Author Archives: Ellen Bell

About Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.

Tried

She wrote ‘tried’ instead of tired. Because she is tired and tried. We both are. Tried by this circumstance that beleaguers us, not always, but sometimes. She doesn’t refer to it. Seemingly all is forgotten. Not forgiven, perhaps, but who can know? We do our best, she and I. We muddle along. Sadness, regret, and indeed, grief have beset my morning. I walked wearily, made heavy by it. And yet, in the whole scheme of things it is nothing. A nothing compared to the world’s bank of misery. Misery from floods, cyclones, famine, illness, disease, hunger, conflict, abuse, loneliness. The list is endless, and my trouble is a dot, an iota of discomfort, a stitch in the side. I don’t know how to be with it. I don’t know how to be in most situations. I have lost my compass. Except perhaps when I am working. There is a path then, of sorts, to follow. But even then I can be thrown by a seeming blankness, a mist. Did it help to publicly declare my intention to quit? Somewhat. Though there was a weightiness, a wish to weep. I cannot see my way forward. What am I meant to be doing? I read and read for my writing project but when I visualise myself actually starting to write I’m racked with fear, my back tightens and my breath stops. I can see some detail but the whole of it is still a mystery to me. How can I rest all my hopes on something so tenuous? It’s like tightrope-walking with a blindfold. What do I have? A sense of something, feelings, regrets, some knowledge, a facility to write emotionally, to tell a story – that is all. Is it enough? I know I must wait, let it percolate still. (A sudden image of our old coffee percolator comes to mind – it was hers of course, and was always brought out after they entertained. I remember the bubbling-up noise it made, and the smell pervading the house. The coffee was always served in the those tiny white porcelain cups with an infinitesimal gold line along the rim and with cream.)

I waited for her and she didn’t come. I didn’t mind. I was content to sit in that café, on that slightly stained banquette, drinking camomile tea and watching the street below. We both talked about how we like that café, he and I. (He sat on another table with his paper.) It is a simple, no-nonsense place. And popular. People come for big plates of lunch – lasagna with chips, fish and chips, pie and chips, egg and chips, everything with chips. I like the tea –  always in a metal pot with another one of hot water. During the week the radio is on. On Saturdays there is too much chatter to hear it. It makes me feel calm, uncluttered mentally, sitting there. I am an outsider, and it is peaceful being so.

At least it was an answer. She hasn’t rejected me. I am grateful. The morning looks promising, the sky is blue. Perhaps I will sit out in it later.

The Irish Thing

I can hear someone crying. Loud, keening crying. It’s coming from just outside The Castle pub on South Road. There is a light shining on her head and on the heads of the man and woman with her. She is small with a tiny head and thin, straggly hair. It doesn’t sound like crying brought on by booze. It sounds genuine, heartfelt, painful. The man stands a little apart, his arms folded. He leans towards her as if wanting to comfort but not knowing what to do. The woman is talking to her, cajoling. C’mon, she says clearly trying to cheer her, do the Irish thing.

I walked the other way this morning, encountering the usual noise and antics of a Saturday night in this student-heavy town. Music boomed out of the Pier Pressure night club. A police car’s blue light pulsed, sending electric blue echoes flickering across windows, lamp posts and rubbish bins. Nothing seemed to be happening, no visible sign of a melee. The air was thick with the reek of fried chicken and pizza. Drunken boys tumbled out of the club making their way up Pier Street to join the crowd outside the Why Not? to jostle, play fight and shout before running and stumbling down Darkgate Street. Cannibalism isn’t quite the same as being disabled, one lad shouted to his mates as they walked towards the SPAR.

I welcome the peace of death, that loosening of those blood ties that tangle me in knots. Now that we no longer have to fight for food we have to learn how to live, said the economist in his final programme. Yes, isn’t that so? I long to start again. Like the begun-again quilt, re-started in an effort to get it straight, right, perfect. Will death bring me that? I have no wisdom that I can access for this. I don’t know her. I don’t understand her and yet the blood connection is there, indelibly. Is it enough to muddle along? I am to meet another stranger today so as to talk in my mother’s tongue. It made me so stressed last week. I want to do it, but I get so edgy. And the words are clumsy in my mouth. It is just practice, I know this. Do they mind? E was so sweet, so earnest. What of A?

A still morning. All cleaning done. He is out reading papers and drinking coffee. He plays with our word, using it now all the time. I was cross-patchy, irritated with hoovers and wanting to rest. A heavy tiredness assails me. But I can’t give in, not yet. I’ve booked it anyway. Another’s silence like that is all too familiar. Go anyway. Be brave. Present yourself, ready to love.

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.