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Triumph

I saw my demons. They talked to me and they were not dangerous, though they were terrifying.

When I was alone, more distressed and terrified than before, one day I choked and sobbed and this creature emerged from my mouth. I recognised him at once as my anger, rage and passion, my love, my fury and motivation.

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I was scared to admit I had experienced hallucinations, as I know they are the hallmark of a brain in danger. I am grateful that I did, because I was reassured that the circumstances which led to them, were most certainly the cause. In some ways, the projection of my intense feelings was a way for my brain to separate, project and thus protect me from it.

I don’t experience them anymore, though my demons remain very real as a reminder of those intense emotions and how they helped me to direct my thoughts in a very positive way.

This week, I was asked by a psychologist, if this image and a few others from the time in hospital, could be used to help illustrate a talk she gave at a conference for the British congenital Cardiac Society, to demonstrate to the cohort of nurses, allied health care workers and clinicians, what post traumatic stress disorder looks like for patients and their families.

When I painted this moment, I did so to achieve catharsis. To make a tangible, sensible form of the hallucination. To make it real for other people, the way it is for me. I did not expect to create beautiful art, decorative art. This is a communication only.

The painting was well received and provoked much discussion. I could not be happier that I have spoken.

My demons are also happy.

 

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Mama

(as I knew her)

Always chic in cream and coral,

morally unimpeachable in peach.

Parsimonious with money

yet giving us a pound coin each

on leaving.

 

Heels, brooches shawls,

hair in half and half.

Soft leather handbags and shoes;

Always so prettily dressed.

 

A week or two each summer, with sister and cousins,

listening to the doves and pigeons coo, in the cote across the road

which for years, held a tennis ball in the brick work.

Waking early in the same bed in the birthday cake room,

like a group of Thumbelinas deep within a pink rose bush.

 

Sitting on the sunny daisied lawn making coronets,

collecting honesty pods, pineapple weed and shepherds purse.

Plucking pine needles from the overgrown spruce,

to sew petals together for fairy costumes.

 

Baking at the table ‘for the boys’, my full grown uncles.

Cherry bakewells, swiss rolls, sausage rolls and jam tarts

suet and rubbing pastry, greasing the great pans.

Never once a sugary topped cupcake. Absolutely always from scratch.

 

On the bedside table

were ancient ladybird books about the seaside,

papery, with beautiful illustrations.

conch shells and the smell of coty perfume.

The candlewick blanket in custard yellow

Mirrors all along the wall,

behind which lived cosmetics from twenty years before.

 

Every inch of every antique surface, complete

with keepsakes and trivia, wooden boxes,

drawers full of neatly bundled and pressed memories

lacy corners peeping out

‘Dont open that one! Don’t go in there!’

Secret doors to treasure chambers of fabrics and sewing machines.

pattern books, endless samples.

 

The roses and the brambles,

the enormous buddleia,

butterflies circling into the sky,

flapping like brightly coloured bunting.

Being sent grumbling with a bowl to collect the windfall

all the bruised apples from the orchard

shrieking while sidestepping drunken wasps.

The result was crabapple jelly stirred like streaks of amber

into cheap block ice cream from co-op.

 

The dark, smoky lounge and cheerful little fire

held the ghost of a Grandad I never knew,

He was there, in a squashy upholstered chair,

opposite the faded Haywain, with Big Ben sometimes telling the time in the corner.

My face, sisters, Mum & Dad, Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, all immortalised

behind the glass in the cabinet behind the television,

upon which we witnessed the highs and lows of Walford

and her beloved Jimmy Nail, on Top of the Pops.

 

One night I had a fever, I trembled and screamed

Terrible shakes and bad, endless dreams.

Between the looming monsters & paralysing fear

I remember Mama whispering “I’m here’.

 

Great pride was always taken in appearance.

Mama had a love of pattern and elaborate rich decoration

Attention to detail and appreciation of romantic aesthetics.

Little time for nonsense of person

but an indulgent love of frippery.

Very often serious, busy, never idle

yet I remember hearing Mama laugh and flirt like a new bride.

 

Generous and benevolent

tender with children, a real lover of babies

I was glad to see her smiles and doting on all four of my children,

no doubt she felt immense pride at having so many beautiful, intelligent and loving grand

and great grandchildren.

 

She loved to only see the best in the world

and was sometimes unable to see the worst.

 

All the energy that passed through Mama, is passing through me now.

The energy that went into her life, her children, her endeavour; it is here now, in me – and

all of us.

The place she filled in my life will still be filled with the memories and experiences that

she gave to me, and will be for everyone that knew her. She is not gone, just her body.  And

in her descendants, her body remains.

 

I am not sad that her body has ended, I am grateful for her peace. I find solace in knowing

that she felt love until the final moment. The place that she filled, will be filled my her

memory and new traditions, for my children.

 

I know Mama wouldn’t have wanted me to feel sorrow – so I won’t.

Everything is enraging

I am beginning to believe that the driving force in my Universe is not love, but anger. In my heart, there is so much rage, I occasionally wonder where I might put it; whether it might even be its own entity. It does, however, push me on to greater things.

When I say ‘greater things’,  I refer to things such as not eating one thousand biscuits in a stupefying depression, or refusing to let people belittle the efforts I go to, to leave the house each day with the children clean, fed and fully clothed. 

It could be argued that I am bitter. I would accept this, except for one problem; it is another way of belittling how I feel, and how the events of the past few years have altered my thinking in both great and terrifying ways.

I am angry because so many of my expectations have been dashed to pieces.

It is a reality of adulthood, that childhood fantasy of raising children is nowhere near the nappy filled, bleeding nipple, exhausting story that unfolds when you come to terms with your newborn. This is almost an expectation itself and the disappointment is barely noticeable, amidst the great joy that is won in exchange. I am angry because this was stolen from me, in a terribly painful and cruel way. By a natural event.

My baby son, bewilderingly, desperately ill, punctured across his tiny body, woven into a matrix of medicinal, life-saving tubing, monitored for breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, heart rhythm, brain waves.

It is eight years this summer, since he fell ill and still the memories of being so happily pregnant eight years ago, waiting for his arrival, are fresh. The muddle of memories in the middle are like episodes of casualty screaming back to back, hideously over dramatic, me in the centre scraping nails down my cheeks with rivers of tears and blood together, a montage of the faces of the dozens of ‘professionals’ I’ve worked with to keep him alive, keep him home, keep him healthy, keep me sane, or as close as possible.

I have this gentle, tidal wave of sadness, regret too, and deep wanting to return to being pregnant. The peaceful happiness I was experiencing, the joy and hope. Satisfaction and a sense of righteous bliss. I was slimmer, healthier. I had hopes for a career. We were going to have a bigger house, holidays abroad. Life was manageable. I was standing over the edge of a ravine, about to drop everything over the lip.

It dropped. Not even cleanly. Crashing into every jutting rock, smashing on every bump, managing this tiny boy’s life became a hideous nightmare. Never enough sleep, hyper vigilant loving and tending, the gruelling feeding regime which always was vomited into every crevice. The dozens of expensive medicines, like a rainbow drawn up in a fistful of syringes – at 7,8,9 1,2, 8,9 & 10 pm, all given through a tube down his nose. That too had to be reinserted daily. I did it. I tied his little arms down in a blanket or jacket, restrained him and held his thrashing face still with one hand, while I forced a tube up his little nostril, before taping it to him velvet soft cheek. I cannot begin to tell you how hard I made my heart. Even his breathing, attached to a ventilator, a tracheostomy that had to be suctioned every ten minutes, all sterile, all new. This meant detaching him from the ventilator, swiftly opening a catheter (thin plastic hose) and pushing it into his tracheostomy, further, down into his bronchus, then putting a thumb over a valve and using the suction machine, vacuuming out the mucus & snot that was obstructing his airways. Sometimes it was satisfying. I grew able to recognise different bacterial colonisations just by the smell or appearance of the mucus he produced. Haemophilis Influenzae smells like fishy bins & has a thin, foamy quality. Pseudomonas Aeruginosa is blue/green & smells like rotting flesh, sweet & cloying. Knowing these things disgusts me. I am angry that I know these things. I will never be credited for these experiences, in any way that can soften the pain they have caused.

Packaging, recycling bins, arguments with the council over extra bins and medical collections. Ordering equipment, liaising with specialists. Collecting equipment, storing it somewhere. Applying to charities for sheds to store equipment, delivered in 3 month bulk supplies. Rearranging kitchen cupboards to be hospital stores. Taking advice sheets from therapists. Panicking about lack of progress. Rushing to hospital late in the day, with all the many pieces of equipment, the 10kg machinery and oxygen cylinders and medicine supplies and being the only person qualified to maintain your child while in hospital, being exhausted at 2 am and changing wards for monitoring, or worse, IV lines and treatment on a terrified exhausted baby. Walking in the front door after discharge, with new therapies, new medicines, new instructions and your partner leaving you with the house, the children and feeling like you’ve been dropped off the cliff…while he goes to work. Because the bills never stopped.

This is just a snapshot. This was life for years. Somehow in the middle, I had another baby. I needed another go at motherhood. I had delivered a baby before, but he was lost to me. He was a changeling baby, in my arms for a week, he died and the NHS gave me in return, a medical doll. Something they were using as an intense experiment to see how he and I would fare with these adjustments they had made. Their Frankenstein’s monster, my son.

An new mode de vie ensued. This was one where I became anxious to leave the house. Where the sheer volume of equipment  required to make a safe trip to town became incapacitating. Where the stares and comments of strangers, unable to tear their eyes away from my baby, who gurgled silently, as his machines whistled and beeped beneath him on the precariously stacked pushchair. “Did you see that lickle babbeh?” said a woman once, to her partner, nudging him as they walked by. I realised how invisible I had become, how his existence, powered by batteries & chemistry experiments, had eclipsed mine altogether. My needs were no longer important. My other children, my partner’s work, my son’s inevitable and inexhaustible list of therapies and appointments, all superseded my own.

When I fell pregnant with my youngest son, I felt nothing but joy. Here was a chance to have a child for myself. For me to love, breastfeed, nurture. To feel maternal & close. To attend baby groups and make new friends. To be a woman fulfilled by motherhood, not torn apart.

My ex partner wanted me to terminate the pregnancy. The dissonance in our mindset here created a gaping abyss in our relationship and I am sorry to say that we did not recover. A few years extended our time together, but it was investment solely for our children, particularly our poorly child, who was the sickly glue that bound us.

I sit here now, with my self worth both curiously bolstered by the strength it has taken me to endure the past eight years, but with a weeping heart. I have lost an innocence about the world and life. Even through genuinely happy moments, I have a desolation within. I do realise just how gloomy and self indulgent this sounds and actually, I loathe myself for it. What I would give to reclaim the blissful ignorance of life before Theo.

The months I spent in hospital with him as a tiny baby were excruciating. Having to say goodnight every day. Never nursing him, never singing lullabies to his sweet silken cheeks. Coming in each day to find him dressed, bathed. His first smile sold to a PICU nurse. I remember them pretending they hadn’t seen it, and how i wanted to sob but had too much pride, because i had sobbed the day before. Every excitable Christmas song at advent, on the radio, made me want to be sick. All I want for Christmas. A relatives comment in the November; “He WON’T be home for Christmas? why not?”  As if I were controlling his recovery & stability. I wanted him home. I would have given my own limbs to achieve it. The exercise in patience, that is waiting for a complex case to be discharged, is immense.

The days when snow was too thick and heavy for me to risk being with him. Imagine snow, in the UK, in our modern world, being enough of an impediment to spending time with your baby. Not snow, but glass in my heart from the Snow Queen’s broken mirror. I cried those days.

I was angry when I rushed all morning as usual to deliver my children to school, to race to hospital to sit in a  queue for an hour to park, to reach the ward, breathless & anxious, to be told my baby was too ill with infection, I couldn’t visit that day.

I am angry because I have lost time with my other children. I have been denied those happy family days that other families have. This is one reason that I have chosen to home educate my children. Life is so fragile & marvellous. Existence so easily ended. The time spent with my loved ones, is the only currency I value. This was another area of dissonance with the children’s father, who so much wanted to pursue money and prestige.

Living away from home, the long wait for transplant, I have written about before. The missing, the longing, the hopeless hours. I understood myself from the very emptiest place, while I felt torn into pieces. Anger became a source of energy and creativity; I am not a person who enjoys hurting others. I am more likely to turn inwards. But the fury at circumstance, at the people who claim to love me and did nothing to alleviate my pain, the rage at my own inability to be happy now: all this contributes towards art. I find peace in the paintings. I have a dialogue with desolation. This dissipates the negativity & allows my brain a calm & solace.

You might infer right now, that painting therefore, is not enraging for me. In fact, it is comforting and enervating, reassuring and healing.

That depends very much on whether it is a difficult commission.DSCN4156

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Correlations.

A recent (fairly) newspaper sensationalist report informed us that cured meats, those that we English know as breakfast meats, or anything derived from a pig and subsequently cured*, are in fact carcinogenic and have been appropriately classified by the World Health Organisation as deeply terrible and toxic, poisonous, guilt inducing, for the foolish and obese and cheaply available to the families on a low income or with fussy (read, ordinary) children. They also neglected to mention tastiness as a factor, for it is well known that the most delicious foods are the ones we are supposed to shun whilst polishing our size eight halos.

My children were curious about this as they are what they eat and there is no doubt in my mind that they are small piglet creatures, their sty of a bedroom bears witness, if their language is not reliably grunty.

I swallowed down my guilt over the years of reliance on sausage based meals (the cheap and easy option, except in the case of chorizo) to nourish them and translated the news report to them, in motherese.

“Basically, darlings, science is telling us that yet more delicious processed foods are actually causing our bodies harm. At worst, they cause cancer.”

After the melodrama died down and the shocked gasps, knuckle biting and weeping subsided, we were able to discuss this. My children are au courant with cancer as their paternal grandmother deceased from brain cancer the previous year. We had shared some valuable discussions about disease, death, grieving, celebrating life and memories. They had also talked about Nana A’s idiosyncracies, including, very significantly at this juncture, her commitment to supporting the pork industry. We had laughed at how we would miss her pork based meals. At least two of the three meals she prepared each day, was based on either sausage, bacon, ham, gammon, roast pork or ham, gammon, bacon or sausage.. the third meal was often a variation of the other two but occasionally when we took her out for a meal she would have something exotic, like chickenimg_1082

A mental leap from the small children had allowed a tentative (and probably erroneous) conclusion that Nana A had brought brain cancer upon herself by her unwavering porcine addiction. I did the responsible thing and reminded them that everything is ok in moderation, even making terrible correlations that lead to amusement.

 

 

Magic Bramble Jelly

Mum is always asking if we want to make mince pies. She loves to bake and usually around October time, she starts to bake a whole lot more than the rest of the year. At first it is the Christmas Cake which makes the house smell of spice; this is delicious, by the way and makes me feel warm and cosy. That goes into the tin and she pours disgusting amounts of brandy to ‘feed’ it for weeks and week until eventually I am invited to help decorate it. Sadly, by the time She and I have massaged the marzipan, like sweet golden play dough and pressed the squidgy, sticky layer of snow onto the dark cake, I have lost my interest in eating it. One thing I do like, is creating a little festive scene on top, with my smallest play figures and sugar paste animals.

So mince pies. I quite like them. They taste a whole lot better since I learned two things. One thing, is that they are not made of mice. Second thing, is that they are not called mince because they are minced up mice. imageI adore the crumbling buttery pastry and the mysterious goo inside. Mum buys huge jars of mince and we spoon this into the dough shells, layering stars on top.

This year has been no different, although I have made a few gingerbread men (and variations – ninja bread men, astronauts). Even the year Mum was away with my brother, she came back for weekends and we still baked. She says it helps her and that natures rhythms are healing. Perhaps they healed my brother.

I helped to pick a thousand blue sloes and prepare them y pulling off the fiddly stems and little arrow sharp yellow leaves, before Mum poured gallons of bitter gin onto them. She says it will taste fantastic and that one day I will love it. It takes months to work, which is, I am guessing, why it is called slow gin.

My favourite thing that we make, is spiced blackberry jelly. I learned this year, while we roamed the woods with tubs and baskets, plucking the purple fruit as carefully as we could, that there are around four hundred types growing on our Island. Mum told me that the word blackberry was now better known as an electric gadget like a phone, by some childrn and that blackberry picking was the idea of pinching them. It feels like there are different islands. Pinching something is weird. Wanting to take something from someone else.

The blackberry jelly starts with a huge pile of berries in the pan, in water, to wash out the spiders and grubs. We always giggle and groan when we think of how many grubs we eat, when we scoff the berries from the brambles without washing them. I can count tiny silver grey moths that look like papery tree bark, slim green legged spiders hurrying from the pile and tiny angry flies escaping the cold water.

When we drain them, the water is bright pink, like the inks we draw with. I stand on a chair, imageput on an apron, wash my hands and then press the berries with the potato masher, until they are a juicy pulp.
We add slices of large oranges and whole cinnamon sticks. Mum tells me a poem about the Cinnamon Peeler that I do not understand but it sounds romantic.

If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
And leave the yellow bark dust
On your pillow.

Your breasts and shoulders would reek
You could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.

Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbour to you hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.

I could hardly glance at you
before marriage
never touch you
–your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers…

When we swam once
I touched you in the water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
you climbed the bank and said

this is how you touch other women
the grass cutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume

and knew

what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.

You touched
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
Peeler’s wife. Smell me. 

 

 

She has a far away look in her eyes as I mash the fruit. Some cloves, that would numb a toothache, a nutmeg, (not silver) and some fragrant cardamom pods. If there is any, mum pours red wine into the pan as well, with extra water. When it boils, it smells like Christmas. I like the next stage a lot. It seems so magical like this woman, my mother, is a witch. A good witch, pulling the flavours and goodness from the plants. She takes a large cloth and lays it across a bowl and pours the steming liquid from the pan. The hot pulp, with all the spices, are spooned into the bowl and then she does the witchy things. All four corners are pulled together and tied with a string.  Mum checks that this is tight and then lifts the bag above the bowl, hooking it against a rack that is joined to the wall. “Don’t ever squeeze the bag”, she warns, “the jelly will be cloudy, if you do.”
It doesn’t really matter if the jelly is cloudy, it will taste the same, but my Mum likes to do these things in a perfect way. She calls them ‘processes’ and tells me she is ‘methodicl’. I just love the way the sun shines through the dark purple jelly in the jars as it sets.

The bag drips into the bowl overnight. Meanwhile, the huge maslin pan is scrubbed and special bags of sugar are brought into the kitchen from the shed. You would not believe how much sugar goes into jams and jellies. It is more than you could want it to be, to be healthy. It has made me realise how we can hide sugar in food and then forget it is there.

The sweet, Christmassy purple ‘liquor’ is ready. We must measure how much we have, so we can calculate the amount of sugar we need, so we use a litre jug to empty he large bowl
and pour it into the mails pan. One, two, three, four litres of liquor, will mean a few kilos of sugar. Put it all in the pan together and turn up the heat. The sugar will dissolve and the pectin in it will help to set the jelly. It makes a soft hiss as the sugar dissolves and the mixture begins to boil.

We wash empty jars in hot soapy water and rinse them. They stand on a tray and go into the warm oven. The heat should sterilise the jars, because it is just too hot for the bacteria to survive. The lids are boiled on the hob.

After a little while, Mum tells me not to touch; sugar melts at very hot temperatures and the jelly mixture is boiling in bubble bath mounds of delicate pink foam. Mum scoops off scum, which she tells me is just the impurities of the sugar and mixture, the more she can scoop from the top, the clearer the jelly will be. How does she know when the jelly is ready to set? It seems like total witchcraft, though I know she uses science. She tells me two things. One is the thermometer that is so long and can read higher temperatures than the one we use outside. This one tells her when the mixture is at ‘setting point’. Even so, she likes to double check and so we take a metal spoon full of the thin, boiling sauce and hold an ice cube on the back of it. If the liquid cools to a jelly, it is read. If not, she tips in more sugar and waits again.

Finally, the jars come out of the oven on their tray. Using a large ladle, the mixture is scooped and poured through a funnel, into the hot jars. Sometimes they are so hot that the mixture continues to boil in the jars for a little time. The reason we keep it all hot is to destroy bacteria. When we screw the lids on to a hot jar, it means the air inside will shrink as it cools, making the lids suck down. This is a vacuum seal. We know it means the jar is freshly sealed and that nothing has gone in or out.

Mum asked me to decorate some sticky labels for the jars. I write the date we made the jelly and the name of it. This year, we call it “magic bramble jelly”. We know what it is made of but it is our secret recipe!

After the pulp is finished with, we go to tip it into the compost bin. It is sludge by now, a bright purple, with the cinnamon sticks gone soggy and the orange slices stained by the blackberries. It still smells wonderful, so the birds and the worms will enjoy it.

I come back and gaze and the pyramid of jars we have built on the windowsill. The sun makes them glow, the same red and black as the berries on the brambles. Clear, like stained glass at the Church. Imagine people not knowing about these blackberries. I cant even believe this, how unlucky they must be, to not know food like this.

When the jelly is cool, i eat it in spoonfuls. I eat it on toast. I eat it with roast chicken, with cheese. It is delicious.

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Birthday Fantasising. Just a giggle. Well, maybe more than a giggle.

IMG_0173Today is my half average life expectancy birthday and although I have received literally dozens of well wishes and greetings from the friends and companions in my life, real and virtual, I have an ache in my chest.. that is not absolutely assuaged by pixellated tidings.

The view from the large window revealed a sheer drop to a future courtyard, The adjacent building is part deconstructed, skinned down to internal structure and the limestone colour is decorated by the high visibility clothing of multiple engineers and labourers, meticulously putting together the next phase of the hospital redevelopment. There are merely ten metres between the window and the building site, which is atop the fifth floor; between us stands a scarlet crane, the chains swinging portaloos, skips, stacks of pylons and girders perilously close. Some of the objects that are elevated are almost comical in their incongruity, for who expects to

see a portaloo at eye level, through the 6th floor window?   I spend a few moments wondering if the day might be improved by a dangerously clothed Daniel Craig swinging like Tarzan from the chains. Another sigh.

By my side is my small son, petulant and disconsolate, focussing solely on the iPad, his pale complexion illuminated by the animation he is engrossed in. Squeaky voices and dramatic sound effects accompany all background noise of ward activity. Children wailing and laughing, monitors alarming, the soft chatter of approaching staff as the morning ward round is completed.

I look up as the doorway darkens across the room.

Complete infatuation, I blush as The Consultant attempts to complete a professional exchange of information.

Complete infatuation, I blush as The Consultant attempts to complete a professional exchange of information.

The Consultant is here to review my child, to give me an update on test results, to inform me of the plans for his ongoing treatment. My stomach flops, for two reasons; I am naturally anxious for the news and the dread is uncoiling in my gut. However, this man has the warmth of the sun and brings delight to my eyes, as though I watched lambs gambolling across a spring meadow. He is accompanied by colleagues, irrelevant to me, their presence dimmed in contrast to the glory that is The Consultant.

I laugh at a comment he makes. We have known each other for some years now. We share taste in music and art, have stolen minutes here and there to discuss ethics and the poetry of our common ground. I also know he is married, beautifully so, with gorgeous children and no doubt an entire world of DIY at weekends and skiing trips with his Nordic wife. I can only dream of meeting someone of this intellectual calibre, this compassionate ability, this tremendous vocation.

Or I can carry on laughing online about how terribly romantic I am and unwittingly miss many potential heroes who would touch me the way I deserve. Spiritually and more.

I love to draw these moments; silly self deprecating sketches or more intense and detailed drawings of the architecture, or atmosphere of the place. All of it pleases me and provides a welcome distraction. It just proves that time spent here in hospital can be as fun as it is miserable. It seems to very much depend on which perspective I pursue.  

Separate and submerged.

At the end of a long, dusty summer,  I was preparing to hand back the keys.  My stay at the shack was coming to an end, the owners due back to the main house, bringing their daily possessions back from the coast. They were materially wealthy and I was not. I knew the value of my own company and the rich treasure of a sunset looking at me with two golden faces across the mirror of the lake.

The shack was really an extension of the boathouse. Neither old nor new, a little worn and rotten from a lack of attention but the dry season had prevented any mildew and accompanying sneezes. I had a simple camping bed and cotton sheets. The natural spring that fed the lake was a tumbling distance from the door.

Cool mossy ground that cushioned the floor beneath the spring had been partially dug out and large pink speckled slabs of weather smoothed granite dragged and dropped. They provided a dry platform by the edge of the lake, of enough square metres to allow a body to lie down comfortably.

This served as a pier now, for the main wooden bridge to a boat had not been replaced since it waded deeper and never climbed out.

I could recline on the sun warmed slabs and my feet would be immersed in the peaceful green water.  

trailing fronds carelessly across the rippling skin of water

 The piano trill of spring water would laugh at me in amusement. I often sat and picked at my guitar, singing at the wildlife.

For a plain woman of late youth, it was an unusual circumstance  in which to find oneself. Not the lofty pines of of an American vampire mystery, nor the longing sighs of an Italian romance. Not even a tragic Scandinavian forest murder story. No, nothing more confusing than a wealthy educated couple needing someone resident on their property in their absence, to calm their imagination.

The lake and boathouse sat at the bottom of a hill valley. There were bundles of sheep everywhere. The coast was close, ten miles west. I had agreed, or rather, begged, for the opportunity to stay, to ‘keep my eye on things’, for the solitude and isolation drew me.  The rich green, the trilling melody of evening birdsong, the blissful lack of people.

I wanted to exorcise some horror. To let it flow into the lake, sink below the silt and be buried softly, silenced in rich mud forever more. Or at least, to exist, expanding and reducing in cycles, slowly, as it can never truly go but be put away somewhere manageable. In the same way that we desire to capture a photograph of a sentimentally pleasing moment, to transform and exalt into art. Or to wonder at a caged songbird and admire wilderness controlled, take our fill of pleasure and natural beauty at our own pace. We do the same with trauma and pain. Attempt to discard it, hide it, cage it away from our senses so that it may not scream in our ears or burn at our eyes any longer.

I cannot destroy the memory completely. How dare I risk losing the evidence of an event that altered me so deeply? The agony carved from me, rang in my skull, tore at my skin. All at once a hundred years of false scoldings, lost precious moments, endless clifftop stumbles. This had assaulted me and although I was able to regard this as one holistic demon, I did not want to let him go. I wanted him to live somewhere neutral, peaceful and calm.

When I am ready to see my face shining back into the glossy dark eyes in which they are held, to face him once more, I can do so with the clarity of earth filtered water, the constant embrace of a loving ray of sunshine, the friendly caress of cool coastal air and cheers of encouragement thrown loud by trivial avian gossip.  He may even find that he relaxes himself in such a pleasant environment.

I have been here all summer long, strumming my guitar and generally finding peace for myself. Taking pleasure where I can, in all ways. Watching, listening as the sun set twice meeting itself on the horizon in ever decreasing hemispheres. Often I would still be sitting out, feet soaked as the stars were unveiled. I never stopped singing to the life all around me. The beers came and went. A man visited me and we made irrelevant love that only touched my flesh.

I barely told anyone where we were going. The owners of the house know me on a practical level but have only ever nodded and smiled. It was generous of them to open the peripheral doors on their own inner sanctum and allow me somewhere to feel safe and secure, unjudged in their actual warm absence. They gave me somewhere to deposit my demon. The gently rippling surface unbroken, unsullied by his presence because the water is cleansing itself, isn’t it? Constantly refreshed by the spring, any poison is washed away; and a lake is teeming with life anyway. So much can happen here.

On the hotter, more uncomfortable days, I stripped down naked and swam out a few metres. It was cool and I appreciated the opportunity but I felt unsafe. There were many dangers; alone without a safety line. I suppose I might have felt safer if only the owners were at home because I would be anticipating their checking up on me but alone, literally out of my depth, the demon beneath the surface was too close and I could feel my fear grow. What if he woke? What if he wanted more of me and took control once more?  Would I drown alone, or even die?

I had hauled myself out into the rough slabs, the second time, heart racing, breath lost, hair clinging to my dripping face. I was crying I found and did not understand the tears. Crouched, hugging my knees, sobbing, until eventually the heat of the sun licked me dry and the silence filled my ears once again.

I remember my gaze fixing upon some new point of interest. A ladybird crawling centimetre by centimetre directly beneath me, oblivious to the thoughts I was having. How irrelevant I suddenly felt, a great hulking collection of self pitying cells, naked and ugly. I considered crushing the ladybird, it was within my power to do so, after all. It is not something I would ever take pleasure in, the deliberate explosion of death.

At that point the tears and heat had dried me and I moved a few paces to lay down in the spongy cool moss, to drink directly from the spring. There was a little dappled shade here. This was cooler and refreshing; I remained here briefly, until once more my gaze fixed and I observed a tentative snail beginning an exploration of my wrist. I enjoy proximity to nature but I wanted to say, “snail, I am still but I am not inanimate, so you should fear me.” It did not fear me though, because a snail does not know what I mean.

Weeks later I realised, watching clouds pass across the calm silky surface of the lake, that if the demon is separate from me, kept submerged, clean, richly surrounded by the oblivion and trivial comings and goings of everyday existence, amongst the snails and ladybirds, is the demon aware of what I mean? Is the demon sentient? Does it need to eat, can it reproduce? Does it diminish if I do not feed it? Can it exist at all if I am the only one that knows about it? Is it bigger than I am? What is it made of?

Dragging my drifting contemplations back to the beginning…I am folding my few sun bleached clothes, tshirts, dress, cut off jeans, a bikini that really should be consigned to a bin now. Sandals with broken straps. I am circling the place, deciding which mementoes of this summer should remain here and which should come with me.

I could leave it all. I know that the demon and the boathouse will be here for as long as I can return. Even the slabs, the moss, the spring, the birds. Nature just repeats itself, the life force goes on and on. One day I won’t. One day will be my final chance to crush the ladybird. The only chance to blow a sweet goodbye to the taste of sunlight.

If I decide to live without the demon, what do I have left?

Tell me what on earth do I have left?

Part 2

I was only sewing together the loose threads. She was dropping them everywhere, tripping over them and so I  picked them up, gathered them to me, so fast and tangled they became, wrapped around me. I panicked I could not organise anything, nor definitely a bundle of threads.

Many colours. Oh she was untidy, emptying her pockets for another tissue, or to take herself for a cigarette. Silly girl, she created mess. She should have come to find me sooner.

I was hurting too, all the times she shut me out, I only wanted her to feel my presence. To let her know I was there for her, each fresh wound could be tended and I would help her to heal. Instead of looking at me, she was furious and threw more threads. It was not my role to like her but she should have known I was as inescapable as her need to breathe.

I took to sewing the threads. I went to her when she was not looking and I stitched things to her. I reached and pierced her skin and sewed a strand of gossamer fine feeling between she and I. I pushed the needle into my eye so that what she had felt and what I had seen would never be separate. She knows this, for I whispered to her, dear heart, night after night.

I watched her wringing her hands, scratching her nails down her cheeks, biting a lip so hard it bled. Ruby red, is my favourite colour. She shuns me. Does not want to know. Well my love, it matters not what you desire for we have already done the learning.

When it was over she began to look around herself and notice life again. No matter how loud I shouted, she ignored me. I scattered the bundle of tangled threads at her feet and saw her bend to collect them. I watched her clutch her chest in shock and I heard her voice gasp in pain but she did not speak to me. She pulled at this one, that one before falling to her knees, reaching for the hem of my clothes. it was as though I punished her and was not simply returning her possessions.

A canary yellow strand slipped through her fingers and I saw that she had stopped breathing.

Coming closer to lay her down, I recoiled at her loss. I would revive her, return her reason to live. She could not have been stopped so simply.

Her lips were cool and slack, all naive wonder had evaporated.

Once I had watched from far away, as she raced madly in the wind, carrying a rainbow of silken streamers that rippled behind her. I knew how vibrant this person could be. I leaned on her ribs and pushed the last of that sigh from her lungs. I blew sharply into her and began to compress, natures rhythm, forcing a pulse across her broken heart.

When I felt a beat, I gathered the bundle of threads and retreated. I went away, quiet so that she did not have to see me.

I missed her deeply. I hid and unravelled the threads and then I stitched and wove them into something else. Something better. A strong rope and a net.

….

The passenger door opened and she dragged me out. I stumbled, it was bright and clear. There was a lake. I heard the slap of lazy waves against a bank. I looked around and was intimidated by a lofty sky, bleating sheep and many tall orange trees that faded to deep blue as I looked between. A little house. A broken limbed pier. A spring.

She has brought me here alone and I was unprepared, suddenly glad I had sewn my eye to her.

She carried her possessions to the little house and looked at me over her shoulder as I followed her. She appeared exasperated. The bag was not even heavy. My feet made no sound on the soft earth. Was it a shy, almost coy glance? I was excited, was it an invitation? I wanted to be bound to her in a more dangerous, corporeal way, taking pleasure from her bones. I grew in confidence at that moment for the more she entertained me, the harder I became.

A shadow passed across her, a cloud before the sun. With dismay I saw her enter and close the door behind her, leaving me outside. It is not today then.

I leave her there and go to explore the lake. Strolling without purpose to the far end of the immense pool of water, away from the spring, where the fluid was deeper and still.

I felt tired and was grateful. I placed the rope and net in a safe place up the bank, then slithered noiselessly into the water. If she did not want my company then I would not force her.

We both knew one another was safe. I am not hurt, I am not angry. I just miss her she is my friend and lover. It saddens me that she can’t hold me close. I know her friends don’t like me, I am ugly and I don’t fit in. I touch her in a way nobody else does and although she won’t connect with me, she also cannot let me go. I can see her feelings, silly girl.

Deeper I swim, the marbled moving ceiling of the air meeting liquid, mirrors me. I inhale the water and transform. Drown, submerge. I have no heart. The water is darker, the silt stirring, thicker as my intrusion disturbs the aquatic civilisation. Swim in circles until I rest, coiled in a bed of the finest dirt. It settles upon me and then I am stopped.

I close one eye. The other remains open because of the fine thread; if she pulls upon it I will wake immediately.

Time passes and creatures ignore me. They trust me and I love them, busy and hopeful, making their epic journeys, celebrating their lucky existence by tirelessly repeating their duties. I like them. What is a bigger tribute to the unexplained wonder of existence than to exist, unquestioning. Mainly, I ignore them, because I am listening.

I am waiting to respond, watching with one eye. I never gave her any reason to mistrust me because I never acted inappropriately.

I listen to her singing lively melodies, mantras she has designed to ward me off, as though I am evil or sinister. I am not. I am connected ineffably to her, no matter how much she laughs, dances or copulates.

She is thinking that she has no power and she is frightened of how I may consume her. In the reckless summer heat sometimes she invites me to watch her. I know she is thrilling inside to let me closer. Always on her terms, though I push sometimes, take advantage to revel in her attention. Occasionally she is calm and we share moments of equanimity.

Part 3

I am sly and also patient. I can be, for I will always be near her. She can’t live without me anymore, for she defines herself by me. I am her shadow. I fill the gap when she moves. Stare at her silhouette and when you close your eyes, that is me that you see. I am but am not.

One day I was brooding beneath the mud and the muted waves of energy travelling through water were intensified, crashing, throbbing noises. I rejoiced! She was in the lake, her smooth pale limbs splitting the skin of glass, churning up a fuss where the elements collided. A pressure difference, she breathes the air; I am underneath, slower and compressed. I see her trepidation, the stiff dance of her body as she tries very hard to ignore me. She cooled too rapidly. I felt so sad when she waded out through reeds towards the slender brown beach across from the spring. She vanished, naked into the tall trees and walked back around the peripheral footpath, returning directly to the boathouse. I heard her singing louder than before, her anger loud. She drank. The man came then and I heard her shouting. In pleasure? She pretended I didn’t matter to her, I know. She needs to go through these human rituals to feel like one. I love that she feels delight. I speak to myself, comfort, one day she will need me, in order to feel ecstasy. Later, when he left, she cried on the rocks and I longed to touch her. When I move, she runs. Goodnight, dear heart.

The next time she swam, I was closer yet. She wanted me, I could see her, ripe and bold, hot as the sun was so high beating down on her. She was confident, had stopped doubting her ability to resist me. Naturally, that confidence to confront me inspired my lust to consume, meet her with equal enthusiasm. I reached to touch her as she moved through the water. Too close. I frightened her and she panicked. The water frothed, she fled. Did I misread her intention? All still once more. I am trembling with her.

….

The packed bag is in the car. The worn bikini inside. I’m taking all but him. I am almost ready to leave. I will return another time perhaps when the owners are home.

I have a sense of an equilibrium at last. It is a day of change, I have no doubt. The sun is just a fraction lower in the sky and even the first leaves are falling, still green but losing their intensity. They fall and it doesn’t seem to matter at all. Birds soar from the treetops as I push noisily into the overgrowth on the little path bordering the lake. I want to circle the lake one last time before I depart.

With each step, I am humming, inhaling the powerful scent of fungal spores, pungent bracken and a sweetness of decay. I think of all the energies dissipating. All is recycled in nature. I look through the trees at the sky; watery, milky blue, cataracts of clouds obscuring the outward view. I am tired but glad to have rested here. I am exhausted by the loneliness.

Reaching the far end of the Lake and the boathouse is equally distant from both sides. I stand, looking, for many breaths. My reflection beneath me, regarding me. I startle myself, for I can see a broad grin split my face yet I don’t feel that happy. It must be the movement of the water. It is so quiet here I almost cannot breathe. I feel powerfully alive, vital, electrified almost.  Hair lifts on my neck. I feel watched.

I crouch down and the crackle of a dry twig snapping, provides the shock.

The grass here on the bank has been flattened by a large creature recently. I am uncertain: can I move? I am drawn to the water and the face I see is smiling so lovingly, possessively. Not cruel but somehow knowledgable. My secrets are all there. I shudder and step back. Am I so changed this summer?

A bright tangle of colour is beside me, something dropped in haste. I reach down to pick up this bundle, a sense of absolute curiosity lures me for I believe i recognise the hues. Ruby red, canary yellow, orange and blue. A strong rope and a hand woven net. They belong to me, I know they do and I want to keep them. I don’t recall ever making them but I confess so much has happened here at the lake of which I am barely conscious. So many numb hours, deconstructing, decomposing. Inevitably reconstructing.

It is time to leave but I will keep these perfect mementoes.

She is leaving. I feel my eye pulled as she travels further away. I ache for her but she saw me and she needs me here. I left her the rope, ordered threads bound together for strength. And a net for security and safety. She knows where I am and one day she can bring the rope and net to haul me from the lake. I am both her most beloved and hated part, respectful of my threat but nothing without my existence.