Plinth Project detail (1) (email size)

I write this as an act of bearing witness, not only to my life but that of those I encounter while living it. And these encounters are real and fictional. Though at times it is hard to decide which is which, such is my deep involvement in them. These meetings are mostly physical, I touch and am touched by them, but they also occur via the radio, a book or more occasionally the television. My emotional response to all is equal. It is only a story, they tell me, as I weep over a film, a play or a novel. It isn’t real. Isn’t it? What is real? Is my reality your reality? How can we know?

Names. Two pieces of French fiction about names. The film Therese Desqueyroux with Audrey Tatou and a radio adaptation of Martin Guerre. Here names represent family, land, power. One longs to shrug it off, the other wishes to claim that which is not his. I didn’t take his name when we married, not the first time nor the second. I’d had it before, you see. A common name. It wasn’t snobbery. I’d just grown accustomed to my own. I’d grown into it. After all that fighting it as a child. The butt of jokes, albeit gentle ones. Nelly the Elephant hummed under a small boy’s breath and later, much later, Chuck Berry’s My Dinga-ling. It belonged. It is something poetic I think, the end of my name aping the beginning. I forget the term. It just fits. Why would I change it? Besides, I belong to myself. In the end, that is all. That is all the belonging we have.

A radio programme about latch-key kids got me thinking about her. I think about her most days. She is long gone, I know this, but her influence lingers. How could it not? The participants mostly accepted their fate, understood why their mothers had to leave them to their own devices during those afternoons after school. And it was mothers, not fathers, that these now grown-up children talked of. She had to work, they said. One, whose mother had been a doctor, described how his mother would have everything organised. Food was prepared the weekend before and put in the freezer, labelled with instructions. Itineraries were set out, rotas for who did the re-heating and washing-up. All those stray hours accounted for. He saw this an act of love. His parent, though physically absent, was present in spirit, overseeing their day. As I say, it made me think of her. She always planned. Was always planning. I do it now. Meals are sorted out in my head long before they are made. Our fridge was never empty, there was always a hot meal. The house was clean, clothes washed and ironed. Our days were routinized, ordered, even when her sadness got the better of her. We were held by her. Not cuddled, but held by her practicality, her planning. It was the kind of love she could give. Even towards her second husband, a marriage that became embittered, there remained this kind of love (epitomised by the placing of his suppositories in the fridge to keep them cool). We do what we can, give what we can.

A noise at the bottom of North Road. A shouting kind of noise. Names being called out. And a loud, SORRY. I turn down the hill to see three students, a girl and two boys, coatless scurrying up towards the back of Alexandra Hall. The girl is cradling a traffic cone against her t-shirt as she walks. She wrestles with it. It is cumbersome and keeps slipping down. Later, on Penglais Hill we pass another of the students’ halls. A group have gathered outside. It is not yet 8am. Most are in pyjamas, some in shorts, a rather large-bottomed girl is in a pair of diminutive pants. They stamp their feet and huddle together. We can’t work it out. Oh, I know, I say, it’s the fire-alarm. He laughs. Do you remember Oxford? he says.

An early this morning. A paper review. In the disabled toilet I can hear the cleaner in the Ladies singing. It echoes through the walls. In the unattended studio my contributor belches. Does he know that there is a speaker in the office that relays all the sounds from the studio? Probably not. Besides, I don’t think he’d care. A two-hour stint. I read and sew. Sew and read. I sew Charlotte Bronte’s words and read of her sister Emily’s death. ‘No poisoning doctors’, she’d said. She would see no-one. Except at the very end. You may fetch one now, she’d said. Two hours later she was dead. We do not abide here long, wrote Charlotte in a letter to Ellen Nussey. No. Death creeps ever closer. (She was his age, and he.) So be it. Amen to that. The hush of heaven is a happy prospect from here. For some, for many. For me.

A jackdaw perches on the gable outside my studio window. Do they share the same internal chatter that we do? I wonder. I wonder.

By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.