I liked the terracotta tiles when we first moved there and the way the ribbed glass on the conservatory door shook every time we closed it. It was an old, neglected place, needing repair like me.
A deer turned up on the back lawn in the summer, must have come down from by the Clock House, the owners ran the local dance school, were always ferrying children or horses about. Their place backed onto the woods. The deer was startled, lost. Like me.
It froze when it saw us in the kitchen, then spooked itself and ran off, like I should have done but I stayed. Its white tail bobbed, flashed through the hawthorn, leaves ruffled where it passed, then settled themselves.
I tried to settle myself. I don’t remember the date when it first happened, somewhere near the start of that first year, I think. It just seemed a natural response, somehow. I do remember how I backed up to the white wicker laundry basket, I could feel the lines of weave as I smacked it with my hand. And then the melamine working surface, I noticed it as I shouted out and had a fleeting thought of how it might feel to bring my head down hard on it. Of course I didn’t, but it did help to think about it.
There were a lot of flies that summer, we gave up trying to catch or kill them, they seemed to take over the kitchen. I remember swatting at them, as though dislodging a thought, like something darkening which had buzzed across my mind. I was making sandwiches no doubt, my arm still hurt from earlier but it wasn’t my dominant side, so that was alright.
I remember the fake pine cladding in the hallway to the toilet, sometimes the bathroom was a place where I would stay a while, pretend I had tummy problems, that sort of thing. Keep out of the way, you know?
I wore a lot of bracelets in those days. I remember banging my fist so hard into the cladding that it dented, it formed a crevice where my small hand had smashed. My bracelets jingled in the force. A bruise came out later down the side of my fingers. I didn’t feel anything at the time of course, just the hot release of wood against my skin, something to let the energy out.
I grew to enjoy the sensation of my nails as they dug in. Well, enjoy is too strong a word but I would appreciate them, yes, I was grateful for my nails down my arm. I’d do anything to make him stop but still his words would carry on. And I remember thinking in some disheveled part of me at the back of my mind, the part of me that sat on the floor with my back to the wall and hugged my knees until it stopped, I remember that part of me was thinking this isn’t normal but by then it was already too late, by then it was just the way it was.
When we left there I took a moment with the fake pine cladding, I ran my small white fingers over the tiny gashes that I’d made. It helped me to balance things out. I didn’t want to feel sad for leaving there with all its endless lawns and deers, with the quails and rabbits, the chickens which we befriended and the summer house by the pond that I grew to call my own.
I wanted to remember how it was and where the scars were on the walls.
I wanted it to be a fresh start and I wished for that with all my heart as we drove away past the poppy fields where I had stood, smiling into the camera. I had lifted my hand to shield my eyes from the sun, lifted it up to protect myself.
She found August in the packing boxes, in the quiet chaos of the empty house with the phone on the floor and their son at a friend’s. And it was still, dust balls plumed in corners, little spheres of moments where they’d sat. She found August in the slow closing of the door, the soft steps to the car and the pulling away.
And removal men like Brutus and Popeye upended sofas where they’d sat, manoeuvred their minutiae until one home morphed into the next. And in August, she found it in the giggling of their son down hallways and the opening of boxes and playing hide and seek. She found it through the serving hatch which hatched out their new world. August, in the packing tape and box numbers, August in their days to change and grow.
The rain had soaked the bamboo, now it leaned over, leaned into her like the weight of feelings. Its persistent lushness rippling, forging through it all, like her. She found August in the way the bamboo had grown.
And then the bamboo took her oxygen for a while, it gave up and gave in, drooped down to the ground as she sat out on its leaves. She was the tiny spheres of her world turned upside down and in the inversion she saw the old kitchen chair by the bedside with her clothes laid out for the trip, the crisp, white, crinkled cotton top, the reams of Indian skirt. Ready. Waiting.
She sipped tea and watched. The leaves waved, sodden, as if to say this is now, this rain is right now. But she didn’t care. She was upside down in raindrops and then it came again, a rush, a gushing on her patio, the fractured sky where the water wouldn’t drain away. And in the rain drops she leaned up her parents’ kitchen cupboards, black Mary Janes and a smile. You know the one, the one that took her to Wooten Wawen with canal boats moored alongside, their gypsy painted roses watching them as they parked and went inside.
And every petal knew what lay ahead and boats bobbed and algae glooped and pond-skaters did their thing. It was early evening, and mid evening, it was much later in the day. But above all else it was August and she found it yet again, upside down in raindrops.
Thank goodness for the rain she thought and through it she saw herself swishing, with tiny bells which jingled from her waistband as they walked. And later her parents’ settee would rear up again and beyond that, later still, in the silence, the soft moth-winged breath of their beginnings.
She was so glad she made it rain today, she clung onto the bamboo leaves and waited to dry out.
The sun had turned up, a little too excitable for her liking, a frivolous energy like the birdsong. She paid attention to it but nothing more. The bamboo had perked up, it felt optimistic and each leaf was striped and the stripes were their roads heading south. All of them, filling her garden with directions, with arrows saying it’s nearly 4pm, it’s time to leave. And it was and they did, in the old Orion, pausing at Evesham for a tea-cake, then beyond.
Maybe it would be on a Saturday and the pavements would shine dark, of course it didn’t matter and we’d cut through from the car park somewhere, turn left by The Baguette Shop and try to find the last remaining seats.
Jazz played, of course and the mothering comfort of coffee making sounds hissed and chinked and steamed up the view. And if we were lucky, we’d get the seats by the window and watch the humans go by. My earl grey was hot and I’d watch their disposable gloved hands load up the French bread with chicken salad, of course. And with a choice of six toppings I’d be reckless and wild and choose red pepper and grapes.
And we’d sit not too far down the road from Tyrell & Green, in the days before it became a nightclub, in the days before I waddled in there in my lilac ditsy print, to choose the rocking chair that held me while my back ached, which cocooned me while my tummy lurched.
We bought the footstool to go with it and somehow the print on the champagne fabric reminded me of a painting by Jean Miro from the days when I spiked my hair in orange mousse, when I pulled away from home and looked for myself in northern streets, in clanking lifts, in old buildings, with the smell of stretched calico on canvas.
There was something reassuring about the Jean Miro print underneath my swelling ankles as I rocked, as I soothed and it soothed me in the memory of when I wore zebra print, but not then. Then I held tight and held on as the spasms charged up my spine, as I took on my new form.
I liked Tyrell & Green and waddling in late summer, stacking up on the things we’d need for the journey ahead and while I twinged and swayed, somewhere just down the road in the steamed up Baguette Shop we sat looking out, Waterstones bags to our right, of course. And you ate prawns and I ate grapes and our Saturdays unfurled with raindrops down the window and the splintering shapes of humans doing their thing.
I always found it hard to hitch myself up on the high stools but once there I was content. Baguettes and books, wet streets which shimmered with the people that we’d become. On a Saturday through the filters of back then.
Shhh listen, settle down and hug up close, close to your knees, to your heart. Can you feel it beating under your clothes, under your skin? And in this moment you are safe, you are softened, you are small.
I’m trying to catch the thoughts, though they drift, they waver. I watch them rise and fall like my chest as I sit wide eyed but tired, embers crackle in my mind, a dog sniffs the air somewhere, but not here. It’s early, it’s dark although the sun is up.
I feel I’m preparing to hike but I have no thoughts as to where. The best of journeys then, to saunter. Maybe. And there is purpose of course, but I hide it from myself right now.
So huddle up, breathe deep and slow. Shhh, you are warm. Safe. It will be ok. I promise.
I lift the thought up into my vision, turn it around on the tips of my fingers, like a marble, like a jewel and watch it close. But while I study its colours, its form and feel the weight of it in my hand, in my heart, I will be curled up at my feet, I will be held.
So go ahead, choose the marbles, like the little girl with white socks, with battered red Start-Rite shoes and there she goes. She runs down the path at the side of the bungalow. The marbles chink in her small fist, they rub together but in each one a tiny universe turns though she cannot see it yet. She plays with them. Rolls them down the path. They smash and clatter, spin sideways into the hellebore.
The soil gets under her nails as she pulls them out, brushes them off on her red and blue boiled wool coat. She lifts them to her face and peers inside. Blues swirl to eau-de -nil, a smear of burnt umber at the edge, and on the edge, deep inside the marble in her hand, there is a woman. She stands still in a field, ravens circle, cut the air. It is cold. It is February. She is alone.
The little girl squeezes the marble in her hand then opens wide her palm and peers into the glass. There’s a woman deep inside, a woman on her hill. The little girl strokes the marble, brushes off the dried on soil and inside of it, like a fly in amber, frozen cold, the woman on the hill calls out. She calls out to the five year old in the garden, she looks up to the sky, to the dome beyond, to the small girl stroking her through the years and the glass. I’m scared she calls out to the child and the little girl nods and says I know. I understand.
She places the marble in the warm depth of her coat pocket and skips off down the path.
The fire spits. Shh, it’s warm now, breathe and rest and I will plait your hair. A distant dog barks somewhere but not here. The day is grey and leaden but not outside, outside it’s sodden winter, unsafe leaves to pull me down, the ever present threat of concrete and the fall. So we curl up. Sit by the fire. Shh, let the buttered toast soothe and calm.
Choose another marble now.
And through the embers a little girl skips down the path, she kneels on the cold slabs but doesn’t feel their hardness, it scrubs her knees but she is lost in play.
The marbles clatter, scrape and dart off under the carnation bush, its soft blue grey stalks bend over as if to shield, as if to save the day. The little girl shoves her hand in and rummages around. Bugs and worms startle, scatter at her fingers, soil coats her nails, crumbled twigs and leaves are pushed and then she finds it.
Out and up, triumphant and she gives a little dance. Her favourite marble, a fob, her mother calls it, and she looks deep inside. A rollercoaster twists lilac and indigo, like a captured ocean wave. It rises and falls in her hand, sweeps and dips, her face pressed up close to it, its coldness on her cheek. She peers inside and through the blues sits the image of a woman by a hospital bed. Her face folded in on itself and under her raincoat she is being severed from herself. She glances up and out through small side window, past the charts and words she cannot read and out and up and back to girl with the marble. And in her silent voice she screams out loud I cannot do this – help me.
And the little girl kisses the marble and pats it on the top. You’ll be ok she says then places it in her pocket, soft and warm, held and loved and it chinks against the others in the the fluff.
There now, there now, shh, drink this. I hand her a mug of hot orange and she sips and sobs. The broken woman at my feet, heavy from the hike, with leaden legs, looks out. She stares into the fire and through the sparks skips a tiny girl singing.
New shoes, blue shoes, stomp along like that shoes…
She has an old grey cat under her arm, its cream chest of matted fur has been stroked for years. It is battered, it is loved. And in her hand is a bag of marbles. They chink and scrape as she clambers out towards us.
Shh, shh she says. Don’t worry I’ve got you now. And her tiny arms grow wide to encircle us all.
I stoke the fire, flecks of things that used to be rise up and twirl, the heat pushes them, lifts them higher then lets them fall, spinning down, fading.
We curl up tight together, our breath settling through the sobs until we have one rhythm. Our chest rising and falling and we are safe and we are home.
A marble rolls out of the bag across to the hearth where the firelight reflects us back. And through the glass we can be seen in the indigo and violets swirls, a cocoon of us, cradling each other.
And so, I watch my finger tap and move across the screen. I count in seconds. And so it goes, one moment merged into the next. I’m trying to find my way through this bracken, through these weeds and thorns. I push ahead. It’s quiet. only the robin knows I’m here and he understands me.
I’m muddled in-between loss and time, in-between memory and now. I try to makes sense of it all.
And here it comes, that sense that the universe reflects me, that mirror outside my door. I’m perched. I’m high up somewhere, somewhere cold yet warm enough for me. My long cape will scrape the earth, disturbing stones as I climb. And yes, my feet bleed into the soil but it’s a good loss, a purging somehow. Giving blood back to the soil. And then I sit.
I’ve been here before, high up overseeing the land, my land, the place we built upon and here and there through the spheres of teardrops I see our world turned upside down. Our boy and I on the hill that we built with our hands.
The clock ticks round. It counts in thousands now, eighty-seven of them and six hundred more but it means nothing. It’s a construct, a passing of weather, of seasons, of my body changing and our boy turning into a man.
The minutes are randomised up here, every possible second remaining on our probabilistic hill. And here we sit on the top looking back, looking down. We Made This. We call out, we shout it out into the clouds. Ravens catch it on their wings and take it higher. Their black rainbows glinting in the sun.
I remember this place, this bench at the start, the dog walkers, the litter eddies fluttering by the bin and pigeon shit on the picnic table. Even that was shaped in black and white, the residue of food, expelled into the air and landed just for me to notice on my own. It had dried to form a Tao symbol and I smiled and wandered on.
And I’m pulled, jostled as though waking from a dream to see our land now and how many losses have been carved out in people since our own? How strange it seems now to have walked and spoken to strangers back then, no masks in sight, no fear of breathing on each other and we could hug and they’d take my hand.
How removed it all seems now, removed from ourselves. That sense of severing. I sit here as vaccines are pumped into muscles, as charts change and people hope. And there’s that sense that we will come through this, that we’ll lift each other up in our arms and twirl around. I can feel it, that craving for how it used to be. To have it all back again.
And yet if there’s one thing this decade has taught me, it’s to let go of the linear and any sense that what we had will phase back in again and return.
Call it a new normal if you choose but like the hundreds of thousands of losses that bind us to each other now, this is not something that fades. It’s etched into who we are, into a generation now, into our psyche, into our souls.
I remember last spring and that sense that maybe, in a month or two, it would be behind us. Like queries from the un-widowed, hoping, questioning and do you feel better now? That sense that this will heal like a break, like the dull ache after the snap of bone. And they’ll say, oh look she walks with a limp now, but they won’t feel it, they can’t feel how the limb has been changed on a molecular level, the scar-knitting-collagen-weaving permanent change to your form.
And I wonder how we’ll move from this? I crave that the sense of solidarity which we felt, that dazed and disoriented need to connect, will remain. Don’t let it seep away, to be forgotten, to just be the Year That We Wore Masks. Let it open us up, break us out of our stale paradigms, our tiny fearful islands. Let this be our chance to focus on the universal self behind the form and the foolish idea that we are separate in any way.
And I pause. A blackbird winks at me, comes close but won’t cross the line. My outstretched palm is a step too far. He’s found a worm, he’ll be just fine.
The hands have moved around while I tap and I come back to time yet again.
I’m left with the sense that nothing is as it seems. That I live on a Mobius strip somehow looping and doubling back on myself. I am inside and outside of time in one breath, I am fluid, I’m here and there. And if I have a point (she often has no point, it’s part of her charm*) it’s this. I used to be time based, I’d be linear and I’d have plans. but then loss swoops in and caws, circles round and says no more. Who wants to be linear anyway, where life is predicable like it used to be? Now we float and flip, thither-zither in the air. Murmurations cut the sky, 87,600 birds, ripple, shimmer, dancing black. I wave to them from the hill that we made, they tip their wings to us in respect.
So I remain in the tangle of my quantum mind, both then and now, a superposition of me. I am Schrödinger’s girl; a wife and widow and it’s not till I notice my thoughts that I find out which one I am.
And soon it would be soon, it would be dark carparks, headlights and rain. And in the reflections at her feet she would be rushing. Same red fleece as two days ago and she’d catch him up later she said as he grabbed a trolley for the after Christmas shop.
And she’d be there crouched down in the chemist, making choices from the bottom shelf. A young girl served her, she had short dark hair she seemed to recall.
And then she hurried to find him in the shop, up and down the aisles till she was there, at his side beside the trolley and nestling, as deep as possible, was the packet, hidden, rustling in a smooth white paper bag.
And she could feel it now. The way the packet tapped her hip as she walked, the way she couldn’t wait to get back home.
And later, sometime later she would pop upstairs while he put the food away.
There were many moments in her life which she cocooned, that she replayed. She viewed them from close up again, as though they were still happening and here in an end of year, it all came back, that end of century moment which defined her.
And despite the present moment that wrapped around her now, she dropped away, dropped into the veil of evening when distance sparrows sang. She saw the moment lapping with soft strokes at her feet.
And later, just a few more minutes later she was by his side, sitting staring out, the TV programme making noise she couldn’t hear, as she sat there, on this evening, on this evening right back then.
And he didn’t know yet but she did. And she sat and sparkled to his left.
It tried so hard to snow today and almost made it. And she wondered if it had snowed hard on her hill. She felt so far away from it somehow and yet it was a part of her and would remain.
If she squeezed the pebble tight she could feel it and she was there after a pub lunch somewhere, wrapped up against the end of year, against the winds. She was there huddled, leaning to the side and at her side, her mother-in-law grinned into the camera lens.
They were solid on uneven ground before the ground beneath her became more uneven and she wore red and her small and powdered mother-in-law wore brown.
The pebble that she clutches now nestled deep deep down in her pocket amongst the fluff and receipts and deep deep down inside of her, her secret hid away, under the flatness of her tummy, under the red fleece of her coat and they stood still.
The wind whipped, harsh, cut into the side of her face. The hill was the hill above the town and her hair stood up in waves and ripples, blustered across her head as she beamed out.
He stood opposite them, stood by the car in the cold and the camera clicked and they were frozen, frozen cold, frozen into time, into the hill. With her hand to her ear to keep out the cold and her other hand, pocket deep with pebble.
And this was the pebble she chose out of the whole hill, this was the one she called her own. And she clutches it now to be back there, there on the hill in her very own winter, with her husband and his mother and the pebble and her secret tucked far away inside.
There was a girl wandering round the town centre, yet not really a girl, more a young woman. And if you looked closely, there were sparkles left by her feet.
It would be late in the day on the eve, the eve of Christmas and she’d search. She’d search for the perfect gift and wishing the best of all things to every shopkeeper in her path, she would make her way out of the town.
And her father would have been waiting in the car at the base of the hill. She’d bundle herself back in, bags and boxes, packets and tales of her trip and they’d leave.
At home her mother was swaddled in the smell of baking and the pastry would melt in her mouth.
And this young women was the girl tucked up in bed, was the wide eyed child listening out for bells. And later she’d wait for the rustle of bin bags and her father laying out gifts.
It was this girl who’d push open the frosted lounge door on Christmas morning, to the settee packed, bursting with bright paper and symmetrical delights.
Years later that woman chewed on carrots and hid a sleigh bell under the tree. And their son would find it in the morning and his giggles filled their world.
And then now.
Now it’s the woman on the settee with a candle, holding tight to the girls in her mind. The carrots lie beneath a smaller tree, a motif tree, not the magnificent trees of childhood or marriage. But a just-enough-tree in the corner, still bringing light to her world.
It would be bedtime soon for the woman and the candle. Curling up once more, she’d hold all her Christmases tight in her arms.
And in the morning they’d parade around her, spinning, twirling, laughing in delight.
But for now she would blow out the candle, and watch the endless sky.
Maybe, just maybe she’d see something dart across it, a flash of light, a sparkle like the footprints that she left. The girls who lived in the woman, the woman who was made of the girls, who still believed.
Bed time, sleep time, they whispered to each other. Nearly time to put on the show again.