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.
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.
And she floated down to the earth with her leaves, twisted, crumbling. They caught the sun as they fell, each one a moment, a glimpse of her. Here. There. And she cascaded, one second into another.
The girl in jeans lying on his bed, waiting for a trip to the forest. And they were there, wrapped and younger with hours ahead. And leaves crunched.
And then the morning, one year later, squeezing through packing boxes and squashed into his car, they traveled north. The fig plant on her lap, bouncing, faded lemon and green leaves, tangling into her long hair. And they unpacked.
A blackbird skooshed under the branches in the right here, right now and then she fell again, dropping from the trees, a mess of golden, a curled up fading form.
And she was there in their new lounge, taking on the owner with her fiancé to her right. A stressed-out seller to her left, who sabre rattled a rolling pin in the face of her husband-to-be.
And she rallied, she reared up. ‘You’ll have to get through me first’ she said and her words rattled around her head, the phrase that became their anecdote, in their new home, in their new life, on that day in a distant autumn.
And leaves fell and she joined them, down and down, as though there were no structure to her thoughts, as though her edges had given way. The sun in the Now called out to her, soothed her through the mothering blue of an empty sky.
And in the cloudless start to her day, she stood flanked and strong by her husband and son, as they stared out across the park. Gaudí’s Cathedral looked back, its stone sweetcorn against their perfect sky and it soared up, magnificent, intricate, an image almost permanent.
And they walked on, following the tour guide with her yellow sign, held high. The ground still swayed a little but they were out. Feet on dry land, together, hands linked as they went on their way.
And leaves fell in the park in Barcelona, and beyond her window in the right here and right now, she floated down. She let the cool breeze carry her, gentle, down-to-earth, where she rested with the others, where she turned her head up to face the sky.
She was the warm yellows of her past, in a scattered ochre morning. She watched herself fall down, an October mulch to feed her day.