Author Archives: Ellen Bell

About Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.

Alphabets

My back is rigid from the battle I’ve been doing with myself all morning. Well, since 1.45 am when I woke. I have no path to follow, it is entirely of my own making and that should be a freedom and yet all I do is harangue myself for the choices I make.

We’d talked, he and I, and he’d suggested that I look through my plan chest drawers of begun projects and see what I could find. I told him of my yearning to make ‘something beautiful’. Anyway I did, in between going back and forth to work. And I did find some cheer in it. There is much work there, and endeavour but each needs time to be completed, and more importantly faith. I need to believe in what I do. As I need to believe in myself. It is a pattern. I finish an intense piece of work, usually some writing, and then I panic. How to fill the gap? What should I be doing? And then my mind is off, shouting, declaiming, digging in.

I want to keep open. I want to accept what is but also keep open. There are many different strands to my practice. It may not always have been the case, though I remember even when I was deep in the production line I still hankered after more conceptual projects. And actively sought them. Perhaps the kindest, calmest thing to do is accept that that is who I am. I need to do lots of different things. Though each, in my fastidious way, needs to be done equally well. I need to write, I need to design bigger projects to get me out of the house, my head and my comfort zone (they are rich things, though scary to me) and I need to make, to be involved in something that evolves, grows, uses my hands and allows my mind free-rein. To do just one of these things won’t suffice. I’ve tried but it won’t. And yet, they are all work, all have creative significance, even if they don’t, as in most cases, have much currency in the outside world. My reasons for work are manifold. It’s as needful to me as breathing. And yet, I am wobbly, am still wobbled by a path that is no longer clear.

He rings up after reading yesterday’s piece to tell me of spelling mistakes. I snap a little. Once a teacher always a teacher. He is trying to help. But it isn’t always welcome. I should ring back and apologise. I will.

My laptop is failing still. The part has yet to arrive. Meanwhile I write this at an angle, else the screen goes like fizzing mist. I give in. Other work time.

And I forgot to tell you of them. The alphabets I found. Cross stitch designs from the 1900s, German I think, of alphabets. And I can download them for free. Marvellous. They are so beautiful. I want to make them. Why or for what, as yet I cannot say but the joy I felt at finding them was so strong I have to act on it. And yet, my tension comes from the uncertainty of it. Can I allow myself this seeming indulgence? I just want to try. To see what comes from it. I’ve begun drawing them out. I’m terrible at following patterns. It is a discipline. I want it, I need it. Let me.

Anthill Mob

My dreams take me to dark places. I wake in a fug, my head woozy and bleak. Such complexity – the colours, the people, the confusion of relationships. And that strange capacity of dreams that takes the dreamer from one situation to another without explanation – one is just there. She was in my dream and she was living with her father in a flat above us. She filled the small rooms, Amazon that she is. Then we were all in a restaurant together. And he kept trying to touch me when I didn’t want him to. We talked of the travelling we were going to do. To Eastern Europe, I think. I asked what she’d like to do (I get a sense we were in London). She said she liked ‘what they did with the Anthill Mob’. Where did that come from? As far as I can remember the Anthill Mob were one of the perennial contestants on in The Wacky Races along with Dick Dastardly and Mutley (or was it Muttley?). Where did my subconscious find that? I dream of her so often. So much yet to do, to repair. To love.

Adamantine. It was a word in a novel I’ve borrowed from the library. I’ve read it before but wanted to re-read it. A gentle book with a beautiful reproduction of a painting by Bonnard on the front. I looked up its meaning. Unbroken. It cannot be broken. Yes. I get it now.

I showed him my tweet. He’d told me off the day before for not making it clear to the recipient who I was, for not ‘networking’ properly. I wanted to show him that he knew me after all. Thanking me. And then he pointed out my mis-spelling. I feel so small. They’ve all seen it. I’ve made a public fool of myself. I never realised it was spelt like that. I’ve never had recourse to spell it before. Nothing I can do but live with my ignorance. I know now. Don’t I?

She sends a round robin. It comes from a place of good, I think. She wants to share but on her terms. Don’t we all. But it feels distant, it is not intimate. I cannot rise to it. It is not directed at me but a mass, a group, something indistinct. I send her best wishes, love even. But something has been lost. Or perhaps it never was.

Boiler Man

He comes every year to do a check-up on our boiler. The rental agent sends him. He always comes with an apprentice in tow. Some young lad, fresh faced, a little diffident but biddable. This one had a shock of dark hair, almost a topknot, a tonsure of hair. He was warmer than before. He used to suffer from back pain, perhaps that’s what made him sharp. He asked him about his parents. His Dad’s OK but his Mum has had to go into a home. She kept wandering about. One time he had to go and search for her at midnight. Yeh, said the lad, you found her on the towpath. Yeh, said the Boiler Man, she was in her nightie. What yer, doing Mum? I asked. And she called me a ‘fucking townie’. It’s sad, so sad, but Dad wasn’t coping, see. I ache for him but I’m also conscious that I need to get on and sense myself hurrying them. You can’t rush it, he says to me afterwards, it’s Aber talk.

I don’t feel so good today. I wrote the first draft. It needs work but it is nearly there. I am relieved, the fear got too much.

The wind is wild. Poor loves with all that flooding. My heart goes out to you all. All of you in hardship. I stand in your shoes. I would. If I could.

He passes on a lovely review of MF’s poetry. It is a joy. I catch his enthusiasm. How lucky I was to be taught by him. What did she say? ‘His gifts are quiet’. He said I’d make a good journalist. He liked that, and often quotes it. Do I? Am I? The pieces of From Our Home Correspondent that I heard yesterday were so good, particularly about the school in Brum. She wrote with real compassion and humanity. You see sometimes they do good, good work.

Valium

Do you want a valium? he asked. In fact, he offered me one twice. It will take it away, he said. And it probably would. But I am stubborn, cussid some might say and I’m scared of tranquillisers – the whole idea of them. Yes, I’ve been stressed, still am and it has all sorts of physical and emotional consequences. Yes, I’m snappy, agitated, tense, tight but and yet for all that discomfort I don’t want to be taken to a place where I don’t feel. There is something to be learnt in it. In that whole rigmarole of experiencing fear. I want to own it and then move through it. One my own, unaided, and un-tranquillised.

I dreamt I was going to have an operation, it felt like it was going to be an abortion. I was lying on a hospital bed with my legs open and the nurse was offering me painkillers. No thanks, I said. She was surprised. You will be in a lot of pain afterwards, particularly through the night, she said. Are you sure? I hesitated. I want to try, I said. OK, she said. Before that scene I’d been trying to put together this precious object that I thought was ceramic but turned out to be papier mache. It was my friend’s. William Cowper the poet had made it. He was an amateur, I heard myself telling someone I was showing it too. It was a complicated thing that had to be put together. It kept changing as I worked on it. And it’s fragility scared me. People milled around me, strangers and people I knew.

There was a tiny moth by the front door as I made to go out for my walk. It was whirling about on the floor. I tried to pick it up with my gloves. It took sometime. I wanted to set it free but I must have been too rough for its tiny body and when I placed it on the soil of the geranium pot it lay there motionless. I’m sorry. I was trying to help and failed. Forgive me, little one.

I’m scared about writing this morning. Ugh, it floors me sometimes. I just need to start, begin and make it mine.

Jake

If she’d been a boy we were going to call her Jake, after him, Jake Thackeray.

He introduced me to his work. He had a few LPs of his performances and songs. He’d been put onto him by his bohemian friends. I loved his voice from the start. Matthew Parris on Great Lives described him as beautiful. Did he really say that? Why not? He was. He was like a more beautiful Ted Hughes, just as brooding but less cruel and sardonic looking. Some have said that his songs were misogynistic. Perhaps, a little, but no less so than Les Dawson’s and everyone took his jests in good part. Parris said he was a chansonnier. Yes, good word. A troubadour. He was modest, describing himself as a mediocre teacher and a mediocre singer (I paraphrase). It all went a little bleak at the end, for him. Sad. He was on the edges, the margins, something precious, I think.

The night before last I woke from a dream where he and I were standing by the bar just in front of Alexandra Hall and there was a fight going on in one of the student rooms on the top floor and suddenly we were being rained down on by great shards of glass. I hid in his chest, his coat to protect myself. It felt terrifying. Huge pieces of furniture were flying out of the window and crashing down onto the prom. And now Storm Dennis is predicted for this weekend. More mayhem. There is already sand and stones littering the prom and the road. A wildness.

My laptop is semi mended. A new hard drive but still the screen fizzes and flickers. A new LED cable is needed, apparently, but it is coming from ‘abroad’. He has put some tape around the tear and advises that I keep the screen upright. I shall get a cricked neck. So be it. Yesterday was a waiting game. He was marvellous. Today the stress lingers but I have work to do. Much work. That is good.

Zame

It was a word in my dream. Does it actually mean anything? Who knows?

I’m a dark place that I can’t get out of. His inquest was the day before yesterday. He told me about it after he’d read news of it in the local paper. He had committed suicide. Most people had suspected that it was the case. He was too strong a swimmer. There is suggestion of something prurient, lewd, nasty. I am sorry for him, for her, for all his family. To feel that there was no way other than that is so sad, so desperate. My heart aches for him, for her, for all of them. I send her message. She responds. It is such a little thing but I wanted to say something, to communicate something like love. I hope people are being kind, I said. And I do.

I think of him often. His body was bruised and bashed and buffeted by the rocks. They covered his coffin in pictures of the town he loved so much. The town he photographed endlessly. I asked them at work if they’d covered the inquest. They had to, they said. It is public information, public property. It makes me feel grey. We all have skeletons in cupboards, things for which we are ashamed. We all fail. We all flounder.

The rains rolls down my studio window. So many loose ends. I am ragged today. Let the light come. And the sun. Shine on us. Clean us through.

Fizzing

It’s mostly in my hands and feet, though sometimes it invades my whole body. It’s like a fizzing, as if under my skin is a kind of bubbling effervescence that will not cease. He calls it pins and needles. But it isn’t really like that, this is more like the sensation you get with cramp. No this is a tingling, an alive feeling that is too much. As I said, unceasing. He googled it and came into to say goodnight with that familiar worried look on his face and quoted it as symptomatic of horrors like MS. This morning he looked calmer. I think it is linked to anxiety, he said. It makes sense. Though why I would have the symptoms while I sleep, god knows.

I’ve always worried. And I know that I worry more now than ever. Life frightens me, it is true, though I can see I have no real reason for the fear. It is existential, beyond me, beyond the material. It is the chaos of not knowing, of feeling vulnerable, of being at the mercy of things I do not understand. And there is so much I do not understand. I try to just love, I do, but my mind takes over, fretting, poking, unsettling, haranguing and bullying. I try to introduce a more sensible voice, particularly when I walk. All is well, this is what has been decided, look how beloved I am, I’m doing the best I can, this is my life and I live it as openly as I can. On and on, I talk to myself, intoning internally with my steps. It helps a little but the nagging mind soon takes over. I have no template for self-acceptance, you see, I cannot see, feel, experience my worthiness.

I haven’t seen the two Chinese families who live round the corner of our block for a while now. One has removed their entire ‘garden’ of plants. I use the term garden loosely as it mostly comprised a series of plastic containers, including a washing-up bowl, in which they were growing flowers and vegetables. (The blue washing-up bowl had huge onion tops sprouting from it). Do you think they’ve left? I asked him this morning as we made our way to the car to do our first shop of the week. No, he said, see there is still some of their things in the window. And there were, including an empty plant pot and some flower food and the wrapping paper that they have stuck to one of the windows in lieu of a curtain is also still there. I think of them and wonder if they have family members in fear of catching the virus or who have contracted it. But then I feel foolish, China is so huge and the death toll, though terrible for those concerned is minor by comparison.

I avoided the wind mostly, walking along side roads and missing out the prom. The World at One reported from here yesterday. 70 mile an hour winds the reporter said. Gosh. It is wild but alive, I think.

Work now. I must reconnect. I’ve had a coffee. Now for tea.

Storm (59)

It rages. I walked in it anyway. I needed to. I needed to make it less frightening. For it does frighten me. That wind, that howling. I feel vulnerable, at the mercy of elements that could destroy me. It isn’t personal the wind is just doing what it does. The rain lashed, whipping across my face, and still I walked. It rages still, what three hours later. I think of those without shelter, how must that be to be out in this wind storm. Is that man still sleeping in the Prom shelter and the other one, is he still sleeping in the doorway of Coffee#?

I do my stuff, all that domestic stuff that is required to keep things in place, to instill a semblance of order but the bleakness of this dark, this winter, this outer raging still lingers.

Some days it is just about keeping going. One more washing load to finish and hang out and then? A pot of tea. And sewing. Not a day to ask much of myself. Just the breathing, the in and the out and being kind. Yes.

Work Ethic

I find it hard to shake off. It’s inbred in me, where from exactly I am not sure. My father didn’t have it. He worked hard when he had to but not otherwise. He enjoyed leisure, and didn’t appear to feel any guilt at doing so. My mother worked hard, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, but she also yielded uncomplainingly to the times, later on in her life, when little was asked of her. I feel better about myself when I am working hard. I like to feel used up, useful and worthy. Yes, work makes me feel worthy, worth my salt. Though that too has stresses when you start to investigate whether the work you do is worthwhile, useful and most importantly good enough. He is more sanguine than I. He too doesn’t fight leisure. He believes he has earnt it. It is his. Work doesn’t define him, as I think it defines me. I do battle with myself over this. Always. Always have. I know that there is a better way of living. That is, to do the work when it is there and to rest and observe the gentle continuum of life when it isn’t. I woke at odds with myself, a residue from yesterday’s inner fighting. I work all the time, though the work is most often domestic work. He would say that is work all the same, and it is, but it doesn’t give me (or at least I don’t allow it to give me) a good sense of self. I think of others working harder than me, all the time knowing how pernicious such a way of thinking can be. I do not know how others live their lives, not truly, and if I did that is their life, their choices, as this life and these choices are mine. We must follow different paths. Why can’t you just be? he asks. A good question. Because, I want to say, and sometimes do, I don’t know how to be without doing. And what am I if I am not doing? A nothing? A space, a vacancy, of no use. Try just being loving, a voice told me this morning. Just try loving. That’s all. Let that be the motivation behind everything you do, not an ego-boost, or money-spinner, or even a domestic imperative. Just make every action a loving one. Let that be the reason and you will feel differently. I promise.

I shall give it a try.

A few couples canoodled in the dark as I walked past. They stood in doorways and under street lamps. I stepped out into the road so as not to disturb them. One man leant against a wall talking to a girl, his right leg was bent and raised up behind him. Along Llanbadarn Road I watched as a girl got out of a taxi. She was large with immense thighs that were revealed in their full glory beneath an extremely short, figure-hugging dress. She walked the path to her door unsteadily and I observed as she first tapped on a window then struggled to get her key in the door. The taxi driver waited too. Why? Perhaps she didn’t have enough cash in her purse, or maybe he was being paternal and checking to see she got in safe. Their experience of the night is so different to mine.

Late Call

It woke me. It wasn’t late in most people’s terms, about 7.20 pm, but for me going to bed as early as I do it was. She woke me. A voice. A sharp, cultured voice. I tried to listen to what she was telling me as I pulled myself from sleep. She wanted to book me. For when? I asked. Tonight, she said, at about 9 o’clock. My heart sank and that old familiar bleakness that comes from the prospect of having to engage with the late night dark began to threaten. Hang on, I said, as I struggled out of bed, I just need to get a pen. Just a minute, she said, her tone becoming sharper. Someone was talking to her in the background. I could hear him. I’m so dreadfully sorry to have disturbed you, she said, conciliatory now, but it seems we’ve already booked someone. That’s OK, I said. But it wasn’t. Sleep took so long to come after that. It doesn’t feel right – such a rude awakening. Is the fault mine, or the job’s. I hate it. I hate that pulling from rest. And I’d laid down determined to be at peace, to accept the calm, the unusual uncluttered-ness of my brain. He was kind, coming back in to tuck me in. But oh, the lost sleep. Do I need to make a change? I cannot say. Opportunities seem few.

I’ve hung her painting. It is a wonder. She prepared it for me. What a nice thing that is. She thought of me as she did so. For that period of time I was in her head. The colours are muddy, and her finger traces clear. She cried when I took it away. But she was poorly, her cheeks pink with fever. But it is here. I have a small piece of them. And I am glad.