A metal letterbox halfway along South Marine Terrace flaps in the wind. Rat-a-tat-rat-a-tat. Pay attention. It is not yet 6 am. Pay attention.

Later, a brown bread roll is thrown out from a window below our kitchen. I see it make a perfect arc before bouncing onto the road. Four rooks glide down to meet it. The first one spearing it with its beak. They are hungry. The birds are hungry. I hear their chatter throughout the day.

It was good to dress up. To go out to dinner. To stay at a hotel. Christmas had been too quiet. A quiet melancholy overtook me. It was good to dress up. He would’ve enjoyed it. His favourite place, I think. Six of us. The man with the sloping face. We’d never met. Whisky made him sardonic, sharp. I wasn’t sure how to respond. Later, I kissed his face goodbye. His lips left a wetness on his cheek. Where you good friends? I miss you. We raised a glass in your honour. The next day we visited your grave. Well, not a grave as such. A plot. A plot for your pot. No stone yet, just a wooden marker. It is a lovely spot for your plot. High up. An iron gate. A stone wall surrounding it, keeping it safe. Are you cold? Are you at peace? I hope so. A contented man. A life spent waiting for retirement. You relished it. The simple pleasures of safety, comfort and company. I miss you. You smiled around your eyes. The ruthlessness went. And that wave. A twisting sort of movement. He does it now. Funny that.

A new year. Good. I like it. A new start. A blank page ready for opportunity. And it will come. It always does. Adventures. May there be many. It wasn’t the Christmas I hoped for but there was a kind of peace. And there was he – always. We took a candle to her grave. Their grave. Their plot. We lit it but leaving it so made him anxious. It isn’t the tradition here, not like over there. Hundreds of orange lights lustrous against the snow. A remembrance – a coming alive with flame. A resurging of ancestors.

She remembered their names, was sad that they have all gone. Christmas alone for her, for so many. Though she is not strictly alone, in that home. I reach out to her through the phone. She is tired. To tired to talk for long.


Welsh bollocks he calls it. It makes him angry. I think I understand. I want to lighten it, make him laugh. I love making him laugh. A CD amongst the collection. In the studio. On the front a picture of a 1970s choir. A female choir in knee-length frocks and high hairdos. The title prompting a double-take. I must remember to tell him. ‘S4C Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack’.

Happy New Year. I wish you peace. x


Tales from the chiropodist’s chair

Talk to Me - photograph 2

It always calms me having my feet handled. When he strokes them I go into a kind of trance, mesmerised. She is gentle, fastidious even, the nail clippings and dead skin falling like snow on her blue plastic apron. I like to watch her mouth as she talks. She wears a milky, chocolate coloured lipstick, dark against her pale skin. We talk of her family. She offers her stories generously, happy, it seems, to share them with a relative stranger. Yesterday it was mostly about her father. He has Alzheimer’s. It is changing his personality. He’s lost his filter, she says. He makes outrageous comments, he is rude. Look at that fat arse, he had said, pointing at a woman across the street. At another time they were both in the Penguin café, she and he, and he loudly accused an ex-copper (in he earshot) as being ‘known as the thickest policeman in Aber’. She smiles ruefully as she recounts these tales. I like her. She is open. She shares her pain and her joy. I wonder why? When the session is over she closes down. A clam. Odd, is it something to do with the room? Or perhaps the intimacy of the procedure? My naked feet in her hands.

Then she tells me of a little boy she knew. I have forgotten his name. He was only fourteen, she said, when he had the accident. Some child had thrown his schoolbag across the road, he ran out to get it and a car hit him just here, she says pointing at the forehead. He was brain-damaged, in a coma and has been so for over twenty years. Such a nice boy, she says, so kind. I think about his mother, does she visit everyday? I don’t like her, she says. You’ll think me awful. No, I say, just honest. I wonder at her warmth and the way she seems to take against people. Sometimes he comes home, she says, I have no idea how they manage it. Some people’s lives seem to be beyond endurance. How do they cope? Is it true that we are only given what we can manage? Who can say?

She cuts two ovals of padded plaster and sticks one on each of my soles (they will come unstuck later on my yoga mat). Her oven is broken. And I have fourteen for Christmas, she says ruefully. I just want the repairman to call me to say when he is coming. I’m a control freak, she says. Yes, I say, so am I. Why do I feel so comfortable with such women? She talks about stress but there is no sign of it. At forty-nine she is three years younger than me but there is a solid, grounded-ness to her that calms me. No histrionics. Grounded. Her husband is a farmer. A turkey, duck and a goose. Perhaps I’ll end up cooking them in the caravan, she says. It’s the largeness of the life. The carol concert (her daughter plays the cello), the singing at the weekend at the old people’s home (they love it, she says, I can see the tears in their eyes) and then Sunday at chapel (I’ve got a party the night before and I do like to have a drink, she says). It sounds rich, warm, full. I don’t want it, that life, but I can, for a moment, step into it and feel pleasure.


Words. I write them down, stolen from the radio. A Dr Who story in which he talks about ‘origami brains’ and later a programme about famous composer’s manuscripts where a handwriting expert mentions ‘stroke heads’. Lovely words. Words that make me full with their possibilities. I collect them. Saving them till later.

We are watching The Go-between. I didn’t know that Harold Pinter had written the screenplay. Alan Bates is marvellous. Fierce. His blue eyes alive with passion. So masterful. Barely contained menace. And yet. And yet there is gentleness in the way he bathes Leo’s knee. And later, she also bathes the knee – to be closer, closer to her lover. Much of the book is lost. Stories. I return to them again and again. Always something new to be found.


Her grandmother also had Alzheimer’s. She recalls her shouting in front of her six-year-old daughter, where’s the shit house in this place? And then seeing her daughter’s green eyes wide open in amazement, shock at such profanity. My mother swore yesterday, she says. I’ve never heard her swear before. No. We both laughed, she said, I think it did her some good. She is such a shy lady but sometime it just gets too much. Yes, I say.


I have another story to tell, for next time maybe. A story about a woman. Last Monday, talking to a woman. A woman, just like me.



Hothouse Flowers 2002 - Artist Ellen Bell

They said that he always called her Windflower. An excellent pianist. He wrote his symphonies for her. They weren’t lovers but he was always thinking of her. Their intimacy was complete.

I love to see the fishing boats leaving the harbour. The other day in the still dark, I watched as it tumbled over the waves. Its lights so bright, so comforting. What a way to make a living. The peril of it. I remember the hymns – those in peril on the sea. In peril. Perilous. God speed. Keep them safe, I whisper.

What do we do with such knowledge? Such knowing of such atrocities. Let them stop. Let it stop. What can we do to protect each other from brutality. In the name of God. No, it cannot be. Children, teachers murdered. I hear the screaming, the terror. Please, let it stop. Let us stop. Rest in peace, my loves. We are part of the same heart, beating, bleeding with the pain. What can I do? Tell me. What can I do?


Four Swans

2012-07-24 20.07.54

They came with a whirring, whooshing noise. Slow, steady, measured. Wings flapping. Graceful whiteness. Something other. The shock of the magic, a fairy-tale sensation. Four swans flying over the sea. We stopped talking, he and I, momentarily held rapt. Portentous. We were silenced. Privileged to share the same earth.

The portable fire wasn’t there so the life model posed half-clothed. Big boots and knickers. Erotic, the middle-aged lady with her pink plait called it. Yes. Later, drinking our coffee from flasks we talked of killing. The killing of animals. She is an ex-farmer who went to Lesotho as a volunteer. I can’t eat pork anymore, she said, not after I used to hear them squealing. Ten minutes it took them, she said, ten minutes of squealing before they died. Ducks are tough, she said, I used to put their heads in a sack and fetch the cleaver. Chickens are easy.

Walking towards the prom in the early morning dark I see a small dog pulling and gnawing at a large piece of pizza on the road. His owner, lead in hand, calls out to him.

Listening to a programme on the radio about the effect of fundamentalist groups on Iraq. They banned crayons, the man is saying, in the schools. No colour and no art.

Fasting on brown rice. Cleaning out the coffee. No more. At least not for a while. A bowl of rice. The simplicity, the concentration of one food pleases me. But I have a choice. I know this. I think of what it must be to be hungry and eat with gratefulness. Always.




AXIS image (2)

Walking in the dark along North Road, I see a couple ahead of me. They are embracing. Holding each other tight. Clasped. I approach gingerly, stepping onto the road. They break away from each other. One calls out – Oh, she’s seen us. They are boys. One black, one white. Giggling, they scuttle off, arms around each other’s shoulders. They looked the same. Small-hipped, tiny-bottomed – both wearing hoodies. Good morning, I say. It’s alright. It’s alright.

The moon was almost full. A great cheese. A white-yellow round. The air is cold. A freezing that stills everything and everyone into a quietness.

I lay on the couch. A first-timer, he kept calling me. I watched the red ebbing out of me into the bag. He was kind, gentle. They all were, despite my grouch-iness. A good thing. One good thing done that day. Who has it now? Did it help? Did it save a life? I hope so.

It was as if she were following me. In her little red van. Speeding along. A sharp handbrake at each post box. A little woman with a long rope of keys. How does she know which one to use?

They interviewed a play writer. His office is a library. In Islington. Eight till six he writes there. Why? Does he like the sounds, the ordinary life playing our around him?


Blood (2)

Bedroom Fragments (3) detail 1 email

Accidents happen. And often we see the happening before it happens. A split second and then it is too late. Done. The finger is cut. The blood starts to flow.

It wouldn’t stop. We ought to go to A&E, you said, just in case. I felt a little silly, it was nothing. There were only a few people there. One man lay prostrate across three chairs. We waited. A man shuffled past in a hospital gown and black leather jacket. He wore bright yellow socks on his feet, no shoes. We’d seen him outside smoking, the back of his gown gaping, showing his underwear. One of the doctors, you said, mistaking the yellow socks for surgical boots. Typical, you said.

My name was called. A junior doctor. Are Dutch? I said. No, Irish, he said. We found a room. I lay down on a bed. He wanted a second opinion. I lay there and watched the blood running and thinking about a Dorothy L. Sayers story about a haemophiliac. The red. Deep red, beginning to clot. A staff nurse burst in. What have you been doing then? he asked. Never, never clean ovens, he said breaking into a smile before bursting out again. The young doctor returned with his ‘boss’. No, no stitches, he said, but you need to rest it. You and the Irish doctor talked about Gaelic Football as he applied the tiny strips to my finger. I stared at the impossible whiteness of the hairs on his arm.

London. I am intoxicated by smells. An elderly gentleman, now shabby, with a silver-topped cane waiting for a bus outside the NPG. 8.30 am Guildford station. A gaggle of schoolgirls surge into Costa Coffee, giggling. Every second song now a Christmas one. The fog is cold, clammy. A father drags a reluctant child in a bright red cape across the station car park. I sneak another piece of pineapple into my mouth. I think about the night before, in the hotel, waiting and talking to the receptionist. She is Russian, lived in Lithuania, studied in Guildford and married an Indian. They wed in Mumbai. I wore a sari, she said. Her grandmother was a woodcutter. She’s still very strong, she said, even at 93. We had a second wedding in Lithuania, she said, a traditional one. The next morning there is Postman Pat and I am mesmerised by the perfect beauty of my nephew’s tiny toenails.

Later in the train’s toilet a tiny piece of paper flutters in the vacuum like a moth.

I have decided not to do it. How does that feel? To let it go like that? Strange. Emptying. What next? What of the void? Shall I chance it? Let it be. That void.

They are talking about the weather and the cult of the weatherman. We want them to make the chaos reasonable, he says, to make the future safe.

In 1953 over 300 people drowned in the floods in East Anglia. We don’t feel it so vividly anymore, he says.

No. We don’t. To live vividly. Vividly, lividly. Red. Blood. The flow is staunched, temporarily.



Night Murmurs (2) closer email

What is it about the dark? Why does it make me feel so bleak, so fearful? I remember the nightlight my mother bought for me. Had I articulated my fear to her back then? And if so, would she not have poo-pooed it? She didn’t encourage the indulgence of fears. Not then, not ever. How alike they are. And yet, there was my light. A crude affair, I knew that, but it was bright like a Disney film, a beacon of lightness against the dark. And now, I walk into it. Deep into it. There is no choice. It is a heavy dark in this approach to winter. Especially in the afternoons. It feels like mud on welly-boots. One pushes, labours through it. It must be experienced. Walked through. Endured. I try to find compensations. Smells are more acute – senses heightened. Sometimes one must walk slower, feel one’s way. It slows one down. That must be good. Go slow, sings Emily Maguire, be kind, be wise and start over again. They talk about daylight simulators – a lamp that one can switch on. It isn’t the same. It isn’t the sun. There goes my joy, there, with the sun.

I watched her creep out from her house. A scuttling kind of creature. A 5 am waker, like me. She comes out into the dark, fully clothed, to smoke. I have talked of her before. She is shy. I see her form, her face in the yellow glare of street lamps. No eye contact, her head bowed or looking up into the black. No affinity between us. She doesn’t want it. Doesn’t seek it. Alone. She is sealed-off. Who am I to intrude? And yet, I look out for her. I am aware of her. Is she sad?

A twinkling man, he called him. How lovely. To twinkle. Rob Wilton. A music-hall, then radio-star comedian. I remember the black and white films. Saturday mornings, sometimes it was Laurel and Hardy. Nice.

So many atrocities. The dark defines them, shouts them out. See. See. Shouting down the other voice, the quiet light-filled one that whispers, but what about, what about the good, the good, that too goes on – that too is happening, right now. Babies being born, love being made, pleasure being given. Listen. Listen for it. Even in the dark. Listen.

A wave in the dark. I was distracted. Distracted by the hum of my worrying. And it came. It came behind me. Right over me. A gush of white over my shoulder. I must of cried out with the shock of it. Only to laugh when I realised the wetness, the water. Still life made real, made tangible. What a wonder. What a wonder.


Dog Poo


I was distracted by the fishing boat. It had just come in, its lights still ablaze, shocking the morning dark. I was watching one of the fishermen. A thin young man, his fleece tucked awkwardly into his luminous white waterproof trousers. He had climbed out of the craft and was pulling a ragged length of twine ready to hook it up onto a metal post. Then I felt it. A smooth sliding. My right foot slipping into it. Mud? No. Dog poo. Shit. I walked on waiting for the smell to assail me. Nothing, as yet. Should I go down to the sea to wash it off? No, there’s a puddle, that should do. Then another. Try to forget it. It isn’t personal. It isn’t a portent. No.

Lights. Significant lights in the dark. Magical lights. Fairy lights. The fair has come to town. There has always been a fair here in November, he tells me. I can’t stand them, he says. No. They always fascinated me. The danger of them. Those odours, sweet and cloying, in the dark. The promise of something sinister, forbidden. Dirty hands. Hands smelling of metal. We drive past in the daylight. It is nothing then. The rides all folded up. The lights off. Nothing. At night the lights are marvellous. A marvel. So much blue. And noise. We won’t go but I think about it nevertheless. I go there in my dreams.

Then there was lorry, the other morning. It came rolling down the hill past the pier. All lit up like a Christmas tree. Magnificent. It caught my breath. Steaming forward. Wreathed in lights.

The day before on route to Barrow upon Soar we saw a tree. A symbol of a tree. Gigantic. A swirl of lights made up to look like a tree. And it wasn’t even dark yet.

I disturb a ginger cat worrying away at a Burger King box. He scampers away.

What do you dream of? Do you wake up with the remnants of a conversation in head? The other morning I woke with the phrase ‘ the men’s tiger wards’ in my mind. The night before I dreamt someone had severed the middle finger on my left hand. It didn’t hurt but I wept for the work I could no longer do.


I call her. I don’t find it easy. Putting it off. I never did like telephones, let alone when one has to speak in a foreign tongue. Though it is less foreign then it was. The staff at the home don’t speak English, why should they? They seem gentle. She is glad to hear my voice. She always remembers me but not when I have visited. I’ll come soon, I say, in the Spring. Yes, she says. I ask about the weather. It is nice, for Spring, she says. Lots of sun. She tells me again that she is in an institution. Everyone is very nice, she says, there are lots of men and women here. Give my love to everyone, she says, especially to your Dad. I won’t tell her again. I won’t tell her that he is dead. Not again. It doesn’t matter. I have loved speaking to you, she says, bye, bye.

I still cry. How is that after all this time? I need to get at it, the rub of it. Soon. It is coming. I think. A story about a mouse. A mouse who hears a roaring. She needs to follow it, to find the source of the roaring. She is brave. She does it. She does.




Its like knitting, she said looking over my shoulder at my drawing. She had suggested we drew with coloured crayons, two at once, strapped together like splints with masking tape. After that she had encouraged us to take another two, two in each hand. I was the only one who took up the challenge. Yes, she said, just like knitting.

He says it makes him feels cosy watching me knit. I do it every night when we watch our films. It reminds of the women who came before – his mother, Auntie Edna, Mrs Lloyd, they all did it, though I think he said Edna was best. Nanny did it, did it well. She taught me ages ago though I have forgotten much of it. I remember my hands would get hot. They don’t now. And the wool would be too tight. Not now.

Crayons. You have to work them hard, she said. Yes, I remember. They were always unforgiving. I coveted them nevertheless. That tin box of Caran D’ache coloured pencils. Beautifully laid out in perfect order. The smell of wood and a very distinctive mustiness of lead emanating whenever I opened the lid. The crayons you got in a pencil case (the zipped up kind with elastic hooks – I had a much-cherished one in the shape of a guitar) were never as good quality as Caran D’ache but they fitted, they belonged. And I needed that neat order of things. Sharpened ready for school.

He said he had to collect his prescription from the doctors. Would I wait? Of course. Sitting in the front seat I watched as a middle-aged woman, probably not much older than I, began emptying her car parked immediately in front of me. It was an estate car, a silver Audi. She looked bright, intelligent. Her greying hair was shoulder length and pulled away from her face by an Alice band. She had a round figure, though not fat. Her jeans were tucked in her boots. The colours of her clothes blended well together, soft greens and blues. Who was she doing this for? This wasn’t her life, I knew that. It was too truncated, too small. I imagined her kitchen with its shabby chic – a big table in the centre, a Labrador, an Aga, potted herbs in the window. No, a ground floor flat in that terraced house wasn’t for her. Her child perhaps? A daughter. And she was doing all the donkey work. Was the child at lectures? On a gap year? She seemed content enough, even when it began to rain. Back and forth. She’s used to it. Likes to be useful, involved in her children’s lives. I felt a longing as I always do when observing such mothering. It was never so, through no fault of hers, for she hadn’t had it either. Such mothers. Beautiful mothers. Involved, interested, creating a homeliness that is both all-embracing and stultifying. Of course I may have got it all wrong, I thought, as I watched her drive away, the narrative is mine not hers.

Walking along the promenade in the afternoon sunshine we passed a man photographing three crows who were perched perfectly equidistant from each other on the railing. What title will you give it? he asked the man. Yes, he said, titles are crucial. His accent was broad Welsh. Swansea? I asked him afterwards. No, he said. The crows were unconcerned by the attention. The breeze flapped at their feathers, one of them swayed. They are such big birds but singularly unaggressive, unlike the seagulls who worry away at the parked cars, touting for scraps, screeching out their frustration when none is forthcoming. The light was exquisite. Pure. Clean. A Blue blue and a red red. No greys.

We began watching The Madness of King George. A glorious production. Who is that then? We kept asking. Oh, its the one who played so and so in you know that film. Nigel Hawthorne was magnificent, one moment sane the next reeling. Such poignancy. The king crapping himself on the ground. Shades of King Lear. Power corrupts, yet without it what are you? Even Mrs King was prevented from seeing him. Is it harder to fall from such a height? Should we feel compassion for all in their falling? I think so. Yes. Always.

Voices on the radio. A woman holding the hand of her husband dying of Motor Neurone disease. She writes to say that they have both agreed to switch off the ventilator. He will die. She asks for strength. She asks us to pray for her. Yes. Always.

A good day yesterday. The drawing felt good. I even brought home my drawings. No mother now to tape them to the fridge. Did she ever do that? No, not then. They didn’t then. I remember buying her a mustard pot at Chester Zoo. I was so proud. Bought with my saved up pocket money. I thought it beautiful. Magical. She never used it. I never saw it again. I understand. I was buying it for another kind of mother. It wasn’t her fault. Her gifts to her mother would’ve no doubt been rejected too. It’s OK, you know. She kept my pictures. That’s nice. She valued them, more than I did. That’s good. A good thing. Yes.



I like being here

Ellen Bell: Photography by Simon Cook 01736 360041

When asked why he wasn’t in a hurry to leave, the character Conway, in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, answers, ‘Because I like being here’. Being here. Being happy to just be here. Anywhere. Just happy to be anywhere. It is a simple desire. If indeed, it is a desire (desire implies something energetically yearned for). It is more an acceptance. A spirited willingness to just be where one finds oneself – wholeheartedly and without resistance.

Can I say this about being here? Sometimes. More than I thought I could. One thing I do know however, is that when I can I am content.

The streetlight is working again. I am glad. Doris, the woman he speaks to in Aberaeron when he calls up with his weekly report says that it is something to do with the sensor. A branch from an overhanging tree apparently is meddling with sensor and they will have to get permission from the landowner before they can do anything about it. We’ll just have to get you up the ladder, won’t we, Doris? He says to her down the phone. She laughs, suddenly caught out, though she still calls him Mister.

A hearse drove past us carrying a wicker coffin. It looked so beautiful. A gentle bier. A flowery basket. It stopped me still.

I told the truth yesterday. I was nervous beforehand. Nauseous even. I took in a deep breath and just said it. I didn’t think about judgement. At least not then. Not till after really. It just had to be said. Articulated. I felt better. One always does. When I told him what I’d said I thought he’d be angry. But no. He said he would support me. So there. There we are. I have set it in motion. We shall see. We shall see. Won’t we?