Small

The time of the long dark has passed, as the Winter Solstice (derived somewhat poetically from sol ‘sun’ and sistere ‘to stand still’ ) pauses the drumbeat of the year’s turning for one near-endless night. The light creeps up the clean blade of the horizon, floods the new day with the miracle of birdsong. They know, you can hear it in the hopeful tremble in their throats. Everything returns.

We are days from the Nativity. Those who know me well know my Christianity has always had one foot firmly in the green roots of its history here. The decapitated Saints, who bear their talking heads like Old Ones of this island, and the holy springs where their skulls fell still surrounded by the ancient trees, adorned with strips of coloured cloth, roots watered with wine. My crosses are alive with knotwork or entwined with ivy, they belong to an era of seaside monasteries with cells like skeps. The ancient trimmings of a young faith whose customs live still. Grab a Tudor history book and read about Henry VIII riding out to bring in the May, go and do it yourself next year in any rural town.

It is Midwinter, and lo, here comes the light of the world. The sun returns. The Son returns. The King is Dead, Long Live the King.

Yet, I’ve always found it hard to imagine the Christ Child. Christ in His Passion? Yes. Christ in his revolutionary ministry? A thousand times, Christ Resurrected? No problem, because I’ve seen some weird shit, kiddlywinks. But Christ as a baby, as the collapsed point of bright consciousness that is a brand new human being, brought down into the dust of the world? Christ in his first few hours breathing our atmosphere, tufts of fuzzy infant hair sodden with Mother’s blood, Christ tasting milk, Christ falling, sated, into the unfathomable dreams of the newly born. Christ’s tender ears hearing Aramaic lullabies. God so small. Why is that so hard, I wonder. Perhaps because God among us as a 33 year-old firebrand turning the establishment on its head is easy to imagine, to admire. God among us as a helpless child requires more understanding and, perhaps, mercy, than we are wont to give.

Because of course the great revelation of the Nativity is how Christ came to belong here with us, in a place where he too was outcast, with others who weren’t wanted. And as he clothes himself later in the flesh of our suffering, we too have all been as he is about to be. Helpless and soft and mewling in the depths of the long dark. In need of the most immediate care to fulfill our destinies. Such a small, needy body in such a big, heedless world.

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And everybody you have ever met was once the same, every body. Isn’t it easy, somehow, to forget that. Much easier to focus on the Memento Mori of the spiritual life, that to dust we shall return. The admonitions of the dead are chiselled in centuries-old letters up and down the land: Oh weary traveller gazing upon this stone, as I am now, so shall you be. Harder, somehow, to remember the squalling babies we all once were, especially those who need the most and so somehow engender the most derision. Remember the crib that housed the homeless. The pristine flesh of the baby addict. The prisoner’s bottle. The refugee’s booties. All pushed over the same threshold, all torn from the Mysteries and baptised in hot blood to become Incarnate here, only to fall into exile and condemnation and death. Do you ever think about Christ’s fingerprints as Mary marvelled at his tiny hands? I do. Those same hands riven by the executioner’s nails, between two thieves, some thirty three years later.

Now I myself am about to be thirty three, and those years have washed up on the beach of me full of things that are raw and creeping; bleached wood and bones in your stocking this year, young lady. People tell me that when you search through the wreckage of the past you will find treasure, well I have picked through the crab-shelled remains of those years and found nothing. The gold sleeps at the bottom of the sea and all of the sailors are drowned. Only I remain, alone on the familiar shore of strangeness. Only I remain, to watch the sun come up and collect that twisted wood for the fire. Whatever you cast away upon the tide returns to you transformed. Everything returns.

I too have been small, but rather than grow deep-rooted and strong-boned, tall and eager for the sun on my leaves, I have remained there all my life. I have been so afraid of saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, being the wrong thing, that I have whittled myself down to nothing. I am the invisible woman. I am the smell of candle smoke in church although you can see no flame, I am a mouse that creeps past your lively dinner table unnoticed. I am the book with the drab, dusty spine that nobody ever takes down. That, I’m afraid, is just the consequence of growing up in the shadow of a Herod you must placate at all costs. That, I thought, was the fate of a child in exile. Here comes the Son, to say it isn’t so.

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This, I think, is what I am taking with me into 2019. The tiny beginnings of big things, better things. I have had what may politely be termed a hard year, culminating in an early winter of the soul. It picked me clean until I was too cold to touch, until it almost killed me. But I, too, have returned from the dark. To bear witness to that great mystery – that salvation doesn’t come when all is well, but when the inn is full. Listen to the birds, now time is made anew, now the light returns when it is needed most.

Everything returns.

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.

No Space for Wild Girls

I never stop marvelling at our changing world.

When I was young, and could have sailed away on the sheer volume of my tears as I looked for somewhere I belonged, the world made sure I was buried alive; pushed down to explore fierce underworlds illuminated only by rock quartz and fireflies. Spittle on the bus and fractured fingers, and later, blister packs full of soothing syllables to keep the lid on a boiling girl. These were the days of dial-up AOL taking wobbling steps toward the future; of plastic barbed wire bracelets and grimacing around smeared cherry lip gloss and wondering how to be like them. Girls. Girls My Age. The ones who could talk without creating silence; they went to town in groups and got good science grades despite laughing through class and the boys liked them. They didn’t embarrass their families by getting caught naked in the open-air community swimming pool after breaking in to feel the water against their limbs in ripples of living silk. They didn’t sleep in their clothes. Or see ghosts.

I know, things were different for me even beyond the realms of alternative then. Lying on scratchy hospital linen, I wondered how I’d got there. I knew girls in baggy grunge shirts and thick kohl eyeliner, who streaked their hair pillarbox red and wore their outcast status like medals. They were spat on too, sometimes, but they were never in the bed next to mine. Perhaps they hid their Otherness better, or kept their scars from stumbling through womanhood’s bramble patch a secret underneath their long sleeves. I didn’t hurt myself that way, in descending ladders of shiny white tissue; but I saw the world in wild paint and heard music in empty rooms, and spent too many hours in an obscure and mystical world of my own. I tasted the fresh trails of other lives and infinite possibility on the air the same way you know the season is changing; when the sweet breath of spring exhales itself into the world, or a frost yet to fall on orange leaves flicks out an icy tail in premonition. I worshipped the world too strongly, saw it without veils.

Back then, you didn’t talk about it. You took your pills and were mute as a novice under new and silent vows. It would upset your family, damage your chances, if anyone knew you weren’t a real girl. You took step after blind step through the thicket, heart and eyes held out in your hands for wicked queens to eat. There was no space for wild girls. When your ears pricked up, you flattened them down before anyone could see and cry wolf. When a rogue feather sprung out through a papercut, you apologised, smoothed it back down with handfuls of spilled oil, and brushed the fledgling stars firmly out of your hair.

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Now I see them in colourful crowds or unapologetically alone. On the bus, online; packs of wild girls, with watercolour hair and winged dreams. The world blinked while I was away, busy being an aura floating in drugged isolation; it had code pumped straight into its veins that changed its digital DNA forever. In just five, seven, ten years; the lungs of the globe expanded and suddenly all those girls like me could breathe easier too. I see them striding purposefully through the tube station, across the road, with sleek fur and smiling lips, hips that demand space to swivel, teeth out and dipped in ink, and know they are bolder than I could ever be. Whether they live with or without diagnosis, minds clear or clouded, they live.

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It feels too late for me.

I know – it sounds so defeated, so self-pitying – but I have years of this enforced solitude and doctor’s orders like bleached cotton bandages wrapped around my head, and don’t know if my skin could take this new sun after all. I feel too old to join the pack. I’m just a handful of years ahead of this tidal wave of new women tumbling sand and sea glass into something more refined, but what a difference those years have made. Or perhaps it’s the toffee time effect of all those waiting rooms blurring into one another; perhaps I’ve sat behind so much shatter-proof glass it’s simply grown around me.

Now there’s space for wild girls. They tap destinations into online journey planners with foxes’ claws. When they get papercuts and a hawk’s feather springs out, they laugh, and test its strength against the wind.

Fly. Fly.

I hope you soar as high and far as you wish, now that the sky is open.

Queen of Hungary Water

In the bed this morning, I found a single long, blonde hair. It cannot be mine; my hair is dull bronze brown, and short. Carefully, I make my coffee very strong and dark so I can sip it as the sun phases through the long, crimson curtains and believe myself in some Moroccan bazaar. What clothes does she wear? What does she eat? How many times did she open up this big sash window and taste traces of sea salt in the breeze, feet pressing like cat’s paws into my sheets? Transfixed, I wind it around my fingers; fine and intimate, thinner than memory.

I listen to the cold dawn pass underneath my window, shivering, half-dreaming. It’s monstrous, how much is going on in the world at any one time. Somewhere, a hand is gripping the armrest of the airplane seat; bacon is frying in a thousand pans; a mother is pulling a soft, chemical-clean t-shirt over her daughter’s hair. It is the 10/10/10. Around me people awake to their lucky wedding days and superstitious c-sections.

I place the hair between the pages of a thick book, ghostly and near-intangible, visible only in the lazy dance of Saturday sunlight. Perhaps it’s sex, perhaps he loves her. She must be a thing of unimaginable delicacy.

​​​*​​​*​​​*

‘Seguine will be there.’ That’s how he referred to her, surname alone. Breaking eggs into a bowl. Sleep-ruffled hair, striped blue pyjamas. ‘So at least one person you know.’

​​​I pour more coffee, the sun on the backs of my hands. They look old today, skin thin with the need for water.

‘I haven’t seen her in years.’

‘Perfect time to catch up then.’ The empty shells are that perfect, freckled honey-brown that makes you sad to have to break them.

‘She might be different.’

‘People like that don’t change, and anyway, aren’t you different?’

I say I haven’t made my mind up yet. I retreat to the study half suffocated by ivy, where a sliver of his other woman is trapped in a book on Seneca; where each new season teases out a different kind of mould, forty minutes from our glittering capital. The sound of a knife rhythmically hitting the wooden board like an axe, Luke executing ham.

Seguine will be there.

A steaming plate is dumped in front of me, an omelette folded over melted Gruyere, pink meat slices sticking out like bookmarks. I put a basil leaf in my mouth, the taste is always new, somehow. Isn’t Basil supposed to be holy? That’s something I used to know.

Seguine will be there.

Luke folds his cutlery neatly on his plate and speaks slowly, deliberately; like someone who’s been waiting all night to lay their ace on the table.

‘She’s bringing her new boyfriend.’

Ah, but I’m clever, I already know. Facebook messenger is today’s Hermes, winged feet have already delivered the news.

‘Yes, Finn. Something in computers, isn’t he?’ My eyes are innocent as milk. Head down, he watches his shot hiss harmlessly into the water and clears his things away.

I think about booking my ticket secretly, so I can arrive at a different time to him; enjoy the white noise of the train as it speeds through the countryside; watching the fields change colour, the mountains looming suddenly out of low cloud and heat haze. I’ve been clinging stubbornly to my introversion all week; no, I don’t want to spend a week with near-strangers forcing small, safe words out of myself, and yet…I hear forks clatter in the steel belly of the sink as Luke scrapes everything clean. Padding in feline silence across the blue Turkish carpet to the bedroom, I open the dresser drawer silently, take the top off the elegant bottle nestled under plain cotton knickers and neutral t-shirt bras.

Inhale.

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***

I ​​​​​​think my favourite things are doors painted white.’ We were talking across shared plates, thin slices of carpaccio like stained glass meat.

‘Why?’

She shrugged, looking at the ceiling as though the answer was hidden in the rough, cobweb-haunted beams. No one but us and two tight blue-grey buns in pearls sipping coffee at the other end of the room, shaking their heads at that woman daring to show her face at Mass.

What about her boys? They’ll have to change school.

​​​​​​Did you see his face? Went white, completely white.

Married, you know, this other one.

Took Communion! Face like butter wouldn’t.

Trollop.

Earrings, something brassy and Indian, tinkled like pixie bells. ‘There’s just so much potential.’ Trista said finally. ‘They might be new or old, they could go anywhere; I could open a door like that and be in Rome, or a forest, or at the edge of the sea.’

‘All doors are magic.’ I said, grasping the shape of her thoughts.

‘Exactly.’ She held her glass up to the light with her customary half-smile, watching the wine shift into luminous rubies (Took Communion! Face like butter wouldn’t). ‘But doors painted white are endlessly possible.’

Those words stayed with me all through that hasty lunch, and all along the dusty concrete walk past the station, and all along the carpet to the psychiatrist’s office. I didn’t like this doctor; cool-eyed and remote and sinister somehow. A fairytale witch in polyester pencil skirts shoved into that fluorescent office, manicured fingernails of barley sugar.

I have sixty minutes to explain it all; the sense of being a sun hurtling around the edge of a black hole, never quite falling in even when gravity has crushed you into glittering dust, you remain in orbit, half-eaten. I must have lowered my gaze, eyelids bleached by bobbling hospital cotton. I felt as though the weeks in that place were written indelibly across me; as though every bone was a white linoleum corridor.

She smacked her lips together happily, as though my diagnosis was something vulnerable and tender to get her teeth into, pink and fleshy and served on a bed of clean paper.

‘In personality disorders of this kind, you might experience an unstable sense of self, a persistent lack of identity…Can you relate to that?’

I told her, the taste of truffle oil lingering on my tongue: I am a door painted white. I could be young or old. I could lead anywhere; to the colosseum or to the sea.

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***

Behind me, I can hear laughter spilling out of the kitchen, tinged with blushing pink. Luke watching our hosts fill up their flagon from the vineyard with his mouth open.

How much?

Three litres? Six euros.

Holy shit, we should move here.

I sip my wine and think about curling my body up inside a suitcase and posting myself somewhere he’s never heard of, but Luke is a good man; anyone living with me would need the golden head of a ministering angel, even here in Eden where parma-violet butterflies skip in the gentle, grassy palm of the land, freckled with nodding poppies. Laura, all opulent curves and honey-blonde and Luke’s old college friend, is playing the part of gracious hostess in this villa while the owners are in America. Earlier, she offered his wine taster’s nose a tanned wrist, laughing, a wave of sour sugar settling around our ankles.

‘‘Every woman needs a new scent after a break up.’

Now Luke turns over in the smooth sheets; the glow of the lamp falling over his face. In sleep, he still purses his lips like a judge; eyelids flickering as his earthy features soften, rolling backwards into clay.

***

‘Is it a feminist consciousness thing?’ She said, leafing through the pages. Torn at the corners, the cover splitting where I’d dropped it in the bath.

‘No, I just like reading about them.’

‘So, which is your favourite goddess? Which one do you relate to the most?’

I said, Diana, of course; the boyish hunter-woman of the forests; distant and strange and wild.

‘The Gaulish Celts called her Arduinna, she rode through the Ardennes forest on the back of a wild boar.’

‘Diana was always in the company of women, wasn’t she?’ She tilted her head, regarding me with laughing, dark sapphire eyes. ‘Isn’t that why you went into the wilderness?’

I felt an ugly sweep of blotchy red roar past the collar of my shirt; I’ve never blushed prettily. She giggled, one hand over her mouth. The other set her glass heavily on the table, it had the perfect imprint of her lips around the rim in raspberry.

​​​​​‘Beth told you that too.’ A great gulp of wine, choking on acid.

‘Oh!’ Now she leaned forward, appalled at my trembling lips like a child swallowing awful medicine. ‘Oh shit, I’m sorry…’

I pushed the apology away, boiling with embarrassment and misery. It was suddenly horribly fresh, the crater of a lost love, the site of a pulled tooth. The sensation of spine and hipbones pushing themselves through unwashed skin. Ghosts appear everywhere, on every street corner, in bar booths and lounging at cafe tables. Dead love requires a strict exorcism and you have but one weak-willed and weeping priest.

‘It’s fine.’

‘It’s not fine, look at me.’ She put her hand underneath my chin, tugging my face upwards towards the rainbow glitter of her kitchen fairy lights.

‘Look at me.’

She stroked my cheek quickly, as though it were too hot to touch. Then slowly, soothing the red puffiness away with the moisturiser in her bag. I wondered at the smell, somehow familiar, as it sank quickly into my skin. She told me it was the rosemary I could smell, because the cream contained Queen of Hungary Water.

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​​​*​​​*​​​*

We have a storm.

I stand like a child at the bedroom window, mouth open, skin prickling with delight. The sky is a flickering patchwork of violent, palpitating clouds, the thunder sounds as though the air is tearing itself apart; folding inwards in a quantum equation. The sky is imploding above Arduinna’s tall house.

A great fork of lightning streaks towards the earth, and I wonder if she’s called it to herself; the goddess riding through the forest, lithe and golden and free. I can see her, ragged-haired in her short tunic and hunting boots, racing through the long pines; the air reeking of warm rain and animal sweat. The wine I’ve drunk rolls around inside me like melting copper; I feel as though I could fly out to the rain-soaked trunks of the trees. I can hear the patter of hooves on the wet soil, I can feel prickly bristles between my fingers. This is her gift, I think, drunkenly. This is a seduction.

When Luke comes to bed I am half conscious, daydreaming on the emerald satin coverlet. The back of my hands are soft with moisturiser, shea butter and almond cream.

‘Are you alright?’

‘Happy.’ I murmur, the rain has done its work and rinsed the inside of my skull clean.

‘Good,’ He slides his body between the sheets, voice peevish and thin. ‘You could be more social, you know. I said you were still tired and needed sleep.’

I nod as though my head were suspended above my body. Downstairs I can hear Laura clinking glasses with her tinkling laugh. I don’t care what people think is happening in this bed; I am hovering above it, cocooned in white fire, making love to a spirit.

***

The sun gleams off the surface of the pool until the blue vanishes in its glare, it looks like mercury. She is here now, bobbing silently at the deep end, staring at something clinging to the sides. Her hair is in a long plait that will dry in copper mermaid curls. I feel – if not envy, if not longing, if not hatred – displaced. Shunted aside by all this unconscious womanhood that lends itself to the naked smell of the jasmine flowers. It’s inborn, a tiny curled seashell growing in the stomach of girls until a day comes when, like Aphrodite, they coast to shore upon it with wild white foam rushing around their ankles. I was born with the powder blue of a Robin’s egg in my stomach.

‘What are you looking at?’

She turns to me; the pool’s reflection playing over her face in greenish streaks. It might not be her face at all but that of some vicious water nymph ready to drag the boys under.

‘Come and see them!’

At the edge of the pool a writhing mass of millipedes curl and uncurl their bodies over the warm stones. Up close, you can see in detail how they move, a microscopic, alien undulation.

​​​​​​​‘Aren’t they amazing?’

The smell of coconut bronzer hazes above the water. I feel raw, the skin between my shoulder blades is crab-red with the sun. Someone shouts at us from behind the pink drowsiness of the roses, Luke is waving a spatula.

‘Lunch you guys!’

I join him on the patio; the look he gives me is cold and pitying. I feel the terrible urge to scream; like the ethereal hair of his unknown woman is trapped in my throat. In the kitchen, Laura is laughing with Something In Computers; her wide mouth framed in soft pink lipstick. I look back at the impossibly blue pool where Trista is taking off her swimsuit; a sinful apple peeling itself.

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​​​​*​​​​*​​​​*

‘I’m not like you.’

‘I’m not like anything…I love souls.’ I waited for the rest of my explanation to fall out, but it never did.

The texture of the air had changed. Before it was thick with the warmth of her body creeping through me, through the slick walls of my organs, making them steam. Now it was jaundiced by sickly yellow streetlights. I wrestled the sheet away before she’d finished speaking, looking at the unlovely naked gibbet of my body in the mirror, wondering if abandonment was always like this when you didn’t know whether you loved someone, or if you wanted to become them. I thought about the goddess who weighed the truth of your heart against a feather.

She didn’t try to follow me as I dressed, walking with thickened, stupid limbs to the kitchen and cleaning the plates left in the sink over and over again, the glass warping night’s reflection so that two moons appeared side by side, the future predicting itself. Patiently, deliberately, I could have worn the china to nothing. At some point, the door shut quietly and I put my hands to my chest, my mouth. I stared out of the window at the man who lived across the street. I could see his shoulder-blades moving under a white t-shirt as he padded around the lit kitchen. I willed him to turn and look. I wanted him to wonder who I was, this empty wasps’s nest with arms dangling, mouthing across the night, ‘Look, look. I am annihilated.’

​​​​*​​​​*​​​​*

I wake to the shadow of a tree dancing in windswept sunlight across the dresser, feeling as though I’ve surfaced from a sunken house; corridors full of deep green water and mysterious light. I dreamed I rented out a secret room in a city where I lived another life. When I go down to breakfast, I compliment skin, hair, smiles. I pass butter and the groaning cafetiere as the faces before me open up like flowers to this new and unexpected sun; Luke brushes past me with a plate of buttered croissants, rolling his eyes.

‘Borderlines,’ he mutters. ‘You should be all be bloody actresses.’

I kiss him where crumbs have caught on his stubble. He grins, hugging me into the familiar, broad plain of his chest. He buries his nose in my hair. ‘You smell nice.’

I smell like wooden floorboards and wild thyme and a secret pocket of the past. Laura is watching us, warm brown eyes flitting from my face to Luke’s as she listens to Finn’s plans for solar panelling. She puts a friendly hand on his arm as he talks, and I wonder if it’s her hair pressed between the pages in my study; if she’s trying to make Luke jealous. I don’t care, I forgive her. I forgive them all. Trista is face down on her bed in a rage, sulking in her aloof, Aquarian way after a row with Finn on the landing, a hissing viper on the terracotta tiles. I imagine running up the stairs; she will be curled up in thoughtful agony, face schooled into death-mask serenity while the bruises bloom violently inside.

I should tell her that I did get her letter but just didn’t reply, it would have been like a General going to sign the surrender and bleeding all over the flag. I should tell her that downstairs Laura is all sunlight and laughter and ease compared to her crucifixion in the sheets, and that Finn has started looking at that lovely, coral-pink mouth. I baptise myself in the pool instead, tilting my head back to watch passenger planes roar in a silent line above the trees. I think, I’m going to need a new scent.

I tread water and unravel gently, becoming a loose cord of memory. The summer heat has caused a love-blindness, a kind of flowering cataract. I remember things through a haze; flower petals raped by violent rain, Luke asking gentle questions of a blind man in an elevator, like someone trying too hard to be good; the spots of blood from a nosebleed on the back of my hand; a swathe of stubborn poppies blooming in a white field. I realise there’s nothing to stop me taking the train to Venice tomorrow. I get out of the water, curling my toes with pleasure like one of the garden’s fat-bellied lizards at the warmth of the saffron coloured stones. I can hear Arduinna’s laughter through the listening pines; the winged exhilaration of summer lightning, striking upwards through the nerves of my body.

Ordinary Pain

Grief is a glass jar.

I said this to a strange woman in church once, as we sat and stared at the colours bleeding through a window as the sun went down. Green stems snaking around an angel in robes of red and blue. I looked at the detail in the golden feathers of the angel who was standing under what I think was a lemon tree – although I have never seen a lemon tree so perhaps it wasn’t – holding an open book. Nothing legible was written there.

I can’t remember the kind of day I’d had, but I know that church well enough to know that I don’t go there when I’m in a good place. I go there to wrap the silence around me, to breathe in the dusty skin of all the compassionate stones who remember some of the worst days of my life. They swallow my footsteps the same way the gentle earth outside has swallowed the footsteps of almost everyone in this parish and washed them down with more stone.

‘Grief is a glass jar in your head, full of a terrible rotting black liquid, and the aim of the game in our society is to walk around without spilling any because if you do, it will seep down through your brain and onto your tongue and everything you think and say after that will be stained with it.’

The woman was silent, just shifted on the pew as the thick muffled thump of the clock hands boomed above us.

‘Your breath becomes foul with it, and once it’s on your skin it never washes off. Everyone you used to know avoids you in the end. What happened to processing this stuff? What happened to wearing black for a year and eating bread and salt and wearing a necklace out of their hair?’

The quiet stretched out ahead of us both like a road. Then the woman reached over a took my hand. Hers was wrinkled and spotted brown like a hen’s egg and her hair was a brittle cloud tinged with the blue-violet of an oncoming storm. Her son’s name was in the book of rememberance on the far wall and she had been eating bread and salt for years, and she knew the weight of the glass jar and the taste of that rotting fluid very well. We said we’d get a coffee sometime, but addiction ate me the same year and I never did.

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Years later I’m sitting in a semi-circle of addicts in DBT, the faux leather chairs are wipe-down for those moments when someone’s detox overtakes them and they vomit up the jacket potatoes that are part of the wallpaper of days in the clinic. The booklet held in front of me says that immersing your face in cold water can be a calming physical coping strategy for dealing with ordinary pain.

I spent the rest of the day wondering about those words. I guess ordinary pain is not getting the job, or realising your ex has moved on, or breaking up on your birthday, or realising you shelved your dreams to have the children you weren’t sure you wanted but felt you should have, or watching an old friendship become distant and awkward, or falling in love with someone you can’t have, or your house burning down.

When I got out of treatment I sat in a meeting where a man’s mother had died only a few hours before. He said he could have been in the pub but he preferred to be with us. He could have talked all night and that circle of people would still have been there, like the petrified, ritualistic mummies sometimes found in ancient caves. A circle of frozen addicts, in awe of the sacred.

His face had the same stain as the woman who’d lost her son, as so many faces I’ve seen across the years. Etched like battery acid by that foul corpse fluid of grief, embalming us while still alive, draining us into premature age with the effort it takes a heart to pump stagnant water. I thought about that booklet then, watching him collapse. In my mind’s eye I saw him putting his face into a sink of icy water. I thought of all the counsellors who would tell him there was no out-of-order death, we expect our parents to go before us, so what he was experiencing was just ordinary pain.

I’m sure that booklet has many valuable things to say, I’m sure it can help many people reconcile conflicting thought patterns and find better coping mechanisms for their individual problems.

I tore it up when I got home.

Persephone’s Feast

Get up, because the draught has woken you again, make a thin, weak instant coffee and listen to the absolute feathery white static silence of the night. Try to be positive; think how lovely this breeze will be in the summer, as you rub the blood back into your feet. Check the cupboards and nibble a slice of hardening bread.

Back in bed, with the covers wrapped cocoon-like around you, wonder if today’s the day you can have a hot shower, or a bath without boiling the kettle seven times, because maybe by some miracle the plumbing your landlord won’t fix is better now. Wonder how many calories there are in the bread you’ve just eaten, tell yourself to relish the cold night because shivering burns fat. Wonder what you’ve become.

There’s an ethereal quality to the hours just before dawn, when the night is over but the day not yet born, it’s the counterweight to faerie’s dusk, when it’s dangerous to look in hallway mirrors. You know you should be writing but instead you’re thinking about Victorian seances and bathroom suicides and bad omens (before you woke you dreamed about a buzzard dying with its wings torn off). About bisexuality and lesbianism in bohemian Paris, about the likelihood of WWIII predicted in Buzzfeed articles, about dying your hair in lilac pastels and changing your name again. About the food you can’t afford (it doesn’t matter, starvation has 0 calories).

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When the sun comes, listen to the crowing of a rooster in someone’s back yard. Dress in cold clothing, staring at the freckling of peridot moss on next door’s tiles. There are bargain plums ripening in a bowl on the kitchen counter but they are not ready to eat; remember that time you bought a pomegranate and every seed was flawless and the most mystical thing you’d ever tasted, rivalled only by farmhouse eggs with the richest yolks of golden orange. Remember a house with heat and light and carpets, look around at the mould beginning to creep through another coat of nunnery-white paint. Wonder what you’ve become.

Call your partner, your sponsor, your friend. Tell them everything’s fine. You miss them, you’re still sober and getting to meetings, what are they up to. Block out the insistent whispering in your head by trying to act like a normal person. With going to the shops and gazing longingly at meat that won’t be reduced until 18.00 like a normal person. With running a tepid bath and lying there until your flesh is numb obsessing over torturous cold water therapy in Georgian sanatoriums like a normal person. With picking up the tablets that stop the worst of this putting you back in hospital.

Wait…Just wait for the quiet night to roll around again, when it’s just you and your ghosts in the Hades of this room, waiting for revelation between the clock hands, eating up the seconds like those pomegranate seeds.

Wonder what you’ve become.

Shallow Graves

Sometimes I look back at the first few days of treatment, scuffing the toes of my shoes against the warm red brick of the garden wall and watching the stifling, sultry sun of August settle on next door’s yellow roses, and at almost eight moons sober it feels like another life – a Polaroid photograph or dream snippet half-remembered over morning coffee. The link between my two selves feels strained and trembling. The weight of my sober life is a drop spindle, pulling the thread tight.

I can stare into the past and catch glimpses of this new me amongst the chaos, like seeing veins of bloody red quartz running through a black stone. The last decade was a long game of hide and seek, my hands over my eyes as I counted to one hundred, and I kept expecting to find myself behind the sofa, or the curtains, but I never did. I get it now. Someone once told me you can’t go searching for enlightenment because it isn’t outside you, that’s like leaning out of a window and asking for directions to the building you’re in. Finding the real you after 16 years of being permanently drunk is kind of similar. People talk about travelling the world to find out who they really are but I didn’t go to India or Nepal or Peru and catch a glimpse of God, I went to a rehab clinic in a filthy grey little English town and dropped back inside myself like a stone shattering the surface of a frozen lake.

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I used to run up against the idea that sobriety is like a treasure map, that if I just went to enough meetings and made enough weak, watery tea and coffee in enough cold and echoing church kitchens then the path would become clear, that the red X would seep through the paper and I’d know where the treasure was buried, but the treasure isn’t out there, it’s somewhere under the ruins and ash of my old life; glints of iron and gold and pomegranate garnets piled up in the elegant fist of my ribs. The reality is that red X is like the medieval mark of a murderer, when the accused would place their hand on the shroud of the victim and if they were guilty the corpse would bleed. My old life is shouting my guilt from beyond its grave. I put my hands up, soaked as they are with something red, and it could be blood or wine, I admit that I killed myself.

Not everyone gets a resurrection, and I feel I’m letting down all those addicts who never rose again, because I should be happier. As the whole world around me cries out its renewal with lilting birdsong and the powdery purple crocuses carpeting the parks and the delicate yellow of primroses, I should be happier.