To be honest she had not smiled so much in years and she noted it to herself, it was undeniable but shh, she wouldn’t think about it now, not right now at least.
She would take herself away and take tea. Yes she would take tea with herself, with her best china teapot, the one from her dearest friend Kerry. Kerry with all her verve, her energy bounding like a Labrador pup, frenetic, abandoned. And she would sit opposite Kerry in her own quietness, in her smallness and wonder how it would feel to be so light.
But now, here she was with herself, with Kerry’s teapot and how she smiled, how she used muscles, dormant for years and she would give herself a good talking to. Yes, that’s what she’d do. And maybe there’d be ginger biscuits, home-made of course. Yes, something pungent to bring her back to herself and ginger root, like an old friend, who would warm her up with their familiarity and that slight kick of heat on her tongue, like the friend she could trust who would tell her home truths.
And then Madeira cake, yes then the softness would come. So gentle and kind, it would break apart in her mouth, like moments she could no longer hold. And golden crumbs would scatter, left discarded on her plate, like fragments in a relationship, like the little things left unsaid.
And yet despite it all she continued to smile. Smile, like a child who had learned a new skill and her feelings bubbled loose and fluid, tumbling round her like a ruffled toddler fresh from bed, with pillow shaped hair and a teddy bear, dragged paw first straight to the toy box before breakfast. And she was giddy, unbounded by the day.
She wanted to rush up to strangers and pull the masks from their faces, she wanted to see them smile, with their whole face not just with their eyes and if she could she would take them all out to tea. She would find a hidden teashop where the bell would jingle as she pushed through the door and trailing skirts behind her, she would drag over a chair or two. Here, here, sit a while she’d say and take tea with me and there will be ginger biscuits, Madeira cake and Darjeeling will flow pale golden into their welcome cups.
And they would sit and talk and share and smile and she would flow. Around them, she would flow through them. Shh, shh, it’s ok now. Bring me your shadows, let them out and show me who you are. And there in our darkness you’ll be safe. Let me hold your shadows close, now that I can smile.
Of course, if it were nearing the end of April she couldn’t be anywhere else but striding out towards the gate, at the end of the path, at the top of their alpine village. And her arms flew wide and wild, hair at every corner as the shutter smiled and caught her.
It held her face through the years, such that in times when she reduced in size, she would recall herself and the way she beamed. Trees blurred out behind her and his SLR bounced alongside them like a giddy Jack Russell, sniffing and rooting around for the next great shot. And they walked, for the rest of their lives it seemed, they walked up the winding path away from their alpine village which only existed for them.
It didn’t matter that her kitchen was still somewhat cold and although she seemed to sit on a hard wooden chair, she wasn’t there. She was upright on a plush train seat, looking right, as the mountains softened and the land lapped up to the side of them, in their double-deckered, pristine ride. And it would be the Wednesday, maybe Thursday but she’d be beaming, heading south, face up against the window like a child as the fields fled, as they sat side by side.
And it didn’t matter that her heating had just creaked on or the scarf around her shoulders kept her warm. She wasn’t there. She was, of course, on the low wall by the lakeside, kicking her feet and grinning, one hand holding the sunhat to her head, the other on the ubiquitous Diet Coke, in the days when all she needed was her small red rucksack and a first-aid kit to make her day. And if she paused, her wooden kitchen chair gave way to stone and the welcome seep of coolness reached her thighs despite her jeans.
Someone painted the lake for them, or so it seemed and everything was tinged azure and cobalt and they wandered. And the town was deserted or maybe not, maybe all she could see was their feet in unison, climbing the stairs up the tower and round and around and round and around to a platform where they peered out. The more she travelled the younger she became somehow as she clambered up the short steps to the very top, while he humoured her and waved from the opposite window. And she was there clutching the cobbled wall, perched on the window ledge looking down and her white cotton shirt billowed out like her hair.
And her heating rattled and complained, she needed to get the boiler serviced but not right now, now she was counting turrets and burnt sienna tiles and he was helping her back down the staircase in the secret places that they’d found.
Then the pier rose up, lakeside and people bustled but she didn’t care, she wanted to call home. And from a phone box (imagine that, a phone box) she pressed in the coins and waited for connection. Distant sounds came and crackled and then her voice burst out, like a child, like the youngest of girls. I’m in Italy, I’m in Italy and she laughed and gushed while they stood there. Cloudless, edgeless, sun waving streaks of speckled white on a lake to call their own.
And was it later or the next day, she wasn’t sure but the end of April held her close. She borrowed his shirt to protect her from the sun and while he packed or read or slept, she felt it flap around, over her t-shirt as she walked by herself in Zermatt. Not far but far enough, back up the winding path and out of town and every hanging basket sang out and called her name, colours cranked to full saturation, people on bikes and she strode. She walked out and up and away for a while, exploring by herself (a skill that would become vital years from then) but then there was no weight, no weight at all. Just herself and the village path and the drifts of snow, six-cornered starlets melting in the warmth. And could it be real, was it possible at all, that there she was, the smallest of creatures on the planet, yet her tiny frame expanded in the sun and the more she walked, the more she grew and she swung her arms and smiled, smiled liked she did on their first holiday, smiled as though there could be no pain.
She learnt to walk by herself, in his shirt to protect her and every snowflake saw her joy, every flower waved and cheered her on. It would always be the end of April and they walked the winding paths that led to now. At the start, at their start and Murano glass beads jingled round her wrist, throwing rainbows of Millefiori round her heart.
It’s so still out there, so waiting. That sense of shh, don’t worry, it will come. It’s there in the way the sunlight holds the branches, in the faint call of a hidden bird.
And I pause, breathe, that’s all. And it passes by my window, up to the left with the sparrow wings and he watches me, watching him, watching them all. We slow down, the birds and I, pause to think of sunlight.
And there they are, my creatures in the trees, pecking and singing, ruffling new feathers in this spring. And I wonder do they sense their descendants, the ones I knew, the ones who gave me feathers years ago.
And while they sang outside that window from back there, in that house then, the hem of the dress caught the light as it lay out on the bed, as if to say look at me, look at me, lift me up into your arms. And later, a little later it would be held up as I clambered inside, as I manoeuvred into my new form, like a butterfly losing meconium, drying out its fresh wet wings.
Until its weight draped round my feet and I breathed out. Birds sang unseen as the hem brushed the dust down the wooden staircase and over new mown grass to rest and pause, where cameras winked and moments froze.
Sparrows darted to the neighbour’s tree, head on one side and down the path the hem of the dress shuffled leaves until it was bundled up into the car. It sat quiet, being, folded in upon itself, cushioned on the plush carpet of the foot-well until blackbirds cut the air, overarching the church gate.
And there with the creak of old hinges, with the warmth of a palm, with the click of heels on old stone, the hem of the dress made its way home. Home, on the short path to the archway, home to the hush of the slate and it dragged feathers and fronds as it swayed, as it made its way past pews to the front.
And there it rested for a while, settled in ivory, calm where it belonged. The hem of the dress over champagne silk boots, near to sharp creases in suits and it paused, waited, just to the left of polished shoes.
And then sunlight came back to stroke it, came to throw light at the door. The hem swept and rippled, caught the coloured flecks, scattered rainbows all around, then hands scooped it back up into soft contours in the car.
Trees moved above it unseen, voices chattered and laughed while it lay crumpled up and then the grass came back, daffodils nodded and bobbed as it moved around. Photons bounced up from the duck pond, white spots and sparkles, before it coated steps and carpet-brushed itself along.
And it swooned, the hem of the dress with the tiny remnants from the day and it danced over polished floors, glided as though it would always flow, would always sway, as though in its moment there was release.
And later it lay, much later it was still, smoothed out again and silent on the protective bag at the bedside, soon to be tucked far away.
And now hydrogen coalesces into helium, firing light and heat, like it did, like it does. How reassuring as it warms up the blackbird’s wings, as it listens to the soil.
And in a different wardrobe now the hem of the the dress sleeps its sleep, cradled and swaddled in plastic, over unused things and bits and bobs. But in its weft and weave it holds the moments when it danced, when it was free, when it could shimmer and it was home.
She wondered about the grains of sand, would they still lie there, would they be there, somewhere on the beach where she ran. Or have they been washed out to sea, floating somewhere else or swallowed by fish or washed to a different port, a different country that they visited.
And the steps back up to the top, the winding cliff path with its haphazard stones and rocks. Would they still be in place or would the slate have fallen, helter-skelter down into the heather and gorse. Maybe moss covers it over now so it lies unseen by new passing feet.
And she wondered where the tea cup would be now, the fine bone china with fragile flowers and golden trim and the rose painted plate holding crumbs from the scones.
Were they broken by now, smashed on terracotta tiles, maybe chucked into some landfill. Or chipped and loved, were they cosseted on a shelf somewhere, in a cupboard, unused but cherished even now.
But she knew where the slate slabs were, the ones that smacked into her thigh as she ran, the ones she’d chosen when fluff-deep in parka pockets she charged across the sands.
They were close by even now, catching light despite the bandaged sky, in the basket to her left. And she lived there next to them, on top of them, beside them. There, where the slate remained the same despite the years and if she cradled it in her hand, her hair would whip up in sea gusts and scone crumbs would drop back to the plate. A tea cup would warm her cold hands and grains of sand would scatter and dance delirious as her small feet pushed the beach. The hours washed away, eroded. Rose and fell and rose again and she was running now towards him. Always on this day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The mint leaf rested effortless on the hot water’s surface tension, so it had just enough support. And in her morning mug the sky trembled, the trees rippled in their inverted world.
She thought of reflections of the restaurant ceiling, upside down in her wine glass, garnet red and rounded, with its full deep sun warmed taste.
The sun was up in the Now, drying leaves, dropping pale light across her golden browns. But she wasn’t there, she had stood in ancient ruins in the morning and now, back on the coach trip their bellies rumbled from the early start.
Lunch came, with perfect pasta, passing bowls to strangers across a carnival of colours. She drank it all in, at the long wooden table where they sat. She looked right and up to the violet curtains, gold organza fluttering, how they seemed to light up despite the dimness of the candle lit room. And if she took out her small camera she would capture them and have the moment frozen for all time.
But nothing could hold the colours, like jewels against the window and she watched the sunbeams dance amongst the dust as though everything was slowing down. It was as though the moment was calling out to her, look at me, look at me, this is a second to hold. Side by side, in the flickering dim and although her camera could never do justice to the light, she knew her mind would keep it safe. And there they were in that restaurant with high ceilings and wooden walls, sharing food with the strangers of their day.
And later, much later, the fountains and bridges faded to a hush, to a crowded, shoulder to shoulder throng looking up. Quiet, neck-straining to take in the paintings up above and how strange it seems now. That oddness in the thought of rubbing shoulders with no fear, and they stood crammed in together, tasting the air, breathing without masks, without hand gel.
She dropped back to the Now and the day that lay ahead of her but it was tinged, it was softened around the edges like the quality of light. And if she breathed in long and deep she was full, she was lost again to the scent of the Sistine Chapel.