A course of study

He was an ex-work colleague of his. We met him in the street as we sometimes did in Cambridge, years ago. He’d just retired and was off to live on some remote Scottish island with his partner. His subject had been English Literature and he told us how he was going to use his time to read all of Shakespeare’s works. A course of study. It has a nineteenth-century sound to it. Men of private means did it, women of leisure did it, at least those who had access to their father’s or husband’s library. A course of study. There is so much I want to learn, to immerse myself in. To learn for the sake of it. To educate oneself. He read a quote out loud at breakfast from the paper. I can’t remember the exact wording but I remember it was from Aldous Huxley. Something about the only thing you can change is yourself. Does education do this? Partly. I love to learn. I love to stretch myself, even if there is fear in the doing of it. By taking it on, after all, one is admitting to not knowing. There is a vulnerability to that. An exposure of nothingness, a nothingness waiting to be filled. But I do love the stretching, the encountering of ideas. Though it does highlight my smallness, always.

Two mornings running I’ve seen the milkman. He drives a truck not a float. An open truck, rather rickety. He was ahead of me on Llanbadarn Road when I walked home. I swiftly mounted the pavement. He was on the wrong side of the road with his lights off. It took me a moment to work out that he’d been delivering. I’m sure that I’ve talked before about Nanny’s milkman and how he used to arrive on a horse and cart. The horse was inevitably called Dobbin. I loved hearing him coming down the hill. You could hear him through the shut window. A slow pace. No hurry. Taking time to chat. That chink of glass on glass. Housewives on their newly washed front steps, slippers and apron still on. The milk was cold. The cream from the top of the milk on my cereal. I loved it. All homogenised now. And the punctured bottle tops in the winter, from the birds. Blue tits mostly. It seem to me then to be straight out of a Janet and John book. How I loved her. I loved her stillness, her it-will-be-alright-ness. You’re a born worrier, she used to say. Never with her. Never. She wasn’t our grandmother. She was my father’s Nanny and became ours by proxy. They didn’t really get on, she was too stuck in her ways as far as she was concerned. I can see it now, it must’ve been difficult coming from a foreign country to all that. I wish I’d been kinder back then, tried to understand, even just a little.

My dreams have been so lucid these last few nights. Last night, an old woman encased in glass being given an award for her part in a theatrical production. She stayed the course, kept calm, kept steady, was a peaceful presence. It was enough, she was chosen for the accolade. He gave it out, gave a speech. She was a small woman, grey-haired. She looked familiar. An accolade for calmness, for diligence, for staying the course, for being at peace. Imagine that.

Time to go. I’m glad I got a chance to write. She is right, I miss it when I don’t .

A blowy day, big clouds. Cleaning done. I am at peace.

By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.