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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
There was a time when white sands flanked them on the left as they wandered, when the beach framed the bay, resplendent, calming like a long out breath.
At the end of the road by the market stalls, Matisse’s house stood, elegant and shuttered, perfect angles under the startling sun. And thinking about his paintings, how they seemed to be lit by the same insistent sun, as though the paint itself was lit from within.
And in one breath she lived there, russet skirts brushing the stairs as she came down in the morning. There would be no rush as she chattered with the stall holders. A smile and a joke and then with her basket full of nectarines and oranges she would drift away to the edge of the beach. And staring out to sea she would feel herself ripple and drink in the day.
And later back in Cannes the moment was frozen by a passerby, dressed head to toe in baby pink and tripping by her feet was her clipped poodle, dyed pink to match the owner. Woman and dog sparkling in the heat.
Their day was a vibrant palette, bright colours on each brush. It was a painting to stare into on dark chilled autumn mornings. And there, in the South of France she wore white and she seemed to be lit from within.