Before The Archers

It’s fifteen minutes before The Archers. I have to write this in fifteen minutes. A nice problem. A quickie. A quick shuftie. Is that the word? What will I talk about? I’ve been reading about writing poetry and had two cups of tea. Both have made me a little high, separate, watching and alert. I had to go into work for a guest who was doing a paper review. A big bear of man. It’s cold out there, he said, rolling through the door in t-shirt and jerkin. He didn’t smell of the usual after shave. I asked what time he would finish. 9.15 I hope, he said, as I’ve got to go and play the organ. Where? I asked. St Mikes, he said. I need time to shower, he said. Ah, I thought, that’s why there’s no aftershave. Three cups of coffee and he only needed one pee. I had three pees and only two cups of tea. He’d bought all the papers, even the horrid ones, like the Sunday People. He pushes all of them under his arm as he leaves. For the guinea pigs, he explains. It’s the detail. Poetry is the detail. Show not tell, Sansom quotes. A picture springs up, young kids, guinea pigs in a hutch in the garden. That musty smell of hay and guinea pig poo. Parents bemoaning the fact that, they’re your pets, you wanted them, but we always have to feed them. A good way of teaching kids about death, about responsibility. How hateful it seems now to keep those blessed little creatures in a cage. I remember my rabbit. What am supposed to do with it? I thought, even then. And then she began to eat her children. Why Mummy?

She called me. A warm thing. An ordinary love made extraordinary. We talk of prosaic things. What a gift that baby has been. We connect. We touch across the phone line. She is in pain. She is so grown. So grown-up. My baby girl. Can I own her now? Can she own me?

Smells. I am alive to them. The group of students ahead of me on Llanbadarn Road leaving a stink of nightclubs in their wake. I can smell it for yards and yards behind them. Stale beer, perfume, aftershave, sweat and take-away pizza. Hot, sticky and clammy. It doesn’t fit in the cold air, it won’t mix.

I took her advice and watched a snippet of it. Hands sewing. It amazed me how much they moved me. Those hands. No nail varnish, old hands like mine. Knowing hands, sewing. Nails cut to the quick, sensible. Sewing. I have become obsessed. Not by the craft of it but by the doing of it.

I shall be away two days. No writing. I will have to handwrite. Won’t I?

He was so derisory about painting by numbers. I felt a hurt.

I watched her. Our neighbour. I’m ninety-nine, she told him. I heard her door open, though I smelt the reek of all that closed-up, un-aired cooking first (onions, curry, boiled potatoes and the inevitable cabbage, it comes through our bathroom tiles sometimes). I’d just come in and was opening up our giant umbrella to leave it in the hallway. I watched her go to the door. She is deaf. Deaf as a post, he says. Her TV booms through our floorboards. Quiz shows mainly. A sharp woman. The same birthday as my mother. That explains it. She won’t be helped. I stand watching as she goes to the door and is surprised by the rain. Wet rain. Big drops. Should I offer her my umbrella? No, I don’t. I am unkind. Not wanting to break the membrane of her silence. Preferring to observe. Or is it that I fear her no? So closed in. Just like her. She is going to church. The wife of a missionary who is long dead. The mother of sons, five in all. And an illustrator, self-taught at the age of fifty. A sharp one. A tough one. She uses a stick but walks every day into town. Won’t be helped. Would you like my umbrella? I test the question on my tongue. No thank you. I’ll manage. I’ll manage, she’ll say. But she didn’t. Did you?

By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.