Friday, May 28, 2010


I have on my mind this woman in a thin grey tracksuit and these words I woke with: at night she goes back into the water.

At night we go back into the water and you do not see us. At night she goes back into the water. He used to wonder where she went, getting up in the middle of the night. He pretended not to know, as though it was just a visit to the bathroom to have a pee or a shower, but he heard the click of the door, soft, as though she didn't want him to know, and he spied her through the window, looked down on her in the small hours, dressed only in her metal-grey tracksuit, her favourite (it feels like my skin). It's good we live near the sea, she said. If we didn't I'd die.
Three a.m. in the dead of winter, barefoot under a full, freezing moon, she slips out of her tracksuit as though shedding an encumbrance, her shoulders shrug themselves free, her hands lift, fingers stretch, as though welcoming in the sky. Soft, bare feet on hard stones, she walks as though made of nothing, as though sticks and stones, sharp edges, make no impression. Live in the real world, you're always somewhere else, what do you do with yourself all day, you look a mess. She slips into the sea as a child slides under warm blankets when it is ready for sleep.
Next morning she is beside him in bed stinking of seaweed, hair stiff with salt water, still damp. I know where you've been, he says.

I am unwilling to take this any further, spend any more words - as though I've touched on a miserly streak: I can't aford it today, too expensive, I'd rather keep my money where it is - safe, buried in the ground, holed up in a bank, getting wrinkled in a drawer, but at least I know where it is. Sealskin. A woman who dresses in a grey tracksuit is missing it (you are wasting your time, before you know it you'll be talking about her periods, the menopause, how it feels when children fly the nest, telling the same old stories, hanging the sealskin on them).
She was just a bit of a freak, someone born without the right skin and it was always missing, like a person who feels they are born into the wrong body, a man who should have been woman, a girl who should have been a boy, a woman who should have been a seal - a trick of nature or something genetic, handed down, slipped out. One day she walks into the sea and never comes back. But that really happened.

She was a cook in the drugs rehab centre where I worked, It's all a game, she said, about having relationships with men and falling in love, you have to treat it as a game. But someone had just thrown her over for someone else and on a bank holiday weekend she took a whole tub full of sleeping pills with her to Eastbourne, walked into the sea and never came back. People said she drowned but I don't know how you would do that, even with all the sleeping pills.

In the same period, an erstwhile flatmate also slipped, but not into the sea. She took a quantity of pills and sat down with her knitting as she always did, her chickpeas soaking in water for tomorow's meal. She was missing her Kenyan lover, thinking he would never come back, feeling herself stranded, fish out of water, missing her skin. A woman who needs a man is like a seal without its skin. A woman who lives with a heartless man is like a seal without its skin. A woman who loses herself in a man is like a woman who walks into the sea.

It is all danger, whichever way you look at it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Carol Ann

Out last night seeing Carol Ann Duffy reading at the Charleston Festival. When you like a poet and her work as I have her, for many years, it feels almost personal, like going to see a good friend or close member of the family. Even though I have never seen her in the flesh before, when she appeared I had that sense of recognition and pride: ah, there she is, my own Carol Ann. It isn't often you will find me going on like this, so cut me some slack here. I am not one of those who is drawn to the fix of rubbing up against fame and the big name - I grew up with famous names aplenty milling around at the mater's dinner parties, smoking up the living room, gobbling the chocolate globes on the Christmas tree, throwing up on the hall carpet outside my bedroom - actually that's another post entirely. I am usually quite happy to meet writers in their work, knowing that this is in any case most probably the most substantial part of them. But just occasionally I am drawn (Jeanette Winterson, also at Charlestson) to share the space while they speak their work, these writers whose words have given utterance, given substance to my life - mattered to me.

We were in the enormous tent that is annually erected in the grounds. When the weather is rain and wind it can feel like being in a ship in a storm, but last night was pure perfect early summer balm, the air broken only by the lowing of cows and some determined braying of donkeys. CA read from her book The World's Wife and some new unpublished poems. I would have liked also to hear some of the Rapture and Mean Time poems, but after the lengthy introductions there really was not much time. Charleston introductions tend to go on a bit, as though one has come knowing nothing at all about the writer, and on this occasion, with her being the Poet Laureate, this was even more the case. The person who gave the longest address seemed at pains to pay tribute to her and did the job well enough, but she took up precious time that could have been taken by the actual poet. Afterwards we were invited to meet CA in the queue for book-signing, but I had had what I came for, which was the experience of seeing and hearing the poet standing in her words.

Mr. Signs is on Shrink-training this weekend. Son is here, briefly touching in. We're having lunch at the mater's - roast chicken (temporary suspension of veggie diet, too complicated otherwise) and a fruit fool I will make with concentrated mango pulp brought back from Mumbai. Then he back to London and I to Brighton - from whence a day trip to London tomorrow, with folding stool, to March* (or sit) for M.E.

* or not - if rag-doll condition continues I may only be there in spirit.

Friday, May 21, 2010


ok, there are other things, but why shouldn't I be a little selective with the truth now and then, or even most of the time? In other less uplifting news, my blood tests are showing that there is movement of the inauspicious kind in the area of one of my several autoimmune malfunction conditions (PBC) and this does not come as much of a surprise as symptoms have been sabre-rattling. I have to ask myself whether swimming (in chlorine) is serving or exacerbating. I am craving sugar and have eaten most of the sweets Son brought back from India. I am sick and tired of trying to negotiate with M.E. so try to behave as though it isn't there (I don't care how ill you make me feel, you bastard, I'm not giving you my attention, talk to the arse, the face isn't listening). Obviously this involves a high degree of self-deception but there's nothing wrong with that if it gets you through - and it sometimes does.

In other much better news, I have written a poem I am terrifically pleased with. I must admit that so far this year has not been particularly encouraging. I used to be able to truthfully say that in sending work out I had almost a hundred per cent success rate, but this was only because I sent so little out of what I'd written. Since January I have sent a number of different things off that have either been rejected or ignored. I am telling myself that this poem is going to turn things around and get me a resounding yes. Admittedly I have felt this before and nothing much happened - but also I have felt this before and something did. And the writing must go on, one way or another.

I am going to March for M.E. in London on Monday. It won't help to dwell too long on logistics beforehand, but I'm thinking of trying to get one of those tiny folding gardening stools to bring along - because of all the standing around. And I'd quite like to have a banner to wave around, make me feel as though I'm doing something - although really the point is just to turn up.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Noele sing we clear

I seem to have hit a patch of blog fatigue. Not sure why this is, but normal service will resume - because why not? It is a way of thinking aloud (the blogging) that suits me, sitting happily on the cusp of extra/introversion.

Son of Signs is back from India and looks - how can I put it? - so much like himself and yet so changed. He has long rockanroll hair and is taller, leaner, his eyes darker, I swear they are, and I should know the colour of my boy's eyes. He has brought mangoes, incense, tobacco toothpaste (yes), saris, a statue of Ganesh. He came on Sunday, went for an interview at the Barbican on Monday (a three-month internship), got the job, is sorting out where and how to live in London, considering internship is unpaid. My head is a whirl.

Daughter of Signs has written a play and is busy with this and the musical she wrote last year, refining the one and promoting the other. It is early days, but things are looking and feeling auspicious.

Brighton flat is up and running (give or take a faulty shower) - and beautiful. If I can get myself camera-focussed I will put up some photographs, see if I can capture the windows - the light.

You see my predicament: I mean, who needs a blog post that reads like one of those tooth-grinding round-robin letters that list the year's triumphs and achievements? Because, peeps, it's all coming up roses on the Edge, and I mean this most literally, or almost, for actually we are still in blossom time - but the begonias are getting ready to burst their green corsage.

And here's another thing: I have been given an award by Noele Gordon her very self, and please don't ask me who she is. She was the Grande Dame of Crossroads Motel and is active in the hereafter as a kind of spirit guide - not to me, I hasten (very quickly) to add, but to another bloggiste (clearly what one might call a "sensitive") - through whom she has bestowed this honour.

Fabulous, and so much more substantial than the Noele I dimly remember from real life. Probably because we only had black and white TV (and I hardly ever watched Crossroads). As this comes bespoke and personalised I should really find a way of putting her on the sidebar.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Soft Animal

ME/CFS Awareness

This is my third blog post for ME/CFS Awareness Day (12th May). You can find the others here and here. I come to this point again mindful of those who have severe M.E., who suffer long and hard and are not heard. They are on the most difficult path, unable to do the very simple things that even we, the moderately afflicted, perhaps take for granted.

I have been conducting an experiment - going for regular swimming sessions in a private pool that is in of one of those country club spa places attached to a hotel. It is beautifully situated in well-kept grounds where deer wander and even the squirrels look elegant. It is expensive. It is worth it - in a careful and restricted life, the movement is exhilarating. It is risky. My delinquent immune system, bashing about in the body that holds it, doesn't know what is going on. Most weeks there comes a point where I fear a terrible relapse, but this has not happened and I carry on. At one level I am getting stronger. I hate to bring IKEA into this (or anything, really) but as some will be aware, I've needed to spend time there recently. It is a measure of my new strength that I can keep going for much longer without needing to collapse onto one of their sofas or beds (easily done btw, you could get a decent half-hour rest and no-one would give a damn). I can usually swim (gentle breast stroke) for fifteen minutes now without much of a break. I can walk along flat terrain for longer and go faster, though anything with an incline is still difficult unless I have just had my strong late morning coffee. The swimming is also best done at this time. For the record, I go three times a week - I need a day in between sessions to rest, and I never do weekends.

Most of the time I feel ill in the usual way - muscle pains always kick in at some point and fatigue is intense. The feeling of electricity in the body, which I have described before, and has been a feature of my illness from the outset, has become much less frequent - and when it comes it seems more willing and able to move on and out. Bouts of insomnia are as per, if anything a little worse, meaning that most days I am jet-lagged. Reading has also suffered, I haven't been able to do much. With the writing (always, oddly, easier than reading), it's difficult to say; recently it has been clobbered by IKEA-related matters and the world, in the form of soft and hard furnishings, bathroom tiles, kitchen floors and tap fittings, being too much with me. In the getting of these, my powers have been substantially compromised. It's nearly done, the shopping, and then we'll see.

Do I recommend the swimming? Of course not. Everyone knows about the dangers of over-exertion with M.E., and I am no exception. I am against Graded Exercises as dished out by the medical profession. Had I attempted this at another time the results could have been disastrous. What I do recommend, though, is careful listening to one's body, one's whole being. An activity that might be quite inappropriate at one point may become possible and to some extent beneficial at another. We may have M.E. but we are still a work in progress, constantly changing and even though it sometimes feels dangerous to hope for too much, it is good to be open to new possibilities. Good also to honour changes in oneself, the moving from one way of being to another, we are not set in stone. I am vegetarian now and this also has come about because I paid attention to inner promptings. There was a time when I needed and liked eating meat but now I don't and would rather not have it.

I love Mary Oliver's reference to "the soft animal of your body" in her poem Wild Geese. I feel more alive to the soft animal of my body, and have compassion, do not judge it so harshly for having failed to live as it was supposed to. I was never robust, there were reasons for this. But also, perhaps, it was the luck of the draw, like having teeth that always needed fillings (my sister never needed any). The soft animal of me has endured. There is a black cat that has been creeping around this past year, sleeping on the roof of the bicycle shed, skulking by the bins, on the window sill and in a corner of the patio. I did not encourage it - the Signs cat has never demonstrated any wish for cat friends and is easily ruffled by their presence. I used to hiss and clap my hands, and it would scarper. Then I and a neighbour noticed how sad and neglected it looked, how even in the terrible winter it was outside. There is a cottage down the road where an elderly man got ill and died and we think the cat might have been his. Certainly it understood when I changed and made soft, friendly noises. We are giving it food now and then, the neighbour and I, and its fur has taken on a small shine. When we meet outside I say hello and half close my eyes - a cat's way of smiling. It understands me and smiles back. I feel grateful, as though it has given me a reprieve. I am sorry that I was unfriendly. There is no need for explanations, the cat is an accomplished sign-reader and does not hold grudges. It lives exquisitely in the moment, a wounded creature (a slight limp) and mangy on one leg, its animal heart intact. It remembers how to wash behind the ears and sometimes it rolls in the dusty road, eyes closed with the pleasure. When the rain is hard and cold it shelters under cars. The soft animal of me feels connected. We need to live the life that's in us, by hook or by crook. It would be a bad outcome indeed if we stopped responding to signals from animal creatures that ask only to be allowed to live their lives.

And what of those people I mentioned at the beginning, those severely affected by M.E.? Who is responding and listening to them? Even those who care nothing for them at all should sit up and pay attention - this can happen to anyone, including you or someone you love. Research has begun to happen, but not enough, and this country needs to wake up to it. I am hugely grateful to all those who have worked to help bring about changes, especially those who themselves have the illness and have given everything to the effort.

There is a March for M.E. scheduled in London, on the same day as the International ME/CFS Conference. All being well, I hope to be there.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

I've been watching I'm in a Rock 'n' Roll Band on BBC 2 and thinking about the good old days when guitar riffs would go on for twenty five minutes and apart from times I burned the midnight oil pinching my arms trying not to show anyone how bored I was, it brought back some good moments. But the truth is that long stretches of my erstwhile life wasn't very rock 'n' roll. I worked in offices, supported a young husband through university, typed letters and made tea, did the shopping on the way home before cooking the evening meal, took a weekly bag wash to the launderette. I worked with single homeless people for a bit - helped to find temporary places to live, made sandwiches, ran around trying to make myself useful. Then I lost the plot for a while, went off the rails, broke a heart and got mine broken; sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, one of the worst periods of my life, but it's a place I can point to and say I was there, I wouldn't have missed it. And everyone survived.

I'm sure I had something to say about all this, but it's gone - as though I'd smoked some very strong weed - ha! Sometimes M.E. brain is so rock 'n' roll (not!)

I will be shuttling back and forth to Brighton for the next week or so. There are things still on the to do list, plus the festival going on, and daughter spending her first night there soon. I am still ticking items off the shopping list but there is a seemingly never-ending catalogue of bits and pieces to go shopping for: waste paper baskets, bins, dustpan and brush, roller blind, innumerable odds and sods for the kitchen. We have a bottle of champagne saved up from some occasion or other, for when all the stuff is done, and I am looking forward to cracking it open, even though I can't actually drink much of the stuff.

Son comes back from India next Sunday. Can't wait.

I'll be back here before then, though - because it's M.E. Awareness Day on the 12th of May, and that's a party I obviously ain't gonna miss. Laters.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Common People

Wotcher, Peeps! Just enough time before the big election bash to share this:

Mr. Signs has been singing this for the past couple of weeks, or would if he could.