Author Archives: Ellen Bell

About Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.

Giver

‘She wasn’t a giver,’ said Aunt Helen about Calypso in Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn. The beautiful, bewitching Calypso. I’d always thought that of the very beautiful. They don’t need to learn the art of giving, just being is enough for them. Their shimmering is gift enough, perhaps. It stuck with me, that phrase, as I made breakfast. Helen was telling Calypso’s son this as they were driving together decades later. ‘She couldn’t help it’ she added. To soften the blow?

I’ve thought over our contretemps. Over and over. Playing it out in my head. In the end I just told the truth. An unpalatable thing to do under the circumstances. Just imagine what would come out. It still doesn’t make it alright, but sometimes I have to step away from the mistakes I make and just be peaceful with myself. There are my misdemeanors and this experience I have with myself. They don’t have to be one and the same. It makes me tired. She hasn’t replied. Will she?

An overcast sky. I have to go into work soon.

We agreed to have a word to say. We’ve been snappy with each other, he and I. His medication makes him a little more short-tempered but I too have been at fault. We could both try harder not to indulge in tantrums. So we’re agreed, we will say this word if it starts to get a little out of control. He’s already said it once today. I was narky, cross. Fair dues.

The peace has to start somewhere. I will let it go now all that self-castigation. Over. Gone. Clean

Hurt

I was so hurt that I wanted to hurt her back. A long ago feeling that is really nothing to do with her. I hope I didn’t. Even in my wounding I tried to exercise control. With her I always have. I have no right to ask anything of her. And my desire to get something settled is more an manifestation of fear, fear of being judged for seemingly not doing enough than anything else. I can’t get to the nub of it, the truth of how I feel. We are all just doing our best in a complex situation. And at the heart of it is love, I’m sure of it. But she, unlike me, is happy to leave it at that. She doesn’t seek to understand the complexities. She doesn’t want it. I push and push. I do this over many things. I’m a terrier with its teeth into someone’s trouser leg determined not to let go, till I have it. Have what? Resolution. The peace of resolution. But then there will be a next time and a next. In a radio programme about Paul Gaugin the presenter talked about his fascination with the Tahitian women he encountered particularly how they would just sit, for hours, apparently doing nothing. The heat does that. It is restful the doing of nothing. We did it, he and I, last week in various London cafes. That staring into space, letting it all go by. I want to let go. Loose hold of her. Let her breathe. This is not her problem. This is mine. This terrible yearning to belong. I’d pictured a day, of family, of noise, of clamour of warmth of watching, holding, laughing, of emptying out of being part of something I’d lost. It was foolish to succumb to such fantasies. They are not real. They are not my belonging. This is. And it is enough when I sit with it, doing nothing.

Hula Hoops

As I have said things seem starker, stranger, larger-than-life out there in the early hours. Like the bag of hula hoops strewn across the road – the straw-yellow of those manufactured circles haphazardly adorning the tarmac. I noticed them after the students. There were two of them, one in shorts. I heard the noise first. Just at the beginning of Queen’s Road. They were doing something with a sign. A yellow diversion sign with a symbol of a circle and an arrow emblazoned across the front. The one in shorts was undoing the chain that held the sign to a lamppost. Then he was lifting it up high above his head and walking off with it. I remember it being a craze in my studying days, the nicking of signs as trophies. Now it just seems puerile. They’re there for a purpose, he said at breakfast, twats.

I was assailed by fear yesterday, today it is just anxiousness. I tried to reason it through. It could be the literature I am reading stirring things up. Or the moon that is almost full. I just feel deeply unsafe, to my core. Though what it is that frightens me I cannot say. Today I just want resolutions. I want to know where I am, what will happen. And the others involved don’t have that same need. I understand that completely. But this is how I find peace with everything in place. Knowing what to expect. All I can do is put forward my request then let it go. Let it be. Let it unfold as it will.

A last minute flit to work, a last minute guest. No time to think, no time to fret. She talks about ‘rearing’ meat in the laboratory, not animals, per se but their flesh. Ugh, Frankenstein farming. We are forgetting the precious balance.

No wind. All is gentle. Will she have sent them? So impatient, though I try to rein it in. A milky sky and birds having a field day.

Beauty

I catch the tail end of the programme while doing some yoga before preparing lunch. A guest speaker from the TED lectures. I don’t know his name. He sounds English, Northern. He is talking about beauty and tells a story that his father told him as a child about an eighteenth-century watchmaker. One of his clients brought a watch of his back to be repaired and watched as the horologist took the time-piece apart. Picking up one of the tiny cogs the client noticed that there was engraving on it. Why have you done this, he asked the maker, no one can see it? God can, said the watchmaker. The speaker talks about the visceral effect of this story upon him, how he felt it in his body. Beauty does that, he says.

He wasn’t at the till when we wheeled up with our loaded trolley but he did turn up five minutes later looking a little stressed. His manager, a woman with thin, red hair who had served us, told him she’d texted him to ask if he could come in early. He checked his phone. Oh, yeh, he said, sorry about that. Nice weekend? I asked. And then it all came out, how the council had taken £400 out of his bank account, without warning. It’s nearly a month’s wages, he said. Don’t they know I’m a single parent? He looked so beaten-down by it, his usual cheerfulness lost. We all joined in trying to reassure him. It’ll be their mistake, go in, talk to someone, it’s just a machine. I touched his arm as I left. It’ll be alright. We’ve all been there, he said as a we glided down the travellator. Yeh, but for him it must be constant, I said.

Susan in The Archers talking about managing the village shop: half the time you’re a therapist in a tabard.

The other day I saw a man keel over. It was by Stars on Terrace Road. A big man, he was making his way towards the sea. Then he just crumbled, down, landing on his knees. A moment elapsed. I stood for a moment rapt. Then he got up again and continue to walk. Alcohol felling a man. And another today. I was walking along one of the side paths towards the harbour when I saw a form on the ground. A dark mass, a mound on the path. Oh, God don’t let it be a body. It was. I inched towards it and stopped. Was it alive? Breathing? Then a hand moved. It sort of waved. Are you alright? I asked. A thumb went up. Then a voice, muffled, talking into the ground.  I’m just sleeping it off, it said. Ok, then, I said, starting to walk away.

I wrote something. I tried to keep it clear, uncluttered. I will re-work it today. Might they take it? It doesn’t matter. I have begun it.

Career-y

I woke for a pee and that was the word that my brain wanted to remember from my dream. Career-y. Someone was speaking, in my dream, to a man, I think he was called Mike, about taking a work path, that was ‘career-y’. But, I wanted to interject, he’s too old now, this Mike, to be thinking about careers. Too old. Are we ever too old? David Whyte, the poet and ornithologist talks about growing younger towards death. He, my love, took early retirement at fifty-eight. I am nearly that yet I cannot think of retirement, at least not from my real work. That will go on and on. The other stuff, well, yes, that would be good to bring to a close but I like to earn my way, so not yet. I try to work out why I a feeling so anxious. It’s in my back again, tight as guitar string. Like he described my pulse. Tight. Is it the prospect of writing about the performance? I think so. Write it. Just write it. Keep it simple. Rachmaninov stopped composing all together when one of his early works was badly slated by the critics. For three years he wrote nothing. Three years. Apparently, or so the presenter on Classic FM informed us, it was his hypnotherapist who got him back on track. You’ve got to believe in yourself, said the writer Marlon James on Desert Island Discs yesterday. His first novel, a Booker Man Prize winner, was rejected seventy-eight times. Remember seventy-eight people can be wrong, James said.

I walked with music today. Lovely. Music and a little Proust. I keep in on shuffle. I like the mystery. Waiting to see what comes on. Coffee, shopping then home to work. To write. To make right.

Wind (568)

Everything seems ultra-real in the early hours, smells, sounds and sights are exaggerated, blown-up, magnified. Or is it just me? Is it my initial trepidation about going out and then the relief that follows when it is alright? I come upon things. Even in this little, ordinary town, there is the unusual, the rare, the unexpected to be found. Like the open shed by the harbour, with its light spilling out onto the tarmac and the three figures standing at its threshold, one wrapped in a cape of some sort. 13 minutes to go, one of them is saying. A girl. A girl’s voice. Her legs are bare, she has trainers on and the cape is a blanket. I walk past and peer in, briefly. Its the shed they keep the gigs in. Two frames with them, one above the other. Inside are two boys on rowing machines. They look hot, pumped up with energy. Is it for Sport Relief? Is it a 24 hour thing?

The moon was out. A half-moon. Is it waning or growing larger? It is a while since I’ve seen it. The wind was wild. Such a clanking and clattering from the boats rigging. A plastic Tesco bag had got caught, wrapped around the railing along the Prom. It was flapping, rattling in the gusts. An apricot-coloured food carton was being lifted up, dancing in the air. A couple walked hand in hand ahead of me. Then they stopped. He puts his arms around her waist and pulled her towards him. In the dark I felt her reluctance. No, no, she was saying, gently, bored now. Walking towards North Road I pass two lads, their arms around each other. A girl walked behind, head bent.

My hands are still fizzing. They’ve been like that for a couple of days now. It feels like I’ve had too much tea. A nerviness. An edginess. Is something amiss?

She was lovely. So young, so earnest. My words didn’t come. I struggled to bring them forward and when I did they felt ugly in my mouth. But I did it. I conversed in Norwegian over a pot of tea and a chai latte. Out of the rain and wind, upstairs in that steamy-windowed café. She’s a farmer’s daughter from Stavanger. She was gentle, patient. I hope we can do it again. But oh, what it is not have language. I watched for the silences and willed the words to come.

The trouble is we want so much

We have switched supermarkets. It was because of his fall and his eye and various other things and now we go to one in town. It is always empty. He likes that. And so do I though I’ve had to let go of some of my favourite foodstuffs. What do they say about change? As good as a rest? If I can be flexible with the small things might I become so with the bigger ones? Anyway, despite the length of time it takes to find things in the unfamiliar aisles it is OK. And the people who work there are friendly. There’s our mate, he said aiming the trolley towards his till. He’s a Liverpuddlian. What team? he asked when we first came across him, using sport as a tactic, as usual, a way in. Everton, he said. So now he always asks: How’re they doing? I like him. His voice is like treacle. He let slip that he was a single parent. How many? I asked. Three, he said. The eldest is applying for University. I asked him what it was like as a man, the assumption being that it is usually women who are given sole custody. He is tactful, but hints at legal battles and a need to keep his children safe from ‘her’, their mother. Stories play out in our heads. Both our heads. We almost leave without paying. All three of us, moved, distracted. How does he manage on that wage? I ask him as we manoeuvre our now full trolley down the escalator.

She conned ten pounds out of us. I mean we gave it to her, not willingly, reluctantly, but we gave it nonetheless. But it was under false pretenses. My baby died, she told me her eyes big and imploring in her bruised and pock-marked face. A tiny girl, thin as a rake. I’d seen her in the café, her head in her folded arms seemingly asleep on the table. Then she was outside sitting on her sleeping bag, begging. I need £7.99 for my prescription, she said. So specific. I tried to reason it out. Surely if you are on benefits you don’t have to pay for medication? I said. She had an answer for everything. It was a culmination of things. He’d asked me earlier if he should give another homeless man £10. I’d dissuaded him. I don’t like to give money, directly. It feels wrong (more an assuaging of my discomfort than help for them), I prefer to give food. But I felt guilty. We have so much. And it had been such a lovely day. I sat down next to her on her sleeping bag. It’s hard to trust, I said. She looked big-eyed at me again. Shall we? I asked him. And he gave her the note. Before I’d even got up from the ground she was off. Do you know that girl? said a Community Officer who’d just walked over to us. No, I said. Did you give her any money? Yes, I said. She looked at me with a mixture of pity and boredom before giving me the spiel about never handing over cash. We are aware of her, she said, she has issues. The girl, meanwhile had joined her ‘bloke’ as he called him, and was jumping up and down with glee waving the tenner in her hand. It marred the afternoon. Let it go, he said several times, you were just trying to be kind. What was it that made me feel so grey, so jaded? The Officer’s badly-veiled derision, the girl lies, being duped, or her hug? It was when I was down on the ground beside her, and she knew I’d succumb, she grasped me in a hug. I smelt the sweat on her, the musk of dirt, alcohol and drugs oozing from her pores. She’d had me. It wasn’t the money, she’d got under my skin, my nails. A grim, sordid possession. We saw her the next day in the same position, the same place. Her head was cast down, defeated. Hers was no victory. I felt sorry for her. The joy of the conned note was forgotten. I think of her still. 

Stop still for a moment in any metropolis and you soon see it – poverty, isolation, loneliness, madness. Hunched men with carrier bags stealing an hour’s heat in a café. Like the man in Nero his hair unkempt, his jacket lop-sided and grimy, tearing each page from his newspaper, writing on it, laughing to himself then folding each one up and putting them in his Sainsbury’s bag. Pouring over every sheet, even the back pages. It has to be lived, this life, with all that the seeing gives us. And the hearing. Like the boy, raped to death in that American prison. It has to be lived while holding all that knowing, the pain and the joy. Like the joy of Pierre Bonnard’s red.

The trouble is we want so much, said the economist on the radio after delivering comparative statistics between the way we live now and a hundred years ago (apparently there were 5 loos between 91,000 people in Aberdeen in the early 1900s, 3 of which were in hotels, can I have heard right?) When will we be content with enough? For it is enough. To be sentient –  alert and alive to the elements.

I still cannot write of it. It waits, as do I.

Full

I am too full with it all still. Too much to digest. I cannot write it, not yet. Sounds, smells, tastes. I need time. Wait for me.

Wind (555)

I walked through the village to avoid the wind from the sea. It was still strong. Lots of windows lit, can’t you sleep my loves?

Elephant is growing up. I watch her from our window high above. She is leggy now but she still jumps, skips and runs. Does she know she is growing taller, losing that puppiness.

There was a bobble hat on the pavement, dropped, discarded or forgotten. A white hat with candy stripes.

We are off soon. A bientot.

Jackson Pollock Jigsaw

I do like hearing her talk. It calms me. It is so deliciously inconsequential. Does she know that I am doing it – getting her talk so that I don’t have to? Though to be fair when I do talk she does listen, with that way of saying yes, that she has, stretching out the vowel then the consonant, her head on one side. It’s the stories she tells, of her family, her partner, her colleague and that chuckle that she has. They’d been to Amsterdam, her and her colleague and their partners for their Christmas do. They’ve got into the habit of going somewhere, one year it was Dublin, another time Las Vegas other times its been to a health spa in Chester. I wanted to hear about Amsterdam. I can see it as she is talking – her eyes alight with the memory of it. Then we got on to art, as she pushed away at my cuticles with a metal prong. I told her what I was planning to do next week. I don’t understand Modern Art, she said. I get that. And I get the discomfort it gives her. But she was interested. I like art that is about something happening, she said. Then she started to talk about her mother-in-law and her passion for Jackson Pollock. Jackson Pollock and jigsaws. She’s eighty and she loves him, well his work, that is. They eventually found one in San Francisco when they were out last year with her for their surprise nuptials where she was to be the only witness. It was huge and she just stood in front of it and stared and stared, she said. Her partner took a picture and made it into a jigsaw for her. She loves them, there’s always one on the go on a sheet of card in her bedroom, she said. She gets up and does it when she can’t sleep. We thought a Jackson Pollock jigsaw would be a bit of a joke, but she did it. She won’t do any below 2,000 pieces, she said.

A young lad in a hoodie was being bundled into a police car as I approached the station. It was an unmarked car, and initially I thought they were security men in their high vis jackets but there was a police woman too, a truncheon hanging from her belt. He was being forced into the back seat. I couldn’t see his face, just his trainers and bottoms of his grey tracksuit. I can fuckin’ get myself in, he was shouting. Is this par for the course for him, being nicked, caught red-handed up to no good, giving lip to a policeman? What had he been doing? An alarm was sounding inside Wetherspoons. Was that his doing? I would never have dreamt of being rude to a policeman – we were taught to have respect for people in uniform. It was drummed into us regardless of merit. His experience is clearly different. I was sad for him, for the inevitability of it all. And sad for them, yet another stereotype playing to form.

Our usual Friday morning phone call and she started to talk about watching the game. She said she never used to be interested in rugby but someone took her to see the Scarlets and she really enjoyed it. I can’t picture it. She is such a gentle soul. We didn’t have electricity but we had a television, she said. (How?) My father always wore a cloth cap and he’d throw it at the telly when the rugby was on. She laughs at this. She is sounding better. Still weak but there is laughter.

It brought me down. It is nothing. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a gift I want to make for him. But it is going wrong. I’ve been too ambitious. And I’ve lost heart. Do I persevere or give up and try a different way? You see all those good intentions. I don’t seem to be able to discriminate between wanting to make a perfect quilt, write a perfect book or fry a perfect egg. Failure gets to me, that same hotness round my collar I felt as a child when things didn’t work out as planned. It was shame, as it is now. So often I can see it all, finished, and shining. It rarely matches the vision. But isn’t that what creating is, that being prepared to deal with the clumsy, the awkward, the ill-conceived? I have to change so many of my pre-conceptions about the nature of work, about what constitutes failure and what success, and about myself. I seek such rigid definitions, am more nebulous than that? And is that so bad?  

I think, no practice in my head what I will say to them at the door of the gallery on Tuesday. I’ve come to sew, I’ll say, to complete this tapestry, to compare it to the original. I will not refer to the crinoline. Not if they don’t. Will they?