To The Bone

The air is glass-coated wire dragged across my lungs. They haven’t been right since October, winter has bitten their slow recovery in the throat. As I settle into the star-haunted hollow of Grace I always seem to fall into at this time of year, I consider the soul. My soul, my soul like a bruised instep, like a shell replaying the music of a dead sea, whatever flies between the void and flesh of me. My soul like a ribbon on a holy tree.

As I wait for the light to return, I strip back the bed. The things of my life are dusted and cleaned, placed precisely and carefully down. I am ruthless with the cracked pots and stained linen, because I care about the housing of that battered soul, and because too often self-care is slathered on in facemasks and bubble baths and boxset marathons, and it is less fashionable to assess the roots and branches of yourself. Cut away the rotting limbs and pull up the roots from their sour bed. And yet…the roses bloom more beautifully for their beheading, for facing the genteel executioner of the secateurs. Ask a gardener.

We are encouraged to work on our defects of character in a 12-step program. It is sometimes a bone of contention, as though in acknowledging the pitiful state of our souls when we come into recovery, we are somehow rubber stamping our approval of an Original Sin. That we are agreeing that we are somehow inherently bad people, caught in an inferior web. I see that this both is and is not so. I don’t think there is anything inherently tainted about the addict, but I know that twenty years of addiction twisted me into something terrible. Something that was sinful in its self-centeredness. Putrescent flesh that was still walking, desperate for an end to its raw misery, to the meagre, salted-meat existence of perpetual December.

And so, because I have seen with my own eyes the power of resurrection, I am hard when moulding the clay, in sculpting a finer vessel, in digging up those monstrous roots. There are many malformations of my character to excise the same way any physician would cut out disease, reach in with a blade and remove the spidering sickness. This time of year, things are purged with fire. Throw on the plague-stained sheets, and watch them burn.

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I watch the glow of candlelight warming the pale stone and think of all the people who huddled there as winter roared silently on down the centuries, staring at the little flames as I do now. Sanctuary. A pool of gentleness in the long, medieval terror of freezing water and small graves. Then, too, the flawed character was a thing to be worked like the land; ploughed and sowed and harvested and taken into the body, that the body might be made anew.

My soul’s house has entered the silence before the Nativity, and in these suspended moments I also grieve and rage. There is so much pain as I pass through the pyre, because sometimes Grace falls like an axe. This year I welcome its lethal mercy. I will bow my head before it and be glad. I will cheerfully go out to slaughter the flowers. I will work myself to the bone.

After The Fire

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

1 Kings 19:11-13

There are two kinds of silence.

For years I’ve called them The Bad Silence, and The Good Silence. The Bad Silence is the one where things are quiet outside of your body, when the air of the room is still and the streets are empty,  but your mind is ablaze with the terrible wildfire of thinking. The Good Silence is the other way around, an inner pool the surface of which is glassy and untouched even by the tyranny of sound. Sometimes, like little golden threads running through the tapestry, you will get moments where both inner and outer life become a bell suspended in song and you sink like a pebble through the echoes, becoming a tiny flower blooming in the cracks of Time’s mossy grave, shifting only with the wind. But these perfect things are very rare silences.

I’ve just come back from an Advent retreat. Scouring the rust from my heart in the hush before the light. Sweeping the ash from the bare hearth of myself, making ready a place for Midwinter fire. My soul has been a small, freezing place for a long time, an empty cell where I mark time on the walls until I am released back into the world or death, I haven’t really minded which. You become used to the numbness of your limbs, the days that pass through old glass smeared with a wan and watery sun, the taste of grief in your mouth. Grief: that tall jar of black fluid you have tried to keep steady in your head, but you stumbled, or it cracked, and little by little all that brackish stuff seeps through your skull, dyeing the very tissues of your brain, turning your tongue into a rotten leaf. Grief, that cold bone in your throat.

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This beaten-down version of my soul was not ready to encounter a Perfect Silence. It was not ready to be led to a great truth. This time last month I wrote with the last spark of the fire within, hoping against hope that it would spread to the brittle kindling of my body, but it didn’t. The wind was too strong, too bitter, and the walls too thin. The embers closed their orange eyes and died.

After this, an Advent retreat was not what I felt like doing. I felt like walking into the ocean, but I got on the minibus and walked through the doors of the house instead, and found myself adrift in a different sea. Washed clean by the calm waves of solitude, drinking from a vast and deep body of the living water of silence. I felt it around me when I read by the fire, or pressed the ice forming in the gardener’s bucket with tentative fingers. I washed my hands with it before God during the Sacrament of Reconciliation, stood in the chill sunlight falling on the frosted grass of the orchard after, and felt something walk out of my body. Something bowed and shambling and stinking, like a smoking corpse. I watched it walk away through the fallen apples like an old guest who had clung to the cramped rooms of my soul like mould finally leaving the house.

Silence rushed back into me, a quick tide of it, pooling in the stained and empty space where all that charred flesh had been. It ran through the hearth and took the soot with it – because sometimes it is better to build a new fire than to try and relight an old one. It settled upon my aching shoulders like bleak Midwinter snow, like starlight falling on the rooftops in the shadow of Jerusalem, and it was perfect, perfect, perfect.

Tongue of Fire, Hand of Fate

There is a voice that seeks to discourage you.

I hear it when depression creeps like frost over the leaves resigning themselves to death fallen on the autumn soil, and I think: ‘Why live, when waking up is penance and my heart has no home?’ I hear it when my pages miss their mark, or worse, float into silence, ignored, and I think: ‘Why write, when my words fold like paper arrows?’ I hear it now, when a dear friend faces imminent death, body and soul caught in the black maw of crack cocaine and I think: ‘Why get sober, when years of struggle still end in devastation?’

The demolition voice, reducing hope to rubble. You become a ruined abbey, paneless windows open to the cold.

The voice says that this will never change, that the road will always be strewn with rocks and glass, and your feet will always be bleeding. It tells you to hold out your arms, and drops an iron bar into them every day, even when nothing terrible has happened but the sheer relentless passing of grey time is iron itself, until you can’t remember what it was like to stand up straight, until you can’t pinpoint the day your back became irretrievably bowed. That voice that says you have done nothing, will do nothing, are nothing.

You can’t stay afloat with your arms full of iron.

Yesterday I walked round and around Bedford Square, steps too quick, breath harsh, claw-hands. I walked because if I stopped walking I was going to start shouting, or breaking things, or breaking myself, and whatever I started I wouldn’t be able to stop. This week, too close behind my own recent stint in A&E, the unkindness of life has rained down in cold hail as the last of the year’s sun shines on like a traitor. There is a life waiting for the recovering addict, I know, because I’ve seen the power of the rooms in action, but right now I’m surrounded by the drowning as my own lungs are filling with water and I can’t see the salvation, just the living death of the spirit, and it’s unendurable.

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Except…It’s not. Because there is another voice.

The one that says: Get up, get up. You would have to be mad to believe in turning a corner now, so be mad. Ride that wave of lunatic fire, and that conviction like a bell ringing in your body, and that crazy terrifying love you have for people, you sit on that bitch like a horse and ride it right through the valley of the shadow of death. I see you afraid of what people think of you, because you care too much and are passionate beyond reason and thank God for that, because lukewarm and sensible and proper are getting this world fucking nowhere. And no, you’re not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, or every place’s, or every cause’s, but I will show you how that terrible iron can be forged, and where it can be wielded, so get up. Fate is a hand held out to you now, will you take it? These words are falling from a tongue of fire, will you heed them? Do not despair, do not come down, do not bow out, pour out that madness like oil on the wounds of the world and thank me later, because this is not how it ends.

I will not be discouraged. I will listen to that tongue of fire, I will be directed by the hand of fate. I will keep these sodden lungs going because I have spent twenty-five years learning how to breathe underwater.

These are the conversations I have with God. If you find me walking around Bedford Square with a face like the end of the world, don’t be afraid. I’m just walking it off, the weight of all this burning iron. I wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea.

Put to Sea

“O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.”

– old Breton fisherman’s prayer

Exile’s a funny thing.

Some of you know why it has been so long without me writing, and without me needing to tell you. I have been in London now since June, drawn inexorably into its glittering grey web and feeling my marrow corrode like rust as the year draws on. The summer heatwave here cast an aura that threw my vision into cloudy kaleidoscope, a kind of hope-blindness, but winter is on me again and you know the steady tumour of lead that grows against my heart in those long months. I am becoming a loose collection of join-the-dots from one pain to the next; these ribs creaking, this heart in its death-throes, these bones in their aching, premature dotage. That scrawled letter left to untender mercies of gale and sea, the silver sheen of a Milagro tossed in the river, dissolved in the magic of a thing purposefully cast away. I think I threw my soul after it. My lungs won’t stop hurting.

I live in a funny little L-shaped box room just outside the heart of the city. I can reach out and almost touch both walls. There is a window to the rooftops but it is tucked out of the way behind a partition, turning the thing into a sort of eyeless cave. The walls are very thin and the colour of sour milk and lined with Russian literature, and people wonder why I am insane. The sounds of everyone else jammed into this plasterboard carve-up – a halfway house for fellow addicts – are so close they are like hearing my own thoughts. They are just as chaotic in their habits as I, and so half-finished poems breed paper legions across the floor, stained with cerulean and burnt umber. Music comes from the rooms beside and below me. Sprawling herbs are conquering the garden in irresistible green silence; the bathroom mirror was covered in pithy quotes scrawled in old lipstick, but we were told to wipe them away. You are not allowed your own furniture, and sometimes your own thoughts, on pain of eviction.

I have to get out in the days or I find myself lying on the bed with my body warped in a kind of contraction, sinews straining and hands clenched into fists, wanting to vomit nails. Often now I walk for hours simply for the dull rhythm of my feet hitting the ground; for the sensation of muscles flexing and swinging, tuning out the feathery static of the brain’s stuck channel. Like the ponderous shapes of women walking the halls of a labour ward, hands pressed to the small of the back. Walk it off until the pain recedes one way or the other, until the thing curled within you breaks into life or dies there, caught in the suffocating hollow of your body. 

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Exile. Known intimately to addicts and other misfits whose feet are ribbons from long walking the razor’s edge. I feel it standing on a crowded platform, commuters jammed together like a bunch of grapes in which I am inexplicably a stone. I feel it walking down the street when no one seems to see me but the beggars, as though we have the ability to see each other’s ghosts while still alive, submerged in this thin, cold stream running parallel to the river of warm bodies. I feel it in conversations I can barely start and certainly don’t know how to continue without stuttering into the embarrassed silence of someone who isn’t even there and still takes up too much room. Adrift in my little boat on God’s great sea when no harbour will take me for long, but then I never did like staying in one place. There is a peculiar grace in momentum, even as the waves are sometimes tall and black with horror.

Exile, without purpose, is not survivable.

And then a warm and holy thing fell into my hands, smelling of wax and burning leaves, and I became an apprentice beekeeper with my boat anchored in honey, if anywhere. The hum of the hives is a living book of secret hymns, and I am slowly learning the words. If you seek asylum as the outcast living then find the hives, you will meet other pariahs there, standing around a bucket in waterproof clothing. We are there when addicts take Communion with tea and biscuits for an hour in the beige side-rooms of methodist churches and service centres that reek of hand sanitiser and unwashed clothes, lined with faces like collapsing walls. We are there with change and cigarettes for fellow ghosts that haunt the tents on Tottenham Court Road. That, I suppose, is Manna in my personal desert.

Anyway. That’s where we are. This is the point from which I sail again.

 

Mon seul désir

When I wake, shots are beginning to ring out in the forest in cracking volleys that echo through the slender trees. I hear the jingle of bells on the collars of the hunting hounds as they scout closer and closer to the edges of the olive grove. The sun has been climbing steadily for about an hour, the stones are being bleached the colour of pale sand. Although autumn is breaking over the valley, there are still dusky pink roses wound tightly into their buds. The jasmine rambling around the kitchen door, not in flower, still throws out a pungent, heady scent even as the hot breezes of summer make way for warm rains and the shock of forked lightening over the trees.

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They have killed three boar this morning. I was taken down to the van where the hairy corpses are piled. It saddens me, although I understand it. I wonder aloud if these three are the same little wild pigs we saw eating fallen figs in the garden last night. My host shrugs; the soil here is savage and dry, and land across the globe has always, since time immemorial, required blood sacrifice. The vines have been harvested, and grapes left behind are fair game for passing travellers. They are sweet and soft, crushing easily against the roof of my mouth, flooding my tongue with months of careful sunlight.

We wade across a shallow river on our way to the hilltop chateau, surrounded by a swaying riot of wildflowers. I pick the clinging purple skin of the fruit from my teeth as the river water swirls around my ankles. Somewhere in the woods, the repetitive cough of ravens sounds. This is an easy place to feel alive.

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The town is thrumming with a thousand jostling bodies and voices raised on Market Day. Trekking up a bone-dusty path in the shadow of the church, a carnival of roasting meats and baking flatbreads, amber pendants and cotton clothes. One stall is an explosion of herbs and spices, its wares bulging out of rolled-down sacks. Juniper berries, sprigs of wild thyme and rosemary, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and more mysterious powders from the east; carmine reds and canary yellows. Next to rough blocks of green, hand-made Savon de Marseilles, a little basket is wreathed in a sweet, heavy scent. It is full of dusty squares the colour of whisky, a resinous perfume all the way from Egypt.

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Returning to the Villa, I merrily scuff the brown leather of my shoes swinging in the hammock; kicking up dust as my shadow passes back and forth under the leaves. I look out over the valley, recently freshened by a sudden storm. I think that to live forever in this green, secretive, wild hollow must be Mon seul désir – my only desire. In the kitchen, I can hear the laughter of the older women as they talk around a vast pine table laden with cheeses and thick slices of cold, cured meats. I inhale deeply, watching the delicate mist rising from the drenched soil; the sweet, steaming breath of the olive grove.

Yid

Look at my Father’s hands. Flat, fleshy spades, golden bands slid over swelling knuckles. I cannot imagine my Mother ever wanting those hands on her body, but the loneliness of women is chilling. Many will do anything, no matter how grotesque, to end it.

Look at my Father’s eyes. They are still sharp, and they drift and settle, drift and settle, like snow. They carry about as much warmth. He watches the door to see who enters and who leaves, lazily assesses people walking past the window, but when he looks into your face his concentration is absolute. He is scanning your words and expression for a chink into which he might slip the blade. He is less menacing these days. The backs of his hands are crinkling with age and his eyebrows are turning grey, but an old wolf is still a wolf. Blunt teeth can still puncture and tear. He grins, showing me those teeth.

‘You wanted to talk about the family history?’

I sit up straighter in my chair, my spine fairly gasps with relief. ‘You know I said I was going to do some digging? I found quite a few records with the name, mostly up near the Russian border. Some Holocaust survivors.’

He idly stirs the spoon in his coffee, it is strong and bitter brown. I think it must hurt to drink it.

‘And?’

‘And nothing, really. They’re in the Jewish census, too. A couple of Polish POW records.’

‘Hmm.’ He stares into the near-black liquid. I wonder if he can see his face in it.

‘Well, keep it down.’

‘The prisoners of war?’

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‘No, the Jews.’ His eyes flick back to my face. They are a milky, clouded blue, as though cataracts might be blooming underneath the colour. I might think that were the case if they hadn’t always been this way. His nose is bulbous and red from drink. Once, on one of his rare visits since his infamous abandonment of me in Manchester city centre, he was so drunk he relieved himself in my bedroom sink.

‘There was talk of an rather infamous French Jewess, and of course your great-great-grandmother, but she converted to Catholicism, you know.’

I did know. My Grandfather’s memoirs tell of ‘That high, dark lady with the veil who was so in love she converted to our faith.’

‘What about cousin Jakub? And Dawid?’

He shrugs, grimaces. He was not, so far as I knew, an anti-semite, but then it was years before it was disclosed to me that he was a clinical sociopath, too. An ex gun-runner. A man with skeletons in the hold. Scorched earth spinning around a dead sun. ‘A lot of these sprawling Polish families have Jewish and Catholic branches.’

‘Same tree, though.’

‘Aren’t we all?’

I concede the point. ‘The First World War records are interesting. It’s there, too. Lots of Bavarian soldiers.’

‘German soldiers? Really?’

I nod. He bursts out laughing, drawing the curious gazes of other diners. He has what I believe is known as an infectious laugh, warm and expansive. People turn towards it like sunflowers to our star, unable to repress the sympathetic curling of their own mouth. It is utterly at odds with the rest of him, and I wonder how such a precise machine came by such a human attribute.

‘Oh! Oh, that’s wonderful! Oh, he’d have been heartbroken!’

He is speaking of his own Father. Tortured in the G.U.L.A.G. Suffused with painful honour and corrosive hatred. A hundred nails scratching against the inside of a jar.

Zdzisław is still rocking with laughter. ‘A bunch of Kraut bayonet-bashers and Jews, all mixed up with his noble Polish blood and his precious Catholic sentiment, oh, he’d have been furious!’

I am staring at the backs of my own hands. They feel the cold easily, it is winter now and they feel stiff, swollen and raw. They look old today, the skin is too thin. Sluggish blood beneath.

He breathes deeply, becomes serious. ‘You know he used to walk miles everyday to go to school. His brothers couldn’t even read, but he traded everything he had for books. He used to read them in the attic when they were all farming potatoes.’

‘Yes, I know.’ I have a picture of him somewhere, this complicated, displaced man. Skin the colour of strong tea. Serious eyes. Thin little spectacles. I wonder at the boy he must have been, walking until he dropped for the printed word’s particular magic. I imagine him squinting as his eyesight failed him young. I imagine the ridicule from his stolid, dirt-stained, practical brothers.

My Father is rolling one of his disgusting, liquorice-papered cigarettes. He taps it thoughtfully against his lips. ‘Fourteen miles every day! And for what? Books!’ He shakes his head, chuckling. ‘What a Pole! What a Yid.’

Momentum

Opposite my window lurks the gaunt, grey shadow of the old people’s home. I look straight into their dining room, lit almost every hour with dim, soothing lights. The glint of ready cutlery. There is one woman in particular who sits out in the garden when she can, and always on the second-floor balcony at three. She wears a white dress and has beautifully styled hair the same bleached linen colour. The White Woman. Last time she was sitting out there she had a birthday balloon tied to her chair. My neighbour and I were going to take some roses around, but we got drunk in the afternoon and forgot.

I feel like pounding my fist against the door with a question – what the hell happened to me over the last few years? Too much solitude, the keyhole whispers. That long, dark brain of yours ate the silence and then it ate you. I ended up hating this pretty town; endless rainy pavements mocking every step, the ocean’s whisper sultry and lethal: ‘Come away, come away with me.’ I was most happy – back to the question of happiness – on a little boat, surging out to a jagged full stop of an Irish island, salt-fresh, lungs expanding. The sensation of movement (this is also why I adore trains). I clung on to some railings with the flute strapped to my back in case we sank and smoked cigarettes with a cable-knit man, so massive his shoulders took out the last view of the vanishing mountains. That was happiness, simply moving forward in no-place, no-time. A speck of flesh with momentum. The sea is so hungry and deathly and uncaring and obsessed with its own momentum too. I didn’t rate my chances if we flunked it, smooth as it was that day. The sun beating it into diamonds in a second when earth takes a million years to be so intensified.

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The Glass Boat, 2009

And then I was back, heavy again. Back into the world of execs quibbling over cab fare, back into the world of birds that sing only when the traffic dims down its white-noise mechanical hum at the close of day, or the opening of it. Back to the world of the communal (yet also of the solitary and desolate, as without action the relationship between you and the other lives stacked up above and around and below would remain passive and insensate). It’s too peculiar. I can feel the splinters of other lives in the walls working into the skin of my own, getting under the cells and itching there, like a piano being played atonal in the next room.

I said once to him that other people’s lives picked me out like torchlight; a beam slung under a canal at midnight, and all you can see are skeletal shopping trolleys and the dark, rainbow obsidian gleam of dirty water. Toads, reeds like green razors. Broken radios that have stopped talking about stranglings in basement flats and other unfortunate things that end always, always, in boxes being lowered into the exhausted ground. One of the windows opposite has been dark for a while, a tiny postage stamp of black. There is no wheelchair patiently parked on the balcony at three. I don’t think the White Woman is coming back.