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.

We mark our own roads

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

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

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

I already missed that wider world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respite

I’d forgotten how this feels. The sudden stab of excitement and sorrow behind the eyes; a beloved old song in the mind, a memory of golden dusk, and the trembling train beneath me.
I’m going home.

It’s always been this way. Wherever I stray to and long for, whoever I am, I find myself back in Sussex – now able to make the journey alone, fighting the grief-tide of bad memories. But the places you stay in and the places you grow, are known through sleepovers and house parties, the feel of sandstone under the hands and the hot smell of ferns in summer. The snap of blue ice at the riverbank, watching the white water chase itself down to the sea, where raw cliffs are a splinter of rocks and bones at the peak and the fall. The lonesome-cowboy gulls, and pale sheen of an oily sky at the horizon. Pebbles underfoot (hot coals) and tottering iron ladies with mislaid gems in the swirl of the tide.

A patchwork of green and gold, lapping up to the chin of the Downs. Cold green echoes of Lake Rocks and caves, where – perhaps – my sandstone scrawls linger, from another lifetime.

The rose-fire of spring dawn over the town. All those domes and granite slopes. A cat lolling lazy in the rising heat.

The ice-rime steeples and spires, a ragged raven’s wing in the monochrome air. Gravestones like eyes, watching those of us still alive, still waiting.

Names that haunt my memory in station pings and announcements (trips to the City to visit my father when he worked late: gold windows threading a skyline necklace.) Sketchy road signs at the corners of life; all those echoes and soft sounds, with -hurst and -ham and -field; -ridge and -brook. So different from the jagged names of the North, with -tor and -esk and -stone, and no more or less beautiful. Maps of the landscape in etymology.

I belong to both and to neither. Born in the Midlands, alive in Germany and rebuilt in the South, but known in the North by my blood. Abandoned rail lines and quarry pits for a playground, buddleia and butterflies and craggy sheep for friends.

One pill box after another, lining the land against invaders, now welcoming me home as pale ghosts in the night. As kids, we tattooed the walls with paint, put our hands into deep rifts that knew the heavy embrace of guns. Sat on the boxy roof to watch the sun peel down the sky, listening to the wind keen through the door. Nature reclaims us all, in the end.

The night is a blur of orange and black; the train’s dwindling lope is a gnarled route to the station. The woman opposite me has her feet up, one hand curled about a bottle of white, the other twining its fingers through her lovers’ dark hair. They find their faces, silver in the window.

I like late evening journeys. They feel like the less formal after-party.

Tobacco Shadows

Books are not the only keepers of narratives. I like to find objects, places, which frame their own stories. The spider-scrawl of a lost letter. A trunk stitched over with fading photographs, nestled in the grey-and-tobacco shadows of an emporium. Flea markets and antique shops creak with the residual thoughts and feelings of other lives; browsing their cluttered corners, it’s easy to find pockets of time caught in the lines of things made to last. Polished cabinets of dark wood, chimed over with mismatched crystal; dolls in hand-stitched clothes, their eyes as faded as the ink on their name tags. Scarred school desks marked with those snippets of playground turf wars and love stories.

sepia chair
HenaTayebPhotography

While I appreciate the need for things made new, the relentless drive to upgrade and update is a bit wearying. New things seem to tell, rather than show their stories. They haven’t yet been imprinted with the life experience of a constant companion, a proud owner, an awestruck admirer. My oldest and most precious books are sellotaped at the spine, stained to the pages with chocolate-spread fingerprints, from those long rainy childhood afternoons spent in my bedroom (curled up on the carpet) beneath a lean-to blanket “tent” eating shortbread-sandwiches; listening to the patter on the windows, and the trailing voices of characters running through my head. Those books were new then, but I made them my own; I wouldn’t dream of throwing them out, though the necessity of new copies is born of loose leaves slithering out between my fingers, whenever I go back for another read.

We’re bound by the things that witness our human state – indifferent as the moon, maybe, but closer to the touch. We all cry and frown and smile and laugh in front of the mirror, and leave worn patches of use on bureaus and tables and chairs. Trace a finger down the spine of a first edition print, you’ll find the crease where a previous owner went back to the same chapter, over and again, to fold down a relevant page like a flag – perhaps underscoring the lines that spoke to their souls, leaving a half-complete message. Our imaginations lead us the rest of the way.

20141003_205141 (1)

I was nine when an aunt presented me with the tiny bone-china study of white that was my first thimble. A copper R was set into its front. It began a family tradition of subsequent birthday and Christmas gifts, patterned with seasonal colours and animal profiles, family crests and symbols representing those places either I or they had visited (I have three Jodrell Banks.) Reading Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers”, I felt it might be a good idea to dissuade the little people from taking my whole collection for cups and bowls. After finding a Bible nestled inside one charity shop thimble (with text so neat it could’ve been woven in snow) I started leaving my own little books beneath each china bell. Made from clippings, set with a single staple, dated and signed, they continue to nestle in wooden pockets of the holder. It travels about with me. Turning the thimbles over now and then for a clean, I can’t help but smile at how faded the ink has become.

What are we but stories, after all? I’d like to think that those books will stay inside, when I eventually pass the collection on.

Objects talk. They give away clues of what has come before, may yet come back. Vinyl is thriving again because there are people (like me) who appreciate the tangibility of cool black in the hands, the inimitable *crackle-pop*, the anticipation of sifting through a rack to find old favourites… as much as the drag ‘n drop convenience of a file download. Some of Dad’s LP sleeves had the most fascinating designs, like the heart of a clock, irresistible to fiddly kid fingers. In the same sense, the Brio train set that once belonged to my sister, to me and then to our younger brother, now lives with my two small nephews; it’s their turn to write engine names in pencil along the sides of the chunky track. We’ll see how long the set can stay in the family – like the Christmas tree fairy which has travelled with us from Germany, her pretty white gown missing some glitter, her thatch of hair balding at the back from endless retrievals and replacements in the decorations box. The inside of her cardboard dress is ticked over with dates from the early 80’s, when we three took it in turns to put her on the tree, year by year, for a photo.

My mother’s side of the family kept a house for 300 years. Converted from a farm, with a yard and out-buildings, its thick white walls and blackwood beams were set against the fierce northern winds churning down the moors and hills. Its bean-shaped barn was turned into a beautiful cafe, for their business; it held a little bar in a corner, curved around half a tun (a very large barrel), shaped and polished to flow into the wood. The thick-piled carpet was rosetted and ideal for hopscotch; large beams supported the room, the kind ideal for housing toys in their splits and creases. I kept cut-out paper people in them.

The deep bay windows were wonderful to sit in, provided you made enough room for the family heirlooms – clustering dolls, pack horses pulling real wooden carts, china Scottie dogs (my grandparents collected live ones as pets down the years, all called Mack and Piper.) Paintings stood propped and pinned to the walls – the surrounding countryside, done up in oils and watercolours by local artists. Those rolling green hills and purple-fire moors, trickle-run rivers with great slippery stone slabs, and green-black glades of Macc forest. I can close my eyes and find it all, remembering the spice of the heather and the almond-paste sweetness of hawthorns. The twisted black trees set against a turbulent sky. The ubiquitous sheep standing beside tumbledown greystone walls (a lost art) patterned in yellow lichen, the mossy stiles. The cough of pheasants rising out of long grass. The way the sun disappeared behind Shutlingsloe hill, blue in the distance.

Shutlingsloe 04
http://www.walkerland.co.uk

Sitting on the front garden bench with my sister, we’d calculate how long it would take to run up the steep stone-stepped Northern face, before gliding back down the smoother south-side through the forest; a challenge set for amateur runners and athletes at the local Rose Queen festival, held in May.
(I was caught up in this once, when my uncle’s girlfriend was crowned; as a rosebud attendant, I wore flowers in my hair and white leather shoes, the sort of grin-grimace you’d find on someone stuck in a revolving door.)

That festival, held in the county Lord’s sweeping estate, held a treasure trove of local art, antiques, trinkets and toys, books and collectables. They smelled of dust and musk and heaven, of old perfume and different kinds of wood. I learned where to look for good bargains, picking about for cat ornaments and – later – anything remotely pagan. My uncle was into his magic. He bought my first, and only pack of Tarot cards (the Cat People, of course) when I was twelve. It still travels about with me, for the memories over the fading dreams.

My other Nanna was raised by her grandmother, a Victorian. She credits this elegant lady with the traditional values that have – for better or worse – permeated our family since. My great-grandfather was an architect in the dockyards of Tyneside; a combination of essential skills, and two small children at home without their mother (she died when Nanna was three), exempted him from conscription in WWII. Visiting at the weekends, I’d sit on the table (or the counter), listening to Nanna tell stories of her own childhood in Wallsend. She’d show me photographs of our ancestors, their eyes large and dark. There’s something aching about finding your own face in the creased lines of an image, curled at the corners, coloured like jaguar rosettes, honey and whisky.

She and Granddad have an enduring fascination with timepieces. Their home is filled with the chimes and brassy bars of watches and clocks, the tinny clicking of metallic breath counting out seconds and minutes and hours.

Clock face
fineartamerica.com

Tyneside to Herstmonceux – such a jump! – but they took it, because Granddad had landed work at the observatory. When you put your head down and get on with what needs to be done, the odds don’t seem to matter, until you can stop and look around at the things which marked that time. Only then do you dare to wonder how you made it through. If you could ever do it again.

I remember Nanna telling me how, at the new house, they found cold air and newspapers on the floor, yellow shadows. No running hot water. But they laid out all of the little things which would make them feel safe and secure: toys, family photographs, clocks. Beds made up on the floor – “camping out”, to turn the whole thing into an adventure for the kids.

This scene plays in my mind whenever I move around. The first things to be set out are the story-tellers: paintings, ornaments, my katana Yukiko, guitar picks, leather-jacketed books. Everything else is gradually sifted through, in between hours and days, until the room itself becomes a narrative of Me. A lot of it wasn’t mine to begin with; those trinkets and pictures have seen other lives come and go. God knows how many memories are locked behind the face of the clock, bought in a crook-backed Lewes antique shop.

These are the things that leave a trail of ourselves, our time here. One day, the things that were new to me might become part of someone else’s narrative.

kaiser book

And there are some things that will outlast us all.

Shutlingsloe
http://www.stephenpricephotography.com

Dreaming of Mercy Street

I knew where I was going, once. Had some sort of a plan, a topic, a novel, a vision – and a hell of a lot of rum.

Now, I have two children who are not mine, who I adore but would like to press Mute on for two hours in the evening … and shifts that are sapping the life out of my mind. Blah fucking blah. Same old story.

I want to get out of here. See Germany, see France, Belgium, Austria, mountains chained into diamond teeth, a hard blue sky and fierce-scented forests. I want to break out of this block that holds my head like a vice, out of – what – weariness? Spite at myself? Fear of failure?

It’s the same song on repeat. My past never left, and hunts me still. At least I sleep through the night, for now. The last bout of insomnia was a bitch.

Sorry, this is a protracted whinge. I can’t seem to find the words elsewhere. I use pictures to detail how I feel, and am more reliant on these than ever. It’s 8pm, and I have only just sat down.
Where is this all going?

To sleep, with any luck.

Let down at work. Nothing I can go into, but suffice to say, I’m screaming into thin air. And getting through a lot of chewing gum.

These words at least, come easily enough. Nowhere else to lay them out, to put them down. Glance over and be gone, it’s all one to me. The other blog post will have to wait until … some kind of coherency returns.

I can’t change my style, anymore than I can change my blood type (A-)
I still walk bare foot in the rain on sunburnt tarmac, and look for the last hidden corners of the library, out of the sight of teens and away from the burring computers that riddle up my bones with current. The view from that wide-eye window is magnificent; one of the last I shall remember. The lady cathedral in dexteree, and a sprawling canvas of blue-green towards the silver ocean of sky – planes from the nearby airport, swimming with the dreaminess of carp from one cloud to another.

And to sinisteree, the flat rooftops where cats lollop and play, sprawl and wail, and chase with curved backs, over the baked bricks. I had a dream of following them, once, as a child. There was always time to hide in the hedges, jumping out to scare my older sister; and teaching my younger brother how to wait, silent and still, in the green-black shade of the tallest marigolds you ever saw. Three feet, those damn stems grew to. Only my mother could manage to tame so fierce a jungle in our back garden.

Seven trees, lined up like soldiers – one beech, three larches, two willows, and a stately grandfather oak. It was on the latter that I taught my kittens how to climb – Chloe took to it readily enough, having less fur than her sister, Jess, to weigh down small pinion-paws. Poor Jessie would take a running leap, make it halfway up the trunk (digging into the crusty bark), before flailing back down, arse first, in that inconsistent way of cats. I wished for her to have Norsk Skaukatt in her blood, if only for the long “nose-guard” profile reminiscent of the Viking helm, and that singular way of descending a tree, head-first, in a spiral, as in the way of the Nuthatch bird.

Certain breeds have their own peculiar traits. The Skoggy, with its spiral-descent; the Siberian, with its triple-layer fur, allowing it to become a snow-plough; the Ragdoll with its “flop”; the Siamese its shoulder-riding (although my Kai, a Birman, was also a fan of this); and my personal favourite, the Turkish Van – one of the very few felines who will readily approach water for a swim.

Ja, if there’s one thing I can go off on one about, it’s cats. As a kid, I collected relevant books, ornaments, toys, jewellery, fiction, poetry – wrote some of the latter myself, where did that all go? caught between the pages of some ink-stained notebook, buried in a suitcase – and pretty much lived my life in trees, down in the long grass (running from spiders), in the hope that one day I would wake, and no longer be human.

Still waiting.

This staccato voice, and aversion to loud faces, and arrogant-innocent nature, are all born out of that child’s dream. There are some mornings when I wake and watch the sky, and feel so much myself again that it seems the world had never moved on, and I had never grown and seen the patterns of my mind shift, the days blur into years. I am walking the highways again, lost in a silver-blue mist that began around my ankles and stirred up to the height of the hawthorns, and there are no thoughts of home. Of paedophiles and murderers. Of watchful, waiting eyes. Of anything beyond recall.

Just the night, and my feet at their softest, and ice-rimed leaves crackling still – because no human could ever learn to walk like a cat.

Not even the Alchemist managed that.

I should reread the Wild Road, really, and find myself again.

the wild road

Well. That’ll do for now.

Shutter down, Shining out

So here we are, on a day and in a time when the tears fall as rain on the mountains; when the sun is all the brighter in the sky, for our knowing it is still there. Coming in through my front door this evening, to the fragrant smells of wine and paella – my landlady is a great cook, and of the kindness that is bent around caring for others, so that I am always invited to join in at meals – I felt myself to be Home. The dog was curled up by the fire; warm smells of pine went trailing golden fingers through the house. Where others are not so fortunate, and have been hounded from the place of their birth, the land where ancestral bones lie deep as legends, I can claim this place for my sanctuary.  I know a newly-learned gratitude for all that I have, those seemingly small and insignificant things, as I once knew them after coming home from hospital. But it is too easy to forget, to become complacent again.

The wind is already turning blue on my side of the world, with a rawness in the pale arabesque of the morning. In these tumultuous days, we are leased into softer eyes and gentler smiles; our sharp shining edges are smoothed over by empathy. Shared sorrow, frustration, anger, fear. Doubt. Confusion. And still, more fear, as we wonder – with each click and scroll – what will happen next.

On Tuesday, 19th August, the world saw the face of its foe – what was revealed of it – hovering like a baleful moon above that of James Wright Foley, a US citizen and freelance photojournalist, captured in Syria in 2012. Though about to be taken by that most futile act called murder, for an even more futile cause, James didn’t flinch or try to pull away. He probably knew well enough where the contents of that video would end up, how it would be used for propaganda, as a shock of reality; for the awareness of the wider world, for the threat of the same fate meted out to others. Still, his face remained set as that of a clock, dialling down on its own time.

Perhaps the same is true for those who have watched the grim facts of that video in full. Perhaps they too, haven’t flinched. But, whatever their agenda, it cannot even begin to be measured against James’ own strength.

The perpetrators are more than willing to take the rest of humanity down with them, on their way to a faux-martyrdom. As James Kirkup of The Telegraph rightly pointed out, to call James’ death an “execution” is to give it more honour than it deserves. He was murdered, by hands and a heart too cold to know love and respect for another.

Walking home tonight, I found myself mulling over this, and other things that have come to pass. The blue-black cloud of inertia that had filled me up like ink sifting through water, slowly slipped away. In its place wove a silver thread of desperate hope, twined about with the pale green of worry … a thin petrol-rainbow of fear.

Passing through our local Muslim community, I found myself faced with the troubled faces and downcast eyes that are sadly reminiscent of other times. Such fear is palpable, like the wavering heat rising from a radiator. 9/11. 7/7. 22/5. Numbers that would be meaningless, without the context of death and tragedy, of atrocities carried out in the name of Islam; when it is the innocent followers of that faith who must bear the fallout. As though they had any part in it at all.

“We do not tolerate it, we forbid ISIS in Indonesia… This is a new wake-up call to international leaders all over the world, including Islamic leaders… [to] review how to combat extremism. Changing paradigms on both sides are needed – how the West perceives Islam and how Islam perceives the West.” – Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, president of Indonesia.

I remember the face of my friend, who once walked the beat as a hate-crime officer, giving a sympathetic ear and trustworthy pledge of hope to those he served in the Muslim community; and his words, full of sadness, telling me of the young sons and daughters taken by shadows of fear; the mothers and fathers left behind, bewildered and terrified for their children. For each other.

I read the latest blog entry of my dear friend Nillu, who is a Shia Ismaili Muslim, and the fear becomes personal; it becomes a pale rim around my vision, half-thinking about what is best left unsaid, unknown. The future is what happens when it arrives, not what we try to foresee. She is Nillu, one of the loveliest and most empathetic women I have ever known, and the thought that anyone might think negative thoughts of her, based upon her religion, burns out my mind. She is the peace of her faith, personified.

I recall how on Monday, when our worlds met at the borderline of thought and dream, I had told my other beloved friend Amira that, while the little things matter in this life, the finer details, we cannot escape the Here and Now, how this affects us. When we hit those patches of black ice, nothing is so very important than to get the words down before the usual inertia of getting-by steers us back towards equilibrium. How else would we know, how else would we remember what had hit us hard? (Sometimes, it really is a case of diving into the nearest cafe or stairwell, to record a piece of existence that would otherwise go unnoticed, dropped like a coin into a well; a brief glitter, then blackness.)

To which she agreed, as ever she would, for we are alike as twins in mindset.  Her own blog entry wrapped itself about the anger and fear felt for Ferguson, a suburb in her hometown of  St Louis. While the tension has since begun to unwind, Amira’s entry – posted  in lieu of a literary article about fiction and publishing – told its own story of the immediacy of that situation, how it caught and affected her.

“Screw that blog post I wrote about literature and fiction – it can wait. There are more important things at stake right now.”

And yet, for all this – for all my waffle and whimsy in attempting to make sense of what I and others have witnessed, day by day, on rolling news feeds and carefully edited images – from the scene of James Foley’s last moments, and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine – I find myself, at the end of this day, so full of dark thoughts … and somehow still willing to get up and try again. For a smile and a prayer, at least.

Entering the cathedral for a walk between those dark-wood polished pews, drifting with the dust motes that are like so many silver sparks, I spoke aloud the words and cried the tears held back all day. I commended his memory to whoever might have been listening, anyone or no one. I have no particular faith. I just walk where there is peace to be found, between cool marble columns etched over with long-ago dates and names, upon rainbow-glitter sprays flung from the stained glass windows.

cathedral girl

James, I didn’t know you, or your family. But you symbolized what I want to be, what I want to achieve, and it’s for this reason that I take your words to heart, more than most.
You had your romantic ideals discoloured by reality, and still carried on. For that, no act of inhumanity can diminish your memory.

Following an unpleasant encounter with an unedited photograph taken from a jihadist Twitter account – tossed about with the carelessness of a tennis ball, among people who ought to have known better than to give the perpetrators the notoriety they seek – I decided to find out more about graphic content, its origins and uses. The principle focus was on how this type of media fits into the growing scope of social networking, as an instantaneous publisher. With the rise of portable technology, we have nothing to fear in terms of missing a moment in the world. What we have to fear instead, is the decrease in ethical judgement when it comes to sharing what we have found – live, unedited, raw footage, often taken from conflict zones and scenes of tragic events, passed about to … what? Inspire retaliation? Instil dread? The lines grow blurred. What is useful propaganda to one party, is click-bait to another; and to still others, it is a symbolic vocalization of what cannot be described in words. Though I do wish more people would try. For that matter, Twitter has at least started cracking down on graphic content, and is actively suspending accounts which would use it for propaganda and intimidation.

For all that I am a writer, with words supposedly my weapons (and you would think, some kind of clarity), metaphors and symbolism are all too often my fall-back. Such is the delight of Twitter, with its reams of information-imagery and algorithms, that I am never short of those stars for a constellation of emotional expression. A picture can sum up far more than I could put into words. That being said, I pull up short before pressing any buttons on the sort of content that has become an unpleasant side effect of following certain topics, in order to learn more. I’ll confess now, my fingers have itched. Some images have sent my mind down into a blankness that only long hours of walking, and missing a meal – startling my body awake with hunger – could shred. For long moments, I pause, wanting to show those who follow me – “Look. Look at this. Look at what these people who are not people, have done to this woman, this man, this child. Did you ever think that blood could run so thickly, that it turns black?”

But no. Because why should I be so selfish as to pretend there isn’t a sneaking voyeuristic pleasure-horror to be gained out of seeing others’ reactions? Or is it that I want to stand a mirror up between us to find the same emotions, the same words, to know that what I have seen is real, and not the darkest nightmare?

Oh, I still long to show you all, to make you understand how terrible the suffering was of those people … But I don’t know it myself, because I wasn’t there, and I didn’t experience it. I know nothing of the situation, but what I’ve seen from a tiny set of pixels in a frame, holding the last image of a person who was alive and breathing once, beloved, longed for, educated, born. That picture, that video, is but a fragment of who they were. Whatever the perpetrators of their death thought to gain in taking that last image, or allowing it to be taken, to be passed around on social networking sites, they can’t diminish these facts.

So why, then, should I have been so upset to see that image – the first piece of graphic media I had come across on Twitter – treated the way that it was, transferred from one user to another, to illustrate the point of the murderer’s violence?
Ah, there’s the paradox. I guess I would call it “dignity in death.”

This article from the Guardian, summed up what I have been trying to spit out for weeks about the perks and perils of sharing graphic content on social networking sites. Blogs such as this one, written by BBC journalist Alex Murray, and this on The Conversation, have helped me to see both sides of the flipped coin. Because I want to know how it feels to face that kind of reality, when it’s all caught in pixels on a screen in the newsroom, with only a hand to reach out and no way of changing the ending. I want to know, so I can better understand it.

“Whether or not a news organisation is right to use graphic material is a matter of opinion. But what this article has hopefully illustrated is that in certain cases the decisions to print or broadcast are taken with care and with a genuine desire to ‘do the right thing’. The mainstream media, if we can speak so generally, has its multitude of failings. But let’s not forget that when dealing with upsetting and harrowing imagery, journalists do not exist in a vacuum, unencumbered by the moral uncertainties that we all face.”
– John Jewell,
Director of Undergraduate Studies, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University.

We are all beholden to each other’s goodwill and ethical standards, on social networking sites – it’s a push-pull system of give and take. Each of us have a duty of care to our friends and followers, who come from diverse socio-cultural and religious backgrounds. In cyberspace, after all, there are fewer limitations on what can be seen; it is difficult to erase certain things from under the eyelids.
And we are not even on the ground as witnesses, feeling the whump of explosives and feeling the sting of heat, or handling raw footage for editing.

“That much of this material is shot point of view and handheld does have an impact. When this sort of video is edited, it’s pretty easy to treat it simply as ‘material’. When it is a single continuous shot, there is something about its unified perspective – as the point of view of a real person, not of a piece of a broadcast – that can be difficult to cope with.

This isn’t journalists trying to sort facts and report ‘the story’, this is people showing you what they are experiencing, as if to say: 
‘I don’t understand why this is happening. Why are they doing this to us? If I show you, then perhaps someone will explain what is going on.'” – Alex Murray, “The Hazards of war reporting from the other side of the world.”

While graphic media, submitted by citizens as user-generated content, can be used to raise awareness – drawing in a wider audience to the fracture-lines appearing in our world, and bringing to bear the reality of life under conflict – it is also known for its white-out effect of desensitization. There is the Long Blink of ignorance left in bliss – which none of us has the right to deny another, for our individual worlds are populated by enough troubles – or the self-propagating cycle of seeking out yet stronger content, more brutal scenes, to achieve the same effect. Then there is the consideration of safety for those with the means to produce such content.

“The temptation is to be out at the very front with them – where the fighting is more dramatic, more filmic. Front-line reporting – capturing and communicating the essence of war – is always a gamble, but one where we think we can set the odds… The further forward you go, the more powerful the pictures, but the greater the chances of being killed or injured. Our flak jackets and helmets are far from invincible. As a cub reporter I was always told never to become the story.” – Alastair Leithead, “Hazards of war reporting from the Libyan front line.”

“Journalists now constantly have to make difficult decisions about protecting the safety of people caught up in these events… But being aware of the need to do this doesn’t always come naturally if you’re not used to reporting wars from the newsroom.
What about the monitoring of phone calls or even email traffic?
What language can be used to identify yourself without endangering the contributor?
How do we introduce ourselves?
Is Gmail safer than Hotmail?” – Matthew Eltringham, Editor of the BBC College of Journalism website; “The new frontline is inside the newsroom.”

James Foley had the backing of the GlobalPost, based in Boston, but took no fewer risks than his peers. His death brings up again what freelance journalists face when reporting from warzones, “lightly resourced, laughably paid, almost wholly uninsured… often armed with little more than a notebook and a mobile phone.” There has been particular focus on Syria, where James was taken, which has been labelled “the most dangerous country in the world for journalists” to work in, by The Committee to Protect Journalists.

At least 69 other journalists have been killed covering the conflict there, including some who died over the border in Lebanon and Turkey. More than 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria; with frequent abductions, some of which go unpublicized, it is difficult to know exactly how many. CPJ estimates that approximately 20 journalists, both local and international, are currently missing in Syria. Many of them are believed to be held by Islamic State.”

I still have a petrol-rainbow trickle of an idea about what I would like to do in the near future. There are big decisions to be made. But more and more, with each turning leaf and golden bar of sunlight turning to brass, with each red-rim eye of a news story, I find my thoughts turning to my family. I see the bravery of the Foleys – read his mother’s words – and must now think on such things as consequences. For all that I have no further responsibilities or ties, other than my current job, there are still those left behind to consider.

There is only so much the human mind can take, before it must shutter down and shine out. I end my days now, after online research,by turning my phone off and sticking my head into an Alice Hoffman book. It’s this, or break under the heavy iron band stretched over my skull, leaving its tang in my throat, a soreness around my eyes.

There are always those sparks of drifting dust – our histories, our lives – to call us back. The beautiful smile of a friend, tweeting a picture of herself with family; the unique charm of a compliment for a posted story. The fluffed fur of a kitten with ocean eyes, caught in a noir photo; the lingering words of one who lies on the peripheral line where the sky meets the sea. The pleasant swatch of colours found in a tweet describing the morning-sounds of birds on the feeder, and bacon on the stove.

For all that the blood is a book, to be read over and again in the hopes of learning from our pasts … we live for the future, and it is Now. So while sharing the seemingly mundane, the cheerful, the cherished, we take our stand against those who would spread only darkness. When we speak of the dead, those taken from us in the most diabolical ways, let it be with images of who they really were – the people who lived, worked, spoke and fought for freedom, ours and theirs; for knowledge, for one more assignment, for one more day. In using hashtags like #ISISmediablackout and #StopPutin, we set our faces to the changing winds of tomorrow – denying the murderers and the liars the voices that would continue the fear and oppression – while remembering that today is for Us, and the memories of those who are gone.

It’s only when we stem the creativity, the playful tweets, the Good Mornings, the most wire-grin banter, that the perpetrators of that insidious fear have won.

Well, that’s me done. Hope I haven’t inadvertently offended anyone or left something important out; if I have, drop me a line and I’ll apologise. Otherwise, it’s

Guten nacht

from me.

If you want to continue following my work, I’m at https://lamplighthaven.wordpress.com now. Ta.

Shadow, thorn, and one blue rose

I find myself frequently bemused by this face.

Looking into the mirror as a child, I would stare hard until my eyes bled out tears; until the small, fine lines swam into adulthood – until an image of who I might one day become, was an image grasped in the hand of argent moonlight, riming the effortless sheen.

“I disappeared the lines – as memories came flooding in, the tears blew out my eyes.”

I am not so much who I thought I would become, as an evolved form of what once was. Older and quieter, arrogant still; believing herself to be above the world, even while walking at its feet. This is what sets me apart from those who are documenting what conflicts rip open the threads of humanity, bringing the truth of the world to unresolved eyes, to hearts that have learned the riddle-speak of care and continuity.

I still have far to go. Inhibitions are invisible manacles about my feet, and the years are heavy yet. But they will break. They must break, because I will have no one but myself to blame if they don’t. We are the successors to our own tenure, coming as going – or the flatline of Existence over Life.

I am thirty years old next April. This only bothers me in the context of what I have not achieved, may never achieve, if I don’t find the willpower to focus my voice; to know what it is I wish to talk about, and with whom. Right now, I dither from one place to one more commission, to one more job. There is freedom in these scrappy lines; I am able to up sticks and leave whenever I choose. But as Dido once said – and I do believe in this song, if no other – “But if my life is for rent / And I don’t learn to buy / Well, I deserve nothing more than I get / ‘Cause nothing I have is truly mine.”

I am still afraid of plans. Of setting down roots, of putting trust in anything longer than it takes to change my mind. Why?
Because I have felt the breath on my neck, of one who does not wait. Even as I try to slow down to enjoy things – food, company, a book, a life – I am aware of those thin spinning fingers, and the whispering echo, and the way it all came so close.

But what is a life, of a thread pulled taut?

Grandfather Time, within your tower
– Darkened brick and filled with icy
Breath of ages, standing still –
You hear my voice
You know my name
You watched a lifetime dialling down
To needle clicks and spinning threads.
Now pointing west, the arrowhead
Is finding love that cannot lie
That will not sleep;
You know my choice
A shadow, thorn, and one blue rose.

He bids me rove. There is still much to learn; to be accounted for.

King and Lionheart.

I had locked him away in a pillar of ice, hoping to set his heart free, so that he might return to his duties – for are we not all bound in such ways? Certainly, no royal can remain asleep forever, even while touched by the tint of a blue rose – and this heart does not lie easy, for knowing its shadow falls on a picture painted elsewhere, in another realm. I had hoped that by stifling his voice, so full of thorns, I might return to my own barren ways, this wild wood, this writing in black-gold … but it’s never so easy, is it?

Summer sun and winter moon
I have forgotten who is who
And still we chase, across the sky
The one to live, the one to die.

His blue-black shadows of doubt, for this lionheart. His dark water for my fire. I stride forwards, even while falling back; there is no letting go, though the words meet my eyes as thorns in the palm. I cannot deny what has not been done. Just as I cannot let go of what has not yet set beyond the horizon.

The sky is filled with both moon and sun so rarely; it is these times I cherish, with the world held between, a little black kitten with ocean eyes. We are the balance, do you understand?
I am tired, inside and out. Even this heart grows weary of pain, though she cuts open her own lip so frequently, on a wire-grin.

I live for pain. To feel alive, to know that I still exist. That I am not merely asleep. This once took the form of self-harming, hot needles on the skin (irony lives in fear of contamination, even while drawing blood.) I once danced my legs down to the knees, and trained beyond the gravel-pain of heartbeats in the throat.

Now, I set the moderation bar, and try to remember that to live is to know peace, too. Quiet. Sifting dust. Just because I am awake and aware, does not mean that I must push to the very last breath –

– before fading out.

These are but thoughts, as ever. I have been called many things recently – “wise”, “adorable”, “arrogant bitch.” I would say, put in a blender, they might summarize someone I would like to be. Who I thought I would know, when “all grown up.”

Instead, I am merely blinking away tears in front of the mirror, trying to resolve a firm image of the person staring back, with water-dark hair and freckles that have seemingly appeared from nowhere. I never had them as a child. But they are a good find.

I like tracing patterns. Stars, algorithms, the flecks of a magpie’s wings against a gunmetal sky, in accordance with the turning pages of a book, clasped in the hands of a hurtling-home commuter.

I can pretend to be cute, for all of an hour, before growing bored and wanting the serious façade back. Then this will be dropped too, in time for a giggle over a colleague’s terrible mug of coffee.

We are only a collective of emotions, rick-rolling from one situation to the next. I used to believe that I had to be same person for each, a static entity, so that no one would doubt my credibility. But this is boring as whale shit, and not sustainable. Mutability lives in the fire, stirred up by the rising air; water flows to enjambment –
And earth clings to the shovel, digging your grave.

I am a nonsense of words tonight. Just flexing these fingers, after all – a warm up, before chasing the sun back across the sky, as Celena, as Gaia, as the pseudonym made up at age fifteen, with no clue (then) of what significance it would come to hold.

Here, fire lights upon the ice
The shadows thaw beneath the smile
Of summer’s name, now caught between
A sea of stars, to call you home.

Trust in this, if nothing else.
Tattoo