Changeling

Gazelle Twin has become my latest synaesthetic experience, and if that’s too wanky for you let me explain with what I have – billowing smoke, purple and bronze and black. I love the word “bronze”, it’s one of those satisfying moments when language is more than tool and expression, it’s got a form of its own in your mouth, like a magician’s trick. A ream of scarves, pulled beyond the throat and the teeth into the air, sailing against the sky.

“Changelings” is a stacatto beat of swordplay and temple interior, a dark hallway with angled walls and ceiling lost in shadows. I could hide there awhile, for reflection, for loss, for sustenance, for something that would make sense in an increasingly fragile world.

I feel prickly with heat, unnerved by the walls and doors and corridors. Every room I went into had grown eyes; mine were blind and my mind stupid. Birds and words and stones, falling from my mouth, too much at once, and where there are eyes there are ears too. I ran.

My legs are pocked over with scars from a childhood of self-harm, beyond conscious thought, when eczema and short hair and bullying were the bane of my life, and the pain caused me to roll over and over on the floor just to leave it all behind, since my hands were bandaged into useless paws. I’d sleep on the classroom carpet during lessons, and lie awake at night staring out of the window.

Scars. I tried to hide them with make-up when dancing ballet.

This hide has always been a threadbare thing. While in hospital, they thought I was burning myself with a cigarette, until it became apparent that the surreptitious sit-ups had worn the hole in my back.

I talked about this yesterday with the girl-ghost of my past and future, whose energy leaves me cold with regret for her suffering, and more alive and fucking glad to be so, than I have in a long time. She sparkles as mountain water running downhill, running uphill if she so wished, because after what she’s been through I doubt anything would be beyond her capabilities. A rare IQ and a list of mental disorders long as her arm. Nature is a cruel joke, we laughed at it, and solemnly reflected on how her school system had let her down. For all that intelligence, the system couldn’t work to her mind and her mind couldn’t assimilate the system. It happens. She told me of one teacher who took her to the back of the room and let her work alone, out of sight and earshot, so that within ten minutes she was done.
Not all those who wander are lost.

I can sympathise, if never fully understand. Everyone’s illness and experiences are their own. But while talking to her, it’s so clear how her recovery came about and will continue to run uphill, downhill, because she notices Everything. Subjects beyond anorexia, beyond anxiety, beyond depression. She told me of a nurse who had talked to her about the Little things in the World Beyond, while inside. We agreed that this is crucial in treatment – to lessen the risk of becoming institutionalised, that white stick of a word, which so many of us carried in the end. It took months to get used to life beyond locked doors, beyond ever-watchful eyes.

They were only trying to keep us alive, of course. But you never underestimate the power of owning power over a lock, thereafter – or indeed, your own thoughts and movements. The staff were our saviours and our enemies; not every choice/action was induced by illness, but by personal preference and human nature, yet they couldn’t allow for the slightest imbalance of the delicate peer pressure which the system relied on. If one of us got away with something, the rest would buck up too – for various reasons.

Anorexia is a manipulative, deceitful thing. It can turn a loving human into a wiry demon with hot eyes, raking nails. It’s an external manifestation of rage, fear, doubt, guilt, all the things buried inside where hurt has been caused or neglect has festered wounds.
To come back around, you have to learn to trust again. Not only others but your own opinions, ideas, emotional reactions, physical needs. And you have to finally confront what is inside, nothing so mundane as “good” and “bad” but You, and your place in the world. Because it’s useless trying to love and learn when you can’t bear to look yourself in the eye.

Triggers catch me out. Getting past immediate reactions is often the biggest challenge. Yes, I have a temper and I’m not excusing it. Control is a conflict within and without. I can try to explain, and fail.

I am not a nice person. I am black and white.

Experience has taught me to be distrustful again; I used to trust and talk about anything. After years of silence, it felt good to spill over and run on, until I learned that this could be used for and against me, or for and against other people. I still don’t know enough about how the world works, and rarely think beyond Today’s consequences. Such is the habit of survival and ignorance. The consequences don’t matter when you can pin your own selfishness and inattentiveness and arrogance on an eating disorder.
(When you still don’t know how much is You, and It.)

I never could get across what I mean to say. Being held accountable, responsible, these are things I’ve run from for too long – pride and shame have their say, much of what I don’t understand frustrates me, and I’d turn my face away rather than ask. Even when I bite my lip and confront, often the answers are elusive and sliding away in riddles until it all becomes the waste of my very precious time.
But I need to stick it out and ask again.

Oh we talked about that, too. Time. How you can hear it passing. The deepening of your voice and the creaks in your lower spine, the way things become funny for no apparent reason, how the world suddenly holds colours and is vital for it, and how some friends slip away while others remain. Some become vacant spaces of themselves and others the tapestry of a life renewed. It occurred to me (again) the other day, my 30th birthday, that we all change our minds as well as our skins every few years or so.

Become a new person. Shift the mindset, the style, the tone. We leave traces of ourselves behind, for others to follow. My mother has gone from exasperated parent to fearful carer to curious friend and confidante. I never dreamt we would one day have this sort of closeness; she was drawn to my sister and my father to my brother, when we were children. Nanna was the one who sat with me to reminisce and to weave past and future together. Her stories of our ancestors, of vague sepia-tinged memories of post-WWII England, now ring through my mind with those history lessons of school when I wish I’d paid more attention, or that more details had been presented for me to memorise.

Hurtling forward. Glancing back. I felt it at age 15, something changed, and my spine ridged itself while tension squirmed through me. I remember standing in the tuck shop with my friend K, trying to tell her what was wrong and coming up with nothing. Only that it felt bigger than me, than us, than homework and boys and periods, all the minutiae of life-change we were going through. To this day, I still don’t know what caused it – pale mind – but it lasted weeks, months, possibly years. I’d always been a worrier, but this felt different.

Half my life time ago, and here. 30 was supposed to bring the answers. I feel more confused and fearful than ever, but within context… There have been a lot of recent changes. Perception and perspective are everything. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to cope well with moving to a new station. The distortion of routines would have brought on panic attacks, restrictive eating, over-exercising to compensate and alleviate frayed nerves.
Now, it’s a loose laugh and a weary rub of the cheek, and enjoying the tension-banter while everyone adjusts, and… Performing the funeral rites of a tired old building. Walking each corridor, each flight of stairs, each floor one last time – turning out lights, closing windows, watching the sun burnish the horizon line (still blue) before turning away and closing the door.

When the world takes priority, things start to make more sense. Not everything, of course, but enough that I can get by. I’ll still miss cues and wonder why and how I stepped off the edge, and I’ll still run and hide from company and questions when it all becomes a bit like that butter scraped over too much bread. Thank you, Tolkien, for I’ve never found a better way to describe what extended interaction can mean to someone used to being alone. Whether through forced isolation in illness or as a reflection of Self, the child on the windowsill behind long curtains, reading into the twilight.

Sounds of the rain at the window. I hate that what I loved can become tinged with negative emotions. Symbolism is my friend and enemy. I have to watch what I say, and it segues through to how I think. Exasperated and… To be left alone. That was all I asked for. Some damage can never be undone. One man’s objective view is another’s inability to let go, so that I start to question Everything. I hold fragments of trust in one hand and opinions in the other. The pressure behind my eyes is often unbearable. I used to fall back on what others told me was Right, wanting to be Good and to go along with it, not to cause upset… But I know what makes my skin crawl, my mind go dark with old fears, and won’t go that way any more.

It’s not really anyone’s fault that this happens. But when these experiences are already known, and the prodding continues, I will give back what I can. Or turn my face away, whichever is easiest, since constant conflict is bad for the digestion and nerves. Fight-Flight is for the real moments of danger and fear, not an everyday experience. I’ve wasted enough time already.
Past still reaches out to present. I’m not an easy person to be around at the best of times. As Ma puts it, I walk into a room on heavy feet.

To quieten the room, damage limitation, I left by the side door and now Exile is a comfort I’ve longed for. It means I can concentrate in a quiet state, sitting in this library-mind where I’ve finally caught up on reading all those hoarded files, gratefully picked up along the way when offered; though whether I retain what is learned remains to be seen. Details usually emerge and flow back on a trigger, and then rarely when I need them, but it’s nice to know they lie there like neatly-folded blankets in the cupboard, ready for a change.

How to put them into anything useful that belongs to me, is another matter. Still too many gaps in my mind where context should be.
But listening helps. I pick things up as I go along, popping them on this shelf and that. I prefer listening to speaking.

What it’s all for, I couldn’t tell you. But it feels important to know how to connect past with present, conflict with peace, politics with people; and it staves off this Awareness, the fear that one day I’ll look around and realise I’m walking on the fence. Breathing underwater. When you become too Aware, you fall off, you drown.
Life just happens. That’s recovery.

Advertisements

Blue Light Home

How best to describe it – the ache in my chest? There were the wings of sunlight through the blinds, the pearlescent sky; the smell of weed, like mouldy teabags. The sound of pigeons passing overhead, less a presence than the passage of time in a stirring of shadows over the yard, with its silently-standing fleet of white and blue.

I stood at the window and took it all in. So soon, so far behind. I was awake hours earlier, waiting for the tinge of dawn to bring answers. Caught between work and money, fear and doubt (in myself, in others, in every single decision I have yet to make – a crumpled sheet can never be smoothed out completely), head and heart.

I have a job to fall back into, albeit on reduced hours because of budget cuts. I’ve another job to tack on the side, to make up hours. It actually works out quite well, spreading shifts out and allowing me time to write (rather than waiting until evening, when I’m likely to nod off over the laptop.) I’m back with the friends I know; back with a company I trust only slightly more than the cunts who let me down at the research centre.

I’m going to the Citizens Advice Bureau to see if I have a case for compensation on the grounds of unfair dismissal. The fact I hadn’t “kept in contact” in the two weeks between interview date and first day, is – as I suspected – a negligible point, used to cover their own backs. The way the contractor tried to lump the blame on me says everything about the standard relationship between cleaners and recruitment staff. A sheet full of nameless numbers is hardly an organized approach to dealing with people’s lives and income. The saccharine laugh and fumbled joke of “well, at least only you turned up,” settled my decision to make an example of her, and the company she works for if possible. Any compensation I might receive would ease up my current financial crisis; the satisfaction of seeing them discredited, would ease up my mind if it forces them to review their treatment of staff.

Trouble is, all too often hospitality staff will be abused in this way because they don’t know how to question management, don’t have a clear view of their employee/contractual rights, or have no wish to cause trouble.
I’m going to cause trouble. Ten years in this line of work, dealing with a variety of characters and situations, has taught me enough to know what questions to ask and where to go for help. I can guarantee that if this company has shafted me, they’ve done it to someone else, if not several someones. And they’ll continue to do so, maybe even if I make a claim and win – but at least I can say I tried.

*

Four and a half years is a chapter of a life. I knew about the move long before my own cleaning company did. Suffice to say, they didn’t have the sort of contingency plans in place to persuade me not to look for other work. I knew about the budget cuts to the constabulary as much as anyone else – how it would affect not only the duties of officers on the beat and in the backrooms, but their numbers, as well as civilian staff, facility arrangements and wages. I would’ve been hard pressed not to notice the shift over the years. How everyone has had to change and adapt to fit government prescriptions of what policing is. How, in general, they just roll with it all and get on, as ever, working to as high standards as possible in the face of depleted means and (to my mind) policies lacking common sense. I can read about it all and still not fully comprehend how it must feel, to know you are getting less while expected to give more.

I had the privilege of knowing the station in her better years. The fellow at front desk, with eyes like wicked light on water and a dry-gin laugh; he was always on hand to help a frightened youngster come to pick up lost property, or a gruff fellow on bail. Standing in the slatted sunlight last Friday, I looked around and wondered at the small echoes, the spin-twirl of dust motes fetched up on my breath. I heard his laugh again, and knew us all as ghosts. Even when that building finally falls silent, when the gates close and are locked behind us, we’ll still walk as shadows over the walls. Our voices will ring down the corridors, the dice will rattle in the box for tea and coffee runs; printers will murmur, our footsteps will ring down the stairwells where I once stood at the corners, to listen and breathe in the moods of the day.
(Develop a knack for diving out of the way.)

Places like that leave their marks on you, on your mindset. That doesn’t come into the job description. I was and am part of a working family, for the first time in my life – I accept the company of others and am glad of it, for humour like the blackest coffee (wham in the chest and burn at the throat), the random treats and Post-It apologies (to let you know you’re human) and the nights out under the twinkling blue lights of the city, across a sprawl of pubs and bars – after a long shift, there’s nothing quite like soaking up the light of an afternoon in a beer garden, or listening to the chink of glasses that shine white and gold under lamplight.

With tottering towers of plates and mugs at the sinks, I learned the crucial difference between taking on more than my usual duties (as we all must, and theirs include the sort of reaction times that warrant more responsibility) and saying No, I’m not your bloody mother. Those musty teaspoons helped to loosen up my fastidiousness around eating and drinking, as per obsessive compulsions; and when you’re tearing around trying to keep up with whoever’s tracked in clods of Whatever on their boots, it pays to be flexible. Food becomes energy, not the Bad Guy.

This correlates with my gym exercise, which has progressed from a serious need to burn off everything I eat to a desperate urge to gain muscle, to keep up with my workload (and lay down crucial bone minerals for later life – I live in fear of being stuck in a wheelchair again.) I’ve gained about 2.5 kilos, hitting my “target weight range” in 2013 – that is, the swing-point deemed healthiest for my height and build, after sticking at the same low anorexic level since 2004. This is in no small part down to the practicality of the people I work with. I can’t honestly say they’re all the healthiest eaters in the world, but they get on with the job because they have more pressing things to attend to, and not a heck of a lot of time to do them in.

I’ve learned to do the same, though admittedly in a less pressured environment. But it means I can walk into a supermarket and not spend up to an hour agonizing over what to have for lunch or for a snack. These days, I’m just as likely to grab a Double Decker bar as a bunch of bananas. That kind of flexibility… I couldn’t dream of, even a year ago. It pays to keep pushing boundaries, to see how far you can go. It helps along the way, to feel a bit uncomfortable. Resignation also plays its part. I am approaching 30, have known illness and restrictive behaviours for almost half my life. As I was told in hospital – and I didn’t believe it at the time – there comes a point when you must face the consequences of your actions, asking *Who am I trying to impress, with this lifestyle? This body? This mindset? What am I running from, trying to deny or to control, when it’s only inhibiting my life?*
(Boredom, fear, anger, frustration at seeing others progress while leaving you behind … they all add up.)

When the new owners move in, or workmen with bulldozers, or whatever, they’ll find the remnants of Blu Tac over the door and walls of my cupboard, where I kept snippets of the inside of my head. Articles nail-torn from papers, and postcards of the German town where I once lived, given as presents by my favourite guv’nor. Battered photographs of my family. A little sticker of a marked car that had the misfortune to be drawn in such a wicked way, I dubbed it Christine. The small window with its old-newspaper light, set too high up on the wall for me to see anything other than a swatch of sky, with gulls and kites wheeling past like clock hands to mark the shift from afternoon to evening.

That sky became another world. Standing on the top floor, listening to the shifting stir of the wind through cracks in the ceiling, I could watch the sun move from one point of the horizon to another over the hours. Pearl dawn – afternoon haze – sunset fire. The windows cranked open with a shattering of paint, like chipped little teeth, to reveal a rushing blast of air that lifted my hair up and set all the birds to flight.

The horizon is a bluish line, calling me still. The bronzed buildings make a city skyline. All of our tomorrows, done up in heat and surging traffic and voices. Behind me, only the silent shades of another time – those desks and chairs and bins from offices below, long since emptied, brought to stand and wait for the end. Name plaques on walls, each letter filled with dust.

A vague smile, as I remember one friend (since moved on) who told me about the skipper who’d died of a heart attack on site, leaving his ghost to wander the top floor between the bar and the pool table. Of course I laughed it off; of course my skin riddled up, each time something moved at the corner of my vision.

Lamplight softens the world and makes jagged lines of our faces – unnatural shadows. The skirling blue of lights is an imprint of memories on the wall. The blip of a siren is a raised hand, as I wander home through the fall of snow – or at 2am from London, in need of a lift. For someone who’s grown accustomed to isolation, keeping my head down to get on with the job, it was an achievement to gain a nickname. I will always be “Rach” to a certain number of people.

You’ll have your own experiences and prejudices and fears. I won’t denounce or deny them, but only offer this – behind every fluorescent jacket is a life. Mistakes, hopes for improvement, if not appreciation. Behind the stern face is a person looking forward to seeing their partner, family, pets, home again, when shift is over. And when one of them does fall, it’s up to their colleagues to hold the line. With heightened security threats across Europe, solidarity is needed more than ever.

I still can’t know what it means to walk towards danger when others are going in the other direction. Standing behind tinted glass, I see the world but can’t claim to know how it all feels. The tape, the pub fights, the moments caught between aggressors who want nothing more than to cave in the other’s face. The glint of a knife. The smell of raw blood, the slow surge of blackened mould.

But I know the tired smiles and the humour, the hand-squeeze on the shoulder, the quiet cry on the sofa, the well-sugared tea and the coffee that could strip paint off the walls. The cake runs on birthdays, the laughter at ingenious presents for Secret Santa. The shadows under the eyes of night-shift, returning after an early (late) RTC.
The gentle giant who showed me around on my first day, spoils me with book tokens and bottles of my favourite rum, keeps his team going on healthy snacks… and has bailed me out on deliveries when no one at head office picks up the phone.

Every creak of the walls, with tears of rain running down green and black for an old lady quietly weeping with age when she thought no one was looking. Tilt of the air, the wind whip-whining about the outside corners and over the courtyard. The light moving over the walls. The way each office has its own personality.

Four and a half years to find I can let go of inhibitions and fears, and know empathy for people I’ve never met. To learn how to read across faces and between lines, where all our lives go, those hidden places. Teamwork is the difference between life and death. Family becomes synonymous with chaotic mess, the closest bond without blood.

No, there’s nothing in the job description about all this, and I’m glad. Some things, you can’t anticipate. You just take life as it comes.

All that glitters

The last time I had set foot in this town, the leaves were all gowns of gold, filling a hallway to sweep down and around in an autumnal dance. We wandered the pathways beneath a lilac sky, churning up mulch with our scarred battle-boots. We were still as one, then.

We had come the distance, from Verulamium to the land where all that glitters is indeed gold, of many textures and valuations. Fierce fake tan and heels to take your eye out; champagne hair with curling tips, and a watch too heavy for so delicate a wrist. Passing by in our mud-spattered uniform of hikes, we stared at our reflections in the ghost-shine of windows, laughing at how we stood out. Thorns under the manicured nail.

But it’s really not all that.

It’s ancient twisting roads, lined with age-curved houses; it’s coffee shops with such thick windows that you might be peering through the bottom of a bottle. It’s well-tended gardens, and grassland bordered with a rambling churn of brambles and pale trees. It’s Rivendell. It’s ever-autumn, nostalgic light that seems to curve itself into the palm of the town each evening, no matter the true time of year.

It’s a golden hall that goes on forever and a day, when we walked as one; and I knew myself, then. Now, I am approaching 30 and am more confused than ever. My hair is overlong, in bad need of a trim and burnished by the strengthening sun. I wade through the pitch spilt from last year’s barrel, and the urge to drop a match is almost overwhelming.

(When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.) Desperate people do untidy things. I am not naturally a cruel person; it doesn’t sit well on my stomach, and though I can raise the walls of ice quicker than some, I rarely allow them to stay longer than a handful of days, before melting.

But patience wears thinner than ice. I hesitate to raise my voice, in case I break through my own barriers.

My life is my own, or so I had come to believe after therapy. The other day, when I walked off the site of the enormous complex where I shall start my new job in March, I felt a cautious flutter in my chest – a bird, opening its wings against the late winter light. Hope is a thready thing these days. I prefer to watch and wait, in the long shadows. Visor still down.
Dreaming of Mercy Street.

A new job, a new home, all in the space of a week. Tell me this a few years ago, I would have laughed. Me, manage all of this alone?
I have scarfed food while battering along unfamiliar pavements this week; I have missed gym sessions. I have cut loose from work to attend an impromptu job interview, risking my credibility. I have coped – done things that would once have triggered panic attacks. It’s funny what happens when Life crops up.
Anorexia still has brittle little fingers twined through my hair. But I gently break them off, one by one, each year.

Sometimes, things come together with such speed that it is as though a hand had gently nudged game pieces over a board. Two years ago, at around this time, they had fallen apart just as swiftly.
Who knows?

So, with a more secure job and a stable employer, increase in wages and a wander over a fresh canvas, I can – cautiously – say there is Hope. I can afford to travel to see my family again, to hike the Downs with my brother and get a sore throat from talking (it always startles me how this happens, as I don’t generally speak aloud much any more.) I can weave in and out of local markets, picking up coloured threads and bolts of material, one-of-a-kind purchases to send to people Just Because, as I used to. Usually tacked to a scribbled note, to prove I still have some sort of handwriting.
(Meandering over the page.)

I can jump on a train and head into the Smoke again, to see that blue-brown silk scarf on the horizon getting closer and closer, while my dreams of living beneath the steel and glass, the twisting gothic lines, seem to go further away.
One day. Once in a way.

Around this time of year, the sun has a complex routine it performs each morning (clear skies permitting.) Peering up over the horizon, its light reaches the windows of the building opposite the Nick – these are aligned in such a way as to catch and hold the glow like a burnished copper breastplate. The subsequent reflection throws long fingers into our own windows, so that every office on the top floor bursts awake in red and gold.

This is but one almost indescribable moment of true pleasure, of silence inside, that I will miss forever when I am gone.

Trust was a leaf that went spinning on coils
Of a wind that ached with the song of the rose
And we who are wanderers
(Always alone)
Not ever so lonely to call your name
We know ourselves safe, when turning for home
With a shifting of light over ruins and graves
Where dreams go to rest, in the lull of the dawn.

???????????????????????????????

P.S: Those who I owe emails to, I apologise. Time is like smoke at the moment, with precious little left over to bottle for stories and blogging. Please bear with me.

P.P.S: It felt good to talk to you all again. Lately, it’s felt as though someone was standing on my throat. Now I can breathe a little more easily.

Thoughts and memories of Dunstable: Between five years

When it comes to Dunstable, in Bedfordshire, my thoughts and memories are of pubs and hikes, aching legs and red kites, and rain. Oh and the dole. A year or so spent wandering (yes, with the clouds) over hills and through sopping woodland, trudging through muddy fields. It’s easy to forget the harder times when life is good; and I’ve had it relatively easy-good for the past four or so years, having relocated to St Albans in Hertfordshire in 2010, when a job finally came up at the local police station. Here, I’ve found the sort of security that was craved back when I lived with my former partner, Jimmi, and his parents in a small village called Eaton Bray, on the outskirts of Dunstable. The whole point of being there was to set up home.
One song that always comes to mind to frame that time, is the National’s “Heavenfaced”:
“Hit the ceiling, then you fall
Things are tougher than we are.”

And they were. Not all the time, for there were those long golden-soaked afternoons, spent strolling between pubs and down sepia’d alleyways. For two nature-lovers, there was plenty to do in terms of what comes for free (You make the best of what you Have)… and still.

We were younger then, and rough around the edges, and still a bit raw at the prospect of suddenly living under the same roof. I had taken the leap from East Sussex to Bedfordshire, after eighteen months of online interaction and weekends spent barrelling up and down the countryside, through the capital; we’d decided the to-and-fro visits were a bit ridiculous, in light of our strengthening bond. The trouble lay in my timing. It was October 2009, and the country was floundering in recession. Not that I was really aware of it at the time. My blinkers were still firmly in place, while focusing on recovery from anorexia nervosa. How dire our situation would become only sank in when Jimmi left his job to find hours better suited to our relationship, and instead found the market almost empty.

When he signed on the dole in late 2008, neither of us expected him to still be heading into the Job Centre until January 2010, when a reprieve came. There were a few glimmers of light along the way, all of which were extinguished by the ineptitude of would-be employers and agency staff (one of the latter forgot to mention that a job happened to be on a building site, and would therefore require the necessary protective clothing and shoes. J had driven out at 6am over black ice, and – unable to enter the site – had to turn back. I can’t describe to you the relief and fear I felt, waking to find him home so soon.)

For my part, I spent hours, days, months, wandering those old streets and over the windswept Downs, dotting in and out of the local gym, while waiting on calls from potential employers. Interviews were few and far between. My morale slipped with the weather; 2009 into 2010 saw the worst snowfall for years, layering up over black ice, so it seemed that the long slog up Lancott Hill out of Eaton Bray would break my soul as well as my spine. Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “Dead Flag Blues” became sewn into that time, with the ice-claw grass and brassy sky, wreathes of mist, when the air itself froze heavy and still.

Aylesbury vale

Cracked-tooth paintwork. Dark alleys. Splintered wood beams in pubs that smelled of smoke and pine, with horse brasses shining on the walls. Mud and chalk caked my hiking boots and waterproof trousers – a uniform I wore to keep warm and dry (almost) against the weather fronts that circled on the push-pull of air currents between Dunstable Downs and Ivinghoe Beacon, the latter rising magnificent against the sky in the distance. And further still, to form the great bowl of the Aylesbury Vale, there were the blue slopes of Woburn…

…and back to the breath-fogged windows of the Job Centre. The sagging chairs and boards with print-outs of work details; the briefest of conversations. The diversity of age and class, the faces with their oh-so-similar expressions: anger, frustration, wariness, fear. Downcast eyes, with the deep ashes of despair. Jimmi’s observations at the time betrayed a greater understanding of the system and our situation. I was completely out of my depth, ready to nod along with anything pushed at me so long as it got me off the damn chair, and back out for a walk or into the gym. With an eating/exercise disorder, nothing matters more than the next hit of compulsions. It was all I could do not to pace the floor while waiting to be seen.

On the dole, all the little things you take for granted – buying an extra packet of sweets, catching the bus or train to nowhere in particular for a few hours of exploring, downloading a new album from iTunes, buying birthday and Christmas presents – become so many coins counted out and measured like sand. My stamped Job Centre booklet went everywhere with me. I was terrified of losing it, in case they stopped my payments. I was treated with the same indifference as everyone else – I didn’t dare raise mental health issues, in case they prevented me from finding work. Given the use of sanctions in the welfare state today, I wouldn’t have stood a chance, as has been the case for too many people already.

Enough time has passed to sand away those sharp edges. The bitter sting of rain pelting my skin, the wind tearing at my hair and echoing that same empty song of No Employment. There was the subsequent guilt of dependency on Jimmi’s parents for financial support, with the emotional kind from the fella, firing up my spirits. But he had his own internal struggles to deal with. The only way I can describe our range of feelings at the time, is through a single word.
Nabokov put it best:

Toska – noun /tō-skə/ – Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness.
“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

2009-10 saw a forest fire of unemployment and bankruptcy run across the UK. Economic forecasts and GDP meant less to me (and most people, I imagine) than the fact Woolworths had disappeared from the high street, and queues were forming out of the Job Centre. I’d had a job set up in Luton to walk into, so I wasn’t jumping blind from Sussex. When this didn’t work out, all I could do was spruce up my CV in creative ways that weren’t complete lies. I’ve had precious little experience in anything other than cleaning and fitness training, since my state of mental health has left me unable to work in jobs that (to put it frankly) oblige me to keep still. It’s an ongoing problem, one I chip away at each year. It’s set me back financially, sometimes emotionally. But in light of the recession – when I lived in a town with rickety trade and the dulled eyes of a cat left in the rain – I’m in a stronger position. It would take that random hop over to St Albans, for a rather obscure interview, to get my life in motion again.

The rest is almost four and a half years’ history, as part of a noisy, messy and wonderful family unit.

But I haven’t forgotten Dunstable. It plays on my thoughts often, particularly when a red kite angles past, free on the chasing winds, burnished bronze under the sun. They became symbolic of hope, of a freedom we longed for while faced with the grey Everyday of a town that seemed (at the time) to be bent on draining us of our youth. Which of course, it wasn’t. In simple terms, Dunstable has been through a series of internal mistakes, combined with wider issues which have undermined its ability to sustain itself. From a well-established market town, Dunstable has gone downhill into poor trade and high unemployment, as was highlighted in a recent Daily Mail article tweeted by an old friend – a former Dunstablian – a few weeks ago.

Dunny high street
Image: www.dailymail.co.uk

Those pictures splintered behind my eyes, more painfully at odds than ever with the country’s (slow) economic recovery. But Dunstable’s problems run deeper than the most recent recession, and they won’t be eased with a quick-fix, either.

On the weave of human travel and commerce, Dunstable grew up from where the Icknield Way (a Neolithic route running along the chalk spine of England, from Norfolk to Wiltshire) met the Roman-made Watling Street, a significant economic route to London. While traces of Neolithic activity (such as the Round Barrow cemetery on the Downs) pin a far greater age of settlement to the area, it was the Romans who gave it the name “Durocobrivis”, setting up a posting station where travellers could change horses. When they left, and the area had become thick with woodland and undergrowth (adding to the dangers of the road for travellers) it was through royal intervention, at the behest of Henry I that Dunstable began to reform.

In 1109, the tangles of nature were cut back and royal favour was granted to those who would settle, and encourage growth of a different kind. Dunstable became a focal point for communication and trade, while playing host to a series of royal figures passing through; they left their own marks on the developing town, as further testament to its origins. King Henry I had a royal residence constructed in 1123, as a base to hunt on the surrounding countryside – this is now the site of the Old Palace Lodge hotel on Church Street.
The Eleanor Cross precinct was named for the last journey of Queen Eleanor of Castile, when her coffin was brought to Dunstable on its way to Westminster Abbey for internment. The beloved wife of King Edward I was kept in the Priory Monastery overnight, and a cross was built close to the entrance of Church Street, as part of the set of twelve created by order of the king to mark her passage. Only three of these crosses have survived; the one at Dunstable was destroyed in 1643. It’s a startlingly poignant tribute to the “Queen of Good Memory”, and a message of grief set in stones across the landscape.

Cross3
Image: www.timetravel-britain.com

There were plenty of occasions when I’d walk past something in and around town, completely unaware of its historical context until Jimmi pointed out the details. The local library held a wealth of information in its archives, and I soon learned what to look out for – all those odd lumps and bumps in the ground on our numerous hikes, turned out to be more than nature’s designs. I’d never heard of barrows before, let alone seen any. One memorable hike took us up to the small copse atop the Downs, overlooking the Aylesbury vale; beneath that lowlight shade, we stood in a sunken bowl, surrounded by what appeared to be grassy sand dunes. He told me that these were where ancient VIPs had been buried, long before the Romans came.
I always get a slight shiver walking around them – never over, because they’re already scored hard with the tyre-tracks of bikes, the tread of countless feet.

Benches speckle the Downs, set with plaques to commemorate those who once took pleasure in the undulating view. Visitors use the rip-curl of cross-winds to send their plastic kites up against the sky (much to the chagrin of J who, out cycling to fend off dole boredom and to keep up a fitness routine, was once saved from a broken nose by his helmet when a kite came plunging down like a knife.) The London Gliding Club, located at the foot of the Downs among fields that shine pewter-gold in the summer, send up their white gliders to hover vast silent shadows over the landscape. They are ubiquitous to the area, and can sometimes – on a day with strong winds – be sighted as far away as Houghton Regis. Towing them up from the ground are the TigerMoth planes, little beauties with a pleasantly familiar burring-buzz.

glider

Dunstable holds a wealth of ancient treasures, both above and beneath its soil. Many of these have been relocated over the years, with the local museum (holding Iron and Bronze Age relics recovered from archaeological excavations) switching between buildings, from the town hall in 1925 to the Kingsbury Stables in 1927 to Priory House. Jimmi told me of how the museum was once kept in the “adult section” of the library, with staff training hawk-eyes on the kids who came to see the full-size skeleton of an Iron Age man, held frozen in time behind a glass cabinet, among books on erotic photography.

The town emblem – a livery badge known as the Dunstable Swan jewel and crafted from opaque white enamel fused over gold – was sold to the British Museum in 1966, following excavations at the friary. Those who discovered it had no real idea of its significance, as a declaration of allegiance to a noble family or a king – a pity then, that it can’t be restored to its township.

Dunstable swan
Image: www.britishmuseum.org

While out wandering through the Quadrant shopping precinct, I couldn’t help but notice the archaeological-dig exhibitions that had been set up in empty shop windows. The Manshead Archaeological Society is a credit to South Bedfordshire for calling attention to the region’s abundance of (pre)historical sites and artefacts, with details of each excavation logged onto their system at Winfield Street for analytical reports to be written and drawn up. It’s priceless, both for the preservation of Dunstable’s roots and as a symbolic reminder of what the town still stands for. It would benefit from making more of its past, in the way that York city has grounded much of its trade in its history. As Jimmi put it, “As a town that had many English kings and queens stay, a town that saw major historical events happen (the beginning of the end of Catholicism started in Dunstable with the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon – in Priory Church) … Dunstable needs more than a tiny visitors’ centre tucked away.”

*

You don’t have to travel up the country to find urban decay, though it’s acknowledged that the smaller towns and cities have fared poorly in comparison to their larger neighbours. Cuts to council budgets and a lack of follow-through on regeneration projects have seen local infrastructure become frail, while unemployment reflects the shuttered-down high streets and closed businesses. With a population of approximately 36,000 people and situated 30 miles north of London, Dunstable bears similar marks of a town that has gradually lost its industrial and cultural identity, even as its larger neighbours have flourished around it.

When the late Michael Partington took a wander through town in 1966 for the short Anglia Television documentary, “Focus On: Dunstable”, he found it thriving on the back of its growing motor industry. This came as a result of overspill from Luton – Bedford Vehicles, a division of Vauxhall owned by General Motors, had become a major supplier to the British Army in WWII, progressing from its bus and truck productions to the Churchill Tank. With the help of government funds, in 1942 the company was able to open a new site on Boscombe road in Dunstable, sprawling its plant over 98 acres; by the 1950’s, all bus and truck productions had gone over to Dunstable, with recruitment rates reaching almost 6,000 people. By 1953, the average wage was £10 a week, while 1958 saw the millionth Bedford commercial vehicle roll off a Dunstable line. This lively company’s production merged with that of A C Sphinx Sparking Plug Co’s Works, which had moved from Birmingham in 1934 and was later renamed A C Delco (where Jimmi’s mother and members of her family worked); together with Renault Trucks and Commer Cars, the motoring industry formed a springboard for Dunstable’s burgeoning economy.

The future seemed set – as Partington pointed out, the sleepy market town was now “wide awake.”

“Focus On: Dunstable” left an ache in my throat. There was the bustling high street, with even these levels of activity seeming healthier than the roaring rivers of exhaust fumes and tyres that channel through Dunstable today. People filled the pavements, going in and out of shops that were bright as the eyes of children. There was a sense of hope and well-being, as “big orders mean higher wages, and a sense of security.” More shops and homes were going up, to accommodate the influx of workers from surrounding areas, as well as local residents. Dunstable was set on outstripping Luton (which had been made a country borough) to hold the title of South Bedfordshire’s hub for culture and commerce.

california ballroom_jpg
(Inside the California Ballroom, Dunstable, for a performance by The Searchers, “Needles and Pins”.)
Image: www.dunstablehistory.co.uk

But the race to the future stalled out, with one factory closure after another, brought on by a chain-reaction of events in the UK’s automotive industry. Depending on who you’d prefer to listen to, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was either a saint or a sinner for her intervention on behalf of British Leyland, once the country’s largest car company. According to Garel Rhys, the retired director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School, Thatcher saw British Leyland as “too big to fail”, bailing it out to the tune of 2.9 billion pounds of taxpayer money from 1979 to 1988. Though the company would ultimately collapse, Rhys stated that the UK’s automotive industry was saved by Thatcher’s support. “Jaguar Land Rover came out of the rescue. Mini was saved, along with Leyland Daf trucks and component firms such as Unipart.”

Those same Leyland Daf trucks were a division of British Leyland, formed in 1987 after the company was granted the British Army service contract to produce the 4 Tonne GS (general service) truck. This struck a terrible blow to General Motors, whose main market was by then in military vehicle production – pulling out of Bedford Trucks, they left it to be bought by AWD Ltd, a company owned by David John Bowes Brown, which in its turn went into receivership in 1992 and was sold to Marshall SPV in Cambridge. This came in spite of a poignant plea to the House of Commons in 1992 by Mr. David Madel, the MP for South West Bedfordshire at the time, for the company to be allowed to sell “a large order for civilian – I stress the word ‘civilian’ – lorries for Libya.” The emphasis came because Libya was at the time under UN sanctions, one of the key elements of which for the UK was an arms embargo. This, according to Minister for Trade Mr. Richard Needham in response to Mr. Madel, included “the provision of arms and related material of all types, including the sale or transfer of weapons and ammunitions, military vehicles and equipment.” While the AWD trucks were specified as civilian, there were concerns over whether some, if not all were likely to be used by the country’s military.
Of the 850 Dunstable workers at AWD prior to receivership, only about half of the 150 workers left, after redundancies, were offered jobs in Cambridge.

Bedford Trucks
Image: www.lutontoday.co.uk

Mr. Madel stood again in 1993 for the support of Renault Trucks (which by that point had also run into difficulties) as well as Dunstable council’s need for extra governmental funding, in light of the sudden increase in unemployment:
“The Bedfordshire training and enterprise council is effective, but, given the difficulties of the Dunstable area, it needs an extra boost. What is needed is Government help to attract new industry into the area.”
What caught my eye, too, were his cautionary comments regarding the delicate balance between housing and employment, which Jimmi had often remarked upon while we lived in Dunstable. This seems more prevalent than ever:
“Before the employment base in the Dunstable area has been sorted out and re-established, we must take another look at the numbers and types of houses that we are required to build under Bedfordshire’s structure plan and at the time scale for that building programme. A big imbalance between housing development and employment opportunities is arising in the south of the county. Now is the time for a fresh and urgent look at that balance.”

With the nosedive in industry, the cultural aspects of Dunstable began to lose their shine too. The beautifully futuristic Civic Hall, which opened in 1964 and was later renamed the Queensway Hall, was once able to seat up to 900 people for concerts and plays, while serving 500 people for banquets; its situation on the touring circuit saw the likes of Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols and David Bowie pass through its doors, to give performances that leave once-in-a-lifetime memories.
Pulled down in 2000, the Hall now lies beneath an ASDA supermarket, while its entertainment predecessor, the California Ballroom, suffered a similar fate in the early 80’s – it now lies beneath a housing estate. Though both venues had their fair share of inherent problems, their loss has been seen as a downswing in the presence of professional live acts. Dunstable seems to have fallen off the tour circuit.

These pieces fit with others to form an image of a town now riddled with deep-running problems. The loss of free parking in the town centre further discourages shoppers from travelling in; they can just as easily head to the outskirts of town for the large retail stores and supermarkets that have set up. These offer many of the products sold by the independents and mainstream stores on the high street, under one roof. Those people who do decide to come into the centre must then battle the heavy flux-flow of traffic. It’s a stop/start process, from one set of lights to the next, and an unpleasant experience for pedestrians and drivers alike. I didn’t even dare to consider buying a bike.

Dunstable is, by an unhappy quirk of fate, also one of the largest towns in SE England without a rail connection (only adding to the congestion through and around town.) The Great Northern Railway’s branch line from Welwyn, had served Dunstable from 1858 to 1965 – it fell to the Beeching cuts, like many others, due to its decline in freight exchange and passenger numbers. This was something of a sore point for me, coming up from East Sussex, where I’d been accustomed to having a station on my doorstep. I’d arrive in Luton on a Friday evening (sweaty and bothered) to be picked up by Jimmi and taken back through the slow surge of Dunstable, then on to Eaton Bray. It took about 3 hours on a good day; travelling home on a Sunday-skeleton-service, was even more “fun.”

Rising business rates – the bane of high streets across Britain – have hit those retailers already struggling to compete with the evolving supermarkets, and internet giants like Amazon. The Book Castle, a beautiful shop on Church Street with an elegant greystone front, closed its doors in 2011 citing a reduction in sales. Its founder, Paul Bowes, who opened the shop in 1980 and sold it to the Independent Retail Group in 2008 (while maintaining the separate business of Book Castle Publishing) said that “A lot of book shops are closing because of the demand in supermarkets and online. People are therefore not visiting their high street shops… the town is going to be the poorer for losing its specialist book shop.”

I couldn’t agree more. There’s nothing to compare with that feeling of Presence when you step into a book shop – particularly one has old and fine as the Book Castle, situated in a building dated 1872, and formerly used as a drill hall by volunteer soldiers – to go sifting through titles that are tangible beneath the fingers, with unique covers and jackets. It’s the literary equivalent of choosing vinyl over downloads – yes, the latter will have the drag ‘n drop convenience, taking up a smidgen of space; but it won’t have the solidity, the textures and inimitable *crackle-pop* of the former.

Then there’s the actual experience of making a purchase – when shopping feels like an adventure. The Book Castle had a smell of nostalgia ingrained in its deep walls: dust, cold stone and warm wooden beams, and that indescribable scent of many types of paper and binding, hanging in the air like the woodsmoke of pubs. Descending the staircase to reach the bottom level where my favourite genres were kept – science fiction and fantasy – I felt like an explorer. If a title wasn’t on the shelves or had gone out of print, the staff would order it in for you with the professional charm of people who know what they’re doing, and take pride in their societal place as distributors. If a particular author had your attention, the staff recommendations would put you onto someone of their style, in a way that Amazon / iTunes algorithms still don’t quite seem to have mastered. You can’t beat a human approach to taste.
It was a wonderful place to visit, even when I was on the dole and had little spare to spend. It was somewhere to hide from the rain, and to feel more like myself. Sadly, such sentiments don’t keep shops open.

dunstable at war
Image: www.theoldchapelivinghoe.com

The Quadrant shopping precinct now sits desolate even on Saturday afternoons, when trade should be at its peak. A third of its stores are shuttered-down, collecting rust and sprouting weeds through their walls, despite council attempts to spruce up the shop fronts and maintain appearances. The campaigners at Long Live Dunstable: Don’t Let Dunstable Die, keep a directory website open for visitors, and maintain a Facebook page with regular updates and dedications, memories of days-past and thoughts on the future, from a community that still cares about the fate of its town.

What Dunstable needs is real industry, for all of its residents to feel that sense of pride and security again. The most recent profile of Dunstable (April 2013, Central Bedfordshire Council) showed that residents aged 16 and over who work, are more likely to be in unskilled positions: process, plant and/or machine operatives (18.6% compared to 15.8% in Central Bedfordshire) with employment mainly in wholesale and retail, education, and manufacturing.
This certainly paints the town’s past, if not also its progressive future. Dunstable’s unemployment rate – though similar to the national average – currently sits above that of Central Bedfordshire; 780 people claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance in February 2013. With the Job Centre’s closure in 2012 those seeking work must now travel to Luton to sign on, and if their experiences are anything like those of freelance journalist Harriet Williamson, they won’t be reimbursed for travel costs.

Central Bedfordshire college – formerly known as Dunstable college – was set up in 1961. Mr Madel referred to it as “a highly successful college of further education”, which had helped to provide for Dunstable’s “great bank of industrial skills.” Today, the college reflects a need for diversity in the town’s employment sectors, offering full and part-time courses that range from engineering to arts, IT & computing to sports therapy, construction to health and social care. Apprenticeship schemes are available, along with “an army of experienced trades people and professionals” drawn from small and medium-sized companies, who as lecturers enhance the education of potential future employees. It’s a synergistic approach aimed at boosting the regional economy – on his “Meet the Principal” page, Ali Hadawi CBE acknowledges that “unemployment is high”, but that the difference lies in skills provided with education: “Businesses have to be careful about how many people they employ… They also have to make sure those people they do take on can work well and be productive.”

To this end, the college works in tandem with the Incuba Innovation Centre, which was developed in partnership with Central Bedfordshire Council and the European Regional Development Fund. Full of light, spacious, and with a glittering roof of solar panels, it has the appearance of an updated Civic Hall – though the focus here is upon introducing a new industry of renewable energies to Dunstable, with support given to fledgling businesses “that champion a greener economy.” They are provided with classrooms, hot desk facilities and meeting rooms to, as Principal Hadawi put it, “offer business development… for those working on developing ideas in the renewable energies field.” In the short film “Dunstable: The Next Chapter”, shot in late 2014 as part of Dunstable Town Council’s corporate plan for the next three years, he added that “the greener renewable technology arena promises to be one of the largest growth industries worldwide.” With the drive to cut harmful emissions and reduce dependency on fossil fuels (not to mention the global market volatility often accompanying them), alternative/renewable energies form a progressive industry that’s not likely to peter out any time soon. Writing for the Economist, senior editor Edward Lucas said that “The International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental organisation often criticised for its focus on fossil fuels, says the world will need to stump up about $23 trillion over the next 20 years to finance continued fossil-fuel extraction, but the prospect of much cheaper solar power and storage capability may put investors off. The story may be not so much what falling oil prices mean for clean energy than what the prospect of clean energy will mean for the oil price.”

More locally, Dunstable could see real benefits from this versatile mix of on-site training and business accommodation. Bringing students into an environment where they can explore a fast-developing industry, there’s the potential for expansion and putting Dunstable’s name back on the map, as a destination for those with an eye on the future.

Incuba
Image: www.atkinsglobal.com

But still, those high street shops must be open for new arrivals, as well as established residents. The town centre needs to become attractive again.
Working with Central Bedfordshire Council and business partners, Dunstable Town Council’s masterplan was drawn up for the regeneration of the town covering 2014-2016. Particular focus was given to improving connections between different parts of the town, easing congestion, and bringing retail, leisure, community, residential and office facilities up to scratch. An example of this redevelopment is the three-pronged work on transport infrastructure. The Dunstable-Luton busway opened in September 2013, and carries passengers on a straightforward route serving the town centres of Dunstable, Houghton Regis and Luton, bypassing their congestion while providing a fast route to major transport links like Luton airport and train station. What was once a 40-60 minute one-way journey has been cut to approximately 15 minutes. It’s ideal for commuters and shoppers. Add to this the other two major transport developments – the A5-M1 link road and the Woodside link road – and you have an area that’s attractive to businesses wishing to set up in the nearby retail parks. With deliveries conveyed on alternate routes, the clutter of lorries often found snarling up the town centres will be taken away, improving the sound and air quality for retailers and customers. Cafes and restaurants overlooking the centre will benefit from more peaceful views. Dunstable’s streets won’t feel quite so charged and chaotic. A bigger step would be to bring back free parking throughout the week, thus encouraging local residents and those passing through to give the shopping precincts a chance. If employment levels pick up and feed down into wage packets, Dunstable could see another resurgence in trade. Going on my own experience, a bit of financial security does wonders for confidence and the spirit.

Running parallel with the need to support businesses, there’s the need to preserve Dunstable’s historical identity. As part of the council’s corporate priorities, these restoration projects take on specific points across town, with the current focus being on the Priory and its gardens. Sadly, the same relief hasn’t been extended to the Norman King pub, a once-proud and elegant structure dating back to the time of King Henry I.

I was only a resident of the town for a year or so, and while I didn’t have the privilege to drink my first (legal) pints in there, Jimmi’s anecdotes left their mark on my mind. It’s difficult to imagine him playing darts with old school friends now; or indeed, to remember how it felt when he first took me inside and I saw the beautiful sweep of the ceiling, felt the thick walls under my hands. Those white walls are now blackened, the roof gone, after the pub was burnt out in a senseless arson attack on the 10th August 2011. The structural damage was enough for the Grade II listed building to be stripped of its conservation status, and for a long time the poor cigarette-stub of what remained stared out over the street until it was boarded up. I can’t bring myself to look at pictures of what remains.

The council has decided to push ahead with plans for the pub’s demolition, to make way for an extension to the neighbouring Old Palace Hotel. An online petition, with over 2,500 signatures, appears to have gone unheeded, despite the obvious influence the building’s heritage has upon Dunstable’s identity.

TV presenter Kevin McCloud MBE, raised in Dunstable, put it best:
“Dunstable is short on great historic buildings and so the removal of any ancient scrap of architecture from the town is an appalling idea. We need to conserve the old to help us understand the present (and, for that matter, the future) and heritage is not a burden but an amenity and a great blessing for our society. It gives us a sense of place and connection. The loss of the ancient fabric of The Norman King will be a crying shame and a further erosion of that connection. It’s appalling that there has been no collective will among the authorities to keep as much as possible that remains of this fine old building and to insist on a sensitive programme of repair and even reinstatement of the structure and roof lost to the fire. Apart from anything else, I used to drink there and will miss it.”

the norman king 2

The norman king
Images: gallery.nen.gov.uk

Special thanks to Jimmi Campkin (@jimmicampkin) for letting me pick his brain for memories and facts; and for proof-reading the whole thing.

Marching for our future

Two themes mingled on the streets of Paris today. In the photographs and reports pouring in, I saw hope and hypocrisy: both will shape the future of this world. Crowds marched in defiance of the terror waged against them in the past week. Leaders went arm-in-arm in supposed solidarity for freedom of expression, after the recent attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket … while back in their home countries, those who stand for freedom of speech and democracy face persecution and imprisonment.

I don’t suppose any of this was far from the minds of more liberal leaders but then, within the context of the march – honouring the fallen – it’d be difficult to speak of other things. I must admit, I found myself hesitating before calling attention to the brilliant research by Daniel Wickham (@DanielWickham93) on the unique abuse of human rights / freedom of expression by many of the world leaders in attendance, if only because I didn’t want to dampen the moment. But then, there are so many moments in time, and they all add up to Change – or not. I thought of Tracy Chapman’s song, “If not Now…”
Then when? One voice among many.

With responsibility comes the shocker of having to give up a lot of what you might believe in. For the greater good, etc. Belarus, for example, is allowed a lot of leeway when it comes to human rights, just so the Lukashenka regime doesn’t kick up a shit-storm between the EU and the loudly-snarling bear, Russia. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

“The Lukashenko administration gives the EU chills from time to time. Belarusian officials make claims about Belarus’s exit from the Eastern Partnership. Belarus threatens to redirect its cargo transit routes from Lithuanian and Latvian ports to Russian ports. Belarus also promises to deploy Russian Tactical Ballistic Missile Systems against Poland. The message is clear: The West must turn a blind eye on the human rights violations in Belarus in order to cooperate with Lukashenka.” – Rethinking the EU Policies Towards Belarus, Andrei Liakhovich.

The world’s internet freedom is falling, with Turkey and Russia leading the descent. In Azerbaijan recently, the US-funded Radio Azadliq was ransacked by the Azerbaijani authorities, with twelve employees arrested and others threatened with the same if they chose not to comply with questioning.
The reason?

“The office raid and forced questioning come as prosecutors are investigating the Azadliq office as a foreign-funded entity. RFE/RL and its bureaus are funded by the U.S. government.
Siyavoush Novruzov, a high-ranking member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, defended the raid as a national security issue.

Speaking to local media, he said it was necessary to close the bureau to prevent espionage, adding, “Every place that works for foreign intelligence and the Armenian lobby should be raided.”

And still.

I found the scenes in France heartening for a number of reasons – most of them pointed out by other people, tweeting as they watched with me, or attended the march themselves. Jamie Barlett (@JamieJBartlett) of think-tank Demos, put it most aptly:
“In 20 years, there will be a new wave of fearless journalists, cartoonists, writers – who as children were moved by the events of last week.”

We can only hope, for this is what and who will stand against the hypocrisy seen today. We all of us have a common enemy, exemplified by the extremists who would like to stir up trouble between Muslims and the countries they call home, or those who would have online dissent (AKA freedom of expression) flogged into silence, or those who would brainwash a populace with disinformation about external persecution, while quietly raiding the home piggybank.

If we’re marching for something – in our minds on social media, with our bodies in the multicultural cities – then let it be for change. Real change. Not words produced today, in the pathos of the moment, but for all of our tomorrows, because we still have to live among each other, every day, and our lives are as intertwined as they have ever been. What comes next, will count the most.

Tawny horizon

Trigger warning: Weight loss / anorexia.

It’s 19.31pm, and I’ve just climbed into bed. I haven’t yet found that balance between the cyber and real-time worlds, between interaction and concentration.

Or perhaps the problem is a bit more internal.

Standing in front of the full-length mirror yesterday, I took in the curve of each rib, my flatter chest, and knew myself to be diminished. Walking home tonight, I had to plunk down on a low brick wall (and resist the temptation to fall backwards into someone’s flowerbed – we’re not in Hipster territory any more, Toto) because my legs were trembling.

Trouble is, when the world and life and errors and wanting and worries, all go flaring past with comet tails to catch a-hold of… health can become a distant star. A lonely moon. I never mean to lose weight, honest. But certain comments of this year have stuck behind my ears, about how I’d “bulked up” (around my arms and shoulders, from weight-training) and was “filling out” my tops. So. I guess old habits sneak back in, when everything else seems more interesting than standing still. Eating more is sort of tricky, too, on a frozen wage.

I know these things shouldn’t get under my skin, not after all these years; and as C.S Lewis said of it, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

And still. And still.

I know it’s perhaps early for New Years’ Resolutions, but mine are simple enough:
To create more time, with prioritising.
To pay attention to what really matters.

And that’s it. The rest, you don’t need to know, since I’ll inadvertently hurt someone or another along the way. But I’ve neglected enough Things this year, and have burnt a lot of ambitions and expectations on the pyre of Disappointment. My fault. I know better now, and where my weaknesses are. The strengths … haven’t shown their faces yet, but I guess that’s part of the learning curve, too.

What better time to rest and regain weight, than Christmas? That’s probably the wrong thing to say, hence the trigger-warning; but honestly, I’ve had enough of censoring myself. That isn’t a jab at anyone in particular, only this Thing in my head, which has slowly crept back up and wound tight claws through my mind. I find myself thinking about food/eating in that old invasive way, with the attention/fear of the constant hungering. I’m not in a relapse. But the very fact that I have to focus on this again, and find myself struggling to lift weights that were only months ago getting easier, says as much as the tapering-off of writing. Now, I get in from work and scrabble out perhaps 500 words if I’m lucky. If I haven’t spent too much time reading, talking, flicking aimlessly –
(White noise)
Researching this and that. All necessary. But life looks like a Dali clock at the moment.

(A trick I use now, is to let both phone batteries go flat by the end of the day. Then I have to walk home in silence, to re-order my thoughts.)

I don’t want to lose contact with the people I know and care about, or fall behind on the topics that interest me, engage my focus in ways that anorexia never could. I want to be more than a walking eating disorder (which was my identity for a long time.) Even in hospital, I spent the long lowlight days doing crosswords, writing snippets of poetry, reading reviews in Empire magazine… anything to keep in touch with things outside of my head, away from symptoms.

I’ve let things slip, working longer hours to keep up with rising food bills… and perhaps as an excuse to keep moving. This is a sneaky illness, it plays by its own rules, and most often below the surface.

*

Still no word about whether I’ll keep my job next year; though when I mentioned this to the new PA, she only laughed with that unhappy sound of someone used to this sort of system. To be honest, the guys will probably know about the official moving date when I do.

I can’t begin to tell you how hollow my chest feels, to think about it; and to know that this will likely be our last Christmas all together in that building. Standing on the top floor this afternoon, as is my wont when in need of a breather, I watched the western horizon turn tawny, flecked over in blue – a Joni Mitchell song of the sky. Those pigeons went skirling past, as ever, leaving their shadows like blackened leaves on the parking bays.

I wonder about a lot of things – how the guys will fit all their kit into the smaller space; where they will go for a quiet talk, or a cry; how they will cope with the integration of offices, in an open-plan idea of a police station. Who will end up where. If I will go with them.

The £2bn being ploughed into the NHS feels like a sticking-plaster, with fresh cuts to other services kept beneath. And that’s before we get onto the fact that 1 in 6 police officers will be cut from the service by next year. But I can only speak from a limited experience on the ground, and then, from the perspective of a cleaner.
I am small. And tall, in my own way.

A bit like Metpol’s (new) New Scotland Yard.

“It is quite extraordinary that in the rush to sell the police estate, the Mayor’s office don’t appear to have planned space for their police officers and staff.
Yet more money looks set to be spent to sort out this mistake, at a time when the police face ever greater financial pressures.” – Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member.

Our old girl will rock back gently on her heels, and take a deep sigh for winter. She’ll leak green-black tears down the windows, to pool over the floors; and she’ll whistle through her teeth with the rising winds. She is more than Work to me. I still give her walls a pat, when trudging up the worn stairs at the end of a shift.
I hope she won’t be knocked down. But as Stephen King said, Everything’s Eventual.

*

Outside the art shop in town, a man sat busking beneath a sullen sky, in lilac shadows. His stickered-up guitar sang a song of lonely hearts and wild roads, of sweeping streets and times since gone, never lost in the heart. He raises money for Leukaemia sufferers, and is well known in town. The glitter-shine of a red and gold Christmas tree speckled his face; the wind sent his hair flying beneath a fluffy Santa’s hat. The shop awnings kept him sheltered from occasional spatters of rain.
This evening, I couldn’t help but notice another pastel sky behind him, softening the edges of Westminster. The buildings glowed on the canvas, caught behind the glass, as he played on.

When the end came

My friend Dom asked a short while ago, why I don’t publish any fiction or poetry on my blog. I guess I’ve fallen out of the habit, or the world seems too much of a story all its own at the moment – but still, I’ve lost my voice (or way) somewhat, when it comes to putting down words. This, and a case of the blues, and boring domestic things, have caused some recent radio silence.

I’m heading back towards fiction. It’ll mean longer silences, but we all need a forest glade, here and there. I’ve missed the imagery, the play of shadows and light, and lives in my hands.

For now: an older short story, written around February last year. If it needs any more editing, drop me a line on the comments. I’m still not sure what to do with it.

DSC00755 photo DSC00755.jpg

The mist came from a platinum sky, one fine spring day like no other. Those lunching in parks watched with loose interest, as the first silvery skeins drifted down to drape themselves about the fresh-budding trees. The crisp little leaves twitched among their branches until, soaked and dark, they fell in drifting droves, too early for the newness of the year.

The mist sank lower, seemingly driven by a keen whistle-wind that scoured the cracking ground. It would settle in thick folds about cities and plains, over forests that twisted to still silence. There were some who would swear the haunted trees cried out in agony, as their blackened bark froze and split; a prelude of what was to come.

It travelled across the oceans, dragging tongues of damp in its wake. The sun hung as a tattered white thing – it flared briefly, fighting that which choked its warmth and broke its light.
The world rolled on. It had seen this killing-cold before, millennia gone, more Fable than Past in recent years of abundance. They could outlast this. Such was the belief of innocents, and those with too much to lose by paying heed to old fears.

But the sun didn’t return.

All commerce was restricted to local regions, and people were discouraged from straying too far from home. No explanations came, while the light shifted and the walls of buildings started to creak and to fold. Rioters met with police on streets that glistened, snapping with fire-teeth. The chill explored the bones, working slivers of pain through the blood, to the heart.

They put down their weapons to warm their hands.

Fallen leaves, falling prices. Markets crashing beyond numbers, tearing apart the will of those who might still care. The creeping lethargy that had afflicted the trees would seep into human pores. Looting became a thing of the past, a worthless expenditure of energy. While the lilac sky drifted ever closer to the dying ground, full of ice crystals, governments collapsed under the strain of staying alive.

People no longer watched the news for a daily intake of war and famine in parts of the world they would never visit; they watched, with tired, itchy eyes, to see which local reservoir had become encased in the thick black ice that eventually snared all possible supplies. The time came when the power was shut off, for their own good (it was said) since the sliding chill had made its way into power plants, burrowing ice to their chugging hearts, flooding the underside of cities, locking up sewer systems. Blackouts were no longer a wartime memory; they were a reality of shuddering darkness, heaped blankets and smoky breath.

Children died beside their parents, hands lost in the grip that couldn’t save them. Lovers died in copulation, desperately trying to keep warm with the only heat left in their bodies, sometimes cutting open their flesh to allow sluggish blood to flow – a last desperate act. Older men froze in place standing up before the john, while their wives broke the ice on the old backyard well a thousand times over, crumbling brick in hand, weary thrusts between aching shoulders. Pets were thrown out, or eaten alive, or slaughtered for their voluptuous fur. Many now cursed Darwin and his ridiculous theories, for what strength was born of a larger brain when it couldn’t conjure the meaning of survival in an ice-locked world, with only bare skin and bone for company?

In the end, the world retreated to itself. Screams died to sighs, to silence, which crept out of those haunted trees, threading through the mist that grew and expanded like a living thing no one could catalogue or name. The higher powers died with the rest; perhaps their last words were only whispered prayers, to a God of mercy or money. It didn’t matter any more.

*

His footsteps crackled, black on silver, through the grass.

Locked in frozen damp, the chime of each falling blade was a bitter echo of birdsong. The birds were long gone. The gulls went back to sea, as though it could save them. He knew the water had frozen in its dance, along with all its dwindling tributaries – that continuous movement, snared at last. The moon was an absent-minded memory, called into place whenever night fell.

The only way to tell the difference was in the shifting of the light – from gunmetal to ebony, locked beneath a deeper darkness, like a winter pond. No stars to pinch the sky. No silver candle to light the way. Only a cold none could bear, and a quiet made louder by its absence of chirrups and rustles, the bark of a fox, long dead beneath the iron earth.

Roman moved slowly, placing each foot like a thought. His arms crisscrossed his chest, tight as the belt beneath them, which lassoed the bag in place. It had frozen to his back long ago; he dared not remove it. Only last week, skin had peeled away when he took off a glove to dip a hand in a pool of water – miraculously untouched by ice, though steaming with a thunderous smell that reminded him of volcanic rock. He’d once worked in a science department; he’d tried to recall the name of that ominous smell, brought from the beginning of Time, the planet’s birth. Now here, somehow, shrivelling the rotten grass around it, at the end.

It hurt too much to think on it long. The past was a dead weight to his brain.

Oh, he’d heard the whimpers and cries; his face had steered towards them with that human gratification of company, of other survivors like him. He’d even half-stepped, turning from his path to theirs, to offer what help he could. But the tug in his chest led him on, always. The compass that couldn’t be reset. He knew, because he’d set it himself, after logging off the computer that last time.

She’d finished her final message with seven kisses – For Luck, she’d said, a brave smile in her words. The power had cut out before he could reply. At least he’d managed a print-off; her loving face, caught forever in a small square of paper. All shining sunlight hair, with eyes that were the memory of an older sky. Her lips were the redness of his blood, as it once had flowed from a split thumb. Now, when he bled, sometimes from the corners of his eyes, it crawled out like a purple tongue.

We’ll find each other, he’d told her. His hand had clutched the mouse, willing it to live just long enough to Send. On that beach we talked about. Remember? It’s not so far away. I’ll make it there in a few weeks. You can make it too, if you leave now. Like we always talked about. Those long hours in the night.

Her laugh was a sad spontaneous thing; she rarely laughed, had had little to laugh for in life, with a husband running out and children grown to forgetfulness of their mother. I’ll do my best, love, and she’d self-consciously stroked back the golden hair, thinning to shiny baldness in places on her beautiful scalp. One eyelid buckled as she looked straight at him, through the SpeakEasy camera. I’m afraid I’ll look a little different from that silly old photo I sent you.

And he’d laughed in turn. God, it’d throbbed in his chest, but made his throat warm all the same. I doubt I’ll mistake you for anyone else. And I’m no bundle of roses now, either. He’d run a hand through his own hair, the thatched grey coming out in bundles, where sleek black waves once lived. How he’d waxed and preened it, in the office days! How detergent his smile had been, with his white lab coat! He’d tried to remember if he’d let all the animals out, but the concentration made his eyes water, freezing up at the ducts.

I’ll pack a bag now. We’ll set off at the same time. It’ll be an adventure. No mention, of course, that this had been for the past eight years of SpeakEasy online chat. No reference to the insidious mist, which had come from nowhere and devastated everything.

I can’t wait. Xxxxxxx (For Luck)
And that had been that. The blank screen was a silent laugh in his face. Taking off his glasses – long ago cracked with the pressure of staying intact – he’d fumbled about his apartment for what might be
needed, in a dying world.

*

Forests and low hills. Sad little bonfires, unlit and staggered with miles of travel, between people too cold to stay still. Like frantic animals they’d scurried between each city and town, until the energy required was too high a price to pay. Then they stayed where they were, raw-eyed and wild, chewing their own fingers for comfort and food.

Little sandy shores, lakes encasing their fish and frog victims in ice of many colours – midnight blue and emerald green, the dusky purple of a winter sunset. He once encountered a pool crusted over with thick yellow, a noxious carpet; it gave off a horrific stench, and he’d stump-stumbled away with his heart clattering in his ears. Caught in the middle was a horse, scrawny legs locked in mid-canter. Those rolling white eyes haunted his nights.

How he continued – how he was permitted to continue, despite the mist that travelled with him, a companion that offered no comfort yet hid him from dangers other than its own – he didn’t dare ask. The mission was simple. As a man whose career had been born of laboratory work, he was used to dialling down all concentration to single-slide notes, to the tiniest lens. He knew that, under extreme pressure of concentration beneath that fierce little bulb, a slide might crack. He couldn’t afford to crack. He had made a promise. And when each sandy little beach encrusted with ice wasn’t his, wasn’t the one he’d promised her, with her faded shadow waiting – he moved on.

Never mind the rattle-throb of dying generators. No heed to the whisper of hair, swishing to and fro in a wind that some days tried to carve off his ears. The fact the hair could perhaps belong to a young woman or child caught out alone beneath their last tree, didn’t deter him. He wouldn’t investigate. He had no time. Time was a reckless beast, run away to where the sun still lived. It didn’t shine here, and nothing moved, except him, and the occasional splintering of ice.

He even spoke to the mist some days, fancied it was a lost and lonely friend, adrift in this death-silence world as he was. It only told him lies in return though, guiding him the wrong way, until he lost patience and grew weary enough of its company to sit; until his clothes, bulky as they were, cemented themselves to the ground, and he was forced to drag half of it along with him in ringing snaps.

The fear that she might not make it to the beach, never left him.

*

Roman blinked slowly, letting the rime sift off his heavy lids. Moving his lips beneath their cowl, now stiff as wood, he felt something new. Taste had recently begun to fray, along with smell and sight. He was shutting down. But he’d know this place anywhere, had spent too many sun-lazy holidays on that stretch of sand to forget. There was the raw tang of salt, as always, forming a new crust on his skin. The grains went flying into the wind, freezing in mid-air to sheets of nubbled black, before breaking their bonds and collapsing in whipped sighs, to the lilac-ice shore.

And there she was, of course. Her black form packaged on the beach in a stillness of thought, as though this were any old day, beneath a summer sun and a sky of hard blue. She stared out to those waves, locked forever in place like ancient curtains. As he stumped towards her, each step dragging more than the last, he felt a pain in his chest to rival the burn-black of his fingers, before they’d dropped off. His wheezing breath snared the air. She heard him, long before she turned to watch his approach. Her smile, behind the ice-riddled veil, was a single bird-note in spring air.

Lara.
Standing before her at last, as he’d meant to for eight years while lab timetables and office dinners spooled out to fill his life. Hard rain fell down his cheeks.

“Tears, now?” Her black teeth gleamed with the hoar-frost under their feet. Raising one hand stiffly, she stroked his cheek. “We’ve far more to say to each other than that, surely.”

Wrapping both arms about him: “We beat the oceans. We beat the sky, the sun. When all are gone, we made it here still.” A wheezing cackle. “I told you I’d see you in frozen hell before we met face to face. You know I can’t stand these awkward first dates.”

Raising her mittened hand in his lace-fingers, Roman kissed it, shaking as the ice scarred his lips and took off flesh. Still, he knew his manners. “I can’t believe it took me this long to know the feel of your skin.”

“Hardly that,” she told him with a laugh. Such a laugh! He saw planes of dust and volcanic ash, the sun a golden ribbon over the streaming sky; all days flew to this one, to heat that still lived, somewhere inside. How had he ever doubted she would make it?

With one hand, she peeled off the protective mitt from her other, laying bare the skin below. He’d never seen such mottled beauty. Such fragile lines. The raw blue of her eyes made him brave, and he felt the shredding of his own skin only as a series of tugging jolts, as he removed his own glove.

“Hands only meet with purpose,” Lara told him. Angling herself around his withered body, she’d led them both down to the black sand. The fact they would never rise again, seemed as absent a thing as the once-was sun.

The mist whispered its song for them, as the sky broke.

 photo Hertsmere-20111120-00645.jpg