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.

Blue Light Home

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken light

I’m watching the play of sunlight on the carpet, slatted to narrow fingers from the blind at my window. This bedroom is a jumbled mass of storage, half-sprawl and half-ensemble of life as it stands. I dare not unpack any more for the time being.

Arriving at my new workplace this morning, I wandered about the vast estate trying to find someone to let me in. It was cold, a rather blue morning, with the odd cast of rain under the lamplight that is like so many little claws. When I finally found someone to open a door, she looked me up and down with the wariness I’ve seen before – we’re all after the same hours, see, and no one knows where they will be going to next. Turns out that this first impression was terribly accurate, because she was agency staff and had come to do my job.

I learned this from the supervisor, who took one look at me and exclaimed – in quite a different tone to the accommodating one of two weeks ago, at the interview – “What are you doing here?”

I told her I’d come to start my new job. She shook her head. “No, I was told you didn’t want it. That you’d gone back to work at the police station.”
I felt every feature of my body run down to the carpet. I turned to ice water, right there in the foyer.
“No, I never said anything such thing.”

She pulled out her phone, dialled up the woman who deals with company contracts, and told her I was here – with the agency girl.
“She says that you didn’t get in contact, she’d been ringing you repeatedly and got no response… then a text from someone, saying that they had decided to stick with the four hours, part-time. She said that was you.”

I stared at her. The supervisor put me on the phone, and I had to listen to the simper of this woman – who had called my number personally as I walked off-site two weeks ago after the interview, to tell me I had got the job and would be starting on the 16th March – about there being a mix-up. That she had a list of numbers, no names, all cleaners … that I should have got in contact with her in the interim. That I had texted to tell her I was staying at the police station after all.

Now, there are two levels of bullshit going on here, and at some point they converge to make one big steaming pile. A) That I had cut off all contact, when in fact I had been told I’d got the job and assumed that was the end of it, to bring passport and birth certificate to be signed onto the system, as per usual requirements. B) That I *had* got in contact, through a number she has apparently dialled for the past two weeks and received no response from, to turn down the job and stick with part-time.
I had specifically told them I was leaving the police station to find full-time work, and would be relocating if I landed this job. I don’t drive, so it’d cut the commute to my pedestrian level.

“Oh, I’m really sorry, it’s all a bit of a mess.”

Let me define “mess”, here. I have moved house, left my friends, cancelled a gym membership and set up a new one, all on the back of supposedly secure employment. Perhaps I was naive. Or perhaps I was just swept to one side in the usual manner of cleaning companies with their treatment of staff.

For the two or so hours I was on that site, I had to listen to the supervisor and the contractor talk about me and the agency girl as though we were mismatched ornaments cluttering up a mantelpiece. To say this was humiliating is to understate what it means for the mind and ego. I’ve been here before. I’ve seen it happen enough times to other cleaners, to know the score.

When the company’s head office called back to say that I couldn’t take the job, I went very quiet inside. Pinprick black in white. A short flurry of tears, before facing the contractor to tell her exactly what people like her do to cleaners trying to find (and hold onto) work. That we base our lives around uneasy contracts, ready to be dropped at a moment’s notice if it’s zero hours (and sometimes even when it’s not), scrabbling for what money we can get, often without hope of a pay rise. In my last job at the Nick, my wage was frozen for four years. It was subsidized by a very generous senior officer who had a habit of buying me bottles of rum and book tokens, as random “thank you” notes.

She hedged and muttered and whined, didn’t look me in the eye.
I’d heard enough anyway, and left.

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of cleaning job descriptions are a bit sparse on details. You’ll find the word “general” crops up a lot, which can mean anything from raking your hands under a sofa to fish out dropped food, to scrubbing bleach along the walls to remove damp mould. One of my favourite misspellings is “hovering”, which I’ll leave you to work out. On the whole, cleaners do conduct a service that’s largely ignored or unseen, let alone appreciated, so the image of fairies flitting about the worlds’ offices, warehouses, hotels, gymnasiums, health spas etc, is more pleasant than the often grim reality.

Chronically low wages. Little chance of promotion to a supervisory role unless you hold a driving license. Uniforms that seem to have been carved out of trees. Sticking your hands (and head) in places most sensible folk would avoid. Visiting an osteopath now and then (if you can afford it) to have your back and shoulders cracked.
These are the more obvious aspects of the job. What is often overlooked – and I’ll admit, I’ve only become aware of it after ten years in this gig – are the mental and emotional affects this line of work can have.

Lack of communication is probably the worst part. Assuming you’re daft, management will rarely filter down information unless it suits them to. The simplest things – trying to book a holiday or file for a tax rebate when someone in HR has fucked up and put you on an emergency code – become akin to slogging through thick grease. When you are spoken to, it’s often as an easily-discarded object. One unpleasant experience that sticks in my mind was the sight of a man brought to tears because he had turned up to work in the wrong shoes – and if you think that’s pathetic, you should have heard the language and tone used on him by our supervisor. He might as well have been a small boy. The fact he had only recently arrived in the country, and was busy improving on his fledgling grasp of English (sitting with a book in his lap at every spare moment, tea and lunch breaks) was exploited in such a way that I felt burning shame. Sadly, no book could have taught him how to cope with supercilious wankers.

When I took my first cleaning job (early evenings in a warehouse) I was doing it to prop up my mother’s wage, to keep us both afloat. I was a few months out of hospital, having spent 7.5 months on an inpatient ward learning how to eat again. My body was a set of lines, not much between. The only previous work experience I had was as a shop assistant in Superdrug, shortly after leaving school – heaving cartons and boxes up and down the stairs while trying to burn off everything I ate, and avoid being stuck behind the till because it would require me to stand still. I wanted a job that was physically demanding, and in cleaning, I got it. Left to my own devices, I could plug in music from my little mp3 player and blitz an entire building in a matter of hours. I was rarely called by my name. So it has been in almost every establishment I’ve worked, from BAE offices to a small industrial site. I’m usually “the cleaner”. A shadow on the wall.

Such is the nature of the job, and it has its pros and cons. The isolation that often accompanies cleaning suits my nature. It took working at the Nick for me to see things differently – the social aspects of work life. Being accepted into a wider group, where a teabag left on a newly-wiped surface or mud tracked over the floor, was at least reported with an apology. Where I was called by name, included in whip-arounds and card signings, all the black humour that broke like waves around an office. It’s the little things that make a difference between *just another job* and a second home.

OK, these things don’t always make up for rotten wages and piss-poor management. I’m still slogging through a tax underpayment from two employers ago. But acknowledgement that you do exist, and are helping to keep things running, can make a person feel less like a nobody. Especially when they’re doing a job that few people seem to want.

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s important to me. Because as someone who’s been a cleaner for a decade, while slowly regrouping thoughts and progressing in recovery from an eating disorder, I’ve found a pattern in people’s reactions when I tell them what I do for a living.
“Aren’t you a bit overskilled for that?”
“Why would you want to do it?”
“Isn’t that really boring?”
“Haven’t you got anything better to do?”
“At least it keeps you fit.”

Yes, it does. And believe it or not, there are quite a few fitness perks to get out of cleaning – not to mention the flexibility of hours if you have children, or are studying, as I was. When I left college and attempted university, I fell on my arse back into a relapse. Coming home was one of the most humiliating (and expensive) times of my life, and it certainly didn’t help to improve relations with my family, who had hoped I’d be able to progress beyond anorexia. I’d taken a creative writing course in line with English Literature and Language, with no clear idea what I wanted to do with them or what I hoped to achieve. I still lived one day to the next, with little forward-planning. But as a writer, the degree seemed a good thing to have under my belt. When it all went tits-up, I fell into the first job I could find – as the assistant of a private-hire cleaner, who taught me all she knew and trained me up as her apprentice.

Since then, I’ve dotted from one place to the next, rarely settling for long, and this mainly due to hours being cut or wages reduced. There’s nothing you can do about it, or so it seems. As a cleaner, you’re the afterthought. At least it’s forced me to be more flexible, to roll with unforeseen circumstances.

I don’t know whether it’s the same for other people across other sectors. I don’t know if they are treated as human detritus too. But “hygiene operatives” are still getting the thin end of the wedge, with the rise of zero-hour contracts and pay that rarely goes beyond the national minimum wage. For all the alleged increases in full-time work, post-recession, I’m still hard-pressed to find anything remotely close to 40 hours a week in cleaning, on the UK’s numerous job sites. I can count on two fingers the jobs I’ve had where a pay rise was given as part of the contract, let alone as a sign of goodwill or acknowledgement of long-term employment.

If by this point you’re thinking “well, you get what you give – go and find something better”, then you have a narrow and privileged outlook on life. Sometimes, there is no “better”. And if every cleaner decided to try something else, there would be no one left to clear up the world’s mess. Why should our lives be made difficult when we’re just trying to get on with a legitimate job?

With the reassurance of a regular income, I can spend evenings writing things I’d like to one day have published. A few hours of activity allows me to unwind and chill out later. Some people are like this. My Nanna has recently turned 70 and still does all her own housework and gardening, while helping Granddad with the cattery and kennels business they’ve kept for over 30 years. In the evenings, she prefers to relax – but she’ll rarely settle during the day. There’s the satisfaction aspect, too, which she shares – difficult to describe, if you hate cleaning (or are just disinclined to be move about much.) But I’m quite happy being left to my own devices, beating the hell out of a filthy warehouse floor while ticking over ideas for writing later.

At the moment, I’m at a crossroads of what has come before and what will come next. The eating disorder has less of a hold, I’ve got to the point where I don’t suffer panic attacks for the simple fact of staying still. Missing a gym session isn’t a crisis, I can always go in another day. I used to think my preferences were symptomatic of the illness, and while they have at times exacerbated the exercise addiction, I work to my own terms now. When you begin to control what has controlled you, the world opens up a bit more. I’ve decreased activity levels over the years, to the point where it has less of an impact on my health and social life, writing and relationships. This was the deal I set after hospital. Get well, or die, or end up back inside, because no bugger else should have the job of caring for me if I’m able to do it myself. And yes, it has taken a while. Yes, I’ve procrastinated. Being thrown out of my comfort zone is often a blessing in disguise – though at the moment, I’m struggling to find the positives.

Then there’s the lack of experience in anything else. Sticking with one line of work for a decade is great if that’s all you want to do, but it does make your CV look static. While it’s nice to think this wouldn’t affect my chances, it has had an impact on initial contact, even before the chance of interviews – the email response (if it comes) usually runs to “have you done anything else…?” Which is understandable, given that they likely want someone with an inkling of what to do. Except, no, I haven’t, and probably don’t. I wouldn’t blame anyone for being reluctant to take a punt.

Not everyone gets into this gig because they have nothing better to do. Some people enjoy it, some make a profession out of it by building up their own company. It’s a job that, like anything else, needs to be done, and relies on self-motivation – the will to go that step further, whether it’s acknowledged or not. I like to work hard because it feels right to do so. You can do yourself proud in any role and find a few little personal wins along the way. Mine, for the last four and a half years, was the ability to stave off wearing a company uniform while blitzing the Nick; strangers who came on site often mistook me for a civvie, until I showed my card. Listening to a supposedly-illicit iPod every hour of my shift, I was able to blot out anything I didn’t want to hear (which given the environment, is priceless.) Independence is a double-edged blade. Working on contract through a hopelessly inept company, I rarely took holidays because the palaver that ensued wasn’t worth the effort (nor was the mess I’d come back to) and often ran short of stock when a delivery went AWOL or no one bothered to answer texts. But the guys I worked alongside everyday, more than made up for these setbacks.

I had a name. A presence, as part of a team where the work was appreciated, and we pulled together to keep a battered old building alive. And if I can wangle it, I’m going to try and get that back, because sitting here in a darkening room, with the sun having gone in and rain approaching, I feel like I’ve missed a step on the stairs. If nothing else, I’ve two weeks of paid rent to sort myself out, to find something else – anything, which will mean I can provide for myself again.

I gave up everything to come here. To start again, on better pay, in a quieter house. For the “mess” that’s occurred as a result of my decisions, I can only hope that this a temporary blip and not a one-way track to the dole. And if I’m to be shaken out of my comfort zone, I’m taking others with me.

A Room with a View

I’m trying to get used to this stillness. If I stand in the middle of my new bedroom, lowering my breath to shallow stirring, the only sounds come from outside, and then with the slow murmur of passing rain. Not a ping or a shriek or a rattle of plastic. When I do move, the echoes roll off the bare blank walls. Every nerve is on edge, waiting for the next –
But it doesn’t come.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore those kids. My now-former landlady too, and the dog. But as a writer, and one desperate to find what pockets of silence she can, Home is only a reality where there is a chance to think. With young twins in the house, accumulating (as kids do) the noisiest objects known to mankind, Silence is a commodity. A treasured part of the day or night. The reason my back is still ridged and my ears are pricked, is because I’ve become overly sensitive to disturbance. This doesn’t bode well for my threadbare writing career, which in the past year or so has nosedived, and I’m strung out on insomnia anyway so am more likely to hit the roof if a mouse farts.

All this moody-writer-bollocks is my own undoing, really. I used to scribble quite keenly between train journeys, stuck at some station or another with the widening bars of evening light spreading out over the platform, blue shadows forming beneath seats and the sweep-click of heels or a broom, the rattle-roll of wheeled luggage, the reassuring huff-breaths of staff scanning about with narrowed eyes that never linger too long on any one face. Then – as with anywhere else – it was necessary to just get my head down and spread my fingers out silently through my mind, touching on objects and lives and places. To hell with what was going on around me. That being said, as though dreaming, the outside world tended to seep through into scenes until the tap of bored fingernails on a bike became the last spatters of rain in a halo of dusk. You know the kind, where the ground simmers with summer heat and petrichor, light reflecting off the clouds until the world turns pink and gold.

Somehow, over time, this ability to zone out got lost in the fracturing nerves and listening-too-hard, sometimes for nonexistent sounds but all too often for the dreaded Bathtime. I own boxes of earplugs I no longer need. Music became my failsafe, an escape route, but whacked up too loud the rivers ran down my ears… and you know how much that can hurt.

I feel bad for saying all of this, but it was necessary to get it off my chest – to let this go, and maybe pin down what has prevented me from getting more than 500 words down of a night, if I’m lucky. We can throw into the mix:
Exhaustion, from an intense job and the lingering presence of an exercise disorder
Lack of enthusiasm for any of my opinions
Fidgety fingers going back towards one social networking site after another, to trawl for something other than the little voice in the back of my head reminding me of what I once was. What I had achieved. A novel (on its fifth draft, waiting patiently for me to remember my love of the extended narrative and interweave of lines.) An anthology of short stories (waiting less patiently for me to wrap a ribbon around their stems to pull the bouquet together) A couple of blog entries that are bones and skin, without flesh.
It’s not that I lose patience or interest, but conviction; my voice means nothing to a world that’s heard it all before.

Here’s a little snippet for context, for perspective – it did make me laugh, and then go quiet inside.
My paternal grandfather was a travelling man in his youth, and I mean that in the informal sense that he’d happily take his pushbike and pedal off across the countryside – Newcastle to York and back, often further – for days and weeks at a time, with a kiss for my grandmother and the kids, and a pillow of straw or raw feathers when farmers permitted him to stop over the night in their respective barns. Things were different then, of course – across a quieter landscape, with cars a rarity and fewer boundaries, Granddad wove along routes older than the towns and villages he would pass through, using drovers’ ways and nail-straight Roman roads edged with those ubiquitous stone walls that always seem ready to tumble down at the whim of the wind. He was known for his independence (and his boxing skills, in the local district – Nanna told me, as a child, that she refused to let him be called “Danny Black” in her presence.) He could take care of himself. He has a memory like a deck of cards, and you never know what he’ll casually pull out next. Suffice to say, I don’t think I’ve heard even half of his stories, the things he got up to and the places he saw, the people he met, while wandering over the North fixing watches and clocks (as was his trade then – his workshop is still a haven of sepia shadows, time counted down in dust.)

Over a decade ago, I went to stay with Nanna and Granddad after dropping out of college, to be monitored 24/7 to make sure I ate and got into bed to sleep. Anorexia was set on killing me, then. I was 17 and scrawny, with crossed wires and hot eyes. My grandparents were soothing, a familiar presence – and a relief for my poor Ma, who’d given up much of her own freedom to become my fulltime carer (again.) Sitting in the conservatory, I’d bask in the white and gold light, feeling heat on a body that could never be warmed from within (such is the cold fire of anorexia, it burns you with ice until your fingers and lips turn blue.) The words of my books swam before my eyes, but I’d try to read anyway, and complete crosswords in the newspapers that made even less sense. Obsessive compulsive disorder manifested itself in rigorous cleaning rituals – raw skin on my hands, from frequent washing – but also in the need for repetitive skimming of paragraphs. If I missed even a single word, I had to start again. The same thing happened while trying to get into bed; one missed step from the prescribed route of pacing and it was back to the door to start all over again. But when I did manage to sit, it was to be nestled among those cream pillows on a wicker chair, in a greenhouse-heat that I couldn’t possibly stand roiling off my skin now.

Granddad would swing past en route to water the flowers in the garden, or to feed the dogs down in the lower kennels, and would tell me stories of his youth. He has a voice like velvet, with a rumble of laughter that makes his eyes crinkle up into little fans. I could listen and forget, for a while, who I was… and think of where I had come from, a world through other eyes. After dinner, he’d sit with his laptop and painstakingly mark out those long-ago routes from memory, to an autobiography that I still have hopes of getting my hands on. When I asked him about it on his last birthday, he gave a self-effacing laugh and told me that he’d all but stopped writing it. Who would be interested in his thoughts, in his stories of a once-was time?

Well, me for one. Members of our family. Perhaps a good few others of a generation that once knew the freedom of a wandering life. And those who have never known it, have only ever found themselves caught between the diamond teeth and the sky. The world doesn’t know his stories because they don’t the inside of his head, what he saw and experienced, how he perceived it through a personal lens. The lives and names, which he’s somehow retained all these years.

I told him this. Asked him to finish the autobiography, if only for his own peace of mind because the regret was already casting a shadow under his words. He said “maybe”, but also “true”, when I ventured that no one has anything to gain from letting their life go by unmarked, especially one as colourful as his with its twisting bramble hedges and sudden rainfalls, empty open roads and bustling towns where local produce spanned the markets. Shipyards to gravestones. No one else can tell it all as he can (and in ways that crease me up, especially when Nanna’s out of earshot.) I didn’t say it in so many words, of course, but you know my blogging is only ever the Mariah Carey *Why use one note when you can use seven?* style. I don’t say much, aloud.

When the call ended, I thought back over my own fears and laughed at myself.

*

I’d forgotten how this town is full of gold light. Flatlands and grasslands and an open sky, minus the jagged lines of a city steeped in shadows and glittering windows, ancient walls, mirror-more lake with a stirring silt heart. I’ll miss that smell, deep and dark as plums, slick with its oily sheen of rainbows and bird shit. Fewer large birds here, only a solitary kite to angle and weave its roguish way about a raven, which banked sharply and went off on the skirling winds of the common. I like how breathless the high places are, when it seems your life will be snatched away in a moment. Gold light flickered between the bushes, and for all that I am far from that child –

I knew myself home, in the way of familiarity. This place is so much like the other, where I grew up, down to the snaking rail line with its thundering-pass and chiselled sound of sparks… and the way the light goes from brass to brushed gold, in the open bowl of sky. The independents on the high street, the soft lines of buildings turned to comfortable cakes with age.

I think I’ll be OK here. My new flatmate is as different from me in preference and taste as blue is to red, but our temperaments mesh in the need for solitude, for peace at the end of a long day. Sitting with a friend is a welcome thought for summer, out in the garden with its moths and twining ivy and roses, where the light hangs high in the trees. Fields to the back, with the sky a liquid blue.
And silence.

Home? Here’s hoping.

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.

Fluidity of Lines

You know how something comes along to take your mind out of its grey haze into a place of stillness – where the next breath is your life, recharged? No, I’m not talking about A&E, but those sharp moments of clarity when the kaleidoscope twists, and your sense of Self makes sense again.

Walking in the door tonight, I found my landlady sorting out her kids’ books. She was weary and apologetic, having a need for the whisky I keep to offset the blue edge of a mood. We borrow from one another all the time, it’s an interchangeable relationship not unlike mother and daughter, sometimes friend to friend, sometimes boss to employee. A slow surge of emotions (from various pressure points) had left her reeling; her losses have created a diamond, but still, the diamond is multifaceted and stands alone. I do what I can, and it’s never enough, but she is one of the few women in my life that I understand.

We share an enthusiasm for nurturing the physical form. As an osteopath, it comes with the territory, but I get the sense that her upbringing and shadow-rimmed life experiences, have had a profound effect upon her appreciation of what true health means, inside and out. She cooks for her children in the way a painter adds texture and layers to a canvas; their activities take them beyond screen-absorption (TV and computer use are carefully monitored) and their bedroom carpet resembles that of my childhood home, in a jungle of animal toys and books. The little lad is defining himself with a wick-slip humour, and has already mastered the art of getting under his sister’s skin; she in her turn, knows how to draw him out from the dark little place he sometimes goes to, curling inward like a leaf in frost.
Night and Day.

Not so long ago, she introduced them to dance – specifically, ballet. Gender stereotypes have little place in this household, and the boy is as entranced as the girl (though he’s more prone to break-dancing on the lounge floor than attempting to heft up on tippy-toes.) Watching their faces shine in the light of the screen, I was taken back to the first time I saw Swan Lake, at Christmas in 1993. A slight snobbishness has prevailed since; no amount of patriotism can bring me back around from regarding the Royal Russian Ballet company as the axis upon which the world of dance spins. There’s a ghostly elegance in every performance I watch, which riddles up my skin – yesteryear and tomorrow, silence and fine faded curtains, solemnity and real fervour crystallized in posture.

Seeing the tired lines ease in my landlady’s face as she described a video she had watched earlier, I had the sense that she’d found something within herself to feel calm again. To feel alive. We all need an emotional adrenalin-shot like that, now and then.
She left me alone in the kitchen to watch it on her laptop, with only a snippet of information – “He was the youngest dancer to go principal [lead] in the Royal Ballet company, then quit out of the blue.”

That was enough. I knew exactly who she meant, and to get some perspective on his talent, there’s this from the artistic director of the Stanislavsky Ballet, Igor Zelensky: ‘Talent is very rare. Margot Fonteyn is a talent. Maya Plisetskaya is a talent. Baryshnikov is. I don’t want to go on too much about Sergei. But it is inside him. He is unusual. Unbelievable.’ Which is one way to sum up Sergei Polunin, born of Kherkov in Ukraine, whose career has taken him through significant highs and lows that have nothing to do with his talent, and everything to do with his sense of Self. In an 2013 interview with the Daily Telegraph’s Sarah Crompton, he described the personal troubles that beset his experience of the company: “I was not able to put things together. Dancing-wise I didn’t feel I was in charge of anything… It had been an amazing place, and I had worked with amazing people but you pay a price of not being in charge… I moved up quite quickly so I didn’t make many friends. You are on your own in that sort of place.” After his abrupt departure from the company, with the following months spent adrift and out of sorts, Sergei was taken under the wing of Zelensky, who settled him into the Stanislavsky Ballet in Moscow. From here, he had the opportunity to explore guest performances around the world with Zelensky’s mentoring: ‘You can call me anything you want: director, father, brother, friend… But I really worry about him, what he eats, where he goes, what he is doing. Because he needs a shoulder.’

The video, directed by David LaChapelle, is clean-cut and filled with white and gold lines, like embroidered silk. Skilful editing makes full use of the interior of a beautiful structure filled with life and light, unmistakable in its resemblance to religious architecture, and standing in contrast to the darkness of Hozier’s “Take me to Church”. The central themes of denied love and oppression are reinterpreted through Polunin’s facial expressions and sometimes agonized contortions (which still retain the supple grace that defies gravity and defines dance); there are those rare moments of synergy when sound and sight form a seamless atmosphere that social media sites like Youtube are made for.

I simply cannot stop watching this young Ukrainian throw, loop, leap, bound, tear himself through a dance that is less choreographed routine than a fluidity of lines. The look on his face goes beyond the process – he’s somewhere else, translating and sketching the lyrics over the air for us to see. Try to comprehend how a human body can send itself down to its knees on a stone floor; how bones can arc in seams of gold through careful camera angles and sunlight (if we want to ground ourselves and get prosaic about this. But what the hell, it’s as stunning an image as you’ll see this week.) Assess the worn and blackened soles.

It might not be for everyone, and that’s fine. But, coming from a background of dance, I can only say that “effortless pain” just took on a whole new meaning.

Anyway. Enough of my waffling – watch it, and decide for yourselves.