There was a time when white sands flanked them on the left as they wandered, when the beach framed the bay, resplendent, calming like a long out breath.
At the end of the road by the market stalls, Matisse’s house stood, elegant and shuttered, perfect angles under the startling sun. And thinking about his paintings, how they seemed to be lit by the same insistent sun, as though the paint itself was lit from within.
And in one breath she lived there, russet skirts brushing the stairs as she came down in the morning. There would be no rush as she chattered with the stall holders. A smile and a joke and then with her basket full of nectarines and oranges she would drift away to the edge of the beach. And staring out to sea she would feel herself ripple and drink in the day.
And later back in Cannes the moment was frozen by a passerby, dressed head to toe in baby pink and tripping by her feet was her clipped poodle, dyed pink to match the owner. Woman and dog sparkling in the heat.
Their day was a vibrant palette, bright colours on each brush. It was a painting to stare into on dark chilled autumn mornings. And there, in the South of France she wore white and she seemed to be lit from within.
And she floated down to the earth with her leaves, twisted, crumbling. They caught the sun as they fell, each one a moment, a glimpse of her. Here. There. And she cascaded, one second into another.
The girl in jeans lying on his bed, waiting for a trip to the forest. And they were there, wrapped and younger with hours ahead. And leaves crunched.
And then the morning, one year later, squeezing through packing boxes and squashed into his car, they traveled north. The fig plant on her lap, bouncing, faded lemon and green leaves, tangling into her long hair. And they unpacked.
A blackbird skooshed under the branches in the right here, right now and then she fell again, dropping from the trees, a mess of golden, a curled up fading form.
And she was there in their new lounge, taking on the owner with her fiancé to her right. A stressed-out seller to her left, who sabre rattled a rolling pin in the face of her husband-to-be.
And she rallied, she reared up. ‘You’ll have to get through me first’ she said and her words rattled around her head, the phrase that became their anecdote, in their new home, in their new life, on that day in a distant autumn.
And leaves fell and she joined them, down and down, as though there were no structure to her thoughts, as though her edges had given way. The sun in the Now called out to her, soothed her through the mothering blue of an empty sky.
And in the cloudless start to her day, she stood flanked and strong by her husband and son, as they stared out across the park. Gaudí’s Cathedral looked back, its stone sweetcorn against their perfect sky and it soared up, magnificent, intricate, an image almost permanent.
And they walked on, following the tour guide with her yellow sign, held high. The ground still swayed a little but they were out. Feet on dry land, together, hands linked as they went on their way.
And leaves fell in the park in Barcelona, and beyond her window in the right here and right now, she floated down. She let the cool breeze carry her, gentle, down-to-earth, where she rested with the others, where she turned her head up to face the sky.
She was the warm yellows of her past, in a scattered ochre morning. She watched herself fall down, an October mulch to feed her day.
Sometimes bird song comes as though I breathe each note, as though they reflect the thoughts that churn and churn. But I can’t quite reach them. I listen hard, listen well, but these sounds, these moments of instinct pulse out. They seem to be my heartbeats, my neurones charging, firing and every second of my life is echoed in their song. It’s February. It’s always February somewhere in my mind and today, the 10th arrives and though it’s Monday, it is Thursday in my head. The birds silence for a while as I inhabit, as I absorb the date and then they tweet, then they shout out towards each other, triumphant in their beaks spilling notes, their essence, existing in song.
And somewhere they sang on that Thursday, somewhere they clutched at branches and held on and I wonder did they note me rushing, did they feel for me in my chaos as I churned, did they send out their song to soothe me though I couldn’t hear the notes? And it was there, birdsong, always, even on that day. And it’s February and I am February, right now and I am the birdsong. I am all of it. I am their voices reaching out to me, to the startling, to my fracturing self. And I am the birdsong that tried to reach me when I couldnt hear their call. It’s February 10th. I seek out birdsong.
And so I think shhh, don’t go there, don’t allow the thoughts and then they come. Bright faces, flaring and this is the thing you see, I don’t want to look but then I must. I must turn my face into the flutterings, into the scattering moments and down. Down and out, flat out. Careening into the sounds, the words, the mouths that speak as I watch them. And then sun arrives, and then a bird cheeps as if to throw me a line, as if to say but it’s Now. And yes, the bird song fills me up and yes the light falls up the wall but it feels absent. Today there is a coldness, yet photons push through, resolute in their incessant need to glow, to saturate our room.
But there. Pauses come. Like wilting leaves. Places where the earth has forgotten warmth and I rest. I must do something with the gardens. It’s that thought always. Prising its way back in, that sense of morning, of movement and how stale it all looks, untended, devoid of hands that care. That winter face, that deep back to the soil kind of voice and I go round. Around and around it again, like the sun rising, like the particles colliding, thoughts bursting and forming with little rest. And then it stops.
The sun has taken offence behind thick grey, and I breathe out. That kind of long slow breath that turns down cortisol, that regulates and I return. The birds are singing, I think they never stopped, not once, not even for a second over these long and rambling years. Sometimes I find that reassuring, sometimes not. And so it goes. My body tells me it’s the 14th, I feel it in the tightness in my ribs, in the irritations underneath. Round and around with no let up like nature, like my exchange of O2 to CO2. I tiptoe to the edge of my mind again and peer inside. Things coalesce and break apart, I try to untangle thoughts, to measure and observe them but as I look them in the face they change. It’s the day before tomorrow, my quantum days. And I must go now, I must feed the birds.
15th: And I’m so grateful for the rain. The storm is tearing up the garden as though I summoned it, as though my friends turned up on cue. The sun still hides and that suits me, it’s so pointless to be a ball of helium today, to spit and churn, no one can see you anyway behind the heft of clouds. I like clouds, they’re almost family. They come and go but when they block out the sun, they seem so welcome.
Today there is a sympathy with the weather, a sense that I control it all. And why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I be able to send my thoughts into the skies and bring about the storm?
The blackbird hops up to the window, despairing, there’s only black leaves on the patio today. Of course I’ll go out later, wrapped a little against the bluster but revelling in the cut of cold across my face, a reminder that I breathe.
Storms have their place and if I were braver than I am, I’d climb the trees, I’d scrape my knees and cut my arms as I pulled up. And from the top, up there on the left by the raven’s nest, I’d hang on and sway in this harshness. I wonder if the sounds would be as loud from deep inside the branches, but how glorious it would feel, to not be the face at the window but to be sodden and ripped, to hang tight and bend as the rain slices round us. Maybe later, I’ll ease out into its din.
I’m grateful for the storm, as though the streets and towns and country I still inhabit can pop into my mind and feel my thoughts.
On days like these, I live for the howling of trees. I resonate. It calms me.
It was that, right hand in pocket, kind of day, that finding a piece of the hill and holding it close, deep, tucked away in fluff, kind of day. And they didn’t know, they stood around her, next to her, powdered and small, her red fleece, a contrast to her mother-in-law’s brown coat and she was younger.
Younger than now and the piece of the hill held its secrets, kept her safe. They laughed and grinned into the bluster as they turned to face him by the car. The shutter froze them as the weather did, her hand to her left ear to keep the gusts out of her head, her longer, thicker hair out of her little elfin face.
The hill in her pocket, with them on either side of her, in front and behind and inside. They were with her then, when time was a thing that worked well and now, in the piece of the hill that sits tucked away with her treasures, in the small blue bag from her wedding day, the red fragments of rock at the bottom and they hold onto her tight, still, silent, unseen like the secret inside her back then and, like the hill in her pocket, the moment remains.
Such a quiet bird,she thought and thena sky songspiralled out. Anditsang as though it always had time for feathers,as though this was its home. And she saw herself,ship high and blown, above the docks on rising waves and it was here,next the creaking beasts up top andwithblusteredhair, that she grew.
Here,that her sense of wings exploded to the seas, it was here andalwayswould be. Down underneath its hulk,by the men–shouts and leaden ropes there would bebicyclewheels. On pavements grey there would be spokes turning rubber, metal rubbing,gears changing and younger than her,hisspeckled legs would be pushing onthepedals that shecouldn’tsee.
And there he was,escaped and expanded,exploring the docks by himself. White–outathisside,slab–steel toweringhighand he looked up. Painted letters sang out her name and he wasthere,adrenaline pumping,muscles aching,boundless and new on his bike.
And hegrinned,up and up,to the top of ship, he squinted in the light, hair with a singlecurl at the front that zinged up like hope,likeirrepressiblejoy and he was young.
She looked down,wings nestling in her back,thin greying hair,a testament to travel and as grunts of men hauled ropes and chains released her,sheswayed towards him.
He paused on his bike, soyoung and persistent, with a button bright mind,sabatiersharp, the boywho took her hand across the years and from the quayside his story burbled into hers,in the churn and spume,in the chaos of waves,his eyes lockedontohers, always and he freed her.
Wingsruffledbright, as her day–song followed the clouds, she saw him, and because of him–a boy on a bike, she flew.
She was the taste of bergamot in her scalding hot tea and just to her right and upwards, she was the fragile bloom of rose. Today her choice was the sweetest of pink white, a hint of colour, subtle, almost there,just like herself.And she was raindrops on her window. Of course. She was always the rain.
She had bought the flowersherself,like shedid,like she does and now it was nearly time to leave, to take herself to the town, then the river, to see if the ripples would show her proof that she was there.
And then she was there,warm–wrapped–cold,cold–wrapped–warm and the fast running water burbled past her. Traffic was a memory and she sat. The winter breeze ran down her cheeks,hair blew across her nose and she was still. Almost.
Riverdreaming, detritusswirling, licking up the rocks and cobbles underneath.And she was the moss under her feet and the sound of footsteps throughthe yearsand down the path. And all she needed was the padding of hard chewed paws to come and sit beside her.
Couples walked by,dog free with navy bags and comfortable ways, chattering and she wasquietand water gurgled in her stationary world. And nattering young parents, buggy shovingand a man just by himself and she was there.
Waiting for it to pour, waiting for the sky to peel and soak her to the marrow on her bench.Waiting forthe forceof water to carry her far away.
Cold under grey skies,constant as the sun masked by her clouds. Necessary as the atoms in the water that heldtightonto her name. Contingent as the day.
A distant bus pulled her attention to the left and lifted her up, traffic and people and days and birdsong. Places to go and to be.
Theblackbird,sharpyellow beak across the slate,held out its wingto herand called her home.
And it was always this way, motionless movement,nothing stops for her,not even herself.
And an elderly couple with sticks,tapped by and she was the gravel underher feet as she gathered up herself and went back home.
The hills came back, they wrapped around her like an old friend, like a mother’s arms and she was safe, more than that, she was free.
Iris folded herself into her coat, it was a heavy, twisted wool with a knitted corsage on the left lapel, chocolate brown and as warm as it looked. It would be alright, she insisted to herself.
The platform was cruel. It hollered, ripping bits off people, tearing steel and diesel smashed through air, but she didn’t mind. To be fair, she thought, nothing can get through to me now, nothing can scrape or stab me and she let the trains do their worst. Her hair was thrown upwards like a beacon, her coat billowed out behind, filling her form until she swelled, bigger than her shape, her smallness hidden from the world and then she stepped.
Iris climbed onto the 10:17 to Wolverhampton.
Familiar towns whipped and passed. She watched reflections of people staring into laptops, intent on their day as she gripped the seat beneath her, scrubbed the nap backwards and forwards in her small hand. Yes, she was still there.
And changing for another train she felt the air she needed getting nearer and on and up through cities she used to know, places they’d visited when cars were hired and journeys made. Now it was a screech of a platform and cold strangers looking in beyond her, searching out seats by her side.
Tiredness pulled her down through another change of station and she wondered about her sanity, whether she’d really left home at all and if she had, what would she do when she got there?
She dozed. The weight of the hours closed her eyelids and the rocking of the carriage carried her away. She saw mountains and pine trees, how they framed themselves in one moment. The stream was drawn down through the image like a child’s artwork and it jumbled and glinted over rocks. She was there in the old train. Their train, warmed and wrapped from the Alps, stuffed full of chocolate and memories. The bowl of baked cream, the wicker chickens and the sky. How clear it had been, how far away but its light lit their rooms and their beginnings.
The train shook her awake into the sunlight dropping shadows, streaming out across the land. Iris blinked herself back into the afternoon, ordered a black coffee because she could and sat, mug hugging as she closed in nearer to her old town.
And morning came. Morning, after her tired trudge to the B and B, daylight after the restlessness of lumpen foam, of unfamiliar sounds and scented sheets. But morning came as it did back then, when they slept in spontaneous rooms, when owners smiled and gave them a key to the room on the left of the landing and they were there. It wasn’t just the mountain air that filled her lungs, that sparkled her eyes, it was the touch of herself, it was the sound of her laughter and in narrow streets with no plans, they ran.
Iris walked up alleyways, she walked taller than she was, like a bride to an unseen alter, she traced her steps. And there in the light rolling up the mountains, there in the air that she recalled, she found the pub. She pushed the heavy door and turned left by the coat stand and there she was.
Her hair was dark, long across her shoulders, her fleece jacket, the colour of her cheeks and she looked up. She didn’t see Iris, of course because she was laughing with her boyfriend. His back was towards her so Iris couldn’t see his face but she knew it well. She knew every curve and every furrow and she watched. They pushed the plates to one side, knocked back the remains of their drinks and said ‘let’s go.’
There, on an unplanned adventure with few clothes to their names, there, just north of his mother’s home where they’d travelled to because they could, they laughed and they sneaked out. They left the pub without paying, just once – only once because the staff were unresponsive and they, themselves were young. They were away together for one of the first times and they could run.
He took her hand and they walked straight through Iris standing at the door and how they ran, laughing like children down the cobbled lane until they stopped just beyond her sight, bent double and caught their breath.
Iris left the pub, she followed their trail and held them again in the distance. The girl looked back, saw Iris and stopped. She stood there in the crisp clarity of the mountains, she stretched up tall and wide and flung her arms to the sky. There, in a place Iris remembered, there, with him by her side. The girl squealed out, head back eyes tearing, lungs full and she was free. He photographed her and Dear God, she was so free.
Iris ran, she charged towards the girl and the girl knew. She opened wide her arms and called her home.
‘It’s alright,’ she whispered as Iris sobbed on her shoulder. The girl took her hand and showed her and there in the mountains with the light falling on her greying hair, Iris reached up. She threw her arms up to the clouds and called out his name.
She pulled the air around her, the sense of him, their purpose and how she’d grown. Iris in the mountains, arms wide in celebration of her form. It was yesterday, it was always there. And it was now and freedom was her name.
She past a new build on the left and brushed against its huge star in the window. She remembered when the trees were there, when animals hid and insects crept in the hollows of branches that had now gone.
Something about the star gave her hope, gave her a lilt, a swell of a young girl’s life and of family filling the rooms.
And she past by. The sky was swollen, saturated with an end of year rain, with a harsh rain that sliced at pavements, that peeled away the last of the year. And in her mind she was younger, she was hope filled like the fields around her. She was surprised by its sudden lush greenness, like the woman she used to be waving to her from back then.
And back then she was packed, a small bag just for one night and they would stay in the hotel that they loved. She was there in the bright white bathroom, hair curled and velvet dress. It clung to the curve of her belly, to the secret kept inside. And when the time came she would tell him, she would sit on the bed and smile. In fact she glowed, she sparkled and trembled as though she were made of the stars themselves and they laughed. After all their moments this one was the purest, the connection and the gift frozen in time, in the warmth of her hand and his lopsided grin – they were there.
She was back in the unfolding of the night, clicking up the high street in her heels. And with flat black pumps for the journey back down, they walked to the restaurant for the meal. Sometimes now when she past by the same place, huddled at the back of a bus, she would look left to the cream tiled floor and remember the DJ in the corner and the song played just for them.
She was there. Dear God, she was there and right now as she bumped along a wet road in the present, she was back there, beaming, like her soul would fly, bursting from her side.
And later she slipped into the flat shoes as they wandered back down town, to the call of the Cathedral bells. How still the night seemed, yet how full of an energy that she could taste. It bristled around them in the gentle rain, before they made phone calls, before their new journey began.
She was there, at the end of the century, slipping into the new day, softened into it like his hand in hers, as though woven into the time. And always, despite the hours, they would be there. It was their moment, in the darkness, smiling under screeching fireworks, white stars just for them.
She listened to his breath and watched his hands, they were resting in folded arms across his face and she thought of them fresh from birth, grabbing onto her thumb, wrapping themselves around her finger. And then hot and small as they fumbled with bright bricks on the floor.
There were hours when she held them on the walks to school, past their familiar way points, the big brick wall and the Spelling Hill, the Opening Trees and then the gates and they held pens. The hands she looked at now, that gripped the pencils, that formed the words, that scribbled and drew mazes then shaped sentences across their days, were the hands in the final playground when they swung from monkey bars, one determined grasp after another, pulling himself along before they left, before the photos at the gate and they left.
She remembered his hand as it clutched hers, as they sat heads down on the pews, in darkness when the light was sucked out of their world. And how she held tight, how she clung firm to him and him to her as they stumbled forward in an unstable new world and then they looked up.
To his hands, bigger, lifting heavy bags of books and different walks without her and he grew. He grew in ways and wisdom, in taking on his world and subjects came and subjects went, fingers folded around revision pens, shoving through hair as he leant over exam papers and he thought. His mind whirring and whirling, making links, his fingers fiddling as he waited for results.
And now autumn wakes them up again, to rain washed lanes and leaves. And now the road rushes underneath him as his new day comes into view. Hands in pockets and a bag full of tricks, the compasses he holds now, he guides now, the calculations that he makes and his hands are strong and firm as they press buttons and follow the sines. Manipulating co-sines and tan in ways she cannot understand and she watches him go striding, preparing with a fistful of ideas, with complex numbers at his fingertips and behind him go the toddlers and the children he used to be, skipping, running in his steps and the hands she used to hold, wave to her and she counts every moment as he plots out his next phase.
How the hours have wrapped around us, she thinks, her baby, their boy and their joy. And as the sun warms pavements and rain drops lift themselves up from the ground, the man he is becoming makes his way back home.