Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Living in Narnia

I went there with my sister. In the holidays we had long weeks with nothing to do but whatever we could find to amuse ourselves with. Eva, the Norwegian au pair who took care of us, had a serious boyfriend she was in love with which meant that she was always in a good mood but also not particularly present; so we could do more or less what we liked, and sometimes she would forget about lunch or supper. We didn’t mind. My sister was nearly six years younger than me and I was used to looking after her, as she was used to relying on me for the next thing, the next game to play or place to be.

I made Narnia in the space above the built-in wardrobe in our bedroom. To access it we needed the wooden stepladder. Once inside, the space was generous enough for the two of us to sit comfortably with our sandwiches, biscuits and fruit, or whatever I could find that would most closely resemble the tea that Mr. Tumnus the fawn made for Lucy that first time she stumbled through the wardrobe into Narnia and perpetual winter. Really there should have been a boiled egg but that would have been too difficult. There should also have been an iced cake with a cherry on the top. I improvised. The cake was made of plasticine. It was old and all the colours had bled into each other long ago so the cake was a kind of sludge brown with streaks of pink and turquoise through it. I found a red marble that served as the cherry. The walls of the above-wardrobe space were covered with our drawings of the Narnian forest, Mr. Tumnus’s sitting room and Aslan the lion, true King of Narnia. We had to keep the doors open a little so as not to sit in darkness, and the green and yellow daylight, the sound of Eva vacuuming the flat as she sang along to pop tunes on Radio Luxembourg, slightly broke up our perfect Narnian winter. We needed a candle so I rummaged around in the sitting room cupboard where my mother kept the Christmas things. My grandmother sent beeswax candles from Germany; they had a mellow, even light and gave off a scent of honey. I stuck the candle to a saucer and we closed the doors to the outside world, even though Lucy would have said that it is a very silly thing to shut oneself into a wardrobe.
“You’re very clever,” said my little sister. A selection of stuffed animals were with us, pressed against the wall and corners. Benjamin, the largest bear, was Aslan and Alfie the monkey was Mr. Tumnus. We ate our sandwiches which I had cut into triangles. On each triangle I had put a small decorative flourish with Heinz tomato ketchup or Daddies brown sauce. There was a small bowl full of raising and peanuts. “You’re a good cooker,” said my sister munching a sandwich. I read an excerpt from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the part where all four children had found their way to Narnia and are in the house of the beavers.

Eva absent-mindedly put the stepladder away and called out to see where we were. My sister was about to push open the door and call back but I shook my head and whispered, “let’s hide.” So we did, just like the Pevensey children had, and Eva thought we must have gone off to the playground. And when we jumped down, back into the ordinary world, no-one had really noticed our absence. Just like in the book.

Which is a long way of saying that I’m going to be retreating for a month or so – maybe not into Narnia but, you know – the place where story comes from. And I’ll be closing the door, but not completely –

Be seeing you.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

lost in the forest

So the clocks have gone back and the slipping into darkness time has begun. I would like to say something about this that I haven’t said before but the lit candle expresses it. Each year, it seems, the image – the metaphor – becomes more powerful, increasingly necessary. Things need to be quiet, some inner light ignited, found or revealed in order to meet all the darkness, which keeps on coming. On the other hand, one could deal with it effectively by partying hard. At present I choose the first way, or it chooses me and I acquiesce.

I went to Ros Barber’s book launch on Thursday. She read from her new anthology, Material – a fine collection, and she always delivers, speaks her work so well. The launch was at the top of a pub in Brighton and I was driven there by ex-student who is soon to be herself launched as new author. We stayed to buy the book, hear the reading, greet a few people, but when the word Party was mentioned she turned to me and said, “I’m ready to go when you are” – and I was, so off we went.

Last week’s writing plan was scuppered by the ‘electricity’ mentioned in previous post. I would like to get stuck in again because I have a sense of where I might be heading with something – a longer-than-usual project with characters, a beginning, middle and end (though not necessarily in that order) and I want to feel grounded in it before the run up to Christmas when everything gets busy. I want to feel in the middle of something rather than on the edge. Clearly a long walk into the forest is in order. I got lost once – found myself walking along paths that I thought would lead me out and home but none of them did, the sky was getting dark and then my mobile phone battery ran out. But it was ok because just then some kids ran past and I loped off in the direction they were headed and back to familiar ground, which saved me from having to put into practice the David Whyte poem that tells you what to do when you are lost in the forest:

Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here
and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.
The Forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
if you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a branch does is lost on you,
then you are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
where you are. You must let it find you.

Now being a contrary type of sign-reader, I have always had to suppress the beginnings of a sneer at this, whenever it has been presented to me by a well-intentioned person as some kind of meaningful signpost on the meandering and sometimes obscured path that we may call life. For I do not easily suffer verse that comes with the deep prophetic boom of all-knowingness.

And things have come to a pretty pass, reader, when I dredge the words up from the recesses of my consciousness and think that perhaps yes, he may have something there. I may need to take a deep breath and have another look, damn and blast. But this is just between you and me, ok? Don’t want people thinking I’m going soft.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

the body electric

There is nothing to do when this comes but wait. Sometimes it goes in a day or two, others it hangs around for several weeks. I remember it as being one of the first symptoms in the early days, before I had even properly identified the thing that was M.E. My limbs begin to twitch and then all of me fills up with something that feels like electricity. I had an old analogue watch once and woke up one afternoon after a heavy and disturbed sleep to find the hands whizzing around just over a spot on my wrist where the muscles were going twitch-mad. I told Mr. Signs about it. He nodded cautiously, as one would. Then it happened again when he was with me. Blimey, he said. Yes. Since then I have discovered that this is not uncommon in people with dodgy immune systems and I have been given all manner of Good Advice, but the only thing that helps is a certain concoction of homoeopathic drops – and resting and waiting.

But I had to go out today for a short while because of this -

Some measure of restoration for soul, if not for body. I am at home in the forest.

(Does anyone know why the photos won't enlarge when I put them on blog? I've tried everything without success)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

how things are on sunday

I woke up at the ridiculously early hour of six o'clock, took some Noctura homoeopathic pills to try and get back to sleep, but it was no good, I was awake and zinging, feeling for one brief moment as though I might leap up, go for a run, clean the house and write up a storm. It's a powerful feeling, but I'm not fooled. At least it wasn't three in the morning, as it has been for the last fortnight or so. I got up, greeted the cat, fed her and unlocked the cat flap. I ate a kiwi fruit, had a bath, covered myself with Haushka rose oil, found Mr. Signs awake so discoursed upon matters arising and then fell back to sleep while he went into the village to get newspapers and milk. Was woken again at eleven by my niece who can use her mobile free of charge at weekends and likes to make use of this.

I cooked a sunday lunch for us - roast lamb and green vegetables, followed by plum crumble which we had with neighbours over the road because one of them had a birthday. Now Mr. Signs is vacuuming the house with the new lightweight Electrolux thing (I also washed up after the meal so don't be thinking I haven't done my bit ok?), I have just taken some pills to stop muscle pains from gathering (it's Sunday, I need the break) and am about to put up a couple of photos from my new Nikon digital camera. Here goes:

This is a typical Signs kitchen table scene, click to enlarge if you wish to appreciate the finer details. You will see the remains of some of the plum crumble in the bowl my neighbour was eating from. She has just gone next door to look at some paintings that Mr. Signs has been doing at his art classes. Next to the bowl is the book we gave to her husband for his birthday: Hammer and Tickle by Ben Lewis, which is a history of communism told through communist jokes - for example:

Q: What is the difference between life in the time of Jesus and life under Stalin?

A: Well, in those days one man suffered for us all, but today we all suffer for one man.

On the white kitchen towel you will see a collection of odd-looking (mainly black) things. The yellow bag in the background is full of them. They are salt liquorice - called Salmiakki in Finland, and they were sent in a parcel to me by a certain lovely person. The yellow bag was much fuller a few days ago than it is now because if you like this sort of thing you just want to keep on eating it.

And now. I am sure there are many useful things I could/should be doing. In fact one of the conversations we had today was all about the many useful things that needed to be done around here to make life at Signs Cottage even more far out than it already is. Like getting a skip and going through every single thing in the loft so as to make room for new stuff (house clutter) that will one day have to be thrown into a skip or given away. Something to think about for next year perhaps. And then of course there is The Writing. Always that. But from long experience I know that it's best to begin that in the morning and now it is almost dark outside, the sky a deep lilac blue, and I just want to go on doing nothing in particular; watching the birds fly south; thinking about the pot of mint tea I will make any moment now; feeling that all manner of things will be well.

(except that for some reason the second photo won't enlarge - I'm still learning about what to do)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

the trouble with being born (2)

He rented a bungalow near Watford for next to nothing because it was run down and the landlady liked him. There was a collapsible brown sofa in the living room. It was frayed at the edges and bald on the seats. When I stayed the night he put an old army rug on the sofa and I lay wrapped in the blue caul of a thin sleeping bag looking out of a big expanse of window into trees that were lit either by moonlight or the single Narnian lamp that stood sentry in the garden, where the landlady’s chickens were. At new year we watched Old Grey Whistle Test with whispering Bob Harris, drank Hirondelle and smoked whatever there was to smoke. He cooked steak and kidney stew by boiling it up in water with a bayleaf and adding Bisto gravy powder when the meat had softened. We had it with mash and tinned marrowfat peas. The bright green liquid from the peas bled into the potato and merged with the brown Bisto sauce. A bit of white pepper, he said. I like a bit of pepper with stew. It was delicious. Afterwards we had tea with milk that was made up from dried milk powder. Saves faffing about and it’s cheaper, he said.

He had two cats – one called Monty and the other called Nancy Boy. Monty only had three legs and Nancy Boy had no tail. He couldn’t remember where they had come from, they were just there when he rented the house. He was kind to them in a rough sort of way, made sure they were fed and called to them when they came in from outside: hey Monty, Nancy Boy – how you doing, lads – alright?

There was a girl he was seeing on and off. I never met her but one day I saw her stockings hanging up to dry on the bathroom rail. Sex, he said, was very good for you, but having a screw was no big deal and people made too much of a song and a dance about it. When he turned cool on her she rang him up crying and threatening to kill herself. So I went round with a bottle of aspirin, he said. She went berserk. I asked what he would have done if she’d killed herself. Nah, he said. The ones that wanna do it just go ahead and get on with it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

things not to do

Went to visit the mater today. She and I have been on a roll recently, something I put down to her having gone just a tiny bit fuzzy around the edges – not that she’s letting up on the aerobics/pilates regime or anything, and she isn’t losing the plot so that anyone would actually notice. But she has definitely been showing signs of enjoying my company and we’ve had a couple of conversations where she has revealed things I hadn’t known, such as the fact that as a young child in Germany, before she was shipped over here on Kindertransport, she used to make up poetry. We were tootling along in the car after apple strudel in a local tea room when she began spouting some of it and you could have knocked me down with a feather because it was quite lovely. I have asked her to write it down for me. There is so much darkness and damage in our history, I would like to gather a few of the other elements to set alongside: there was a boy she fell in love with at school. She wrote him a love letter. Yes, but even this sweetness comes with its opposite because her teacher found the love letter in her desk (it was a secret) and read it out to the class, pointing out the spelling mistakes. My mother was pleased when the Nazis (but what did she know?) removed the teacher from the school for not being rigorous enough about national socialist indoctrination.

I looked in at her house today to say hello to an old family friend who was having lunch there. He has known me since I was born and is, I suppose, the nearest I have to anyone who feels remotely like father since mine died. In contrast to the greeting I usually receive from mother’s partner, who doesn’t suffer her offspring gladly or (given the choice) at all, old family friend rose shakily to his unsteady feet with a full sun-in-the-eyes smile and embraced me. While he enjoyed the rest of his roast bird followed by a cheese course with quince jelly, he asked me about my children, how they were and what they were doing. Then he looked up from the piece of stilton he had just speared with his knife, adjusted his spectacles and said, and what about you? What are you doing? He is a doctor, one of those it doesn’t pay to discuss M.E. with. If I were a patient of his he would be hell-bent on discovering what was really wrong with me. I can’t actually remember how I managed to cobble some kind of answer together. The mater seems to think I’m still teaching, even though I told her about my “sabbatical.” I could have said something about writing poems and stuff, but you know.

Actually, I am looking to cut down and do even less. This is, paradoxically, so that I can do more, or at least be more efficient with small amounts of energy. I’ll keep you informed obviously. Meanwhile, I’m singing:

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

back atcha

I am changeable as the wind, why is that? Reader, do not believe anything I say. Or rather, believe it to be true (perhaps) for the moment, but tomorrow is another day. Recently I thought I might be getting a bit better, stronger, and I said so. Why can’t I learn to keep my mouth shut when this happens – be like the people who vow never to openly name the thing they prize most for fear of attracting the evil eye? But there it is, I am caught by the moment and fall for it. Today is different and I am back, and having to tread carefully. It’s ok, I know this terrain. I loved the walks I was having, took too many perhaps and now I go softly, pad pad, so as not to awaken the tiger.

I’ve heard the good news of two friends having their novels accepted by publishers: The first is a friend from my Hackney days – we were in a writing group together and had our stories published in an anthology. We are close friends, have touched on each other's lives in all kinds of ways, but the rock of our friendship is The Writing. I put capitals because that’s what I hear when we refer to it; when we speak on the phone or sit with coffee and the cigarettes we are supposed to have given up and say, so shall we talk about The Writing? I remember when she decided to write this book; how she went to another country to find the bones and flesh of the story whose essence was already gathering in her, and the email that came one day saying she had found what she was looking for and had begun the work. Somehow there was never any doubt that the book would be written and published.

The second was a student in one of the night classes I taught five years ago. I remember how when she came we were all crammed into a small room next to a language class that was clearly audible through the thin walls and how as soon as she read from her notebook I could hear that she was already a writer, a wordsmith in the making. She has just been offered a three-book deal by a big publisher. This too was something I envisaged happening, though it is still a shock of surprise when the dream becomes real.

Everyone has their own path and the thing is to keep going along it. It feels like a great calamity when one is prevented from doing that because of health or something else getting in the way. But on the other hand, that is perhaps the nature of the journey, an aspect of the path. So how can one refuse to walk it? I walk it - pad pad.

Cusp has kindly given me an award. I am taking it as something bestowed rather than earned.

And speaking of which: I would like to award this to someone who I feel is deserving of this, as well as others, for her courage, kindness and persistence in adversity; namely the creator of the award. Cusp? Yes, you. On yer sidebar!

Friday, October 3, 2008

the trouble with being born

One day he said, I’m going to show you what it’s like to be born. Please do, I thought, show me what that might be like, and I will steel myself for the surprise, whatever it might be. But he began smoking hash, the strong stuff, then Ecstasy took him, the substance. Oh, he said, it was so good, I had such a good time. And I knew he would never show me, that being born was, for him, too dark and heavy, without the possibilities given to the never-quite-born of taking flight. So he excarnated. Et excarnatus est, courtesy of Ecstasy. He became unmade, fragmented, splintered into particles of light that were ground into dust and blown away. Then there was nothing but echo, the same old words repeated. Or perhaps he was really showing me, as he promised he would, what it might be like. For we are born, one way or another, from this one or that, into this place or that and there may be white silk coverlets, there may be broken glass or a manger full of hay. And sometimes there may be no life at all to be born into, but you fall at once into the arms of death. So many ways to be born.

I think of him now, living in his damp underground rooms like a mole, coming out in the small hours to walk along a stony beach littered with broken bottles, finding a public telephone to dial my number, his voice like a thin wind blowing through reeds: yeah right, yeah good, see you before too long, take care.