Author Archives: Ellen Bell

About Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.

Astounding

‘I’ve a desire to be astounding,’ said the late actor, impresario-director, wild-man Ken Campbell. And he did it. He achieved it. He was. Such energy. Such imagination. Such confidence.

Where does the desire to be astounding fit within Einstein’s plea for the quiet, modest life? I am torn. Split two ways. I don’t know what I am any more. What I should be or be doing. I need guidance. Mostly, I need help in accepting what is. Though I suspect that this in itself is my lifetimes’ work.

The doorbell went twice yesterday. Once for a delivery and the other with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t want to be rude, ever. Not face to face, on the phone I am less kind. I try. But I fail. There were two of them. Two women, I think a mother and daughter. The mother-figure hung back, was the younger girl in training? The girl look a little old-fashioned, just like my friend from all those years ago used to. A little behind. She wore her hair down, long but caught back with a clip. She had on a grey pencil skirt cut away a little at the front. And a cardigan, I think. They always start with a question. How do you see the future? So there can be simple answer, I suppose. I smiled at them. I don’t want to do this, I said. I have my faith. I said. And I do, though it is often chaotic, I wanted to say but didn’t, wavery, uncertain and not based on any organised religion. I thanked them. They smiled back. Take care, I said. They are trying to do what they think is right. What they think is kind. They are trying to save us. I can respect that. It can’t be easy. Do they get much abuse. Is that why they send women?

We are off soon. There is space, there is time. Goody. Let’s see what we can unravel. May the greyness lift, eh?

Bakewell Tart

Smell is my strongest sense, I think. They take me over sometimes. Sometimes with joy, other times with distaste. The stink from downstairs is still there. I will have to burn some sage when I sweep the hallway tomorrow. They are containers of memory. I’ve been trying to buy more eco-friendly and bodily-friendly cleaning products and have just used the new wood polish (twice the price of the poisonous stuff – why?) and was overtaken by the smell of it. What was it? Something familiar. I smelt and thought. Smelt and thought. And then it came. Bakewell tarts, Mr Kipling’s individual bakewell tarts. Almond essence. Gorgeous. I remember them as a child. We were living on the farm then, in Lancashire. The six little Kipling’s cakes came in a box with their picture on the front. Each one utterly perfect and neat in their silver foil cases, with their white icing feathered with a pattern of brown lines. The icing, then the jam and then the almond middle, slightly sticky, fudgy. And there was always a glace cherry on the top. Half a cherry, if I remember correctly. When did we used to eat them? My mother was never one for cakes in those days. Was it when we entertained? Had people round? Never for tea. A Sunday? There was those little fancies too, in the pastel shades of yellow and pink, wrapped in marzipan. Girly cakes. The bakewells felt more refined. And I’ve always loved the taste of nuts.

I woke from a dream about my mother’s things. Someone was with me, a Radio Cymru presenter (AH) and he wanted a whisky. I rooted through her cupboards. The house looked like it was being packed up. Where was it England, Spain? There were bottles but no whisky. I explained about having to pour so many away. The cupboards kept changing every time I looked. And I was expecting her to turn up, at any moment. I was edgy. I found a bottle of Haig, eventually, a huge thing. Now I had to find a glass. I searched through the cupboards again – there were lots of white and painted porcelain dishes, knick-knacks, all of no usefulness. No glass. I found a cup, I think, but woke before I could pour it.

We watch box sets. Silly things. Escapism. In the one last night one of the characters had hurt his back and he was lying in bed feeling useless, unable to work. What use am I, he said to his wife, when I can’t work? I’m left here alone all day, with just my thoughts. I’ve been low over the last few days. I know it. And he has noticed. I’m stuck, blocked, stagnant. He has agreed to a seminar tomorrow, if work allows. I need to talk it out. Whatever this ennui is. Uselessness. A not knowing what to do, what work is anymore? All the above and more. They’ve put a new camera in at work. No one told us. She talked about big organisations as being like drains. Beware, she said, long before I ever worked there. Beware.

Stink

I felt stripped bare yesterday, skinless, and exposed. I think it was from listening to the radio docudrama about the man who left his family for over 18 months and to all intents and purposes disappeared. It was so moving, so gripping and with no happy endings (though I’ve not reached the end quite yet). The man talked about sleeping rough, drinking, feeling like he was dissolving, and waking up to being pissed on. My heart opened to him to them his family, so much so that when I had to go out, out into the world to deal with ordinary things I was unprepared, fragile. And then work. Everything clanged and clashed. I drank too much tea to compensate and my nerves jangled. Then coming home there was the smell.

He couldn’t smell it. What is it? he asked. I couldn’t describe it. A stink. A rank odour. It smelt of rotting vegetation, fish, guano. It was bitter and acrid, vinegary. It stank of what I imagine lutfisk smells like when the tin is finally opened after months of ‘curing’ or should I say rotting. It seems to be coming from our neighbours’ flat downstairs. Had someone died? Was it a decomposing body? No, I heard cutlery against plates. Were they eating it? That foul odour, was it actually food? It was still there this morning. I left the back door open wide to the cold morning air but it makes little difference, it is still eeking out. How can they stand it? Or is it just me, being too sensitive. I lit a sage stick and walked around the flat wafting it, trying to avoid setting off the smoke alarms.

A cold walk. The moon is shrinking and the light dwindling. We go deeper into the tunnel of winter.

Meteor Shower

He stopped me as I walked past. I’d seen him ahead of me. The Prom, except for this man, was empty. A whole stretch of emptiness. I was wary. He was standing in front of a row of B&Bs as if he’d just come out of one of them. What made him stand out was the fact that he was only wearing shorts, socks and no shoes, and it was what, only 5 or 6 degrees out there. He called out to me, and pointed at the sky and then moving closer showed me his phone. The screen revealed a online article about the meteor shower due that morning. I remembered hearing about it. He pointed up at the sky ahead. He was clearly have trouble articulating what he wanted to say. Was he pissed? His accent was North Walian, though he spoke to me in English. The photographers are all down there, he said, pointing towards the harbour. It’s at five past three, he said, again pointing at the sky. Thank you for letting me know, I said, and walked on. Keep looking, he shouted after me. And I did. And kept looking. Nothing.

I don’t know what a meteor shower looks like. And as I made my way home I could see that clouds had begun to form across the semi-moon. Did I miss it? I had kept looking up, feeling a little silly like some ever-hopeful Chicken Licking.

I need a seminar, my love. Can we go and sit and I can talk it through? So many things swirling, it would be good to ground some of it. Glimmers of hopefulness come through. I think it is the sun. Off to add a codicil to my Will soon. A change of name, that’s all. I want it all neat and tidy, ready, taken care of. I think about it often, the leaving, and how to do it neatly. It’s all I can do really. Wrap it. Order it. Taking care.

Helicopter

I heard it several times overheard, flying over our roof. They must be looking for someone, he said, his head bent over the newspaper. It was early, before 6 am. It’s a sinister sound. I don’t know why. Insistent, like an insect buzzing, chasing, haranguing.

I dreamt I was trying to make a dress and the pattern I was working from was a lot more complicated than I’d bargained for. (How like life. And indeed this sampler I’m working on for one of the poppets. Ugh, I keep mis-counting, and I want to throw a tantrum at my incompetence.) I kept looking back at the picture on the pattern. It looked like a wedding dress but the loose folds at the front of the bodice didn’t appeal to me. Did I really want to make this dress? I kept asking myself. Then I saw other images of women in it, though the dress had changed. Then I saw bits of women’s torsos – naked, like a painting. Then I was due to start teaching again, or was I just applying? It was at a post-ed college – and someone was telling me about all the meetings I’d have to attend. Some are at midnight, the person was saying. My heart sank. Do I really want all that back? Then my colleague at work was on the phone, could I do the booking for midnight? Why can’t you do it? I wanted to ask. I’d do it, he said, but I have to drive all the next day. Alright, I said, I’ll do it. Then I woke, a little before my alarm.

A cloudy day. Writing done and sent. One more to do. Sewing today and my fingers are already sweaty with the tension of doing it wrong. Will she notice? It’s a bit like one of the Spot the Difference puzzles my niece and nephew love to do. Who can spot that the giraffes are not exactly the same size?

Poncho

I’m always a little uncomfortable writing about her. I know her sensibilities, she is diffident, she keeps close to herself and I in turn wish to vouchsafe such needs. And yet, I also want to celebrate her, remember the things she shares with me, the nuances of her speech, for that is all I have to go on as we’ve never met. So I keep it anonymous, I keep her safe. We talked about the cold, the biting wind. She doesn’t have central heating in that little house of theirs. There is a cold fire and several electric heaters. And when its really cold I’ve got my poncho, she said. I delved a little deeper yesterday. I asked her what she used to do. She was a secretary from what I could gather, working for an author and educator. Someone Ellis. She expected me to know of him. I don’t. Then I delved deeper and she spoke of her ex-husband. I presume they are divorced now. He used to hit her when he started drinking and he was jealous of their daughter. She threw him out in the end. She went to his place of work to tell him. I wanted it to be public, she said. It was the day after he’d bashed the door down and beat her severely. She told him she didn’t want to see him ever again, in front of all his work colleagues. She finds courage. She always finds courage. That’s when she and daughter left the family home and found the house they live in now. It’s up in the hills. We don’t have much, she said. But it’s nice now that I have my pension. She had to make do when the girl was small. It was hard. But she never complains. I have so much admiration for her. It’s those small victories that speak the loudest.

The morning was dry and the wind, though keen was bearable.

A girl in leggings and an oversized orange anorak skateboarded passed me in the middle of the road. She looked unsure of herself, gangly.

I begin writing today. I’m always nervous. What if it doesn’t come? Just sit with it. It will. It will.

Shouting Dad

I’ve only ever heard him shouting at them, in their garden mainly and like yesterday when he’s trying to get them all into the car to take them to school. She, by contrast appears so gentle, so attentive towards them. They are both tall and stringy. Both runners. But he is sharp edged where she is languorous. I’ve never spoken to them. We watch them, he and I from afar, intrigued. They rarely connect with their neighbours. Are they part of a religious sect we muse who frown upon contact with those outside of their faith? Perhaps. Arthur, Arthur, he was shouting at his son yesterday, get out. Get out now. And the boy was hauled out of the back seat of the car. Arthur is a dreamy child. I’ve watched him singing and dancing outside his house, in his own world. Happy it seems. Does their father’s ranting disturb them or does she soften his carping?

The milkman was delivering to the flats through the hall as I left our home for my walk this morning. It is always slightly alarming to encounter someone in the early dark like that. Hi, he called, as he slipped through the door, a dark figure, faceless. Good morning, I called back.

They got it wrong. There was no wind or rain. Though that must be little compensation to those in Yorkshire or indeed Venice. May they find some comfort, some succour and may the hell recede soon.

My ribs are still giving me gip as is my finger. Healing takes so much longer when you are as old as the hills.

I dreamt she and I were talking. We were outside in a kind of pleasure garden, rather like Tivoli. She was telling me of her boss. He was called Duncan. It’s the most she’s said to me in a long time. Her face was softer, kinder. It felt good to be on better terms with her, though nothing is ever revealed. Then there were two children, up close, near my face. They were smiling and laughing, the little boy, I knew had been fathered by a movie star. I wandered around the garden, there were lots of people sitting at tables, chatting and eating. The light was dappled, shade and sun, I wanted to find a patch of sun and saw an empty deckchair. Was it owned, was it free, could I sit there? Then I woke.

I’ve much to do – strands and notes and preparations. She was a delight to interview – so full of life. I felt honoured. Thank you. x

Internal Combustion Engine and Christmas Crackers

I only remembered the tail end of it. I was in some sort of hospice or rest home. There were many other women there, mostly middle-aged like me. We were friendly towards each other, connected by a common experience of being unwell. However, being there helped – we all agreed that we were feeling better for the rest, for stepping out of our domestic, busy lives. We were all seeing consultants, men in suits and white coats. Men who looked over the rim of the glasses at us. Two of them had gone for lunch and I was alone in their consulting room when they returned. I’d been looking at a working small internal combustion engine on the floor, knowing that it was part of me, or at least symbolic of one of my organ. Was it my heart? They weren’t angry that I was in there, more happy that I was interested. You see, one of them said, you’re behaving like you are still young when you are not – you are asking too much of it, he said, pointing at the engine.

The supermarket is getting full with Christmas stuff. Above the bread were large boxes of Christmas Crackers. He saw me looking at them. Can we not bother with those things? he asked. Can we just do lights, candles and carols and not go to church either? I said yes, but reluctantly. I like to go to take communion but, like him, I don’t want to bump into neighbours either. If only I could go somewhere anonymously. It’s hard in a small town, even if few people know my name. But the crackers haunt me a little. I know they are a waste of money. Gimcrack tat, but they tap into a childish love of such stuff. The glitter of it, like snow domes, it, they give me something like joy. Just a frisson. I’ll go with whatever you want, he said in the car. I know. I might not bother, but it would be nice to think maybe.

My alarm went off early. Is that a full moon thing? I got up anyway. It’s nice to have a stretch of time.

Nervous about the call. And about the writing. I always am. Sometimes I just want, need to keep life small, pocket-sized.

Lover

I don’t know him well. He was a flirtation. We both did it. It was light, trivial, a nothing but it gave me, and I believe him, a fillip. He even turned up at the same restaurant once after I’d told him a few days before that I was going there with a friend. What was that about? He there with his wife, and me with a girlfriend. We both sat on tables on the terrace – it was hot. We nodded to each other. I didn’t know what to make of it. He invaded my dream, out of the blue. We can have a cuddle, he said. And I knew he was waiting for me to join him in his bed. I wanted to but hesitated, taking a long time to appear. What about your wife? I asked. She’s dead, he said. It’s a good time. He had a girlfriend, who I also spoke to, but he implied it was not solid, not important to him. I wanted him. But I still hesitated. I even asked him if it would be OK. Or perhaps when I woke for a pee that was what I decided I would do. I kept returning to the dream – should I or shouldn’t I? The last few nights I’ve dreamt of lovers. Is it the moon? It is big, huge. I walked under its gleam. I love that. The dark is less sombre. A good walk. My legs are less heavy. The symptoms not so raging. Is it passing? Is it all an illusion? Was the consultant wrong?

He didn’t sleep well again last night but he is less miserable about it. For now the sun shines. Let it remain. Let it stay awhile.

Our kettle died this morning. It makes me sad when things die. I was fond of it. A lovely duck-egg blue with a plump bottom. Rest in my peace little kettle and thank you for the seven years you have given us. He will take it to the tip perhaps someone clever can resuscitate it. I hope so.

I’ve made a mistake in my sewing – the counting is awry. I’m not good at following patterns. It’s always been so. I am not going to unpick – no one would know – I will just adapt it. I’ve come on, in the past it would’ve thrown me berating myself for my incompetence. He would say you’re learning. It’s OK. And it is. To be perfectly imperfectly human is OK. OK?

Grief (110)

Can it be a shared thing? Do we tap in whether willingly or unwillingly to a grief felt by nations or even by the world? It felt like it yesterday. It overwhelms me – that 11th hour, that 11th day. All that grief. A tsunami of grief. It isn’t mine. I wasn’t there. I haven’t lost anyone to a war, well not directly, but I still feel it, I still feel something. And the tears come. I see the imagery in my head. It is borrowed imagery from First and Second World War Pathe newsreels, from films, from literature. It is all I can focus on, oh and the radio stories I’ve heard from soldiers of today, or those I’ve listened to down the phone line as a Samaritan. Their grief is a known sadness, a true sadness, I am one step removed but I still weep, as I did at a neighbour’s funeral all those years ago. I am a sponge, I soak it up and emote, wholly taken over with compassion for another’s sorrow. Does it make me fraudulent? I hope not. I remember hugging her widow in the street, alarmed by what had come over me. He was so lost to it, so shell-shocked by her death, and left with a young daughter to care for alone. Sometimes all I can do is feel for others, be with them in their grief, standing alongside. Your grief story is my grief story. Always.