This face on the concrete, cool and rough, this tucked away under dried leaves, this attempt at shelter.
And yes the woodlice come but they don’t mind, they’ve seen me here before. Ants carry on regardless, always did, always will, while I curl up tight.
It’s ok, they nod as they pass by, shifting crumbs and sticks and broken things. But I can’t answer, not right now. I watch the woodlice trundle, legs rippling as if to say, there is movement, there is flow, although I can’t feel it.
And if I keep still long enough, my breathing will settle, will slow and the leaves will tremble on my back, will shudder just enough to show someone that I’m there.
And if I hold on, they might find me and lift me up and know I still belong. They might pluck me from the cracks in the patio and take me home, take me back indoors again.
And I would give my blessings to the woodlice as I leave them. And in someone’s hands I would be whole.
And I will brush up the leaves from the garden, so delicate and fragile in my hands. I will place them in small piles on my outstretched skirts and stroke each one in turn. And they will be so glad of the sunlight and of my cotton layered skirts on which they rest.
These leaves, these moments from my trees, my overarching glades that kept me safe. How gentle they sit in the folds of my clothes, how grateful they are for my care.
The trees are bare now but their silhouettes echo out my life, the shapes that formed me, the branches that held me close and I will dance in their shadows, I will blossom again.
I stroke the leaves in my lap, they appreciate my warmth, my hands that soothe them as the photons lift the last of moisture from their form.
I watch them, crumble into the weft and weave, fragments of leaves in my skirts. I kiss each one. I thank each one, each particle, each atom of my leaves then stand to go.
As I pull myself to standing, full of warmth despite the cold, they scatter to soil. They drift and drop, replete from the day, ready to take on the earth.
And I spin, I twirl round and around, my skirts billowing out, floating up like a balloon in a hot summer’s sky. Dancing under the canopy where I grew, sewing seeds on the breeze of the trees yet to come.
And we are whole and we are rested, where noon’s a purple glow. My leaves and I, together and we are safe and we are one.
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.
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.
The cloud cover broke a little just beyond her trees and blue peeped through. She followed it, she let herself be swept along and up and through to Valencia.
And she dropped down, she landed like a curled up leaf and then unfurled. Stretching out, warming in the Spanish sun.
And she was there.
There, in flowing linen, and cream hat, there in the indigo glass reflection, in the white spots of sunlight on polished chrome. Just a split second, as though she viewed it all from here, older, looking back, as though the moment had rippled back and forth through time, throughout the whole course of her life.
And she would be there, limitless in the azure blue and violets. She tried to freeze the moment but it ebbed and dipped, rose and fell, in and out like her breath on the warmth of that day.
Under the startling architecture they wandered as though it had been created just for them.
She was there.
There, in the deep soft cream settee of the of the taxi, low down, buildings blurring as they explored the town.
There, by the bicycle racks finding Tourist Information. And maps were drawn and plans were made as they forged themselves back out.
There, to the left of the Cathedral, then the fountain and that sense of achievement when they found their bearings once again.
There, in that repeating sense of being trained, that she would need these skills just down the line. And then her husband sat, with Guinness while she took their small boy’s hand and walked away.
And she was there in the twenty minutes before the shuttle bus to the docks, striding out to find a souvenir with their son. And the pavements seemed so white and the buildings were warm ochre and in the Spanish sun they were being taught to explore alone.
And there and back and to the cafe meet up with one last photo, one last pose.
She was there and snapped them, husband and son at the fountain, grinning. And the water droplets sprayed up and the photons sparkled down as minutes slowed.
And in the Now she went back there, tired but noting moments on the coach, smiling at the buildings, wide-eyed like a child. And the city shone as though everything was brand new, resplendent, shimmering like themselves.
And the day was white and chrome and violet with an endless sky to call her own. And she clambered back into the feeling, to be there, to be together, to be whole.
If she could have just one day it would be there, it would be then, under the mothering Spanish sun.
She would be standing there now, looking up. So much of that time seemed to be about looking up or looking out in that outward expanding world. Not like this, not like this small enclosed tight place.
But that was then and so she looked and listened to the guide. They were taken to a shop selling leather coats, its heavy scent still lingered and here the crowd of strangers stopped just to use the toilets. The owner watched as people drifted in and out to the back of his shop, some stopping to stroke the leather but no-one buying. He nodded to them as they passed by. He was used to it I suppose, an arrangement with the tour guide. Perhaps she was a friend.
Tired feet pushed down on the Piazza di San Giovanni, drifting around a stall of puppets. Pinocchios dangling, hopeful, desperate to feel real again. And back along by the side of the cathedral, soft russets against blue, she looked back up.
Pinocchio swung in the small boy’s hand and they walked on, through medieval alleyways in the footsteps of tourists, capturing moments like you do, like they did.
And later after coaches pulled up in the rain in a Pisa carpark, she bartered with the brolly sellers, a trick she did often and well.
And there they were again, another second, backpacks and cameras, holding up the tower in the rain. At the market stall, the bags and scarfs pulled her close and as their boy learned how to make Pinocchio dance she pottered amongst the gifts.
The tasseled black and red scarf still hangs in her wardrobe but then it was clutched in her hand, then it was her trophy from the day and they rushed back.
And just before the meeting point where her husband waited, she slipped for a second, went over on her right ankle, on the wet cobbled lane and then regained.
Raindrops on coach windows, a greyed out Pisa on their left, throbbing ankle and a new scarf to wrap up the day. But Pinocchio sat on the young boy’s lap to her right, small and wooden, his painted eyes, trying to recall what it felt like to be alive.
Grazie mille, they whispered to the town as they pulled away.