Sweet Peas

I saw them in the supermarket. Not as packets of seeds but as little plants, their twisty, frond-like stems already emerging. I longed for a garden then. Their scent intoxicates me. I remember two years on the trot when I managed to grow them by our kitchen door. Lovely. That burst of joy at their sweetness. I failed to grow them from seed in Cornwall. Nothing. No show. Could I plant them in a pot and put them on the flat roof outside? Would there be enough sun? I’d have them to cut. The more you cut the more they grow. But I lack the paraphernalia. Trowels, top soil, mulch. All that stuff that I hear them talk of on Gardener’s World. One of my fantasies is to be invited onto Desert Island Discs. And what will you do on that island all alone? Kirsty Young will ask me. I’ll learn how to garden.

Back in list mode. There is too much to mention. I have a little pile of post-it notes, lurid orange and green and torn sketchbook pages and even some scraps of newsprint, scribbled on during breakfast. It all backs up when we go away. Two away days last week. Mobberley then Hay. More of that later.

First. Chats in Morrisons. Our favourite till person. She warms to us. She talks now. It all came out. I can’t remember the question that prompted it. I’d joked about cross stitching being more exciting than going out to Rummers (our local wine bar, positioned somewhat bemusingly next to the town sewerage plant). No one at the moment? I’d  asked. Then we’d talked about surnames. For the moment it’s ____ she’d said – revealing a surname shared with a famous sixties actress who had had a fling with Prince Charles. Oh, do you intend to change it again? we’d asked. Not likely, she’d said, laughing. I’ve had three already. Three marriages. We found ourselves looking at her afresh. Well, well, we said. Then she listed the ways in which they left her.  Fifty ways. One had a kid and a girlfriend on the side, another went off to Denver, Colorado and the other, she’d spat, went off with a trollope. Well, well, we said. Well, well.

I have a head full. A head full of ideas. And yet, there is this domestic pull. Just like Mole in Wind in the Willows I want to spring clean. I want to wipe down skirting boards, clear out cupboards, wash windows, defrost the fridge, bag up old clothes, and make the flat smell like new.

At work I read Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude. A book about her cancer and her relationship with Doris Lessing, a surrogate-mother (sort-of) to her when in her teens. I am so absorbed that sometimes I cannot separate me from her and vice versa. In her foreword Anne Enright wrote about how ‘shifting between genres helps a ‘writer’ (and for this also read artist) dodge judgement, it also confounds some sense of authority…’ I raised this with him in the car as we drove to Cheshire. I do the same, I said. He didn’t agree. And yet, it had pinged in my head. A flash of recognition. Perhaps I am being too sponge-like again. Yet, I cannot help it. It is how I traverse this life, feeling intensely for others, being of the same skin. (A scribbled note accompanied this quote – order Diski’s other book, called something like ‘smoking in bed’ and read her past articles for The London Review of Books.)

Sometimes I don’t know what to write. It is too much. The experience beyond sense. Beyond understanding. We snapped at each other afterwards. Nasty words. Sharp tongues. I was sorry. He was sorry. It was me. It was all those feelings that I couldn’t make sense of. He is so changed. It is what, six months, nine months since we last visited? My sister had warned me of the loss of teeth (skin cancer does that apparently) but I thought he’d be the same mentally. He wasn’t.

Take the lift to the second floor and ring the bell. Numbers are punched and the door opens. We ask for him and she gestures to a figure at a table with two others. His head is tiny and his body, once huge, has shrunk. He has what looks like a white skull cap affixed to his pate. I touch him. Say his name. Nothing. No recognition. Eyes dead. He is humming, singing, making noises. He used to do this when telling stories. He’d used accents, booming them out. He thought he was good at it. Didn’t mind the attention. This is gibberish. This is nonsense. I sit across from him my hands on his knees, looking into his eyes. He stares back. His singing gets louder then stops. He calls me a nice lady. Is this your husband? In his hand he holds a spoon and half a piece of toast wrapped up in a napkin. He bangs it on the table. I tell him my name and he makes up a song with it. That’s not very nice, he says, do you want to marry me? He smells of decay. His teeth are rotting. There are gaps along the front. His clothes hang off him. There is a label with his name on his belt. We don’t stay long. I kiss him goodbye, hold his hand. He accepts the touching without questioning it. His neck smells of aftershave. He talked of the office, of having people who are looking after things for him. He cannot find the right words, but it calms him talking of it. That was his power, his sense of self. My name was unfamiliar to him. It was nothing. I am nothing.

A slow death, she called it. We’d sprung ourselves upon her. I needed the comfort of her. Her neatness, her smallness, her cosiness. Surrogate mothers, I seek them everywhere. You’ll have to take me as you find me, she’d said over the phone. Had I irritated her, coming unannounced? But then it was alright. She hugged us, made tea, brought slices of cake and we talked. Her house was a little chilly. The tea out of the best china was good. I needed that. I needed her. How was he? she asked. We told her. Ah, she said, it’s a slow death.

Then the next day sitting in a bookshop in front of camera, talking. The sun flooding in. The smell of books. Shoes-off in an armchair. Did I give her what she wanted? Not sure.

Walking my early morning walk with an umbrella. I liked the patter. I felt protected. Windless. Two students. I saw their shadows first – looming up across the castle wall. He wore a parka, a furry-lined hood over his head against the rain. They both carried plastic cartons of food. It’s kinda mad, she was saying as they passed me on the steps. Then by The Angel, a girl in patterned leggings standing outside Pizza Lush. Such perfect bodies. And another in a black silk shirt-dress, a coat held over her blonde hair. Her legs in skin-coloured tights. Moments of stillness as I walk by. Beauty. Time stops then continues. Voices. Snap-shots. Then I am home scribbling it down on paper before it is lost. And yet, it is lost, most of it. That heightened looking, that intensity is lost in the flatness of daylight. It is inevitable.

Off to make waffles now? I asked her as I dropped the studio line. Yes, she said, it’s a weekend tradition. She’d come in to talk about Trump. So soft, dulcet like a meringue.

Enough, now. I’ve paperwork to do and a fridge to defrost. Heigh-ho.

By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.