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.

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It’s been a while

I saw the ghost of my four years gone, my past in a shadow of white-blonde hair and wide-shy smile. That smile; the dip of the head, slow slump of the shoulders which belonged to a bird, lost in flight. I knew from the moment I saw her – we watched each other with the careful appraising eyes of the remembered, the lost and found, the sufferers and the perennial recovering. Her open words might come across as forthright to some; I heard the dry and tired laugh, saw the premature lines about the beautiful eyes, and knew the world had somehow hurt her, so that frankness can be the only way forward. It had made her bow her fair head and cry until her eyes bled at the corners, until she fell to her knees, but still eventually got back up to walk for hours on end in the rain, because to stay still too long was as sinful as the thought of rest, of care, of nurturing and nutrition.

Fourteen years, and one moment more.

We knew each other, without the word being raised until fifteen minutes or so had passed in conversation. I’ve had this pattern before. First it is “I was ill… I dropped out …” then it becomes “enrolled again” and “boyfriend” and, the faint wet shine of hope in the eyes. The lowering smile, and this time I had to put a hand to my chest because it hurt. Because I remembered how it all felt.
Daring to try again, at being human.

I’ve taken to listening to songs from 2007 again; to a time out of relapse, out of college, post-A Levels and fresh dropout from university. A lost cause, so it felt. I listened to a lot of Snow Patrol then, and Aphex Twin, and – wait for it – the Steve Jablonsky score from Bay’s wonderfully awful Transformers franchise. Don’t get me started on the faults of those films. Suffice to say that the score is an entity all its own – soundscape of ping-heat metal and scything instrumentals, billowing brass and cathedral choral echoes, with the incongruity of pale hovering woodwind to evoke the more peaceable nature of the Autobots (“Optimus” is a beauty.) That being said, “Scorponok” is such a thrill race that it’s almost impossible not to watch the clip from the film, rife with the ugliest plane in existence (to my mind at least) – the dear old Warthog, gunning the living daylights out of the eponymous Decepticon.

I listened to this soundtrack while cleaning my former landlady’s house. She works the sort of hours that require a multifaceted mind, and I relieve her in whatever ways I can by doing what she can’t always find time for. The added bonus is Saturday night’s treat of rum and sushi dinner paid up, cash in hand. I’m not exaggerating when I say the weekend has become my cherished time. With two part-time jobs, spread out over six days, Saturday night and Sunday are all about lying on my back and staring at thoughts swimming past in a medley of colours, listening to this and that, experimenting with new hairstyles and scratching out lines on the pages of a novel which wants to take flight, albeit on weighted wings. It’s coming along. I’ve taken to using Scrivener, as a sort of Pensieve for this fuzzbox mind – it helps me deliver some lines for each session, when I sit and attempt to concentrate for more than fifteen minutes. This is becoming increasingly difficult. Whereas in school and college I’d indulge myself by jamming a book of poetry or manga between the pages of a curriculum text, now I force myself to focus.

She says, while losing the thread of her thoughts. I did laugh at myself, there, and went to pour myself another coffee and a rum. Not together, no. I just like the tingle of hot and cold; the combi of caffeine and alcohol will probably kill me at some point, but let’s not get our hopes up.

So while cleaning the house, this fragment of my past and another future stepped forward, delicate and fine-strong, ancient as seashell, new as a daisy on the lawn. I see it, time and again, and we always acknowledge each other. Those who’ve known cold fingers on the shoulder. We reach out, in a way I can’t seem to (at peace) any more without a passing comment. My driftaway thoughts, this random heart, now stark and angry in its silence, in the absence of a forming picture. I wonder when I’ll see the stars unclouded again. When anything will make sense.

Underneath the stairs
remember all those worlds
we waves the sky to white
as the light rays flickered in
but the time it drained the colour from your skin.

We gave up enough to each other in the space of an hour to fill one of my old pocket journals – laughed over things thrown and said Inside, while shuddering at the memory of violent thoughts and an alien side, the feeling of restriction and prevention and Oh I Can’t! and, When will it End? And grimaced over calorie drinks, the foot in the bathroom door and the prohibition and taking tentative steps forward, in remembering real Hunger, as opposed to Starvation. Or in my case now, Appetite. This is the trickiest part, dear reader. Learning that “normal” does not belong to anyone, and it’s part of us all the same. We make our own lives, because we live them in ways no one else can. My needs and wants are mine alone, and if I want a Doubledecker I’m going to fucking have it, but believe me I won’t go pacing the night away to be rid of the damn thing if I can still hit the gym, and know that dinner will be something Else. The rigidity of meal plans and timed eating is just and right for those still out of tune with their own needs and wants – when the stomach is a numbness and the mind is an echoing tunnel, branching out forever without answers. Except the one Driving Force, which can push you towards the centre or the Exit.

Me, I lay low in those tunnels for years and a day. I am the Procrastination Queen. But the smallest, slowest steps still take us onward, even as others remark upon features and flesh, or make pitiful pleas for the secrets to Losing Weight (she mentioned how her mother longed for the dedication …) And I’ve known it myself with others, dear Reader, enough to know when to cut loose those toxic people, even as we’re bound by blood. Because no one stands in the way of recovery, if they can’t understand and won’t try. No one. I would rather live a lifetime alone, than be held down and back again for another day.

Inside we’re all ugly, one way or another. Beautiful in our minds, and appalling in the discovery of ourselves, in others.

Beckoning me on.
Oneness of blood, four and a year,
On the eve of my eye
And here we go again with this
Pain, and the wings a-wide, and
No one knew what to say.

I think it’s time to sleep. There hasn’t been enough of that recently.

She’ll be fine, I think. My former landlady is the sort of person who will know where lines are marked, won’t cross and won’t smear, but she’ll watch and wait all the same. She treats food not as medicine, nor yet as a comfort blanket, but as nourishment and friend. She cooks and eats for taste and for textures, making each meal an adventure of colour for the kids. I found myself under her roof in late 2013, shivering after the turbulence of losing home and partner in a stone’s throw, clinging to my job with both hands, knowing every shadow from the corner of my eye.
(Didn’t look hard enough)
And became, in my own creep-crawl way, the person you know of today. Full of flaws, as we all are, and a little older, not so much wiser but aware, perhaps of things I have no right to know. But by and by, they might come in handy. If ever I needed a sign of the changing times and the world, it came with the blood of a year.

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.

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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.

Gender Stereotypes: Harming our children

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, recently slammed No Gender December – an awareness campaign backed by Greens senator Larissa Waters, to highlight the consequences of gender-marketing toys to children. The PM insists that he doesn’t support “that kind of political correctness” and asks that we all “let boys be boys and girls be girls.”

Well, fair enough, Mr Abbott. I mean, where’s the harm in promoting stereotypes? Let traditions speak for themselves, right? Quit the meddling?

Well, no. As Senator Waters put it, “This isn’t about some toys being off-limits. It’s about children being free to play with whatever interests them without fear of being judged or bullied.”

There are the key words – “judged” and “bullied.” They come with very real consequences for children, for societies.
As an authority figure, someone people (might) look to as an example, it would’ve been nice if Mr Abbott had taken a more responsible line when broadcasting his views: but then again, these are clearly his beliefs, too. Which is a shame. It’s worth noting that his approval ratings have taken a good kicking from women voters in particular, with only 37% believing him fit to be their chosen leader.

The sad truth is that his views are in no way singular. They’re just another facet of the “outdated stereotypes about boys and girls” that feed into “very serious problems such as domestic violences and the gender pay gap.”
In response to Senator Waters, the Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi was a little more direct:

“Frankly, I think [Waters has] consumed too much Christmas eggnog to come up with an idea like this… To say you’re giving a boy a truck or a hammer is somehow leading to domestic violence and gender pay gaps is simply bizarre.”

Well, all things move towards their end, and one thread ties to another to form a smothering whole. Were I Mr Abbott, I’d be a bit cagey about having my views backed by someone whose idea of equality is suggesting that a man could have put his partner in a headlock to restrain her if she was being aggressive, or that this could be used as a restraining technique by police officers.

But then again, toys are only a few symptoms of a much wider problem involving sociocultural beliefs and attitudes about gender roles. The denial of certain types of behaviour and thinking – basic rights – for both girls and boys, create fissures between the sexes that become filled with beliefs that cause grief and pain, even when we’re not wholly aware of it happening. Doubt and frustration about what it means to be a girl or a boy. Repression of individuality.

Favouring boys and men, whether through the son-preference and gendercide seen in China – where one out of every six girls is eliminated through sex-selective abortion, abandonment, or infanticide – or with the global gender pay gap, feeds into the historical context of male privilege and patriarchal societies. When it comes to girls and women, their bodies and minds, male sexual entitlement plays host to a terrifying range of oppressive measures and actions. The kind we saw in horrifying detail with the Isla Vista murders.

Awareness is about picking apart the knots that help to perpetuate gender stereotypes and segregation, many of which begin at birth.

Take gender colour-coding. Walk into your average nursery and you’ll know from a cursory glance about the room what the baby’s sex is. From the moment we’re born, our identities are pinned to us with the associations “pretty in pink” for a girl, and boisterously blue for a boy. These perceptions have apparently become so ingrained in the public mind, that a backlash occurs when the perfectly rational argument for equality is proposed. As though by offering girls positive alternative role models – “women who do amazing things. Scientists and sportswomen and musicians and businesswomen and activists” – their progression through life is somehow inhibited by “politically correct” meddling.

In email responses to the PinkStinks campaign, set up by twin sisters Abi and Emma Moore, one little girl wrote: “I am nine years old, and I think PinkStinks is my voice. Girls like me shouldn’t be forced to like pink. Can you think of a good name for girls who don’t want to be girly girls but aren’t tomboys?”

And on the flipside, recrimination: “Do you sell campaign T-shirts in pink? And do you have any with ‘I am a leftwing communist loony trying to brainwash girls’?”

Abi called it “a wholesale pinkification of girls” that “sells children a lie – that there’s only one way to be a ‘proper girl’ – and it sets them on a journey, at a very, very early age. It’s a signpost, telling them that beauty is more valued than brains; it limits horizons, and it restricts ambitions.” Emma, referring to the vitriol directed at she and her sister for the campaign, said “We’ve tapped into something that’s clearly very deep and very powerful. Some people plainly feel attacked.”

This colour-coding is far more modern than many would like to believe. In June 1918, the American Ladies’ Home Journal told new mothers that pink was more suitable for a boy, being “a more decided and stronger colour”, while blue was seen to be “delicate and dainty”, and therefore “prettier for the girl.” Same old clichés, different colour-coordination. The switch-around didn’t occur until post-WWII; in 1948, it was noted in the Chicago Reader that “royal watchers” were apparently alerted to the fact Princess Elizabeth “was obviously expecting a boy, because a temporary nursery in Buckingham Palace was gaily decked out with blue satin bows.” Interestingly, it was also common practise until WWI for male babies and small boys to wear dresses until breeching, when they were put into trousers. The average age of this rite of passage was between two and seven. So no, boys haven’t always been prepared for rougher play in their clothing, and were once almost indistinguishable from girls, particularly with the fashions for longer hair. I have photographs of my great-grandfather as a toddler, dressed in a flowing gown and with beautiful curls, standing next to his mother.

But colours and connotations have come to define our perceptions and feelings, our reactions to one another. A study on the psychological effects of pink by Alexander Schauss in the 70’s, showed that “of 153 male prisoners put in cells painted pink, 98.7 per cent were weaker after being in the pink cells for only 15 minutes – presumably because of associations with the colour pink and femininity.” Which sort of flies in the face of the afore-mentioned evidence that, once upon a time, pink was the accepted-conventional colour for boys and men. It’s funny what a cultural placebo effect can do.

More troubling, is the light this shines on yet another facet of that belief that girls and women are vulnerable, the weaker sex; that femininity is something to be ashamed of, especially if you’re male. My landlady recently told me of an acquaintance who refused to let her son wear a “slightly effeminate” shirt in the two-minute drive from her house to his own; he’d got caught in a rain shower. Said acquaintance was convinced that he would contract feminine attributes and/or homosexuality if he wore the borrowed shirt, rather than a cold if he didn’t.

If you believe that kids don’t notice these gender stereotypes, that it’s an issue only adults care about, think again. From as early as five months old, children notice their surroundings in relation to familiarity (that safety-blanket feeling of “Me”) and build upon what they retain, in their preferences:

“Researchers have shown that male and female infants as young as 5 months of age become familiar with vastly different surroundings: while female infants were often dressed in pink, had pink pacifiers, and yellow bedding, boys were more likely to have blue bedding and curtains in their rooms (Pomerleau, Bolduc, Malcuit, & Cossette, 1990). Since parents surround girls with objects that are pink and boys with objects that are blue, infants may develop a preference for these colours based on familiarity. Another possibility is that once children identify with a certain gender, they seek out gender-related information and choose toys and colours that are commonly associated
with that gender
… Kohlberg’s (1966) early work on gender development suggests that children seek out gender-related information and look for ways to conform to these gender norms.” – Pretty in pink: The early development of gender-stereotyped colour preferences

So the next time you choose an item of clothing, or plan out the style of your bedroom, or daydream about the colour of your new car, ask yourself how many of your preferences are born of personal appeal, and how much are based upon the image you feel you “should” present to the world.

Then there are the toys.

“At some point over the last three decades the toy industry decided that parents and children could not be trusted to choose to what to buy without colour coded gender labelling… As every successful marketeer knows, differentiation makes for greater profit margins and segmentation gives you a bigger market overall.

So with three-year-old girls only being able to ‘choose’ pink tricycles then the manufacturer can charge more for that special girlie shade with a premium ‘Princess’ saddle. And of course that trike can’t be handed on to a brother or nephew, ensuring further sales of blue bikes with Action Man handlebars.
But what may be driving profit margins is limiting children’s’ choice – and experiences. And ultimately limiting the UK’s social and economic potential.” – Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central: “Gendered Marketing Perpetuates Stereotypes, Constrains Minds and Limits Our Children’s Potential.”

gender toys
Image: Huffingtonpost.co.uk/Chi Onwurah

The toys marketed to boys today can be taken apart and redesigned, made to race and to fly. They do innovative and exciting things; they go places. Becky Francis, professor of education at Roehampton University, believes that these toys send messages to boys that they should be making things and problem solving, while girls should be caring and nurturing.

“Boys toys tend to contain didactic information, with technical instructions and fitting things together with Lego and Meccano, whereas girls’ toys tend to be around imaginative and creative play, which develop different skills.”

But what if a boy would prefer to play with toys marketed to girls? Thea Hughes, who started the Play Unlimited campaign which has got under Tony Abbott’s skin, found that her son Harper was being subjected to prejudice based on his preferences for pink and wearing dresses.
“I could see him starting to become aware that he’s being judged, and that he’s unable to make the choices he’d like to make, because of the social pressure. At such a young age, it’s just so sad.”

And on the flipside, Tricia Lowther of Durham in the UK, knew of her six-year-old daughter Marianne’s love for the Pixar film Cars. But when buying juice cartons in the supermarket, Lowther found that “it was a choice between cars and princesses, and I got her the Cars ones, sure she’d like them”; Marianne hid the cartons, telling her mother that “it’s boyish” and that she didn’t want anyone to know of her preference for this.

It hasn’t always been like this. I can remember, in the mid-80’s as a child, a limited Tinkerbell range of make-up and accessories; a few Barbie dolls. For the most part, toys on the shelves were gender-neutral, thanks to the second-wave feminists who had focused on driving out the typically accepted gender roles and stereotyping. This included non-sexist parenting, built on the belief that children should be able to choose whatever and whoever they wish to play with. So toys really were just toys – no Boys aisles and Girls aisles.

Lego

Fast forward to today, and feminism has moved more women into professions once held strictly by men, while men themselves have accepted – willingly – a great share of the domestic side of things. But when it comes to the markets aimed at children – toys, clothes, film tie-in merchandise etc – “stereotypes have never been so defined, or rigidly enforced. Pink and blue have triumphed in the toy market, and there are often serious social penalties for children who breach the divide. The rise of highly gendered toys is a result of capitalism, but it also suggests a deep, subconscious unease with the advances of the past few decades.”

In many films, books and video games aimed at both genders, it’s the boy-hero who saves the day, while the helpless princess (or whoever, she generally isn’t given enough characteristics for an audience member to care) waits breathlessly in a castle/haunted mansion/on a rail line, to be rescued.
He is typically portrayed as strong, fearless, unbeatable. Unbreakable. Unable to break down.
Especially if no one is prepared to believe he is actually capable of feeling so wretched, of being unable to express himself or to shoulder the burdens of the world as well as his own.

A boy’s life is geared towards activity, towards being the winner in his own small world, before tackling the bigger one –

– without consideration for the fact that he might just want to curl up with a book, or in front of a computer. He might want to sit alone, quiet and still, to write in the same way as the poets he admires. He might want to vanish into a world of his own making, where he can feel and express emotions without being called a ‘wuss’ or a ‘gayboy.’

If a boy wants to prioritize deep thinking and emotions over actions, to wear the clothes and make-up and hair-styles that he’s seen his female peers wear, he faces bullying and assault, with negative commentary about his sexuality. Anything associated with “feminine” – whether it’s crying in public or dancing ballet, wearing pink or admitting to a shy and reticent nature – equates with “wrong” and “weak”. Boys are taught to stay separate from girls by their toys, their early interactions, and through the reactions of those around them.

“Nine-year-old Grayson Bruce had been told not to bring his My Little Pony bag to school in North Carolina because it was a trigger for the bullying he was experiencing, which has included punching, pushing and name-calling…
11-year-old Michael Morones, also of North Carolina, spoke about his recent suicide attempt, which has left him in a persistent vegetative state. The reasons for self-harm are always complicated, but Morones had experienced problems with bullying. He tried to kill himself the evening he told his mother: “‘I am so tired of people at school calling me gay because I like My Little Pony.'”

For girls who want to become engineers, mathematicians and scientists, the void starts with what is issued to them. Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, believes that by limiting children with gender stereotypes, we’re setting ourselves up for “big economic problems.” At the start of her own engineering degree, 12% of her peers were women – 30 years later, that proportion is down to 8%.
“There are thousands of jobs going unfilled, and in addition a lot of our engineers are in their 50s and retiring in the next five years. At the same time we have the lowest proportion in Europe of women who are professional engineers.”

Play and child development psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer says that when it comes to careers, genuine interaction between the genders, and a wide range of skills-based play available for all, are the crucial elements.
“Nobody plays with Lego and learns how to build houses, but they might learn how to overlap bricks to create a stable structure. It’s more about confidence and familiarity than an actual skill set.”

But what about when our bodies begin to change – when hormones kick in, and it can feel like the world is going to end?
(My personal experience of puberty.)

In July this year, an Always sanitary hygiene advert sought to reclaim the phrase ‘like a girl.” When the women and boys participating were asked by film-maker Lauren Greenfield to run ‘like a girl’, silliness ensued – flailing arms and legs, in a display that reminded me of what we knew in school as ‘running like a Polly Pocket’: that tiny little model of a girl, all stiff hinged joints and awkward movements, used as an example of feminine aptitude for sports. It’s funny what comes back when faced with your own past, and someone else’s future.

The same question put to prepubescent girls showed the reality of their strength and determination.. They gave it everything they had. It’s a powerful and disturbing message. I had to watch it several times for the truth to sink in: that somewhere in adolescence, girls becoming women form perceptions about their bodies that are wholly negative, and based upon what society tells them is meant by ‘feminine’.

As the ever-quotable Tony Porter said – “If it would destroy [a 12-year-old boy] to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?”

And what happens to the girl-princess who remains tied up and tied down by a sense of her own vulnerability, waiting for someone to come to her rescue?

“Internalized sexism is defined as the involuntary belief by girls and women that the lies, stereotypes and myths about girls and women that are delivered to everyone in a sexist society ARE TRUE. Girls and women, boys and men hear the sexist messages (lies and stereotypes) about women over their entire lifetimes. They hear that women are stupid, weak, passive, manipulative, with no capacity for intellectual pursuits or leadership.

There are two logical, predictable consequences of a lifetime of such messages. First, boys / men will grow to believe many of the messages, and treat women accordingly. They will be thoroughly indoctrinated into their role in sexism, protecting their male privilege by colluding with the perpetuation of sexism.

But there is a second logical consequence – the same messages also stick to girls and women, resulting in internalized sexism / internalized misogyny. Women and girls are taught to act out the lies and stereotypes, doubting themselves and other females (sometimes called “horizontal hostility.”) This is the way women collude with the perpetuation of sexism.

For the sexist system to be maintained and passed on to the next generation, we all must believe the messages (lies and stereotypes) to some degree, and collude with sexism by performing our assigned roles.” – Cultural Bridges to Justice, “Internalized Sexism / Internalized Misogyny.

Campaigns like #YesAllWomen focus on giving girls and women across the world a voice. In the aftermath of the Isla Vista murders, this tapped a narrative both complex and wholly depressing.

“The reason women mobilized so quickly after the shooting is because we recognized immediately the language and ideaology in Rodger’s videos and manifesto; the over-the-top sexual entitlement; the rage against women who ‘dared’ to reject him; the antiquated, but nonetheless terrifying, belief that women should not be in control of their own sexual choices.”

Inequality of pay, gender-discrimination in the workplace and the legal systems, inappropriate touching, abusive relatives, manipulative and domineering partners coercing victims into signing over bank details, gaslighting (where an abusive partner breaks down the victim’s emotional and mental reserves so they’re unable to trust their own perceptions and are thus more likely to stay in the relationship.) Rape culture and sexual entitlement – yes, even in the “nice guys”, the ones who “aren’t like the others”, and so feel that if they offer support to a girl, their natural payback is the right to Get Some.

“We live in an entitlement culture where guys think they need to be having sex with girls in order to be happy and fulfilled. That in a culture that constantly celebrates the narrative of guys trying hard, overcoming challenges, concocting clever ruses and automatically getting a woman thrown at them as a prize as a result, there will always be some guy who crosses the line into committing a violent crime to get what he “deserves,” or get vengeance for being denied it…

We are not the lovable nerdy protagonist who’s lovable because he’s the protagonist. We’re not guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick of our dreams as long as we work hard enough at it. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by “getting the girl” in the end. And when our clever ruses and schemes to “get girls” fail, it’s not because the girls are too stupid or too bitchy or too shallow to play by those unwritten rules we’ve absorbed.

It’s because other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.

We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species is ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers. And it means that the rest of us will always, on some fundamental level, be stupid and wrong when it comes to trying to understand the women we claim to love.” – Arthur Chu, “Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds.

So yes, Mr Abbott – people who believe in “politically correct” gender equality, will continue to push for this in as many ways as possible. Those innocuous little threads can become big knots. From economics to mental health, the risks are there for future generations – we have to supply children with the skills and free will to achieve whatever they can, and the emotional support to think and feel whatever comes to them, without fear of peer pressure or recriminations.
Above all, we need to teach girls and boys to look out for each other.

If you’ve made it this far down – kudos.
For further reading:
Ten Practical Tips for raising an emotionally healthy boy
That’s for girls and that’s for boys
Negative stereotypes about boys hinder their academic achievement
How male sexual entitlement hurts everyone

Learning to be a woman

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of my own gender. Of what society believes is associated with it. Of the body I was born into. Not because I feel as though it was the wrong one, but because it represents how others see and treat me. Looking in a mirror, I don’t see a personality. I see tags, hooked on through personal experiences and continuous bombardment from (often conflicting) socio-cultural messages about what it means to be either gender. Laurie Penny puts it far better than I can:

“For forty thousand years of human history, biology divided men and women into different sex classes and rigid gender roles. Then, two or three generations ago – an eyeblink in the long dream of human history – technology moved forwards and allowed women to escape the constraints of reproductive biology just after movements across the world had succeeded in gaining them the right to be considered full citizens in law. That sexual revolution became a social revolution, and the shape of human relations was changed for ever…Women. Men. Boys and girls. The words don’t change but the resonance does, and what it means to call yourself one of those things in the twenty-first century is something very different from what it meant in the last century and what it will mean in the next. Being a woman, or being a man, requires effort, attention, the suppression of some parts of your personality and the exaggeration of others. When Simone de Beauvoir said that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ she was bang on, but I prefer Bette Davis in the film All About Eve, reminding us that ‘That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not – being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted.’” – Excerpted from “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution” by Laurie Penny.

I’d got used to telling myself that “women’s issues” didn’t concern me (bear with me on this one). The ongoing debates seemed way over my head, with women far more intelligent and informed writing thought-provoking blogs and articles and tweets. How could I possibly fit in? I’ll admit now, I’d also bought into the man-hating side of things, the strange self-love/loathing that seems to permeate certain discussions about women’s rights. Which is it – do you want to be men, against them, for them? In the end, I’d shut my ears to the noise.

Until this year, and then mostly through reading my Twitter feed. I’d had no idea, for example, that such terms as “male sexual entitlement” and “male privilege” existed (much less how these could be made relevant to my own life.) That’s the beauty of social networking. Information has a way of filtering down, through blog entries and articles friends’ personal accounts, hashtag memes like #YesAllWomen, until it’s not just describing someone else’s life –
It’s describing your own.

Turns out I hadn’t been so much disinterested in feminism, as afraid to confront the truth about my inbuilt beliefs, my place in the world, and relationships with people of both genders. There are days when I’ll wake up afraid, presenting a prickly spine and bad language to anyone of the opposite sex who so much as dares to glance my way. This sort of mentality helps no one, since it means I’m tarring male friends and strangers with the same loaded brush, giving no one a chance to prove themselves capable of treating me like an individual. What happened before shouldn’t define me today, but it’s easier said than done. When it happens over and again, with a different perpetrator each time, you start to wonder if things will ever change – or if indeed, it’s something inherently wrong with your own character and/or appearance.

Veronica Roth said in her book Divergent, that “becoming fearless isn’t the point. That’s impossible. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it.”

Well, here’s my fear. I look like a woman again. And I hate it; I hate being afraid.

I see a body that’s almost recovered from anorexia nervosa, with a healthy/sustainable weight for my age and height. It’s taken a long time to get here, and even longer to knuckle down and recognize what lies beyond the restriction/compulsive exercise symptoms, which took up much of my thinking. A lot of the reasons behind the illness can be traced to a need for routine in a rapidly-changing world; everything went to hell in 2001. But I’ve had to confront something else, not easily discussed even with close friends. I’m afraid of upsetting people, of saying something wrong, but the fact is, I can’t deny what’s been going on in my head for over a decade.

I feel vulnerable and soft as a woman, as I did post-hospital, when I’d been built back up from starvation levels. I went to the gym on the doctor’s recommendations, though it should have been more to do with rebuilding crucial bone structure than toughening up. I’ve used exercise to whittle myself into something androgynous; the message being ‘untouchable’, in the able-to-defend-myself sense. It was as much to do with self-denial and control over pain – feeling nothing – as reducing bodyweight. I thought it would make me safer, to appear and act less feminine.
Which just goes to show how long I’ve subconsciously bought into the idea that my gender is ‘vulnerable’ – and then, based mainly on experience.

When men in the gym stop what they’re doing to watch me exercise, I want to run away and hide. I can’t figure out if it’s to with my wearing shorts and a strappy top (because I get hot) or because – shock horror – a woman is lifting weights. I’m not putting on a display for anyone’s benefit. I’m trying to lay down crucial new bone minerals to ward off osteoporosis; I’m enjoying the rhythm of sets, and running because I love the feeling of freedom.

I’ve been the trophy girlfriend. The fuck-buddy. The little girl, the waif. Now I’m trying to find myself as a woman, while struggling to control a horrible rage that would burn each and every relationship I have to the ground, if I let it happen. It’d be too easy to isolate myself because of comments about my face and figure, as though these were commodities I happened to put on display.

My gender is reflected in the eyes of the men who at various points in my life, have felt it their right to use me for their own gains; to control my body and voice. To make me ashamed of my appearance and my mind, as though whatever I have grown into is an accessible right of others, and if I dare to refuse to play along then I’m causing trouble. Being naughty. An obnoxious cow. Huffy. Stuck up.
Those are just the words I can remember.

But you know what? I’m getting well anyway. I’m starting to eat according to what I want, not what calorific contents tell me will happen to my body. I’m trying to do things that I once shunned for being “girly”, in case they tore up my “don’t you touch me” image. I have to face up to my own beliefs, unknot them, and let them go; otherwise, I’m just part of the problem. With this new-found health, I’m able to think more clearly about all sorts of topics and issues. I can form opinions and move from one point to another, in a way that was denied to me before when it the rat-tunnels of an eating disorder. These advantages keep me going, when it seems that the sudden arrival of long-buried memories and emotions will eat me alive.

As Jarune Uwujaren puts it, “No one is ever owed sex – not when they’re nice, not when they’re domineering, not when they’re manipulative, not when they’re attractive, and definitely not just because they’re a man.” When men – some of whom I count as friends – have made me squirm with repeated comments about my physicality, it’s not just out of embarrassment, or the fear that they’ll do something about it – their words are leeching me of all hope that my intellectual abilities will ever be recognized and appreciated. I want to be remembered for my writing, for my opinions and ways of expressing myself; for my taste in music, or interest in graveyards and old musty books and geology. For any number of things that don’t include how my hair looks, or what film star I resemble, or what I’d be like in bed.

I want to look in the mirror and see a personality, not a body held together by perceptions of it. I know damn fine what will happen if I give in to that fear, and try to starve all the flesh off again, to feel “safe” and untouchable. Recovery from this eating disorder has been balanced between fear of what will happen to me if I don’t gain weight, and what might happen to me if I do. Which is just buying into the same bullshit that a female form = vulnerability. Availability.

So, why should my health be at risk because I’m terrified of looking like – no, being – a woman?
In the end, it’s only me losing out.

I know I don’t live in an adult body that’s grown and changed in its own right. I live in a diminished form of myself (slowly rebuilding), because I changed its course of growth, and subsequently, my future, based on fear of being myself, in as many ways as possible. I sent out a lot of mixed messages, and denied myself experiences. Whether it’s in a professional capacity or sexual advancement – just plain old fantasizing – I’ve felt myself to be “wrong”; that my wants and needs didn’t add up to what was expected of me as a girl/woman.

But if I want to be alone – to recharge my batteries, to read and write, to get on with things – I’m going to do it. Even if that makes me seem cold or aloof. I’m not about to play up to the ‘nice girl’ image, and no, I can’t be there for everyone. No woman should feel she must do all the running-around after people, and likewise, no man should feel he has to bear all of his problems alone, deny himself vulnerability. He should be just as capable of turning to male friends for support and comfort in difficult times, as female. But that’s a story for another blog.

Awareness is just part of recovery, of growing and learning how to be Yourself, without guilt. Without adherence to social/cultural/religious expectations, if these are going to cut off the light shining on as many facets of your personality as possible.

So I’ll post a couple more entries later, about challenging gender stereotypes/gaining equality, because it turns out I had more to say than I’d realised, and this was turning into a mammoth essay.

Cheers for reading.

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.

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