It was the darkest, coldest night of the year, she felt, as she stole her way out of the side door and into the blackness outside six months ago. The world was alive, still. Cars and lights and surges of people milling around malls and shopping centres like the sun was not going to rise in 3 hours.
It was the meanest, cruellest thing, she said as she ate two scoops of chocolate ice cream.
It was the harshest storm, she whispered, as she put the coats away in the cupboard.
The floors were polished to a shine. Gleaming in the dark. When the sun rose she could see her reflection in them. Her face distorted, blurry, somebody else.
The windows were dusty, so she got her cloth and slapped at them until the sand fell in little heaps on the windowsill. Then she dampened her cloth and smeared the windows so they became muddy. She could no longer peer out of them at the sand storm outside.
‘Perhaps it is for the better, perhaps seeing the storm is worse.’
There was food they had left on the table. Bits of rice by empty plates. Clumped with leftover sauce, some yogurt smeared on the side of the plate. Glasses covered in greasy fingerprints. The dim light that fills the room after a day of torrid heat, after the sun is covered by sand dunes, yellow world, dust up nostrils, clogging all the openings into the house. And when you step outside you have to cover your face. Wrap a scarf around your head, over your nose, only your eyes visible. Like a face veil.
I don’t think you realise this, but sandstorms are silent.
After the initial gust of wind and wailing currents, there is only silence.
And a fog of dust.
Don’t stay out too long, you shall wheeze.
It was the coldest, harshest winter.
But the summers are long and arduous. And mountains of dust engulf the city every other week.
“You have to dial 9 before you call an external number,’ he said to her when she picked up the receiver. She looked right at him, piercing black glare right into his hazel ones. He did not blink, glared right back at her. She knitted her brows, he looked at the receiver then at her again as an alarming beeping sound began to play through the earpeice – loud yet distant.
She slammed it down so it clattered, not quite slotting into its correct position, and flounced away.
‘Fine,’ he called after her, ‘Fine. I will do it myself, as I always do.’
He pressed the correct sequence of buttons, held the receiver to his ear and waited. She waited outside the door, which was slightly ajar.
‘Yes, hello.’ he said firmly, ‘It’s me.’
‘Yes, she was.’
‘Do you really expect me to believe it works like that? I have been up from dawn doing these things.’
‘The papers will not write themselves, is all I will say. She has been dreaming of this day for three years. She maintains it was three hundred but she was always marvellous with hyperbole.’
He shifted impatiently from foot to foot.
‘Now listen here, Francine. Listen to me…’
‘You will not!!’
‘I forbid it!’
He put his hand to his forehead, and began to pace, picking the phone up and taking it with him. He stopped short when the wire became taut, and turned back on himself, staring at the ceiling and rolling his eyes.
‘Listen to me Francine. This has gone on for far too long. You will remove yourself immediately from that seat so that my wife may sit. And I WILL complete the papers and send them off. If you do not, oh, trust me, lady there will be hell to pay. We do not bake apple pies for nothing. Now I am going to put this phone down and I expect my request to be handled appropriately.’
He stood still, cocking his head to the side.
A small smile graced his sour face.
Then he turned to the door while putting the phone down and tidying up the wire which had tangled with the receiver’s wire.
‘She said yes.’ he called.
She breathed a sigh of relief, patted her hair, and walked primly away down the hallway, her heels clacking loudly.
He nodded to himself lips pursed. Then allow a smile of relief to take over his face.
‘As I always do,’ he muttered, putting a cigarette between his teeth and lighting it.
He always asked for secret toast. His bedside table stacked with books, the curtains always flung wide open and the windows dangling on the edges of falling off. Surges of winter air when the months were cold and gusts of fresh earthy breeze in spring. In the summer hot air pregnant with the scent of the roses outside and the apple trees burdened with their scarlet load. Tangy and sweet.
Secret toast, melted butter, the thinnest layer of strawberry preserves. Preferably with a cup of tea. Cocoa when he was smaller. Becky would bring it upstairs to him. After he was tucked in bed. After the lights were turned off. After he had brushed his teeth. He would hear the familiar creak of the stairs down the hallway. The squeeze of the floorboard just outside his bedroom door. Secret toast and hot cocoa.
‘Now eat up and go straight to sleep,’ Becky would say, leaving him with it.
She wouldn’t sit and talk to him, or play a game of chess. He never stopped pleading. By the light of the moon, he sat alone in his bedroom eating his secret toast and sipping his warm hot cocoa. Sometimes the stars would twinkle through the large windows of his childhood bedroom. Sometimes the stars would twinkle through the dormer window of his adult attic. Studio attic. Stacks of books everywhere, no shelves to put them in. Stacks of books neatly put away in shelves in his childhood, probably by Becky.
Secret toast at 12am, 1am, 2am, three.
Secret toast with butter and the thinnest layer of the cheapest jam he could find at the local corner shop. Cup of tea with a splash of milk and a tablespoon of sugar. Sweet and strong, like arms guiding him through the tough moments of it all.
First, what do you call your cup of tea? Just tea? Or are you like my mum, ‘Ooooh I need a cuppa,’ as she sits down after a trip to town.
Are you more northern, and need a ‘brew’ to perk you up for the rest of the day?
‘I can’t have anything sweet,’ a friend told me yesterday, ‘else I’ll need a brew with it.’
A brew, I mused, a brew. How homely does that sound!
I call my tea just plain tea. I am not from the south like my mum, because I grew up in another country. I am not from the north, I just live here. My accent is different; I say ‘dinner’ instead of ‘tea’ and ‘lunch’ instead of ‘dinner’. So I just have plain old tea.
My husband makes rubbish tea. Sometimes when he makes me tea I have to wait for him to disappear so I can pour it down the sink and make a fresh one.
Tea bag in, one teaspoon of sugar. Pour boiling water on top, let sit for a good 3-5 minutes to ‘brew’ (maybe Northerners call it ‘brew’ because like their tea strong?), then a glug of milk, a good stir, teabag out, another thorough stir and bob’s your second cousin.
My husband loves my tea. Says I make the best tea he has ever had. I don’t know if that is a ploy to keep me making him tea.
He has to have something sweet with his tea. His favourite biscuit is the chocolate chip shortbread. Mine is a viennese whirl. Yum. Or a viennese chocolate finger.
My mum likes to dunk chocolate digestives in tea.
When we were small, she would give us a biscuit and we could dunk it in her tea.
‘Can I dip my biscuit in your tea?’ we would ask, whenever we saw her sit down with a mug.
How do you like your tea? And do you have something to go with it? Do you like tea with company? Or a book? Or a scenic scene? Or just by yourself on a sunny afternoon or raining evening?
I always say I am not a poetry person, but I don’t think that is true. I recently picked up a blue book from the library called ‘Dancing by the Light of the Moon‘, by Gyles Brandreth. The tagline at the top reads ‘How poetry can transform your memory and change your life’.
Anyway one of the biggest things mentioned in the book is that poetry is memorable speech, and very important for children. Children by nature take delight in playing with language. Studies have also shown that speaking poetry to babies and children improve their language acquisition. Children who learn poetry apparently sleep better, concentrate better and do better professionally later in life.
I don’t know too much about how true these bold statements are, however, I do know that my entire childhood was full of poetry. I devoured it. I loved it.
I memorised so many poems from classic novels. Classic writers like Susan Coolidge and L.M Montgomery liked to pepper their stories with poetry. I took great delight in these little rhymes as did my siblings. We turned them into songs and games, and I even took the pen and sat to write my own little limericks, ones that my sister still ‘sings’ to this day. Not even to tease me anymore, it’s just part of her rhythm. I once found a book filled with little limericks about all my mother’s siblings and school friends, written by her at age 11. They inspired me so much that I began to write limericks about my school teachers, subjects and classmates.
Sometimes poetry can be daunting, and not all poetry is for everyone. Some people may like simple, funny poetry. There was this one long poem by A.P. Herbert that I used to recite all the time, and it started off like:
‘Dear Madam, you have seen this play.
I never saw it till today.
You know the details of the plot,
but let me tell you, I do not.‘
It’s hilarious and wonderfully memorable. Click here to read the rest if you’re interested.
Other people like longer sonnets, or contemplative pieces like those by William Wordsworth and Lord Byron. Or short, snappy brilliant lines by Emily Dickinson.
At school, when I got a bit older, we had to study a lot of Shakespeare. I detested Shakespeare. I found his subject matter drab and dreary, and I didn’t care a penny for any of his ridiculous characters. I didn’t find them funny, or amusing or even tragic. Just plain stupid, I would say. They were a chip on my shoulder and a pain in the bottom. My teacher loved Shakespeare however, and the animation on her face as she discussed his work was enthralling. She didn’t not make me love his work any more, but her classes were always entertaining.
And it lent a thought to my curious mind.
Contrary to what some may think, poetry is for everybody. There is a poem for every single person out there, just as there is a book for everyone. The poem that is for me, may not be for you. But I do believe poetry is in all our hearts.
What is your favourite poem? Which do you know by heart, and often recite to yourself?
Cool to the touch, calm of voice. Shirts ironed but doesn’t look like he puts much effort. Looks clean as though he woke up that way. Born that way. Effortless and smooth. Gliding along polished floors, handwriting naturally flowing out of a pen.
Doesn’t look like he presses too hard or gets wrist pain ever.
Smile is easy. Simple. Clean brown hair, brushed but not too meticulously. Clean nails, not bitten, cut.
Doesn’t get angry or defensive or argumentative. Turns pages softly, washes apples gently; none of that crazy splashing and spraying. Turns tap quietly. Turns round to smile at me. White straight teeth, biting into that apple. Easygoing dimple. Just there. Looking pretty in that cheek. Bright blue eyes. Flashing easily.
Easy easy easy.
I try to eat my sandwich neatly, but the filling (chicken salad) globs out of the centre even as I neatly pinch the sides, and now it’s all down my lap. I leap. Jump. Swing. Chicken on the floor, on my canvas shoes. Heart thumping.
‘uggghhh’, I bend down to wipe it up with a paper towel. My bright dress doesn’t show the stain, it blends into the busy busy busy – messy – flowers printed all over it. I dab at it anyway, frizzy thick curly hair falling over my face. Messy messy messy. Flyaways everywhere. Glasses slipping down my nose. Sandwich abandoned on the plate.
I throw the paper towel in the bin, and sigh.
When I look up he is still there, and he smiles at me. Not judgemental. Something else. I colour. Fluster. Gather my things, leave my sandwich. I’m out of there. I bump into the side of the countertop, the sharp edge digging into my thigh. Bump into the door on my way out. Apologise to it. Glance through the glass window as the door closes behind me. There he is. Calmly throwing the apple core into the bin. Smooth arc in the air. Neat flop right on top of my messy chickeny paper towel.
I tut, and my books fall. Swear. Push hair back. Bend over. Door opens.
Hands reach down with mine. Pick up my books. Hands them to me. Hands. Tidy watch. Black leather straps. I take the books. Don’t dare look up at those eyes. Don’t know what it’ll do to me.
‘Thank you,’ I mutter. Turn to walk away. Hugging books. Stupid girl.
‘I love your hair,’
‘Thanks,’ head down, rushing off, canvas shoes squeaking on the corridor.
I was browsing through Goodreads when I came across a title called ‘How Not to Disappear’, about a road trip across the UK. It looked really interesting. Aunt with dementia, pregnant teen, family secrets.
So I went to get it as an ebook.
When I bought and downloaded it and began to read, I realised the book I was reading was not about a road trip. It was about a teen girl who witnessed a murder.
It was based in the UK and so I carried on thinking, ok, maybe she will get pregnant later and travel across the UK with her aunt Gloria.
Only that never happened.
There was no aunt called Gloria.
And the description on the front of the book said ‘bestselling thriller’.
Is travelling across the UK supposed to be thrilling? If so can one teach me how to make it so because so far I’ve only ever had very mundane road trips!
Anyway, halfway through this thriller – and I was really beginning to thoroughly enjoy it – I checked the cover of the book and smacked my forehead.
It was called ‘How to Disappear’
Not ‘How NOT to disappear’.
Still, it’s a fantastic book and keeping me on the edge of my seat.
Have you ever read one book thinking you were reading another?
I could describe a single meeting in a thousand pages, and a hundred years in two lines.
It’s all relative to perception, I think.
The year I met Sylvester was the year I also broke both my legs in a terrible cycling accident. I never wanted to go into the details of it all, but it was ominous. I was happy and carefree sailing down the hill, the wind rushing through my hair and over my face, the sky was brilliant because the clouds were flushed with peaches and pinks, the last hurrah of a setting sun, and my legs had never worked so well, and they never would work as well as in that blissful, euphoric moment. I don’t care to think of what happened next, it doesn’t do me any favours and makes me wallow.
A girl is never any good at anything if she is an experienced wallower.
I suppose I would not have met Sylvester if I hadn’t broken both my legs. As it happened, I was lying in bed mostly for six months straight, unable to walk anywhere. The first three months were a living nightmare, and I was in a hospital bed for most of the time because the doctors weren’t sure about my spine.
I shared a room with six other women and girls, but it was interchangeable. They came and went, and nobody stayed as long as I did. During my sixth week, I lay with both my legs in a cast, staring at the ceiling until a tear rolled out of the corner of my eye and slid down the side of my head and burrowed into my hair. It was a tear of complete boredom. I wasn’t sad at all, I was just idle, listless; yawning but not tired.
‘That must be what it means to be bored to tears,’ I thought.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I had plenty of visitors. My friends from school came around every weekend, and we had a little party by my bedside. Eventually the bulk of them stopped coming but Tommy Hill came without fail, chattering about everybody and everything and keeping me up to date on classroom and playground politics. Samantha Briggs brought me my homework, and sometimes sat with me to do hers and explain what I had missed. I got tired of that quickly, though. It was kind of her but I just wished she would let up on all the studious talk. Her large blue eyes would blink blankly at me if I dared to ask what her plans were for the weekend.
‘Well, there is that Chemistry pop quiz we have on Tuesday, and Mondays are always bulky bag days so probably homework?! Why?! Is there a test I am missing?!’
I would roll my eyes and shake my head, letting her carry on, her monotonous voice drifting above my head and over up to the ceiling, her words jumbling together and mixing up, forming mountains and tumbling down, crashing like waves on a shore of slick, black rocks.
I was sitting up that day. My toast was ready on the table by my bed, and I was stirring a mug of tea whilst absently staring at the small monitor on the wall opposite, where an old rerun of a staticky sitcom buzzed and twitched its way through a dreary episode, every few sentences interrupted by shrieking laughter.
‘Oh, I like this episode,’ a voice said from the doorway. I turned to look. Peculiar boy, he was. A shock of silver hair over a shadowy face. He wore a terrifically baggy T shirt, almost like a dress, and the baggiest shorts you ever did see. They hung below his knees, and his shins were scraped something terrible. He had two dimples and he wasn’t even smiling, and his eyes were piercing and black. Blacker than the longest night in December.
He was wild and brown, an exclamation mark of a human.
Pushing a trolley into the room, he said cheerfully,
‘Snacks, sweets, magazines anybody?!’
Sarah in the bay opposite sat up and said, ‘Do you have the Guardian newspaper, love?’
‘Why, yes we do,’ he swooped down and lifted the newspaper from the bottom shelf of the trolley, waving it above his head in triumph. Like he had won a gold medal.
‘Here you go, sweetheart. That’ll be £2.50’
Then he winked at me.
I turned away, back to the sitcom, and took a sip of my tea. ‘Rude boy’, I thought. He had no business winking at me.
‘This is the episode where they jump off that cliff, isn’t it?’
I looked up at him again and saw him leaning backwards to see the screen. He glanced at me so I knew he was speaking to me.
She was a jellyfish, floating under a wave. Bobbing gently with the ebbing current. Her translucent hair swaying silently around her still face, eyes tightly shut, sealed like death merged with life.
She was the calm in a strong wind. The centre of a storm. The silence as the raging destruction hurled life over a precipice and into the unknown. The deep breath, pregnant with dread.
She was the shadows when you slept, the coat behind the door, the woman silently watching as you tried to coax yourself to sleep. She was there, even though you convinced yourself she was just the dressing gown. Everything looks frightening in the dark.
She was surreal reality, dread behind a closed door. She was the exhibit they ignored, because it made them feel uncomfortable. She was the haunting in Connecticut, the dried eyelids in a box. She was the soft breeze that blew out the candles when the windows were closed. She was the buzzing sound of a wasp when there was none to be seen.
She held her breath for as long as she could, and when she surfaced, life flooded into her in the gasps she took of the air which hummed with oxygen. Her eyes flew open, and reflected the vivid blue stretched over her head. The waves crashed on the distant shore, and her muscles ached with the struggle for life. She kicked, hard, and glanced back. Silhouettes stood on the beach, children’s laughter carried off by the wind.
She was alive, not dead. Death hadn’t captured her yet. The current was far from her curled toes, and she pushed her chest forward with strong strokes of her slender, young arms. Back to the shore.
‘Darling, you were away for so long!’, Mam said, as she meandered with long, swaying strides towards the blanket which lay slightly rumpled in the hot sand. She bent over and towelled her hair dry.
‘I was drinking the sea,’ she murmured.
‘Do you want a sarnie? Before Chris eats them all. We’ve got egg mayo and tuna.’
‘I nearly died, mam.’
‘Don’t be silly, we were watching you the entire time.’ her mother said, cheerfully, handing her a sandwich out of a fat orange Sainsbury’s bag next to her foldable beach chair.
She took it, a fat rectangle stuffed with filling and molded like a pillow in saran wrap. She looked at the sea, crashing gently on the shore. Swimmers splashed as the sun beamed down beautifully.
When she doodled, she always found herself doodling the same thing.
It started off as a trunk. A trunk of a tree. Usually she had two browns, so light brown for the outline, the branches, and then in with dark brown, shading the sides and adding rough texture to the branches. And then the leaves. Hundreds and hundreds of them. But she would not sit there and painstakingly draw every leaf.
It was different each time. Different, but the same.
With pencils it was clouds. With coloured pencils, it was still clouds, but lighter ones sat under darker ones and shadows filled every nook and cranny, and soon you could see the sunlight filtering in between the gaps.
Sometimes she had paint sticks.
If you don’t know what those are, they are fat little sticks that you twist out like lipstick and it’s some sort of crayony paint that dries quickly and is washable. It’s meant for toddlers, and she worked with toddlers.
When she had paint sticks she would swirl her trees. Swirl her trunk and her branches, the roots would swirl into the swirly grass, little circles of never-touching harmony, each colour giving way to the other until there was a kaleidoscope of colour and movement. Perpetual movement. That was a masterpiece, she would think. Better than the meticulous shadows of careful doodles.
Sometimes little effort yeilds great return.
And then chubby little hands would come along and add their special touches.
Dots and spots. Spatters and stains. Smudges and scribbles. But in each one was a proud smile, a toothless grin, a pair of large brown or blue or green or grey eyes in complete contentment.
And she drew so many trees, so very many. And so many hands would, sure as rain, come along, and deck them for conquest.
Trees that if they were to spring to life, would be tall and harmonious with the earth and skies. They would be of all colours and hues. They would drip with life and light and laughter, they would not fit in with the world but they would stand out and all who saw them would be in awe. Purples and blues and yellows and oranges, the sun beamed from the cracks in their rough trunks. The dreams danced between their branches, and the jewels of hope dripped and glittered in all colours from their branches.
And she would always doodle her trees, let them set their roots between her deft fingers, and grow tall and wide, spreading their branches through the world. Business and law and retail and marketing and publishing and writing and artistry and medicine and dentistry and order and dance and motherhood and fatherhood and leadership and travel and thought… it did not matter where they went or what they did.
What mattered was the roots that sprung from between her fingers.