I remember a song from my late teenage years by Hot Chocolate, I think it was called Emmaline. It was a story song about a girl who longed to be an actress, to see her name in lights. She doesn’t succeed and one day her lover comes home to find her dead. ‘Emma, Emma, Emmaline’, wailed Errol Brown – it always gave me goosebumps. She couldn’t live with the disappointment, couldn’t adjust to the smaller view, the lesser ambition. I was much moved, though my dreams then were small, smaller than now.

As I walk I think of Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch, she too longed to do something big, to make a difference, make a mark. In the end she gives it up (the potential power for change that wealth had given her) for a smaller, simpler, interior life of marriage, of love, of service to one, one individual. She retreated to her hidden life, that authentic, un-historic life and was happy. Who knows? It is fiction but we romantics take solace where we can.

We’ve been watching Cranford again. She is clever that Mrs Gaskell. Amongst the silliness the minutiae is writ large. The nobleness of small acts (such as Miss Matty’s friends offering what little money they have to help her when the bank fails). What are those big lives? Are they necessarily better? Can we still shift the world along with our tiny gestures? Our little births, bursts of something like creation. Every day plays its part – even the grey ones. Mrs Gaskell wrote about Charlotte Bronte – hagiographic some say, so what – describing those grey Yorkshire days where nothing happened. Just rain. Rain and wind. Trapped in doors. Charlotte and her sisters. Small corseted bodies held in, vivid with life. The creation was still shifting, still moving, its momentum still surging within the grey.

Be patient. Life will happen. Still happens. Perhaps not as we envision it. So be it. Acquiesce. Learn peace. Peacefulness at what is. Be still for the magical. Even in the grey. Listening to a 1940’s recording of the Conan Doyle’s The Speckled Band on Radio 4 extra, then a discussion about The Secret Garden, making pancakes, solving a knitting problem and the nearer prospect of a work room.

A dead wasp lies on the window sill. I sneak out and wrap him in cling film. I shall draw him. A small thing. A small life. Un-historic. Part of the family of things. Remember. You do not have to be good. Just let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Thank you Mary Oliver. I shall. I shall.


New Home

Ellen Bell: Photography by Simon Cook 01736 360041

We are looking for a new home. Somewhere with a little more room. One more room. A room in which I can work. A room of my own. We have begun looking, seeing our first last week. It wasn’t right. It was the smell of it. A home has to smell right. It smelt damp, unloved. A little mean. It is going to take some time, I think. Well, it has to be here. The world is no longer my oyster. Well, it could be but I choose to narrow my focus, at least externally. He needs to be here. At least for the meantime. So we work with what there is, what we’ve got. Should we write a list? All those pros and cons. What do we want, what do we need? Light. Warmth. Space. Quiet. Beauty. A tall order? Do we envision the same space, he and I?

Years ago I moved into his house. Years ago. Eighteen years. His house in Cambridge. I was escaping and he took me in. I brought colour, order and turned it upside down. We laugh about it now. Out went the dried flowers, the golf trophies, the curling photographs. He was tolerant. I made us a home. It was nice. Now I bend. I am willow.

That house was small with only a chink of sky. I like to be high up. Like now. I just don’t know. Can we find a new home in this town that meets our needs, wants and aspirations? I don’t know. So what can I do? Remain open? Try not to say NO too quickly, wait and see. Wait. See.

I have been lucky. Such wonderful spaces. Made into homes. Home. A place to daydream, Bachelard called it. A space for those dreams. May it come. When it is ready. We can wait. I can wait.



Child, 2010 (tiny)

Waiting. I am waiting. And I have never been good at waiting. It is the space, you see, that emptiness, that room. That waiting room. Time without obvious purpose, a void into which anything might come, anything might happen. This is good. I know. Creatively, it is important. But it scares me. It is unknown. And yet I must wait. Wait for something new. Something unforeseen, unimagined.

There are all kinds of waiting. One can wait impatiently – drumming fingers, jogging legs or biting nails. Or one can wait expectantly – certain of a positive outcome. Or one can wait with grace – open to all or nothing. Happy with the nothing. And there may be nothing to wait for. I wrote before of the poet who said she was waiting to become herself. To become that self she always thought she could be. It may never happen. This may be all there is. Would it be so bad? I am smaller than I thought. At least on the outside. Inside, I cannot see the end of me. This is a good feeling. As my outer world shrinks my inner world increases. Does it matter that no one sees it but me? Does my inner, shining world seep out into my outer one? I’d like to think so.

Can I learn patience? Can I learn to sit quietly, peacefully with the nothing, the nothing-ness of my present creativity? I don’t know what I want, what I need, so therefore I should do nothing? Right? And yet life happens still. It does. See. What do I see?

I thought it was a cat. In the dark. Running ahead of me up the hill towards Constitution Hill. It wasn’t. It was a rabbit. On the road. Bounce. Bounce. It’s white bob of a tail flashing through the blackness. Later in the kitchen a moth flew onto the window – attracted by the light inside. I peered at it. A rare view. It stretched its legs. Stuck like glue to the glass. Held by impulse.

Waiting. I knit. I am re-learning. Nanny taught me years ago. I remember the sticky fingers. I think I told you. Already. Expecting. Expectant mothers used to knit. Did they all know how by instinct? Possibly. It is just what you did. Sit and wait but keep your fingers active. Sit and wait. Wait. Wait and see.



Billet Doux - love notes - AXIS

What can I give him? Give my heart. Are those the words? In a bleak mid-winter, the carol by Christina Rossetti with the two tunes. I prefer the old one, we both do. Giving. It isn’t straightforward. Do we always give to receive? Do we give to help another? Or is it just a passing on of something we no longer want, require or wish to have around us. Give. Give what? We talk about having a simple Christmas this year. I am intimated by stuff. I think I always have been. I am monkish. I would live even more simply than I do but cannot really impose it on another. It wouldn’t be fair. I am uncomfortable with clutter. Though there is a little girl-like being inside of me that leans towards the tiny, tiny things in boxes. I try to reason with her. The adult me prefers the pristine, the clean, the empty space – that waiting space, waiting for other possibilities. Yes, Christmas. No presents. Give but don’t receive. No thank you. I need to clear more space. Can that be my gift? Space. Empty space. Growing lighter, slipping it all off. Slipping off the weight of all the stuff.

My work is stuff. Matter. Yet again another contradiction. I need to make. To create. To form. To use my hands. Then the stuff must be framed, given authority, protection. Then what? They need homes, those thoughts of mine. They need to become part of another’s story. Mine melding with theirs. I give to share the stories. Will you hear mine if I listen to yours? Here. Have it. Do you want it? Have it. Please.

I give to become whole. I give things away to become lighter. I become lighter, I grow closer. Closer to home. Home is our things. We fill our homes with things. Gaston Bachelard writes that the ‘chief benefit of the house is to shelter daydreaming’ that ‘the house protects the daydreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace’. Yes. And the things we own, hoard, collect, muster, spark those daydreams, knit them in a cosy familiarity. This is us. These things. It can hurt to let them go. Go. Go. Go now. See how it feels.

She packs them up for me. She is sweet, a gentle woman, busy as a bee, with a purr for a voice. Off they go. Those thoughts of mine. Those things tiny in their conception winging their way to another’s home. I give them away. Do they want them? Are they wanted? I think so. And what of me? What do I want from such giving? It is complicated. The work comes alive. The work finds home. Do I? Is that what I search for? To belong in another’s life? And yet, the thought is an uncomfortable one. Either way it is an action. I need to act. It is a potent action. I need potency. I give what I have. I come alive amidst the shedding. Yes. That is enough I think.

Other thoughts? Yes. The man in the navy-blue sleeping bag still sleeping each morning in the promenade shelter. Bless you. Others? Yes, I keep thinking about Emily Dickenson and that man saying that he was glad that he didn’t live near her. She was too much. Too intense. Don’t be so intense. You are too intense, Ellen. Why so? I live intensely. I live a small life, whole-heartedly. What more can one do? Pursuing happiness. That’s what Jeanette Winterson calls it, the pursuit of happiness. Worthy of the attention of one’s whole heart, I think.

A woman talks on the phone to a radio presenter. She wants to wish her nine-year-old daughter happy birthday. How nice. They sound nice, her family. They’ve moved to Basel for her husband’s work. So brave. Two girls, nine and eleven. So brave. I would’ve liked to work abroad. To live properly abroad. (I have done so but in a borrowed way, in other people’s houses.) To set up my own home, abroad, one step removed from what I know. My own home. New. My own space for those daydreams. I have it now, but in a small way. Not wholly. Not yet. A waiting room, really. Waiting. Patiently. In love.


Collecting Silences

ReaDesign - petticoat detail - cropped

She was on a bench this time. At least I think it was her. It was dark after all. A bench on North Road, overlooking the maze, just beyond the tennis court. A figure in a duvet coat, smoking. It started to rain, quite heavily, but she didn’t move. She just sat there staring into the blackness, smoking. Does she sleep at all? I crossed the road. I wanted to leave her to her silence. It seemed wrong to force a greeting. And after all what do you say to such closed-off-ness? Hello? It isn’t enough, not near enough. A blank stare. A stare borne of not enough sleep. Not enough life. Not enough joy.

I run away with myself. I know. I know. But I feel the sadness, I always have. Other peoples’ sadness. Lame dogs my mother used to call them. Why do you always attach yourself to the lame dogs? she’d ask. Because they are the ones I understand, the ones I might be able to help, I wanted to say but didn’t have the words then. Not then. Possibly, not even now. I feel for them, for me. I know how it feels. Lame. An inner lameness. Not perfect. Not strong. Uncertain.

Why does she leave her house? Is it best to be outside when you can’t sleep, to join the world, to be out in Mary Oliver’s wind storm? Mend my life, they whisper. Buffeting wind. I clung to the promenade’s handrails as a walked, sliding my gloves along. Gust after gust, pulling at me. Lifting me, making me totter, falter. Making me vulnerable.

A story on the radio about a radio producer. He collects silences. Yes. The spaces in between the noise, the ceaseless forming of ideas of complaints of not being satisfied with just being. Is that what she is doing on that bench? Just being. Being awake. In the dark, sitting still. The same stillness of the bodies in the nursing home, a bovine, weighty stillness. Immoveable. A stubborn staring. Wilful, almost. Wilful in their now nothingness. I don’t know. The wind buffets me but not her. She sits her ground. I do not. I am not still. Still not still. Not yet still.

In my dream, I looked through a window at the wind. It was drawn, painted, big swirls of blue and brown as in a van Gogh. I watched as a train pulled into a station and all the passengers alighted. Hundreds of them and then suddenly they were lifting the train. Moving as one, joyously, easily carrying the great iron beast forward. Forward. Onward.


A man has come to mend the lamppost outside our kitchen window. It has taken several phone calls to get them to come. They say it isn’t broken. It is. It hasn’t shone in days. I miss it. I miss its yellow light, at night when I wake for a pee. The dark is coming. In the winter the Scandinavians light candles. They place them outside their houses. Candles in tins. Flares. Flames blown in the wind. Sometimes it is all you see, in the dark, in the snow. Those candles lighting your way home.

Do you sleep now?



Lullaby, 2010 (detail of groom)

It’s all about worth, the woman is saying to the radio presenter, I need to feel worthwhile. I want to work to feel worthwhile. What would you like to do? asks the presenter. There is a pause and I wonder if the woman, who is wheelchair-bound, has ever been asked that question. There is a sudden lightness in my voice. Possibilities. Yes. Do? she asks, Oh, anything. Well, I think I would make a very good researcher.

Worth. I remember that word as a child. My mother had some perfume by Worth. The letters WORTH elegantly printed in a black-lined border. Then there was Harry Worth the comedian. I got the two mixed up. Where they connected? Did he sell or even make perfume? As a child I was always trying to make connections. Just to make the chaos less so. Worth. What are we worth? Are we worth more than what we do? Worthwhile. Worthwhile work. The debate had been about paying disabled people to work. Heated discussions. Emotive. Are we worthless? Worth less. Less is more.

Walking in the dark. Will it rain? It threatens to do so. The wind is getting up. A leaf becomes a bird. A robin? I think so. It darts, flashes ahead of me and then lands. Toying with me. Here I am, come and catch me. Here. No here. Down on the prom sits the insomniac. Sometimes I see her on North Road sitting on her doorstep. I see her because of the red end of her lit cigarette. She looks sad. She is sitting on the metal steps staring out to sea. No umbrella. Waiting. Waiting for sleep. Jeanette Winterson’s mother didn’t sleep with her father. She eschewed sleep to keep intimacy at bay. Didn’t want sex. Didn’t want the comfort, the being known. To stay up all night. To not succumb. Some people just can’t. It is too scary, that falling, that renewing. Better the dark. By the sea.

Waiting. Another luscious programme all about waiting. Gorgeous writing. Waiting for what? For God? For life. A poet. She is waiting to be what she is meant to be. Not there yet. Not there yet.

Down by the harbour the boats are on stilts. Makeshift stilts. Boxes, blocks, oil drums. Precarious towers. Watch out it may topple. Nay, fiddlesticks. Safe as houses. Safe as boats. They look lost on land. Like beached whales, sea lions, they are immoveable. They are stuck. Graceless. Barnacle-bottomed and exposed.

A mess of a day. Nothing really achieved. Started to knit. To try out something. So much fear with the new. Push through the membrane of it. I love to use my hands. I watch them working. Tick tick go the needles. I think of Nanny Clarke. She taught me to knit. What was I, four, five, six? The wool was sweaty in my hands. Clumsy. Heavy-handed. Not now. Good hands. Nimble. Jack-be-nimble. Be quick. Nay, fiddlesticks. Take time. Take your time. Feast on your life. Find its worth. Its worth is in the small things. The memory things. Tick tick. Did she wee in the milk bottles, dance naked in the rain? I hope so. I loved her. I hope so.



The Haunting 2005, (low)

My Dad took me to the opera when I was seven, she is telling me, it was Aida. I was entranced, she says, it was so beautiful.

Seven. A year before, just after her sixth birthday, her mother had died. She was always a sickly child. I had my own cow, she tells me again, my own special cow. I had to have milk, you see, she says, her tiny hand on my arm. Her mouth smells sour. Rancid. She is ninety-three now and outlived all her more robust siblings.

She manoeuvres an open sandwich from a plate and takes a bite. She eats like a bird. Tiny mouthfuls. Ah, my pills, she says, I mustn’t forget these. There are three, in a little plastic measuring cup. Look at that one, she says pointing at a monster pill, before proceeding to bite it into three, more manageable pieces. She chokes on her milk, spraying white spots onto her already stained dark blue sweat pants. I stroke her back. It’s OK, she says, I’m OK. We both stare at her trainers. Ugly aren’t they, she says. We laugh.

She still shines. Her smile is a sun. Her hair a host of white light. I love her. All around her, in that mean room, are forgotten bodies. They barely move. They are static forms, some in wheelchairs, others on chairs. It’s 10.00am. It’s breakfast. They all eat in here. The music, classical, has stopped. There is an upright piano in the corner. It’s wood bleached by the sun. A splash of bleach has left a large blotch of white on its lid. Yes, the bodies. For that is in the main what they are. Some eat. Slowly. Others just stare, heads leaning to one side, spittle like yarn dripping from mouths. Others tap their fingers. What’s that noise? she says. Tap, tap, tap. A man in a wheelchair. A slumped body is knocking his long fingers against the metal of his chair. God, she says, what a noise, I can’t think. She talks loudly. The tapping stops.

Her friend arrives. I introduce myself. He shuffles over to his usual seat next to her. She is attentive. He takes her hand. Opposite her, a woman is eating. I don’t talk to her, she says, she isn’t my friend. A man is wheeled over to join our table. I shift my stool. His sandwiches have been cut into tiny circles. His eyes are staring. There is no recognition. He too starts to choke. I move to help. Don’t, she says, don’t interfere. They don’t care for him. It is too bad. After his choking subsides, she asks if he is hungry, offering her half-eaten plate of sandwiches. His hand reaches over. Shaking he manages to grasp a piece of bread, lifting it to his mouth. The process takes minutes, seems like hours.

I ask her friend how long he has been here. Five years. A gentleman. Quiet, reserved but there is grace and kindness in him. I see this. She seeks out the men. Always has done. They are her security. She needs their attention. She defers to them – seeing more than there is. Because she needs to. I show her the photographs I have brought. Who is he? she asks. I tell her. Your old friend. Don’t you remember? He was her friend for years. Her constant companion. No, she says, I don’t remember him. She is no longer interested. This is her life now. I accept it, she says. She has a view of the balcony from her room. There are plants that will flower in the spring. She says she goes out. She does not. Her legs are caved in. Her knees bending inward. Her walk is a shuffle. She propels herself forward on two sticks.

She is a troublemaker. I’m giving him the eye, she says pointing at a tall, blonde male nurse. She doesn’t mean what I think she means. She is glaring at him. He gives her a wide berth. There is only one carer who smiles at her, likes her, touches her.

She kisses me. Holding on to me. Her kiss is wet on my cheek.

Outside, I realise I forgot to give her the chocolate. I leave it on a sleeping bag beside the old cinema. I hope you like chocolate, I whisper.


Adult Lounge

Bedroom Fragments (3) email

Yesterday we sat in the Adult Lounge. We escaped. We jumped into the car and drove off, off, up North. We had work to do first. Then off, off. Sunshine and showers. Hot sun and wet, wet rain. The landscape made magnificent. We went back to the same hotel on a hill. He ate pork and apple sandwiches. Crusts off and in triangles. I had a Greek Salad, no bread and no onions. The other lounge was busy. Too many people. A long weekend rush. So we went to the Adult Lounge. Only one set of sofas occupied. A daughter and husband and her elderly parents. She kept calling her father Daddy. She was in her sixties, he in his nineties. He winced as he lowered himself into his wheelchair. The daughter was tired and a little sharp. Bend your knee, bend it, she said.

I sat in the sun. Inside, behind glass. It was hot. Warmed through. Other people arrived. Three women, a mother and her two daughters. Glamorous, articulate women. A couple entered and asked to share their sofas. They talked of caravans. He had a lovely voice, treacly. The daughters wanted some air. Their mother didn’t want to go. You go, she said, you go. I feel so helpless, she said to the couple, I used to be so independent. I am a liability now. I wanted them to go and have some time to themselves. She laughs. I listen to her tell them about her mother. She worked with Russian and German Jews in the war, she is saying. They were very nice people. She learnt their language really quickly. If someone lost a thimble she would get one for them. I say hello to her as we leave. I tell her that I loved her stories. She smiles, a little thrown. Your mother was a tailoress? I ask. Yes, she says, she made uniforms for the war. She is decked out in an outfit of pistachio green with matching socks. A hint of red lipstick on her mouth. I say something inane. Smile. It is enough, just to make contact, to break through that wall of strangeness. Later he talks to a man on the putting green. The man talks so quietly. He can hardly hear. Was it Alfred Crook or Cook? A somnolent place. Gentle. I wanted to stay. To sleep, to snooze my way out of this anxiousness. What is it? I don’t know. Will I be myself again soon? Perhaps. Perhaps never.

I watch the crows. One cast awry by the wind. Flotsam of the sky.

This morning in the dark there was a robin. Flitting. Flitting.


Moon Walking

Sparkle 5 - finished proof

A perfect circle. A perfect O. Moon walking. This morning, no rain. Just the moon. Walking in the light of the moon. It’s a special kind of light. A warm white. Apparently the lunar eclipse will turn it red. A blood moon. Later this morning two rainbows. Two. Two crocks of gold. Where is the crock? he asked, which end? What does a crock look like? Twice the luck? Perhaps.

A 100 Miles yesterday. Sweeping roads through hills and towns. It was nice. We talked, the three of us. Sometimes we sat in silence. We lunched in a hotel on a hill overlooking the sea. A sleepy lounge softened by the warmth of a still hot sun. Gatherings of sofas. Elderly women sprawled out on the chintz, positively lolling in the through-glass sunshine. Like cats. Sitting up only for the arrival of triangular cut sandwiches and heavy metal pots of tea. No Lapsang Souchong, madam. Sorry. Well, Darjeeling will have to do. Two or three push walking cages past the window outside. They’re going for a fag. They sit huddled on garden chairs. In the lounge lunch is over and they are doing crosswords and Sudoku, heavy-eyed after food. Going to the loo I spot another lounge, empty, its glass door shut. The Adult Lounge.

No more Chris Evans in the morning. I promised. In return I don’t have to collect his papers. Bliss. I don’t have to do to the SPAR and talk to people. It’s not that I really mind I just prefer the silence, the closed-in-ness. I wonder if Jamie ever got Wendy back. No more Chris Evans. We listen to Radio 3 instead. The dulcet voice of Petroc Trelawney. A small change. A small shift towards something new. Yes. I like it. Children talking about the ten pieces project. It’s better than real music, one said.

You seem happy, she said. Yes, I said, I think I am.



Shoes - On Reading - photo Andy Chittock 2014

I walk every morning. Every morning, early, whatever the weather. The last few days it has been wet. Yesterday it was windy. Today not so. I opened my umbrella. There must be something, some pleasure even in the rain. The patter of raindrops on the fabric of my umbrella, the smell of wet, rotting leaves. The stillness, the still warmness of the new autumn. There is always something, isn’t there? If you just look, if you are prepared to look beyond the disappointment of it not being what you hoped for or expected. Always something. A young woman walking through the rain towards me. No proper coat, sucking a lolly in the dark. Her wide hips, so beautifully womanly. What else? Little things. Adapting, managing the disappointment of a grey sky. A forgotten grapefruit replaced by a Satsuma. Different but not necessarily bad. I missed the sharp bitterness of the grapefruit but the Satsuma’s sweetness was nice. Sometimes when I walk I take my ipod. Not today. Today I heard the squeaking whistles of the oystercatchers. When I take it I put the ipod on shuffle. I walk to a mix of music, poetry, readings and Norwegian lessons. I like the randomness of it. Whatever comes up seems to be right. I walk accepting, not expecting or forming an opinion.

You’re free, she said. Yes, I am. What shall I do with the freedom? I want to live well. To love well. One and the same. To live without expectation. Now there is a thing.

Little delights. Coming upon a friend’s novel being read by Dan Stephens on Radio 4 Extra. Earlier listening to Ann Bronte’s Agnes Grey. Unexpected. Unlooked-for pleasures. She was the quiet one. I think. None of them wanting to leave home, except perhaps for Charlotte, though that was much later when they had all gone. Sharp, intense lives – no matter that they were living seemingly small outer lives. What inner ones. What inner ones.