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.

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Foundation stones

The wind was warm, lulling my skin into a sense of security that may yet prove to be false – this time of year is prone to change, to deceit in its budding fingers and icy pavements, its wide-eye skies that retain a burnished bronze at the horizon line… and the silky darkness of blue above, when the stars make a cold fire.

The tombstones were warped in a hazy red glow from the lamplight. Unnatural, almost hellish, and I had to bite my fist against the hard laugh in my chest. I’m prone to inappropriate thoughts and giggle-fits, which is one reason I can’t be trusted in important corridors and silent rooms.

I fell in love with the city’s cathedral at first sight – those tall turrets, so elegant and poignant against the sky, surrounded by lean-back roof lines and the echoing colour spirals of a rose window, the largest kaleidoscope I’ve yet seen. Trembling rose stems, twining about the black iron fence of the graveyard, and the weather-etched stones themselves, centuries past and names long melted into the face of tomorrow. Dear reader, we all end up in the same places, at the end. Whether marked or not, we go through the same channels of decomposition and leave behind those who once called us Friend and Foe, Lover and Life, Stranger and Oppressor, Comrade and Colleague.

You can go your own way. I’ll take mine.

The shadows etch themselves onto the cathedral face in wrinkles of time, backlit and forward thrust until the entire building lives and breathes contentment under the stars. At other times she is jumpy and hurtling towards the storm, set against the sky like a livid mark of every worried thought and hideous fright; sharp black and gunmetal presence. I love to walk straight into the teeth of the wind that endlessly circles her stones, feeling its fingers tear through my hair and making my eyes water. Tonight, those fingers caressed. Tonight, for the first time in a long while, I felt something close to myself again.

The fretful, arrogant, innocent, fumbling woman-child who is, the storyteller with a real problem of getting to a point, because she’s not entirely sure where it is she’s going to or who she is supposed to be…. except in a long form narrative. It’s just how we roll. It took me until age seven to fully grasp the English language and its numbers; age nine until I could handle money and time. To this day, I find myself going cross-eyed in trying to arrive at where I am supposed to be, perhaps through a reluctance of commitment (ever the nomad) or a latent fear of laying claim to what is Mine. Because then it is responsibilities. It is adulthood and a release of ideologies.

Or so I once thought. As it turns out, approaching 30 has at last brought about the inner peace my Nanna once extolled, which I heard and could make little sense of at the time. 17 is no age to try and foresee/feel the future, especially when you’re slowly dying a little more each day with anorexia. But now I know it – this sense of, well, these are my opinions and I’ll tell you because I have nothing better to do, you have yours and that’s fine … but I’m going to shy away and lean into a smile like a wary fox, a weak waver on the wind but a strong back, and walk where my thoughts and feelings go. And that’s that. I’m also now more open to change in the way the sky pales into spring. Black and white are no longer prerequisites. To leave a place is not to say it vanishes forever – I can return, the cathedral will be here for me to walk around its grounds and vanish into the light of the unicorn for a moment or more, knowing myself hopeless and helpless in the face of Time and fate and whatever else, so strong a hand at my back right now. So it seems. Less a boot up my arse, at least, than in 2013 when life unravelled. But things happen, and we go with them and it’s not the end of the world, only a series of events that perhaps propel us to –

Others. Places. Nostalgia has its place, and I still know its sepia tones in the fading light of the sky, on the hair of the twins as they grow, in the lines deepening around my eyes. The little boy wept downstairs the other day, when he learned I was leaving. The girl came upstairs to tell me, and in her solemn eyes her voice came out like the future bell –
Everyone moves on to other places.

She’s six years old, going on Eternity. They have souls made of stars, come out with things that shiver up my skin, watch empty places in rooms like the cats I once knew. I won’t say Goodbye to them in that way that feels like forever; it’s only down the road, this new home of mine. And even if it was the other side of the world, well, there is social media now. There are connections that were once only possible while sifting through the minds of sci-fi authors. There’s symbolic interaction, which has become the beckoning hand of the future, while I stand at the crossroads scratching my head in that way of the wanderer who holds a map she can’t yet fully read or understand.

There are certain things that go beyond words. We all know it. Given the option between an image and a set of lines, I’m ashamed to admit – as a writer – that I’m more prone to hold up the former, while trying to whittle down the latter into something that will get across what I meant to say. We’ve been here before, I know, but it’s worth remembering. A song, a picture, a video, all bear a salience that more formulaic prose can’t improve upon. When nothing else will do, there’s symbolism – with all its fault lines and misinterpretations and layered meanings. A curse and a blessing. Once you see the world for what it is, there’s little else to do but accept what is, will be.

Somehow, I am still alive. Somehow, I’m moving to a flat that I will furnish to my own tastes, funded by a new job in a research centre that I hope will allow me to move sideways in employment, if not up. Every bit on the CV helps. I’m not old yet, not middle-aged, not so bitter that I’ll break as all blades that have gone wrong in tempering, do. I’m here, and this is Now. You can come along, if you like.

Golden leaves and rustic walls. A lady cathedral that will stand beyond my days and nights, and I’ll see her again soon. Nothing really ends, nothing lasts forever. These are things I wish I’d known as a child, when it seemed that to walk out of a room would have it – and the people within – disappear, walk away, move on, leave me behind. My greatest fear. And adolescence, when it seemed the shaking of the world as it changed would knock me off my feet, when too much happened at once. How funny, how odd, that now I relish the speed at which things progress – if only because it means I don’t have time to stop and Think.

Hurt. Feel. Wonder if I’m doing the right thing.
Of course I am. But the sepia tones light my mind all the same, because I’m that sort of person. But now, I know not to stand still and Wonder for too long. Life has a habit of shifting with bubble evanescence until a completely new scene appears, and I must run to catch up. I’m doing all of this alone, you see, and can’t afford to let go or be afraid.

And as that little girl said, Everyone moves on. But we each of us take the stages of our lives with us, as chapters for others to fall into and read – backwards to move forwards – if they so wish.
I like to bookmark the best bits with a song, a picture and a smile at once was. They complement what is to come.

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Which for now, for tonight, is another chapter of a novel that – as mine invariably do – began life as a shortie, last year, as a collision of thoughts and emotions while brushing my teeth. I keep trying to start a blog entry on Russian propaganda, on the urgent need for the west to combat this with specific channels in the face of a rising (dis)information war… It’s a different front-line altogether. But I’m hopeless at starting most things without preamble, and am having trouble drawing the necessary lines between stars. While my voice falters each time I hear it, breaking on glass, on a mirror I’m not entirely sure I should be stood in front of to see myself, with a shadow close behind.
I know my own mind, its fault-lines and its high tides and buried burdens. We all have a story to tell. It’s just, mine are getting stuck in my throat at the moment.

Or perhaps my own excuses are a dull pain yet to be mastered. That fear of putting my name to something that might turn out to be an Even Bigger Cockup (I could spin you a few.) But I’ve fallen already, and got back up, and still trip over my big toe for no reason whatsoever while walking barefoot (there’s a useless factoid for you.)
This is my personal blog, after all. I make no claims of faultless accuracy, though I’ll do my best with what little I have; and I too often set myself up for failure by forgetting that I began this blog (and the old one, CelenaGaia) primarily to loosen up my mind and to offload, to talk with friends, in that inimitable way of bloggers with time on their hands and too much to do, and the protraction of emails and the disengagement/re-engagement of social media and offline life… and writing.

So. We’ll see. There’s still a lot to read and to learn (backwards) and I’m doing this a little off the cuff, but I’d hate to lose myself in study at the expense of speaking out on what crawls up my back and occasionally makes my mind turn pale.
I’d like to say, of this year, that procrastination did not get a look-in. I took the jump for a new job and a new home, in a week. I can do things I once thought were impossible.
Now, I’m more prone to a shrug and a tired-defiant smile in the face of others’ doubt and my own (chronic) sense of self-defeat. This is one of the fun parts about getting older. One of the less fun parts, is finding you can no longer make it to midnight on a Friday. I woke up at 11.30-ish to find my cheek plastered to the keyboard, with an assortment of winking numbers on the screen (thankfully having missed Delete.) Long hours at work, time spent online, going through life as a perma-pedestrian and a gym fiend and a fuck-up and friend … there’s no time for boredom. My worst enemy.
But life is realigning itself, as it should post-anorexia. I find my priorities changing. This is no small thing, but I couldn’t really explain it all in a way that your eyes wouldn’t glaze over.
The world gets a bit bigger, each year.

The moon was a yellow and ragged thing tonight, rising through the clouds like a bell-chime. It turned gold in passing, grew stronger in the lines. I watched its course with interest, past the silent windows with their thickening darkness, across the tan-purple sky, over the flickering lake. The water was a beetle’s back, a sense of Tomorrow; the cries of the birds split the brooding quiet.
The stars went on with their feigned indifference, their watchful eyes. As above, so below.

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.

Tawny horizon

Trigger warning: Weight loss / anorexia.

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

Or perhaps the problem is a bit more internal.

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

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

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

And still. And still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

When the end came

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the sun didn’t return.

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

They put down their weapons to warm their hands.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woven strands: Artistic Influence

“I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.”

When interviewing Ernest Hemingway for The Paris Review, George Plimpton acknowledged the “occasional waspish tone of the answers”, born of the author’s belief that writing “is a private, lonely occupation with no need for witnesses until the final work is done.” This sounds all too familiar. I’ve overdone my own exposure, in essays that – while useful at the time of writing my first novel, for relearning techniques – have left me somewhat strung out when it comes to starting anything new. I’m perhaps too self-aware now for a clear sense of originality. When Hemingway stated that “such ideas should remain unexpressed”, with probing questions leaving him “almost inarticulate”, I know what he means, with the usefulness of hindsight. That being said, the essays were good to write, in the way taking a clock apart allows you to know its mechanism for when something goes wrong.

But on one subject, Hemingway was willing to show his hand: those artistic influences found in the deftness of a painter with tubes and brushes, the composer his sheet music. Donne to Cezanne, “the good Kipling” to Van Gogh, Bach to Mozart – all creators that touched his life and his mind, to be called upon when he would “stand in absolute concentration” for writing. Nowadays, with the help of mobile technology, we can as easily wander through the minds of favourite artists via apps and websites like Pinterest, as we can take the conventional route of walking the echo-halls of an art gallery. Playlists can be tailored to a written draft. Dance and drama can evoke the method approach, for getting into the mind and moods of a character.

“Harmony” in music, is defined as “the simultaneous combination of tones, especially when blended into chords pleasing to the ear”, while counterpoint is “the art of combining melodies / the texture resulting from the combining of individual melodic lines.” Generally speaking, harmony and counterpoint are the agreement of elements distinct from one another, and “any element that is juxtaposed and contrasted with another”. Those moments are wonderful – aren’t they? – when you touch upon a particular paragraph that fits the background music of a bar or pub, at a time of day when you’re drinking something with the taste to somehow mirror the mood. When it feels as though everything has been geared towards inspiring an image or mood. As a method-writer, I work towards achieving this kind of interdependency of art to form a “backdrop” – something sustainable for the duration of a scene, perhaps. Watching Weimar cinema to add disquiet (in filters of blue, with nuances of light and shadow) or wandering into a particular gallery room to find the narrative of a display. When a piece of instrumental music seems to have been written for a character or scene, adding textures previously unthought of, there’s the chance to review your writing from a different angle, one governed more by instinct and mood than lyrical content.

Any piece of art can at once stand alone, and be linked to another in a different format/medium. There might be no apparent crossover, except in subjective terms. Time changes perspective too, with personal experiences adding emotional layers almost indefinable, except for the way they get under your skin and stay there. Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Dead Flag Blues once belonged to a winter’s morning slog uphill, until I read the opening chapter of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger for the first time. Now the heavy-tread rhythm and bronze guitar twangs belong to Roland’s feet through the desert, on the trail of the man in black.)

When choosing décor, we look for the blends of tone and texture that will make a house feel like a home; furnishing the lines of a living space to present an image of ourselves. Even the sparsity of an office can be made to feel like an extension of “home”, with those framed works and prints by a favourite artist, drawings made by the kids, holiday souvenirs, newspaper cuttings, empty whisky miniatures lined up in a row. Each facet reflective of individuality, while shining together to create the image as a whole. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person, based on what they choose to surround themselves with – or allow others to surround them with.

Remembering and learning about WWI, we can read the words of Sassoon, Rosenberg and Owen to live in the immediacy of those desperate moments. They connect with the likes of Paul Nash and Richard Jack, whose work asserts direct historical links as well as the more subconscious achievements of art to carry emotional resonance forward in time.

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Paul Nash, “The Ypres Salient at Night”

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Richard Jack, “The Return to the Front: Victoria Railway station”

As much to make sense of what they were experiencing, as to capture the rawness of conflict for the ones who would rebuild peace, the artists imposed control – a strange sense of beauty – upon the ugly chaos around them. Time has no way of diminishing their effect. Standing in front of Jack’s Return to the Front: Victoria Railway station in York art gallery, I couldn’t move for about twenty minutes, absorbing each detail. The scene is absorbing in its raw portrayal of human emotions, played out in the set of a jaw, the resigned curve of shoulders, downcast eyes, pity around the girl’s mouth, the looming presence of the waiting train. It was a world away from my own liberal time… and still, almost one hundred years ago. Art crosses the borders of time and geography, carrying emotional salience forward to our own time and circumstances. Somehow, the unimaginable becomes all too real.

And it’s still going on.

“On a trip like this it is best to do rapid fire sketches, with movement. I used my drawing book like a camera. I rely very much on the power and energy of the initial drawing.”

But why is art necessary in a war?

Graeme Lothian, who was sent on the same trip as Jules George, has a unique perspective. Decades ago he was a commando before breaking his back. He sees the artists’ purpose as complementary to the journalists and historians who will also chronicle the war.

“It’s good to stand there and take a step back and just look at the Army from a distance. This will be history one day, Camp Bastion will be dust. We are painting history.”

And he believes the very act of deploying artists to Afghanistan shows progressive thinking on the part of the MoD.

“The Army have always said no to artists, now they are changing their mind. There is a sea change that artists are important.” –
Why do we need oil painters in a war zone?

There are some works of art which must be experienced in their original state for the message to come across. A postcard rendition of a Mark Rothko piece has no chance of capturing the awesome (I mean this in the strongest senses), silent sentience, hung on a wall in the Tate gallery. When surrounded by them in the Rothko room, you are compelled to fall silent yourself; to stand still, and watch them breathe. Pulse with life. They draw you in, as though towards an answer for every posed question, or perhaps the end of time itself.

I can’t bring myself to look at some of them full-on, only with the sideways glance of a reluctant admirer, with defiance and submission both. The damn things speak for themselves. They make you listen.

Art allows us to learn as much about ourselves as each other. While inadvertent plagiarism (cryptomnesia) is an undeniable part of creativity, there’s no sense in shutting down a project for the tension between goodwill and guilt, and certainly no shame in reworking ideas as an homage to another. As Pete Seeger put it, “You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little… It’s a process. It’s not any particular song, it’s not any particular singer. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.”
(I wish I’d known about this as a teenager, when I gave up on writing out of fear I was just borrowing from all the inspirational childhood literature. Personal perceptions are what make us unique. Everyone has their own story to tell.)

I feel most at home among the Tonalist painters, who in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, established an American art movement based on “an abiding spiritual feeling for the intimacies of the human landscape.” The name itself alludes to “the use of muted natural tones… portraying the symbolic and abstract character of landscape forms.” James Abbott McNeill Whistler, a key founder, sought to bring harmony to the wilderness of nature with the essence of humanity. Like Hemingway, Whistler valued the idea of artistic crossovers.

“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful — as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.” – “Mr Whistler’s Ten O’Clock”, Public lecture, Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly, 20 February 1885.

The founder of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky, “wanted to evoke sound through sight and create the painterly equivalent of a symphony that would stimulate not just the eyes but the ears”; he spoke of art in the synaesthetic language that is a characteristic blending of the senses. “Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.” In the same way as Whistler, who believed that “art should not serve narrative, but rather project the artist’s subjective feelings through the handling of the medium,” and who drew upon the philosophy of “art for art’s sake,” Kandinsky wanted to further the internal appreciation of music through the colours he experienced; giving non-synaesthetes the chance to experience a sensory crossover too. But anything more would be a distraction from the audience’s emotional connection. A simple gratification was to be found in viewing art, without looking for any more meaning than what was before them.

As a chromesthete, I see colours and patterns in sound – predominantly music – and moods. Though abstract and impressionist art lend themselves towards some kind of external view of what goes on in my head, nothing comes quite so close as Whistler’s “Nocturne” set. The play between light and shadow, abstract over concrete, with things appearing not quite as they should seem. The once-firm lines of steel and stone are now seemingly spun from cobweb, and likely to be blown away in a wandering night breeze. Time is dialled down to sequential movements; less a narrative, than a handful of slow-shutter shots. The gluey state of dreams and drowsiness and half-light.

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Nocturne, Blue and Silver – Battersea Reach

A construct undone, and somehow more accessible for it.

“Taking a cue from a critic who had referred to his early portrait of his mistress… as a ‘symphony in white,’ Whistler began to envision and entitle his works with the abstract language of music, calling them symphonies, compositions, harmonies, nocturnes, arrangements, and so forth.” It’s not difficult to see how the French critic would have drawn comparisons; just as snow is never only one colour, “The White Girl” (or “Symphony in White No.1”) is composed of as many shades in a pale palette as you would find instruments in an orchestral piece. In Whistler’s tonalist work, the visual theme weaves itself into the very semantics of music: “Nocturne” is defined as “a composition inspired by, or evocative of, the night” – that resonance found in the twilight hues of a trickling character piece for the piano, played to a blue-and-silver garden or lowlit bar. Disbelief is more easily suspended when written between the lines. Whenever I’m feeling not quite myself – stuck with my head on the writer’s block, greyed-out by the Everyday – I go flicking through the works of Whistler and his contemporaries, to find the same fluid surreality of a moonlight sonata. It’s a bit of immersion, prior to writing.

As individuals bring their experiences to art for subjective interpretation, so the arts in turn allow creators to reflect upon and complement each other’s work. What is the first draft of writing, but a slew of words spilt with inspiration? We then edit to needs, as a gardener prunes a rose to allow it to flourish. The painter somehow knows when the next dab of colour will be as a jarring note in a composition. It’s not so much the willpower to begin, as the control to Stop – to insist and argue with the inner critic, that a piece is complete.

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.

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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