wall paintings (12)

I wrote our names in the book and asked if he was in his room. You do know that he’s gone upstairs? asked the bright-faced receptionist. No, I said, I didn’t. Yes, he went up last week. He’s so much happier up there, she said, smiling widely. How do I-? Oh, you take the lift up to the second floor. Just knock on the door and someone will let you in.

The lift opened up into a small windowed vestibule, through the windows we could see various figures sitting in high-backed arm chairs or perambulating on wheeled walking frames. A woman was fiddling with the door lock as I pressed a white buzzer. A large black girl in a red t-shirt tapped in a code and opened the door. Yes? I said his name. Come in, come in, she said, shutting the door behind us. Where’s _______? she called out to a colleague. ___________ ‘s over there, he replied, pointing in the direction of small recess lined with chairs. We walked towards it and saw him. He had just made a remark to an elderly figure (I think she was female) who was slumped in the corner. There was a crossword book in his hand. Had he just asked her if he could read it? He looked up from the book as we approached. His face opened with a polite smile but there was no recognition in his face. I told him who I was, kissed his cheek, then knelt down at his feet and took his hand. He seemed to know her name – my mother, his wife. Yes, he said, when I told him I was her daughter, now that is important isn’t it? Then it was gone, that important fact. I was a stranger again – someone nice who’s come to call and who he is happy to let hold his hand. He looked up at him and asked what he did. Retired, eh! You look too young, he said. What did you do? Lecturer eh? Of, course, I’ve retired now, too old to work now.

Surrounded by slumped figures in mainly cardigans and slippers, he seemed overdressed in his chequed Aquascutum shirt and navy-blue blazer but then casual attire was never his thing. He was too big, too hefty for the shorts that he succumbed to wearing in that hot Spanish sun; the socks remained however, though the brogues in the August months were swapped for deck shoes. He looked well, a little thin, but otherwise well. His skin was soft and cool. We said we couldn’t stay long, that we had a long drive back to Wales. Where’ve you been? he asked. Manchester? I know Manchester, I used to work- all over. We talked about Wales, about sailing but he couldn’t find the place names. He knew he’d sailed but couldn’t recall where. All over, he kept saying, all over. I was passing through, he said, passing through when I found this place. I liked it, nice grounds and so on so I thought I’d stay a few days, he said, they look after you well. Yes, we said. I rose to go, kissing him on his cheek. When you come again, he said, rubbing his hands together in that familiar way of his, I can take you for a nice evening out somewhere. Yes, we said. That would be nice. Do come again, he said, it nice to see nice people like you. I turned round to wave at him as we made our way to the door but he had picked up the crossword book again and was engrossed in it. The encounter had been forgotten.

I didn’t get it. A failure, I suppose. They didn’t like it, my idea, the board didn’t like it. It is hard to be stopped in this way. I’ve involved others, I’ve involved them in my dream of a show. What now? Where do I direct all that energy? And direct it I must. No self-pity, Ellen. He said it wasn’t right anyway. People wouldn’t look at it properly in a café, he said. But it was where the café was that mattered, I said. Never mind, he said, we will sort it. Meanwhile, he said, write about it. Write about it. Yes. Yes, I will.

Will you mind, all of you, if I write about you? You moved me so much. I will preserve your privacy, I promise. I was just so touched, so touched by your openness, your willingness to share what you felt with me. I am sorry that I couldn’t make it work. It is hard sometimes always having to generate the work, to make it all happen. I will persevere – but maybe it has all happened for the best. I can say that about my own life – it is mine – though I would never be so crass as to say it about others. How can that plane crash have happened for the best? What good can come from it? Some, maybe, but not now. Now is not the time to think of it, to write of it. It is not my place to pontificate about others’ lives. I keep seeing the work in my head, playing out in my head. How to make it? How to make it better? How to make it happen? Write first and then? Then you will see.

We began watching The Iron Lady last night. She didn’t like it that they began with the dementia, he said. Did she see it then? I asked. No, maybe it wasn’t her but her friends that didn’t like it, he said. I think it shows her vulnerability, I said. I can understand their reasoning, you feel compassion for her this way. Yes. I loved him. No, love him. We went through so much that time in Spain. I saw his fear, his terror even, his vulnerability. Yes, I know he wasn’t a good father, or a husband. He wasn’t kind. But in those months he was dear to me. I still see his rheumy eyes made wide with fear. What is happening? Winny, where is Winny? Now she is gone from his head. There is nothing but this moment, and then the next and the next. Nothing more. Thatcher sees Denis, he is still around her. He is her secret, her comfort. Not so, for him. The photographs are all from before. From before Winny. Winny has been erased. We have been erased. So be it. I can understand. He has been taken back, though few want him. Not now. When all is lost what remains?

Thank you for coming, she was saying, to nobody. Thank you for coming, she was saying, inclining her head, first left and then right to nobody at all.




wall paintings (8)

To lose everything. They have, those islanders. I want to feel their loss with them, to stand in their shoes. One has to stop the internal chatter, all that minutiae, to do so. We have romantic ideas of how we would cope – all pulling together. Would we? On The Archers there was a flood. Devastation. The village rallied round. Beds were offered, soup, hay for the herd – all very heart-warming. Past arguments and pettiness forgotten. To lose everything. In The Archers Bert’s Freda died. How would that feel? To him that is everything, is it not? You just carry on, Jill Archer says to him, you have to. Yes. Live out our allotted time, said Squire Hamley in Wives and Daughters.

I’ve been lucky – so few deaths in my life. Catherine Moss’s death was the first major one. A dear friend. More, so much more. She was there through my late teens, holding me together. My companion. My dearest friend. She died from the burns. Her car turned over. She always drove like a lunatic. Too fast, too wild. How I loved her.

Of course there were grandparents after that. All so distant, symbolic rather than real. Joyce, moved me, at the end. So vulnerable. Then Dad last year and Mum two years before. I am still reeling, inside. It is too much. It isn’t everything. He is everything, but it is still too much, at times. When he goes, well, that will be everything. I visit that place in my mind sometimes. I know I shouldn’t but I do. I open the door into the room of his passing. How will it be to be without him? When it seems he has always been here, knowing me, loving me, watching over me. I shut the door quickly. No, not now. Not now. Please.

They told me she was sitting on the verandah, when I called. I’m sitting in the sun, she said, the hot sun. I could hear the scraping of chairs on stone tiles, down the phone. She sounded happy. Spring is coming, she said. Yes, I said, that is good. She will go soon. The last of them. I am glad she had the sun.

We watched Philomena. It wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t have to hold my breath. She needed to know that he had thought of her. That was all. She needed to know that she had counted, that she had meant something. She had. He had gone looking for her. That was enough.

We keep going regardless of the pain, perhaps in spite of, or indeed because of, the pain. What can I give you, you who have lost everything?



Layette - test crop (1)

The radio today is all about Mother’s Day. All about mothers. Perfect mothers. Fairy tale mothers. The wisdom of mothers. Mothers. I just don’t know, do you? It is what it is. They are what they are. She is, was, what she was. Mine. My mother. And me? Like her, am doing the best I can.

The radio. My joy. Truly. The other day, was it Thursday, there was a programme about the song Mr Bojangles. The presenter was trying to prove whether the lyrics were based on the real Mr Bojangles Robinson. It wasn’t it turned out. Bojangles was just the character’s moniker, borrowed while in prison to protect his identity, and he was white. Amazing what you learn. Just think what we could learn if we listened a while. One of the contributors knew the real Bojangles and she talked about how elegant he had been. Everything just so. All his clothes in his closet, she said, were hung three inches apart so that they didn’t crease. I aspire to that. That sartorial elegance.

What else? Watching. Watching life play out before me. Not walking, sitting. Sitting in the car, watching a vicar scuttling out of the 24 hour Spar with 4 tins of dog food under his arm. He is wearing a grey-green mackintosh and his hair, long and straight, hangs over one eye. He is youngish man but already has a stoop. The next day I watch the ‘litter man’. He told me about him. He lives in a flat over a closed-down café in Pier Street. He spends all day rooting through litter bins, filling two plastic bags with his finds. This particular day he has a lime green satchel hanging across his chest. He looks relatively clean in his patchwork-style cardigan and beige cotton trousers. His face is shaven but clumps of white hairs nestle forgotten under his chin. In his left hand he is clasping a bundle of twigs. He is always focussed on his task, never interacting with anyone.

The day is quiet. A cloudy sky presses down. A rook caws, a wood pigeon coos. It is not yet 9 am and only the occasional car drives by. One, then two, then silence. I have begun to write something. I don’t know what it will become. Just write, he says. Just write. OK. I will


The Toy Man

drawings from spoleto - Bar Canasta 2007

There goes the toy man, he said as we got out of the car. The toy man owns a toy shop on Pier Street. Its window is crammed full with boxes of airfix models, jigsaws and train sets. Most of the time he stands at the door, smoking. He must be in his late fifties or even early sixties, it is hard to say. He never seems to have any customers. His clothes are unkempt, his hair, greasy and lank, flaps in his eyes. He never smiles.

The gym was quiet this morning. No boys loping round the weight machines. Just me, the other middle-aged woman in the lilac tee-shirt stretching on a mat and the round, pudding-like one on the sitting bicycle. She is there the same mornings as I am. Perhaps she goes everyday. She reminds me of a Christmas Pudding. A Christmas Pudding with little legs poking out. She wears navy tracksuit bottoms, an anorak and carries an enormous handbag. Her hair is cut in a blonde page-boy. Climbing aboard the bike, she fidgets her bottom into a comfortable position and then hauls her bag onto her lap. Taking out glasses and book, she then proceeds to start up the machine. She never rides particularly fast. No sweat is broken. But she stays on it for half an hour, rhythmically and methodically, like a cow chewing cud, turning the pedals. I caught sight of the front cover of her book the other day. The How To Slim Fast Diet Book, it read.

The downstairs flat has been let. We’d seen them going in to hang shelves. He was put out. They didn’t hang shelves for us, he said. We met them yesterday. Hugo and Hettie. They must be in their eighties. A tiny couple. You like it here? Hugo asked him. We shook hands. She seemed pleased. We’ve already met our neighbours, she said to a young woman bringing in a vegetable carton of newspaper-wrapped crockery. That’s nice, isn’t it? she said. Bye, we said. See you soon. Bye.



MORDANT - publicity photograph - Ellen Bell (2)

I said I would write about it, here in my journal. I promised. It seems odd though. I usually work things out in private, in my head. To articulate the process in this way will take some getting used to, I think.

I don’t have a studio, at least not at present. I work in my kitchen and store everything in a white plan chest in my bedroom. It is an odd system. It changes how I respond to my work. Much becomes internalised or is contained in sketchbooks. My work is clean, ordered. It has to be. I wondered how I would manage this project – particularly the testing part – with such a severe lack of space.

We found a plasterer. At least he did. A friend of a friend. That’s how it works in a small town, he said. I liked him. He was open and resourceful, though he did keep directing his answers to him rather than me. They’re all like it, he said afterwards, they’re just not used to dealing with women. We met him at lunchtime. Come to my house, I’ll be in the garage. He mixed up some plaster and I watched rapt as he deftly smeared it onto a plasterboard offcut. Plastering bores me now, he said, I’ve done it for so long. And it’s so messy. I pushed the template into the wet plaster. Gorgeous. It bit, just as I imagined it would. This isn’t so good, he said, it’s old plaster. But it works, I said, that’s the main thing, it works. We’ll have to work fast, with me following behind you, cleaning it up. (I think he used a particular word for the cleaning up bit but I forget it now.) I love working with craftsmen. I want to be them – roofers, plasterers, painters, dry stone wallers – its their dexterity, surety and confidence in their skill. Art is just trickery, mostly. A sleight of hand. I make facsimiles – they do it for real, without the ego and show. I liked him. And he said he would do it. I’ll even bring my laser thing to help with the lining up, he said. Fantastic, I said, fantastic.

There is still so much of the unknown about the project though. I mean its great that I’ve been awarded the grant by Arts Council Wales. I feel so fortunate but it is a responsibility. A big one. I mean there isn’t a right or wrong. It will be what it will be but I want it to be, to become the best it can. Jo, my friend and graphics-mentor has been teaching me about type. I’ve always loved it – though it was a love born of ignorance. She sent me home with two big tomes – type bibles. Don’t use serif, she said. Ok, I said. No twirls. The type needs to be straightforward, utilitarian. I need it to represent the voices, the conversations I overhear. I need a typeface that is universal such as Franklin Gothic Condensed – solid, dependable and weighty. Or there is News Gothic Bold. It needs to be legible. The plaster layer won’t be deep. And Gill Sans, designed by Eric Gill, is beautiful. But I am concerned about how much I will be able to press into the plaster before it sets. 10 sentences, 20, 30 ? It isn’t about the amount but how the dialogue interacts with each other. It is a small space. How much would the walls absorb?

Perhaps I should have introduced the project from the start, sorry. Yes. It’s called MORDANT and it is to be an installation in the TestBed space at the Oriel Davies Gallery in Newtown. It opens on Saturday 23rd May 2015. So what is it about? Well, its concerned with conversation. The kind of conversations that one overhears in galleries. It could be intellectual stuff or just plain chit chat. It doesn’t matter. It’s about the influence of space on the way human beings interact. My supposition is that walls absorb this chatter. I propose to spend a week at Oriel Davies recording what I hear and then using the transcribed discourses to create a piece of text that runs along the walls of the TestBed. A tiny little room. Intimate and cosy. The text won’t be large. This isn’t about shouting. People rarely shout in galleries. And it could end up being very prosaic. But you will be able to read, touch and perhaps talk back to it. That would be nice. Perhaps you will recognise something of yourself in what you see there. I hope so. As I say there as still many unknowns. Creating the templates is no mean feat – something which I hope a very nice man called Tom is going to help me with. Projects like this are all about stepping into the dark, the great unknown and asking for help. Help me learn. Help me to stretch my knowledge and become, better.

I love listening. I love recording what I hear. Usually in a wee Moleskine notebook I keep in my handbag. I wrote a blog for New Welsh Review recently about Shani Rhys James’ new show at the National Library – . I spent two hours sitting and walking around the exhibition space, watching and listening to my fellow viewers. People often whisper when you get near – scared of appearing stupid perhaps, or maybe they are not talking about the work at all. There is often a hush to art spaces, a reverence that stultifies high spirits – even children seem more sedate. Is it the art or the space? It is often just simple statements such as, I like this one, or that looks like – that one hears. Perhaps talking is unnecessary, or perhaps good art makes any commentary seem banal. Its a bit like the current backlash against the taking of selfies in galleries – just LOOK at the work. Do people talk because they are uncomfortable with the silence of engaging, of really letting themselves be open to being captivated? Do we talk when we are not? I prefer to go alone. The most extraordinary things happen then. I am more open, more ready to be enthralled.

Let’s hope you will be.





Small things

2012-07-24 20.17.40

Towards the harbour end of the promenade there are a series of covered benches. They are set, at road level, into the old castle wall. I think there are three in all. Mosaics from the 1950s decorate the wall behind each one – folksy-style narratives of Aberystwyth’s history. The benches are crudely made, their bottle-green paint curling in the sun. I like to sit there with him and look at the sea, protected from the wind. No matter that the cars draw up too close. No matter. We sit there in the afternoons. Just until I can walk again. Not long. Not long now. How’s your leg? he asks. It’s mending. It’s mending. Soon be on the mend.

A small life. A protracted life, certainly at the moment. I nearly cried in the gym on Tuesday for the loss of my strength. At least I think that’s what it was. I couldn’t do what she expected me to do. It was too hard. I couldn’t muster the might. A small life. This isn’t small, he said, as we sat looking at the sea. No, I said, it isn’t, is it?

We saw our neighbour a few days ago doing her second job. She is a nanny. From Slovakia. A live-in nanny, she looks after the child downstairs. She is probably my age. Her name is Elizabeth. I can hear her outside my window now and again, on the phone to her husband and smoking. He visits sometimes. Her English is improving. We nod and smile and he tells her off for smoking. She laughs and waves her arms about. Sometimes you can see her sadness. The thought of going home makes her beam. We saw her on North Road lugging too great bags of laundry out into the street. We waved. It took her a while to place who we were. Then she waved. She works hard. I understand. I did it too. Where does she go to, in her head?

Dickens used to walk, she was telling me, through the streets of London at night, for hours and hours. Somerset Maugham admitted to being ‘restless’. I miss the movement. I miss the journey, the adventure, the wildness of my morning walks. I stay in instead. I stretch and listen. Restless. Yes, I am restless. I seek change. No, not freely but I need it, to feel. To feel alive.

The Archers was good last week. I was rapt, particularly with David and Ruth’s dilemma. How can it be resolved? There is no question of right of wrong, just a different outlook. I understand. He wants to stay, she wants to go. It is his home and not hers. Its like the shrimp and the anemone in L P Hartley’s novel. Do you pull the shrimp free to save it and risk killing the anemone (and indeed the shrimp) or do you let be and sacrifice the shrimp for the sake of the anemone? I want to try somewhere else but for him this is home. I want to find ‘home’ but don’t, as yet, know where that might be.

I saw a magpie and then a rook, each with twigs in their beaks. They are nesting. Preparing. How clever. How adroit they are. Piece by piece. Twig by twig. They chatter and chirp on the trees across the road – the blue tits are the loudest. Small things with a metallic call.

Watching the women. There was one man, but the rest where women. I sat on the floor. The woman next to me had mud on her shoes. She flushed as she spoke – staring into the middle distance. Nervous, I think. Most were confident. All scribbling away furiously. Words tumbling out. They spoke about water, fish and love affairs. I felt apart. I made myself apart by sitting on the floor. No matter. I wanted to watch rather than participate. Sometimes it is all too much. I thought about my bowl. Pea green with the cracked line in the glaze. When we got home I made porridge.