They used to come the minute I set pen to paper, flowing into me, running down the length of my arm. Or sometimes they came in medias res, when I was putting the baby in the buggy or standing outside Mrs. Patel's shop on the corner of Chatsworth Road, while my daughter had a turn on the giant duck that moved and said quack for three minutes or so after you put a coin in its slot. The voices whispered, literally, above my head.
They were not mad voices, like the ones that tell you bad things about yourself or instruct you to hire a helicopter and kidnap the queen. They were an effusion of words that wanted to arrange themselves into lines on a page. They wanted to be earthed, to be made incarnate, and they hovered and whispered about and above me, like chattering children gathered by a door before it opens to a birthday party. I had no time to let them in and I was very ill with a condition I had just been told was Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. When people saw me pushing the buggy or standing by the quacking duck they would not have guessed that for much of the day I was lying as though nailed to my bed, with a fatigue I had no vocabulary to describe and symptoms in my body and head that frightened and appalled me. A kind childminder looked after my children for some hours each day. I told myself this would pass. My throat burned. People began to wonder if I might be malingering or reacting to the stress of child-care and its demands, trying to find a way out. I wanted to be with my children. My daughter said, Iwant to be with you - why should you be here all alone? I hated handing them over, my two babies.
Perhaps, said a doctor - not the one who diagnosed M.E. but an earlier one who was baffled by the intensity of my apparent malaise - perhaps you feel ambivalent about this pregnancy, this second child.
No, I said, we planned it, we want it.
Perhaps, said the health centre nurse, you are more tired this time round because you have a small child to look after.
No, I said, this isn't tiredness. And so it continued.
The voices took no notice of this or any other state of affairs. They whispered and wanted to come in. They were seeking entrance. I began to write in a notebook, one of those narrow, flip-over ones with a ring-binder at the top. When you came to the end you just turned it around and began again so as not to waste paper. The words I wrote surprised and interested me, but they did not come from the ones that sounded above my head. They came from somewhere lower down. I kept the notebook by my bed for a while, wrote down whatever I could as soon as I woke up, if I could do it before the baby had begun to cry, or after one of my afternoon deeper-than-death sleeps. I dreamed that I swam in a turquoise sea, holding my daughter beside me with one arm. We looked down and saw that the sea bed was flat and sheer, like the floor of a swimming pool. As I swam I realised I was leaving the shore far behind and the sea ahead appeared to have no end. I wrote about my early childhood, remembered people I had almost forgotten. I saw into the past like a crystal-scryer, illuminated moments, like the time I dug into the earth by a beech tree expecting to find gold and found three coins, enough to buy sweets with and still some left over. I understood that I had set foot on the terrain that lies close to dream-time but is not quite in it, nor in the mundane world of the completely awake. Sometimes I wrote stories and poems that connected to this terrain. But they were not connected to the voices that carried on, sporadically, whispering. They wanted more of my time and they wanted my complete attention. Sometimes they came so close to me, so near to my head, that I found myself muttering, echoing their phrases, promising to write them down (which is what they wanted me to do) later, or as soon as I could.
What are you talking about? asked my daughter. What are you saying?
Words, my darling. I pressed on, pushing my son's buggy through the rain.
Hurry up, I said to my daughter who was trying to keep up with me.
I am only three years old, she said. We took shelter in the awning of a fish and chip shop. I bought a bag of chips, shook salt and vinegar on them and we shared them, walking back in the downpour as though it was a stroll through the park.
Chip, said the little one, putting his hand out from under the polythene canopy. Chip!
The words above my head mumbled away. After a while they came less frequently, and then they went somewhere else - found someone, perhaps, who could offer the accommodation they needed. I carried on writing words in the notebook, typing them out on my portable Olivetti. We got our first computer. It was a monster that took up most of the space in our basement room. When I tapped the keys a ghoulish green light shone from the screen and swallowed my sentences whole. That was a long time ago. My children grew up. I am much older and have a laptop now and a printer, and I live by a forest, not in the east end of London.
The voices, though, have recently come back. Now they choose the moments between waking and falling asleep to press together and begin their whispering - just above my head, as before. I make promises it will be difficult for me to keep. I tell them I will give them attention and a room of their own, but not there, not then when I am at the point of falling asleep.