Category Archives: Writings

Waiting for Shackleton

Sometimes I cannot distinguish between fiction and reality. No, that is clumsily put, both absorb me equally, taking me over, sucking me in. Stories. All these stories. Stories from the radio and from the books I am reading for my research. What a hotpotch – one day Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, the next E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. I’d never read the latter, just knew of the film. Do you remember how children’s books used to make you feel? I asked him over supper, in-between answering crossword clues and talking about K’s biopsy. I talked of the adventures, the freedom, set against the cosiness, the coming home for tea and the long summers. Yes, he said. As I’ve said I read differently now, but I also succumb more, allowing myself to fall into them, completely. It is a intensely rich experience. Stories making pictures in my head. This time a radio programme about Ernest Shackleton’s banjo. Twenty-two men trapped on the Endurance for months, waiting. Waiting for Shackleton to return. To save them. The banjo entertained them. They sang songs, made up songs, ribald songs. How is it to wait like that? What patience, what fortitude, what trust.

I walked into a brawl. Not a fight exactly but an altercation. I didn’t know what to do. Should I intervene? Three men on the Prom. Big men. Big men shouting, posturing, threatening and shoving. I was walking by and one of them caught my eye in-between the shouting. I thought he was trying to separate the others, prevent a fight, but no he was the aggressor. He stared at me as he jammed the flat of his hands against the man’s chest. But I was walking away, said the man. Then he was on the ground. I kept turning round. He was still on the ground. Still on the ground. I told you, shouted the other. Never, never intervene, he said at breakfast.  

I want to get it all done in one go. I want to get on with it, head down uninterrupted. Hunger wakes him and my plan is scuppered. He is cross and so am I. He nicks his chin shaving again and bleeds and bleeds. It’s the medication. His blood is so thin. He bleeds like a stuck pig. His eye hurts too. Be kind, be compassionate. I’m always a little edgy when we are due to go away. It will be fine. One thing at a time. She was the same, holidays were a campaign. Such work. Bless her. The drudge of it. Just like Bunty Lennox and her sisters – 1950s drudgery. The whole week spent cleaning. Then it starts all over again. Monday wash day. Tuesday the ‘high-dusting’. Wednesday the ‘low dusting’ and so on. It is in my genes and therefore my once a week cleaning never feels enough. Never good enough.

I want to finish all those ‘begun-projects’ in my plan chest. See them through. Face the not-good-enough-ness of them. Like his quilt. Today. Re-start, make it good enough.

Apprenticeship

I don’t dream of you, he said as he tried to explain the dream he’d just woken from. This time he had and I’d been flirting with Ralph McTell and various other folk singers. He’d been jealous. It had unsettled him, somehow but he couldn’t articulate why.

It is a kind of apprenticeship, this reading of mine. I don’t need to justify it to him. He accepts, appreciates the weight of it, the importance of it, to me and to my training as a writer. They all say it. They all say that good writing comes from reading. When I have leisure for it, wrote Anne Bronte in ‘Agnes Grey’. I have time, I don’t see it as leisure, it is a serious business. Don’t feel guilty if it gives you pleasure, he says. And it does and I’m trying not to. Work can be many things, for me it is always, has always been, about learning. In the past I rushed to give what I did credence by affixing myself to a course, an academic course of study. Why do it? I am disciplined enough to guide myself and I want to be the pilot, not some faceless officiousness that forces me into some square hole.  But oh, what a joy the reading is. I’m re-reading some novels that focus on mother-daughter relationships and the process is a wonder. I didn’t get it then but I’m beginning to get it now. I read differently, they said that we would, after the MA. I listen as much as I read. Rachel Joyce’s ‘Pilgrim’ was on the radio yesterday, I caught the tail end of it. Anna Massey was Maureen, Anton Rogers was Fry. He is crying, having reached the hospital where Queenie is lying dying, her tongue cut out. Maureen talks about cleaning the house from top to bottom when he left. But you can’t clean it, wipe it all away, much of life is ‘elbows’, she said. Why do I have an issue with Joyce? I loved that book. Is it that she is everywhere, translating Bronte? Like Nick Warburton? And yet, he is equally marvellous. Is it just jealousy? I hope not. I wish them well, truly. Nick is a good, kind self-effacing man. He knew him to say hello to in Cambridge.

I remembered the end of my dream when I woke. I’d been wanting to attend some sort of political rally but I’d been voyaging on a ship and it would’ve been complicated to turn back. But somehow I got there. It was up North. I’d made the effort though my presence had not made a great deal of difference. I was leaving and walked through a white, empty room surrounded by windows. The door will be locked I thought but then I remembered that it was a church and that they would perhaps leave it open as access to their flock. I tried it, it was locked but I pushed it gently and it opened. I walked out into sunshine and fields, a soft rolling landscape. I thought I wouldn’t find my way to where I was going but I did and it was near. Everything felt easy, meant and flowing, no stress and no strain.

‘The thought of Marianne rendered dull and distracted by motherhood….’ I scribbled it down as I heard it and missed the end of the sentence. Tightrope, the book is called. I must search it out.

I took my recorder to capture the sounds of the birdsong under this particular tree on Llanbadarn Road. I don’t know whether it has worked. There was a blackbird, briefly, a chaffinch and then a robin turned up. Delightful. I found myself exclaiming out loud with pleasure.

Tiramisu

I thought they were stars. But they were moving, circling the sky. Flashes of swirling white. It took me a moment to make sense of it. They’re not stars but gulls. Was it the wind that was taking them up so high and impelling them to eddy about? The wind was strong – not 40 miles an hour as promised, as least not then, perhaps it is now. I endured it for a while but I get so weary with clinging to railings and walls – so I made my way through the town instead. Just to be out of it. Out of the wind.

I finished Isabel Allende’s Paula. Later I lay in bed thinking about the strength of her love for her daughter, her reluctance to let her go. Do most mothers love like that? So primal, so complete. I am awed by the power of it, chastened too. I feel so much more detached than she. Is it cultural, perhaps? All of them were there, who could be, when Paula finally died. Sitting, a silent vigil for the passing of a soul, the leaving behind of the body. Allende writes of how grief cancels out, rids, bleaches the mind of creativity. All she could do was sit, be, walk. ‘What will happen’, she writes, ‘with this great empty space that am today?’ What will fill me now that not a whiff of ambition remains, no project, nothing of myself?

I remembered the ending of a dream from a few nights back. I was with a friend and her husband. Not in their house, I think. Perhaps we were all travelling, in a hotel possibly. Anyway they’d received a gift in the post, post restante, possibly. It had been a piece, a slice of tiramisu. Had, because it had been eaten. All that remained were the chocolate and cream stains inside the envelope. For it had been sent in an envelope.

I wanted to be kind, to make up for my sulkiness, my nursing of grievances last night. And I blew it, was too touchy. If you push too hard for harmony it becomes elusive. Just let it come, when it is ready.

Old Bones

When I’m sewing in my studio I listen to the radio through my laptop. I begin by choosing what I want to hear and then when that is done sometimes I just leave it to its own devices and something will appear, unannounced, unselected, like shuffle on my ipod. A play about a mother and daughter came on. I recognised the voice of the actress who played the mother, though I cannot recall her name. A rich, dulcet voice, was it Claire Bloom? She was telling her daughter of her life, in the way that my mother  never did. She is dying. She talks of men from her past. He didn’t make old bones, she said of one. I’ve heard the saying before but it stayed with me this time. Mulling, rolling around in my head and mouth. Gorgeous. And then she talked of being locked up in a mental institution in Italy and how that had informed her later choices –  the stultifying safety of her marriage and the strict, close way she reared her daughter. Who, even now, bristles with resentment. I didn’t want to succumb to the chaos, said the mother.

Matisse drew six hours a day, very day. This is according to Irma Kurtz who hosted the programme I listened to a few days ago about Matisse’s relationship with poetry. He practised like a musician would practice, said Kurtz. I’ve never thought of it that way. Of course.

The costume arrived in a big box that had been left on our doorstep. It seems to be the right one. It made me feel sick. It’s going to happen. Am I being completely ridiculous?  I shall try it on in a bit, just to be sure. The next problem to solve will be how to carry it on the train. The tapestry is in readiness.

The starlings have just flown overhead. Like clockwork, every morning. When you walk under them you hear the whoosh as they dive and swirl, a mass of flutterings.

I’m making it unsafe. The sewing is unsafe when I perform it. There is something about getting myself out there. Being amongst the public. Anything could happen. Is that what this is about?

A wet gusty morning. No one was about, just a lad in a coat with its collar turned up against the rain. I go out in two layers of waterproofs. Snug, I don’t mind the rain on my face. And the air is so fresh, so clean, so alive. The canvas shoes were still there, though I think someone had moved them a tad. And a tiny yacht, Alfred Wallis style, has  been added to the mural.

They’re airing a series of programmes about cakes. Cakes that are specific to a town or area. Today it was Pontefract cakes. The presenter has a warm, comfortable Northern accent, Lancashire perhaps. There were visits to factories and interviews with ex-workers and makers of the confectionery. She ended the programme by presenting an ex-maker with a box of the said cakes – an elderly lady who’d clearly now moved away from Yorkshire. So what do ya think of them, asked the presenter, do they remind you of that time? Not much, replied the woman still chewing. Silence. I never liked them, she said.

Survey

We went for a coffee before doing the bi-weekly shop in the supermarket. I am always a little edgy, uncomfortable with taking time out of working but at the same time I like to sit there, across from him, being part of the world awhile. He prefers to sit in the back section of the coffee shop, in the ‘comfy’ seats, whereas I opt for the stools, liking to sit high and amidst the bustle of the coming and going. He knows most of customers and gives a running commentary on what they do, where they sit and whether they irritate him or not. ‘We’re sitting in their seat’, he says, when the plumber and his girlfriend come in. He doesn’t like the stools, finding them hard and uncomfortable. They’re not their seats, I say, knowing full well what he means. They don’t seem too put out however, greeting us with smiles as they take the table and stools behind us. He wants to maintain the status quo, and feels responsible for denying them their usual habits. I get him a cushion. I shall have to do this for Dulcie later, he says. Dulcie is a tiny  bird of woman who comes in daily for a coffee and to read the paper. He has got into the habit of collecting cushions for her. While he is ordering our drinks I watch a woman in a black shiny mid-length puffa coat returning from the loo to resume her place on the sofa. Taking up her cup in her hand, a large cup, probably a cappuccino she proceeds to stick her finger inside scooping out the remaining foam and licking it off. She stares at the cup while she does this, a concentrated fixed stare. I try to gauge her age. Her hair has been dyed brown but is thinning. Her face, drawn and severe, has a thick layer of now rather clagged foundation. She is nattily dressed, the coat, a  black pencil skirt and ankle-length little boots with ankle socks peeking over the rims. She must have felt my staring and turns to me and smiles.

We were both a little out of sorts yesterday. He is still getting bouts of anxiety, flickers that sometimes take root. It’s the disappointment that gets him. Why is it still happening? he asks. Keep steady, I say, it is a blip. And me? Three things, no four things did it. The first an email from a friend that was sharp and curt and made me feel foolish. The second was the way-too-early arrival of a guest, and his and the journalist’s accusatory stares as I came through the door. The third was another email telling me that the corset and crinoline will be arriving today not Friday. And the fourth? A survey. You know the kind – we want you to confirm, for the record, that we are great. It was the negativity of my responses that brought me down. I just couldn’t bring myself to toe the line but at the same time I don’t like to whinge. It is an OK job, that’s all. It will do. It isn’t my career. It is a means to an end it buys me time to think, to read, to write and to make work.

A silver saloon car is driving towards me along the Prom down to the harbour. I can see two men inside. It makes me wary. I take a mental note of the number plate, saying it over and over again in my head. Just in case. Just in case. I see them again near Pier Pressure, driving at the same pace, slow, steady, a crawling pace. In the space under the castle, the same space I have sometimes seen two men dancing, students from the college have painted a mural. They were commissioned to do so by the council. It is evolving day by day, along with the sunflowers and the waves there is now a second starling. They appear to be pulling a canvas of the water and flowers, stretching it between their beaks. The idea of the mural was to dissuade the graffiti-ists. A nice idea. It must be fun doing it.

The pair of taupe canvas shoes that had been left abandoned on a bench on South Prom were still there this morning. Still neatly placed, laces tidy. No doubt soaked through from the storm, that wasn’t really a storm. A no show. I could still walk. One shower, that’s all, and all that dread in my gut.

Sewing feels safe. It that it’s attraction? So much in my life at present isn’t. Like Jane, I think I’ve been frightened all my life.

A radio documentary about Matisse and illustrating Mallarme – ‘He took the (his) oxygen from the poems’.

My outer life has shrunk. While my inner life is…well, immense.

Medication

The names of his various pills often come into my head as I am walking. They become like a mantra, a chant, a casting of spells. Latin-esque names that generally end in ‘in’ with a cryptic or prosaic intimation of the ills that they are to cure. I don’t know why I think of them. They are important to him. He fusses around them – all those dosset boxes and storage containers with their rubber bands and plastic clips. He believes in their efficacy. They are his lifeline. And now there is the morning aspirin too that has to be dissolved in water and drunk. How much water? He wants to do it right. It is symbolic. Do this, exactly as directed and all will be well. I also take my pills. I didn’t want to. Was told by the doctor that I’d have to take them for life. When I began to feel stronger I suggested that I might try to wean myself off them. She wasn’t keen. I tried it but after a couple of days my heart was pounding.  I take vitamin pills too, all those supplements that I believe allow me to continue with my rather idiosyncratic diet. And probiotics for my gut. And magnesium for the night sweats. Do they help? Do they make any difference? Who knows?

Freya is not wholly with us yet. I could walk the Prom this morning. But the wind is growing yet more wild. Tomorrow it will be impossible, I think. The two rough sleepers had gone from the shelter. I don’t blame them, he said at breakfast. Where do they go? Does someone offer them a bed? I resist going out when it is cold and windy. But I am always glad when I do. The air is glorious, it makes me feel alive, shocked into wakefulness. Our neighbour is back from his holiday in Marrakesh. Is he tanned? he asked when I went in to wake him. No, I said, but his hair is long. He clearly likes to travel, has taught abroad, in Vienna, and in China, I think.  And when he does go various members of the family take it in turns to look after his mother. We notice the different cars, and the bedroom window is never opened. She is, after all, a hundred now though still fit enough to walk into town each morning, go to church and we’ve even seen her taking the rubbish to the bins. She is very deaf and her sight isn’t good, having to look at the world with her head slightly tilted, one eye staring. A remarkable woman. Last year the town museum had an exhibition of the her illustrations.

I talked of my longing, trying to articulate the nebulous. Listening again to Julia Darling’s play Appointments about an elderly woman diagnosed with brain cancer, I grew wistful, melancholic, not because of her impending death but because of her ability to live so richly, so openly, so bravely. A beautiful piece of writing. The radio is such a joy to me. I have how many? One, two, three, four, no five counting the TV one. How lucky is that? All those stories…..

Safety Net

I often see it when I walk in the morning parked up along North Road. A white van with ‘Safety Net Services’ emblazoned on its side. Safety nets. I remember the ones I’d see at the circuses we used to attend as children. Huge, slightly sagging, web-like structures that stretched across the whole circumference of the ring, but high above it. I used to imagine someone falling into it. What would it be like? Would it bounce them up again? Later, when I was much older, and used to go to the circus in Cambridge to draw (by then circuses were a much contracted affair – no lions, in fact no animals at all, not even those horses with their top knots) I saw some of the trapeze artists use the net as their descent. And they would bounce,  bound even, using it as a kind of buoyant trampoline.  Are you braver when you know there is a safety net? I’m not sure. Falling into it, those aerial ballerinas lost their grace. It was clumsy, cack-handed.

They are airing one of Maya Angelou’s later memoirs on Radio 4 extra. I was listening to it this morning. She is forty and has just been commissioned to produce a TV show, and then she keeps getting phone calls from Random House asking her to write an autobiography. She succumbs in the end and starts to write I know Why a Caged Bird Sings. How would it feel to be commissioned to write my book? Would it feel more worthy? Would I be more focussed, would I finally accept that I knew where I was going? She picks up her pencil and begins to write. Is it really like that for most writers? ‘I was always frightened’, said Jane, a character who grew up in a children’s home in Call the Midwife.

The wind was getting up as I walked. But the storm is yet to arrive. Nightclubbers wandered along the Prom, some lurching. Back on North Road making my way home I saw a group of students ahead spilling out into the road. One of them was kneeling on the pavement seemingly helping a girl put her shoe back on. Several of his friends strode over to him and began to fake ‘whipping’ him on the back.

I spied one of the singing thrushes in a tree on Llanbadarn Road. And heard the screech owl as I climbed the Buarth.

Does any of it really matter? I yearn for a detached wisdom. Oh, to let go the hold my ego persists in having over me.

‘Let be me weak, and dream of sleep’.

Bar Code

He came back from hospital with a bar code on his wrist. Like they do with babies. A wrist tag with his date of birth, his address, his name, his NHS no. and Hospital no. Is it in case he got lost, had amnesia, or is it just efficiency? Did they scan his wrist rather than converse with it him? I remember hers. It think it might even have been pink. He wore the last wrist tag he had for days. It, they, don’t trouble him. He submits, willingly.

I listened to the last instalment of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman on the radio this morning. It left me uncertain. Scout’s rage was easier to accept than her dulled acquiescence. Her uncle ‘slaps her out of it’ and calls her a bigot because she wouldn’t listen to another person’s point of view. It takes a big person (was that what he said?) to live in the South. Oh, life. It is not black and white. Not black or white, more a grey. All those grey areas. We lay on his bed in the afternoon and talked about dying. Well, strokes really. I cannot put his mind at rest. What will come will come. There is little we can do about it. We just have more information, I said, that’s all. Living well is living with fear, I think, welcoming it in like Billie Holiday’s ‘heartache’.

Thank you sooo much, a girl is saying to her friend as they part for the night outside the late night pizza shop. So glad you had a lovely night, her friend replies. I watch them from across the road as I make my way home. The students here are, by and large, a nice bunch. I rarely think of the danger in walking in the dark, in the early hours. A man came out of the shadows by the harbour. A fisherman, perhaps. He only wore a t-shirt. A big man with big arms. I felt my hackles raise, just slightly and adrenalin begin to  pump. A boy lay on the Prom among the shale and flotsam the tides had thrown up, looking up at the sky listening to the chatter-y hum of his mates on the bench ahead of him.

She sounded better. At least a little better. Her voice was stronger. I relish the ease with which she talks to me. I am interested, I want to hear it all. She has yielded and is beginning to recover. My head is better, she said. And talked about shadows. Her doctor came out to her. A rare occurrence. She liked him better this time. He had time for her, showed compassion, interest. I haven’t made my own cup of tea in weeks, she said. They are everything to each other her daughter and her. She is making me nourishing meals, she said. A neighbour told her daughter she should be in hospital. I’m better off here, she said, baulking ever so gently at such interference, in my own bed.

The bird song was stunning this morning. I really listened, feeling it with my whole body. There’s a blackbird and is that a chaffinch? And that must be a blue tit. He read the nature column from the newspaper out loud, telling how we will hear the song thrush particularly and see wrens, those tiny little bobbing birds, fighting  over their territory from tree stumps.

Strongbow

I was not relishing the prospect. Age has made my mouth sensitive and I’ve always hated all that machinery they use, the drills, the suction tubes – all that hissing and sucking, ugh. But it has been drummed into me, look after your teeth, so I do. At least I try. Thought apparently I’ve been trying too hard. Brushing them too often. We advise just twice a day, said the diminutive, rather fluffy-haired hygienist, (he told me used to be in the RAF). He was very affable, pre-disposed to chat and dispense wisdom with the same enthusiasm that he dispensed toothpaste. A South-Walian he kept saying ‘tuth’ rather that ‘tooth’ and talked of plaque as being like cottage cheese. He asked me if I’d been a smoker. No, I said, between the water spraying and the sucking. We then got onto alcohol and then, Lord know ‘s why, Coca Cola. Dreadful stuff, he said. And I mumbled agreement. I use it, he said, the cheap stuff, you know, I buy the 2 litre bottle, to clean my loo. It’s great. We, well, he, then moved on to Strongbow. Terrible, he said, two pints of Strongbow and I’m ready to fight the town. A gentle man. He didn’t hurt me. A teddy bear really.

He’s home. He came home last night. They won’t operate, his artery is too narrow. I don’t know how he feels about it really. They sent him home with aspirins to dissolve to thin the blood further. Aren’t we all, to some extent, living with the prospect of our imminent death? He is philosophical, I think. It’s odd to have him home. And I fuss too much. I have got used to my undisputed sovereignty over our home. Things will get back to some kind of normality soon, at least until the next hoo-hah.  

The Smell of Rain

It’s such a gorgeous smell, that first rain after a period of warm, sunny days. The wet drops ooze into the pavements and roads, melding with dry dust. It smells of summer with all that promise of idleness and sitting, eyes closed, face up to the sun.

If feels better if I yield. There is nothing to be done but wait. He may not even have the operation. The consultant (Such a nice bloke, I really like him, he told me over the phone) said that his artery is unusually narrow which might make ‘cleaning’ it impossible. He was honest with him, without the op the likelihood of a stroke is high. He expresses his fears, mainly for me. I don’t want you to be lumbered, he said. What can I say? I love you, I said, we’ll do whatever has to be done. And yet, he is also sanguine. After the raging at the delay, the lack of order, the chaos, he calms down and acquiesces moving with the hospital-day, eating the food they bring, still getting the puddings (though they are supposed to deny him those – Apple crumble and custard last night, he said) and reading four papers. I have to get the Telegraph too, he said. And there is the compensation of a Costa Coffee, where he ambles down to after breakfast to read the paper, have coffee and a pain au raisin. It is the new drugs, they increase the appetite. The doctor did warn him. Eat fruit, the bumph inside the pill box advises. He calls me from one of the various waiting rooms with ‘comfy chairs’ bemoaning the fact that everyone who passes him seems to have had a stroke. And there’s another one, he says.  The conversations he gets into with other patients in these rooms or in Costa are all about their ailments, naturally. He broke off our conversation to say goodbye to the man from here. He’s going home with his gall bladder still intact. The woman on the couch/bed next to him is also diabetic. She wasn’t given the crumble, apparently. No, she had rice pudding, he said, you know, in a pot. When he called last night a nurse interrupted him to say that they’ve got a bed for him in a ward. He sounded pleased. A proper bed. I hope he slept better. A CT scan today, then a chat with the consultant, and then who knows? Will we still go to London, make the film, see K.? She wrote so kindly about my story, using the word honour. I needed that. Someone reaching out through the vacuum.

Walking down the hill from work I watched two little girls playing on scooters. The smallest of the two and clearly the boldest was whizzing down the hill with her bottom on the footrest, her hands reaching up precariously to the handlebars, while steering her descent with her feet. She was fast. The other girl seemed reluctant to follow her. Then gathering the courage she did so, screaming out ‘Bloody Hell!’ as she sped down.