Author Archives: Ellen Bell

About Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.

In my eyes…

I catch these snatches of conversation. They are voluble at that time of the day, chatty, companionable with each other, at ease as they make their way back to their shared houses or student halls. There were four of them. Three lads and one girl. Two lads walked behind. Ignorant women, one of them was saying. A conversation that was layered over by the girl ahead of him saying to another boy: In my eyes everything happens for a reason, so like… It struck me that phrase. In my eyes. Did she mean that? I’d passed another group of students outside the Pier Pressure night club with its flashing neon sign above the door – Club Open. The words were reflected in the window of the ice cream parlour, back to front. One of the students was pontificating to the other two. His voice was odd, strained, breathy. It was ex-cruc-iating, he was saying, pulling and stretching at the word. I stood at the end of the Perygyl and thought how much I loved to stand before the sea and how all the discomfort of getting myself there was worth it. And then I saw it. A huge light in the sky. A falling star? A meteor? No, it was too big and moving too fast. It was a helicopter’s search light. What was wrong? I’d noticed a light on in the RNLI office and could see five or six of the crew sitting around chatting. One of them was laughing. And I’d see one of their dinghies on the tarmac ready to launch from the harbour. Perhaps it was a training exercise. Every day something has changed, shifted, altered. Sometimes I feel a little put out. This is my world, my time, my space and no one asked me. Silly, I know. There was a huge trawler in the marina, and a fish lorry parked up by the lines of boats in dry dock – Baited Breath et al. The searchlight kept going on and off. At one point it skimmed the sea. A flooding of yellow.

There is a numbness down both my legs. Something must be trapped, he said. I try to walk through it. Pushing my heels down hard, trying to keep the blood flow going. And I think of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid with her tail transformed into legs, cut, severed, so that she might walk and dance and be with her love. Every step is a knife cut, a stabbing of pain. Exquisite pain. It haunted me as a child, especially as her ‘love’ doesn’t seem to notice or indeed care. What a waste, I thought, giving up her tail, her watery home, for him and to just end up as foam.

We sat in the car and he told me of his fear. I had no idea. I sat and listened, really listened. It hung there between us. What can I say? There is always a choice. He doesn’t have to have it done. But to not do so… I can’t protect him. Life demands courage of us. It is as simple as that.

He tried. He got through the day. It is enough.

Does that make sense?

I’ve heard a few women from this town and of a similar age use the same phrase. Do they know that they use it over and over? When we were young it was ‘you know’ after every sentence. It’s sweet. And I am not judging. She was so kind, so gentle with me. You need to cry, she said. It will help you heal. A pretty woman, no not exactly pretty, but fresh, clean and energetic. She got hot working on me. Flushed even. I am fortunate with the ‘healers’ in this town. Her and ‘The Brute’, they are amazing in their way, and modest with it.

I’ve walked and now I am to walk again, up the hill to work. I want to go soon, get it over with before my back packs in. She sent me more pictures of her. So wonderful. She is loving the Christmas present, she writes. Small things, tender things, they all help in these dark days.

He has a new bed. It smells funny but it is simple, clean in its lines. I think he likes it, though we both struggle with change, however welcome. I achieve so little these days. Just getting through. I read and read. Make notes and think about my own writing, knowing that I am not ready. Won’t be for a while. I want to get it right, to know what I want it to be. I have no template for this way of living, it is all so wobbly, so unsure. I try to be kind, to succour him.

Her book was amazing, so angry, so full of hurt but deeply compassionate too. She writes of sitting at her desk and not writing. I need to get to a stage when I have to do it. To get it out. Not yet. Not yet.

Skipping Man

I saw him yesterday as I walked the Prom. He was coming towards me. He held a radio to his ear, which struck me as oddly quaint, and was singing and skipping as he did so. He didn’t cease as we passed. He was lost in his joy.

She talked while he walked beside her. She was a wide-hipped blonde with just a pink boob tube on in this cold. So basically, she was saying as they strode down North Road, since she left him….

Town was busy this morning, full of kids. Two lads propped a friend between them, who clearly had lost the use of his legs, as they ambled there way back to Halls. Another two lads were sitting on the wall by South Beach, one was singing to something playing on his mobile phone. Well screeching really. How does it feel to be so carefree? Is it youth or booze?

He is trying. I am trying. Yesterday we both imploded. We walk through the same murk. I couldn’t get myself out of bed this morning. Lucky I have two alarms. I did it in the end and I walked. What super human strength it takes sometimes to take myself out there into that dark. Physio today. May she help my back. Please.


Sometimes I think he wants to drown me in his misery, to pull me down under the watery blackness with him. I think that is the only thing that will satisfy him, for it will show the hugeness of it, the terror of it, the fatality of it. It takes all my strength these days to resist such a submersion. I try to keep buoyant, taking on a kind of brusque, practical demeanour that I do not feel. I too am bleak. I too am floundering but someone has to keep steady, to deal with the details, to keep this life of ours turning over, ticking, breathing. I come into his room in the morning and I know even before my hand is on the door handle how he is. That quiet voice, that whisper of a hello, or sometimes not even that. This is not judgement, believe me, I know that he feels it, is terrified, no, it is an observation. I need to pay attention, to keep a close eye on what is happening, so that I know my own responses. I walked my whole walk again. I want to get my back strong again. It is tired after the three miles, wanting rest and to not have to hold itself ramrod straight. I encourage him to eat. He probably wouldn’t if I wasn’t here. I try to tempt an appetite in him that has almost gone. No appetite for life for the struggle of it. For the challenge of it. He is powerful in his misery, much more so than when he is joyous. A rare thing. He keeps strong emotion tight in. Either end of the spectrum unsettles him. There is love. Always. But frustration too. I want help. I want to be helped and there is nothing. Nothing. As it was when I tried to pull him up off the floor. There is no help. He is helpless. Will not, can not help himself. I was brought up to be tenacious. She, god rest her soul, was always so. Almost to the last. My darling love. So bitter, so sharp, so unloving. I write to understand her, for by understanding her I understand myself. We were locked into each other. It was always so. Will the grief ever pass? I dreamt of my little one. She was putting her finger in my mouth, and smiling gleefully at the possibility of it. And she spoke my name. She knew me. What a joy that was. To be known by her.

Work was nicer yesterday. I was spoken to. I engaged. They listened. I was part of something. It was because she was there. That ray of sunshine. How are you? She asks. She asks about my work. Wants to know, to share. And then the others take note. I exist. They forgot. She didn’t. It was enough. For now. A shadow of comfort in a dark, dark time. So be it. I can manage. Always.  

Fat Cat

Betty has got fat. All of a sudden, it seems. She is hardly recognisable. Watch out for the cat, I said to him as he dropped me off. Where? he said. It’s just gone under the car. I think it’s Betty. It can’t be, he said. That great fat thing. But it was. She scampered ahead of me as I climbed the steps onto the walkway, as she always does, though this time she sat down in the hallway of the other block, watching me as I went past. What could have happened to her? Surely cats don’t grow fat of their own volition? Though Donnie in Cambridge did. Named after the film Donnie Darko, he was a raggedy cat, ears bitten off in fights and a great galumphing body that took several goes to get over our fence. (He took to shitting in our garden and I would screech at him from our back door and he’d hurl himself against the fence in an attempt to get away.)

I walked my whole walk today. It’s made me tired but I did it. We see lots of stroke survivors walking the Prom. Minor victories are ours, us hobblers. They drag their unresponsive legs and arms up and down, up and down, trying to grow stronger and do what they’ve always done but slower, much much slower.  I think about pain, what is bearable what is not. That girl in the Life photo from the Vietnam War, naked, running screaming from the blast. She was on the radio talking about the pain of the burns, how the heat hurts her skin, even after all this time. That is pain. To have all your skin aflame.

I cried at supper. I didn’t know the grief at not being able to see them was there. He understands. And when we are sitting on his bed watching Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time (it is easy on the eye and mind) he gets out his iPad and shows me the pictures of her opening the present again. What joy she brings me. She is so open, so open to joy. And she can stand now. All on her own.

All I wanted to do was sit still. My work is about sitting still, my volunteering is about sitting still. I want to still myself and engender peace in myself and others by doing so. It doesn’t come naturally. Is it reason enough? I suspect they want more practical help. Doing stuff. I don’t think it is for me.

They burst out laughing. The radio was on in the office and they were both working away and then the laughter came. I broke their conversation. Did she mispronounce something? I asked. No, no, they said, still laughing. And they tried to explain. The presenter was wooden, apparently, though the nuances of this was lost on me being in Welsh, and she’d just used the word natural. For some reason this had cracked them up. Lost in translation, I think. Do people seem to laugh louder in a strange language?

She was on the corner as we drove past. A tiny woman, a bag of bones. Her legs were bare under her faux fur coat, as was her midriff. The coat gaped open to reveal a bra and mini skirt. Her legs were patched with bruises. She was a mess, a scrawny apology for a woman. Do you think it’s drink? he asked. Or drugs, I said. I don’t know. And there had been the man outside Marks and Spencer. I see him all the time, he said. He was digging about in the bin. His clothes, having long lost their definition were rags. He was grey, a grey indistinct mound, scrabbling. A vision out of Dickens carrying an M&S carrier bag. Do you think we see the unloved, the disenfranchised more when we are grey and gloomy ourselves? I ask him. Is our awareness heightened?

Bleak, bleaker, bleakest. But we saw the snowdrops, a great bank of them.


We should have been journeying down there today, stopping over with some friends outside Bath to break the drive. She sent me photos to compensate. She looks delighted with the present. A good thing. My heart breaks at the loss of the joy of seeing them. But it cannot be helped. What is that quote from Hotel du Lac? ‘Think Edith, this is when character tells.’ And the word she gave me yesterday, fortitude. Plans go awry. All good intentions can and will be broken. There is another plan. A greater knowing. A greater wisdom. I must yield to it. He needs my care. I wanted to help. I saw myself sitting in peace, offering calm. A fantasy, I think. The reality is much murkier than that.

I watched the moon be eclipsed several times this morning, though I didn’t see the ‘blood moon’ that they promised.  It was lovely to walk in its light, for all the discomfort of my back. I shrink it all. Troubleshoot, trying to weigh up what is possible and what is not. No early morning shop, out with the lark before the crowds. No more night-time driving. He must feel safe.

The woman in the sweat shirt top who carries a plastic bag and smokes was out again this morning. Is she an insomniac? She doesn’t give eye contact, just trundles along in a rolling kind of walk. Is she doing it for the exercise? My back has marks on it, is it bleeding inside? He isn’t sure.

I saw lots of bunnies at the University when I walked up to work, I told him in the car on the way home from coffee. Did you, he said? Then a moment later, he said, what do you mean you saw lots of Brummies? Bunnies, I said, bunnies. There’s no need to shout, he said.


I don’t feel strong. I have lost my strength. It is a fickle thing. I think of her and her running. And she is only a few years my junior. Have I ever been strong? Really? I remember that training session in the gym and how I couldn’t do what she’d organised for me to do. I had no zip, no push. She was surprised, had to adjust her thinking. And I was sad because I’d not lived up to her expectations. I was supple though. Before this back injury. I was supple. I had that. Now that has gone. He is more confident than I. It will heal, he says. I need to think outside of it. It’s happened. Did I ask for it? Didn’t I fantasise just for a moment what it would be like to have the kind of bed rest that she’d had with her neck. But she had a family to go to. I have no one. And I like things done. I still cleaned the flat yesterday. You don’t have to do it, he says. No, I know, but I want it done, I want things to be as normal.

Sometimes I fall  asleep writing this. Just momentarily. And I hear voices, chattering in my head. Have you been happy? someone said. And an elderly woman answered. Yes, she said, I think so. I didn’t walk this morning, thinking I’d benefit from a rest, and knowing that I had to walk up the hill to work. But I miss is it when I don’t go. For all the discomfort. I like to be out  in the fresh air. Alone and thinking. It is productive. It all has to be just as it is. Reduced down. I  need to pay attention, even closer. My food last night, simple as it was, tasted divine. See there is a spark of something like life. No taste of honey. Not yet. Not yet. Be patient, she wrote. Yes.

Cold (13)

For all my discomfort and ensuing self-pity my senses are heightened. I see things, I hear things, I smell things so sharply. They called just as I was about go home. Another booking in two hours time. He couldn’t pick me up, I’d have to walk home and my back was rigid, tired and worn. It had been a long, long day. Just holding it together. Holding him together. The meeting was all wrong. Why am I offering myself when I have nothing to give? I didn’t like the mustiness of the shop, the office and the brusqueness of one of the women. Can you put the fire on? I asked. I’m just doing it now, she said curtly. Oh, my fear of being cold. Their boiler had broken and the landlord is slow in organising a repair. It was ever thus. So I sat there with my coat on the whole time. She is a good woman. The other one. I like her with her warm North-East accent. But she was unwell too. Nothing felt right. And outside the rain came down. I’d left him in the coffee shop reading. We cling to each other, I want to be there for him, offering an arm, and yet I want to be alone too. To run. To just have to think of myself and to get stronger. Walking home in the almost dark was magical. That blue light. But my back felt like it was going to snap. A twig. My body felt like a twig, buffeted by the wind, ready to snap. Snap. Every step jarred. Where is my strength?

She got a sparkly top, said one of the women sitting in a cosy cabal of three on the sofa opposite us in the coffee shop. He knows them all. She’s the one who adopted a child, he tells me. I love such inconsequential chat. I love the sweet nothingness of it. I want to giggle, says a girl to her male friend, as I walk past. Was that a plea for something other, something light? A girl down there has just been sick, said another girl wearing a overly-large jumper, to nobody in particular. I walked though I longed to stay in. It rained when it should’ve been dry. Heigh ho.

The reading is a pleasure. I immerse myself in it. I lose myself, the boundaries of myself. In my dream I was Sarah. I am Sarah. On that road, her box swapped for a knapsack so she can travel lighter. Searching for him. Always.

Cold (12)

Another sketchbook from a visit to Oslo. I must’ve been alone. Had I gone over there to see my aunt? I made sketches in the Munch Museet and clearly had coffee in Coffee People. We’d always intended to go and see the Munch Museet together, Tante Aase and I,  but by then she’d become too infirm to make the train journey. She knew his work inside out. She knew him. Well, vaguely, a school friend of hers lived next door to him and she’d see him in his garden when she visited her. She wasn’t sentimental about the work, she just owned it. I love seeing the paintings. They are part of me too, and Mum and Aase. Pared-down, they are intense in their succinctness.

‘Closed all day Wednesday from now on’ reads the sign in Andy Records on Great Darkgate Terrace. But when is now? I encouraged myself to walk a little further this morning. I want to get stronger. It is still slow going. And I am tired now. He woke gloomy. I’m nervous, he says. Of course you are darling. It is all so uncertain. Just put one foot in front of the other, I say, and it will be alright. Will it? What is alright? It has changed. We have changed. He is sleeping now.

Cold (11)

There was a crying girl sitting on a door step just as I turned into South Road. I heard her before I saw her. I stopped in front of her. Are you alright? Such an inane thing to say, I thought to myself, even as I said it. Of course, she isn’t alright, she’s crying. I scanned her face and body quickly, no sign of violence, blood or injury. I asked her again if she was alright and if there was anything I could do. She looked almost irritated that I’d stopped and questioned her. Petulant even. I’m OK, she said, really. And I sensed her willing me to move on. I did so and she continued her wailing. Perhaps she was trying to attract a particular person’s attention.

We are both looking back, she and I. She on her looks, comparing photos from ten years ago with how she looks now. She does it via Facebook and her friends comment, telling her she is still beautiful. I am doing it through my sketchbooks, trying to find something authentic, a vestige of me that I can believe in. Did you mean for it to be in colour? he asks. Well, yes, cos I thought that was what you wanted. We are at cross-purposes. Would I mind if they alter it? Not at all, I am not precious about it. It pays my rent. I do my best that’s all.

All too often we let the small brave acts go unnoticed yet for some of us they are massive achievements. He came back from the eye test and got into the car driving it around the block. Such a brave thing. And he did it alone. I had no idea. So much has fallen away. But he is trying to find his courage. It is enough.