deep field

When I sit down to write this, it’s early in the morning, early enough that the air flowing through my window still has that special honey drop of night’s particular essence in it, sweetening my lungs. There are still the very faintest stars in the sky, doing their impossible sums beyond my comprehension or even my astonishment, they are so clever at moving gigantic numbers around. My coffee has a sprinkling of cinnamon in it, the same way my mother takes hers, and I drink it listening to the world waking, in my favourite kind of silence.

Today, I’m going to do something many people would consider very stupid, and possibly insane. I am delighted to report that this kind of insanity feels very similar to happiness. I’ve been thinking about time a lot recently, and loss, and excavating some of the bones locked in the troubled sediment of myself. I think about space a lot, and how it compresses and expands what I think of as time like a magic mirror, the scrying surface of the universe making things bigger or smaller when tilted. I have always had a particular love of the Hubble Deep Field for this reason, what it tells us about depth, time, and what may be happening far beyond what one can perceive. Anyway, this is what’s been going on:

On Boxing Day, 2019, my Mother – who is the very closest person in the world to me and whose health has been tricky since 1993 (but that’s a trauma story for another day, kids!) – sat me down and said she’d been keeping a secret so as not to worry me. The secret was that she had Stage 3 bowel cancer, starting to creep into lymph nodes and through organ walls, and they were about to operate in a fairly major way. In ten days. And because of her heart failure, there was a good chance she’d die in theatre. And you know, I understand the desire to keep terrible truths from the people you love to spare them pain, but being given a very short window in which to deal with that threw a much larger, and ultimately much more destructive, grenade into my life that I am still sweeping up the pieces from when I find them behind the mental sofa.

And then she survived the op, just. And then chemo began. And then the pandemic. This is to gloss over a lot of the last year, because we are all suffering from pitted bones and sunken cheeks – the sheer exhaustion of near-constant uncertainty and fear, and anger, and grief – and no one needs to hear my end of it. Suffice it to say, I was not allowed to be with her during the extreme-shielding months of her treatment (which still went ahead, and I thank God daily), in case I inadvertently killed her with anything from Covid to a summer cold, and I watched my lovely, bonkers, emotionally unavailable, tireless re-homer of stray animals, deeply strange and unfathomable Mother shrivel up like an apricot left in the sun, her hair coming out, her teeth loosening, her skin rolling up and coming off like discarded parchment, extremities numb and frozen at Midsummer, via Whatsapp. She is still with us, and we are very lucky, and despite how she feels being the most important thing, I feel I can say quietly here that I am not over it yet. Actually, alongside These Unprecedented Times, it has punched my head off my shoulders.

Anyway, back to the Hubble Deep Field. We’ll take it from Wikipedia because I am tired:

The Hubble Deep Field (HDF) is an image of a small region in the constellation Ursa Major, constructed from a series of observations by the Hubble Space Telescope. It covers an area about 2.6 arcminutes on a side, about one 24-millionth of the whole sky, which is equivalent in angular size to a tennis ball at a distance of 100 metres The image was assembled from 342 separate exposures taken with the Space Telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 over ten consecutive days between December 18 and 28, 1995.

The field is so small that only a few foreground stars in the Milky Way lie within it; thus, almost all of the 3,000 objects in the image are galaxies, some of which are among the youngest and most distant known. By revealing such large numbers of very young galaxies, the HDF has become a landmark image in the study of the early universe.

Let’s hear it again:

almost all of the 3,000 objects in the image are galaxies

Look at that. One 24-millionth of the sky. It awes and comforts me, I feel like dancing – look at all those shining, supermassive fingerprints, what a beloved book the Universe must be, how many times must God have thumbed the black pages of Creation.

It also makes me think about the Deep Field of my own life, of all our lives. The distant, glittering echoes behind even a tenth of what can be seen from so far away. What a tiny patch of life might show if one were to train the eye through time. The scattered stars across the lens, the dusting of cinnamon in my morning coffee, are just estranged siblings underneath the stern gaze of everyone’s least favourite Grandparent; Mortality. The stars are no more forever than the fading petals of a glorious summer.

In the face of imminent and mammoth loss, or when the world suspends its everyday spin for An Event that warps the loom of history around it, time does funny things. The gravitational sinkhole of the Pandemic, of cancer, of constant instability, has eaten away at things I thought of as important and taken most of my smile, empathy, patience, and capacity with it. My brain feels like someone took a shotgun to a birthday cake; a fragmented, slightly moist explosion in primary colours. But with its other hand, it has given me a kind of cold sanity I didn’t have before. The kind that comes when you rest your bones against the warm earth to which they may return tomorrow, that looms darkly between Saturn’s rings (and did you know that the shark is older than the rings of Saturn at around 400 million years?). The knowledge that there is but one truth to Time however slowly it may flow for the galaxies turning in their gargantuan waltz behind Ursa Major or however fast your lunch break flies: here it is, and here is its companion Death, and it is passing. It is passing, it is passing.

Milk

The toiling sun is weak still, as though immersed in jars of cloudy water. Slowly, I plait the hours together, smoothing out the slubbed weave of the days. It is February and a sudden bomb of snow has exploded over London in the kind of big, glacial flakes I remember from childhood. Time has stretched out a long way for me recently, become clear and malleable. I can remember other winters I have never lived through, seen the vital glow of flames against the walls of unknown homes. I have always had a peculiar gift for dissolving into other places, objects, and time streams, at one moment the yellow peel of a lemon in a bowl, or a patch of sunlight warming a wooden table, the next a coffee bean rolled between the fingers of someone I will never see.

Train carriages, woven baskets, slaughterhouses, coffee machines. I have been green velvet on a woman’s sleeve, a game of dominoes in a hot town square, a ringing bell across the early fields, a plastic sandwich box opened at the side of the motorway. I have always been able to slip the loose suit of my body and become these things easily. Now the snow has come and, as it often does, blunted the edge of Time with its prodigious talent for silence.

I’ve recently become a little obsessed with the history of trade in the East, and later the migration of Flemish artisans to London in the 16th century. Trade in general has bartered its way into my brain and now it’s full of Delft blue and dyed wool, paper making and silk and glass. I read about Constantinople and its fall, the shockwave of open throats that broke across a continent, and I wondered at how it may mean nothing to the man frying dumplings or boiling water now. How that 16th century dutchman may have glazed a tile the size of his palm thinking one hundred years later, ‘What is Constantinople to me?’

I don’t know, I mean to say that time has paled and thinned out, like beaten flax, like milk. I have a henhouse of projects ruffling themselves for my attention, and I can’t give it, because I am busy being the wax on smooth, dark wood. I am honey paste and frangipani. I am engaged in the process of being heavy cloth, as soft and blue as dusk.

Now it is March, and I have even less of a grip on Time than I did then. I also care less. The last few weeks have unveiled themselves like novices escaping. I breathe in and out and watch the sun coming back after the year we’ve all had. I let my veins reawaken, my neck stretch, and my soul remember the important things. I let myself process not only Covid, but the last five years, like someone looking back across a lake they have sailed: the world turned upside down by rehab, my penchant for constant, rootless moving, doubt and delight and dying friends caught by their heels by addiction’s drowning monsters, patterns rising and receding in waves of old trauma 20 feet high and unfathomably deep. I let it all push through the soil of this new spring and bloom, and appreciate the colours of that life somehow survived from another, wilder, freer shore.

Let Time and its edge, salted and thin as cured meat, take it all. There are other things to do now, I hear the mouths of unfamiliar streets asking me to dance. There are other things to be now, with that strange, visionary, wandering eye of mine. A duck’s egg cupped in a warm hand. A beetle testing the edge of wet leaves. The click of a morning radio button. The melancholy poetry of oysters. A gold tooth. A sack of black pepper. A cloud laughing its head off, flying over the raw spine of the mountains.

Errata

Hard to know what to say at the closing. Everyone is still neck deep in ice we were told would melt some months ago. Everyone is mourning something, loss is etched into the skin around our eyes, we strain our conversations like whales sucking at the sea. After the hot rush of summer survival, these dark mornings are swelling knuckles and turning lips blue and dry, and still there is no rest.

The trees are asleep and uninterested in the glow of the news, the groundwater waits in cold soil chambers, the sky is still empty of anything but air. The Earth has let out the long, melancholy breath of autumn and now she waits. We are done with waiting, the news tells me, we are all too raw for January. We have done our time, kept busy being Saint Bartholomew all year, our flayed skins carried casually in the crook of one arm.

Time is a drop spindle, pulling every hour tight, and we are still in our rooms thinking about what we’ve done. The world, her scalp itching with Californian wildfire and Amazonian industry, has shrugged off our ordered days with the catastrophic indifference only a planet can muster. This sudden landslide is no more than a fallen hair, and I envy her relentless apathy. I envy anything rooted and content with its edges. Our lives have utterly lost their definition and pooled into greased film. They have changed their shape as fast as fried butter.

The book of 2020 is written in a rushed hand, too distracted and irritable for diarised detail, the ring marks of half-drunk cups of tea linking arms across the boards. I have not helped write it well, some months I have pressed the sharp nib of my will too hard into the paper, and broken them both. I can barely make the story out myself, it is too full of annotations, and underlining, and errata. It – like everything else – lacks the proper form. It too has no skin.

It notes that my mum had chemotherapy for stage 3 cancer, and that I couldn’t be there throughout the long months of her almost-dying, watching her hair fall out via video call. It notes the hours spent underground, in anchorite existence. It notes the empty roads howling with silence under the baleful instructions of the BT tower. It scribbles my many personal victories, it tallies my heartbreaks, it ends abruptly. It is blotchy with fist-sized splodges of leaked black and blue. It is not just stained, but bruised.

When I was first in therapy, in a rehab clinic in Luton, my counsellor taught me to push away distress with the unifying nature of physical sensation. Pressing a bag of cold peas to my face, stroking the smooth curves of a precious stone, silencing the brain with the undeniable. I am doing it now, as these final months have lifted my skull and poked holes in my coping, and they have filled up slowly with thick, wet grief. I am coming home from work and feeling the key’s frozen tongue fumbled into the lock, the scent of bergamot under boiling water, the banister beneath my hand like a warm wooden bone.

I am cautiously reminding myself of my form as midnight approaches, rebuilding that skin. Rebinding loose pages for the second edition. I may yet become a beloved volume, one I myself enjoy reading.

My mother once told me that loving me was a sort of nervous shock, like being dropped into cold water, or licking the tip of your finger and pressing it against winter glass. I do not always know how to blend myself into connection, to soften my own exacting edges. I can be abrasive to sensitive skin, I can, in extremis, be an axe to ice. It is not a failing I am proud of, this chronic tendency to splinters, but as I have said before, the human character and its defects are a thing to be worked like the land:

And yet…the roses bloom more beautifully for their beheading, for facing the genteel executioner of the secateurs. Ask a gardener.

It is an evergreen resolution. A thing to do in the dark hours, and God knows we have enough of them left in the shadowed pocket of the New Year. Let us push our fingers to the very seams for the last of our resolve, along with our spare change, and our change.

Serapias

Let me talk to you for a moment about orchids.

Did you know there’s a kind of orchid that grows only in caves underground and never sees the sun? That they can migrate slowly along the highway of a mossy branch in creeping luminosity in search of the right amount of airflow? That they even *need* that? ‘They are creatures’, is what the orchid specialist from Kyrgyzstan tells me. ‘Beautiful parasites, capricious’. The wrong humidity, the wrong angle of sunlight, a strong breeze, no breeze, too little water, too much water, the conditions in which they are allowed to grow (noisy environments are detrimental to their consciousness) and what they can see (place an orchid facing something plain and it will get bored and die) are all considerations when tending to their delicate upbringing, so fragile it can be stalled by the air.

You do not grow orchids, she tells me. Anymore than you can grow a bird or some other animal…You can only observe them. We unwrap sandwiches under stained glass windows and she shifts into the sun, skin translucent as one of her favourite petals. I think about the way dogs sometimes look like their humans and wonder if she has already begun the inevitable transformation into graceful alien flora. Soon she will only sip water from her sustainable glass bottle and refuse to eat with the rest of us; she will stay outside slowly following the vegetative cracks between the flagstones to look for somewhere with the right amount of moisture to sink her feet, head crowned in purple moth markings gently nodding to the woodwind of the atmosphere.

She tells me they reproduce with microscopic seeds that must enter into symbiotic nutritional relationships with fungi if they are to survive, but the chance to meet the right fungus is slim, so only a fraction of a billion orchid seeds germinate and bloom. She says that secret armies of ants can live in the hollow pseudobulbs of a species that feeds on the colony’s decay. She says a keiki is a child-plant produced asexually by an orchid, an exact and perfect clone of the verdant jewel of its Mother. She tells me that if you’re quiet enough in their presence you begin to hear them, raised hairs like roots knocking against your skin (and did you know that when an orchid’s roots are green it means they are satiated?) She says they keep things hidden.

We know on some level they are like constellations, like fairy princesses or fickle foreign gods. We have tried to give them beautiful names in homage; Lycaste, Diadenium, Masdevallia, Thelymitra, Serapias. They say that in the Philippines, some of them *are* worshipped. They say that when British naturalist William John Swainson used orchids that hadn’t bloomed as packing material and they erupted into their opulent splendour upon arrival in Victorian London, the populace swooned under their power, pursuing them into their lethal green temples even unto death. They are older than anyone first believed – 85 million years perhaps – thanks to the perfect grains of pollen pressed in amber on the wings of a stingless bee and yes, I think they are strange spirits with taboos and dances and criminals and priests. Yes, they keep Mesozoic secrets in glowing silence.

Why, you may ask, am I using a first post of this resurrected journal to talk to you about orchids? Because this is a blog about how to use time now that time has changed. Listening to Yulia was one of the most brilliant and fascinating hours of my life, a magic thing that struck my mind like a bell. There are supple roots there now, stretching into the unknown, not yet green. Who knows, after my stint as an accidental bookseller I may vanish into the jungle seeking just the right amount of sun and air. Curiosity, at least, will keep me creeping along the branches of the New World.

The Cheap Gin Appreciation Society

Another long read from the Prague diaries.

 

And to say, ‘You’re very nice?”

‘Sei molto sympatico.’

‘And to say, ‘Would you like to do something tonight?’

‘Vuoi fare qualcosa stasera?’

‘Good. Hah! Have you seen this bit?’

You have (a) beautiful

body

eyes

hands

laugh

personality

smile

He’s/She’s a

babe

bastard

bitch

prick

‘Hai gli occhi belli,’ say I.  You have beautiful eyes. ‘Posso ballare con te?’  Can I dance with you?

She blinks. ‘Sono qui con il mio ragazzo.’

I’m here with my boyfriend.

‘You don’t have a boyfriend.’

She shrugs. ‘It’s better than,  ‘Non mi interessa.’

The first needle is in under the skin. It’s only a matter of time before she takes my fingernails.

This is the first time I ask Viola to dance. She reclines on the little divan in my studio, idly twirling paint brushes in her hands; her gleaming sweep of auburn hair is shocking against her white shoulders. It isn’t human hair, or it shouldn’t be. I touched it once, it is more like the glassy hair of a mermaid. She tosses the brush into a corner and smooths her lilac skirt down over her thighs. Viola is hyper-feminine, given to antiquated styles and luscious silks and chiffon. She likes to cinch in her waist, full skirts rustling about her knees. She is the only woman I know apart from Mona – who has been forcibly ripped from the past and shoved into the present and doesn’t really count – who wears stockings. Her make-up is applied with an artist’s hand. Long, sweeping eye-black, cheeks flawless and rosy from her little Moroccan pots of powder and rouge. She rises and picks up her bag. When she is not busy being a muse she works in a gallery, and I have made her late. I am glad the reason she is late is because we were teaching each other one of the most beautiful languages in the world. She trips past me with her swaying gait, her perfume rolling over me in a heady wave where I am sitting pretending to be absorbed in Italian grammar. The door closes behind her with a dull click, like a full stop.

I whisper against the palm of my hand, ‘Sono innamorata di te.’

I am in love with you.

I remember all this, painfully clear, as I smoke in the bath that evening. Suddenly I am an adult, but I do not want adulthood, with its loss and its terror of loss, and responsibilities and exit wounds. My mouth becomes dry, and I resolve to go and talk to Mona first thing in the morning, because I’m overwhelmed and Mona is a cocktail mix of helpful contradictions and employs the kind of hard-headed, practical values particular to whores and long-lived bohemians who have survived the razor’s edge. I wipe the steam from the bathroom window and look at the stars beginning to freckle the long evening sky. My heart feels weighted, steadily developing a little tumour of lead.

Mona lives in a well-off part of town and I always feel just a little degraded, despite myself, when I walk through it. People sometimes stop and look at me, they are dressed in neat and sober navy and winter grey; work suits for people who go to offices with coffees and pastries clutched in their hands, grease seeping through paper bags. My clothes are ugly, and they look at me as though I were an exotic but dirty animal let loose from someone’s private collection; a pet baboon with an unexpected freedom and mischief in its head. How Mona must make them tremble! She opens her door in a silk and velvet kimono decorated with peacocks, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She exhales, and I watch the smoke tumble past my shoulder like a spirit released into the street.

‘You sounded dreadful on the telephone, Dearheart.’ Mona calls everyone Dearheart, or My Darkling. She wrinkles her nose at my abject appearance and motions me inside.

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The Great Dying

Sachie is sick. His breath clogs in his lungs, rattling like a trapped animal in a pipe. His skin is first cold, then hot to the touch and covered in a sheen of sweat. There is silence for hours apart from that laboured breathing, and when he speaks little of what he says makes sense. He strokes Theresa’s hair, talking in Czech. He grips my hand, he thinks I am his dead brother. Jan’s car is waiting to take him to the hospital, and slowly, the three of us lift him up from his bed and get him downstairs. He does not want to get into the car, he is watching the snow fall out of the sky and gasping with relief when the tiny flakes hit his skin. He is pointing into the void, he says something in English about flowers.

At the hospital, he is taken away from us. The nurses are kind and brisk. They talk softly to him, lifting the dark hair plastered to the back of his neck. Theresa and I stand motionless in the white corridor for a while. We are as blank as the walls, as blemishless and without distinction; we’ve had our strings cut and no longer remember how to shift our limbs. Jan is as shocked by Sachie’s sudden deterioration as we are and he drives us home, he is as quiet and firm as the nurses, warming our cold rooms with his sense of purpose as he makes tea in the kitchen. Theresa and I sit on the divan and we don’t avoid one another’s gaze, as such. It is as though she is not sitting next to me at all; there is a shell of empty clothes there, inexplicably upright. A directionless rage is building within me, oppressive as thunder; we are both drowning in blame even as we breathe easily under the heavy water. My organs are cringing away from one another inside my body, such is the force of my loathing. What if he dies.

‘He won’t, they’re a wonderful hospital. They’ll take care of him.’

I realise I must have said that out loud. There is no boundary between myself and the surrounding air anymore, anybody can read the thoughts inked across my brain, they can tear into the secrets printed on the inside of my heart as though my body were made of glass. Jan comes in with the steaming cups of tea. He is saying something comforting, trivial. I want to strangle the words out of his throat, slap them out of his mouth. I want there to be silence as I wait for the harsh bird call of the telephone. I wish Mona was here.

It is pneumonia, in both of his lungs, and the infection is complicated. We visit him, but he is hardly ever conscious. One day he is awake, but his eyes are glazed with the effort it takes to breathe. Antibiotics are being pumped around his veins through a tube that goes into the back of his hand. He doesn’t speak to us, although sometimes he says words in Czech, disjointed sentences that we cannot understand. I don’t think he knows we’re there, now he inhabits a world of restless shadows lingering at a crossroads we are privileged not to see. Theresa and I are his only visitors but for Jan, who looks in out of a peculiar sympathy. He is not Sachie’s friend, but he was witness to his fall and so he feels strangely obligated to be here. He does not bring useless gifts, just himself, and his hand in Sachie’s, and I love him a little for it. I take the sick air of the place into my lungs and hold it there, making wishes. There are hours when we are not allowed to see him. There are hours you are not allowed to look on the faces of people resigning from life in their halfway houses of thin cotton sheets, even when they are your best friend. Even when they are leaving you.

He dies at 03.46 on Monday morning, when neither of us are there. Theresa and I go to his funeral dressed as swans; white feathers hang from our shoulders, they are wrapped into our hair. Our faces are covered with thick white make-up from the theatre, so are the backs of our hands. You are not allowed to leave flowers on Jewish graves because it is not well to mix the worlds of the living and the dead, but you may leave stones. Theresa and I leave a piece of deep amethyst where the headstone will go because he loved the colour purple, the crystal is fractured inside and reflects tiny rainbows and I hope it remains in the ground with him forever.  At night, whether my eyes are open or closed, I see him laughing at one of Millie’s parties, surrounded by a halo of electric light. I see him roaming the sterile hospital halls, holding hands with silence.

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For a little while, everything comes apart. I realise the true nature of grief. It is not quick; a bursting bank of tears that flash-floods your life and then recedes. It is a hundred electric shocks to the heart per day. I see a bank of tulips opening in the park and I want to tell Sachie, to bring him there, but I can’t because he will never take my calls or receive a hasty note shoved through his letterbox again. It is as though we have broken off a long talk and I am yet to realise that he will never reply to my questions. He has shut the door, thick enough that he cannot hear me, and will not open it. In my dreams, we are walking side by side down one of the alleys in the Jewish quarter at three in the morning as we so often did. I turn my head, waiting for him to renew our conversation but he never does. He stands with his hands limp and natural by his side and when I shake him by his shoulders he does not respond, and soon I am left clutching cold air. In my worst dreams, I am watching his coffin being lowered into the earth when I think I hear him pounding on the wood. I try to alert the mourners to the sound but they do not hear it. He is covered with earth even as he kicks at the coffin lid and I scream soundlessly into Theresa’s face. I wake then, drenched in sweat and terrified of something in the room I cannot see.

Theresa is patient with me. She listens to my endless protestations of guilt. She comforts me, she does not feel the burden of his death as I do. I accuse her of being unfeeling, of cold. She is like a mother holding the thin shoulders of a child lashing out in his ignorant innocence. Of course she is distraught, and guilty, and cries when no one is looking, because that is Theresa’s way. I want to suck in her quiet strength but I am too angry with it. I am dizzy with rage. Sometimes I fall in the street and gaze at the cuts on my hand without understanding the force of my own defiant blood, seeping through the miniscule abrasions on my palm. People are kind and solicitous, they want to know if I’m alright after my fall, but they are just moving their mouths and no real sound comes out. I think I push them aside and keep walking, head down, measuring my steps by the number of breaths I am conscious of taking. I feel as though I should always have a hand held firmly over the flesh of my chest to keep anything from spilling out. The flowering trees of the city creep shyly out in their new dresses and I don’t notice any of them, I feel as though I am trying to staunch an exit wound with a clock.

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Somehow, Claudine hears. She sends me a letter, I burn it. I remember without wanting to the talks I had with Sachie about her. Her serene and celestial presence, her yellow hair that haunted me so that I chased women I did not know down the street, trying to get a glimpse of their faces all because they were blonde. I remember his peculiar grimace, the clown-like contortion of his features when he swallowed really bad table wine. When I realise that I will never drag him by his collar into a cafe again, I fall in upon myself. I am like him when he was drunk, I become a collapsing wall. I say the word ‘dead’ to myself over and over in our rooms when I am alone. I cannot comprehend it. What is dead? Where is he? Has he gone, as he used to say, to the arms of God? If he has, then can God not release him for a moment so he can let me know that he’s alright? Why is he so unreachable when all that separates us is death, that upstart we used to joke about in our morbid cups? I want his God to understand that for me this is an extinction event, the Great Dying, and like people chasing the mystery of the dinosaurs I will dig and dig until I get my answers.

***

Sometime in the spring, I decide to return to London. I pack what little I’ve remembered to salvage from the ruins of our life together. Theresa and I pass each other in the kitchen, the corridor, like ghosts now. I don’t believe she will even notice my departure; perhaps she will bump into my spirit in the hallway as I so often bump into Sachie in my sleep. Perhaps she will continue to speak out loud to me although I am gone, as I do to him, as though his shade lingers close to my body, listening. At night, the people across the street flick off the lights and their window goes dark in an instant. I wonder if that’s what it was like; darkness falling like a velvet axe across the dinner table, when the guest of honour has left for home.

Fidelis

He is fantasising about rescue. Like a man at the bottom of a cliff conscious only of a dangerous numbness at the base of his spine, or pain so awful that he cannot scream over the white noise filling his skull. Perhaps, sometimes, you only have time enough to register that the accident is a bad one. Seconds spill out like coins from a dropped purse, spinning away across the floor, stuffing your head with a complex, unforgiving feathery silence, or the sound of radio static.

Like this, he realises that the argument was their finale. Sickly yellow light pours in from the street, while the echoes of all his words skitter though the room like an army of poisonous spiders. Already his skin begins to cool, losing heat from their shared sleep. A broken cup gapes at him reproachfully, china shards scattered across the floor like milk teeth.

The texture of the air has changed. Before it was thick with breathing, a slow rolling shush warming the nape of his neck. It is no coincidence that our breath sounds like the ocean gently breaking its heart upon the shore. Funny how music of all kinds can lift you somewhere precise and usually painful. Memory is our reminder that glass was once sand.

It is with these numb thoughts that he wanders slowly back into their room. The sheets are rumpled and strangely fixed and solid-looking, like unhappy fossils. He does not want to disturb the shape of them, that would be too much like clearing out the wardrobe of someone who has died. Instead he sits on the edge of the bed, rolling a name around his mouth like unripe fruit, and recalls the morning they fed each other green grapes, laughing.

The breaking of dawn brings with it the sound of traffic and his head is full of gnawing black and disconnected thoughts – like the man at the base of the cliff with the shattered back – the senselessness of everything. Flower petals raped by violent rain. The shrill whistle of adolescent seagulls. Meredith asking gentle questions of a blind man, like someone trying too hard to be good. The spots of blood from a nosebleed on the back of his hand, a swathe of stubborn poppies blooming in a white field.

Autopsis

The man opposite me is a troll. He is stone-coloured, a bland, inoffensive creature in grey and khaki. I imagine that he shuffles around the cafes as the sun goes down, stony skin safe in the half-light of candles on tables and mellow fairylights. In the morning he will slowly walk along the beach as the sky bleeds into pink and gold, and lie down amongst the pebbles and disappear between them.

I watch white crumbs collect in the sad corners of the troll’s mouth as I sit in the corner full of weary students tapping at Macbooks with steamed-up glasses from the freezing night outside. I feel like a breathing heap of clay, something dormant and Biblical, a little Golem rendered dumb and immobile by endless cups of soothing tea and watching people pass the window, so variable and yet so hypnotically the same. Clutching newspapers and little fingers in warning and restraint before crossing the road slick with rain…Thinking about sex and divorce and sucking in killer cigarettes, tapping at tiny squares of coloured light with aching thumbs.

I am glad my thoughts are secret, close to my chest, hidden behind the acid green padlocks of my eyes. I am imagining in exquisite detail performing a slow autopsy on my lover. Not because I do not love her, or because my brain is cruel and sparks sadistic neurons, but because I can hear things rattling the bone cage that keeps my heart pressed in, tied down with bruised, scarlet muscle. Our skeletons are burrowed deep and tangle together, and I must consider the inside of her skin my own simply because it is hers, and because I am terribly afraid of death.

Dead flesh does not bleed even when penetrated by knives and isn’t that funny? How the great gasping gush of red inside sinks to a thick stillness when the soul leaps out – doesn’t it thrill you, how alive blood is? Lungs are empty chapels of stained violet glass, where once a choir exhaled. I look at the rosy arms of the girl sitting next to me and imagine her thrumming skin pierced by an expert scalpel like teeth entering a crisp apple. I imagine pulling back the sheet covering a still, cold face and realising it is my lover. I flinch inside, a steel door shutting in my guts. I shiver in uncontrollable terror and excitement, and the girl looks at me as though I am a dangerous snake; madness coiled and about to strike.

Walking home is cold and loneIy. I cherish the silence and the reflection of the street lamps on the pavement. Great splashes of orange, like a row of suns dropped carelessly on the concrete. I count them all, but I am not certain that I have caught all the suns and so I count them again. When I open the door the smell of her crawls into my nostrils and wraps around my hair. We are about to eat together, her voice pierces my brain like a long, silver splinter.

The eggs are boiling. Thin little shells bubbling and jostling in the pan. The fish is cold and vaguely metallic on my tongue, it is the cool, thick texture that at once repulses and attracts me. She smiles shyly over the table and I feel invisible wires twitch and coruscate between us. She does not know that I am thinking of her skin under hard flourescent lights, waiting patiently for attention like a child striving to be good in a hallway full of motionless silhouettes. She would have turned a mottled blue-white, like the underbelly of something dreadful, and her face is set in a terrible calm, even as her long guts are pulled out like handkerchiefs from a magician’s sleeve. The steel trap closes quietly around my stomach; sharp, writhing, wonderful.

Every time I think of her like this I tap my left index finger on my heart three times to keep her safe. I know that if I have a thought about her dying I can knock on the door of my heart like this and her spirit will fly there, where nothing can touch her. It is by this ritual that I stop the angels of death and protect her within the great fortress of my white ribs. They tell me this kind of thinking is abnormal.

The eggs are ready. The shells are hot and steaming. Benign and smiling, I lay my hand upon her shoulder, and in my mind they carefully crack open the globe of her skull, precise and melodious. The sound of colossal hammers ringing a hundred temple bells.

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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Clean

When you get out of treatment, you and a guy you were in there with ride around town after dark, wide roads lit by fluorescent yellow-white, scarlet pin-pricks scattered through the night along the skeletons of cranes like paprika. Windows down, cigarette smoke pouring out of them like white water. You stop at the red lights, because that’s what people do when they’ve scrubbed up and got decent and, you know, law-abiding. The music makes the frame of the car shake, sometimes you sing along together but mostly you stare. At the kerb, at lone humans loping like wolves in tracksuit bottoms, at the blank glass of empty office windows. When you suck in air you get the pure oxygen of the deserted road hitting you, gunpowder line sparking straight to the core like cocaine, meltdown at the reactor. Hour after hour spent on adventures to the out of town Ikea or the old football stadium, just to watch them glow. Drinking cans of plain tonic water, hyped up on fizzy cola bottles like teenagers, a couple of gentle outlaws on a sugar high.

***

When you are fourteen years old, you eat a whole bag of contaminated hallucinogens. You’re supposed to stop at four, and this is probably one of the first indications you’re gonna have a problem. They say if you can survive 24 hours after strychnine poisoning, you’ll live, on balance. You’re about four hours in when you see an angel for the first time, during one of those neck arches that felt like iron rods being pushed through your nervous system and would you look at that, there is a man on fire. A roman candle of a man, second-storey high flaring with orange gold that sears the drip of your eyelids, white-hot corona around death’s eclipse. The sheer roaring noise of his arrival scars the air, brands it with the kind of living burn you get in a lightning-struck trunk. You’re busy, shapeshifting into a thorn tree, gnarled and pouring out sweat sap hotter than a sticky midsummer, twitching on the lower bunk while Lisa crushed the hours under the doped up gears of her brain. Couldn’t even wake her by screaming she was so deep, or she was a goner too. You think about Johnson and how the great bluesman had gone under via strychnine and figure at least you’d die like a legend, and then you think: fuck off, I don’t wanna die at all.

You don’t have enough liquid in you left to piss at this point let alone weep but you manage to wring out a few acidic tears because you’re never gonna see your Mother again, and you’ll never get to say sorry to so many people, like your Mother. And your scrawny fourteen year-old ass is going to get tossed into one of those forever alone graves at the edge of the cemetery where flowers are only left by the wind pulling them off of the other folks’ hump of grass and some well-aimed bird shit.

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So you’re lying there and everything is calcifying as these little crystals eat up your musculature as they go, and you know you’re not going to the hospital because it’s just you and the zombie in the top bunk so your brain tries to make some peace with The End but you’re too young and stupid, and this panting little animal body twisting in a noose of its own contorting flesh is so much smarter than you are, and somehow another four hours are done. You crawl to the sink and gulp all the water you can choke out of the old tap and swear to God if you can just make it out of this one alive you’ll be different. No one will have to find you fossilised in dirty sheets brittle now with old salt. Never again. Never, never. Anyway, you make it out alive. Years later, you tell this story to a pharmacist friend, he stares at you, says:

‘How much of this shit did you eat?’

‘The pack.’

‘Jesus Christ.’

‘Yeah, I guess He had something to do with it.’

He shakes his head, cap mashed up in his massive hands. ’Well aren’t you a lucky son of a bitch.’

And bitterness rises up like a dark Nile flooding the plain of your gut, because you hear people talk about near-death experiences and how they were changed forever and you didn’t change. You kept change at bay in bars and on living room sofas with springs poking through and street corners and every time you nearly died you’d swear to God: ‘Get me out of this one, honey, and I’ll be different.’ Skinny little liar right off the bat, because even though you knew what had happened in the warped fisheye lens of your brain it was easier to shrug, say, Hell, it was a long time ago, and slide the empty glass back down the long coffin of the bar. 

***

Now you’re resurrected, dragged backwards into your body by the tough-love chest compression of the clinic. Autumn is here – you see it in the curling edges of the leaves fluttering above the benches in the square and feel it slide blade-like into your bones the way it does every year since the accident, but summer doesn’t want to take the hint. She’s a party girl talking too loudly on the stairs, hoping the colder season will take her number.

There isn’t much to do in these newborn days, so you guys drive. You drive around the outskirts of town like one more circuit and your new lives will fly up to meet you, will pour themselves down your throat like shining water. Like the man the size of a house made of flaming wheels will come again with that sound to raze these sleeping buildings to mere lines in the dust and hand you that map he meant to drop off almost twenty years ago when you were busy in the electric chair. You stop at the red lights. It’s what people do when they’re decent, law-abiding. Clean.