Straw Hat

She was ahead of me. 3.15 am in the morning and she was wearing a ribbon-trimmed, wide-brimmed straw hat, a cotton skirt and ankle socks. An incongruous attire for such an hour. As I turned into North Road she began to talk to herself, her left arm making jerking gestures.

They were gathered in a cluster just by the Bar. The kicking Bar at the north end of the Prom. Wearing high vis jackets, some on walkie talkies, they all stood staring at the sea beyond Constitution Hill. One of them, a woman, turned to look at me as I walked down the hill. Their cars and vans had been parked in a line on the turning circle. Some had HM Coastguard emblazoned on them, others read HM Revenue and Customs. Was that right? My mind doubts it now. It was still dark. The light was only the yellow light of the street lamps. It felt officious. Was it a training exercise? Was a boat lost? Was it smugglers? A suicide? A drowning? I said nothing. Kicked the Bar and walked by.

By the station five lads were bundling themselves into a taxi, one was being sick in a corner. I heard his yell and then the retching. A man with a heavy rucksack on his back called out to me. You alright? he shouted. I’m fine, I said trying to smile. I strode on, hackles raised, walking too fast in case he followed, avoiding those pockets of dark.

Earlier another boy had called to me. Got any credit? he said. Pardon? I replied. Look him in the face, be gracious. Pardon? His voice was slurring. Got any credit on your phone, love? he asked. Sorry, I said, I’ve no phone on me. Love. That made it alright. That’s OK, he said. Goodnight, love. Goodnight.

Rain kept me off the Perygyl yesterday. This morning it was dry. The sunrise was a joy – a sharp pink turning to orange. See what we’d miss if we’d slept in. See what we’d miss.

Circus (5)

Gossamer threads. Threads of ideas, of things noticed, caught in the corner of my eye and so easily, too easily forgotten. I murmur them to myself as I walk home. The glove puppet on the ground. A teddy bear? I couldn’t tell. It looked fresh, too clean to have been discarded and come upon at that liminal time between night and day. The next day a strapless bra in the same tone of beige, both found on Great Darkgate Street. Is the loss of them mourned equally, I wonder? Then two bakers. One standing outside Slater’s dressed in white shorts and t-shirt, floured apron around his midriff. The other, inside the Pelican Bakery. A large man, lumbering around in the back. The smells are always a little late. I catch them a few blocks down, sweet, then salty, musky and warm.

For the first time this year the B&B at no 1 South Marine has hung up his NO VACANCIES sign.

There was a dead seagull on North Road this morning. An adult. Too white in the night gloom. It’s carcass was untouched. How had it died? Such huge birds. It’s eye stared accusingly.

The honeysuckle on North Road has ceased to emit it’s scent. Now it is the buddleia’s turn. Sweet and sticky.

The other afternoon I saw a man carrying two large balls of fake box. They hung on chains. I’d seen some hanging outside a council house in Oswestry. Such things, like china dogs are remnants of something grander, made egalitarian. He was traipsing after his wife. Had she bought them and told him to carry them? Odd things. Not real, a fake circular topiary to hang outside a door. He looked cross.

The heatwave brings beach barbeques, the smell of the smoke is still there when I walk in the early  mornings. The other morning some were still alight. Fire in the sand. Further on a large bonfire. I could see the burning skeleton of a pallet. Black shapes encircling it. The smoke swept across South Marine. My eyes stung with it.

I heard his cry, then his retch as he vomited outside the station.

Radio stories. Robert MacFarlane’s Old Ways and his encounter with the middle-aged traveller who sold his house when his wife died to walk the world. He with the old, now unlabelled coke bottles, that he constantly re-fills with water. You go on ahead, he said to the author, I’m in no hurry.

Revisiting Sara Maitland’s Book of Silence and my longing for that cottage in Skye. You must go then, he said over supper. Shall I? Can I

The circus is in town. A great bouncy castle like blue tent down by Morrison’s that bobs in the wind. Fliers put on every car. They used to alarm me. We went once in Cambridge. I wanted to draw. It seemed so much smaller that I’d remembered. The smell of sawdust. We were too close. I could see the faces under the make-up.

No rain yet.

Crow (5)

I watched as he landed on the window sill and then hurled himself at the glass. Flapping wildly, he did it several times. A crow. He hangs around the rubbish bins, sits on the fence. After bashing against the window he stopped and just pecked at it. He stayed there several minutes and then flew away. He did the same thing the following afternoon, then the next. It’s not our house. It’s on St David’s Road, where his ex-girlfriend used to live. Not the crow’s, his. I wonder why he does it. Was he given food from there once? A mystery.

Later, on the Prom, a seagull side-stepped a dance in the wind. Funny.

A child’s welly with handles, lost.

Roger Ackling died a few years ago. I didn’t know. He had Motor Neurone disease. He was a presence. We all vied for his attention – the tutorial list filling up the moment it was hung.

A group of lads singing Is This The Way to Amarillo? Shouting not singing.

The fishing boat thrumming. Arriving or leaving? A fisherman a large fish hanging from his hand. A sewin?

The Fire of London. I cannot fathom it. I am so sorry. More sorry than I can say. Rest in peace. And the rest, the living, may you be given the help and solace you need. x

Dog Roses (5)

Must I mention it? I don’t really have much to say. I feel at a distance from it. I care. I do. I care about the fact that he lost his seat. A nice man, a good man. I enjoyed him coming into the studio. So be it. Perhaps he will welcome the rest, to be out of the limelight for a while. To spend more time with his family. Change. Always change. So be it.

I sent it off to her. I wasn’t wholly happy with it. Sometimes the mediocre is all one can do. There is a lesson in that. I feel constrained by her. I know this. Perhaps this will be the last time I write for them. Something will come in its place. Sometimes I am scraping against metal. Jarring. And yet, I can see something there. Misted up. The writing brought me further on. It always does, even the failing. I was reintroduced to his work. I remember it now. The ice-cream spoons with those burnt black lines. He never touched the work. Only the sun. Did he still make work when it was cloudy? I ache for the same simplicity of working. Beyond thought. Just lines. Not about reading, about making sense of something. Nor about pattern or colour. Beauty or intellect. Just being. Ach.

Walking early on the Prom in the rain. A girl coming towards me, KEEP IT REAL emblazoned on her t-shirt. A yellow moon dropping from beneath the clouds. The smell of bread past the Pelican Bakery. The scent of dog roses in the Castle grounds.

I was woken by the splash of raindrops on my face.

She is pregnant. The grief of it. Life and death, the big stories, the only stories. Keep her safe.

Checkouts and other trivia

The News comes on the radio and with it a shattering. More deaths, this time in London. I feel the shock of it. The fear of it. The pain of it. The realisation that trust has been shattered. That trust we feel that tells us it is OK to be at large, to wander amongst strangers and know that they will not hurt us. I know so little. And the older I get I realise just how little that is. And yet, for all this shattering I know that all we can do is continue, to behave as well and as kindly as we can and nurture that trust. It is all we have in this illusion we call life. To trust. To trust that all is as it is meant to be. Reason is  nothing to do with it. Reason cannot always be employed. I am so sorry for the pain. The pain those people are feeling. If the 6 degrees theory is true I will know them, some of them, however, distantly. They have my empathy and love regardless. I am so sorry that their perception of the world has been shattered. It isn’t fair. But then what is? I am an optimist. I believe in goodness, my own and that of others. But I still wobble. I am human. This morning for instance. At 4.00 am turning that corner and the young man appearing, just before my face, too close, a hoodie pulled tight over his head. I felt it then. A frisson, a shiver of fear. I was sorry afterwards. Stereotypes. Not truth.

I meant to write about something much more prosaic. I’d got angry, or at least rather worked up. How much easier it is to let rip over the small things. We knew it was coming. We’d heard the rumblings. No staff to man the checkouts during the early hours of opening. It was all to be self-service then. You know, scanning the items yourself. Well, I wasn’t having it. It would take so long. So I raised my hand in complaint. The assistant manager came scurrying. It will be noted, he said. What was that, he said later, it will be noted. Pah! The rota manager was rigid. I’ll help you, he said. No, thank you, I said, we’ll do it. But I’m not happy. What about the chat? The stories. No chat about cross-stitch, knitting and ex-husbands. And their shift times now awry. Change. We’re always told it’s in our interest. Is it? We will adapt. We always do. We have to. Nothing stands still. We think it does. But it doesn’t. Changing, in mighty seismic shifts.

I catch tiny snippets of conversation as I walk. The words hang in the air, and ring in my ear. Three Asian girls, dressed as punks. One of them shouting at her friend, if you don’t do, you’ll never know. Her voice as warm as honey. Earlier on Great Darkgate St. three lads waiting by a row of engine-humming white taxis. Let’s go to the fucking beach, suggests one of them, an enormous opened pizza box in his hand. It’s freezing, man, said another. Then today outside Pier Pressure night club, a cluster of men, leaning against the doorway to the ice-cream shop. What is it you want? one is asking a large man, who is being pushed hard against the wall. Do you want to know where you are going?  It’s a kind of layering of noise. Indistinct conversations, one of top of each other that I strain to catch. Buoyed up by drink, the lateness of the hour and tribal-rightness they shout, holler and sing. I walk into the wall of sound and then through it to the surging silence of the harbour.

On the beach stands an office chair. A commoner-garden blue seat with a back rest, plonked in the middle of the sand. It looked like a set for a small studio theatre.

What can I say? What can I say? If I could hold you I would. If I could make it better, take it way, take it all away I could. Stories swirl around inside my head. Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, with Mr Smith going to 18th century New York to buy slaves their freedom, and From Our Own Correspondent’s reporting of a black girl expelling from school because of her colour. Expelled, I might add by the other parents’ insistence. And the graffiti on their house, one with a drawing of the child with a noose around her neck. It charges on. So much fear. Racism is fear. It perpetuates it. Fuels it. We are all the same. We are all the same.

I sit on our seat and watch the sea and cry. Hush, now, he says. Hush. Bear witness to it all. Know the stories. And trust. Just trust.

To Walk Invisible

The films we watch before bed invade my dreams. Though some more than others. Last night it was the figure of Branwell Bronte. Such pathos. Not being able to match up to his family’s expectations. Falling short. We’ve all done it? Have we not? And then drinking, drinking to drown that self-disappointment, that self-loathing. The first one makes you feel better, pumps you up, puffs you up, silences the nagging criticism. But then, the slide comes. And the loathing is intensified. I know it. Have seen it. And to be encircled by such talent. His three sisters, extraordinary all. I know him. I know how it feels. To walk invisible. I want it and yet I don’t. How is that? So many contradictions. I love to be home, grounded, in my studio, waiting, thinking, making and writing. And yet, and yet I long too to escape. How is that? How to satisfy, to sate the both, the opposing parts of me. Straddle them. Succour both. Live with the push and pull, use it. Know it for its truth. There is no ideal. Not now, not ever. For nothing is as it seems. An illusion. Practice detachment, pay attention. Know life but don’t give all to it.

The rain has come and with it a fresher, cooler air. I like to walk in the rain. In my waterproofs I feel snug, protected. The tide was in, rushing to the shore. No fishing boats this morning. Yesterday I saw their lights crawling out to sea.

Much commotion outside The Angel yesterday morning. A loud smashing of glass and then a howling. Has someone been hurt? It echoed, ricocheting off buildings. All gone, dissipated by they time I got there, just a girl, barefoot in a parka, on the phone, crying. Do I intervene? Hello, she said in a normal voice down the phone, it’s me. Then the crying started. What had happened? Bless her. It is everything at that age. The sky falls in regularly. Love-sick, love-hurt. Everything is cataclysmic. Things become less so. Or perhaps age makes us more sanguine.

It was Steve Jobs before The Brontes, exquisitely played by Michael Fassbinder. A beautiful man. It took a long time to care about him. Danny Boyle’s production was exemplary. What does it all matter? All that hero-worship – I had no idea. He strokes my feet as we watch. It mesmerises me. Calms me.

On the radio yesterday, a programme about stationery. That newness. The fresh book of paper. Something about being a writer and needing the newness, fresh starts. So hard sometimes. I thought it would be different but the blank page is the same whether you are drawing or writing. And yet, I am blessed, for all the fear, I know it. To sit at my desk and look out of my window at the sky. To have time to make manifest my ideas, to be well fed, dry, warm and loved. It is enough. For all the rest, and all that long-desired journeying. For now I will be still. Not moving, but still. Adventures will come. They always do. For now I stand still and wait.

Enjoy your days wherever you are.

Manchester

His accent was familiar but I wasn’t sure. Where’re you from? I asked. Manchester, he said. We shared place names. I always feel embarrassed admitting to my Northern roots (if you can call them that, for in truth, I have none). I don’t sound Northern. Too posh. Some of the place names I couldn’t remember. Nor the word for pawnbrokers. They litter Piccadilly Square. A warm man, a smiler. What’s this? he asked, holding up a passion fruit. And this? he asked, pointing to an apricot. I thought I knew my fruit, he said, laughing. I don’t want to go to another supermarket, though two more have sprung up. I like the people there. They lift me.

Another northern voice. There’s a march and quarter, he called after me. I can hear that march, he said. I’m never sure what I’m supposed to do. Do they expect a response, these shouters? I smile and let it pass. Do I walk so fast? Perhaps. My mother used to try and halt my striding. Don’t stride, it’s not ladylike. No, I suppose not.

Two young men sitting cross-legged on the ground, one outside The Angel the other outside a student house on Llanbadarn Road. Sitting mute. I love the silence of the early hours. Couples stand in tableaux not speaking, just holding each other.

Lighting flashed yellow across the sea. The storm approaches. And then passes.

Bicycle races through the town. We break the rules and sneak through the barriers. We just want to sit in our usual place. Little girls and boys speed past. Oh my god, says one of them. It is hot. I hear them, breathless. A smattering of parents, of teachers egging them on. A man in a clown’s costume bringing up the rear squirting people with a water pistol.  A man’s voice shouting over a tannoy.

The Salvation Army shop change their window frequently. Once a week, sometimes twice. Different colour schemes. This morning it was lilac and purple. Shoes, blouses, skirts hung in the window on hangers.

The sky clears to blue. The rain forgotten.

 

I forgot. I forgot to ask. Did he feel it? Did he feel it in his bones? The hurt, was he hurt by it? I remember when the Arndale Centre was bombed. I felt that. An inner shattering of all that had previously felt safe. An illusion, safety. We are not safe. Not in the physical sense. Perhaps safety is not what it is about. At least not in an endless, long term way. More a momentary thing. Like joy. It is not what you expect. Yesterday it came. Transient, fleeting but I felt it. I fell into it. Drank it. It was the air after the storm. Clear and cool. And the birdsong. Triumphant. All of this continues, regardless. It does not care. Joy does not care what has gone on before. That is constant, that is safe. And it is there, whenever we choose to feel it.

I am distrait this morning, my back rigid with fighting. Fighting myself. Enough. Let there be silence. And birds. Just birds. Not me. Just birds. Amen.

Worldly goods

Tall and gangly, there is something insect-like about him. A daddy-long legs. He is often there, in the University Campus’s canteen with a suitcase on wheels and a small, leather attaché case. That’s all his worldly goods, Jackie told him as he queued for coffee. He’s looking for a job, she said. Trolling back and forth, having his coffee then back through the University corridors. To where? Where does he go, the Library? How does he get in without a card? I suppose the coffee is cheapest in the canteen. Cheaper than in town. He wears the same clothes under waterproofs that stay on whatever the weather. I know that kind of wandering, that trolling. A dislocation. A not-belonging. The misery of the dispossessed. There but for the grace of God. I wish you some relief and the continuing kindness of strangers.

Nineteen killed. My once hometown. I want to feel it with them. All gone. Lives, just gone. And all my inner wrestlings come to naught, are naught. What can we do? What can I do?

We usually see him in the afternoons. He usually walks the Prom then but I’ve seen him a few mornings, early. The other day he actually looked at me, gave me eye contact. Normally he is head down and inward, his grey hair curled awry. That lurching walk, fast with a stick for support, comfort. Thin. His jeans flap around his thighs.

I saw him with her as I came out of work. He shrugged his shoulders at me, what could I do? A young student, obviously stressed, had been pulling a large, oversized suitcase down the hill from the Halls of Residence. It kept toppling over and he went to her rescue. I couldn’t leave her, he said afterwards. I offer to help and proceed to drag it down the hill to the Porter’s Lodge. I catch the relief on his face. He hasn’t the energy these days. Nor do I, not really. But it was him or me. No contest. I ask her questions as we walk. A pale-skinned girl, midriff showing, who’s off to Cardiff by coach. The suitcase is a great lumbering thing. He drives slowly alongside us. She’s going home for the holidays. I’m looking for a job, she says. I’ve got a part-time one. I do filing. All alone in a room. It’s so boring. The petrol’s too expensive so my parents are to pick me up in Cardiff. I leave her at the bus stop. When I turn round she’s dropped the contents of her handbag on the ground and is running after an empty plastic bag that is being carried by the wind across the road.

Rest in peace, my loves. Rest in peace.

Funeral (4)

We were late. I’m never late. At least, I do all I can to not be. I wept at the thought of missing it, of not being there. And yet he’s gone. He went a long time ago. Weeks ago. His body kept in cold storage for almost three weeks. And yet I needed to be there. To stand next to her, to hold her and be held in return. Loss brings back other such losses. All those connections. We wouldn’t have known him if not for her. Twenty years they were together, more. Not happy, either of them but there were the honeymoon years before the reality of each other set in.

We got there in the end, walking in halfway through the eulogy. Are you the woman who was lost? A uniformed lady at the Crematorium asked, before hurrying me in. We got there. I was there. The eulogy was pragmatic, honest as it could be. The pictures of him were unfamiliar. They played Mull of Kintyre at the end. A tenuous choice. I don’t think I ever heard him putting on music, the radio even. A big man, a vital man. Gone. So much space. The space in between. Breathe into the space. An awkward huddle outside. Sibling not talking to sibling. Fighting over money. I met his wife, the one he left for her. I liked her. A twinkle, a spark. I liked her. Paying my respects to the daughter. A cold fish. Poor love. So tight, so stiff. We’re the same age. No connection. She is closed-off, protected. So be it. For her it is clearly necessary. We just need to survive, any which way. He was a good age, she said. The burden gone. Released.

A memory of Aberdovey. The jigsaw in the adult’s lounge, almost finished. A woman doing a bit before she joins her husband on the terrace. A group effort. A shared satisfaction. Do you finish your crosswords? the husband asks him. Yes, he says. We don’t, not always.

Morning comes now. The cloud breaks up. Blue coming through.

Walking back from the Prom and a woman calling out to me. I’d passed her earlier. Where you walking to? she shouted. Home, I replied. Home.

Woodrow Wilson

Wood pigeon song dominates the mornings and afternoons. I remember it from boarding school. I’ve always found it comforting, upbeat, safe. Coo, coo. We hear it in Spain too, from the terrace. Woodrow we call him, it, them. Woodrow Wilson. There are two on the tree outside my bedroom window. A pair. A couple. Woodrow and Wilhelmina. Silly, I know, but what the hell it holds us together. A restricted code. A kind of belonging.

Inevitably, we talked of feet. I had broken my toe. It will heal, she said, but it may remain a little bent. That’s OK, so long as I can walk, stride, move unhampered, un-slowed. Then she began to tell me of a client she used to treat at the hospital. Do you remember Oliver’s Shoe Shop? she asked. Nope. I’ve only been her five years. Five years, fancy that. He was the owner, she said. You’ll be shocked, he’d told her, prior to taking of his shoes. He’d been a POW in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp. His feet were in a terrible state, she said. They’d made them march and march. He’d cried, she said. The officers wouldn’t let them help those who fell, who stumbled. They were left there, to starve, to die. He’d cried, then, she said.

It’s a liminal time my walking time. That blue light between night and day. Nearing home I catch sight of man from the corner of my eye. He falls off the pavement. His arms jerk upwards. His head is looking downwards, concentrating. Fuck it! he says. A girl in a red dress walks up Penglais Hill, her heels clicking. Back in town, outside The Angel all is chaos. I walk from silence to mayhem. A jumble of platform soles, fleshy thighs squeezed into shorts, torn fish net tights, broken glass, smeared mascara, the smell of beer and perfume and shouting. They lurch and leer, ugly exaggerations of themselves.

On North Road the smell of their honeysuckle is divine.

Later, a woman is on the walkway potting some lobelias. I’m making such a mess, she says, as I step past her. It does, she says, instead of a garden.

What a dilemma, what a problem? I was moved. Moved, listening to it while making breakfast. A twelve-year-old girl, who, as a result of her father taking a paternity test, is told that neither of her parents are hers. Not biologically. Who is she? she asks. Everything turned upside down. It ends OK. She gains another family, a sister. And two names. She can switch and change. A story, a true story, about perceptions. About identity. The Other One.

And in the studio. A transgender boy with his father. A lissome, beautiful boy turning girl. Happy to be there. Happy to have it all out, out in the open. And his father, gentle, a little shy in his fleecy jerkin and big boots. The gentle being brave. Amen to that.