We mark our own roads

I revisited an old place last night, a thought and a memory from long ago, when I was a person… on the ebb-tide of Europe. Five years old, and recently returned to the UK to start again. I already missed the crisp mountain air and the silence around snow; the lean-dark nights and echoing silence beneath the pines.

Austria. Germany. Norway (sleeping with the blinds drawn against the pale light, with eye masks soft over our noses.)

When Dad left the RAF, we had settled in a small English town at the end of a railway line, an hour or so from the capital, a mile and many from the places I had once known as Home. I took to wandering off down the twisting paths, with their sun-cracked tarmac and aching sepia shadows.

I already missed that wider world.

It revisits me in dreams, which were once memories. They bleed into one another until I can’t tell what is false and what is real, as with everyday life. Some things I know for sure, with photographs in faded albums to back up their facts in a glossy sheen of my father’s deft camerawork. He carried that heavy thing slung about his neck on a strap, took it wherever we went on our holiday-travels in the car, which was all we could afford. I still, to this day, don’t know how much of those travels were to do with his work.

But we were a family of four. Climbing hills and camping beneath mountains made of dark glass and rock, under skies you could shatter with a pinprick. My mother wore her champagne hair in long curls, and carried me on her back. My sister’s hair was attempting to grow out from the rugged crop she’d got around age three; those straight pale locks were never the same again. We trudged up and down the white Austrian slopes with our steel-shod wooden sledges, which would never get past Health and Safety tests now; I wore a Michelin-Man suit of red and blue, with pink mittens and snow boots with white kid lining. I was so proud of these – they had been my sister’s, until she outgrew them. I got most of her hand-me-downs, unless we were “gifted” with identikit outfits by our grandparents. They loved to see little girls dressed in gingham and plaid.

I beg to differ.
But those dresses did stop me being mistaken for a boy all the time, with my short-cropped hair and skinny frame.

We’d race each other through plumes of silver breath, rolling and skidding, while our parents slid gracefully past on their skis. It was another world, another time, full of very straight roads with sharp right-angle corners, elegant steel ‘n stone infrastructure, mixed up with beloved architecture that told their own quiet tales of tradition. Soft gingerbread rooftops and quaint gables, gothic spikes and dark-eye windows. A world of Germanic and Slavic fairytales, forests and fate (lots of death) and magic.

Last night, I watched an old favourite film, firmly bound up in childhood but vague in terms of my full appreciation of it. I hadn’t seen An American Tail since I was eight, though it was often played at my Nanna’s house when we went to visit. The historical and political themes had gone quite over my head (as I’m fairly sure they would for most kids.) I had to blink and look again when it came to the stinging truth of the dangers and difficulties facing Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe, bound for America. Stuck among the singing and dancing, it all seemed a bit …
Well, you can fill in with your own words. I did laugh to recognize where “The Giant Mouse of Minsk” had got its name. But my skin riddled up to finally understand the opening scenes of violence that drove the Mousekewitzes and their human counterparts from Shoskta, as part of the anti-Jewish pogroms. I hadn’t known because no one had told me, no one in my family thought to mention it, though they couldn’t possibly have failed to notice the connections. Likewise, on the one occasion the film was shown in my old primary school, there was no mention of the protagonists being Jewish, or of the persecution they had faced.
It would have made a difference to know.

The film aside, this appears to be a recurring theme in adulthood. So much is missing in mind and memory – whether through daydreaming in class (likely) or the subjects being entirely omitted from each year’s history curriculum. Important dates have come up, I’ve been well enough to acknowledge them, but have found myself with empty holes where details should have been.

It’s true, we never stop learning. It’s only in recent years that I’ve managed to piece together more complete and complex pictures and timelines: of the First and Second World Wars, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, the Cold War and the Soviet Union … among many other things, across the world.
I could have told you about spits and spots: about Egyptian hieroglyphics and Stone Henge, about the Victorians, how to use old teabags to brown-up paper to make “papyrus scrolls.” I could have told you about the war poets.
But I didn’t know about the significance of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or Yalta, or the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. I learned about the Holocaust mostly through my own research (with a lot of help from Art Spiegelman’s Maus) and about Weimar Germany and hyperinflation from A Level Film Studies – where it was necessary to have a grounding in the historical context of the Expressionist films we were studying.

But is it possible that I fucked around so much in classes that I missed some rather crucial points in human history? Were they even taught then – should they have been? Are these subjects the preserve of further and higher education? (I lasted nine weeks in University before dropping out. Health reasons, as ever.) I wonder, because they seem to be more relevant than ever. And, I’m getting well enough to look backwards as well as around, and forwards; at other people’s lives, rather than my own.

I study, taking time away from faces and noise, to read; to absorb what I can, to make more sense of Today. It’s also possible that whatever I might have learned in school has been burnt out of my brain by years of anorexia and malnutrition. I still find it difficult to retain key facts above the constant white noise, though there’s been a definite improvement in the past couple of years. Never underestimate the links between physical and mental health.

The past few weeks have shown as much. I’ve lost about a kilo, despite a serious increase in food and fluids (it only came home to me how much when I saw a friend’s tweet about his calorie intake for a marathon – it near enough matched my own. But I’m not training for a marathon. I just work, and work out.) I’m reduced to an insomniac with a constant low-grade burning appetite, a short fuse, lowered mental cognition and weaker muscles. My emotional state is a trip-hazard. This is another reason I’ve taken time away, so I don’t inadvertently start WWIII.

I’m going for blood tests next week, to rule out anything other than a long-running aversion to change (we’re slowly starting to pack up at the Nick, with some departments closing to move on), and stress.

The haunting strains of the violin call to a past that leaves an ache at the back of my throat. I once walked barefoot in snow without pain. Even then, there was the tingle of Bigger Things in my spine, and they came most often in dreams.

Once, I climbed hand-over-foot on hot stones the colour of sand, under a blazing blue sky; though I never reached the top, there was sight and sound, the burring whine of many insects, the pulsing heat from the overhead sun. Across the years, that element of wandering-away from familiar places to unexpectedly stumble upon a great looming presence – a monument, a temple, a building – has never died. But I didn’t link them all together until last week, when the latest rendition of the dream came with a lowering night sky, pale smudges at its horizon, as of storm clouds obscuring the dusky rose. The monolith rose up in glittering darkness like a fallen spaceship, with panels and a size to silence anyone. Silence all around, and no way in. I wandered about its hulk, feeling the ping from its cooling metal, seeing the faint swirl of beetle-back colours; that toxic beauty.

It was the jungle temple, all right. The same location, accidentally found, as ever, but changed. No way inside to find the cool darkness and the echoes – now, they lie without.
I am always leaving home. I always return, empty-handed, with bare feet and an aching heart.

Advertisements

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

….It all just falls apart

But when I look into your eyes, it pieces up my heart.

My answers are almost lost in the haze of the rain, of what this year has said and spent. It’s been –
“Learning curve” doesn’t quite cover it.

We only learn enough from the light, to know ourselves blind. Stand in the darkness, liebe, and cry, and feel it all as a bullet hole in the chest. Memories fill it up again, and we walk on.

Time doesn’t so much heal, as stitch the pieces back together, or fill in the gaps and the splits with seams of gold. But you’re never quite the same, again.

I took a blind man by the hand, and led him away from the sunken well, where he’d been trying to draw water from a dry and empty laugh. The thick smell of damp and lichen made us cough, and we staggered a-ways, with his gnarled hand on my shoulder. I let him loop it about, because I was no longer afraid of the Touch of others.

He became my eyes, in the dark. My senses were blunted from years, decades, millennia, of wandering with my mind fixed on the ground.

I thought we’d leave this for ourselves a hundred times before
But I guess we’re always leaving, even when we look the same
And it eases me somehow to know that even this will change.

Here we are, in our Now, with the pain of what came before and the wary knowledge of what is to come. Hit the ground, and run.

Except I won’t. Not this time. I’ve spent too long running, without stopping to wait for others; for feelings, for thoughts that might anchor me or hold me down … or hold me still, long enough to hear the whispered words on silvered breath.

Fierce and light, and young.

So we kicked up the yellow leaves and the dulled moss, the forlorn stones and the wires of flowers long-dead. The sky was a stretched skein of grey, a heavy head; the sun, a lowered eye. His shoulders slumped with the weight of it all, and I urged him to lean a little more.

I laughed so hard inside myself, it all began to hurt.

No one sees the salt that slides between the cracks on the clown-dolls’ face. That smile is a painted bridge between what is, and what must be. A coda of pain and hope. A web wavering in the winds that bring storms and rain.
A well uncared for, runs dry.

Have a care, world. We’re not all hungover. We’re not all lost, those who wander. But we are all here, and awake, and aware, and laughing with barbed wire.
Nothing worth knowing, is ever what it seems.

If you’ve still got some light in you, then go before it’s gone
Burn your fire for no witness,
It’s the only way it’s done.

When the light changed and the world moved on, we looked back. I showed him the path we’d made through the leaves, with my hand, brushing the silt and the sky from his forehead. One pass should do it; he won’t see, I’m not a miracle-worker. But he’ll feel it.
He’ll feel it.

…”Well, when exactly do you mean?”

Tomorrow, I am going to have a look around a room that will, should I be able to take it, cut my monthly outgoings by £200. This will allow me to do a number of things without feeling guilty, or having to drop something else: afford to eat things outside of the value range, buy the occasional bottle of rum, and keep up with the price hikes of over-the-counter/prescribed medication. My gym membership has, for the past four years of living in this city, remained static – a blessing, since the same can be said for my wage.

Even last year, the freeze didn’t bother me so much. I was still living with my partner, prices were lower. But circumstances change. I didn’t foresee depression and anxiety creeping back in – and thought I’d got off lightly – with the cost of living up, and not much else.

Today, tens of thousands of people have protested in London, Glasgow and Belfast about pay and austerity. My voice is among theirs, if only via tweets. When I first began working with my company in late 2010, the set rate seemed a golden egg; I was well over the basic minimum wage, and able to secure a flat with my then-partner.

Fast forward to late 2014, and I am single, happy to live independently, but currently selling off much of what I own to make ends meet. I’m still over the basic minimum wage, but below the Living one. There’s no place for sentiment when you need to keep the balance up; Ebay and Amazon are my new best friends. Apart from underwear, I haven’t bought any new clothes since last summer. This isn’t such a big deal, as I’d rather spend money supporting independent bookshops, second-hand vinyl stalls, and friends with crafty fingers and book-writing of their own.

I could jack in the gym membership, but for the security it offers. With anorexia nervosa and compulsive exercise disorder for the past fourteen years, I know what my boundaries are, and solitary “formal” exercise is still a stumbling block. I’m currently trying to keep serotonin levels high enough to feel enough like myself to warrant eating, while maintaining “sustainable” levels of activity. I can’t emphasize enough how important that balance is. In terms of therapy, I’d be required to shell out on bus fare to travel the distance to reach the next available psychiatric service specific to needs… which would also entail taking time off work.
The word “liability”, haunts my mind.

I could, as many people in my life have advised since I went back to work in 2005, post-hospital, find a “better” job. But I happen to like where I am. Let no one convince you that cleaning/maintenance is easy. In a police station, when you’re on your own and it’s pissing with rain outside, and the teams have been out on a search for a misper (missing person, to you), and they’re dragging back in all manner of mud and sludge and water… it can feel a bit like pushing a golf ball into a straw. But I get a kick out of it.

My colleagues are friends; more than this. They’re not called the Family for nothing. The midnight humour is often the only thing keeping me afloat, smiling, even if only on the inside. They’re no-nonsense, and accustomed to dealing with mental health issues; I don’t feel any awkwardness, having a chat with someone about the time spent as an inpatient, or long-ago suicidal tendencies. The thought of leaving this security knots up my stomach even more than the idea of having to face a cliquey office environment with faddy diets and gossip. Been there, done that. Nein, danke.

Working alone, I have all the time of a shift to burn off excess energy, stifling the gnawing demon in my head that demands a high-intensity day, while ticking over thoughts on writing, art, music … all the whimsical things that make me who I am.
I’m also spoilt rotten with rum and book tokens, nights out on the town, because they know damn fine what it’s like to work with the thin end of the stick, and collectively go out of their way to give me the chance to experience “normality”, away from mental illness and memories of this. In the last four years, I’ve woken up to the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around me and this eating disorder, and that it’s a very complex kaleidoscope, with plenty of grey. Things you can’t pick up in reading books and articles, watching TV.

But they can’t pay my wages directly. And to be honest, given what they have to put up with on a daily basis, I’ve got the easy job. That’s an obvious statement, but I thought I’d put it out there, in case anyone thought I was square with what these men and women in uniform – in every sector of the emergency services – do for our country.

Each year, the corridors echo that little bit more, the building flakes off more plaster and paint, and lights go out in more offices. The great-awful thing about cleaning in the Nick, is that I never run out of things to do, and take home nothing but knotted muscles and a feeling of satisfaction. I learned from a very good woman in 2005, who saw a kid with stubby hair and stick limbs, and still decided she’d make a decent apprentice for a private-hire cleaning company. It was just the two of us, and I learned as much about hygiene as I did the general upkeep of a building.
For now, my job description would overlap several sectors.

I’ve never looked back. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s work, and crucial to every part of society. Sure, there are some who don’t work up to standards – but as with anything, it’s what you bring to the day (or night.) I happen to be one of the lucky few who is still in full-time employment, given the rise of the zero-hour contract, particularly in this trade. The chances of finding anything remotely like what I have at the moment, are few.

There are many people going through it, across sectors, with some working up to three shifts just to get by, as with the Whitehall cleaners who campaigned this week outside HMRC, for a pay increase to the London Living Wage of £8.80.

“Iolanda said that she leaves her home at 4:30am and lives on the other side of London. She said that she gets back home at 11:30pm and earns £6.31 an hour. ‘I’m trying to do this for me and my friends. It’s too much.'”

I’m only offloading what has been on my mind for quite some time. I bury it, usually, under things that don’t concern me directly. But every now and then, a situation unfolds to drive the message home, that things can’t stay the way they are. I’m rather good at running from responsibilities, and have the ostrich-thing down to an art form. Writing about other worlds, I don’t need to focus on my own.

Until I’m balancing medication against drinks for friends, cosmetics, sanitary items, birthday and Christmas presents.
Until I can’t take a train journey to see family in the south.
Until I can’t take a holiday, because it would mean digging into reserves I don’t have.
Until anorexia prickles its cold little fingers into my head – “do you really need to eat that?” – whenever I look at my weekly collection of shopping receipts.
Until I’m starting to consider quitting the gym, which sets that pale thing in my head shrieking all over again.

With downsizing on the flat / selling off unnecessary items, I will hopefully have accumulated enough cash in the next couple of months, to go and see my family and old school friends. I’ve been promising to do so all year. A change of scene wouldn’t hurt. Maybe, in the new year, a walking holiday?

Let’s not get above ourselves.

Still. I’ll find time to get out and see people more, jumble up the habitual life, which – as secure as it feels – tends to act as an incubator for this bloody thing in my head. I might even be able to pull off a job-hop, if necessary. But I’d rather just get a bit of a wage increase, and stay with the people who make me feel like a person – a team player – rather than a shadow. I’d rather give back to them what I can, in tea ‘n coffee runs when the weather is terrible, and extra hours put in to make the poor old place as comfortable and functional as possible. In my own small way, I make a difference. But in the end, it might not even come down to choice.

Whatever happens, I’ll find a way to concentrate again, with financial and emotional reserves. To sleep, and visit art galleries in London, the theatre, attend gigs; wandering around among the things that colour up my mind. I’ll be able to write, and actually have things to say. Maybe even take up studies with the Open University, to challenge this hive-mind with politics and economics, history – even if it’s just for the additional knowledge to put thoughts and current events into context.

Hope this wasn’t too much of a whinge. I know I’m better off than many, and am grateful to still be well enough to work. But every now and then, I need to put things into perspective, and this is the only place I have to do so. It’s difficult to talk about, and I’ve hashed out enough arguments over work with the people who care (and some who don’t, but feel they have the right to an opinion anyway.) This isn’t the issue – I like the balance of fewer take-home responsibilities / time for writing (mostly), and have more than enough reasons to stay at the Nick while still needed.

But ambitions come with increasing awareness of the world, reflective of improved mental health and experience – they form a push-pull scenario in my head, with the last ties of mental illness. I didn’t expect to still be alive 14 years on, let alone in a position to consider actually grasping dreams in my hands.

Maybe I should race the economic recovery.

October

There’s something about the changing light in this month – the pale mornings, the brassy texture of the sun as it eases into age – that fills me with a nostalgia born of melancholy, thoughts on a year’s weariness. All those goodly things thrown into the mix; stirred up in the creaking branches of a storm, the white splinters over a midnight sky; the bone-rattle-hiss of burnt out grass, and the croaking of ravens wheeling over a pastel twilight, wings blotting out the threadbare sun.

We’re not quite at the end, but it already seems this way. My thoughts turn to the new year, and in this case, it really can’t come soon enough. 2013 was difficult on personal terms; 2014 has shown me the multifaceted pain of a world I hadn’t recognized, known about to explore.

I’ll remember it for the words, twisting back on themselves; for the riddlespeak that was mine and not mine (such an early arrogance, to think I alone knew it), pain of the point pushed further and further in, until I wondered if my mind or spirit would break first. The ocean seemed deathless and without end, until I hit the bottom and waited to see what would happen next.

As it is, I found out in a packet of pills. Prescribed, at least.

I’ll remember it for the way I thought I would never let go, until the thorns shredded my skin, my ego, the pages I wrote upon. The voice in my mind found a soul mate.

I’ll remember it for the way a blue petal fell, turning black on its descent, to land at my feet in the toxic rainbow that sifts gently down to the drain.

I’ll remember it for the way I woke one morning without burning eyes. For the way I could breathe again, no knot in the chest at the thought of Alone.

I’ll remember it for the ocean eyes, for the wanting and the need and the knowing that when worlds collide, the fallout is a child’s dream of home.

Most of all, I’ll remember it for the way Responsibility became not only my friend, but my standard, after years of fleeing this mind-numbing foe.

I have been many things – names, people, animals, swear words, poison; I’ve been heartless and so full of Lionheart, I wanted to die rather than acknowledge the fact that what I clung to, would keep me down on my knees (clinging to that standard still), head lowered. Depression is knowing that what you hold dear, will make you come undone; it’s disregarding other’s fears and cares and words, until only your own voice is the piping in a blue wind.

It’s finding the grace to let go, without a name given, without a name taken. I was nameless, and not blameless.
I was myself, until even that wasn’t good enough. Maybe it never was.

You were the King of Swords, upright and inverted both. I was a dreamer – and we know what happens to those.
They see things in the stars.

One year on from a message sent in friendship, sympathy – empathy? – perhaps more; it was a difficult time, and I didn’t know myself. Didn’t really know you, either. That was the point.
Should I have just walked on by?
There’s a question only the October song knows.

And still, one petal blue. Because there are no happy endings, as nothing ever really ends.

Riddle-Speak

“The naming of cats is a difficult matter
It’s isn’t just one of your holiday games…”

So said T.S Eliot, and I’m inclined to agree with him. Three names apiece, one of which “THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess” – I have enough trouble remembering my own, what with all of these trailing diminutives; feathery scraps of childhood.

There are many things to love about the felidae. The light behind their eyes, that tapetum lucidum, so as to to see between worlds. The way they will greet, not with the wet manners of a dog, but with a dry nose and tall tail-tip. There is a certain pleasure to be had in noting the pause, the wavering head, as they watch for your approach with open hands and blue-black tone. Even the most docile feline carries the glint of a smile.

Creatures like the crocodile and the hawk were worked into the pyramid walls of ancient Egypt, were known as gods and goddesses under the papyrus light; surrounded by hieroglyphics simple in their elegance and, at times, complex as data encryption.

sobek horus
http://www.123rf.com

Horus and Sobek and of course, Bastet – the cat goddess, cast in the half-light as both protector and warrior, associated with the sun (as the daughter of Re/Ra) and the moon, via Artemis and the Greeks. Whatever can be taken from this mythology, it’s certainly a truth that cats are crepescular by nature, at their most active in the pale thresholds before conscious thought, when all lines are blurred as a Nocturne.

Firefly Glow
kfrose.blogspot.com

A cat who would speak with you at length, speaks through the riddle-dance that is appealing in its vagueness. Easy to lose yourself between the muted lines, to forget what it was you were meaning to ask. This is a preferable state when running from details, responsibilities, predictabilities, but the adult world is seemingly governed by such tedious moments, when only the finest-nib clarity will do. I’ve caught myself laughing (rueful rub of the cheek) at my own frustration with an Access Denied. Encouragement reaps its own rewards.

Who would go so far as to break his own limbs to walk as a cat, when no cat would wish to walk as a man?

“Whatever the Alchemist had turned itself into wasn’t a cat.
Half clothed in mist, it trudged painfully towards them from some lunar distance, supporting itself on a staff made from the leg of a panther… Lost in a maze of ruptured highways – burning with rage and desire down every wrenched, coppery perspective, tottering through constant darkness towards every gleam of daylight, deluded by mirror-images, led astray by the very mathematics that had allowed it to penetrate the Old Changing Way: deceived, dazed and disorientated – it had begun to disintegrate. Where cat and catskin had once run seamlessly together, all was in rags.” – Gabriel King, “The Wild Road.”

Crippled by his own hand, each limb contorted and tortured into the supple lines of the feral way, the Alchemist is infused with the energy of sacrificial victims. To control the Golden Cat – that symbolic focus of all natural life – he would walk the wild roads, tying them up in agonized knots, to gain power over this world and the next. We know the highways as “leylines”, in folk lore; but King – the pseudonym of writing pair Jane Johnson and M. John Harrison – employs a lexicon and syntax reminiscent of the free will carried in all wild things, taking the audience between transitions of wary poise, spitfire instinct and playfulness. On the ghost-roads, the smallest feline casts a long and sabre-toothed shadow.

It was through The Wild Road that I became aware of “narrative voice” as something distinct from my own, or that of authors I admired. The protagonist, Tag, is a Burmilla kitten whose movements leap out from the page in keeping with his thoughts:

“‘Alone”, thought Tag.
He tested this idea until sudden panic swept through him. He ran round and round the lawn until he was tired again. He licked his fur in the sunshine for ten minutes. He couldn’t think what to do. He jumped up onto a windowsill and rubbed both sides of his face on the window pane. “Breakfast!” he demanded. But clearly it would not be feeding him today…
He had a new idea. He would feed himself.
“Eat a bee,” he thought.
He thought: “Eat more than one.”
And he tore off excitedly across the lawn.’ – pg 20

This staccato style would quickly become tiresome in another context. This is a life lived close to the ground, defined by the smallest details: that which only a cat would notice and remark upon. Dappled with feline lore and mythology, the novel is narrated in the singular (Tag) and the plural – the nine lives of the cat – infused with the innocent-arrogance of the species.

“Those families bade us welcome and we went into their homes of our own free will, and stayed on our own terms. They treated us like deities, each cat a god in its own house – gifts and offerings, and prayers for a share in our fertilitiltiy and health, for they were a sickly and superstitious lot.
Before long, they were raising temples, drawing our image on the walls like their ancestors before them. In the new drawings we were guardians of the doors of night, guardians of the realms of the dead. We sat at the frontiers of the shadow kingdom; we watched over the spirits of the dead, to guard them in their long sleep.
The same old fears, the same old hopes.” – pg 172.

Each twisting strand weaves the historical with the modern, passing from Bubastis through London to Tintagel head, along the ghost-roads where nothing is quite what it seems. It hit me between the eyes. Aged eleven, seeking something more than the well-shaped but quaint books that had papered my childhood thus far. They were too obviously human. When Tag chases bubbles around his home, he is “as leggy and unsteady, as easily surprised, as easy to tease, as full of daft energy as every kitten”, progressing from this haven of soft humans and pale light into the wider world; drawn on his quest by a mischievous magpie with an agenda, and a one-eyed black cat with a life layered by papyrus, frost and fire. As even the Majicou knew, through his collective lives as keeper of the roads, the power to move between the primal state and the domestic one comes with a price:

‘”So”, he said, “what am I to tell you, Tag?
That if, as the pretty myth has it, cats are allotted nine lives, I have lived out eight of mine? It would be true to say that. That I am as old as the highways I care for, and which sustain me in return? That cats once got up on their hind legs at night and held not just a parliament but a just parliament with human beings? Ridiculous. No cat has ever wanted to walk like a man. Yet it’s a pity we can’t talk to them, Tag.”‘ – pgs 135-6.

Such a care, to know what you cannot speak of.

Peter .S. Beagle’s story, The Last Unicorn, is a work of art coloured bittersweet with a love transcending shape and time. The scars on the face of a warrior, the marks on a wizard’s hands, map their own stories. Even as the unicorn leaves an inevitable trail along the roads of mankind, so the world of mortality marks her in turn with the necessary lessons of care and regret; a heavier burden for one who had lived pale and distant as the moon.

“The sky spins and drags everything along with it … but you stand still. You never see anything just once. I wish you could be a princess for a little while, or a flower, or a duck. Something that can’t wait.” – Molly Grue.

When changed into a woman by the well-meaning (somewhat undisciplined) magician Schmendrick, to save her from the Red Bull, the wilderness lives on in her eyes, for a time at least; but the grey world heaps dust on the memories of wild beasts and woodlands, and that aching fear for her people which began the quest, begins to fade:

“Now I am two – myself, and this other that you call ‘my lady’. For she is here as truly as I am now, though once she was only a veil over me. She walks in the castle, she sleeps, she dresses herself, she takes her meals, and she thinks her own thoughts. If she has no power to heal, or to quiet, still she has another magic. Men speak to her, saying ‘Lady Amalthea’, and she answers them, or she does not answer. The king is always watching her out of his pale eyes, wondering what she is, and the king’s son wounds himself with loving her and wonders who she is. And every day she searches the sea and the sky, the castle and the courtyard, the keep and the king’s face, for something she cannot always remember. What is it, what is it that she is seeking in this strange place? She knew a moment ago, but she has forgotten.”

She turned her face to Molly Grue, and her eyes were not the unicorn’s eyes. They were lovely still, but in a way that had a name, as a human woman is beautiful. Their depth could be sounded and learned, and their degree of darkness was quite describable. Molly saw fear and loss and bewilderment when she looked into them, and herself; and nothing more.’ – Ch 10.

Yet it is the cat of King Haggard’s castle who knows her for what she is. Bound by his own language to speak through the twisting riddles, of what is and what might be, his truth is never more than an eye-glow.

“How do you know she is a unicorn?” Molly demanded. “And why were you afraid to let her touch you? I saw you. You were afraid of her.”
“I doubt that I will feel like talking for very long,” the cat replied without rancor. “I would not waste time in foolishness if I were you. As to your first question, no cat out of its first fur can ever be deceived by appearances. Unlike human beings, who enjoy them…. You have very little time. Soon she will no longer remember who she is, or why she came to this place, and the Red Bull will no longer roar in the night for her. It may be that she will marry the good prince, who loves her…”‘

“When the wine drinks itself,” he said, “when the skull speaks, when the clock strikes the right time – only then will you find the tunnel that leads to the Red Bull’s lair.” He tucked his paws under his chest and added, “There’s a trick to it, of course.”

“I’ll bet,” Molly said grimly… “oh, cat, wouldn’t it be simpler just to show me the tunnel? You know where it is, don’t you?”
“Of course I know,” answered the cat, with a glinting, curling yawn. “Of course it would be simpler for me to show you. Save a lot of time and trouble.”

His voice was becoming a sleepy drawl, and Molly realized that, like King Haggard himself, he was losing interest. Quickly she asked him, “Tell me one thing, then. What became of the unicorns? Where are they?”
The cat yawned again. “Near and far, far and near,” he murmured. “They are within sight of your lady’s eyes, but almost out of reach of her memory. They are coming closer, and they are going away.” He closed his eyes.

Molly’s breath came like rope, fretting against her harsh throat. “Damn you, why won’t you help me?” she cried. “Why must you always speak in riddles?”
One eye opened slowly, green and gold as sunlight in the woods. The cat said, “I am what I am. I would tell you what you want to know if I could, for you have been kind to me. But I am a cat, and no cat anywhere ever gave anyone a straight answer.”‘

The cat knows what it knows, and will continue to look on our world with a crooked head and a mutable smile. We’re still new to the game, after all.

Recolouring the mind

This synaesthetic mind is usually sparking over with some colour-pattern or another, some form of mood, passing like the lowering nimbus that follow the spine of the Beacon; or flicker-flaring like shafts of golden light that dance across the wings of white gliders and red kites, angling over the Downs.

When feelings are blunted, through writer’s block, depression or illness, the colours become muted shades. Imagine the negative of a photograph, and you’re close. I’ve yet to put my finger on why or how this happens, but am aware of it as a creeping sensation, as of whitewash bleeding down a wall. Clarity loses its edge; sharp lines are blurred into a “porthole” effect, which in its turn creates a rather narrowed scope of the world. Emotions follow suit (or perhaps it’s the emotional “whiteout” that leads), paling into a blank space that is neither up nor down, high nor low. Just … there.

And not much of a “there”, either.

I prefer to feel, even if it is a black hole of a mood. This nothingness is like burning the tongue, losing all sensation of texture and taste. Music that once lifted the hairs on my arms, now appears as flat colours of the mind, once so vibrant in accompaniment as they danced in silver-fine threads, or strident bars of mahogany, cream and ochre.

(The bowed guitar of Sigur Ros’ “Rafstraumur”, is an excellent example of the latter.)

I have to step away from the world for a time – at least, the sociable one. Cutting off all contact, speaking few words beyond politeness for a day or so, I follow the inevitable trail of childhood back to old influences. The people whose work first coloured my mind, washing it through with a sluice of paint; books and music, art. TV programmes. The sort of things that are best appreciated alone, no matter how much your fingers may itch to exact their details on social media, in imagery or images.

Believe me, I’ve tried. It can never have the same effect. It’s like trying to portray the heartbeat of a Rothko painting in a postcard. Nothing captures that eerie sensation of life within a canvas, until you’ve done it yourself – stood behind the blasted rope that keeps you from touching eternity (maybe a saving grace after all, for such disappointment would live in knowing that it really is only whorls of hard paint), and felt the walls breathe, seen the colours ripple.

The room goes silent and still. Your eyes slide down to the floor, upward and across – unable to look at the damn thing straight on, because it holds a gentle laugh at your own futility, mortality.

I have a quiet grin myself, now, remembering that room. Its light made of living shadows, maroon and purple and black.

The truth, I suppose, is that I need to break out more. To step away from these lines. It’s too easy to become embedded in daily habits, to lose a whole year in work, and weekends, and work again. But it seems that when I stop to look around, to take a breath and feel … something else happens. I know I’m pessimistic in this. I don’t want to become chipped china.

Alice Hoffman. Truman Capote. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jeffrey Eugenides. Peter .S. Beagle. Authors who hold imagery in one hand and narrative threads in the other, and somehow manage to weave the two into a sensation of near-poetic prose. I come away feeling refreshed, more myself. It’s where the disconnect-reconnect occurs. It is finding the world again, through the artistic influences that once led you to believe there was more to life –

Than this solid state.

Metaphors flourish under new light, and I take to spotting things. Clouds that resemble spilled cotton balls, a blue-steel lake; the way a skein of geese resembles a great black arrowhead. How a favourite song fills my mind with the milk-honey sweetness of an early autumn sky.
(Cream and gold; you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.)

And the old childhood favourites, of course – Jenny Nimmo, Brian Jacques, Robin Jarvis, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman. The ones who taught me that nothing is beyond suspension of disbelief, so long as the threads are strong enough. I threw away so many stories, as a kid, full of anger and frustration at my own imagination. Or rather, the lack of force behind it, my own dull willpower. D’you know what is so bloody odd, so iron-tang smile now, watching the actions of Putin and the Kremlin in Russia? I wrote similar things while in my teens – younger – then binned them, because I thought no one would believe me. That such narratives would never make it onto a shelf, because no antagonist could possibly get away with cutting off a town, a country, isolating them in poverty and bleeding out minds with propaganda (though I didn’t know these terms at the time, just the basic concepts.) The authorities of the world – other countries – would surely never allow this sort of power-play to happen; it could only exist in the fantasy novels I was reading at the time.
It’d never catch on. Not in the “real” world.

Of course, what I didn’t know then was that Brian Jacques had drawn upon the Second World War, as an influence for his Redwall saga. And then I took an interest in history myself, and began to read backwards.

Typical, really.
Truth –
Fiction –
Interchangeable.

More to the point – why, even then, did I give so much of a damn about what other people thought of my mind?

Well. That was then, this is now; and the only responsibility I will take from it all, is doing something about this paling mind. We govern our own futures.
Which simply means following myself back home.