Mon seul désir

When I wake, shots are beginning to ring out in the forest in cracking volleys that echo through the slender trees. I hear the jingle of bells on the collars of the hunting hounds as they scout closer and closer to the edges of the olive grove. The sun has been climbing steadily for about an hour, the stones are being bleached the colour of pale sand. Although autumn is breaking over the valley, there are still dusky pink roses wound tightly into their buds. The jasmine rambling around the kitchen door, not in flower, still throws out a pungent, heady scent even as the hot breezes of summer make way for warm rains and the shock of forked lightening over the trees.

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They have killed three boar this morning. I was taken down to the van where the hairy corpses are piled. It saddens me, although I understand it. I wonder aloud if these three are the same little wild pigs we saw eating fallen figs in the garden last night. My host shrugs; the soil here is savage and dry, and land across the globe has always, since time immemorial, required blood sacrifice. The vines have been harvested, and grapes left behind are fair game for passing travellers. They are sweet and soft, crushing easily against the roof of my mouth, flooding my tongue with months of careful sunlight.

We wade across a shallow river on our way to the hilltop chateau, surrounded by a swaying riot of wildflowers. I pick the clinging purple skin of the fruit from my teeth as the river water swirls around my ankles. Somewhere in the woods, the repetitive cough of ravens sounds. This is an easy place to feel alive.

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The town is thrumming with a thousand jostling bodies and voices raised on Market Day. Trekking up a bone-dusty path in the shadow of the church, a carnival of roasting meats and baking flatbreads, amber pendants and cotton clothes. One stall is an explosion of herbs and spices, its wares bulging out of rolled-down sacks. Juniper berries, sprigs of wild thyme and rosemary, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and more mysterious powders from the east; carmine reds and canary yellows. Next to rough blocks of green, hand-made Savon de Marseilles, a little basket is wreathed in a sweet, heavy scent. It is full of dusty squares the colour of whisky, a resinous perfume all the way from Egypt.

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Returning to the Villa, I merrily scuff the brown leather of my shoes swinging in the hammock; kicking up dust as my shadow passes back and forth under the leaves. I look out over the valley, recently freshened by a sudden storm. I think that to live forever in this green, secretive, wild hollow must be Mon seul désir – my only desire. In the kitchen, I can hear the laughter of the older women as they talk around a vast pine table laden with cheeses and thick slices of cold, cured meats. I inhale deeply, watching the delicate mist rising from the drenched soil; the sweet, steaming breath of the olive grove.

Vampire Hunting in Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Courageous Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Sirene

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

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

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

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

Ghosts of the Olive Grove

The outward train is booked. I am finally going back to the south of France, where the dusty soil, little olive trees and vast, dense forests dotted with red roofs speak of enduring and primitive beauty. There is something savage about this part of the world; bloody and heady and plated gold.

I miss awakening to the birds, and drinking sweet wine at breakfast before the sun climbs to its searing zenith; tearing chunks of bread and smearing them with rough duck pâté . Walking in the dawn at the edges of the forest populated by iron-grey boar; crushing wild Thyme between my fingers.

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Going legend hunting this new year. It is still fairly unusual to meet people here – apart from expats – who aren’t Catholic, in the rich, blood-and-bones way of rural Catholicism. I’m sure the little towns and more isolated villages have tales of vampires and werewolves galore. White-gowned virgins spirited away, returning thirsty; or warding off a risen evil with a litany of prayer spilling from rose-pink lips at the altar.

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The soil strikes me as unquiet. It is too vital, too alive, to hold the damned for long. I watch the bulky bodies of the wild boar shouldering their way through the olive grove. This is a place where full moons breed empty beds.

Wanderlonging

I’m pretty partial to melancholy. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that melancholy is partial to me.

I spin the globe around and around; suitcases, bags and boxes at my feet. Moving, I remember, rubbing my swollen ankles and my aching back, is acutely stressful. I dream of landing at some anonymous airport, at the beautiful Gard du Lyon, stepping off the train at dusty Draguignan or glorious, sensual Rome; leather sack bag slung casually over my shoulder.

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I offer my morning Frankincense to Our Lady pondering the strange twists in the knickers of fate that lead us along one path or another. Prague. Florence. The winding, reeking canals of Venice. The rich loam and sheer black cliffs of windswept Ireland. The flat plains of Poland, Granddaddy’s country.

I miss the urgency of travel and the way it forces you open and spills all the colourful wonders of the world into the empty vessel you become hopping train to train. Today perhaps I am a little sad; a little self-indulgent, restless and hungry for the richness that life offers us when we have the courage to step out with a light bag and a lighter heart.

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Soon, I tell my compass. Soon. Let me hang in comfortable suspension a little while before you spin again, my tiny wheel of fortune.

Writing on the Walls

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Thin places in the labyrinth, I call them, where you always find writing on the walls. Every town and city and hamlet has them; 6 foot ‘look at me!’ murals in block colours; scribbles in felt tip above the bins; scratches – initials, dates, stars, flowers – on village hall doors.

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The thin places are where people pull out these secret letters, to themselves, to others, and pin them to the boundaries where they can flutter like prayer flags. Sometimes, in the summer, they’re covered up by a waterfall of flowering vines. In the autumn, the heart with an arrow through it on the worn church step will be buried in brittle orange leaves. Sometimes the council come and cover them up, but they’ll be back, these messages in a spray-paint bottle.

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