Author Archives: Ellen Bell

About Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.

First Kiss

The last stragglers were filing out of The Angel when I walked by on my way home. One girl was trying to teach her male companion some dance steps in the middle of the walk street just before The Academy. She was laughing, linking her arm in his and swaying as she watched her feet making their moves. Another was singing. I’ve had my first kiss tonight, she sang, I’ve had my first kiss, over and over. I often think about the Pakistani family who run the newsagent on the corner. They must be woken continually from the noise outside the pubs, clubs and take aways on and near their street that stay open long in to the early hours. He always looked sour-faced and unhappy whenever I used to go in there.  (I stopped doing so, his misery was contagious. ) Was it the result of broken nights (though his wife was forever cheerful) or homesickness?

We were the only ones in the office and she asked me about the book I was reading. We conversed and she shared intimacies, as I did. She seems a sympathetic woman when she talks. It felt good to give her some time. Will she be warmer next time?

He found a cheque the other day. It was on the floor of the SPAR, I believe. He was bemused. He couldn’t remember the name of the Payee or the payer but he did remember that they shared the same surname. A relative then. But the puzzle was that the cheque was dated from the December last year. And it was for £250. Why hadn’t they cashed it? he asked when he returned home after taking it to the police station. He’d begun spinning stories about it, a student needing the money and forgetting that it was in their pocket. Would anyone do that? Let’s hope it finds its rightful home.

Virginia Woolf’s short story (one she wrote prior to or perhaps during the novel) Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street, was on the radio. I’ve heard it twice now. It is so beautifully written and so simple. A walk to the shops to buy gloves. Long gloves for her party with pearls button, the French way. But it’s the detail, the way her thoughts meander from the people she sees, the Baroness who’s lost her son in the Great War, to the shop assistant, still there after twenty years, and to her loss of faith in God. She is so happy to be there walking those London Streets that I am entranced. And I know that feeling, particularly in the morning when the sun is shining and its light bounces off the white stucco. Anything is possible and life is so alive.

Preoccupied with all these alarming bodily happenings I forget to feel alive. To take notice and pay attention to what is outside of me and all this tangle of anxiety. I forget all is as it should be. All is well.  

Burning

She told me about it in her email. Her daughter. Her daughter throwing a party and burning her wedding dress. I’ve only met her once. We stayed with her on my last night in Washington. A seemingly cheerful woman who appeared to make the best of things. I didn’t know then that her marriage was troubled. He was a little distracted, took himself off to watch the TV alone, but I just put that down to a wish for solitude. A bright man, I’d enjoyed talking to him. It was a freeing thing, obviously, that ritualistic burning. Neither of her sons were present. I believe she did it in front of members of her divorce support group. Did they clap and whoop? It feels out of character. But who am I to judge? She is clearly hurt. May it bring her catharsis.

Another bird of prey, this time a red kite. I was circling the sky above our flats and as before the residents birds, the rooks, seagulls and magpies were going berserk. It is nesting time and no doubt the kite was after the eggs. It resembled a WWII dog fight with spitfires. The seagulls cawed and dived at it chasing it from the sky. They are super-brave in their defence of their nests. They don’t have the kite’s vicious hooked beak or sharp talons but still they saw it off.

She wrote back to thank me for my understanding and the promise of new work. It’s OK. I am still wanted.

Raptor

It was on the grass as we drove up to work. The seagulls and blackbirds were going frantic. Two men were walking away from it. Were they falconers? Was it a falcon? No, it seemed bigger with a hooked yellow beak and tawny brown plumage. A hawk? No, it was bigger still. A buzzard, perhaps? It seemed agitated. Was it injured? I raised itself off the ground and then landed on one of the workmen’s trucks. It was unsettling. A wildness had taken over, literally. The birds circled and cawed. Were they trying to scare it off? I remember when a sparrow hawk came into our garden in Cambridge. It swooped down and stole one of the sparrows that was pecking at our fat ball. So fast. So shocking. And the silence and stillness that followed the theft was surreal. From another world.

He was disturbed by seeing him, though he didn’t say so. Not directly. He was an acquaintance. He’d talked about my work to him once, years ago. He was an architect. Was. He’s had a stroke. He saw him in Clive’s Continental Menswear when he went in to collect some shorts he’s had altered. He was sitting in there chatting. Putting on a brave face, he said. It hangs over him. Does he think of it often? What can I do?

I got the name wrong. That Dickens character. I think it was Chrissparkle not Christingle. Either way. Lovely. Just lovely.

A bleak day a bleak mind. She wants to change my medication. He says I can say no. I want to maintain control not just blithely give myself over. Can I? Wind and rain but I still went out and I’m glad I did. I need to walk, to stretch, to feel the air. I think of AF and know that I am blessed.

Miss Dior

She listed her loves for me. Cattle were first. I love cattle, she said. (We’d been discussing the Royal Welsh which had prompted this confession. Cattle, perfume and…was it coffee? Obviously, I love my family first, she said. Of course, I said. But it was the perfume I responded to. I asked her what she wore. Miss Dior, she said. Then she told me how her daughter had sprayed some on her wrist that morning before going to her exam to remind her of her mother and give her courage. Nice. I admitted to loving that scent too. I get some for every birthday and Christmas, she said. She didn’t offer to put some of that fluffy pink padding onto  my soles when she’d finished. I’m glad. She was a little put out when I refused it last time. I watch her as she works away with the emery board. Her nephew calls her ‘scary aunty’. I can see why. I like her, and indeed warm to her, loving her tales of farming life, children and the parochial in and outs of this town,  but I can sense a temper, a sharpness that wouldn’t take much to excite.

I lost my torch. I’d had to stop to do up a boot-lace and must’ve put it down and walked off without it. So be it. May those that found it have some pleasure in the illumination it gives.

We had time to kill in between seeing her and work. I suggested tea and reading in a café. He with his papers and me with my book. Our favourite one was closed. They are off for their holidays. So I choose a new one, we know it but not well. I found an empty room and set up ready for him. He came and was pleased until a man and his young child came in. He was disappointed wanting peace and quiet, but it wasn’t to be. He had too much coffee, I got agitated. We rowed. Then at work there was the email from J. and I was floored.

I didn’t want to hurt. I tell what I see. I share the exuberance, the eccentricity of what I encounter. We could’ve met in a café but she changed her mind. Let it be. I will take a break from it. I want this. I want to implode. I’ll go into the world, he said, and you stay here. Yes. For now. Yes.

Poppies

I’m on my way back home from my walk. I’ve just passed Tesco Express and Sophie’s Café and I’m just about to pass the insurance company that at Christmas time has such an elegant and restrained Christmas tree in the window when I hear a voice. A disembodied voice. Well, it’s more of a growl. My hackles rise in my back. An angry voice. I see his feet first. They are pushed up against a door jamb. Then I see the rest of him, his body concertinaed into the entrance to a house. If anyone pisses on me, he is shouting, I’ll fucking smack ’em.

He tells me later when we are driving back home with the shopping that it’s a common occurrence, no doubt considered a ‘jolly jape’, to piss on the homeless as they sleep in doorways.

I chose to return home along Llanbadarn Road so that I could see the poppies. They are giants. Gorgeous red blooms with those impossibly fragile, papery petals. They won’t last. A day maybe, but they are stunning while they do and the seed pods the petals leave behind are equally magnificent.

The sky is blue as I walk home. A special time where morning is breaking. I want to make him happy. No, keep him happy. For he is happy already. He talks of living maybe another five years. If that is to be so, so be it. Let me. No help me to make them good for him.

A lovely day yesterday. An elegant day. The sun shone and I walk on light feet, my back less tense than it has been for days. And to sit amongst such good friends was such a delight.

Our neighbour below was cooking bacon as I went out at 2.30 am. I like to hear him clattering about in his kitchen. I am fond of him, he was, is, kind. A bright man who assumes a kind of paternalistic pose with me that is not unpleasant. Far from it. His mother, now a hundred years old, think of that, who is nearly blind and pretty much completely deaf still strides out each day into town with some dapper Donny Osmond-esque cap on her head. We sometimes get their post. Yesterday it was a CD with ‘Articles for the Blind’ written on the cover. It was a collection of James Herriot’s stories. Other people’s post. Other people’s lives. Does she choose the titles or are they sent randomly? An equally bright woman, she is tremendously stoic. She comments on our geraniums. They give her pleasure she says when she sees them on opening her front door – though they are a blur.

I didn’t get to write this yesterday and there are quotes I’ve written down which I feel duty bound to include. Such as from Anne Frank’s diary read out on Radio 4 Extra where she writes visitors of from the ‘outside’ and of smelling ‘the wind on their clothes’. Beautiful. I know that smell. And how she wanted ‘to go on living when I am dead’ through her writing. And another but I can’t remember if it was from Dickens and his Mystery of Edwin Drood or Frank – ‘there is said to be a hidden skeleton in every house’. Then, and this is definitely Dickens – ‘As a particularly angular man’. And then his sumptuous list of characters’ Christian  and surnames – joyous, Charles, just joyous – did you chuckle to yourself as you thought them up? Names like Twinkleton, Honeythunder, Christingle and Rosa Budd.

And I also want to record the pleasure I get from listening to the salon babble while getting my hair trimmed. Gloriously inconsequential. AND YET NOT. She spoke of trips to Aberdovey and Dublin and of crying over Emmerdale and the light relief of Love Island but she also talked of her relationship with her recently widowed father. Her struggles to fills the silence, his anger when she is late for tea (‘you were late so started without you’), which work sometimes makes her. And the day he just turned up at work to see her and yet had nothing to say. I like her. She is such a girl/woman with her buoffed-up hair and large teeth. But a kind one, I think.

What a rich life. And the sun is out. The clouds bubble up but for now the sun is out.

Perfume

I don’t consider myself defined by one particular scent. I have three on the go at the moment, taking it in turns daily with each one. And I like to change. I’d have more if I could justify the expense to myself. I adore good perfume. My Miss Dior is running out. And as I don’t plan to fly anywhere in the foreseeable future and buying expensive perfume is strictly a Duty Free thing, there is no new bottle to replace it. And this is the original Miss Dior, not the peach-coloured liquid that smells rather cloying that has usurped it. I bought Versace when I returned from Copenhagen. It’s a lemony, fresh smell, not so dear and lighter. I thought I might go for some Opium but it felt too heavy, too intense for my present skin. Does it change, that intimate, personal skin as one ages? And I also wear Loulou. An inexpensive scent by Yardley, I think. That takes me back. All those Christmas presentation sets of Yardley’s Tweed that we bought for Mum. Did she ever actually use it? I doubt it. She was a Chanel or Guerlain woman and way beyond the reaches of our pocket money. And there were the Coty sets of soaps we bought for Nanny and J. They felt so grown-up to me, so exotic. Anyway, all this preamble is in response to my dream last night. I remember little of it but in it someone, I think it was a woman, someone I cared about, a sister perhaps, took against my perfume, the Loulou. I don’t like it, she said. In my dream that particular scent had become an embodiment of me, so her dislike of it felt personal. I was hurt. And even more so when she said she didn’t like someone else because they too reeked of it. Was it, is it, it’s cheapness? It is a girlish smell. Light, frivolous but sweet while not sickly.

It was raining when I went out this morning. I was going to take my ipod but I wanted to hear its pitter patter on my umbrella. I find it soothing, it closes, blankets me in. Walking past No. 1 I thought I saw something in the window. I thought the flat was empty though the FOR SALE sign had come down a while ago. Yes, there is something there. And I step back. There’s someone in the window, they’ve pulled the curtain aside and their hands are stretched out before them, clutching the top of the sash. What are they staring out? The bedroom window only looks out onto a fence. There was no light. They were staring from the dark into the dark. Are they a relative of the lady who died there? It was 3 am in the morning. What a desolate figure they made. I was a little undone by it. Yesterday I had a similar double-take. A dingy had been leant against one of the walls by the harbour and in the gloom I took it for a man. I was shaken and already planning my flit. It’s only a boat, up-ended and leaning. It’s those wee small hours they play such tricks.

The X-Ray was easy-peasy. Don’t worry, he said. And I didn’t. An Indian man called my name then asked if there was a middle name. There is and I told him. Do you want me to use it? he asked. No, that’s alright, I said. He told me to use one of the changing room to remove my bra. I told him I don’t wear one. Leave your t-shirt on, he said and lead me through to a large room with a bed and various collections of machinery hanging from the ceiling. I was told to breathe. When to exhale when to inhale and when to hold it. It’s the one time the heart stops, he said. He talked about cricket to him. The radiographer expressed his distaste telling how they use gallons and gallons of water to irrigate the pitches when the farmers have none. All done, he said. I’ll just check it. And they stood in that anteroom still talking cricket looking at my interior. Did you see anything? I asked him afterwards. Not really, just your ribs. I wanted to see. I wanted to see. Why didn’t I ask? I become so quiescent in hospitals.

My back was tight yesterday. He comes in to give me a pep talk. You’re a good person, he said. A creative person. Be kind to yourself. Yes, I say, I will.

I forgot to think of them last night. The lost and the fallen. Such violence. Was it just impatience? Or is he feral? A child punched to death. It is beyond comprehension, as his is continuing to attack. Was he not moved to stop? May the babe rest in peace. And he? I wish him redemption. His life in prison will be harsh, I think.

What can I say? What can I do? But care.

Absolutely

I heard it in my head as I woke. Absolutely, she said. That was all. Just that sentence, absolutely she said.

My shoulder blades, particularly my left one, are rigid with tension. Mind stuff. It draws them tight. It draws me tight. It is almost pain. Nearly pain and all self-inflicted. I am at odds with myself. Doing battle with myself. I’d like to stop. But it feels like a membrane I must go through to come to the other side which is peace, death, nothingness, oblivion. Take your pick. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is is a cessation of this warring. This non-acceptance of what is.

They promised a sunny morning. It is OK but a little dismal. We saw a fox on our way to Tesco. Bright and early, not yet six. It ran across our path. And the rooks were agitated. It looked grey to me but the bushy tail was unmistakable.

I need to keep it simple. Writing and sewing. Writing and making. Writing and thinking. Writing and reading. Is it enough? If someone else was describing my life I’d say yes, absolutely. (See what I did there?) I would. And mean it. But there is little compassion when dealing with myself. I drive myself hard. Why? Why so little kindness, and softness? Who is watching anyway? Just be in your simplicity. Just do it well. Live well, work well, love well. Exist well. Just be, he said to me this morning in my bathroom as he massaged my shoulders. Such a thing, that. How? I want to say. How do I do that?

Some snippets. First from Laurie Lee when he’d returned to Spain to fight with the rebels. It was winter then and he ‘curled up and became just a ball of survival’. And then from the artist Lubaina Himid on Desert Island Discs talking about her early life as a theatre designer, ‘in a play’ she said, ‘you have to feel the heat of the audience’.

Coup de grace. It kept coming up during crosswords. I thought it meant one’s swansong, a passing shot. He didn’t think so. He got it right. It’s a merciful act, putting someone or something out of its misery. A fatal wounding.

I need to find reasons. Reasons to sew. To explain my need. To connect with those women. Those domesticated women, locked into their interior lives. A benign form of expression. A soft art. A feminine art. I don’t want to subvert. It is my pen and paper. See it through. It begins to take shape. Himid talked about her visit to Zanzibar and how it helped her to make sense of herself. I too am hybrid. Might there be something in those northern climes for me? In their needlework, their domestic habits? An answer will come.  

I think of those boys. And they were just boys, landing on those Normandy beaches, sea-sick, terrified, cold, weary, having to stumble over fallen bodies and  severed limbs in the dark. In the dark. War-fodder. What a mess. My loves. Their loves. Lost.

How’s the Water?

How’s the water? he asks at breakfast. I have to think. What does he mean? The water in my glass, or the sea perhaps? No. He means the water in my body. My poor waterlogged body. There was a phrase people used to say about living too close to the river, meaning that you cried a lot. A watery soul. I’m a watery soul. And now it is flooding me. About the same, I answer. And it is. Though last night I slept with my feet raised on two pillows in the hope that it would drain away from my thighs. It was a little better when I woke but it soon returned. I want to spend my days upside down in a headstand or shoulder stand and drain it. Drain it away. It is stuck. Something is stuck, not flowing, stagnant. It is a small thing. He investigates the symptoms online. Is it heart-failure? The consultant I saw years ago thought it was. A throwaway line. What? What? He lists the things I’m not. Not breathless, not coughing, not fatigued. Sometimes, sometimes I am. But that’s because you do a lot during the day, he says. He wants the comfort of it being just another menopausal symptom. So let it be so. I will see it through. Upside down.

Wolf-howling. It was a phrase one of the BBC journalists used in his piece for From Our Own Correspondent. Wolf-howling. A man howling up the wolves. I’m 30 % successful, he tells the journo. What do you do if you encounter a wolf? Keep calm, said the wolfman, and make yourself big.

There wasn’t a light on in the architect’s house when I climbed the hill. Has he gone? Has he died? I know he has Alzheimer’s, he told me himself. The house, though I’ve never been up close, is stunning. In the Le Corbusier style but without the concrete, it is boxy, all one level and with floor to ceiling windows. And high up on the hill. Looking down, surrounded by rhododendrons. And then, later looking out on it from our kitchen window, the light was back. Good. He is safe then. I always say good morning to him in my head when I reach the crest of the little hill. I hope you are well, I say to him, to no one, to the air, to the darkness.

The air was warm as I walked. The warmth brought out its perfumes. I smelt sweets. Confectionery. Sarsaparilla. Two lovers were sitting  on the bench in the little park at the bottom of North Road, the voices murmuring in the semi-gloom. And then its down the hill to the sea to kick the bar and two men are sitting on the giant deckchair, swinging their feet and eating chips. Morning, I say. Another pair of smoochers lent against the Prom railing. She had one of her legs up curled around his body. Urgent. Hungry. I remember that feeling. Do you ever really forget? I try not to stare and walk on. A police van is blocking South Road. A girl with a shock of blond hair is gesticulating. A red circle of light flashes on the chest of each of the police officers. I smell washing powder. The window of the Castle pub is still lit yellow. A honey, custardy yellow.

I did Reiki on myself last night. I felt my body fizz, I told him at breakfast. Yeh, he said, mine does too when you do it to me.

The rain is coming, it spots the window. I hope he managed to walk. Coffee then work. I think about an exercise that I might try. A short thing , a kind of deconstruction of a book, her about finding her real mother. A shorthand abbreviated to capital letters that note when she goes back or forward or is in the present.  I want to see if there is a rhythm, a pattern. It seems like a hotchpotch, a diving back and forth but I’m sure it isn’t. She implies a spontaneity. Do I have it? Can I allow myself to just write it? Enough. Time to work. Coffee then work. Adieu.

Lists

In a radio adaptation of Robert McFarlane’s book Landmarks he wrote of the ‘list poets’. I’d never heard of them. When I can’t write I write lists. Sometimes I sew them. Lists of things I listen to when I sew. My working soundscape.

We were both born into harsh winters, he and I. We are so close, so connected. My love, my shaman, my guide, my confidante, my steadiness.

We sat with my back resting against his shoulder and talked. I looked at the sun over the sea and he lulled me into a surrender, an acceptance of what is. Showing me. Showing me that what is is OK. Is alright.

I love him for that, and for that, and that.

Fearful (7)

It takes so little to unsettle me these days. I am too soon upended, floored and flummoxed. Something is out to get me. Or at least that is how it feels. I am consequently, on my guard and edgy. I snap and jar. And yet how I long for peace. An internal peace that radiates outwards. A warmth. I try to be kind, thoughtful, aware, doing my work, whether it be professional or domestic with care. But I feel so vulnerable, so open to attack. From whom or what, I cannot say. He thinks it is the menopause. That that is the root cause of my anxiety, my waterlogging, my  breathlessness, my un-wellness. Is it? Is that all it is? After all women have lived through it for centuries, haven’t they? Is it truly such an affliction? I want to accept it. To embrace it. To see the changes it wrings through my body as a good thing, a curious, a wondrous thing. I am ageing. I am moving towards my death, my cancellation. And I am ready, now or later, whenever, to return to my starting place. That nothingness. I don’t mind. Truly, I don’t. But before that comes I’d like to live as well, as kindly, as openly, as joyfully as I may. But how? With this fear, this fearfulness assailing me?

I managed an hour’s rest yesterday afternoon. I’d finished the piece and A. had photographed it. A treat was due. I slept while he watched the World Cup on TV. The dream I woke from had played out what we’d discussed in the car earlier. There was an old woman. She was tiny, miniscule. She’d worked as a trolley dolly on a train and had been promised something different, better, more lofty. But her friend and colleague had tricked her, or so she believed, and there she was back on the train doing exactly what she’d always done but this time the train was speeding backwards. He was hurt that she was disappointed. And pointed out the compensation that was that this time she was to dress up. When I saw her, before I woke she was wearing an immense bright red wig like one of Ken Dodd’s diddy men high on her head and a tartan skirt.

This morning I woke with the sentence: ‘ There are little boys everywhere..’ in my head.

I called myself ordinary. I said it, allowing it to be. Not to me you aren’t, he said. I know. But in essentials I am. Does it matter? Really? Just put one foot in front of the other. Do the best you can.

It was warm as I walked this morning. And in the house when I returned. The sun of the evening before had left a residue of comfort. I like that. Laurie Lee wrote of the joy of a Spanish morning after the heat of the day before. I keen towards the simplicity of existence he writes of. The walking, the violin playing for money, the sleeping in barns, the eating of figs and goat’s cheese. A life stripped bare of care, of the heaviness of ownership. I have had such moments as a young woman. They are rare these days. This body is a weight as is my mind with it’s demanding ten thousand things. I have still so much to learn, to slough off.

And there is such cruelty. We are capable of so much. Listening to the programme about noise and it’s re-envisaging of the amphitheatre in Ancient Rome where they were purported to have killed ten elephants. That sound was truly dreadful. And the crowds watched and bayed. They chose to watch. The same baiting goes on today but less overt though just as cruel. Is it not simpler to just be kind?