31/10/18

So, Halloween last year was an interesting one for me and my family.

It wasn’t spooky and it wasn’t ghostly, but it was scary.

This post explains why.

I started it as a submission idea for a magazine and decided I didn’t want to let it go. So here it is in all its messy glory. It’s basically a stream-of-consciousness letter to my Mum, right from the bottom of my topsy-turvy heart and brain. It may also shine a bit more light on my Moomin Medicine post from November.

And I’m happy to report that, although there are ups and downs, she is very much on the mend.

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Mama Pippin

It’s not right. You. Here.

I sit on the bed and stare at my purple-blue feet that are too cold and too hot all at the same time.

I want to look at you, but you scare me with your smallness and your illness. I want to look at you, but I don’t want you to know that I’m afraid. You know my face too well for it to lie to you. It’s half your face, after all.

I lean back on the hard mattress and scrunch the thin blue sheets between my fingers. In my head a nurse comes over – a Miss Trunchbull style nurse – all stern and angry. The imaginary nurse tells me to get off the bed, tells me to leave the hospital, tells me never to come back.

But outside my head, nothing happens. No-one tells me off, no-one asks me to leave.

I stay on the bed that’s yours but not yours.

The side of the not-yours bed cuts deep into the backs of my thighs and it cuts deep into my heart. I shuffle, wriggle, squirm from both pains.

I talk about work and how it’s been busy. I look at Dad. I talk about the kittens, how they miss you. I look at Dad. I talk about the chickens, about breakfasts and dinners, about the Great British Bake Off and how Rahul has won, about the weather and how it’s cold today. I look at Dad.

I do steal glances at you with my half-yours eyes. I try to make them lie to you, but the look on your face lets me know I’ve failed. You’re not fooled – never have been – by my lying, half-yours eyes.

Dad talks. He’s so much better at this than I am. He knows what to say, knows how to be. I drum my fingers against the sparkly white edge of your bed and I stare at the clipboard hanging from the end of it. Note after note after note.

I wish I had my notebook.

You know the one – it’s the one filled with all the inane and absurd worries that my brain spits out and clings to so desperately, so hopelessly. The one my therapist has told me to keep. The one I chitter-chattered to you about for weeks and weeks, joking – hurting – about all the ridiculous and horrible scenarios my mind invents, all the while not knowing the ridiculous, horrible scenario real life had invented for you. I could fill all the pages of that notebook now. But where do I even start, Mum?

I’m worried about everything.

Why did your surgery take so much longer than expected? What happened? I’m worried that the surgeons might have left something in you – a scalpel, a glove, a piece of cotton wool. It happens sometimes, so why not this time? And I’m worried – so, so worried – about what they might not have taken out. What happens if they didn’t get some of the cancer? What if they couldn’t reach it all? Or, worse, what if they just forgot a bit? I haven’t read about that happening, but I’m sure it’s something that could happen – and if it can happen maybe it has happened.

I’m worried about germs hiding everywhere and I’m worried about all the germs on me. I’m worried that I kissed you on the cheek with all my germs; that I’m sitting on your bed with all my germs; that I should never have come here with all my germs.

Most of all – and this one eats me up alive – I’m worried that I won’t be able to look after you, that I won’t be able to repay all your years of looking after me. How can I be strong like you? How can I cope like you would when it feels like all my insides are going to bubble up and burn out of my chest?

The list goes on and on and on.

Dad’s still talking but now he’s talking to me, looking at me. I come around.

It’s time to leave.

Mum, why don’t you to come with us too? You shouldn’t be here and none of this should be happening, so why don’t we just pretend that it’s not? That will work, won’t it? That will make it go away.

Maybe not.

I stand. I lie badly with my eyes. I kiss you with my germs. I’m desperate to go and I’m desperate to stay. This not-yours bed has stolen all of earth’s gravity and I don’t want to go back to falling through the empty space of home without you.

Time. To. Leave.

Dad and I walk away. A thousand gravity-cords stretch and pop and snap at my all-yours heart, ready to pull me back, ready to stop my hot-cold feet in their tracks. But away we carry on walking.

It’s not right, Mum. You. There.

Come home.

20/10/18

The morning is darkness and mist and my bleary-eyed reflection in the kitchen window. It’s desperate sips of tea and wet hair against my neck. It’s toast and make-up, butterflies and tickets, more butterflies and a backpack filled with things I may or may not need. It’s Bournemouth station in a navy dawn and goosebumps, breaths that steam and smiles all round as the coach doors open. It’s a sunrise over the New Forest and fog puddles between orangey trees. It’s reading a book and trying to sleep, nibbling chocolate and pins and needles.

Oxford is bright and bustling and grand under a big blue sky. It’s Dr Martens and markets and bicycles that ring-a-ling. It’s pigeons that fly right at me, pigeons that stare at me, pigeons that hobble and hop and look unwell and that break my messy heart. Note to self: they don’t let unwell, or even completely well, pigeons on coaches. Note to self, note to self, note to self. No pigeons.

The Ashmolean is stone running up, up, up into the sky and banners that sway in an autumn breeze. It is Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft. It’s glass and steps and museum maps, echoing voices, crumpled tickets and a big big door that leads into a magical dark.

Behind the big big door, I fumble for my notebook and struggle for my pen. I read and scribble, shuffle from cabinet to cabinet, ooh and aah inside my head. Backpacks bump, coats rustle, boots tap tap tap.

Witch in a bottle. Zodiac man. Nativity horoscope. Moon blood. Devil through the ears. Demon Astaroth. Love locks. Certificate of innocence. Lent doll. Poppet curse. Skeleton carriage.

A thousand lightbulbs flicker and pop in my head.

I exit through the gift shop.

The afternoon is wandering and wondering, lost. It’s dreaming spires and falling leaves, crowds and cameras. It’s the Oxford Botanic Gardens and a strange peace burning in my chest. It’s warm conservatories and brick walls with pretty gates, dying petals and glittering trees, skittering squirrels and a man falling from a punt. It’s splashes, laughs, and smiles. It’s a pot of tea and a slice of cake and buying stationery I don’t need. More Dr Martens, more pigeons.

Dreaming spires of Oxford. Autumn view from the Oxford Botanic Garden.
Fairytale view from the Oxford Botanic Gardens.
Gateway in the Oxford Botanic Garden.
Gate goals.

Leaves, wall and path in the Oxford Botanic Gardens. Autumn in Oxford.

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The evening is Google Maps and eyes glued to my phone. It’s relief as things look familiar and tired legs grateful for a seat. It’s fortune telling fish that predict I will fall in love and it’s confusion because that doesn’t sound like me. It’s my head pressed against a window and a bright three-quarters moon, eyes closed and music. It’s messages, ping ping ping, and deciding to go out and get drunk with friends even though it’s late. It’s realising I’m not a proper grown-up.

The night is rum and giggles and stars.

20/10/18

It’s a date I won’t forget.

Bestival Skies

It’s been over a month, and I still dream of the sky. It was all fire and bruising purples, peachy pinks and electric blues. It was the deepest navy pinpricked with the shiniest stars. It was never-ending shards of multi-coloured light severing through the dark. It was glittering fireworks, and it was a sun so bright it burned the tops of my ears purple and my scalp a furious red. It was a sky speckled with tight-rope walkers and flying trapeze artists. It was a sky filled with dust that whipped into eyes and flags streaming in the breeze and a ferris wheel with rickety seats. It was confetti and it was the moon. And it was butterflies, so delicate and quiet in the middle of all the chaos and noise.

It was, most of all, a sky of magic.

Sunset sky and helter skelter at Bestival 2018, Lulworth Estate, Dorset. Bestival circus 2018. Vintage funfair ride.

Green

If you look too long into the green the green will eat you up. It will wind its way around your heart and its splintered roots will lodge inside your bones. Underneath your skull, a whole forest will unfurl and make your thoughts a muddle. You’ll try to leave it, try to live beyond it, but you’ll find your soul ensnared, find it calling you back, pulling you back, painting your blood and staining you through.

Smoky light beams in a woodland, Dorset.

Salty Bones

Man O' War bay by Durdle Door, Dorset, July 2018.
Man O’ War cove by Durdle Door.

The sun is burning hot and the sea shimmers a thousand beautiful blues.

We pick our way down a washed-away jumble of steps and baked mud, beyond a sign that says not to go further. The beach is toasty under my soles and tingly around my toes.

We set up camp half way round the bay and I strip quickly down to my bikini, head straight to the water because if I don’t get in now I never will.

The water is sharp and cold, a shock, a relief, icy as it slicks across my goose-bumpled skin. It cloaks me, hides me. I float, I swim, paddle, sit, stand, wriggle till I’m soaked through to my blood, salty down to my bones.

And I stay longer and longer, a fear bubbling under my skin until the cold forces me to ignore the fear.

Getting out is the worst part because my head hates my body, even though my body doesn’t really deserve to be hated.

Somewhere lost – very lost – inside me, I know that.

The short walk back to our spot makes me, ridiculously, want to cry.

The towel is my saviour, a shroud, a thin paisley-strewn defence against eyes that will surely hate my body too if they glimpse it.

A book is my saviour too, releases me from my self.

Butterflies dance over pebbles, brush across my knees. They save me as well.

And the skylarks, they save me. They sing and sing, cheep and cheep, and they lull me away from the thoughts that circle round like vultures desperate to pick apart, literally, my flesh.

As we head back, back up those jumbly stairs, back up a very hilly hill, I try to love my legs, love every sinew, every muscle, every bit of cellulite as every one of them helps me back to the car, but I struggle to undo over half-a-life’s worth of muddled thinking. Of being. Of knowing. Believing.

How can going for a swim be so hard?

Paddling

Antique Edwardian photograph, inpsiration for a short story. Paddling at Mudstone.
Antique photograph captioned “Paddling at Mudstone” found in an old album from a flea market.

The water is cold between Esme’s toes and the shingle is prickly against her skin.

The others giggle all around her, but she is silent.

Something isn’t right.

She can feel it in her feet, feel it tangling up her calves, growing over her knees. The sea is bleeding into her, melting to her flesh. Soon, she will not be able to leave.

She stumbles back and the others stop giggling. They ask what’s wrong.

She stumbles back and saltwater sloshes against her skirt. Worst of all, it sloshes in her heart. She feels the weight of it swim left and right inside her chest, feels it splash against her lungs.

She stumbles back and suddenly the cold is all around her. She closes her eyes and holds her breath – sinking and sinking, baptised.

Everything under is quiet. Everything under is calm.

Only her and her fuzzy heartbeat.

Before she feels them, she hears them – their shouts, their screams. And then their hands come – grasping, pulling, dragging her up until she is drowning in air.

Before she feels the sand, she hears the sand. It crunches against her ear and suckers to her face. Voices babble all around her but she cannot understand what they say.

Before she feels it, she sees it. She holds a leg up in the air and watches as her skin shimmers in the light and flashes in the sun. Blue and purple and green and silver. Scales.

She must get back to the water.

Land is not enough.

Take Me Home

“Jacob?”

He turned, spine creaking, skin burning. A woman he didn’t recognise stood over him, dressed in yellow and framed in dying summer sun.

“You can’t stay here forever.”

Jacob looked back towards the sea, rubbing his eyelids with sandy fingers.

He could stay. He had to.

The woman didn’t go away like he’d hoped she would. Instead, she sat down next to him, pushing her bare feet into the sand and resting her arms on her knees. Big blue-green bruises patchworked across her ankles and calves, shimmering like fish scales in the light.

“You look tired.” she said.

Jacob closed his eyes. He was tired. His whole body hurt with it, and it hurt with sand and salt and sun. But it was so much nicer than the other hurt, the one that scrabbled at his belly, heart, and brain. That was the hurt he was afraid of.

“I can’t sleep.” he said.

“Not out here.”

“I can’t go home.”

The woman leaned a little towards him. “Not yet. Soon though.”

He shook his head. “Not without my sister.”

“No, I suppose not.”

The woman grinned and he stared at her strange face for a long while. Maybe he did know her? She wasn’t as old as he first thought – only just grown out of being a girl.

She sighed a long sigh and stood, holding out a hand for him. “I think we should go for a walk. It’s good to walk.”

He took the hand she offered – didn’t think it was odd, didn’t care if it was – and wrapped his fingers round her palm, gripping as tight as he could. His skin crackled as she hauled him to his feet and his muscles burned right through to his bones. She dusted off his shoulders, sprinkling sand and salt across his feet.

“We don’t need to go far.”

They walked hand in hand at first, but Jacob quickly slowed. The woman let his hand slip through hers, dawdling ahead. He stared down at the sand as he walked, trying to understand what was wrong with the footprints she left behind. But his eyes hurt and his head hurt and he couldn’t understand what was wrong.

Every now and then, the woman looked over her shoulder to ask how he was.

“Fine.”

Every time, she looked like she didn’t believe him. Every time, she carried on all the same.

The beat of the waves against the sand made Jacob feel better as he walked, and he smiled as he remembered how, just a few days ago, he had thought he’d never like the sound. At first – after his father had dragged him here, after he’d been kicked across the sand, dumped by the surf, pinned down and told not to return home without Lora – he had hated it. It had made him want to rip out his ears.

But now the sound wrapped round him like a blanket, cosy and snug, and he didn’t ever want to be without it.

The woman came to a stop by Cryer’s Cave, gazing up at the gaping scar of hollowed out rock.

“This is my favourite place.” she said.

Jacob hung back from the entrance, scrunching up his face.

“Are you scared?” She crossed her arms and leant against the rock. “I didn’t ever think I’d see the day.”

He frowned. What days had she seen him before?

“I’m not scared.” he lied and started forwards, his heart blundering at a strange rhythm – too hard, too quick. He hoped she couldn’t feel it too, though he was sure it was making the air shake. He tried to focus on each painful step and ignore the woman as she watched him, but he looked up as he passed her, almost stopping when he did.

Her hair was wet.

How had that happened?

She didn’t seem to notice the way her hair stuck to her neck or the way water bloomed across the top of her dress. Instead, she smirked a little smirk and followed him inside.

The cave was like a church, walls of rock towering up and up, echoes crawling off every surface, their breaths bellowing.

“Hello?” the woman called, grinning as hundreds of hellos rattled back. “Is anybody there?”

The air lulled back to quiet. “Your turn.” she whispered.

Jacob shook his head.

“Go on.” she teased. “Yell from right in here.” She pushed her fingers against her chest. “Take all the air you’ve got and scream.”

He shook his head again.

“Oh go on, Jacob.”

“No!” he yelled, and a rush of pain scrambled up his throat. He doubled over, coughing until his lungs felt bruised and he spat phlegmy blood onto the sand.

The woman pushed dripping hair back from her face. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

Jacob closed his eyes and waited until he was sure he wouldn’t cry, gulping blood back down his throat.

“I just want Lora.” he said.

“I know.” said the woman, ruining the echo of Lora’s name. “I just want to help.”

When Jacob opened his eyes again, he froze. He blinked, then blinked again, sure his eyes were wrong. But what he saw didn’t change.

The woman’s face was bleeding.

A huge gash had torn across her cheek and blood poured from it, spilling down her jaw and neck. The taste of his own blood made him grimace as he looked at it.

“Is something wrong?”

“Your face. You’ve cut your face.”

“Oh.” She ran her fingers along the gash, frowning.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No, not really. Not anymore.” She wiped the fingers across her dress and turned, scaling a crop of rocks and picking her way across them. “There’s something I need to show you. It’s here somewhere, I just…” She stopped and faced him. “You have to promise you won’t run away.”

He would have laughed if his lungs hadn’t hurt so much. Hadn’t she seen he could barely walk?

“I promise.”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “You’ll want to, but you can’t”

“I won’t go anywhere.”

“Good.” She smiled, satisfied. “I won’t be long.”

She turned and clambered down the other side of the boulders, disappearing.

The sea and Jacob’s heart thudded in sync as he waited, and a horrible ache built under his skull.

I won’t be long.

The words went round and round, and made him want to scream. They were the worst words he’d ever heard and the worst words he’d ever said.

He tried to reach back four days and pull them out of the air, tried to erase them from his mouth and from Lora’s ears. He dug his toes into the sand and tried to go back, tried not to walk away, tried not to leave her playing all alone.

I won’t be long.

The sound of shuffling footsteps dragged him out of his looping nightmare. The woman reappeared at the top of the boulders, carrying something. Something with dangly legs and a floppy head. Something covered in shimmering bruises. Something wearing a yellow dress.

Jacob edged back as she descended the rocks towards him, the hurt he was afraid of rearing in his chest.

“Don’t run.” she pleaded. “You promised.”

The dangly legged, floppy headed something swayed at every limping step the woman took, its hair dripping and dress dribbling and face painted with purple-brown blood.

Water bubbled from each corner of the woman’s mouth as she handed the little body out to him.

“Please.”

He took the body in his arms and tried not think about how it was heavier than he remembered.

“I’m sorry.” he said, and the woman smiled.

“Take me home.”

Footprints in the sand at Lyme Regis, Dorset.

>>> No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite get this story right – but I’m releasing it into the wild anyway, because it needs to be free of my head and my laptop before it drives me mad with all the potential edits that can be made to it. The main idea for it comes from how people experience the unexpected death of a loved one. I was reading old accounts from families who lost relatives in World War I, and most of them wrote about seeing/hearing their loved one at the time they died – walking through the garden gate when they should have been (were) in France, appearing in a dream, etc. – and it kind of twistedly got me thinking about how there are no accounts where people see the death itself. It’s always very ethereal and rose-tinted, rather than visceral and horrible to watch. Here, the death has already happened and Jacob is witnessing the drowning retrospectively (and obviously a bit abstractly), to the woman Lora would have been. <<<