Summer-drunk

A thing I wrote about beekeeping and sobriety for Mookychick.

‘Start at the moment of greatest sweetness. When the office floor is freckled with drops of runaway honey, slow-flowing from fingertips and wooden frames. When the blade is used to uncap the wax like lifting the slab on a tomb full of gold. Outside, the colony are a hurricane of hard sound, their drone edged with rage, zipping low over the hot grass. There are several collective nouns for a group of bees, a swarm, a grist, a drift. I’m not sure what the collective noun for a group of addicts is; a clusterfuck, perhaps. It doesn’t matter here at the city hives, flaws in the soul float away with the smoke, the earthy smoulder of kindling leaves.’

To keep bees is to make a pact with yourself and the land, to discern the secret hymns of the hive, even as the colony feeds your own lost voice back to you.

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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.

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.

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.

Dreamscape

The journey to and from the south is gruelling, despite the beauty of the French countryside. Seven hours on the first train, buoyed up by bottles of cheap wine. The sea was so blue, as we rushed past the coast, it felt as though I could have reached through the window glass and come away with paint all over my fingertips.

I miss the sun already; the way it looks slanting through the long pines of the forest. The silence broken only by birdsong; the rush of cool, silky water on my skin. I miss how clean the air feels, wildflowers and tree resin and warm rain, as fresh as Eden. My head is still thrumming with a week of strange dreams; they slumber behind my eyes, serpentine, waiting for analysis.

I dreamed I hired an anonymous room in the city to live out a secret life.

I dreamed my tattoos washed off in the rain.

I dreamed of a woman in a pale wax death mask.

I dreamed the Devil dyed my shoes and hair red.

 

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This place is an incubator for such things. I said once that this was somewhere full moons bred empty beds, somewhere it’s easy to feel alive. The nights are so clear that the stars are almost shocking; so many and so bright, they seem to rush at you in a dizzying wave, as though the sky were tilting.

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The jasmine flowers are just beginning to open, spilling that distinct, heavy perfume through the kitchen door. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a black, fat-bellied lizard crawling in staccato fits and starts over the walls. Everything in the garden is a startling green, crushed emerald grass freckled with blue and white petals. The roses – soft and full and powder pink – nod their drowsy heads in the breeze, also dreaming.

 

Flying in the Crucible

‘I’m not a mental health writer.’ I say, watching the water beneath me tangle itself up in silky spirals that vanish again in an instant. Beside me, he blows the air out of his mouth hard, frustrated.

‘You should be. Do something with it.’

I try to explain that teasing everything that’s beautiful about the world to the surface is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It was never about how the warped lens of my brain saw the way sunlight looks rippling across a shallow riverbed, or the way the ground in that blistering olive grove I visit year after year steams after the rain. The silence you only ever find in church, candle smoke and frost.

On Sunday, walking home at night, I breathed in the air as it turned towards a new season and instantly flew backwards 22 years to throwing open my grandmother’s bedroom window, amazed at the sweetness of the evening air as summer comes. I remember pulling in deep lungfuls of it as a child, high on its perfume, and even the fullest, most rib-breaking breath never being enough. The same drugged sensation came over me again on Sunday night; it was intoxicating, it was Midsummer, it was faerie, it was limitless possibility and I wanted to run and run over the fields until I slipped somehow through the veil to the world beyond I always secretly knew was home.

It reminded me of all the time I’ve been wasting, trying to be normal. Because I do want to talk more about the strangeness that blooms under my skin in secret petals, about always being impossibly Other.

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Honesty is a refinement of the spirit, a crucible that makes a molten puddle of your deceptions, but in this case I ask myself what good would it do. I worry; wonder if my words would disappear into the void of ‘mental health’ rather than remain standing as they are, barefaced. The way I see the world is warped, through sea glass and stained glass; lit by halos and moonlight on silver shillings. It’s the sound of doors to everywhere opening inside me, a thousand grandmother’s windows thrown open to let the night in. I don’t want my world to shrink to a word, would it? Why should I care?

Perhaps I’m protesting too much. Perhaps he’s right and I do have a gift, something to say about living with a mind full of watercolour. The fact remains that my name is stamped in black photocopy in doctor’s offices along the coast. I eat pink pills every night just so that I can get some sleep, but when I do dream, it’s of flying.