SO much of our lives are spent at work and at home - and during the pandemic the lines between the two often became blurred.

“For some, home offers little respite from the toil and tyranny of work,” writes author Michael Stewart, who explores the “twin contemporary urban dystopias” of work and home in his new collection of short fiction, Four Letter Words (Wrecking Ball Press).

Bleak and unsettling, with a strand of dark humour, it’s a glimpse of the quiet desperation of people trying to get by, and the haunting horrors of revenge, control, addiction and exploitation.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Four Letter Words looks at the lost and the lonely at work and at home Four Letter Words looks at the lost and the lonely at work and at home

It’s a book of two halves. The first half, Work, explores “what paid employment is for many people now - deadening, grinding and underpaid,” says Michael.

There’s the young woman working in a pub who silently endures daily sexual harassment from the landlord. “When a woman says no, she usually means yes,” he tells her, in a chilling late night text.

The painter and decorator who starts to lose his sanity when he lands a job painting a warehouse endlessly white: “He lay on the floor and stared at the white ceiling and the white walls. He was surrounded by white. Imprisoned by it. This was hell. Not fire and brimstone, just a huge cube of whiteness.”

The middle manager whose cosy corporate world is shaken when he makes a chilling discovery after dinner with his boss. The sex worker who watches Game of Thrones in a hotel room with a creepy client, and discovers how far she will go to get the money she needs to “break the cycle” and see her child again. “You don’t expect them to like you. You don’t want them to. Not really,” she tells herself as she gets in his car. “It’s just work. It’s just a job.”

And the salesman who drives for six hours to try and sell a resin-bound driveway to an elderly couple - finally sealing the deal at midnight, as they hand over their life savings in wrinkled pound notes from an old shoebox - and realises that all he has really sold is his soul.

The second half, Home, explores dysfunctional domestic settings. There’s the couple who take in a dodgy lodger, and watch helplessly as he gradually takes over their home. The desperate woman who tries in vain to leave her abusive husband, only to end up back in his white van. And the lonely businessman who tries to befriend a homeless girl in his soulless sky-rise apartment.

Four Letter Words is, says Michael, “a baker’s dozen of modern urban noir that offers responses to a number of contemporary concerns such as homelessness, addiction and sexual exploitation”.

It’s a compelling, and disturbing, collection that draws the reader in. I didn’t want want to put down, and ended up reading it in one sitting. I will never look at a tin of white paint in quite the same way again.

Thornton-based Michael Stewart is an award-winning writer for radio, TV and theatre, a novelist and short story writer. His novels include King Crow and Ill Will: The Untold Story of Heathcliff and his previous short story collections are Mr Jolly and Couples. He is Head of Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield and editor of Grist Books.

He’s also the creator of the Bronte Stones project; four monuments placed in locations between the siblings’ birthplace in Thornton and Haworth’s Bronte Parsonage Museum, inscribed with poems by Kate Bush, Carol Ann Duffy, Jeannette Winterson and Jackie Kay. Michael’s 2021 book Walking the Invisible explores the landscapes that inspired the Brontes and their writing.

* Four Letters Words is available from bookshops and online.