I wasn’t sure what to do. It was three am and I’d just come down the little hill towards the station and was cutting through a narrow street of small terraced houses. I saw him in standing in front of one of the front doors, he appeared to be trying to put something through the door. It was almost freezing, (they’d predicted 2 degrees but said that the wind chill would make it feel like 0 degrees) and he was just in a shirt. He had a take-away food carton in his hand. As I got closer I could see that he was actually trying to get a key into the lock. Should I offer to help? I thought, but then wavered. He was clearly drunk, his body swayed as he endeavoured to focus on inserting the key. There was something comical about the intensity of his concentration and his inability to perform such a simple task. Was he even at the correct house? Was he trying to break in, even? If I helped him I might be seen as an accessory. Rubbish, I know but I just didn’t want to get involved. He was silent then but who knows how he would’ve reacted. But, nevertheless, I didn’t like leaving him like that, in the cold. When I turned to check on him he was on his knees still trying to insert the key.
I enjoyed seeing her. I got there early to secure a table. It was busy full of interesting faces. I began a drawing but my subject became aware of me and stopped, my confidence is so brittle these days. I like it in there. It is bustly, the food is cheap and though there’s nothing there I’d eat I still like to be around it’s smells and to see others eating it with relish. Another world, another life. I like the way that it is high up, above the street. She appears so content with herself, her world, life. So young, a few adolescent spots still mark her face. An open face, fresh and typically Scandinavian. We talked of farming, Christmas, baking, alcohol and traditions. I don’t like change, she said and worries what will happen to her family Christmas yuletide rituals when she eventually moves out to be with her boyfriend. We spoke some Norwegian though the wordier explanations were in English. I am trying and I do make myself understood, though I find her accent a little tricky. I’m used to the Oslo way. She ordered a hot chocolate with cream and ate it from the top with a long spoon. She and her family drink coke instead of wine at Christmas. I love it, she says. I’m touched by her willingness to meet me. What does she get out of it? She offered to get some more children’s books for me to read from the library at home. But I’ve asked too much of her already. It’s fine, I said, I can buy them myself from the internet.
The sky is clearing. Time has passed fast this morning. Coffee, sewing, yoga, lunch then packing. Breathe. And the first advent candle. The advent calendar is installed and the first door opened. I shall miss them both next week but to get away…..
It is too much to hold in one’s head. The terror of it all. I don’t turn my face away from it but choose instead to concentrate on the small instead of the large. I honour their bravery at taking him on, and I send love to the families of the bereaved. I ask him if it puts him off wanting to go to London again. He says no. I’m glad. Me neither. It is chance in the end. And no place is worse than another, I suppose. There is danger and the possibilities of joy everywhere. But the focus here, where I live, is smaller, more pedestrian. Like the lights being switched on and the Lantern Parade and the fact that this is the last day for the Hot Bread Shop. I used to go in there sometimes to buy him a sandwich. It’s not a posh bakery. Simple. For a town with simple tastes. The usual stuff, loaves of bread, sliced or unsliced, rolls, iced buns, tarts, biscuits, and made-to-order sandwiches. The windows are always steamed up. The staff wear bright blue hair nets. And sometimes when he is feeling hypo he nips in for a chelsea bun. Not anymore. Not after today. It’ll have to be Slater’s. And there is always the Pelican. I hope they last. The smell of baking bread sustains me on my walk. That is the heart of the town, not the students.
She was chatty yesterday, full of life. It was probably the sun. She’s doing so well. First the Christmas Dinner and then the gathering in Aberaeron. Small victories but evidence of huge courage. Just to walk in alone and navigate where to sit, whom to talk to and so on. Huge courage. And she has it. I am so proud of her. What a long was she has come in the seven years we’ve been talking together.
There’s a yellow tin sign warning that there will be possible traffic delays as they will be switching on the town’s lights tomorrow. They seem a little lack lustre this year. They have dispensed with the Welsh/English flashing on and off Santa image that used to hang above Great Darkgate Street for some more discreet trails of lit white lines but there don’t seem to be as many and only a few of the trees along North Parade have lights around their branches, and these are tiny, little flickering blue bulbs that one would almost miss. And the tree too, outside the jewellers appears smaller. Cutbacks, I suppose. Heigh ho.
I forgot to mention the huge ginger cat whom I dream of the other night. It was about to attack me, and I watched in horror as it got bigger and bigger, puffing up its fur and opening its jaws. Help me, I called to her. Is it in anticipation of seeing her? She was in my dream last night too. What is it that I am afraid of?
It was lovely but it gave me a rash, all down my back, not red but lumpy. Was it the massage oil she used? Or her washing powder. Or is in it me, all this agitation I’ve been feeling? All this rushing about. There nothing to feel proud about anymore, I thought, as I lay there, too hot under all those blankets. Why do I need to feel proud? my more sensible voice asked. He would say just be. Just be who you are. Even if it an unresolved, always searching, never finding kind of me? Yes, absolutely. You just need to see it another way, from a different angle. That’s all. Concentrate on the detail, the smaller picture. You are doing the best you can. That’s all. That is enough.
She said no again. Perhaps hers is a door that I should no longer knock upon. I don’t know. Such is the life of the self-employed, every job is mostly chased, sought after, few are dropped into one’s lap. Maybe I am too pushy, too proactive. I’m not good at sitting back and waiting to see what comes. Ah well. Maybe next year.
Advent begins on Sunday. The first day. I think about the advent service at Bath Abbey. I only went one year but it had a profound effect upon me. But not exactly joyful. At least not at the beginning. I remember weeping. Weeping in the dark. For at the start of the service all the lights are out. It’s the darkness of the eve of the coming, I suppose. Then, one by one the candles are lit. The candles we were all holding. Row after row slowly beginning to come alight, alive, that gorgeous flickering white light of hope, of new life, new beginnings. Did I cry then? Or was it in the dark before? I can’t remember now. I do remember feeling alone. All those families, lovers, friends, and I was flanked by them. People were kind but no one saw my sadness. And then the opening of those huge wooden doors and there was the tree outside, lit for the first time.
Is it still the same now that E has gone? They thought him a puritan, he didn’t like the frippery of Christmas. I’m with him on that (except, that is, my inexplicable penchant for snow globes).
So many notable people died yesterday, Clive James (finally, he said at breakfast, he’s been threatening us with his death for years now), Jonathon Miller and Gary Rhodes. He was so young, 59. Why? He thought it was probably his heart. What a devastation to his family. Rest in peace all three of you. And thank you.
I thought about my grandfather as I walked this morning. The Norwegians are very sensible in denoting exactly which side of the family the grandparent belongs to calling them father-mother or mother-father. Why was he so different from his brother? So stern, so austere. Was it his father’s suicide? So little talked about. I suppose they didn’t then. Nor now.
I write to make sense of things, to apply some kind of order to them. I know that it is an illusion, that any order I impose is a false one, artificial, but it helps me. It calms me. Else all is chaos. I want to understand. I always have, though understanding of some things, I admit, I shrink from. Perhaps clarity is a better word. I’m writing in a fug at the moment, and it wobbles me. There is little beauty to it, it’s a mess, unclear and wooly. But maybe it has to be this way for the moment for the clarity to come through.
It is interesting how life works, just as I working on the past, my past, their past, her past, the pictures come. All the way from America. Faded pictures from a stranger’s photo album. Pictures that come second-hand, third hand, fourth hand maybe. It, they, would’ve meant something to her. I suspect she wanted him as a father, not the one she had. He looks so stolid by comparison. A live wire, a warm, good heart, someone whom everyone liked. Handsome. Blond against his darkness, his dourness. I write about what discomforts me. I am delving into uncomfortable rooms but I must so that I can come through to the other side. I hope. I trust. I write for myself. Always. The money must come from other sources. This is important. I believe.
I saw her legs first. You couldn’t miss them, encased as they were in tight black and white striped leggings. Then there were her boots. Mauve, high-laced Doc Martens. Over her leggings she wore a figure-hugging black skirt and on top of that a short, fake-fur beige jacket. She was standing in front of one of the terrace houses on South Road leaning over under the light of street lamp rooting through her handbag that she’d rested on a window sill. I recognised the nose jewellery. An Indian style loop of jangly silver things, bells and filigree. And then there was the unmistakable streaked hair (on Monday it was a series of stripes of blue, black and purple) and the thick black kohl drawn around her eyes. She looked amazing. Unmissable. The Tesco checkout-girl, aka fire-eater. She didn’t look up as I passed. And I didn’t say hello. It was out of context and inappropriate. Who wants to be reminded of their day job when out on the town, dressed-to-kill? I like her. She has such a ‘sunny disposition’. And I love the dressing-up. I used to do it all those years ago. She isn’t a beautiful girl but she is tall, graceful and very, very striking. Good for her.
I got through yesterday. And it was alright. Today I shall write. Do my thousand words and then put it away. I need to keep it alive, though I’ve no idea where it is going. Don’t plan, he advises. See what happens, what comes out. I don’t mind being in the writing once I’ve begun, it’s the beginning. Ach! Isn’t it always the way? And nothing is happening. No one is replying. The world has gone to sleep. Dormant. So be it. I shall see what comes forth into this emptiness.
I couldn’t quite make out what it was. Was it a woman crying? I continued walking towards it. Was it someone playing some music? Could it be music? My mother used to describe the Kate Bush albums I played as a teenager as sounding like that. Caterwauling, she called it. And that was exactly what the sound was. A cat. I could see it now. It was on the bottom of Penglais Hill. There were two of them. A black one and a ginger one. I couldn’t make out who was making the sound. A guttural, then a kind of growling sound, which would break out into a sort of yelling. It wasn’t in danger clearly but it was warning the other off. Was it a female on heat? Who knows? It’s a world we have no access to. And the night is their time. They can see. They prowl. They hunt. A vicious time, I think. No wonder they sleep during the day.
The air was warm again. Though there was a chill breeze. I watched the shadow of a single leaf still clinging to a branch jostle and dance precariously in the wind. Is the eventual break from its mother tree a painful one for a leaf, or is it a release? A pleasant falling?
She was lovely to listen to. She sounded kind. I will read her book. So much delight in the return of so many species, the butterflies, the birds, the mushrooms and wild flowers. Do they get cornflowers too? And wild poppies? And then there was her mother and the ‘Fine Cell Work’ project. Sounds fascinating. Perhaps I could get involved. The Magna Carta one is amazing. What a feat. I need that mass.
We had to sit on our hands, she kept saying, and do nothing. Leave it alone. Leave the land alone to heal. Heal itself. I remember that from school. Sitting on your hands was a punishment. A don’t touch penance.
A busy day today. Breathe through it. All will be well.
He was ahead of me. He had a dog on a lead. It’s amazing how many people I have seen walking dogs in the wee small hours of the morning. He was young, a student perhaps. His gait was awkward, a little gawky. I followed behind him as he and then I joined the Prom. The dog was young too, just over puppyhood and it pulled at the lead. A little nervous, jumpy. The man took out an electric cigarette. At least, I couldn’t see him do so but suddenly there was this great cloud of smoke. And I’d smelt something sweet in his wake. It smelt of pipe tobacco and warm boiled sweets. The smoke hung in the air, barely moving. The air was not cold, almost balmy and wet and heavy. Autumnal. The smoke was beautiful, hanging there. A halo, a fog of white.
I peered into the Christmas Room again as I passed by. There are decorations all over the mantlepiece too. Though I’ve never seen anyone in there. It is an invitation to partake of seasonal cheer. Waiting. Waiting for its guests.
I am like a dog with a bone, I know. I can’t leave things alone, things that go unresolved. I worry away at them. And she is so different to me. She has her own way. A learnt way, of putting off, of not dealing with now. I need to be more compassionate, more understanding of other ways of looking.
She prompted me to read it. Rachel Cusk’s essay about Celia Paul and Cecily Brown. Powerful. Full of my own struggles. There is no resolution there either. Should we be what we are or try to be like others? That eternal question. And the other? Who exactly are we?
I pass it when I walk along North Road and then up past the back of Alexandra Hall. It’s one of a row of small, thin three-storey terraced houses that follow the bend up the hill to the golf course, I think. They look like student houses, there are empty bottles in the windows and curtains hang awry. I see this particular house from the bottom of the hill. It is lit up. A whole array of lights have been hung in the window of the ground floor front room. They look like a net of blue and green and white decorative lights. They’ve been on since the beginning of November, flashing comfortingly in the still thick dark. I am glad for them. Grateful even. Yesterday I peered into the room, beyond the curtain of lights. There was a lit Christmas tree in the corner, and I believe I saw parcels too. And there were fluorescent snowflake shapes also stuck to the window. The room glowed with festiveness. A boon. I get it. I understand it. And a part of me longs to put up our lights too, though they are modest enough, just for the fillip. But I will wait. Ever the one to hold back of pleasure – saving it, Flora-style as we always say.
I forgot to call her. Yesterday was an itchy, troubled, scratchy sort of day. First the nurse and all that I associate with encountering traditional medicine. She talked of my ‘history’ affecting how I would heal. I went about my finger. I felt a little silly. She was kind, gentle but even so. It may always be a little swollen and red, she said. Fair enough, perfection is no longer doable. Then I found myself telling her about the loss of fluid, a stone, I said. Then I regretted it. How, what has changed? she asked. Then I told of her the lymph drainage and immediately wished I hadn’t. It’s like oil and water – the traditional and the alternative don’t mix. And I am so firmly in the latter camp. I felt skinned. Skinless. Then there was the stuff about the new camera and all my fears and paranoia that I bring to the job. All me. Not them. I wept. He understood. You’re only human, he said. So kind. Then I discovered that the tape I’d made of our seminar is too quiet. Ugh. I fail and trip up daily. Ah, me.
I remembered I hadn’t called her at lunchtime and did so. But not for long. It was the wrong time. So I passed on my apologies and said I would speak to her next Friday. She sounded buoyant. I went, she said. I went to the dinner. It took a little while to remember. Of, course, and she’d been so nervous, hadn’t wanted to go but her daughter had arranged a car. I had a nice time, she said. I’m so pleased. So proud of her. It is enough. Such small victories to some are huge.
He always helps me. He is so kind, thoughtful and attentive to my concerns. We went. There was time. And it was marvellous. How I love going there. It is nothing special, rather antiquated in fact. Slow. But it’s it’s slowness that appeals to me. The lounge was almost empty when we arrived. Just two men, sitting on separate sofas, sleeping. I love it’s quietness, no muzak, no kids, no shouting. The noisiest and indeed youngest people there are the staff. The residents are ancient. They hobble about, sleep, drink tea or stand at the windows, leaning on sticks staring out at the sea and the golf links, dreaming of younger days, perhaps. We talked, I dug it out of me. It’s like a scourging, a purging. And he understands, he pays attention and gives me back the gift of loving me, of appreciating me. I never want to leave and look with something like envy upon those who have just checked in. To stay there (though what I’d eat, God knows – they just about muster up some soya milk but anything more outlandish they would be floored) to just stay there stretched out on the sofa drinking endless cups of tea, reading, talking, doing crosswords, drawing, thinking and dozing. Bliss. Absolute bliss.
And when we get home we are both exhausted but full. I have gained a little more understanding of the need to accept what is, and that patterns can and should to be changed, as does my attitude to what constitutes work. And what I require to fire me up, to fulfil me. I’m clearly a little better for I am looking outward again, a spark of ambition kindling within. That is good, n’est-ce-pas?