Running away to sea

Things have been difficult since finishing my poetry pamphlet. I have sent out bunches of poems to magazines etc. that Pascale recommended and, to date, have been met with refusal or months of silence. Not one acceptance. I did have a refusal from Granta that was so positive it almost felt like an acceptance but frankly I am not content with being grateful for crumbs that fall from the table. This is evidently the way of a writer’s life. It is difficult, but it is not the difficulty.

Since finishing my pamphlet, the exhaustion and sense of vacuum that followed in its wake allowed my demons back in. I have been stressed and miserable, overwhelmed by the smallest things. For the life of me I have not been able to sit at my desk and write. I thought this was the warm-up act to the familiar post-project depression, but now I am not so sure.

A handful of synchronicities and pressing irritability led to my spending a fortnight alone on the Dorset coast in the town where I was born. I love the sea. For twenty years we’ve been visiting Pembrokeshire and I have come to love it with a simple, joyful love. Dorset is complicated. I was always in my element on the beaches but childhood was misery and I left at the first opportunity, only returning for very brief visits a handful of times since.

I couldn’t believe my luck: I’d rented a one-bed loft apartment on the seafront. I watched the ships in the bay. I watched birds (turnstones, particularly). I befriended a pair of juvenile herring gulls who showed up every time I put food on my table. I sat in the deep window sill and let the sea and sky soften my eyes for hours. I read Alice Oswald’s Nobody out loud to the sea (it persisted in talking over me, but no matter). I walked on the beach for an hour every day at first light, and then again towards sunset. And I quickly realised I was not, in fact, depressed.

Neither was I happy, exactly. But the agitation, the sensation of being constantly assailed by everyone and everything, and having nothing to set against that, was just… gone. The flat was simply furnished and tidy. I could read and meditate and watch the sea in the sitting room. At the little dining room table I designated one chair for eating and another for drawing and journalling (of which I did plenty). There was no “catering” to do: I had only to feed myself, whatever and whenever I liked. Cheerfully greeting strangers on the beach without breaking my stride turned out to be the perfect amount of social contact. The sea, though, the sea!

All this walking the tideline, back and forth, back and forth. All this compelling liminality! For the whole fortnight I was constantly within earshot of the waves. (I did not use my big headphones once.) And I found myself asking, as I had thirty years previously, “how am I going to leave?” Oh, how differently the question resounds now!

My husband asked me how it felt to be back there. I’d been giving it considerable thought. It would not be quite accurate, or honest, to call it “home”. I am wary of using the word “belonging”; I suspect it entails duties and obligations I am as yet unaware of. I thought about the ships in the bay. I felt I was riding at anchor: still at sea, no longer drifting.

Back in Gloucester (after a distressing journey involving a broken-down bus and subsequent yomp across Yeovil with a heavy rucksack, a train packed to capacity, a “service” that was cancelled at Bristol, and a wait outside in the cold for my poor husband to come and rescue me) I don’t know what to do with all this. I can’t face people, either IRL or online. I have stopped drawing again. This is the first thing I have written in two weeks. I am sleeping poorly. Everywhere I turn there is chaos: cups, butter knives, sirens, flashing Christmas lights. I don’t know what meaning needs to be made of this. But if I am not depressed, what, then, am I? Responsible for sorting out this ungodly fuck-up of a life? That’s a big ask, currently. But I don’t want to drag myself or my dear ones across an endless expanse of misery. I need to listen to what the sea told me: to listen and listen and listen until something begins to make sense.

Wishbone

Birds, gods, bird-gods…

These past couple of weeks Writers’ HQ have been offering (in addition to their usual treasure chest of courses, blog posts etc.) a weekly flash face-off. Well, that sounds all kinds of horrible and confrontational! It’s nothing of the kind. Prompts are posted on Monday morning and writers have until midday on Friday to post to the forum. Of these, a handful are chosen to read at a Crowdcast event that evening.

So… to my delight my story, “Wishbone”, was chosen but, as my tech is stuck in the Dark Ages, the host had to read on my behalf. She did a grand job indeed but I wanted to share my own take on it. I hope you enjoy it! (Do check out Writers’ HQ, too, if you don’t already know them.)

every morning, whether or not

As though asking me to witness a gruesome miracle, a domestic Turin Shroud, Bee holds up the sheet of kitchen roll with which she has blotted the grease from her cheese on toast. She says that dairy is bad for her skin. I probably shouldn’t be eating the cheese either. It’s the tasty Mexican one with the peppers, left over from chilli night. I weigh the likelihood of a flare of indigestion against the savour of it. I eat the cheese. In the category of items likely to unsettle my stomach, spicy cheese barely makes the long-list these days.

Is it weeks now or only days that it’s been raining? The sky has become a vast warehouse of marked-down stock rapidly approaching its expiry date. We sit snug in our houses, waiting it out, with only the News for news and the endless scroll of status updates to connect us to each other. An inscrutable algorithm judges us, determines which of our prayers will be seen and heard, by whom and how many. See how we bait our hooks! See how we shower each other with glib hearts! Today I cannot stomach any more. We venture out for a quick pond and Tesco’s combo-outing. At the petrol station Tesco’s we buy milk and haribos. I shouldn’t eat the haribos either, because of the gelatin, but just this once I want the delivered promise of empty sweetness.

Walking around the water we see that, improbably, the little egret is still there, looking wholly misplaced in this scruffy, suburban overflow pond. I struggle to reconcile myself to its presence. The swans flew off months ago and haven’t been seen since. I am glad it is there. But I do not trust it to be all right. The pond is scuzzy; the water level dropped significantly over the spring, transforming the moat between the shore and the willow tree island into a sucking mud-wallow and, despite the heavy rain since, the water at the pond margins has a flocculent and fly-blown, jellied look to it.
‘I don’t know why he stays, Bee,’ I say. ‘Perhaps it’s just his home.’

Emergency sirens scream at us on our way back. Nothing out of the ordinary. The shopping bag is heavy on my wrist. I rub it tenderly, nursing a soreness from weeding out the front at the weekend. This rain has turned the lawn into a meadow. Next door complained about the weeds, airing to visitors his genuine bafflement that we do not jump to it with alacrity now he has expressed his wish that we do something, ‘take action’. I do something. I stroke the grasses gone to seed. I admire the clover and search for, and find, the leaves of self-heal. If the rain ever stops I will mow the lawn, but not yet. I want a moment’s peace with the world in which I live. Is it too much to ask to feel at home here, to be allowed sufficient room as I am, without meeting anyone else’s expectations? I want to be able to drink my mug of tea in the morning and read my book and watch the small grey-brown slug abseil down the rain-beaded window and not need to justify such small pleasures to others as an acceptable response to this world, at least for this moment. I would like to find the courage to be happy, even (especially!) amidst the many things about which I cannot possibly be happy.

*The title is from ‘Morning Poem’ by Mary Oliver, from her collection Dream Work.

Our Lady of the Sparrows

Once upon a time there was a girl who spoke sparrows. She didn’t speak to sparrows: when she opened her mouth it wasn’t words that came out but birds. This was unconventional, to say the least.

Her family was deeply embarrassed and didn’t know what to do with her until one day they had the bright idea of selling their story (her story!) to the papers. Well, after that, people flocked to their door to catch a glimpse of the miracle and gawp at the freak-show that was their daughter. Some chirped that she was a holy-woman, others squawked that she was a witch. Stephen Fry tweeted that she was a fraud.

The girl who spoke sparrows was very unhappy. She had things of her own that she wanted to say, damn it, but all anyone cared about was those bloody birds. Talk about stuck in a rut! Stuck in a rut with bird-shit all over the IKEA furniture, to boot!

So she made a decision. No words: no birds. She refused to open her mouth. People got bored and went home. They had uncooperative teenagers of their own.

Finally!… except that… after a while, the girl began to feel the tickle of feathers in her throat. Oh no! She swallowed hard. Now claws began to scratch at her. She couldn’t keep it in any longer. She opened her mouth and out flew not a sparrow but a HAWK! And then life got very interesting…