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.

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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.

Vampire Hunting in Paris

There are places in this world which split you open, in awe, joy or sorrow; gardens, ruins, stone circles. There are cities that cleave you like a ripe fig; alive and all millipede feet and heavy breathing. They are aware.

Paris is such a city for me. A great leopard with filthy paws, Paris unpacks my loneliness with my shirts and shakes it out.

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I couldn’t tell you why. It might be the long streets tapping with the ghosts of a million famous footsteps, making me long for the past, a trick of nostalgic light. It might be the solitude, having no one to share the breath of this city. It might be the swarming crowds; each citizen an arrowhead, focused, determined. I merely wander cluelessly from my moorings.

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The romantic in me can’t have it both ways; I love the solitude, the melancholy. Watching the moon rise over the Seine, I know the glimmering perfection of the moment would be lessened for me if someone were to run up, laughing, and clasp my hand (Really? Are you lying?). My most profound and bittersweet moments are only experienced alone. The city winks back at me from silver-plated water. She understands. She embraces suffering like a martyr, a mistress of mansions and garrets.

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I am fortunate enough to catch Vespers in Notre Dame, the call and answer of prayerful melody; a vast aviary of devoted birds. There is one woman close to the altar, decked in blue and white like the Virgin. She raises her hands in ecstasy when she sings, she is transported beyond her body, her hands full of stained glass light.

I wonder at her life when the music stops. I wonder if carrying such a faith, she is ever lonely, too.

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I walk slowly through the streets back to the hotel. My train leaves for the South in the morning, there’s no point ghost-hunting my heart in this place with one turn of the clock left. I need more time! Paris lets me know she will be here when I need her, she sends a gentle rain to freckle the long avenues. The smell of wet pavement rises, mingles with the frankincense still tangled in my hair; they say when a holy scent follows a prayer, then that prayer is heard.

Licking Toads

I see you. On trains and escalators; buying bread and walking the dogs. I see you clutching history books and muddy hiking boots in plastic bags. Invisible or too visible, broomsticks disguised as vacuum cleaners and butterflies nesting in your hair, cunningly mimicking plastic clips. I see you on the train; toying with old necklaces, picking scars, scribbling in miniature notebooks, sipping cans of pre-mixed Gin & Tonic.

I see you when you are young, and sad, and waiting to blossom; way behind the other girls. Barely tethered to the world, on slim and lonely paths the deer wend through the green; or padding through the city alleys, urban fox paws slipping out of denim jacket sleeves. I wonder if you are like me. I wonder where the cauldron is, it will be somewhere in your body but not full yet, or not ready to be tasted on the end of a burned thumb, like Gwion Bach. You must believe that your wet-leather skin is no less beautiful than the plumage of the blossoming girls. I see you. I see you when you too are riding the Hedge of a liminal late decade and the reality of your life – of what your life could be – is sinking in like clay.

I sit on those same itchy train seats with my own history books and fizzy green water. There are stoat bones around my neck and I am wearing sensible shoes and a lone dash of badly applied lipstick. I have started seeing you everywhere; in cafes and churches and doctor’s waiting rooms and yes, always, always on the train – or at least waiting on platforms speckled with gum like a hen’s egg. Toad Women. I see you everywhere phasing like ghosts through linen as I hoard more years, as I grow into my role with relish, leaning into the crooked bones of my house.

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I, too, am a Toad Woman. I have glittering eyes and hallucinogenic skin. A jewel hidden inside my head. I creep through dying leaves and pond sludge, fingertips sipping eccentric nutrients from moon-drenched soil. My palace is a hollow space in the earth to sleep in, my great hall is lined with lichen tapestries and pillars of decaying mushrooms. When I sleep, it’s to the sound of rain seeping through the tangled roots of my canopy bed.

I am glad for the invisible circle of us; sometimes one, sometimes thirteen. Endlessly together in our strange sisterhood, the ocean forever rolling stones around its mouth. I wait in threshold spaces for you to appear; public gardens, libraries, zebra crossings, A&E. Without fail I will spot another Toad Woman even if she is sitting behind me, with those extra, shiny black eyes rolling around the back of my skull like dice. Then I swivel my neck, Minerva’s owl, cough. She understands; she too has a throat full of mouse bones and hair from mourning lockets. She also feels the creak in that one glowing rib.

Come and creep with me. Let’s discover hare’s nests and hidden green stems no human eye has ever seen. Let’s slip between the loose stones in the wall, where tiny purple flowers thrive. Let’s find all the holy wells where a saint’s head fell, and hold out cups of silver, wood and gold. Let us rejoice, because the water tastes of myrrh, and apples.

Hush

There is a small tree growing out of the drainpipe on the old guildhall. Just beginning to brush the red brick with baby leaf hands, reaching up towards the cracked and peeling window frame. All around me the people hive-hum across the cobbles, a spilled yolk of morning sun pouring through cracks in ancient stones.

Some people stop, stare at me, point me out to their giggling girl gaggles, look me up and down pausing for breath on their mobiles phones; all because I am still and staring upward with a smile on my face at this gentle hand of spring relaxing into unobtrusive space. Tender green ears twitching to the city.

This happens. It happens when I stare too long at the dirt ingrained in the creases of commuter’s palms; overwhelmed with sweetness for the microscopic labyrinths of our bodies that breathe in ash and grease and motor oil. Happily drowning in our shared humanity; lashes streaked with cosmetic paint, the yellow crumbs of last night’s crying, filtering soot and dust from the mild surface of our eyes. Palms that weigh rice, coins, newborns; fingertips that test the quality of silk and writing paper and the texture of flower petals. Shoulders bearing water buckets, raffia baskets, coffins.

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I love everything. I love the eyes looking upwards to the sunlight sinking through leaves. I love whoever is marvelling at the exquisite pink of the new cherry blossoms right now. I love the girl, the boy, weighing themselves and wondering. I love the fingers fumbling with buttons and the toes rediscovering sand. I love everyone curled like living shells into dirty sheets: the sunlight touching old gravestones; holes in hand-me-down trousers, ragged hems brushing the pavement; the sweat clinging to people I will never meet in olive groves and orchards and corn fields.

I become these things, sometimes. My veins rise like ecstatic kraken and burst with thick ribbons of red and blue and yellow paint. I am the iridescent back of a long-legged beetle. I am every dissenter’s neck and every axe. I am hands cupping daily milk dishes. I am the shame that follows just one more drink. I am every nose passing a hot dog stand or candyfloss or stale urine at the bus stop. I am inappropriate laughter in church.

And people say, hands over ears, over eyes; Hush.

Why can’t you just be

A little

Less.

Courageous Life

I say, ‘I’m going to write you a letter, do you mind? I prefer it to emailing, it’s more personal.’ When you write somebody a letter, you give them secrets from within your body; breath, sweat, the outline of your lips, fingerprints. Barely legible.

I am in France at the time; Lorgues to be precise. The scent of wild thyme drifts through the baking air. At night, the croaking of green frogs carries through the garden; in the heat of day, the slithering of black lizards across the yellow stone walls.

Everyone has gone out. It is just me, pen flickering over virgin paper.

Yesterday I saw a woman walking slowly, painfully up a hill to the church. Her footfalls were like a penance, her face was veiled in a red shawl. I wonder if she waits there in the candlelight for the solemn wooden faces of the Saints to part their lips and speak. I wonder if she believes they listen to her. I wonder what she is thinking.

I wish he was here, this man I barely know. This un-stranger. I watch a jade-green mantis slowly climb up a pile of terracotta pots. I take walks in the olive grove. Wild boar lurk in the forest beyond; sometimes in the morning you can catch a glimpse of their thick, iron-grey bodies shouldering through the little trees.

The light this morning was a miraculous pale gold, flowing over the cobbles, illuminating the painted shutters – I wondered what you would think of it. I wanted to hear your opinion, I wondered if we would see the same scene or if you would pick out different shapes and colours.

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It means ‘I miss you,’ but I do not write out those words.

The beauty in the world must be honoured by a courageous life; I worry that I’m falling short.

The smell of the wild herbs is overpowering. I can still taste coarse meat on my tongue. Sweet wine and peach juice.

I pick a sprig of thyme; rosemary; a few olive leaves from the grove. I slip them into the letter in the hope they will carry the scent of this Eden to him across the sea. I summon my courage. The patient mouth of the post box swallows this new piece of me, and I stand there for a while, arms hanging simply, breathing even. The red rooftops scattered through the valley are hazy in the heat, the vast green carpet of the forest stretches away. I am weightless and without form. I am ascending.

La Sirene

Waxed leather; a shooting jacket. The smell of it was like laying back in a mouldering armchair. In the dim light of the port, I thought he looked like a spy. The drained vessel of my body is docked in the crook of his arm.

We half-wake, unconsciously shifting closer together. We have both sealed up our bodies against the whipcord of cold. The ferry will not be here for another five hours. Trembling fingers have long lost their grip on cardboard coffee cups. I have forgotten where I am supposed to be going; I have already reached the destination of this unfamiliar man.

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My head lolls on his shoulder; his skull is flung back, resting against a dirty holdall. We are in a grey desert beyond tiredness; when I open my eyes the world has no definition, only a thick mist over the water. His hair is long and dirty blonde; it tickles my frozen cheek. Somewhere in my chest, I feel infantile sobs cracking like ice. The glare of harsh overhead lights is reflected in a dozen windows, a blinding kaleidoscope. Safer, better, to close my eyes again.

I imagine my fingers curling over the rail of the ferry, leaning forward to watch dark water churning below. I laugh because even the dull metal belly of the boat has direction when I do not. My hands grasp at unravelling thread in a monstrous Labyrinth, the bellow of the Minotaur sounds a long way away. Hansel’s white pebbles beckon my feet down a crooked path; the birds that fly about the wood have eaten all of my cunning crumbs.