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 the front door always sticks a little, heavy to the pull. But down goes the brass handle and I bring it in towards me as you appear. You bob in from the left, all jokes and eyes and jumpers, grey and white Fair Isle. And I’m just there, holding the door handle, looking at you, looking back at me.
And then handshakes and the laughter comes and whispers in the kitchen all rush back. And there is ham salad, of course, tea and apple pie while my little cat fusses around my legs.
Later we are out and I’m in red and black but not the velvet hat, not in those days. I keep it in the drawer instead and the Mason’s Arms appears with the younger me at college, sitting somewhere out of sight. But we walk past her, walk into their lounge and in the ancient arm chairs we drift in and out, you on the death penalty, no doubt and me on Klee and Kandinsky. I flit, topic-hopping from thought to thought like a delirious bee craving pollen. And it winds you up at the start.
Until replete, hours later, we wander down to Brueton Park and through the metal gates to the bird cages where nothing but their perches remain. We crush weeds on the abandoned path, aimless chatting in the stillness, amongst lost feathers and the sense of flight.
And then the bench. There was always the bench and I’m on the left as if to anchor me to the place where I would remain. Then walking back across the dips and hillocks, (with low clouds just like now) you take my hand.
Evening arrives at The Fat Cat Restaurant where we loiter with red wine. And we sit round the back somewhere, hugging white stone walls while their ceramic bowls of chicken fill me up. The spotlights throw up dots from high gloss glaze.
Till later, a little later, kettle boiling in the kitchen with your hand on my hip and then we sit. And so the settee rises, green and soft, with little tufts around the edge, little frayings while the tea cools down.
You in your favourite jumper and me my black waistcoat with thicker hair. You brush it away under the soft certainty, under the tick-tick-tick of my parent’s mantle clock.
I will build a house of feathers and hide myself away. I will make an eiderdown embroideried in your name and under it, the weight of silk will keep me warm. The feathers will bend in the wind, glistened layers, diamond friends and they will protect me like they do, like they promised.
I will fashion out some wainscotting from the pebbles at stream, drop them into my sodden skirt, scooch them up to me. And with the lace hem tattered at my waist, I’ll leave and heave them home.
And the window frames, I will weave from pussy willow sticks and when I pull the curtains closed I will stroke each tiny bud. The curtains will be gossamer, of the whisps of web and morning dew that coat my gentle lawn.
My bed, my thankful, grateful bed will be sewn of a thousand daisy chains, round and round and round again until they form a pad, my place to rest.
And windows made from the frozen lake will keep me warm and safe. Hard caked ripples lost in time, like sugar drips of popsicles down a young girl’s arm. And I’ll look out through the ice before I pull my clouds across. My plumes and flumes and drapes of cowslip stalks and then to bed.
And crows will give me comfort, will shield me from the storm. Their wings across my shoulder blades will soothe and calm and over my tiny feet, stoats will curl and nuzzle down, their fur, to balm my toes.
My basket will be by the door, willow, of course. And tomorrow, yes tomorrow, I will pick bilberries and bramleys and my nails will bleed in juice.
And I will bake, bake the very best of apple pies. I will fill the woodland up with them, as far as the creatures can see. Their tiny faces peering out, sniffing the air, eyes shining as they wait. And sliver fluted dishes will carry my pies to their door.
Yes, I will bake again, so the pastry will lull me to sleep and my feathered home will wrap me up, will keep me dry and warm.
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.
Close the door now, close it well and she soothed herself with its sound. It slammed out the outside and she crept upstairs. And back downstairs, lifting blankets from the beds, taking unused towels from cupboards.
There now, there now, she whispered to the door. Smothered it under fabric now, shoved and draped and stuck with gaffer tape, up to the architrave and over hinges. Push it away. And hide.
Windows next, she rushed. Hurried-scurried against the clock.
Tick loud, tock loud, pulsing, beating at her temples as she climbed. Teetering on kitchen chairs to reach and hang, to black out outside with cardboard torn, with paper. Newspapers empty threats, silenced bleating little black, little shapes shouting Doom but not for her.
She was safe if she rushed, if she scurried far away. And tucked up small and slight behind her fabric plastered doors, behind her tattered papered windows. She was safe.
She stroked the walls and thanked them. Gave a blessing to their strength.
Keep it out, keep it all away now.
And if she slept, her barricades against the clock would calm her, her cardboard shields and curtains would sing her deep to sleep.
There now, there now, stop the hands from turning. And she whispered to the house.
I’m a little bit car loaded, heading south, Pendle growing smaller to my right.
And if I could, I would stop the car. Bring it to a halt, all of it. The January day. The normality. And I’d run down the side of the M62 and over the crash barrier and I’d fly, as though my bare feet were never made for soil.
And I’d clamber, higher, faster, until the motorway would fade and my raggle-taggle gypsy feet would bleed. Pink rivulets in the frost, cut and blistered in the iced up air, but I’d be there.
My skirts torn, little frayed bits of me on bracken but I would climb. And our car heading south would be a dot. A pinpoint of time that never happened.
And from the top we’d see our helter-skeltered route to where we’d stay.
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.