Author Archives: Ellen Bell

About Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.

Collywobbles

He was outraged. They’ve clearly never had anxiety, he said. It was a crossword answer. The clue was something like ‘serious anxiety’. Collywobbles. Well, I take it to mean ‘butterflies’ or a slight nervousness over an event or doing something in public. However, I do love that about language, it is so stretchy, so versatile and can mean so many different things to different people. We talked about ‘stool pigeon’ in length too. Apparently, in the 16th century it meant a decoy. A pigeon was literally tied of fixed to a ‘stool’ or in those days a ‘stoal’ or tree stump to act as bait for a hawk. Poor thing. The crossword clue was police informer. (I can’t help singing that Kid Creole and the Coconuts song in my head.) I get a bit cross when they don’t come, the crossword answers, that is. And this morning I was all over the shop with my Sudoku. Sometimes my brain is mush. As is my body. Poor love. She grows old. Battered. We all do I suppose. My legs have returned to feeling heavy after changing my medication back. At least I no longer have the headaches, though apparently the cardiac consultant will want to see me. Shouldn’t they concentrate on those with real need?  I just need to live gracefully with it. So many people are in real pain. Like the woman in Tesco’s. We saw her at the doctors. He recognised her before I did. (I wander around this town in a constant state of anonymity, never assuming that I will be known or that I will know anybody. Don’t get me wrong, I like i.) We asked her about it when we saw her this morning. She winces with it. It’s her back. It is crumbling at the base of her spine. The pain killers have little impact. She takes morphine-based ones and her whole paracetamol allowance daily. It only really starts kicking in in the afternoon, she says. She leans to one side, and hobbles as she walks. The other woman, the one with what we suspect to be Parkinson’s, also hobbles. The halt and the lame. Such nice people. I do not regret the change. And the lovely MA student on the till. So elegant and gently-spoken.  

They promised wall-to-wall sun and now there is cloud. Heigh-ho. So be it.

A programme this morning on the radio about the Saharan people living in refugee camps. Some were born there. Such strength. They were working on their music as a way of expressing their plight. That longing for a homeland. I cannot know what that is. I do not belong here. Or there. I am moved by such stories, both real and fiction. A thin veil divides them. The mother in Costello’s novel who gave her boy-child all she could and then suffers the grief of his rejection and longing for a father that he has never known. After all that she gave him. Can we blame him? Did she feel the same when her daughter went on a similar search? She came back disappointed, but even so, the implication was that what she had wasn’t enough.

We will soon slough these bodies off, but until we do there is the pain to manage. The pain of living, of being alive. It is a manifestation. How does one  live well with it? You’ve just got to get on with it, said the woman in Tesco’s.

Tiara

It was still there when I walked past this morning on my way home. He’d picked it up off the pavement as we’d walked by on Monday afternoon and placed it on the low wall outside one of the terraced houses. Some little girl will be very sorry to have lost it. A piece of gimcrack, fake silver with paste diamonds. I would’ve loved it, worn it in the privacy of my own room, fantasising about princes and marriage and being saved as I did all those years ago.

I passed it again this morning up the path to work. Still there, like the tiara, though made sodden by the rain. Poor love. Is it a shrew or a mouse? He couldn’t say when I showed him the picture. Has she or he (who can tell) left behind a family, a nest of them waiting to be fed? It is all so chaotic. So beyond our control. And now he must lie there till he decomposes or until whatever it was that killed him decides to return. Raptors won’t take him now.

He was at his window when I returned from my walk. My heart always sinks when I see him there, the light behind him, putting him in shadow. Does he feel the same when he sees me climb the steps? We have to converse, it is expected. The rain held off, I see, he says. Yes, I reply, but it’s a bit breezy out there. Good for blowing off the cobwebs, eh? he replies. Yes, I say, definitely. Definitely. What else can I say? I cannot think. See you then. Cheers now, he replies. Is that enough? Was it sufficient? Did I offend? Och, it is so tricky. And I so want to remain in my bubble of silence and inner thoughts. It’s the same when I am out walking. I am rarely interrupted but sometimes it is inevitable. Like today. I saw them at a distance. Two figures looking lost. He looked like he was carrying a bag. They both swayed a little. I kept my distance. Excuse me, the woman called out, a generously built woman with a head of thick peroxided hair. Yes, I said. Where’s the back of The Glengower? she asked. Oh, I said trying to think, to picture it in my mind, it’s one of these. She sounded disappointed, Oh, OK, and returned her gaze to her phone. They were both standing in the middle of the road. It was not yet 3 am. Continuing my walk up the hill I came upon the sign and called out to them. It’s here. Hello, it’s here. Though how they intended to get in, who knows, the back door looked very firmly closed.

The best thing about having to go into work is the reading I do. I love this book. I lap it up, like cream. (I’ve used that metaphor before for books and reading but still.) She is such a well-observed character and I feel such an affinity for her. Do others feel the same when they read it? (I hope if they make a film of it, which they inevitably will, they will use an ordinary looking actress to play the part. None of those impossibly beautiful American stars made to look dull by simply wearing a pair of glasses and so-called ‘natural make-up’,  please). And relationship with ‘Mummy’ is harrowing.

I wrote it on the form. He saw me and was pleased. I usually write both. But for the meantime the one word is sufficient. Is it true? Is that what I am? Will I do the other again? I just want to get this written. It feels right to do so. Even though throughout each day I do sink with it. Negative thoughts play around inside my head – is it good, is it worthy of my time, should I be doing something more useful, less indulgent? I just don’t know. I just do what I think I need to do. To purge myself of her, but also to come to know her, to forgive and feel compassion. It is necessary. A therapy of sorts, clearly, though I cringe at it, at it’s hackneyed-ness. I want to be wiped clean. To order it. To sort it. And interesting things are coming up, things I have long forgotten. I want to be free of her. And not just of her but of the her I created, gave credence to. And in turn her too. All of them. I might be nothing at the end of it, have nothing more to say, for it has all been about her, really. If so, so be it. I will be lighter, smaller, ready to be peaceful. At rest. And he is so supportive, so continually kind and loving. How can anyone be so blessed as me? And I am not always as kind as I can be. Help me to be so. Please.

Medicine

We got there a little early. I was nervous and wanted it done. Done and dusted. What a day of it. Both ends of the spectrum – from traditional Western to herbal Chinese medicine. Both opaque, at least to me. She gave me a form to fill it. Call me when you’re done, she said, slipping back through the curtains. Oh, dear, I hadn’t realised she was with a patient. It wasn’t what I’d expected. A small shop right on the main street. Two doors, the one on the right with a little label saying her name. Inside a counter flanked behind and to the side and beneath with shelf after shelf of plastic bottles full of stuff. I peered at them trying to work out what they were. Some looked like dried mushrooms. There were powders, dried flower heads, seeds, twigs, roots. Everything, naturally, was in Chinese. To the right of the counter, beside the white curtain was an Acupuncture chart. Her voice had been a little brusque on the phone. But seeing her was different. A small woman with a broad face and smile. She had on silver pumps beneath her white coat. She asked me questions about the form, scribbling down my responses in Chinese script. Your condition is not serious, she said, that sharpness returning, or was I just imagining it? Take these, she said handing me two bottles of pills, and come back and see me in ten days. No spicy foods, coffee or chocolate. Tea was alright, apparently. But not chocolate, she reiterated.

I told him later what a lad I’d met as a teenager had said to me. He’d been a son of a friend of family, I think, and he’d come to our house. We were ‘playing’, as kids are always told to do. He’d offered me some chocolate and I’d refused. You look like someone who likes chocolate, he said. I was mortified.

I’d been conscious of my resistance, no my mistrust, of the smiling woman all along. And how I grieved over it. And yet compared to the English doctor I’d seen in the morning, her consultation had been in-depth and knowing. I felt her kindness. No acupuncture? he asked her. Not necessary, she said. I felt a little fraudulent, especially when her patient hobbled out from behind the curtain on two crutches. The doctor was kind too but distracted, she hadn’t done her homework and couldn’t answer my questions. (Her surgery had smelt of coconut when we’d walked in.) How I hate giving myself over to traditional practitioners. I do not like what they offer and I’ve felt unwell on these last drugs. Enough. What a cul-de-sac. And she’d forgotten why I come originally. We shall see what these tiny black pills do. Twice a day. One bottle tastes of aniseed and the other of licorice.

He called the hospital on my behalf. They want another blood test. Bummer. He frets that I won’t do what I am told. They’re ACE inhibitors, the doctor said, but I’ve forgotten what that stands for. The consultant, she tells me is thorough. Aren’t I just wasting their time? Can’t I go to that little shop on the high street for everything?

There was dead field mouse on the path as I walked up to work. No murders beneath my bedroom window last night.

The rain is holding off. He went out with an umbrella nevertheless.

Mary Costello’s writing is so tender. ‘Never in my whole life did I have one iota of courage’, the main protagonist of Academy Street, Tess, says to herself. Then, describing her neighbour’s, a black woman called Willa, flat: ‘warm, a glorious place, a hum of heaven’. I’ve ordered it from the library, I couldn’t help it even though I’ve two more to finish. And I’ve bought a second-hand copy of Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. Got to strike while the iron is hot, eh?

The TED talk yesterday was on altruism. The Gold Coats in the San Francisco prison, inmates who voluntarily help other inmates with dementia and the philosopher from Princeton who talked about effective altruism. That is, giving intelligently. I never thought my life would have reach. I am a small person, not here to do grand things. I can maybe help one or two lives but no more, no I haven’t the confidence or the courage. Is it enough? Is it ever enough to just be? I sat on the bench in the sun and thought about being empty, empty of everything. Clean, shiny and clean. This is why I am writing this to make myself white, fresh, a clean slate. And then, then perhaps I will have something to give.

But I will think about world poverty, the eradication of disease and make my small contribution, I promise.

A Trembling

It was a crossword clue. We do the Saturday Telegraph one on a Sunday night. Regular as clockwork. We are both so routinous. It holds us in place. Sometimes I want to fight against it, run a mile, but other times I know what it does, how it keeps us feeling safe. So, yes, we do this particular crossword on a Sunday. The compiler writes long-winded clues that often drive him, as crossword-reader-out-er, quite mad. But they are also lyrical and so suggestive of a certain class. They’d know that one in Beswick, wouldn’t they? he says, when for instance she’s included a clue about some obscure herb to used in French cuisine. It was a lovely image, though it took me several goes to come up with the answer. The collective noun was ‘a trembling’. A trembling of greenfinches. Isn’t that beautiful?

It woke me. Only half an hour before my alarm was to go off. It was pitch black, thick night. And just below my window. I couldn’t work out what it was. It wasn’t a bird. It sounded like a screeching, a screaming, a howling. It was primeval, desperate, a sound of such fear. It was fighting for its life, this creature and letting out a final death yell. My heart went out to it. Was it a shrew? I remember our farm cats catching them when I was a child. The screaming they made defied the tininess of their bodies. Or was it a mouse being caught by an owl? It sounded mammalian. Poor love. And then there was a flurrying sound, of bushes and leaves being shaken. I hope it was swift, that its heart took it before the real pain of slaughter did. We can do nothing in those circumstances – it’s like Hartley’s story of the Shrimp and the Anemone, to interfere might do more damage. It shook me, I was unsettled as I walked, life is so fragile. All.

I keep walking past her door. I am to see her today. Can I trust? Or is it all bunkum?

Bowl

I heard a crash upstairs in the kitchen. He’d been doing the drying-up, I’d come down to get ready for bed. What’s happened? I called up. I’ve broken a bowl, he said. Not my bowl? I asked, going into an immediate panic as to what I was going to use for breakfast.

You see, we don’t have a lot of crockery. My fault, I like to keep things small, contained, and not crowded. So there is mostly one or at the most two of each necessity. Which makes the breaking of one a problem. But I’d calmed down by the time I got upstairs. It needed to be cleared up for a start. Nothing like practical measures to calm the nerves. Then I mourned it. My white bowl, that was becoming a little grey in its dip from all the washing and scouring. But I used it for everything, salad, soup, yoghurt and fruit. I have a favourite cup too and plate. I’m a puritan, always have been. But, I thought this morning as I made shift with something else, change is good. It makes one see the world with fresh eyes. And he didn’t mean to do it. And he gets so cross with himself when he is clumsy or ham-fisted. I don’t want to exacerbate that habit. It is easily done, things just slip from your fingers. Besides something new will come in its place.

I sorted through my drawers yesterday. All is tidy. Most calming for some one of my disposition.  

And look the sun has come out. What could be nicer?

Plumber’s Block

It was from a podcast produced by two songwriters who interviewed other songwriters about writing songs. They were ordinary blokes. I can’t remember their names. Nice voices. Down to earth. They were talking to the presenter of Radio 4 Extra’s Podcast Hour about what they learnt from talking to the great and the good of the music world. That you’ve just got to keep on doing it. Get something down, one of them said, and not wait for the muse to strike. It’s a job. You never hear about ‘Plumber’s Block’ do you? he said. Fair point, well made.

It came. It fits. Finally my bed is made whole after all these years. I didn’t think I could manage it. I’d resigned myself to its denuded state. It came all the way from Virginia, USA. Marvellous. A little swirl ball. Tiny. Brass. And it fitted. I am cock-a-hoop. No more rattling.

We went into Boots. The pharmacist looked at it over his counter. A small man, pale skin, a little officious. I’m not sure, he said, it could be one of two things. You look like you like the sun, he said. Was he passing judgement? I felt a little defensive. Yes, I said, a little. Both of the possibilities are self-limiting, he said, they will go eventually. It could be a couple of weeks, months or years. Fine. I shall live with it. It is good for me this quiescence.

Still not sleeping well. I woke five times last night. I pee for England. I know it’s counterintuitive but you have to drink lots of water, she said.

The scene keeps playing over in my mind. Have I told you of my fascination with nuns? One of my soothsayers said I was one, once. I believe so. It’s from the Midwife, the last series. They are all at the Mother House. And its  the nun’s dormitory. It is winter, nearing Christmas but there is a breeze from an open window. Each nun has her own bed partitioned off by white muslin curtains. Everything is white. They all sleep in long white cotton nighties buttoned up at the neck. A nun comes in ringing a bell, they all rise behind their curtains which are opened at the front. Each nun, a figure in white with a white skull cap on her head, kneels at their bed. They chant their prayers in unison. It is stunning. The white curtains move in the breeze. My heart aches for such simplicity, and cool, silent acquiescence. And yet there are internal battles, always. Therein lies the dark. It’s about the ‘quarrel’, the soon to be new Mother Superior played by Miriam Margolyes (she is marvellous, marvellous, I saw her on stage acting out most of Dicken’s women, though he can’t stand her) says. The internal quarrel between what the body and mind want and what we are called upon to do. I’m a sucker for it all. Schmaltz and all. (Sorry, Brenda.)

Must be off. Drawers to tidy. Order to impose. And tea.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the radio play about Gertrude Stein. I can’t remember the playwriter, but it was stupendous. A solo performance by Angela Pleasance. She is talking about all the artists and writers she had known in Paris, and all the while making a cake. A Liberation Fruit Cake. I ate it up.

Now off with you.

Uninterrupted

It’s my first interrupted morning of work in a while. When there are countless other things to do, I long for such days, yet, when one comes I am a little daunted. There are no excuses, its just me and the work. I think about my writing as I walk. My fear of doing it badly, consumes me at times. But what is bad writing? I just need to write it, this constant judgement, of taking its temperature is not only debilitating for me but detrimental to the making of it. I just need to get the words down. It is that simple. All the tweaking is to be done later. I did still write yesterday, as I have done everyday for the last few weeks, even if I was interrupted and could only write in bouts. I did it. That’s the important thing – to, as Julia Cameron, says, ‘show up at the page’. And new, unexpected things are revealing themselves, as they will if I stay with it. I was listening to a radio documentary this morning about an Act-o-thon, a fifty-hour non-stop improvised performance. About three-quarters of the way through, when the actors are beyond exhausted, something that they called the ‘lizard-brain’ starts kicking in. Apparently things just come out that you have no knowledge of, or control over. I think I need to access this. Somehow.

We sat on a bench opposite the library in the sun waiting for my next appointment. Somehow threw some bread out of an upper floor window onto the patch of grass behind us. Four seagulls immediately swooped down. One bird got hold of the largest piece and swallowed it whole. Then it had to regurgitate it as it had got stuck in its gullet. Back it went, down its throat, the other birds crowding round, trying to snatch it. And there it stayed, a great lump sticking out of his neck. All the while he talked about an article he’d read in the local newspaper about people he’d known as a child. I love the hum of his voice, his pleasure in small things.

A few spots of rain then calm. I’ll work soon, but coffee first.

Coconut

Niamh Cusack is reading an abridged version of Mary Costello’s Academy Street on the radio each morning this week. I am lapping it up, like a cat with cream. Costello writes so beautifully, though what I mean by that I am not so sure. The language is lyrical without being showy, it washes over me. Tess is a gentle being, so sensitive, so aware of emotions that go unstated by those around her. The way she feels about her father, her fellow nurses. And then the descriptions of the farmhouse, the radio not being turned on again after her mother’s death. And Cusack’s voice is sublime. Pure honey. I don’t think I can relinquish these twilight hours, for all my need for sleep. And walking at that time brings such a mix of fear and bliss. No, not bliss but a sense of peace. The world is holding its breath at that time. Yes, there are the drunks, the loutish shouting but there is also the bread being baked, the cry of the birds, the rush of the waves, fishing boats leaving the harbour and the approach of morning. And I am mostly alone. In Costello’s book she had Tess admitting to herself that she always chooses to do the night shift in the Dublin hospital for it is the only time she can be alone. I understand that. The woman with the bag was walking towards me today and she took a detour into the ‘ship’ to avoid crossing my path. I smiled to myself. It was clumsily done but I do understand. Catriona played Robert Schumann’s Songs of Dawn this morning on Radio 3 as I did my stretching. He called them Songs without Words, or was that Clara? Songs of Dawn are about the approach and awakening of morning. It was coming up as I listened. A beautiful morning today. There is sun, full sun already.

I know that I need to trust. I want to. She sounded a little brusque on the phone. How do they make a living? Will it be clean? Is it authentic? Will she be intuitive? Am I doing the right thing? I want to give it a try. And besides, who cares, I no longer give blood anymore, too many false starts.

The nurse again today. More pricking and prodding. I’d like to get beyond my body. Sail above it, floating.

I cannot eat coconut, it lies in my gut unwanted and undigested. And yet, I love it. I can picture so clearly those street-sellers in Spain with their barrows of it, the little jets of waters keeping them moist. So I buy products that smell of it, lotions and body washes. It’s the same with chocolate. And now there is to be no more onions. What is that smell? he kept asking, wrinkling his nose in disgust. I gave up garlic for him and now I must do the same with onions. So be it. He forgoes cooked meat for me. Fairs fair.

Not much time before I have to go. Half an hours writing. Better than nothing. Let’s not be precious about it. Workaday. Shall I buy a copy of Academy Street or perhaps they will have it in the library? Work now, sweetie.  

Furbelow

I walked back home from work, as I’ve been doing most Wednesdays after the pause for thought booking. She is such a sweetie. A lay preacher, who is almost skittish in her seeming shyness, her face pinking up as she speaks. I find it delicious. I asked what her subject was today. Boris, she said. I took the other way home through the University’s main entrance and down Penglais Hill. There were two rabbits on one of the lawns, one was black. They appeared to be a pair, eating close to each other, companionable. The campus grounds are awash with them. They suddenly burst out from under bushes when you least expect it, before scurrying away, their scuts bobbing up and down behind them. The sun came out and shone on my back. The traffic at that time in the morning was minimal. I could see a mist over the sea. This is a good life, I thought to myself. Perhaps not what I’d expected for myself, but it is rich. I am loved, cared for, I have enough and there is work for me to do. I am learning to write. It is enough, that. I need to always be learning. Always. And my marriage is a good thing, a wonderful thing. What a gift, eh?

I like the words that come to me during our crossword sessions at the table. De rigeur was one yesterday. Neither of us were sure about whether it meant the fashionable thing to do or the opposite. He was right in the end. I like to encounter words that I don’t know. It reminds me of the time when reading was a new thing. That deciphering of strange words, like images, like pictures, new to the tongue and mind. Cupidity was another one from yesterday. It means greed, apparently. I had come across it before. Not what you’d think. Is it specifically about greed for food, perhaps? And then later, one of the nuns, the posh, head-girl-ish nun in Midwife used the word furbelow. Yummy. It means trimmings, the edge of a petticoat.

It was excruciating, I had to grip the bed to manage the pain. She is good. She continues regardless of my tensing up. So Scandinavian. We call her The Brute. She told me of the baby seagull that she was feeding dogfood.  Go and have a look, she said. It was trapped in the space between the roofs, outside one of her salon’s windows. I could hear it calling. They aren’t helicopters, she said, they can’t fly upwards. Had they fallen out of the nest? For there had been siblings. They had died from starvation, hence the dog food for this one. I felt guilty, she said. I should have fed them. It turns out he (assuming he is a he) ate their remains. It made me feel a little queasy. Will his wings get stronger, will he fly his way out? Poor love. I hung a prawn on a piece of string, she said, hoping to encourage him to fly up to it. It didn’t work. His calls of distress echoed through the salon as she pummelled my poor body.

Time to work. A misty-ness has descended but it is still warm. The sea is a line of blue. I am blessed. Truly.

Blackbirds

He read from The Times’ Nature Diary at breakfast this morning and apparently this week is the last time we will hear blackbirds singing till next February. How sad. But the robins will be starting their chorus soon and, as the writer says, it is beautiful. A rook was perched on the roof outside my studio window when I came in just now to begin work. It is a struggle to start. I long to play truant, to go on a trip, to fly away. But I cannot. I need this regimen. Write every day, five days a week. It is the only way. The only way to get it written, to get it out.

He seems perkier this morning, and went off for his walk with something like enthusiasm, wearing his bag and his shorts and looking like a young lad about to begin a paper trail. Is that what they are called? I seem to remember they featured one in The Railway Children.

The Midwife was harrowing last night, with such an unexpected twist. Inevitably I dreamt of it, my subconscious trying to making sense of it, ironing out the conflict.

All has gone quiet. Work had tailed off. It is good. I have no choice but to focus on my own work. Yesterday’s writing was a turgid, but I kept going. It is my job now, at least for the next twelve months. No genius required, just the turning up each day to write and tell the story. Am I being disloyal? I think of this all the time. What would she have thought? Perhaps she would’ve been flattered. Somedays I get lost with it. Will today be clearer? I only woke once last night. Good-o.