(More from ‘The Human Race”) Chapter 1: The Green Room

What follows is more from my new prose, ‘The Human Race’.

Chapter 1: The Green Room

I.

Thunder shakes the earth, winds swirl; waves crash against rock, eroding stone into uncountable shards.

Rain comes, sharp and sincere – that first drop to reach the earth.

Then a ray of sun touches the first green shoot to break through newly formed soil.

A first flower unfolds, and with it, the first hint of hope.

How immense is that? Is that big enough for you?

II.

Long ago, I sat near the thrombolites of Lake Clifton, where life is said to have begun. I sat near those living rocks with a Buddhist. Green-black trees hemmed us in.

‘The lizard has been here longer,’ the Buddhist said. ‘It taught me the meaning of stillness and silence.’

I wait…

Perhaps for an eternity.

‘The Christmas spider,’ the Buddhist said, ‘taught me how to shine.’

III.

Under the cover of snow, how easy it is to forget: grass is not the enemy; green is not something you should envy. How easy it is to forget.

IV.

Travelling through this sick-stained land is not to travel to more verdant times and places, when orchards and waterways were filled with fairy folk. It is the oldest joke, this myth of merrie England. More likely a curse: England’s bedrooms and battlefields filled with the wrath of unknown gods.

How to transform these old metaphors:

Shrunken rock set in a briny sea.

Shrinking rock swarming with Brexiteers: unhappy breed.

V.

In between Aprils, spring waters spark a plastic disaster.

A pool forms. Alongside it, a weeping willow grows.

 VI.

In the schoolroom, pastel pictures of skies and suns and seas and flowers are pinned into the walls. An old globe gathers dust. Children lose themselves in books. A teacher strikes the rulers of England across the palms of their outstretched hands. A school bell signals the end of another day of maps and signs and symmetries and certainties. The children chase into the sun-clad smell of sweet grass and meadow flowers. They make daisy chains. They skim flat stones across the ancient river.

How refreshing to know that the soul of a child is still full of play in spite of the solidity of straight lines and tidy handwriting.

VII.

Was the alchemist’s dream to re-create the sun?

Was Midas wrong?

Was it best not to fly too near for fear of being burnt?

 I didn’t know the answers during those gold and delicious days of girlhood, as I lay on the banks of high summer, counting the lucky stars.

I didn’t know anything.

(From The Human Race) Chapter 4. ‘The Great North Run’

‘The Great North Run’ is an excerpt from a new prose piece I’m working on.

I.

From the train window, in the distance, I spy the Angel of the North. It is Man’s creation. Man magnified. It has nothing to do with infinity (though no doubt it ruffles Heaven’s feathers). Yet it is no less a messenger, a reflection of our age, a symbol of technology, not theology, no less aspirant with wings in perfect symmetry, wings outspread in welcome. Weather-resistant, laced with copper, it is bound to oxidise, to mellow with age. It is into the bosom of this corroding angel that Humanity pins its hopes.

As you face me, it seems to say. You face your fears.

II. 

At the seven-mile mark I meet an octogenarian as buoyant as a baby’s laugh. Before he bounces passed, I ask him about the silver angel attached to his vest.

‘I remember the ones about my bed,’ he says. ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, keeping me safe.’

I see him again at the finish line. His fine features, cloud-grey eyes and god-white hair look fresh, as if he’s been out for a Sunday stroll, and not that thirteen miles have rolled beneath his splendid feet. He is with a child, peach-pale and with the sharpest eyes, as though a slice of sky has touched them. The man’s race medal takes up most of her chest, and she holds tightly onto his hand.

‘Come on, Granddad,’ she says. ‘You promised me an ice cream.’

The Pact

At a poetry workshop, the facilitator asked us to choose a postcard of famous art works she’d brought in.  This is my response to Egon Schiele’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ .

 

The Pact

That postcard of ‘The Kiss’

you stuck on my wall

really pissed me off.

The shape was wrong –

oblong not square –

and the paper glossy, not gilded.

Then you kissed me.

It should have been a clue

but I was new to the scene.

‘I could steal your soul,’ you joked,

‘If only you’d let me.’

I was a fool to agree to pose, legs akimbo,

holding the darkest red rose.

‘Dead blooms keep their mouths closed,’ you said.

It was then I knew just what I’d sold.

What could I do but grow bold?

 

Later, as I lay in your arms,

you told me who you really were.

I misheard, I thought you said ‘toad’.

Turnip Soup for Blue Fire: A Fable

A long time ago, when I was living in Essex, a few of us were sat in a lovely old pub somewhere along the Thames Estuary, talking about how powerful tiny stories were. One especially dear friend gave me the barebones for the following fable:

Turnip Soup for Blue Fire: A Fable

Somewhere a blue fire is burning. The Blue Man is reading it. He reads cut glass and colossal castles. He reads of natural and human-made disasters, mountains reaching up to endless skies, gold dust falling in never ending rays and rivers drowning everything. He reads good food because he loves to eat. He reads dark things and deep fires and at last he becomes sleepy.

The Blue Man’s fire can be seen from the Red Woman’s hut. Her life is charred wood and rusting pots, many crying and laughing children and turnip soup for supper. The Red Woman is tired but she cannot sleep, and so she daydreams about the blue fire.

One day the Red Woman decides to steal the blue fire.

She kisses all her crying and laughing children goodbye, some of them more than once because she loves them. She takes some bread and water and makes her way towards the blue fire belonging to the Blue Man.

The Blue Man sleeps. He dreams about feeling happy, and about feeling afraid. His blue fire gives him warmth but also marks of burning.

The Red Woman makes her way along the Blue Man’s road. She sees the yellow sun painting cornfields around her. She hears birdsong high in the trees. She remembers the first kiss from her husband and tries to forget the last.

The Red Woman meets an overworked donkey and a battered dog. They keep her company. She feeds them crusts of dry bread and gives them the water to drink. It is a long way to the blue fire of the Blue Man.

The Blue Man wishes to share. He wishes to share the gift of dreams but knows that they can’t fill anyone’s stomach. Everything he wishes to share fills his days and nights. He is seeking emptiness once in a while.

The Red Woman is thirsting for the yellow around her. The overworked donkey and the battered dog follow close behind. During the day she can’t see the blue fire and the road grows long, dusty and dry.

So somewhere is the Blue Man wishing to be free from the warmth and sorrow of plenty.

And somewhere is the Red Woman plodding along for a taste of both: turnip soup for blue fire.

Only the donkey and the dog have simple lives.

 

The decision of the Flower

A couple of years ago, I attended a weekend workshop in Bristol on writing and therapy. One of the exercises was to write a poem based on an actual memory and using repetition techniques within the writing.

The Decision of the Flower (written June, 2015)

 

Drought summer:

a girl in a purple dress

sits by a dried-up river

picking petals from a daisy.

It’s the oldest game. He loves me…

 

Sitting by a dried-up river

listening to the click-click of crickets.

It’s the oldest game.

He loves me…

Or not.   The decision is the flower’s.

 

Listening to the click-click of crickets,

bees humming above cow parsley

the decision is the flower’s,

or not

until the game is done.

 

Bees hum above cow parsley.

She picks petals from a daisy

until the game is done.

Drought summer:

a girl in a purple dress.

 

 

 

I married Mr Benn

At a Creative Writing class just before Easter break, we were asked to write – in any style –  one A4 page on the topic of “congeries”, a difficult word that has the appearance of being a plural but which is, in fact, very singular! Here is mine:

My brother used to cry when Mr Benn came on television. Or he’d peep out from behind the sofa and watch it, his little face aghast. Then, when the programme had finished, he would play Mr Benn in that way children do: “let’s pretend”. He would have me be the shopkeeper passing him an invisible outfit, go into the pantry and come out as a fireman, or a deep-sea diver, or whatever the disguise had been on that particular day and have an adventure… and then everything would be all right again, until the next time.

It’s only recently that I’ve made the connection. It’s dawned on me, that after ten years of marriage, I still don’t know who my husband is when he dons his suit and goes into the city. He becomes a stranger: distant, efficient and inflexible. Someone who, if I do have to phone him during his working hours, talks to me as though I’m a client, or an irritant, which might be the same thing. I’ve never seen him with a client so it’s hard to know how he behaves. If truth were told, I’m too afraid to see him with one. It might lead to divorce. Or worse: what if he’s happier than when he’s with me? What I do know is, had I met him in his professional setting, we would never have married.

I get the same feeling of “who the hell are you?” when he dons his cycling gear, or golfing gear, or one of the many guises he has for his numerous pursuits. He has to have an outfit – and the right outfit – for every occasion. When he walks into the closet in our bedroom, he always closes the door behind him. If it is earlier morning, I lie in bed drinking coffee, wondering which one he will choose among his congeries of characters. I listen to the suit bags rustling, the hangers swishing. And then he comes out as this someone else, just as Mr Benn did, just as my brother did, all those years ago. To me, it is more than an outward change; it is a total transformation, of body and soul, every time. He is someone I just don’t know.

When I add it up – even when he is dressed in casual, about-the-house clothing – there aren’t many hours in the week when he is simply himself. I see how kind he is with my mother, how polite he is with strangers, how he opens doors for women, how he always walks on the outside of the pavement when we’re shopping. But what does any of this mean? Is this the real him? Is there a real him? Or is he playing one continuous game of “let’s pretend”?

My husband knows least of all. Because when I try to explain, he wears a complete lack of comprehension on his face, and refuses to talk about it.

The only time he shows emotion is when he drinks too much wine. Then, he cries, sings and plays the piano, always in that order, before arguing with me and flouncing off to the spare room.

As for my brother, he became an actor.

 

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