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?




Sprinklers - New York

There was an ambulance parked outside one of the houses on South Marine Terrace. It was still dark. Not yet day. About 5 am. There was no one inside the ambulance but the lights were on. Green.

Lots of serendipity. I forgot someone’s name, the name of singer, and then someone said it on the radio. And then this morning out walking listening to my favourite song. I listened to it twice only to hear it played on the radio on my return. Little things. Such little things make life seem circular, enfolded – everything is connected. Meant. Maybe.

We were sitting out of the rain. By the harbour on a rickety bench. A small man walked past. You called out a greeting to him. He stopped. Do I know you? he asked. I’ve got dementia, where do you live? You told him your name. He shook his head. His trousers were loose, hanging low over his shoes. They found two men in the harbour, he said. Drowned. Then he shuffled off, ignoring our goodbyes. He reminded me of another small man. I am reduced, he said.

The grey November gloom hangs heavy. We just have to sit it out, this waiting. I dreamt she came for us. A nice woman. Warm. He wanted to stay in the dark, hiding. She came for us nevertheless. Time to go. It was in Jersey. I’ve always wanted to go to Sark, I said. What is it like? I asked. Oh, you’d love it, she said as we walked out into the sunshine.



Ellen Bell: Photography by Simon Cook 01736 360041

We stop. We stop what we are doing. Stop to think. To remember. There is a well of grief. A tremendous sensation of grief that isn’t mine yet it takes me over. The crying is forever. Forever. Lest we forget. Never forget.

They have moved her. Is it because she became too difficult? She sounded happy on the phone. The new home is by the park. In the Spring I will see all the colours, she tells me. Twice. She mixed me up with someone else. I didn’t know you were an artist, she said. When’s your operation? It doesn’t matter. She is discombobulated. Is he forgotten, her friend Laurence? She forgot Terje almost immediately. Out of sight out of mind. Are they just means to an end these men? Someone to talk to, to focus upon, to gain the attention of? Or is it just the brain growing old, tired of having to remember and reverting to a more childlike, omnipotent state of I. Me, myself, I. Perhaps she was always a little selfish. No, not selfish, self-centred. Loss had taught her to be so. I think.

The strategies I put in place at the drawing class worked. I think. I lowered my expectations and tried to just enjoy the process of making marks, of looking, of remembering. Drawing is just remembering, she said. Possibly. Or is it more than that? Listen to the sound of the charcoal on the page. Draw the sea. Yes. Simple. It was nice to not have to think. We were there early, the illustrator and me. I asked him about his work. A lived-in face and a disgruntled demeanour. Well, about the work. You wouldn’t believe what goes on, he said. No, probably not. He makes images for book covers. Not drawn any longer, photographed. I’m a weekend painter, he said. Sad. He draws well, with confidence. Back in the sixties we drew from plaster casts, he said. It shows, I thought.

A gust of wind caught up the leaves, animating them. Outside his bedroom window they are custard yellow. A beautiful dying, virulent and gorgeous.

Alice gave him up when he was just a year old. She is shy, awkward. There are no words for such grief. Such loss. Let there be silence. Let us stop for the silence. Lest we forget.



Open sign - NYC

In the supermarket everyone is complaining about the cold. The frost will be getting at my wisteria, says a woman in the queue behind us.

I cried after the class last week. The grief of failure joining hands with other griefs, some known some not. Kitaj, he said to me as he stood staring at my drawing. You know Kitaj? he asked. I nodded. How many times have I come to this frozenness? Over and over. Time and time again. Meeting my averageness – pushing through the mass of not being able in the hope of finding that something, that spark. Of what? Wonder? Best in show, I had overhead two women say the week before, as they surveyed my initial sketches. Best in show. And yet, last week I was frozen. Again. Immobilised by fear. Tactics. That’s what I need. Some tactics to have in place so that I keep drawing, keep moving – keep the momentum going.

She can see me next week to discuss my proposal. What is it? What is my proposal? What is it I want to do? What do I have to offer? I need time to think about it. Radio off. In the silence.

Cornwall was good. Wet but good. Her lovely house. Cool, white and serene. We talked all night, Mary Margaret. Not enough sleep but good soul work. Good soul work. She has a studio. In the garden. Everything in place. Ready. She is ready.

Most of the galleries were shut. Tourists gone. Season finished. High tides. Lemon Street slippery with wet leaves. The promise of the Alba. Upstairs closed. A gift from the kitchen. Yes. I sent out a wish. It was granted. Shining, full of love in the Sloop. The stink of stale beer. I didn’t mind. It could have been anywhere. As skittish as a gazelle. Beautiful.

Thank you.