wallpaper - nightingale room june 2014

Walking. Walking along the road up close to the hedgerows. A microcosm of life. Bursting. Seething. So happy to be alone, walking. Walking in the sun. In and out of the shadows. The smell of warm earth. Alive to the darting of sparrows, the flicker of butterflies and the hum of bees. Just walking, following the road. In no particular hurry. Is this the right road for Ambleside? I asked her. Yes, but it’s a five mile walk. There’s a number 555 on its way, she said. That’s OK, I said, I like to walk. And I do.

It’s about keeping moving – through the sun, out of the shadows. Wearing the wrong shoes and doing too much. What did I tell you? he said. Always bull at a gate. Yes, I am aren’t I? I just wanted to keep moving. To be alone in that sunshine. That beauty. Then back to my room. Alone. Free. Tired. Nicely tired. Hot bath and pyjamas tired. It is good. It was good.

What was good? Remember. Earl Grey Tea in Baldrys. There you go, sweetheart, said the man with the tattoos. The early morning visit to Wordsworth’s grave and the rabbits. The birdsong outside of my window. The heron coming to land on the edge of the lake. The white rabbit. The philosophical newsagent. The Mediterranean Salad in Zefferelli’s and the Albanian waiter sharing his love for Sudoku. Philip Roth’s Patrimony. The open top bus. The Japanese gentleman fondling a toy Peter Rabbit at The Old England Hotel. The council worker saving the lamb on the road. The White Moss walks. Marinated tofu salad. Toasted pumpkin seeds. Eating tiny vine tomatoes and cottage cheese in my room. The Charley Harper puzzle. The pale green wallpaper of the Nightingale Room. Going down to a too late breakfast feeling famished. Cold orange juice. Feeling alive. Feeling open. Feeling space. Feeling empty. Feeling grief. Feeling alive.

Walking along the hedgerow, fingers trailing its complexity. So full of life.

Thank  you for it all. The grace of it all. Each moment, each day. So full.



Longest Day

On Reading installation - photo by Andy Chittock (right)

Today began beautifully, though cold. I went out without gloves, the first time this year. My fingers were so numb I couldn’t turn the key to get back in. There are clouds now, white shadows over the sun. Never mind. Let it be.

The longest day. The lightest day. I’ve loved the light. Out at 5.30 am and the day bright. Seeing all. Lovely. Just lovely.

We walk in the afternoons. Together. Slower than when I am alone but I don’t mind. I like the gentle strolling. I like our talks. We see the same people. The woman with the goitre. Do you think she will think me patronising, he asked after greeting her, for talking to her, do you think she’ll think I feel sorry for her? Does it matter? I ask. Isn’t it enough to acknowledge, make a connection with each other, whatever the reason? To be kind. Is it kindness? And the other woman on her mobility scooter, sitting on the jetty watching for dolphins. I saw three today, she says. In between her staring she writes postcards. A nice hand. Then there is Howie and his wife, striding along the prom, his big strides outstepping her little ones. And all those visitors in their camper vans that make him so cross. Spoiling the view for everyone else, he says. I don’t mind. I like passing them in the morning thinking about them being nice and cosy inside, some with their little dogs. Where do they pee? Or poo even?

Yesterday he placed some more of her ashes, on a rockery just up from the prom. I don’t know the name of the flowers, they are like sea anemones, like stars – spiky even. It was one of her favourite spots. He’d switch off the engine and she’d stare out to sea, her head barely over the dashboard. Can you see Aberdovey? Yes, lovely. Do you want a Marie biscuit? No, not now, love. I’m fine. Just fine. There is still more of her in the boot. He doesn’t want to let go of it all, just yet. Not just yet.

We took white gerberas to her grave on the anniversary of her death. Two years. Two mothers. Mine died June 28th 2012. So much has passed since then. Not on the outside but the inside. I am not the same. A transforming.


The other morning there was a cobweb, clinging in all its exquisite frailty and strength, to the jetty railing being blown by the wind.



Inchoate installation 2004 - Artist Ellen Bell

Inchoate. Just begun. Go back. Back to the beginning.

The town is full of fledglings. Sparrows, chaffinches, learning to fly. They skulk in corners, in the shadows only to flutter up in an effort to flap away from harm, from danger. Not ready yet. Not fully fledged. Gauche and awkward. A clumsy flight.

The town is full of poppies. The wild ones. Bright red with the black centre. Their petals like tissue, too fragile for the wind. Wind blown petals, scattered.

I have seen the dolphins. Early mornings. They are close to the shore. What a fillip. What a joy to see them. How many? 1,2,3 or more? It doesn’t matter. I stand on the ‘Perygyl’ and look out to sea. That gorgeous nothingness and suddenly the flat blue is broken by a black rolling, a circle of black with that definitive fin. Wonder. I wonder upon such wonder.

We always sent cards, he liked that. A kind of duty but also a demonstration, a public one, of a role. Father. Fathering. Being fathered. You did the best you could. Monopoly games, pocket money, ice creams, walks in the car, theatre, attending PVs, family parties – you were always present, if not sleeping. Always smiling. Hail-fellow-well-met – even at the end when all you could manage was a wobbly-fingered wave. Beyond speech. Rest in peace. I think of you.

In my dream you told me off for being like a ‘departure lounge’. I was disturbing your peace. I am sorry. I will try to be more peaceful, more acquiescent. Like you. In your wisdom. Like you.



Bedroom Fragments (2) (detail 2)

I love the radio. It’s my companion when I work. It lends form and structure to my day. I love the voices and the way it connects me with a larger world. And I love the stories it tells me. Sentences, phrases, words hang in the air around me. They fix themselves to the walls, some fly out of the windows. Stories. Mary Coughlan, the folk singer, sharing one of her favourite songs – ‘I’d rather go blind’ by Etta James. Another. This one fiction about a character called Rosie and the people who come into her beauty parlour. A sentence resonated. My name was used. My ears pricked up.

‘She was always a little scared of living was, Ellen.’

Yes. I think she is right. Ellen, it turns out is her mother. Nothing is said. They share the same red hair.

Radio. It weaves its richness into my life. When I write I must have silence. I need that concentration. So then, I have to switch it off. And I wait patiently, working to find the words, until I can break the silence once more with the luscious words of another. Yes. Other peoples’ stories. Stories that resonate with mine. Sometimes I think I am just a sponge. Or a cave, a womb, waiting to be filled with another’s beauty. I think that this can be enough. Radio. Yes. Thank you.



Note in book

He told me off. He took umbrage at my use of the word ‘small’ when describing her life. I hadn’t meant to insult or belittle her. Honestly. Honest injun. What had I meant? A contained life. A life lived quietly, in one place. A domestic life. An inside life. He is right. Who am I to say such a life is small? To her it was expansive. A life well lived. And she, unlike me, was at peace. She was content. A contented life. A rich life. A life to be thankful for.

And what of mine? I just don’t know. Sometimes I feel hemmed in, even with this big, big sky. But  it is an inner hemming-in. An inner dis-ease. I recognise this now.

I carry a little red button. Find something, she said, something to represent your child, your inner child. I carry her everywhere. In my pocket. How to please her?

I order a jigsaw. I am overcome with an urge to sit at the kitchen table doing a jigsaw. Most are mawkish in design. I remember them, photographs or paintings of countryside cottages with rose bowers, biscuit-tin style kittens and puppies or worse, lurid illustrations such as ‘Where’s Wally’. No thank you. So I found a Charley Harper design. Elegant. Post-war tones. Will it please her?

Ironing listening to the radio. An archive programme about Iris Murdoch. They talk about The Bell. I must listen again. A. N. Wilson saying she got Alzheimer’s because she realised that her philosophy writings were mediocre. I paraphrase him, of course. It was disappointment at her realisation that she wasn’t brilliant. She worked all the time. What do you do to relax? she asked her. Relax, well, I read, I like to listen to music…to spend time with my husband. She was kind, gentle, they said. A warm voice. I must listen again. And then listening to Mel Brooks on Desert Island Discs. Another warm voice. So certain. So self-knowing. This is what I like. This is what I need. This is what I can do. This is who I am.

I don’t know. Do you? Is it OK to be so unsure? I dream of Tom Hollander as the Rev. He sits next to me. I am about to go up on stage to answer some questions. I don’t know what the questions will be. I want him to notice me, to pay attention to me. To give me some of his warmth. Earlier a voice had echoed in my head. Speak to me. Speak to me, it had said.

What do you want to hear? What shall I say?

The death of Maya Angelou. She wanted to be remembered for her writing, her language and as a woman who loved to laugh. I can hear her.

Shall I learn to dance?




She put a finger in a foxglove and wished for a boy, and nine months later he was born.

Love. It is all about love. Today we have been two years married for the second time. A lifetime of getting to know each other all over again. Have we ever not known each other? The past gets lost in the presence. Which is mine? Which is his? He gives me such safety. As I do him. Kindness, love, gentle knowing. But sometimes, just sometimes, I yearn for my red shoes.

We act to transcend our ordinary lives, said the actor. Yes. We create to reach beyond what we already know, to step outside of ourselves. To make ourselves bigger, visible. Alive.

A woman shouting at the sea, ‘Give them back to me!’ And it did. But another four are lost.

I carry a red button in my pocket. I carry her with me. My child. My other self. She has to run to keep up with my stride. ‘Stop striding,’ she used to say, ‘it’s unladylike.’ But I have so far to go, I wanted to say, too far. Sometimes. Not there, yet.

The promenade has a line of red ribbons. Bring back our girls. Red ribbons. I remember the pink ones. A public expression of solidarity. Reaching out to those we cannot help. Show us what to do. What can we do? Keep your fingers crossed. Pray. She believes he is watching over her. Both of them are. Are they not? Better parents now, more mindful. Perhaps. Fairy tales. Telling fairy tales. Believing in something like joy, something like good, something like love.

I keep my fingers crossed for the two hundred, the four and the one, wanting to find her ‘home’, her place, her rightness. Let it be. Father. Our father who art in heaven………..




Bedtime Stories 09 (small)

‘You were always a worrier,’ she used to say.

Nanny. Nanny Clarke. Freesia Clarke, or was it Fuchsia. I’d get the two names confused. Freesias with their sweet, sweet scent and Fuchsias so pink. We’d pop them open. I loved her. I loved staying with her when Mum and Dad went away. Staying in her little council flat. Climbing the big stone steps, so cold. Painted light blue. Her bathroom that smelt of soap – plain soaps. She had a tray that was suspended over the bath. There was a pumice stone and a loofah. No central heating. We would dry ourselves in front of the electric fire. A little flat. A tiny kitchen, freezing floor and those blue and white striped jars with biscuits and tea bags. Her living room, with her souvenir on the mantelpiece. Souvenirs from Switzerland and Spain. She didn’t go. Other children had remembered her and sent them. A miniature Swiss chalet – a container for matches – and a cuckoo clock. I loved them. Her treasures. In her bedroom there was a dressing table with a glass top. Underneath were photographs.

She made me feel safe. As a child. She was steady, reliable. Her hands cool and strong. I loved being part of her life. Waiting for the milkman and his horse, delivering the half-pint bottles, hearing the clink of glass. The walk down to the park. Feeding the ducks. Then back to the flat for cauliflower cheese. Safe. Steady. All those sayings. You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Don’t cry over spilt milk. Safe. Steady. Reliable.

Dad told me she went mad. Started peeing in milk bottles. Wandering around in the nude. We didn’t see her again. The loss of her. Large. The loss of the child.


‘The grieving process can take two years,’ she tells me. So be it. I am ready.



Beauty, 2009 (detail 2)

‘I was never more than a B+ kind of person,’ she says as she rubs cream into my feet. I like her, my chiropodist. A gentle, warm being. Her chat mixing the inconsequential with the profound.

Yes. B+. I remember that feeling. Me too. An A was a rarity. An A+ almost unheard of. And yet, like her, I worked hard. I still do. Trying to reach beyond the B+ into the realm of the A. Top marks, a gold star. What a good girl. We see you now. We recognise you now. How could we have missed you? Such a star. A gold star. A shining star stuck into my school exercise book. Can’t wait to show them. See. See. Oh, yes. Well done. We always knew you could do it. Never doubted you. Not for a second. Did we?

The anxiety of reaching out, beyond one’s own limitations. Or what is a heaven for? Asked the poet. Heaven. Being good. Shining. Standing out. Being noticed. Getting attention. Succeeding. Beyond my wildest dreams. What are they? Those dreams?

My writing clumps along. Unbeautiful, leaden and self-conscious. Can I write myself into beauty? What is beautiful writing? That which transcends the ordinary? Is not the ordinary beautiful?

We watched ‘American Beauty’. I have avoided it. Thinking it too dangerous. It unsettled me. The loss of faith. The fear of being known, of being intimate with one another. Of being found. Wanting. Watching. Beauty. What was the beauty? The girl, part vamp, part child? And if so, which girl? Or was it the disappointed wife? Or Lester in his final act of grace? Or the boy with his earnest mindfulness? Or America at her most ordinary, most lost, most claustrophobic?

‘I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down……I’m so tired of you America..’ sings Rufus Wainright and more recently George Michael.

All will be well. All must be well. Mustn’t it?



Birthday Letters (Low dpi)

It’s your birthday today. Twenty six years ago, sixteen minutes past four you came. To me. I know so little of your life. I find a picture of you on the internet. It’s from four years ago. You are on a boat. The wind tugs at your hair. Your hand is covering your mouth. That same shyness. Entrancing. Your friends have tweeted their admiration. Are you pretty? There is a tall grace and yet an awkwardness. You cannot be held still – gazelle-like you are always ready to dart off. Or is that just my impression? I text you, wanting to say more than I can or should. I keep it short.

So much grief. It is ugly today. I have finished Sally Magnusson’s book. So full of love. A mother cherished and held right to the end. He did the same. Such compassion and such patience. These  people overflow with humanity.

An image of clapping hands filled my mind as I woke. Just hands, hundreds, thousands clapping me. Is something coming? Is it something I have done? Or yet to do?

I have a book to write. I am scared by the enormity of it. It stops me still. How do I begin? How do I begin to write of how you were? Is it true? Is any of it true? What am I good for? I trail through my slides preparing for a talk I must give next week. I see the work – some of it good, or at least almost good, reaching for something noble. It’s so tenuous this creating. The faith ebbing and flowing. More ebbing these days. What am I fit for now that the two of you are gone? Who will recognise me? Who will celebrate my life? As I celebrate hers. At such a painful distance.

Bless you, my lovely daughter. Go well.




Brev (1) close-up - Axis

Sometimes it is all I can to do focus on the details. Those tiny things that circumvent my life. Pleasing things that calm, steady and ground me. Sensual things like stroking talcum powder on my skin after a bath, making my hands all white. Imbibing the familiar smells of washing straight from the machine, raspberry jam on a warm hot cross bun, toast, simple soap, hyacinths, morning air after rain and coffee. These are my comforters. I locate these smells when I am low, I seek their comfort. The kitchen cupboard with the brown paper bag of fresh coffee beans from the Monmouth Coffee Co. The bread bin made rich with aroma of sweet spiced currant buns. My bathroom tray of perfumes – Miss Dior, Chanel No 5, the sample from Jo Malone. And there are the actions, simple ones such as preparing food – slicing my breakfast grapefruit, cutting bread, spreading butter – watching my hands moving, acting, doing their part regardless of the state of my mind.

He died two years ago. I didn’t know. I had lost touch with him. We both moved all the time. He was in France and I was moving between England, Norway and Wales. I thought of him often. I still do. A beautiful man – full of grace. He would dance alone. In the Birmingham clubs. He loved Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler. He could be cruel and suddenly kind. I think of him in Marseilles, in Aix and in Avignon. I don’t know how he lived his life after Michel died, thirty years ago. Was he happy? Was he satisfied with his life when it came to its end? Was he ready? Just fifty. That’s all. As a young man he lived wholly in the moment. I had much to learn from him. I still do. Rest in my peace, Mark.