Stress and Strain

You won’t have to stress and strain, he told me, all those years ago in that upper floor flat somewhere in South London. And I don’t. I have a gentle life. It isn’t what I expected. I try to accept it’s quietness, it’s lack of moment, it’s subtle ebbing. Acceptance is the answer, I know this. All that hankering after something other, something imagined, something seemingly exciting, glamourous only causes pain. This is where I am. This is the work I have to do, the life I have to lead. So be it. He meant it kindly. He thought it to be gift. After all, who wants to stress and strain? And yet, it is what I believed I would do. I thought I would have to work hard. To strive. To reach for something. I always have. I’ve always worked hard, sometimes more than I had to. To prove myself. To feel worthy. People say it like that. I work hard, they say. The subtext being congratulate me, I have earned my place in heaven, I am a grafter, a worker. I shine with it. And here am I in this unnoticeable life where nothing much happens except care, a looking-out-for each other, a conversation, a watchfulness. We trundle along, he and I, like that train that chugs out of Aber into the wide world. Reluctant. It is a reluctant train, reluctant to leave this grey nothingness of potter-dom. And yet, and yet, inside my head there is vision. Not always, but sometimes a real insightfulness. Is that enough? I miss the idea of work. The escape of it. The seeming puritan-ethic-worthiness of it. And yet, I am so tired. Dog-tired. Carrying myself, carrying him. I want escape. Will it come? Can I have it? Truly?

Ah, the sun. It came yesterday and lit up my room. My room of my own. My precious studio. My room where I read, write and make. It makes the windows appear dirty, it shows up their murkiness. But I don’t mind. I love its warmth, its white light. I stand there in the halo of it, emptying myself into its heat.

I think of him before I go to sleep. The man in the red and black sleeping bag. I wish him warmth. I think of her with her breast cancer and wish her well. I think of her with her broken ankle and wish her strength and a repairing of bones. I think of her still grieving for her sister and a son who won’t talk and wish her peace. And I think of him, as always, and wish him sleep.

Almost 7 am and still pitch outside. My daffodil plant has one bud, a peek-a-boo of yellow. A something like joy even in this tunnel. I am nervous about speaking to her today. I don’t want to open it all up. Don’t then, he says. Cancel it. But I can’t, I know the benefit of it. Deep down. It all has to be lived through. Doesn’t it?

Empty Room

I often look at it as I pass along the Prom. It’s on the ground floor of Alexandra Hall, one of student halls, on the far end of North Beach. A large, spacious room, it has one yellow wall where the rest are white. There are chairs, a couple of tables and a monitor on the wall. The lights are almost always on but I have never seen anyone in there. I love the space of it but perhaps it is cold, too cavernous for the students to want to inhabit it. Or perhaps it is locked, preserved, kept pristine  as a teaching or seminar room.

A wet morning, and windy. I walked without the comfort of painkillers. I don’t know why I resist taking them. I am an ascetic, a puritan. I try to manage without too many crutches but my back was rigid without them. Unbending and resistant. But I walked anyway. The man in the black and red sleeping bag was there again. My biscuits had gone. I hope he ate and enjoyed them.

I kept it simple yesterday, I sewed and listened to stories. You’ll have to ring me if I have any appointments, he said. Can’t I just show how to use your alarm on your phone? No, he said. I want to be free of responsibility for him just for a week. And say so. And immediately feel mean. I rely on you, he says. I know, I say, I know. I can’t just step out of it. I need to see this through. He wobbles in the afternoon these days. The details make him fretful. We will deal with them, I say, all too aware of what I am promising.

I think it’s the anticipation of our session on Tuesday,  for I find myself examining my gloom intensely. I want to please her, to show that it has been useful, but for the meantime I am still tunnelled in.

Another funny man on the radio , not dead, but alive, though his immortality has been threatened. The beauty of his modesty, his wish to sit and stare was moving.

Lend me the grace to accept what is, and to be present in all life’s colours ever curious.

Death of a Funny Man

He was barely older than me. A couple of months, that’s all. We often establish a connection that way, sounds self-centred, but that is our way in. A similar age. How would it feel, to lose one’s life like that? We saw him once, though it was on the radio that I knew him first. I loved his voice, and, as is so often the case with radio, he looked nothing like he sounded. He was sharper live. More caustic, sardonic even. His wit was fast, intelligent, cutting. We almost didn’t like him on stage. He was derogatory about his home town. Perhaps it was nerves, or his way of getting the energy up to perform. So young. Fifty-seven years old. He kept working till the end. He must’ve been ravaged with it. Perhaps he wanted to do all he could to support his family before he left them, for good. Miles Jupp described him as kind. You heard the conscience, the morality, the right-thinkingness but you didn’t see the kindness. I am glad. That is enough of an epitaph. Don’t you think? He was kind. That would do me. Rest in peace, if you can.

There were two huge trawler ships in the Marina this morning, lit up like Christmas trees. Shining with white light, ghostly even. Their light illuminated the usually dark harbour. Will they go out in this cold? And it was cold. A hard, hard frost. Young kids poured out of Pier Pressure as I walked past. A group of girls stumbled out into the night air, their bare legs an array of tattoos from ankle to thigh. Earlier, coming past the station I’d seen two girls in a bus shelter seemingly passing something from one to the other. They looked up guiltily as strode past.

We bought two little pots of tete-a-tete daffodils the last time we were in Morrisons, which must have been what three weeks now. Neither of them have thrived. The first just grew and grew but the buds, so promising at the outset came to nought. The second appeared to be without buds entirely, till a couple of days ago. Now there is a wee bud. I take it as symptomatic of our life at the moment. Nothing is growing, just a stagnancy, which has to be lived through. I made some shortbread. He was pleased. And I took some down to the Prom this morning. Will he still be there? He was. His belongings were neatly arranged on the seat beside his sleeping form, including three fish and chips cartons built into a kind of low tower. Are they empty or is he saving cold chips and battered cod for his breakfast? I was bolder this morning creeping into his enclave and placing my little bag of biscuits on the set beside him. May he find warmth.

Tractors, Handyman & Faggots

I heard the word ‘tractor’ amongst the rest of the incomprehensible (to me at least) Welsh. And when the chatter had subsided, I asked her. Did you come to work on a tractor? They all laughed. She did to, though she is usually rather stony-faced. A lovely girl, sumptuous, but not warm. Not initially. No, she said, but I was towed by one along our road. Luckily, we’ve got one.

She talked about trust. She’d had friends before but they’d let her down, told her stories to other people. She trusts him, however. Her handyman, for want of a better word. He rang to ask if she needed anything. He was going to the shops anyway. She said no, but he brought her a loaf of bread regardless. Gluten-free, like he knows we like, she said. She talks to him. He’s had problems in his relationship, she believes she helped. He stayed, anyway, she says. She tells me about the snow and some boys who wanted to go sledging in a farmer’s field with a steep hill. She was concerned for them. Wasn’t someone hurt like that last year? she asked. One of the boys is fearless. He’s not afraid of nothing, she said. I suspect that, like me, she was never like that. In the end the boys sent the sledge down first. It promptly smashed into a tree. It could’ve killed us, said the boy.

There was a hard frost this morning. And now it is light it looks stunning. The kids were still out in force. Some, no most, un-coated. A group of four of them walked towards me along the Prom, one, a lad with very pronounced eyebrows was talking loudly, peacocking to his mates. I know, he was saying putting a heavy emphasis on the ‘know’, it’s depressing the faggot can’t suck! 

The cold unnerves me. My whole body fights the thought of going out in it. But once I’ve done it it’s marvellous and the air smells so good. The rough sleeper was there again. And the flapjacks had gone. I intend to bake biscuits today so I shall take him some of those. I  thought about the application as I walked. Do I really want to offer myself for another position? I enjoyed thinking about it, planning what I would write. Such problem-solving always engages me. But really, why would I do it? I’m no activist. I work alone.  I don’t feel comfortable in groups. I’m not a team-player. Never have been. Let it be so. I prefer tete-a-tete, one-to-one, the intimacy of the micro view. This is my default when I am unsure of what I am doing – try for something out there, something which may bring some sort of recognition, that will make me other than what I am. Accept the current stasis, it has a function. Wait. Just read, think and let the writing unfold. It needs time. Applying for the Council would become an annoying distraction, all that travelling and little remuneration. Be here in this discomforting gap of uncertainty and wait.

I shall persevere with his quilt this morning. A domestic day. Flat cleaned. Then baking. A grounding sort of day. He is eating a little more. And responding to things outside of his head. He still wobbles, but it is better. It is better.

Tunnel

My research takes me down unexpected avenues. Go with it, he says. And I do. Yesterday it was the diaries of Marie Bashkirtseff and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s biography. One died young, refusing marriage, domesticity for her art, the other married, had a child, got post-natal depression and left it all, eventually, for her work. A rest cure was suggested for her. ‘Live as a domestic a life as possible’, advised her surgeon, ‘never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live’. No wonder she scarpered.

I am in a tunnel. A dark tunnel. I keep putting one foot in front of the other. I do my chores, I keep our bodies together, but I am strangely apart from it. I thought of stepping out and going to Bath to see the exhibition but the thought of the journey, almost ten hours by train to spend two hours there, defeats me. I shall see it when it goes to Oldham in Autumn.

I took them some flapjacks. Maybe they won’t be there, I thought as I neared the shelter. There was one man only, cocooned in a red and black sleeping bag. I didn’t want to get too close and alarm him, or indeed wake him so I left them on the ground wrapped in kitchen paper and placed in a bag. I’d considered tying them up with a ribbon but who wants such fripperies when you are cold and hungry.

No snow, though it was promised. He slept a little. That is something. Isn’t it?

Glistening and Gingerly

Words move around inside my head as walk. Sometimes they become like a mantra, particularly when I wish to remember them, to keep hold of them.

I dreaded going out this morning, and the fear of it dogged my first waking hour, dragging my feet. It was the thought of ice. They’d promised a temperature of -5. I went prepared, lots of layers and my big, impossibly expensive Norwegian-bought coat. At least if I slipped, I thought, I’d have something padded to land my bum on. There was ice on the footbridge leading from our flat to what we call ‘the courtyard’ but after that, just a smattering along St David’s Road. It glistened. The ice or frost, if you like, was glistening. It shimmered under the glare of my torch. Don’t walk there, avoid that path, that patch of ground. So I walked gingerly. Glistening and gingerly. I don’t like hesitating. It makes me feel frailer. I like to stride, to feel the source of power, of stamina in my legs. They are getting stronger. It’s all that walking to work. The Prom, however, was fine. And there were three people sleeping rough in the shelter. Bless them, I thought. It must be so cold. So wretched. I will bring them some flapjacks tomorrow.

The smell of fried chicken was overwhelming as I walked past Pier Pressure. The doors of the club were still open and a few burly men in high vis jackets hovered around the entrance. Railings had been stacked to one side. Of course, I thought, it was a Wednesday night, party night. The fried chicken smell was quickly subsumed by that of the starlings’ guano from under the pier. Such a stink. Salty, briny, cold, damp, my nose wrinkles up against it. I could hear their chattering. They will wake soon and start their sky dancing. Later, walking down Great Darkgate Street a man in an mohair coat and trilby crossed my path. It felt unnerving. He just crossed in front of me. I heard myself say, Sorry. As if I’d been in his way. He made no comment and headed for the railway station.

The sky was perfectly clear. All the stars were visible. The flat roof beneath us twinkles with ice, a replica, a carbon copy of the firmament above.

We talked of Amsterdam. She and her colleague are to go their for what they call their ‘Christmas do’. They are fun-loving girls, open, curious, bright. I like being in their company. And she is gentle with me. I could see it before me in all its exquisite nook-and-cranny gloriousness as we talked. I should have told her to read ‘Tulip Fever’ as a taste of what is to come. It has hardly changed. All that luxuriousness. How I love that city. What a time I had there. What a life I have led. I am profoundly grateful. Even in this dark, dark time I feel the blessings of my existence.

He slept last night. He looks less hollow. And my flapjacks please him. He takes a morsel. And I am pleased. It is something, eh?

Not Sleeping

Are you sleeping? the physio asked me last week. Yes, I said. That’s good, she said. I’ve rarely had a problem with sleep. I need so much. I just fall into it. And earlier and earlier these days. The only issue is when I am woken, usually by work calling or texting me, then sleep evades me. My mind begins its infernal planning and oblivion is lost to me. He isn’t sleeping, at least not at night. He looks worn through, blown through, thinner and thinner. How can I leave him? I feel the weight of him. He is trying to manage to not get angry or self-pitying, I can see that he is trying. But I can also see how hard it is. I try to encourage him to eat, making tiny morsels of delights to excite his palate. He never wants it initially, hovering around me by the stove, saying: not too much, not too much. I remember his mother being just the same. But for her it was the war-time residue of a fear of waste. Those countless women who still wrap left-overs in tin foil leaving them in fridges to fester and grow mouldy. He just can’t bear to be over-faced with a big plate of food. I am the same. He is also eschewing tastes he used to like. No more sugar on his cornflakes and HP sauce with his beans on toast. My tastes have changed too since the virus we both had. I don’t want salads anymore, or indeed raw food. I struggle to come up with things to eat. I am all at sea with his food and mine.

I’d had a call yesterday saying that I may need to go up to work at 4.30 am, thankfully, I didn’t. But I had to wait until I was texted to be assured. Yet I still have to go in about 40 minutes. Will that hill get easier the more I do it? He has gone back to bed to try and catch up, it is all topsy-turvy. I am hanging on by my finger nails. Yesterday was so gloomy. I had a massage with the Brute. It hurts but it does help. We talked of Scandinavian matters. I like her brusqueness. I asked if she was going to go home to Sweden soon. I’ve got puppies, she said, I will go in April when they are sold. What breed? I asked. Siberian Husky, she said.

Everyone is a flutter with the threat of snow. The Brute said she missed it. That it helped with the darkness. I might drive to go and find some, she said.

Ronnie

When I can I snatch an afternoon sleep. Just an hour. I’m tired by then, dog-tired often. Particularly these days with the winter gloom, the aching of my back and all this beleaguerment. I have become his carer. Has it not always been so? His in and out of depression has never been far away, it has rested in the corner of each of our rooms, in each of our homes. He needs constant bolstering. There is no even keel. He has no appetite. Has lost a stone, I think. He looks shell-shocked, blown through. I baked flapjacks yesterday. I did it for two reasons. No, three. I’d been wanting to do it for ages, just to try. Two, I wanted to make something to tempt his appetite. And three, I love the smell of baking in the house. These smelt treacly, buttery, sweet and slightly cloying. It is cosy, he said. That is enough, I think for these dark days. So, back to the sleep. Yesterday was to be my only chance for the next few days. We both lie on his bed. He reads and I sleep. We wrap ourselves in dressing gowns and rugs (the flat is so cold) and I insist on the window being slightly open. I need fresh air. He moans but yields. So I slept for a little, maybe half an hour only to be woken by a voice outside our window. A woman’s voice. High-pitched, keening. Ronnie! she called. Ronnie! Then there where cat noises, a miaowing, then a whistling. Ronnie is a cat. There are two both named after the Kray twins. Grey, sleek cats, disdainfully elegant and adored by their ‘mother’. This wasn’t her. This was her mother. She must be looking after them while she is away. Do cats come when they are called? The cats of this mansion roam the wilderness that is the building site outside and below our window. Ronnie particularly. He looks mean. He looks like a bird and vole killer. Was he making the cat noises or was she? Anyway, it broke my sleep. Heigh ho.

As I said, my research can be a little haphazard. I just follow my nose. At the moment I am reading books from childhood, ones that gave me an idealistic notion of family life and mothers.  It is a warm journey. Are you enjoying it? he asks. Yes, I say. Well that is reason enough, he replies. I fight it. I fight our present situation, though I try not to. For I know that it causes us more stress. Accept the time it takes. Accept the slowness of everything. Accept the small chunks of time you have to work. Let it be. Just let it be what it is. For it is enough.

Half Moon

The wind was not what it was yesterday but it is still strong. The fallen tree of yesterday has been lifted from the road and it’s chopped remains lay in a heap in the garden from which it fell. A sadness. The road parallel to the North Prom has been blocked off. Perhaps there has been some loosened masonry or something. It is endless. The weather is always taking its toll on this town. Battering it, bashing it. Over and over the sea hurls its sandy debris onto the Prom. Time and again it is cleared only to return. I walk into the wind, pushing hard against its might. It tires me. Another walk up to work in an hour or so. Oh, good, he said at breakfast, you can do some work first. Yes, maybe. I was almost blown off my feet twice yesterday walking up and down the hill. It’s the point at the top just by the National Library that the gusts get you. Catching you unawares. I call out. To whom I don’t know. Ah, I cry as my feet are blown forward, tottering, as I try to keep my balance and save my back. But I did it. I did it. He was a little better yesterday. He just slept and slept. As he is doing now. Sleep is good.

An alarm was ringing as I walked home. A house alarm or a car alarm? A house one. It keened, a sharp wincing, insistent shouting. Nobody responded. I think they are away. A red light on the box outside flickered. And still that panicky sound. No one was about this morning, except for a group of kids on Northgate Terrace whom I didn’t see but heard. Wow, one of them said, shouting, his voice echoing, ricocheting off the houses.

The moon was a half. Sometimes hidden behind clouds, other times out, resplendent. Look at you, I say out loud. Look at you.  

Most of the time I don’t know what I am doing. I just read. I read and read hoping that it will lead me where I am meant to go. I get moments of something like truth, certainty but then it is gone. I will take a notebook with me, try automatic writing, as they suggested, get it down, before my brain takes over with its stultifying judgement. I will take my books, my notebook and a sketchbook. I long for it. I even think I dreamt of being there last night. He says he will be alright. It is hard to leave him. But I must. Just some time alone. Is it too much to ask?

Fallen Tree

I bring him snippets of the outside world, anything to get him out of his head. You know the house on Llanbadarn Road, I said, the one with the lovely lawn of snowdrops? Yes, he said. Well, I said, one of its trees has fallen onto the road, blocking one lane. Oh, no, he said. Yes, I said, and the police were there as I walked out, directing the traffic. It’s a sad thing, the loss of a tree. It shakes one’s equilibrium. The wind is wild. I walked anyway. I had to. I had to go out and face it, be in it. And I have to go out again in an hour to walk the hill to work. I don’t know which way to go. I could go through the University but there are so many trees and I am nervous about them falling. So perhaps Penglais hill is best.

Yesterday was a wobbly one. He gets so frightened coming up to the kitchen to announce that he must call NHS Wales for advice about coming off his medication. Perhaps he is doing it too fast? I try to steady him. No knee jerk responses, trust that the doctor knows what he is doing. All will be well. All will be well. He doesn’t want to eat, but then he does. Up and down. Up and down. He is not sleeping, which doesn’t help. And just lies there staring into the abyss of his uncertainty and panic. I try to be steady, do the domestic things, create an even base. It isn’t easy, inside I am as uncertain, as scared as he is. And this wind. Things rattle in the courtyard outside, a rolling bottle, a plant pot. Everything is being churned up. Then there is hail, and sleet. I put waterproofs under waterproofs. I managed to get to the harbour but didn’t walk the Prom. The boats’ rigging was jangling and ringing, a cacophony of cow bells, jarring, demanding attention. The students were out regardless, coatless, they are fearless. Was I so at their age? I feel so fragile, ready to snap. I walked to the church, marvelled at its solidity. Hundreds of years its been there. His parents ashes are there, and he will join them. I am flotsam. A dandelion seed buffeted, tossed here and there. Nothing is solid. But I try to be. It just has to be lived through, this transition stage of his, this winter, this menopause, this lowness. It has to be lived through. Coming through to the other side.

Memories of Amsterdam, our escape from such a long time ago. We don’t travel anymore. At least not together. Will we again? He shows no enthusiasm for it. I understand. He is locked in his fear. I need to breathe. I do want I can for him and dream of flight.