I wanted to be that little girl, right there. That girl, and she was four or maybe five. I passed her by on the roadside, in the sunlight, in the delerious white-out of a spring afternoon.
And look at that girl, I thought. Just look at her and I held her in my mind for three seconds or maybe four.
She shimmered on the roadside, on the pavements grey, in her sparkling silver padded jacket which fired back photons to anyone who dared to look.
She lit up the streets, defying smudged reflections of rushing people, of chaotic traffic on grimed windows. And passing by upturned hot wasps on peeling windowsills, she jumped the cracks in the pavement because it kept her safe.
Her baby pink flared jeans flashed candyfloss at anyone who noticed as she hopscotched herself along. Armoured bears growled behind her, goblins sneered up through drains but she didn’t care.
Because it was a springtime afternoon and the blossom frittered away the hours all around her and city sparrows sang joyous, despite the fumes.
Just for a moment if I could be that little girl, casting halos around the litter, that pulsing, beaming dance of limbs, I would be free.
And I passed by the little girl and held her in my mind, like a retina stain on my memories of what it felt like to sparkle under blossom. What it felt like to be magnificent in the spring.
And I passed by with her shimmering in a review mirror, with the candy pink jeans just a flutterering on my shoulder, like the falling petals in my pinned up hair.
And for a second or two, or maybe three, I remembered how I used to feel.
And she breathed and unseen beaks opened as if to say, me too. They took in the fresh morning air and remembered what it is to fly. And on her wings she swooped over distant rooves where cars parked up and bins lined up and people did their thing.
She did her thing and she did it well and there she sat on the roof of the house, ruffling feathers and with knowing eyes, she peered inside his room.
And there she sat on the floor with her back to the bed and her lap was filled with books, with the words, with his bright blue biro scrawl and she reached in.
She traced her fingertips over pages and watched as he appeared. Out he came like a thought, floating up towards her, like the curve of a balloon in a hot summer sky and he circled and he led the way.
He led her to his shed at the bottom of the garden and pushed open wide the door. It creaked and eased onto a world she’d come to know. It was as though two small girls had found their way, had dared to creep over the threshold, like a childhood place, like a secret land that called them to come inside.
And inside they looked up in wonder and stared at The Machine.
‘What is it? What on Earth is it?’ they would ask as though they were characters in a well loved book.
Till the small girls faded and she was stood with him in the dust, in their particle-wave duality. And he would be in his element, in the quiet fug as he set the cogs in motion. Gears moved and wheels turned, firing bits of muck and fluff into the air. Beetles scuttled and woodlice trundled out of sight as the universe in the shed sparked life, shaking the detritus from the gloom.
And there they stood in the photons, as he burbled through his ideas and concepts and his thoughts danced around her like a flutter of butterflies, their fresh fragile wings entangling her hair.
They flew up from the contraption and out through spacetime, released into the universe, like a tensor, like a field equation of their life to come.
And she observed it all, sat high upon the shed roof, ruffling her feathers and watching herself take form.
There was a shed and The Machine, there was a bookcase and a girl. And everything rippled and reverberated out. Irrepressible, on that day, in the embryo of their world.
And she breathed out as unseen birds sang and beaks opened loud and glorious, as if to say all’s well.
It didn’t matter to her that she pushed English pavements under her feet, or that the maple leaves which cluttered round her boots were from local trees – she was not there.
And it didn’t matter that the spire which she was drawn towards, or the parapet which pulled her eyes up to the sky, belonged to Saint Peter’s Church or that the gentle whisps of white which framed it, came from her Hampshire sky – she was not there.
And because she wasn’t there it didn’t matter that her English streets were busy with people wrapped and warm. And because she wasn’t there, her form cast no shadow as she passed Saint Peter’s Church because her boots were in Barcelona and her autumn coat was a waterfall top. It billowed around her hips like the soft white fluff above the spires which framed the baby sweetcorn. And it was irrelevant that her eyes looked up to a Hampshire sky because they were not there. They looked out across the park and studied Gaudi’s glory which left an imprint in her mind.
It didn’t matter where her boots wandered in an English town because she wasn’t there. She was striding out across the Carrer de Sardenya as though her small feet belonged on Spanish soil.
She buttered the bread and thought about him. The butter was slightly salted and indulgent, like him. And she indulged him. She wouldn’t admit it to anyone else but she knew that she had bought him into being and there, now that she had committed it to the page, given life to the thought, she didn’t feel so bad.
She had no recollection of when it began, he just appeared and she surrendered to the process. But she was pleased with her work though, she placed him on a hill, visible but out of reach and for many months he was divorced.
He was stoical, he carved and built, his rough hands restored and repaired. She didn’t understand how she’d achieved this, yet she recognised her thoughts in the way he carried himself, in his language patterns and proclivities.
She kept him tucked away in her top drawer, under her embroidered hankies, the ones with Lily of Valley in the corner and next to an oval photo frame with an image from her time in Paris. And there he lay, safe and warm and every week she’d take him out and listen to his mind.
And then he married. She drew him with a wife and wrestled with relief and disappointment all rolled into one. She was unsure why she had drawn him this way but maybe it kept her safe, maybe with a wife on the hill, she had no need for action and nowhere she could go.
She confused herself though. Wouldn’t it have been more frivolous and fanciful to have drawn him nearer to her town and she flushed. How would it have been to have created him without a wife? She let the thoughts settle for a while and saw herself on trains, with bags, with movement and direction, with new clothes for the trip. And there was fun. She rolled the words around her mind, tasted the idea.
It had been many years since she’d allowed herself to do anything so ridiculous and she sighed. No, he was much better off with a wife and frivolity would remain something that shimmered just outside her window, something she caught a glimpse of if she lay still and quiet at night. It was an echo, a rippling remembrance of who she used to be.
So she settled herself, brushed down the layers of taffeta that fell before her and stood up. It’s fine, she said to no one in particular, I am safer to give him a wife and so she continued.
The wife was drawn in pencil though, a 4b, something soft that she could smudge while he was fleshed out and filled in. He was flowing in gouache, viridian and cerulean with Prussian blue for depth. Rose tyrian in his gait and he strode out, surveyed his fields, he was vivid, rich in detail and recited poems from her page.
There. There now, she said in familiar tones to soothe herself. I may add details to his wife but not now, for now she is a faint drawing at the edge and that’s enough because while she is there, she keeps me from clambering on a train.
She felt a little calmer now she’d explained it to herself. He did fascinate her though and she revelled in the intricacies of his mind, in the way light and shade fell on his thoughts, in the way, despite the quality of her invention, he remained just beyond her fingertips.
She folded her sketch book away. Still, he lived in the drawer with his wife, with his ways and there was a serenity, something pure yet invigorating when she passed by his hiding place. He was in there waiting, curled up next to the pomander and the scent of lavender made him smile.
A zephyr moved the curtains of her open window, fluttered up the hankies in her drawer. She accepted it was all her own doing and took the greatest care. She pulled the window closed, her room smelt of lavender and vanilla. She smoothed down the hankies next to him and pushed back in the drawer. Go steady she told herself, it was almost as though he was becoming real.
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.
To be honest she had not smiled so much in years and she noted it to herself, it was undeniable but shh, she wouldn’t think about it now, not right now at least.
She would take herself away and take tea. Yes she would take tea with herself, with her best china teapot, the one from her dearest friend Kerry. Kerry with all her verve, her energy bounding like a Labrador pup, frenetic, abandoned. And she would sit opposite Kerry in her own quietness, in her smallness and wonder how it would feel to be so light.
But now, here she was with herself, with Kerry’s teapot and how she smiled, how she used muscles, dormant for years and she would give herself a good talking to. Yes, that’s what she’d do. And maybe there’d be ginger biscuits, home-made of course. Yes, something pungent to bring her back to herself and ginger root, like an old friend, who would warm her up with their familiarity and that slight kick of heat on her tongue, like the friend she could trust who would tell her home truths.
And then Madeira cake, yes then the softness would come. So gentle and kind, it would break apart in her mouth, like moments she could no longer hold. And golden crumbs would scatter, left discarded on her plate, like fragments in a relationship, like the little things left unsaid.
And yet despite it all she continued to smile. Smile, like a child who had learned a new skill and her feelings bubbled loose and fluid, tumbling round her like a ruffled toddler fresh from bed, with pillow shaped hair and a teddy bear, dragged paw first straight to the toy box before breakfast. And she was giddy, unbounded by the day.
She wanted to rush up to strangers and pull the masks from their faces, she wanted to see them smile, with their whole face not just with their eyes and if she could she would take them all out to tea. She would find a hidden teashop where the bell would jingle as she pushed through the door and trailing skirts behind her, she would drag over a chair or two. Here, here, sit a while she’d say and take tea with me and there will be ginger biscuits, Madeira cake and Darjeeling will flow pale golden into their welcome cups.
And they would sit and talk and share and smile and she would flow. Around them, she would flow through them. Shh, shh, it’s ok now. Bring me your shadows, let them out and show me who you are. And there in our darkness you’ll be safe. Let me hold your shadows close, now that I can smile.
Of course, if it were nearing the end of April she couldn’t be anywhere else but striding out towards the gate, at the end of the path, at the top of their alpine village. And her arms flew wide and wild, hair at every corner as the shutter smiled and caught her.
It held her face through the years, such that in times when she reduced in size, she would recall herself and the way she beamed. Trees blurred out behind her and his SLR bounced alongside them like a giddy Jack Russell, sniffing and rooting around for the next great shot. And they walked, for the rest of their lives it seemed, they walked up the winding path away from their alpine village which only existed for them.
It didn’t matter that her kitchen was still somewhat cold and although she seemed to sit on a hard wooden chair, she wasn’t there. She was upright on a plush train seat, looking right, as the mountains softened and the land lapped up to the side of them, in their double-deckered, pristine ride. And it would be the Wednesday, maybe Thursday but she’d be beaming, heading south, face up against the window like a child as the fields fled, as they sat side by side.
And it didn’t matter that her heating had just creaked on or the scarf around her shoulders kept her warm. She wasn’t there. She was, of course, on the low wall by the lakeside, kicking her feet and grinning, one hand holding the sunhat to her head, the other on the ubiquitous Diet Coke, in the days when all she needed was her small red rucksack and a first-aid kit to make her day. And if she paused, her wooden kitchen chair gave way to stone and the welcome seep of coolness reached her thighs despite her jeans.
Someone painted the lake for them, or so it seemed and everything was tinged azure and cobalt and they wandered. And the town was deserted or maybe not, maybe all she could see was their feet in unison, climbing the stairs up the tower and round and around and round and around to a platform where they peered out. The more she travelled the younger she became somehow as she clambered up the short steps to the very top, while he humoured her and waved from the opposite window. And she was there clutching the cobbled wall, perched on the window ledge looking down and her white cotton shirt billowed out like her hair.
And her heating rattled and complained, she needed to get the boiler serviced but not right now, now she was counting turrets and burnt sienna tiles and he was helping her back down the staircase in the secret places that they’d found.
Then the pier rose up, lakeside and people bustled but she didn’t care, she wanted to call home. And from a phone box (imagine that, a phone box) she pressed in the coins and waited for connection. Distant sounds came and crackled and then her voice burst out, like a child, like the youngest of girls. I’m in Italy, I’m in Italy and she laughed and gushed while they stood there. Cloudless, edgeless, sun waving streaks of speckled white on a lake to call their own.
And was it later or the next day, she wasn’t sure but the end of April held her close. She borrowed his shirt to protect her from the sun and while he packed or read or slept, she felt it flap around, over her t-shirt as she walked by herself in Zermatt. Not far but far enough, back up the winding path and out of town and every hanging basket sang out and called her name, colours cranked to full saturation, people on bikes and she strode. She walked out and up and away for a while, exploring by herself (a skill that would become vital years from then) but then there was no weight, no weight at all. Just herself and the village path and the drifts of snow, six-cornered starlets melting in the warmth. And could it be real, was it possible at all, that there she was, the smallest of creatures on the planet, yet her tiny frame expanded in the sun and the more she walked, the more she grew and she swung her arms and smiled, smiled liked she did on their first holiday, smiled as though there could be no pain.
She learnt to walk by herself, in his shirt to protect her and every snowflake saw her joy, every flower waved and cheered her on. It would always be the end of April and they walked the winding paths that led to now. At the start, at their start and Murano glass beads jingled round her wrist, throwing rainbows of Millefiori round her heart.
It’s so still out there, so waiting. That sense of shh, don’t worry, it will come. It’s there in the way the sunlight holds the branches, in the faint call of a hidden bird.
And I pause, breathe, that’s all. And it passes by my window, up to the left with the sparrow wings and he watches me, watching him, watching them all. We slow down, the birds and I, pause to think of sunlight.
And there they are, my creatures in the trees, pecking and singing, ruffling new feathers in this spring. And I wonder do they sense their descendants, the ones I knew, the ones who gave me feathers years ago.
And while they sang outside that window from back there, in that house then, the hem of the dress caught the light as it lay out on the bed, as if to say look at me, look at me, lift me up into your arms. And later, a little later it would be held up as I clambered inside, as I manoeuvred into my new form, like a butterfly losing meconium, drying out its fresh wet wings.
Until its weight draped round my feet and I breathed out. Birds sang unseen as the hem brushed the dust down the wooden staircase and over new mown grass to rest and pause, where cameras winked and moments froze.
Sparrows darted to the neighbour’s tree, head on one side and down the path the hem of the dress shuffled leaves until it was bundled up into the car. It sat quiet, being, folded in upon itself, cushioned on the plush carpet of the foot-well until blackbirds cut the air, overarching the church gate.
And there with the creak of old hinges, with the warmth of a palm, with the click of heels on old stone, the hem of the dress made its way home. Home, on the short path to the archway, home to the hush of the slate and it dragged feathers and fronds as it swayed, as it made its way past pews to the front.
And there it rested for a while, settled in ivory, calm where it belonged. The hem of the dress over champagne silk boots, near to sharp creases in suits and it paused, waited, just to the left of polished shoes.
And then sunlight came back to stroke it, came to throw light at the door. The hem swept and rippled, caught the coloured flecks, scattered rainbows all around, then hands scooped it back up into soft contours in the car.
Trees moved above it unseen, voices chattered and laughed while it lay crumpled up and then the grass came back, daffodils nodded and bobbed as it moved around. Photons bounced up from the duck pond, white spots and sparkles, before it coated steps and carpet-brushed itself along.
And it swooned, the hem of the dress with the tiny remnants from the day and it danced over polished floors, glided as though it would always flow, would always sway, as though in its moment there was release.
And later it lay, much later it was still, smoothed out again and silent on the protective bag at the bedside, soon to be tucked far away.
And now hydrogen coalesces into helium, firing light and heat, like it did, like it does. How reassuring as it warms up the blackbird’s wings, as it listens to the soil.
And in a different wardrobe now the hem of the the dress sleeps its sleep, cradled and swaddled in plastic, over unused things and bits and bobs. But in its weft and weave it holds the moments when it danced, when it was free, when it could shimmer and it was home.
She wondered about the grains of sand, would they still lie there, would they be there, somewhere on the beach where she ran. Or have they been washed out to sea, floating somewhere else or swallowed by fish or washed to a different port, a different country that they visited.
And the steps back up to the top, the winding cliff path with its haphazard stones and rocks. Would they still be in place or would the slate have fallen, helter-skelter down into the heather and gorse. Maybe moss covers it over now so it lies unseen by new passing feet.
And she wondered where the tea cup would be now, the fine bone china with fragile flowers and golden trim and the rose painted plate holding crumbs from the scones.
Were they broken by now, smashed on terracotta tiles, maybe chucked into some landfill. Or chipped and loved, were they cosseted on a shelf somewhere, in a cupboard, unused but cherished even now.
But she knew where the slate slabs were, the ones that smacked into her thigh as she ran, the ones she’d chosen when fluff-deep in parka pockets she charged across the sands.
They were close by even now, catching light despite the bandaged sky, in the basket to her left. And she lived there next to them, on top of them, beside them. There, where the slate remained the same despite the years and if she cradled it in her hand, her hair would whip up in sea gusts and scone crumbs would drop back to the plate. A tea cup would warm her cold hands and grains of sand would scatter and dance delirious as her small feet pushed the beach. The hours washed away, eroded. Rose and fell and rose again and she was running now towards him. Always on this day.
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.