Sunday, September 30, 2012

small wonder

Today I will be going with my book group to see this event, which is part of the Small Wonder festival at Charleston.  I have just looked at the site and seen that one of the contributors, M. J. Hyland, will not after all be there.  I am disappointed.  This morning I read her very good piece in Granta magazine where she talks about her experience of M.S.  - of how she felt impelled to keep the illness a secret and how, until now, she has not written anything about M.S.  I was struck by the relationship she has with her very wretched and dysfunctional family, for whom she feels a profound sadness.  She says,

"I can't be near them, can't belong to them.  I worry for them, dream about them, but I can't talk to them.  They frighten me."

She says that "having MS felt tantamount to losing, and felt too close to being like them; a failure and a victim."

Hence her response, which was to keep it a secret.

What she says resonates; not because it echoes my particular way of coping with a chronic disease (though there have been periods I attempted to keep the fact of my M.E. a secret) but because I have known for a long time that people are frightened by illness and disease and feel much the same way about people with ME as M.J. Hyland feels about her family.  The fact that most of us are not (yet - the time may come, given enough research) able to Win The War against it, that it just goes on and is something to be negotiated and endured, does not help.

What a catastrophe, then, it must have been to join the ranks of the 'failures' and 'victims'.  How I would like to have heard her speak about it.  But I am pleased to be going.  A.L. Kennedy will be one of the contributors.  A friend will be driving.  I like visiting Charleston, even though it is rarely a comfortable experience (today we will be in a barn, must wrap up warm).

Saturday, September 29, 2012


                                                You reach for me first thing,
                                                warm my body and wait.
                                                I hold the heat and watch you
                                                watching me. Give me two,
                                                give me three of your fragrant
                                                Ethiopian or Macchu Piccu
                                                fed by the rain-washed forest.
                                                Give me water from the boil
                                                and wait.

                                                You fill me up,
                                                I give it to you straight,
                                                you drink my hot black nectar,
                                                bittersweet, it moves into your blood,
                                                it makes heart beat and beat.
                                                One hour later you come back..
                                                Repeat, repeat, repeat.

I take no responsibility for this - it's the Cafetiere speaking, I was just the scribe.  Obviously it's speaking to me and we have, as you can see, something of a dark relationship, on account of the coffee which I shouldn't go near.  It behaves like all the demon lovers your mother should have warned you about - lifts you up high and then dumps you, but you keep coming back for more.  Here, you see the pot is almost empty and there is a whole shiny day ahead of me when anything might be possible.  

At this point, though, we are heading close to the less exuberant time of 3pm, which a friend has aptly named Crucifixion Time.  The coffee elevation has all gone and it is just me, running on pure water and perhaps a cup of herbal tea.  And Mr. Signs is at the pub sending me text messages saying that Arsenal are losing the match and could I do something about this?  

Friday, September 28, 2012

In The Teeth (3)

Well, one knew at the outset that when committing to the post-a-day task there would be days when it might feel better to say nothing at all.  This is one of those.  Let the facts speak for me:

I have been to darkest Kent to visit the dentist, an hour's journey each way, plus half an hour in gridlocked traffic.

I made this journey because the dentist has the virtues of being good at what he does and sensitive to one's condition.

I have paid £120 for him to fix something on a tooth restoration.

The thing he fixed has just broken off.

It is probably my fault for biting my nail too vigorously.

I will have to do it all again next week.

But I may not have the wherewithal.

Post-exertional exhaustion does not necessarily give one a good perspective on this kind of thing.

Be seeing you.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

singing each to each

I had cards today.  This one arrived early so was the first that I opened.  Inside, the message that wished me a happy birthday said, "may the seals sing to you", which I read as auspicious.  Somewhere in the far North of Scotland, a seal once put its head out of the water and looked at me.  If there had been more time, I believe I may have caught its song.  I am not like the narrator in the The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock who has "heard the mermaids singing each to each" and does not believe they will sing to him.  I have written stories about silkes and mermaids and it is only a matter of time.  But if you look closely at the picture, it becomes clear that the seals here are the audience.  St. Cuthbert is singing to them and the title of the picture (artist Colin Smithson) is 'St. Cuthbert Sings to the Seals'.  The question is whether the seals came close to the saint, drawn by his singing, or whether he began to sing in response to their presence.  Either seems good, but I suspect it is probably the former because he has brought his banjo with him.  The Sign is clear: the seals want my song just as much as I want theirs.  I don't have a banjo, but I have a voice. It is true that I live on the edge of a forest (and sometimes by the sea, but not one where seals come very often, if at all) but this should not be a problem.  If you sing with true intention they hear you, the creaturely familiars, wherever they be on land or in the sea.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


One of those days when it did not seem possible to move from a lying-down position for a couple of hours after waking, and the view through wooden slats much the same as it was a couple of posts back.  Just to keep you fully in the picture.  After this, the only possible thing to do was to make vegetable soup.  In fact, I will go out on a limb here and say that When In Doubt Make Soup is probably good for almost any situation - as long as you are fit enough and able to remain in an upright, preferably standing, position for as long as it takes to make it which, as you can see, I was.  

There is some small fame attached to the pot, which dates back to the years of my first marriage and about which I once wrote a poem.

Steel Pot

This was my first wedding gift,
a steel pot with black plastic handle,
nothing showy, nothing to show
but empty space and a dull shine.

We made Russian toffee which
blackened and burned, I battered it with knives
and wire wool, I made my mark,
three days I left it in the rain,

It was gentle with eggs,
imaginative with lentils, kind to milk,
rice it loved best, it kept a little back,
a nutty crust we peeled and ate like bread,
the grains were patterned on its metal skin.

Steel is hard and true, people
come and go, my young husband
went north with a broken heart,
three days I waited, but
you can’t scratch marks from hearts
once you have burned them.

I walked into the wilderness,
a knife in my pocket and a wooden spoon.
The steel pot was my hearth,
I sang into its empty space

like my grandmother’s mother
who could (as they say) make soup
by singing into a pot,
and just as well.

I lean and look inside and still
it gives my reflection back to me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


This is the bird that hangs on a thread from the study window and looks out over the back garden. If not the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, then its close familiar; crude, perhaps, if compared to a living bird, but expressive of something. It has been put together from flotsam and jetsam scraps of material, wire, twigs and feathers from the natural world. On its breast is a red flower (plastic) and a sequin, which catches the light. It is ready for something. Look at those antennae, the blush of pink at the base of the tail feather, the raised wings and the splayed feet. From day to day, no-one sees it but me. If I don't project some measure of hope and joy onto its brittle frame, how can it live at all? And doesn't it deserve to? Perhaps not (perhaps nothing does?) but I won't be the one to put it in black bin bag hell with all the unredeemed clutter. If I say it is alive, then it is. And I do say it.

Monday, September 24, 2012



It is three months until Christmas. This is not about shopping. You know about me and shopping and how the word has always conjured up an image of a basket with bread, milk, potatoes and eggs. These days one should probably add a tub of blueberries, a head of broccoli and a bag of carrots and take away the bread, the point being that this is all shopping means to me. Getting a basketful of the daily stuff. So when I say it is three months until Christmas, what I am doing is looking across the divide separating that time from this and wondering how, in the unsteady vessel that is the body of Signs, I will navigate the distance from now to then.

The same kind of thought sometimes comes at the very beginning of the day, as I open my eyes to the bands of light that filter through my trusty wooden slats (I call them trusty because they cost so little, being from IKEA, they have fulfilled their task so remarkably well and I have looked at them and through them with more intense engagement than is usual in a relationship between a human being and a set of window blinds). My first question is: what is the weather doing? This may or may not be significant in what I am able to do that day, but to know about it gives one some kind of connection to the world outside. What would our lives be without windows? It doesn't bear thinking about.

The next question, directed not so much at the window as to the day itself, is: what can I do today? Sometimes the answer that comes back is simply a list of boxes that need, by hook or by crook, to be ticked off. Get cat food, meds from chemist, post letter, ring dentist, do a washload, make evening meal. Choose from one or some of the above, or pick up the notebook.

Today (which is no longer newborn but not yet old) I have been to buy organic vegetables and I have come here to say that it is ninety-one days until Christmas Eve. And I am thinking that to come here every day and post something on blog until the day of the Eve itself would be something, wouldn't it? Not just a falling away - a journey to Advent. Parousia.  Or at any rate - something.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An' Don't Be Callin' Me Chicken!

Blisterin' barnacles, me hearties, it be that day again!  An' me so addlepated wi' vinnie rouge, bein' holed up in France (no shortage o' grog though the place do be full o' forriners) - the notion clean went out o' my head.  Now between ye an' me, the question that's firing' a cannon through every scurvy scallywag's noggin is this: ye can walk the plank but can ye talk the talk?  There's the rub, me hearties.  Arrr, ye lily-livered landlubbers - be bold!  For 'tis this that gladdens the cockles o' any self-respectin' pirate.  Swish an' swash, an' show the world you're not afraid to shiver the timbers of any proud beauty.

Be that a yardarm in yer doubloons or are ye just pleased to see me?

C'mon, ye malingerin' knaves - sing along wi' me!

Friday, September 7, 2012

First Writes

There were eighteen of us around a long arrangement of formica-topped tables. It was October, the sky darkening outside the tall, school-room windows. The teacher was reluctant to have the lights switched on. She said we should buy a small notebook, keep it by us and jot down images, as though we were taking snapshots. Jotting in the notebook was a good thing to do and we should make a habit of it. She asked us to think back to a place from childhood, capture an image and then write about it.

I wrote about a knitted lion. It had an orange and brown woollen mane, two red circles made of felt sewn onto its cheeks and black embroidered eyes. I wrote that the lion appeared to be smiling, that the eyes followed me around the bedroom and that its face shone in the moonlight that streamed through the narrow window above a forest of fir trees. The moon made the lion turn its head and look at me. It's face was also moon-like and looked a little pale behind the red cheeks. It took me in and knew my thoughts, and though it smiled, because this was the expression that had been stitched onto its face, the smile carried menace.

You have a good eye for detail, said the teacher. This is well-remembered and really evokes the inner world of a child.

The lion was not, in fact, from childhood. It sat on a pillow in my bedsit. Someone I knew had made it and generously given it to me as a present because I liked it so much. And it carried no menace in its being, I made that up to lend a sense of drama to the scene. The teacher said she enjoyed the disturbing vision of the apparently innocuous knitted lion as threatening and able to read thoughts. I sensed that the other students were less impressed but they were, in any case, waiting for their turn to read. If each of us took five minutes that would amount to one and a half hours, and several people took much longer than that.

Eventually lights were switched on. They were fluorescent, made our complexions look green and gave me a headache. I understood why the teacher had waited so long. One person after another gripped their notebooks or pieces of lined paper torn from some old school book, and read their piece: the teapot that had belonged to a grandmother, how mother had always used it for special occasions and one day a bit of spout was chipped off; an actual photograph - portrait of the artist as a young Scout, ready to dib dib dib and dob dob dob, and all about the different knots he learned to tie. I didn't mean you to think of an actual photograph, said the teacher - but that's good, that's very good.
I know, said the student, looking crushed, but that was the image that came to mind. He thought she thought he was being stupid.
Yes, she said, and it's very good - I just thought I'd point that out in case others had misunderstood.
 I didn't misunderstand, he said.

He was not the only one to refer to an actual photograph. There was a family holiday snapshot of a beach and another of a woman's father. The father was smiling in the photograph and a young child (the writer of the piece) sat on his knee.
He came into my bedroom most nights and touched me, and told me not to tell my mother. When I was fourteen he used to come and inspect my breasts, he -
You don't have to read it if it's upsetting for you, said the teacher
- tried to have intercourse with me. I will never forget the smell.

Sometimes, said the teacher, an image can hold all kinds of disturbing things. She looked at her watch and noticed that we had run overtime by almost an hour. Could the others perhaps wait until next time?

It was a mistake I would sometimes also make when I began to teach creative writing - holding work that students had written in class until next time. Already I was storing all this up for future use, taking stock of the situation: time-management was important; eighteen in a class was too many; everyone has something to say.