Now the clouds become a spill of Stephens school ink – blue black on a Basildon Bond grey blue. It seeps across, blotting – yes, blotting whatever the sun was trying to inscribe or maybe paint – light, vivid, in carefree hues.
Now the clouds become a spill of Stephens school ink – blue black on a Basildon Bond grey blue. It seeps across, blotting – yes, blotting whatever the sun was trying to inscribe or maybe paint – light, vivid, in carefree hues.
Then a breeze, tipping to reveal the white undersides of poplar leaves. I splay my fingers and comb through the feather tops of long grass. The knock-knock of a woodpecker is answered by its echo, then all, apart from the low bumble-buzz of a bee, drops back to a stillness.
At the water’s edge they dance their courtship – up and down – around. When one comes to rest on a swaying reed, I look closely at its delicate black wings. They remind me of my stocking tops – the ones I thought would win in our dance of courtship – suspenders and suspense – the tease and slow removal; until all that remained was removal – yours. Turned out there was more to love, than lingerie and fireside sex.
How did you learn to make your web, arachnid dear, with your delicate thread? Those in Chantilly play bobbins for years, are taught to weave lace with patience and tears. No instruction book, no word of mouth, yet you twine away with mathematical stealth. How does the knowledge pass down between, when there is no school for eight-legged-eyed things? And how did you know it was the way to a meal – the result of your art would provide you with fuel? You wrap them so neatly and pack them away, save them for rain-times when flies cannot play. It’s difficult to say ‘no grand design’ when I watch you craft your work so fine.
A ploughed field, and from the woods beyond, a pheasant’s call. The warm wind on my skin as if to say there-there, and buttercups that wouldn’t melt.
Along the towpath in a dimming light my dog snuffles in the ornamental shrubs and rolls on recently cut grass. Nearby is a dark shape that I soon recognise as a human figure on its side with knees drawn slightly up. I wonder if it is alive, and see when closer, it is a shabby man, his head on the pillow of his collie dog. It’s Good Friday, the ground still holding the winter’s chill. Nearby, discarded, is an empty beer can. I walk on and pass a couple seated on a bench, hear the sound of their kisses, so keep my eyes averted, although my dog knows no such courtesy and goes to investigate. Passing houses, I smell honeyed spice cake, and further on, the sulphur tang of a lit match. Street lamps come to life along the embankment and across the bridge, throwing their reflections like yellow ric-rac on the water. I think on the curled figure of the man on the grass. I want to give him a blanket, soup, something, but return to my place of plenty, pondering only the nonjudgmental warmth of a dog’s fur.
I used to ride a horse that shied at his shadow. But maybe it was because he could see my shadow sitting on his. When I was seven, my father said he had something important to tell me. I had to sit nicely, and he announced that he was going to marry the latest young nanny. It didn’t seem so important to me. I thought he was going to tell me something I would like. Something me. After all, I was at the centre of my universe. Shadows are all about where the sun is in your orbit.
My husband began to see our sons once a fortnight. I’d drop them off at his brother’s flat, and after he got a house with his woman, the boys would stay on Saturday night.
My father put a sundial on a plinth in our garden. When my brother and I were in the woods, I could tell the time by the length of shadows. We used to blow dandelion seed-heads to see if it was true that they could tell the time. The French word for dandelion is pissenlit – piss in bed. I wondered if it was the dandelions that made my brother wet his bed.
A few months later, my husband declared himself bankrupt. The house was in negative equity. I began divorce proceedings.
Reflections are like shadows on shiny surfaces. Now I am reflecting on the subject of shadows. How funny words can be. My shadow used to jump all over the cracks in the pavement. Once with my big black dog in the orchards, I came across a burnt-out car, alarmed when I saw it so out of place. Rust, and the burnishing of flame, had patterned its surface orange and blue. Inners of seats were a maze of ringlets. A hail of tiny glass cubes caught the sunlight, and the tyres were just a fine wire mesh. An apple fell and rolled onto the border of scorched earth. A green trail of columbine tangled its way over the engine.
My little business continued to grow, despite Thatcher’s political and economic crisis. I was asked if I could repair antique dolls too.
It never occurred to me that the young nannies weren’t nannies. After all, we had our regular nanny, the one we called Auntie. She wore a floral pinnie and smelt of lavender polish and cake. She came every day to clean and cook. She gave us raw egg beaten in milk, because it would make us strong, and if we were peckish, sugar sandwiches, which reminded me of seaside picnics. Auntie was petite and practical. Her hair was always in curlers under a blue kerchief. She wasn’t good at answering questions, but very good at brushing my hair and homemade remedies for our childhood ailments.
I was running a hospital for injured and misused playthings – restoring childhood memories to the sentimental. I did it with true dedication and sensitivity, and felt my father would have approved of my neat racks of honey-handled tools. I liked old tools, and collected them too. I like the smooth wear and polish the craftsman’s hands have left. Tools like that are dependable.
My father smoked a pipe. I tried my first smoke at primary school in the shadows behind the new prefab classrooms. We had some blue Basildon Bond writing paper and dried sycamore leaves. It left us choking. Later we tried a good-size dog-end we’d found. My friend’s granddad had a shadow on his lung. She said it was because of smoking. Sometimes at night, to entertain my brother, I’d make shadow animals by torchlight on the wall. I’d use my hands and fingers to make a rabbit, and he would make one too, and our rabbits would fight. Then we’d hear someone coming, turn off the torch and pretend to be asleep. For six dolly mixtures, I showed a boy my wee-wee in the shadows behind the prefab classrooms.
BBC local radio called and asked if I would like to do a monthly live phone-in as their resident expert. I went to their studios, my stomach in knots, my hands shaking, and answered calls, mostly about values, letting people down gently, and tried not to make noises into the microphone when I said words beginning with p.
At weekends, my father would take us to London in his car. My stepmother sat beside him, wearing a fur coat, silk headscarf and gloves up to her elbows. She shaded her eyes with dark wing-shape glasses. As we drove through our village, some people would wave. I felt proud of our car. My father said it was vintage, and called a Bentley. He said it used to belong to a bandleader. It had big chrome headlamps, running boards, a hood like a pram, and wasn’t like any other car we saw. My stepmother said she’d prefer a Silver Shadow.
Sometimes before I got dressed, I’d study my body in the mirror. I was in good shape, though late thirties. A continental skin-type had saved me from stretch marks after pregnancies, and I’d stayed toned. A little underweight since my husband had gone, but I liked the effect. All going to waste, I thought, turning sideways and thrusting out my chest.
A boyfriend introduced me to the music of Cat Stevens. My favourite song was Moonshadow – ‘Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light. Did it take long to find me, and are you gonna stay the night?’ Cat Stevens looked like Holman Hunt’s Jesus. I spent a long time gazing into the brown eyes of his picture, and read and re-read every lyric on the lp cover. And when I was sixteen, I saw the rock band Uriah Heep. I’d never seen musicians live. The lead singer wore a cheesecloth shirt with voluminous sleeves. When he held his arms out, the light from behind gave him angel wings, shining too through his long curly hair, making a halo. I had found my religion.
A free paper arrived every week. It had a lonely hearts’ column. One advert stood out, so I replied, dreaming of a refined man to give us a new life. I got no response.
When I was little, grown-ups who visited, or talked to my father outside Sunday-school, would exclaim about my long eyelashes. The comments annoyed me, so one day I cut them off. It was the oddest feeling to have no lashes. My nickname in my late teens was ‘panda-eyes’ because I used so much dark eye-shadow, liner and mascara. I studied pictures of Twiggy and other models to copy their eye makeup. I plucked out my eyebrows and drew them in higher, arched in permanent surprise. Lipstick was white. I wore my suede mini-skirt with thigh-length platform boots and a big floppy hat.
So I placed my own advert: ‘Attractive, artistic woman, seeks similar man’. To access replies, one had to phone a central number, dial in a personal code, then listen to the recorded voices. There were fifty messages.
Foreshadowing is a literary device. Really it should be called fore-illuminating, because it tells you something in the future of a story. For instance, if I were to tell you at this point that the introduction of a stepmother was to bring great misery, pain, and ultimately tragedy to this story, I have foreshadowed its direction. My stepmother brought a shadow over our cottage, one that starved our growing of light. But like all dark clouds throwing shadows on hills and grazing lambs, they pass. Nothing is forever.
At first, I was alarmed by my friends’ warnings of shady characters, out to abduct and murder women. I followed the advice and always met my blind date in a public place. I enjoyed the preparation, the dressing, the makeup, the anticipation.
Why are disreputable characters called shady? Is it because they lurk in the shadows, waiting to pounce – a Dick Tracy baddie, eyes indiscernible under the brim of a homburg. Or is it a rapper rhyming the unspeakable – Slim Shady, won’t you please stand up? Vampires prefer the shadows. To them the light is fatal. As the genre has progressed, their stories have become overtly sexual, but I preferred the intangible tingle I had as a child, watching Christopher Lee lift the swooning, white chiffon-draped body of a virgin, her neck exposed as he drew back his lips to reveal those cruel fangs…
So many with broken hearts. So many traded-in for younger, richer, fitter models. A succession of sob-stories who WLTM someone with a GSOH, preferably with their OHAC – auditioning the short-listed for their suitability to administer plenty of TLC.
In art lessons I was taught the importance of shadows, the way they grounded a thing – gave it substance. But sometimes the substance steps away from its shadow, like Cliff Richard did with The Shadows. Then Hank Marvin shone. And in music, literature, architecture, they speak of light and shade – the need for contrasts, for definition, the two working together like good and evil. Would one know how to identify the former without the latter, or vice-versa? Would we know we were happy, if we had never been sad?
I was on the edge of giving-up on blind dates. But then there was a voice. A soft voice – confident without being arrogant. A voice with laughter. If I had been Goldilocks, and that voice porridge, it would have been just right.
Sometimes we need to shade our eyes – blinded by a low winter sun too near the horizon. Not like the summer sun, high in its prime, bluebird sky, causing our shadows to all but disappear. Sometimes we shade them into a sunset, astonished by the fire-heart clouds, burning with a fever that would frazzle long tall shadows, turning them all into trail blaze.
It’s as if I woke in the children’s home. I didn’t know it was a children’s home. Light streamed through French windows making patterns on parquet flooring. Beyond the windows were sloping lawns. The room was huge and unfurnished. I was four years old. My two-year-old brother sat on the floor, bulky in his nappy, wailing. I wanted him to stop. I put my hands over my ears. Someone had told me I must look after my little brother. A stranger came, picked him up and carried him off through a panelled door. Everything before must have been a warm floatation of safety and senselessness.
It seemed as if one day I was lying beside my husband, dreaming of our sons’ bright futures, wondering how soon to try for a daughter, worried by which Laura Ashley wallpaper to choose; the next, he was gone. It was all the fault of Margaret Thatcher. Her and her bloody poll tax.
Perhaps my repair skills come from an interest in how things work. You have to be able to dismantle it all before you know how to restore well. That’s how I do it with the antique teddies. I unpick each thread around the teddy’s old paws, use them as a template, and carefully, minutely, stitch the new ones back in place. You have to use the right materials, or the restoration will shout ‘fake’.
It was our eldest son’s seventh birthday. My husband had been gone four weeks. I phoned him and asked if he would come to the party. ‘For his sake,’ I said.
My brother and I liked Airfix kits. They came in sections of shaped plastic. My windowsill was covered in galleons; my brother’s in tanks, and from the ceiling hung both our planes. Over the haze from an electric heater, they turned slowly on cotton threads. My first was a bi-plane – a Sopworth Camel. The glue was called cement. It was clear and smelt of acid-drops. Sometimes I’d taste it. Reacting with spit, it turned into a crisp of plastic. It worked by melting plastic together, so if you got it on a surface you didn’t want, it could ruin the model.
I made invites to family and friends – children to play with; and bought a birthday Spiderman cake. Cake-makers use apricot jam as glue. My husband arrived, and my heart was racing.
A bomb-hole in the woods had filled with water. We found it by chance in a clearing. I caught a green and brown speckled newt in it. I was frightened by how deep it might be. The edges were of clay, and I made coil pots, letting the sun bake them hard. I collect hand-made pottery, especially with signatures. It’s tactile, and honest, and its methods so ancient. I like newt colour glazes – and cobalt blue. Sometimes there’s a thumbprint in the clay. I once filled a crack in the yard with concrete. My big black dog left his print in it. I wonder if his mark’s still there, even though, in our different ways, we are both long gone. On the backdoor step of our cottage, my father had drawn his initials and the year.
My husband left our son’s party suddenly. I ran out in slippers and followed him in my car. I wanted him to come back. I found his car at the blonde woman’s house.
At the children’s home I had to sleep with three other children. We had two bunk beds. They couldn’t speak English, but I began to learn the meaning of their words. We talked after dark and passed a beetle in a matchbox between us. They were two brothers and a sister. Their parents had been killed in a crash, and I wondered with a pained thrill if mine had been killed too. I wondered where my brother was. When I woke in the morning, my bed was wet. I couldn’t understand why.
I drove home, back to the party, and screamed at my mother-in-law that her son was an adulterer. She slapped me across the face.
My father often brought antiques and curios home from London. Our cottage was packed like a mini museum. The hall had a collection of Chinoiserie. My favourite was a black lacquered cabinet inset with birds, cherry-blossom and butterflies in mother-of-pearl. There was a camphor-wood chest, decorated over with Chinese scenes – the carving so deep it was 3-D. On the tiled floor was a tiger’s skin. It’s skull was still inside its head, set with yellow glass eyes. His jaws were open in a permanent snarl directed at the front door. At the edge of his skin was a black felt frill. There was a small hole in one shoulder. I used to lie on top of him, and hold his fangs. He smelt of hay and mixed spices.
When I opened the front door the next morning, the coloured balloons I’d hung for the party were deflated and wrinkled. A few months later the blonde woman left her husband and two sons. My husband and she moved in together.
In the children’s home, I was made to line up in my underwear. I wriggled my toes on the cold flooring. It was winter and my breath came out in dragon puffs. Along the line were boys and girls of all sizes. I didn’t like to be in my underwear with strangers. A man in a white coat came along with a woman in a white apron. The man told me to open my mouth. He put the handle of a spoon down my throat. It was cold and tasted bitter. It made me retch. It made me indignant. There were pine trees all around our cottage. Pine sap is sticky. It’s pungent too.
Sometimes there was a message on the answering machine. A man’s growling voice, calling me ‘a fucking bitch’, saying he would take me ‘up the arse’. I told the Police, but they couldn’t help. BT put a device on the line to indentify callers’ numbers. I told a few friends, and the calls stopped.
Once, when I was eight and walking to the village on an errand, I glanced into a parked car. I don’t know why I glanced. There was a man sitting in it. He was cupping a blue-veined reddish thing in his lap. I don’t think I paused in my stride, but by the time I reached the shop, I realised what I’d seen. It was so different to my little brother’s. I kept repeating the shopping list: Half a pound of butter, Ajax, a loaf of Hovis and a jar of Virol. You can’t mend what you’ve seen, or what you’ve heard. I felt I was wrong to have looked in the car, so never told anyone.
I checked the locks twice every night, and hung cow-bells on the gate. In bed I’d listen so intently, I felt I could hear my pulse. I got a big black and tan dog. His white fangs were covered by a snuffley, soft muzzle. He was so big, my youngest son could ride him. At night he slept with his arms around the dog’s muscled, velvet shoulders.
It was clear my father hadn’t died, when he came to visit me in the home. He took me out in his big car. It smelt of tobacco and felt safe. As he drove, trees strobed the bonnet, dark – light, dark – light. He told me we were in Sevenoaks. ‘I know how it got its name,’ I chirped. ‘There are seven trees.’ And I counted them as we passed. Singing Ten Green Bottles had taught me counting. He’d come to visit for my fifth birthday. I don’t know how he answered my questions. Surely I asked them? Where is my mother… where is my brother… why can’t I be in our cottage? ‘…and if the last green bottle should accidentally fall…’
Business in my little shop was improving, but not enough for the piles of bills. I met a new friend. She repaired jewellery. We took it in turns – one would man the shop whilst the other looked after the children. She had five and was married to a Moslem. Our children bonded like brothers and sisters.
That summer in the children’s home, I longed for my father’s visits. Sometimes he didn’t come, but when he did, I sat on the padded leather passenger seat of his car, watched his hands on the varnished hoop of the steering wheel, loving the freedom of the open top, the breeze in my hair. I expect I chattered non-stop. I watched pink candyfloss spinning in a metal drum – vanilla ice cream melting down its cone, and at the fair, I cheated at apple-bobbing.
My husband didn’t give us maintenance. My brother-in-law said he’d help. He was a bachelor, older and steadier than my husband. I felt I loved him. He said he’d always loved me. But he made me promise to keep it secret, and said he’d marry me when his mother died.
Returning to our cottage came just as abruptly and without explanation as leaving it. My little brother had grown. I knelt on a kitchen stool while my father put photos in the drawer of a free-standing kitchen unit. It was pale blue, with a drop-down enamelled table. I asked him if my mother was dead. His answer was cryptic, and I used to wonder about it at night but knew I shouldn’t ask again. I couldn’t remember what she looked like, but if I saw Shirley Bassey on the TV, it made me think of my mother.
It seemed so simple – a side-step and all would be mended. And I didn’t want to lose my other brother and sister-in-laws. I loved to belong to their big family. But to wait until his mother was dead? I thought he was a coward.
Our cottage was next to riding stables. I loved horses. At school I’d gallop around the playground, snort, whinny and paw the ground. One day a group gathered around me and began to chant, ‘Horsey, horsey’. My best friend joined them, so I rushed at her, and bit her arm, because a few months before a pony had done the same to me. My father was summoned to come and get me. I had to say sorry. The next day my friend and I circled the playground arm in arm like nothing had happened. But the others never teased me again.
I went to my brother-in-law’s flat one morning when I should have been manning the shop. In his bed, sunken in the middle, with dirty sheets, I got my way. The bedroom was gloomy – the air stale. It was all wrong. He was thirty-seven – his first time ever.
Different women came to the cottage. I watched one as she lay on her back. She made cycling motions with her legs in the air. Her underwear was red, black and lacy. I thought she was pretty. On my sixth birthday my father demonstrated my new pink bike in the dairy yard up the lane. I stood in the middle and he rode around me in a circle, his knees nearly hitting his chin. It didn’t seem right to see my father so comically. My ears were filled with the cattle’s lowing, my nose with fermented grass and farm slurry. The lane to our cottage was bumpy with flints. A nurse mended the gash on my brow with butterfly clips.
We heard someone open the front door and call my brother-in-law’s name. He put his hand over my mouth and I thought I would suffocate. His friend’s voice called out. My brother-in-law began to shake and sweat as we heard his friend go to the kitchen, fill the kettle, and make a cup of tea. It seemed like hours, lying there in the unwashed bed, shaded by curtains that were never opened.
Near our cottage were ancient woods. In spring they had a carpet of blue. The sap of a bluebell is sticky and bitter. My brother and I found fallen gravestones deep in those woods. We brushed off the leaf-mould and combined our strength to lift them against trees. Moss had filled the chiselled names. Hero and Sonny and Blackie and Ginger. Our cottage had been a gatekeeper’s to a mansion. A white-painted gate spanned the lane. My brother and I rushed from the cottage if we heard a car. We’d ride the gate while it swung open, and back again to make it shut.
I didn’t go to his flat again. He still came to visit me, but that was our only time. He wasn’t as tall as his little brother, my husband, and had curlier hair. He wanted to be a sculptor, but made his money window-cleaning. He made his art from thin bamboo strips, glued together with a hot-melt gun.
My grandfather bought me a set of Children’s Encyclopaedias. At first I only looked at the pictures. My favourite was The Light of the World by Holman Hunt. I wanted to see beyond the overgrown garden gate. Tracing letters with my finger, I sounded out my first word. It happened suddenly, and I went on to read a sentence. My grandfather used to make me repeat, ‘Around the rugged rock the ragged ruffian ran.’ I had to say it, making a purring noise with my tongue on all the rs.
My brother-in-law still helped with money. He believed in God and urged me to pray. Kneeling with him, I tried to believe, but it wasn’t easy like superstition.
When I couldn’t sleep, I’d take my dog and walk through the dark streets. His paws trod soft and silent. His toes spread under his weight. He didn’t mind walking on cracks. My footsteps echoed in the empty streets. When it rained, the orange streetlights shimmered like sunsets on the wet tarmac. Sometimes my dog looked up in my face as if he wanted a question answered. It takes a light touch to mend things well.
I try not to step on cracks in the pavement. I know it’s only superstition, but I learned it when I was a child – a long time ago. We can’t unlearn superstition. Once in a mind, it defies logic. Now I try not to step on cracks in the pavement.
After the birth of our second son, my husband started to behave strangely.
I think of paving slabs like moments, and between moments, there are spaces. No-one ever talks about the spaces between moments. It’s as if they don’t exist, but they have to for moments to be separate. I think there are caverns between moments.
I asked him, I said, ‘What’s the matter? Is there something the matter?’ But he didn’t answer.
Once, when I was thirteen, I was walking to the village shop, avoiding the cracks in the pavement. I saw the Vicar’s son riding his bike towards me. I fancied the Vicar’s son. He was the same age as me, but tall with a quiff and a boy’s swagger. I glanced up at him as he approached, but tried to keep my eyes on the pavement. As he passed, he spat. It splattered over my face. I wiped it away with my sleeve. Tears came. I didn’t understand why he did it. I never told anyone.
While my husband was at work, I felt so cross about the way he didn’t help in the house, or with the baby, but as soon as he came home, the anger melted – not his fault, I’d tell myself, and my heart would swell.
Every year, in the field next to our cottage, the farmer planted barley. When the earth was ploughed, it looked like my dad’s brown corduroy. Seeds are buried alive and while they’re sleeping. When they start to grow, they make the fields stripy-green. Barley grows a beard when it comes of age. When it matures, it’s the scythe and the sickle.
But I told a friend my husband was changing. She phoned one day, and said he was spending time with a woman. They were in the same amateur dramatics group.
Sometimes, in the bath, I slide my head under the surface and lie very still. I think about drowning, about Virginia Woolf, about unborn babies swimming in wombs like aquariums. I lie very still and hear my heart throbbing in my ears. When I was newly married, we lived in a flat in an old house. If I lay under the bathwater there, I could hear strange tapping and ringing sounds. The plumbing gurgled like the intestines of a monster. The tiles were white and cold.
I asked him if he was having an affair. He hesitated and said, ‘No’. He punched the wall. It left a hole in the plasterboard. I was frightened of our silence and what was in it. So I didn’t ask my husband again. I waited and watched.
There were deneholes in the woods near our cottage. Someone told me they were deep; that they led to underground caves. I used to dream of climbing down, using vines and ferns as my handholds. I wanted to bring back a stalactite. Stalactites hold on tight. Stalagmites grow below. I didn’t know about Orpheus then. Sometimes groups of climbers walked past our cottage. They had spiked boots and great loops of rope on their backs. When the foot-and-mouth came, my brother told me the farmer threw dead cows down the denehole. He said there was a dead car down there too.
My husband started to come home late, and sit, staring at the TV with glazed, dead eyes. He was growing fat. I wondered if his work was making him unhappy. I’d been making a little money mending old teddy bears, and getting more work. I opened a little shop in a craft centre and hoped he would be my business partner.
When I worked in London, I travelled on the Underground. A voice on the tannoy used to say, ‘Mind the gap!’ It made me worry. I wondered if many people had lost a foot, letting it slip into the gap. I stood well back behind the line, my feet pressed tight against each other. As the train approached, I’d feel a cringing between my shoulders, as if something was going to push me.
He wasn’t doing any work, just rehearsing for amateur dramatics. The electricity and telephone bills were overdue. This isn’t a partnership, I thought, lugging home shopping on the pushchair. The car had broken down.
A girl at school had a gap between her front teeth. It was a big gap and her teeth stuck out. We used to tease her. I never thought to feel sorry for her. I was just glad it wasn’t me. She wore her hair in pigtails, and we called her Goofy. Madonna has a gap between her teeth, but it doesn’t seem to worry her. I felt sorry for the girl with the stutter, though. Her words were all trapped in spaces.
I put my wedding dress in a black bin-liner and outside the front door. He walked past it for five days before the dustmen took it away. I did it out of spite, but never told him.
Sometimes when I read, I feel words between the printed ones. I can hear them in my head. They make pictures of other things. I like those spaces. I wish I could lift the words and look under them, like lifting a paving slab to look for shiny black beetles. I can remember the place on a page where certain phrases are, but sometimes I forget the things I’ve said and done. A book is a special secret place. You go there alone.
At a party my husband danced with a blonde woman. His hands were around her waist. Everyone kept glancing at me.
On Brighton Pier the slats had gaps through which you could see the sea. I went there when I was nearly sixteen. A boy kept looking at me and I smiled at him. I walked along to the very end. When I looked in my compact, the wind had turned my lips blue. It was June. As I came back, trying not to look through the gaps, the boy stopped me and asked if I wanted a date. I’d never been on a date before. That night, I wore pink hotpants and platform shoes. After the disco, things went too far in the back of his car. Walking home, it hurt in the place between my legs. He pestered me for weeks, but I refused to see him ever again.
If my husband tried to be affectionate, I pushed him away. In bed, I put our baby in the void between us. It was easier to breast-feed at night that way.
In the garden of our cottage was a cast iron pump. It was old and broken. The well had been turned into a cesspit. I never walked over the lid. I couldn’t imagine a worse death. A lorry used to come and pump it out. One year, some birds made a nest in the pump. They flew in and out of the spout. My father was a goldsmith. The door to his workshop was near the old pump. There was a brick path. One day, after my father had left for good, I weeded the path and cabochon garnets came up with the roots.
The am-dram performance was Guys and Dolls. My husband was playing Sky Masterson, and the blonde woman, Sarah Brown. It amused me to think she saw him like that.
Someone should invent a mirror that turns our image the right way round. Then we would see ourselves as others do. It’s weird that the brain corrects the eyes from seeing everything upside-down. It does it without our ever knowing. What else does our brain edit? Perhaps there are things it doesn’t want us to see – things in the spaces between the things we see. Perhaps it protects us from something.
He came home with a big car on HP. The mortgage was in arrears and the washing machine had broken down.
My brother and I made a camp in the woods. We dug out a pit as deep as our height. We made a roof out of branches and bracken. I wove a mat of green reeds, and we made a stove with old bricks – a chimney through the roof with an old drainpipe. We made alcoves in the walls – stood a candle in one and a pinecone in the other.
Spring came and the arrears were worse. I didn’t want to lose my home. It took such a long time to make the garden pretty. Someone kept skewering the new car’s tyres. Six-inch nails. ‘Why?’ I asked, but my husband shrugged.
No-one explained about the Eleven-plus. We had to do it in two sittings. I was in the second group. A girl came out and said to me, ‘Just put dashes, then they let you out sooner.’ So I did. I put dashes in all the spaces. That summer holiday was a real scorcher. It turned me ripe like the nuts and berries. It seemed like it would never end. I sat on the hill overlooking our cottage and listened to skylarks. I knew all the names of the wild flowers. My best friend and I thought we’d go on to the same school. I never saw her again.
Depression is a slow creeping thing, like damp in walls. It rots your timbers until one day the roof falls in. You sit and the washing-up piles in haphazard towers, your hair tangles and you no longer hear what’s being said.
Once, my brother and I pushed through brambles and found a clearing with a larch tree. The leaves were like hundreds of green tassels. Under the tree was a crumpled magazine. It had pictures in it of naked women. They made my brother laugh. Some of the pages were torn out. I used to like cutting things out of magazines. I’d arrange the cut-outs on the coffee table to make stories. It made the magazine full of spaces like negative silhouettes.
I phoned his friend. I was crying. I said, ‘I think he’s having an affair’. His friend paused. I wanted him to reassure me, but he didn’t. Instead he said he’d try to find him.
When I walked to school, I had to pass a big graveyard. I used to run my hand along the flaked-paint railings – powdered green, but blue under. The sound was like a dull bell. Some had been bent and I squeezed between them to look for the grave of my uncle. He was only a baby. My dad said he was born blue. A blue baby. Some of the graves were overgrown. Some of them had plastic flowers that were faded and dirty.
Later that day, my brother-in-law visited. He said my husband had been crying and needed some clothes. I packed a bag and gave him his acoustic guitar too. Playing it used to soothe him.
When I was young, and turned out the light, I jumped into bed from the farthest distance. It was because of a hand under the bed, waiting to grab my ankle. There was an upright piano in our bedroom. Its keys were like a big set of grinning teeth. I used to practise a lot. I’d started to compose my own tunes. One day I came back from school and it had gone. Nobody ever told me why.
The next morning when I woke, I was full of angry energy. My eyes in the mirror startled me. Two weeks passed and I heard nothing.
There’s a missing curtain hook in my bedroom. In the morning, the light shines through and makes a beam. In the beam I see dust motes flitting. I used to think they were tiny fairies. I wish they were. Sometimes I lie late in bed, with my hands linked behind my head. I blow at the motes. It drives them crazy. I have blue dragonflies around my lampshade.
My husband used to put his arms around and lift me from the ground. He was seven years younger than me. Time passed and I took off my rings. They left a white indent in my skin. I moved to the other side of the bed. I slept in the space.
Perforations make it easy to detach coupons and slips. Road markings remind me of perforations. If you cross them at the wrong time, you might get posted, or find yourself in empty space. I drive as carefully as I can, and I don’t tread on cracks in the pavement. An accident is when someone slips on their moment. Yes, things go wrong in spaces. And between the words that people speak are all the things they’re really saying.
I don’t know why I find it easier, or feel more motivated to clean when the husband is out, but his being away fishing for the day has led to this activity. That and the light. Where he normally sits with blinds drawn, I open them, and with the act of cleaning, find that the paintwork after 10 years is shabby. And strange stains are appearing on the ceiling. It feels like the house is sharing in our own dilapidation. We need an NHS for homes.
A blue sky, the low sun forcing me to shade my eyes. I take the high path, the river walk being bog. At the lake, I see that the curve of the fountain’s spurt mimics that of the swan’s neck and the squirrel’s tail. Near the tennis courts, my dog finds a lost ball.
Our body-clocks are shot. We stay up late, the TV mesmerizing us, the sofa forming hollows where we sit. Each grey day, it has crept a little later, until today, we wake at twelve. Dream-lagged, I mourn the morning lost, but still I shun routine or rule.
My dog rolling – nae, wriggling on his back in rapture. In flattened grass, the rain-drenched corpse of a rat… My dog, giving me his hard-done-by look, in the bath with foaming clouds of shampoo.
A shower of sweet-smelling gifts makes for long, luxuriant baths into the New Year. Each side of the window, rain drops and steam streaks seem to mingle.
‘Remains’ is the word today. At the site of Santa’s Grotto, we take down fairy lights, un-decorate Christmas trees and dismantle panels. Eleven months’ hence, the storage boxes will be unpacked revealing so much forgotten treasure. For now, rooms become as bare as winter trees. I go home to drink the last of the Christmas pudding vodka.
Boundaries blur between stream and bank. Talk of insurance, the mill sluice, and log-jams on the weir. Meanwhile, a delinquent wind plays roundabout alone in the children’s park. My dog snuffling.
Small steps on this mud-slide slope. Twigs are tousled, branches beaten – the wind rests a while. My dog snuffling. Amongst the rusty ground-fall leaves, green spear-heads. On the branches of a silver birch, two cola cans hang like baubles.
A way, picked around bomb holes muted with bramble and old-man’s beard. My dog, snuffling. Crumbled fortifications, mossed and strung with briar rosehips. Below, the sea. Beyond, more beyond. Nothing to fear.
I wouldn’t be getting emotional about it, if I weren’t over-using it, would I?
It seems to me that facebook is like a social gathering where most guests are standing alone talking to the space a foot in front of their faces. They don’t make eye-contact with anyone. They all hold a photo album and turn the pages, pointing sometimes to a picture. Occasionally a passer-by will stop and look at a photo, or listen to an individual’s dialogue, but most of the time words mingle and dissipate into the room to become an incoherent buzz – just the noise in a hive.