I need to find the smallest of words, seek them out and hold them close. I must be careful though, holding them means I must lift my arms and that seems too hard. So I’ll just think about them instead.
I’ll think about stillness and sleep, that’s all. The rain came back today and with its soaking, it washed away part of me, took my feathers and my frills, drenched my ribbons and wet my bows and I’m bedraggled. If I looked up I’d see them, sodden, lying around me but I won’t open my eyes. I still think about them of course, crave them, remember how it felt to move and jingle and shimmer and shine, but not now.
The rain came back today, it saturated me. There’s almost a breeze but not quite. I’ll just sit still for a while and if I breathe soft and slow, if I look down, no-one will know that I am here.
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.
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.
I have been avoiding myself for a while, she thought, but the leaves rushed in and said don’t worry. Watch us dither on the bluster, see how we don’t care.
And she strained her head to the sky, to the spaces where she used to be and watched. They maundered like old thoughts which caught her out in the night, like missed moments, like the regrets which crumbled at her door, twisted and fragile, the haphazard seconds of her life.
But the leaves taught her well. They cried out as they tumbled into her, thither-zither, helter-skelter to her palms. And for those which remained on the trees, she poured her love up to them. They were weary, clumped and battered on the undressed branch. They knew not to resist.
Clouds moved in, cumulus caressed her mind and she didn’t care, not really. Not now. Somehow the day was still gentle.
Listen to the leaves, she said. It’s only spacetime. It’s only 9,192,631,770 periods in the hyperfine transitions of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom. One second after another falling to her soil.
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 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.
So how would it be if the passing trees bowed over and came down to hold me, what if each leaf tore itself from the branch and flew down to keep me safe and I would smile.
I would welcome them into my arms and I would find shelter in their sap rich veins. The cobweb twists in the corner of the wing mirror, a distorted memory of its form, a shimmered recollection of when it stretched out, full of flies and dew and purpose.
It happened again.
I slid into the gutter like a chiffon scarf, like sea gusted hair, whipped and twirled, salted, sand sprinkled strands like the tail of a kite careening, flirting with ribbons and bows and the soft eager grip of a girl giggled and reeled it back in.
And I slipped, I gave myself up to the ground and as it welcomed me, the girl and the kite and the beach and my scarf flew away. Away like the beat of a wing, away like the startle of feathers, petrol pooled black mirrors as I lay.
My mouth smirked where they left it, upturned and silent beside the road. My feet, discarded by the gorse bush, one shoe on and one shoe off and Peter Rabbit trapped in wire rushed into my mind. And how the sparrows implored him to escape. And there would be stories and teacakes, jam down my chin and my kite curled up in the boot of the Austin 1300, tousled and day stained, like me.
But the gutter cradled and soothed, hushed me as the flock sprung, pulsing. Flapping, clattering, colliding, black diamonds and piercings, dustballs despatched as they poked.
I remember their beaks, eager, unforgiving, pneumatic drill in rain, dentist burrowing, twisting and the taste of salt in my mouth.
But not now. Now it’s the feel of the gutter and the little bits of me that still remain. Near the roadside, abandoned feathers where they took me down, straddled strutted, swaggered, like they owned the verge, ruled the fields where my kite flew. And now they peck me to sleep while I lie in brambles, near the pavement grey, I hear them as they laugh and caw.
Under midsummer rain on windscreens, fractured rainbows, I curl up. Little shards, little jagged remnants and I swoon.
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.