don’t know what she is saying anymore. What is she talking about? They were in love. She chose him; that was why I’d let her go. 

In the spring of 2011, Marcus and I were in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Then he went off to Dédougou for a week or so. That was when I met Isolde. She and I were both vying for the same story about the Burkinabé protests. It was love at first sight. I’d never been hit like that before, a shot deep in my veins. The spell she put on me enslaved my soul, and has never released it. 

I’d been working a source. His name was Issouf. Issouf was this stumpy student in his late teens who was helping to organise some of the protests. He had dark cat eyes, wore a bandana, and liked to shoot his mouth off, a quality which could be both useful and unreliable in a source. Then, twice in one week I wrote a story for the Associated Press based on Issouf’s intelligence and twice I was informed that my exact spin had already been filed hours earlier. I realised that the dude breaking these stories must be working Issouf as well. I confronted the kid but got nothing. All I could do was walk away. But somehow I couldn’t stop myself from staking out Issouf’s place to see whether the other journalist would show up. I wanted to know whom I was up against. That’s when Isolde appeared. 

So, it had turned out that my thief was a girl journalist.

‘Trying to steal some more of my stories?’ I called out and Isolde looked over. A fellow westerner was always approachable in these parts. As she walked towards me, I could see how young she was, couldn’t have been older than twenty-five. I already knew she could write. 

‘Not stealing, my friend, just better and faster,’ she smiled coolly, tapping the side of her nose. 

I offered her a cigarette. I was charming and she flirted. Flirting seemed to be the way she got things done and she was good at it – just enough to inspire desire but not enough to offer hope. It worked. 

‘What I don’t understand,’ she’d laughed, ‘is how it took you so long to find me!’ 

I asked Isolde if she wanted to have a drink at my hotel and she agreed, and hopped on the back of the moped I’d been renting. 

It’s strange to think that, today, five years later, we’re sitting here sipping tea and coffee in a Belgian café, talking about Marcus. 

‘Do you remember when we met?’ 

‘We’ll always have Burkina Faso,’ she jokes but her eyes stay sad. ‘Hey, I almost forgot, what about this bitch of yours, what’s her name?’ She attempts levity. 

‘Lilyana? Yes, yes, Jesus, can you believe her?’ It’s a relief to indulge indignation at this relatively small betrayal. Last night I was furious with Lilyana, couldn’t think straight I was so mad. But now, well, Isolde has a way of dissipating, dismantling, and replacing things that makes me feel quite turned around.  

‘Wait, so, she’s a writer? When were you two together?’ She frowns. 

‘In LA. She was the one in LA, you know I told you, Bulgarian with an American accent, writes in English; we weren’t together for all that long but, well, I guess I made some impression.’ I was over-talking. 

‘Huh.’ Isolde looks through me. ‘So what’s the story about?’ 

‘It’s about me not fucking her … she doesn’t paint a pretty picture; it’s being published in a collection of short stories called The Whole Nine Yards, each story is about some different dude she’s fucked, it just makes me feel so…I dunno, cheap?’ I make a joke of this as if it isn’t true. Each story is headed by a man’s name. Mine, the last, is called Tristan.

‘Ugh, gross, why doesn’t she just write a book called I’m a Slut and be done with it?’ Isolde giggles, obviously quite pleased.

I feel more uncomfortable than I’d imagined, speaking about Lilyana to Isolde. I’d admired Lilyana’s books. She had Eastern good looks and craved sex. Truth be told, I found this repellent. So I’d let the thing fizzle out. Now, Lilyana’s every word violates, humiliates. I hate so-called fiction, its liberties with truth and untruth, bullshit poetic licence and fuck-all fact-checking.

‘What does that mean anyway, The Whole Nine Yards?’ 

‘Means the book ought be in Erotica rather than Literary Fiction,’ I suggest. 

I read Isolde some extracts from the other stories. The dirty bits, and we get the giggles. Isolde blushes and starts fanning herself comically and I notice her sitting closer, touching. Her lips and cheeks are flushed and her grey eyes are all black.  

‘Now yours,’ Isolde says, her hand on my knee. 

‘Well there’s no sex scene in my story. So I’m not sure what The Whole Nine Yards refers to in my case!’ I say, trying to make light of it. 

‘Ouch,’ she says, looking brighter. 

I start reading a passage, avoiding the first line: 

“His fingers on his keyboard instead of my body. The tap-a-tap-tap a heartless beat cuckolding me night after night. Words without poetry. Unless ftse, dow jones, eurostoxx 50 have cadence, tone and meter…”

‘Do you feel offended?’ Isolde interrupts. 

‘What? That my writing lacks poetry? That she thinks I report on finance,’  I get the giggles now. ‘I’m mortified that she hasn’t described me as the sex god that I am, if that’s what you mean!’

‘I’m glad you don’t have a sex scene with her,’ Isolde says quietly as she takes the manuscript from me and starts to read. 

I get up and walk over to Matilde, for more coffee, something to do. Matilde is relating some supposedly hilarious thing but is so long-winded that I miss the punch line. 

I’m thinking about Isolde again. I’m thinking about the night we met. The Elite Hotel in Burkina Faso had been pretty bare bones. The hotel bar had consisted of a waiter, a radio and a fridge, and there were plastic chairs and umbrellas outside in a courtyard. It was dark and hot and the air was getting thicker; the locals kept saying the rain was coming. Once it started, it wouldn’t stop for months. 

It was a night towards the end of May or beginning of June when it was still unclear whether the hostilities would resolve or deteriorate, and stray bullets flew through the night like staggered Morse. We got a bottle of rum and sat. 

I asked Isolde her name. 

‘You’re fucking with me, right?’ I said. 

Isolde looked nonplussed.

Isolde gave me her passport; I gave her mine. 

‘Holy fuck,’ she said. 

We both looked up at each other, smiling incredulously. A curious intimacy sprung up between us. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it was due to the myth our names recalled, the power of five centuries of retellings of the Tristan and Isolde story. Maybe it was the intoxicatingly romantic question that our fable inevitably put to us. I’d never met an Isolde and she’d never met a Tristan. Here we were together, a bottle of rum between us, under the dark Burkinabé skies. 

In the thirty-degree heat of the Ouagadougou night, Isolde had smoked slowly, talking of legends of yore. Filthy habit in a woman, I’d thought, as the smoke from her lungs wrapped itself around me like spiced magic. 

‘My mother was into Arthurian myths,’ I’d said, ‘An academic. Published books on Malory and Spenser, so she’d tell me the story in all its incarnations.’  

As a child, my mother would slowly narrate old tales of chivalric love; her long, thick braid twisted across her shoulder as the hoarseness of her soothing, low voice rode me to sleep each night. To my child self, my mother had looked more the part of the Faerie Queene than the bookish, reserved woman that I was later told she had been. 

‘I’ve always wanted to read those, but all that Old English, ugh,’ Isolde said. Like my mother, this fair Isolde had long savage hair, wild grey eyes, and the poise of an enchantress. 

We were holding hands, and when we’d drained the rum, Isolde came to my bed, intoxicated by fables and destiny. Whatever tension had been hovering between us that evening exploded between our rum-laced fingers. 

‘Do you feel this,’ she’d said. There had been a charge between us but also something peaceful. We were in no hurry. What was between us was inevitable, unfathomable, eternal. 

One night, maybe a month or so later, when we’d really settled into each other’s veins, I’d had a dream. With Isolde’s limbs suckered around mine like a creeping garden, I’d dreamt of my mother as I hadn’t for two decades. The memory of my mother had faded throughout my childhood till all I had left was a memory of a memory. The dream had brought her back whole, real, hard; the fresh green smell, fierce small lungs, and arched pain. I tried to hold onto her long cold arms, her hands, her icy fingers, willing that I’d never wake up again, holding my breath and the smell of her in my lungs. But I woke. I was feverish, seeing the world too sharply. 

Isolde and I had been drunk on each other for days and weeks, and when I finally woke sober, after the dream, to Isolde’s soft brown limbs, I was startled by a deep sense of shame. Isolde felt too alive and too sacred. I noticed she had that same green smell in her smallest crevices. My lust for her, coming inside her, wanting to do it again and harder and more, it felt strangely ignoble, perhaps dangerous, in the real world. I felt an intense protectiveness, chivalry, that I couldn’t reconcile with my physical deep thirst. It doesn’t make sense but I needed to shield Isolde from everything in the world, even from me. 

I felt strange that day. She must have been confused by my sexual silence after our deafening symphony. I didn’t retreat from her but I’d become feverish and furtive, watchful, too afraid of losing her, terrified of her pain. I’d hold her hand, caress her hair, kiss her cheek, and stare, but I couldn’t pull her to me. 

‘What’s going on?’ she’d said desperately one evening. ‘Why are you shutting me out?’

‘I’m not, Isolde, I just want to look after you,’ I said, drinking more, thinking too much, ‘I just want you to be happy,’ then, when she slept, I’d whispered, over and over in insomniac mania, and she’d woken and heard me. 

And, that was when the rains began. Marcus was back in town and we were all supposed to go out but my fever came back and so they went out without me. I have no idea what he told her that night, maybe he told her I wasn’t the settling kind, that what we’d had had obviously run dry. Maybe he’d simply told her he loved her and those dark brown eyes of his were enough. Maybe he’d believed what he’d told her. But the next morning, her clothes, her toothbrush, were all gone. And then, unsurprisingly, deriding my failure to mimic art, Isolde fell hook line and sinker for Marcus. 

I accepted a job offer in Los Angeles. It was a big shift for me and I said I needed a rest. But it was retaliation. If there was one thing that was certain, it was that he’d hurt her. 

I think, after I left, Isolde and Marcus made their way to South Sudan, maybe Somalia. I saw Marcus once in the intervening years but we’d drifted apart. I wondered whether he’d stayed with Isolde to justify the fact that he’d lost our friendship over her. 

But, now, I am pretending to listen to some stunning barista in Brussels, watching Isolde across the café, knowing that she’d chosen Marcus over me, and that I’d let her. She’s on the last page now, finished reading, but hasn’t looked up. 

Isolde has her hands in her lap, the pages of the manuscript neatly piled in front of her. 

‘So what do you make of me being in the story?’ she asks. 

Lilyana had never met Isolde. 

‘Dunno. Our names?’ I said flippantly, ‘What do you make of it?’

‘I think you’re in love with me,’ she says. 

I roll my eyes thinking she’s joking. She looks down. 

‘This is brilliant,’ she continues too cheerily, embarrassed, ‘‘How can a woman compete with an Isolde when she finds herself a bona fide Tristan?’’ Isolde reads the first line of the story, her brown skin on her delicate, white teeth and bones. 

‘I’m sorry. And, I’m sorry that I love this story even though it makes you look terrible. Are you going to be okay?’ She takes my hand in hers, brings it to her mouth, kisses it, and rests my palm on her cheek. 

Then a familiar ring. She takes her hand back

‘Oh wait,’ she says, ‘It’s Marcus on Skype,’ and I lose her again. 

And there he is, Isolde’s boyfriend, irresistibly distant. 

‘Marcus!’ Isolde’s voice booms. 

‘Isolde, I’ve not got long,’ Marcus barks.  

The picture is jolty; Marcus sits next to a girl in a tank top; she’s smoking. No bra. She’s young, even young by Marcus’ standards. Not classy, but quite beautiful. She has her hand on Marcus’s forearm; he shakes her off.  

‘Look, Isolde, tell me you’ll do this for me?’ 

The girl doesn’t look too desperate to get out of there. Neither of them do. 

‘First, I need you to be honest with me, Marcus. I need to know what’s going on. You’ve been avoiding me for weeks and now you’re all cosy with some teenager? Why are you asking me to do this? You have dozens of people you could have called. Do you want to hurt me?’ Isolde’s voice is thin but calm. 

Marcus starts to deny the girl. 

‘Just tell me, what do you want? You want me to get jealous and break it off for you?’

‘Really? Now, like this?’ Hatred in his eyes. 

‘Just tell me,’ Isolde’s voice is quiet. 

‘Look, we’re in danger over here, right, so if you gonna help us, like just do like he said,’ says the girl with the Brummy accent and hand gestures from the ’hood. 

‘This isn’t about you,’ Isolde snaps, ‘so shut the fuck up.’

The girl seethes, Marcus holds her back. 

‘Isolde, look, you’re right,’ his voice is sulky, ‘I’m no good at distance. I fucking hate Skype. And you’re not here anymore. This is my life, Isolde. It’s all I know, all I’ve got – and you left it.’ Marcus actually sounds sincere. 

Maybe he loved her.  

‘I know that this is all wrong, and it’s wrong to ask you. Can we do this later?’ It’s not a question. ‘Isolde, if I could help myself, I wouldn’t have…’ 

Marcus loves Isolde. He’s a middle-aged man fucking some brat child and he loves Isolde. He’s giving up on Isolde because he can’t help being a dick. 

‘But I also know that you’re the only person I trust to do this, safely. And to do the story justice as a journalist. I need you. Please, Isolde. Do this for me. Call it a parting gift.’

‘Marcus,’ Isolde’s voice is tender, she smiles, and I know she loves him, ‘you stupid fucking idiot!’

‘I just need you to say you’ll do it. Will you do it?’

Isolde nods.

‘I’ll call you from a burner cell in a few hours,’ and he hangs up. Tears run down her cheek. 

‘I’m okay, I’m fine, really! I know what he’s like… it’s just, that was …’

It was humiliating. I put my arm around her. I kiss her hair. She’s putting her arms around me. Her tears turn to sobs. 

She looks up at me and says, ‘You know what happened, between you and me…?’ Her eyes implore but I don’t know; she left me, she never explained. 

‘It wasn’t just me then? You didn’t have sex with Lilyana either. So it wasn’t just me?’ she says. She’s begging me. 

‘Lilyana? What’s she got to do with…?’ 

‘Tristan, I know you felt it too. In Ouagadougou. It was amazing between us, we were amazing. It was like we were meant to be together forever and I just didn’t get it. Why did you stop?’

‘I didn’t!’ 

‘But why did you step back, why did you tell Marcus he could have me? What happened?’

She thought we were amazing? She thought I’d pimped her out to that creep? 

‘I don’t know,’ I say truthfully, confused, ‘you left.’

‘I let Marcus seduce me that night because you wanted me to, and I thought it would jolt you into wanting me,’ she said, her hands on me. 

What was she saying? Why would I want her to go to him?

‘What are you talking about?’ I’m agitated.

‘I just knew that you loved me, even though we’d just met, I knew it; what I couldn’t figure out was how to make you want me again.’ She was whispering, pulling me towards her. 

‘What? No, it wasn’t like that, you left me; you fell in love with him…’ 

‘I didn’t, I never, don’t you know, I loved you,’ she says, her lips open.

‘I don’t know what...’

‘But I know,’ she regains her poise, looks at me straight. 

This is my cue, to pull her towards me. Isolde’s eyes welling up, I can see her, she sees me.  

I squeeze Isolde’s hand, feel the venom coursing through our veins, and nod to Matilde who makes us more drinks.