I dream of my mother. She is kneeling in front of me with her arms full of cotton wool, antiseptic wipes and swathes of white bandages. She is wrapping them around my feet, first bunching up the cotton wool, then wrapping the bandages tightly around them, tenderly. She is telling me that growing pains are normal for girls my age, that cramps in the feet are common, that this will help. She is wrapping my feet around and round, and all the while I am telling her that the pain isn’t there at all.
It is a glacier moving through you
And carving out deep valleys
And creating spectacular landscapes.” – John Grant, Glacier*
It’s been a strange week.
I’m working through some things at the moment, but am finally at a point where instead of it stalling my writing, I’m able to channel it in. As I alluded to in my last ‘personal’ blog, the project I’m currently working on is based more strongly on my own experiences than anything I’ve written since I was sixteen. I’m finding that scary, but also cathartic and I’m rather enjoying the novelty of it.
What I’m not enjoying so much is the memories it’s bringing back, the majority of which I thought I’d processed and got over. I think this might be why I’ve historically avoided writing stories with teen protaganists, and, in my actual teenage years, veered away from YA fiction as though it bore the plague. There are some things that really only do with being experienced once.
Minds are weird things. Sometimes they wait until you’re in a healthy place, with a clearer perspective than in the past, and then – BAM! Time to feel that pain all over again, just when you thought it couldn’t touch you any more.
Writing is helping, though. So is talking about it. I’m lucky that my friends are patient, and present, and that people are kind. I’m also lucky that my protagonists are complying with my whims. Long may it last (I suspect it won’t last for that long; the characters I create rarely do what I intend them to).
I suspect that a key trigger behind my current foray down memory lane is, in fact, my characters. Namely my main character. I didn’t intend, when writing her, for her to bear similarities to myself at that age, but she does. I didn’t intend, either, for her to be a particularly likeable person, at least not initially, and she isn’t. She’s all snark and sullenness and awkward anger, inexpertly plastered down over her wounds. She’s hurting hard, and she’s her own worst enemy, and she’s got a hell of a road ahead of her.
I guess the difference, this time, is that I know she’ll be okay.
Running through my head over the past week or so has been a note that I wrote to myself yonks ago – nearly ten years, in fact – in the margin of a workbook: ‘One day this pain will be useful to you’.
I think that day has come.
*This quote, and the title of this post, is from a song called Glacier by John Grant, which I discovered very recently and have been listening to fairly obsessively. It’s number one on my playlist for this writing project, and it may have made me cry at my desk just a wee bit today when I listened to it while working. Anyway, here it is.
I dreamed of you, last night. We were standing in the garden over the river, with the round wall that we sat on all those years ago, eating from lunchboxes. I could smell gardenias, knew bumblebees would be lurching about, drunk on the scent, and you were beside me, and we looked out.
The houses are huge, in this part of the city. Sprawling like oak roots over the banks, they stretch out like cats in the sun, all the way to the meadows, where the grass runs parched and gorse bushes reign. Did we go there as children? I can’t remember. I don’t think we did, I think we only went down to the river, with school, and school is how we would have been there together, that was the link that fused us.
I wonder, in the way that I have lately, in the loosened moments between asleep and awake, why that bond was ever enough to hurt me when it was cut. We were not friends in any context other than classrooms, strangers who smiled in the street, guilelessly when we were five-six-seven, bashfully when we were nine-ten-eleven, and then not at all, or mocking, or ashamed, I never could tell: your glasses frames hid your face too well.
Anyway, this is a dream and we are standing together, in the curve of stone above the river in the city where we grew up in classrooms together, and I say, ‘Why?’
I don’t know if it is before or after this that you begin to cry, but you do, and perhaps I am a better person in my dreams than I ever have been in flesh, walking silent behind you when others shouted, hiding in taciturn terror, telling myself I was justified in my hypocrisy. I must be better, because I put my arms around you, first round your back, then your head, because you are warm and crying and I want you to stop, I do not want you to hurt.
So we stand there, in the curve of the cusp of the city and the care of years falls away, the gardenia-smell is strong and you are alive and I am glad you are, and gladder still that so am I, heart a-thrum with a beat that I would never have learned without everything that came before. And I feel a tremendous sense of grace.
When I wake, I understand that I have forgiven you.
If you think that you will beat me down like dough to be kneaded or earth to be tamped, then I have a whole world of contradictions locked into this head of mine. I am more than what I was, more than what I regret, more than what was made of me and more than what I failed to make of the glittering vestibules thrown at my feet. I am fire and water, earth and air, scars and stories and I swear with all of the marrow in my bones that I will keep on living and oh, I will set this nebula on fire. The world began with the destruction of a star, so let mine begin with it, with the implosion of light and loss that your absence in the world has gifted me with, darling. Ungive: in a faded language, this means to thaw. I will ungive myself, day by day and night by night, until these memories lay claim to me no more and I can mourn for you as a whole and walk this path not as a ghost or a wraith or a banshee but as a being whose footprints will mark this earth like stamps. Don’t cry for the loss of stars, because the universe is made up of them and without loss there would not be growth. Without change there would not be movement and without movement there would be no summer, no winter, no day or night, no sunlight, no starshine, and it is true that none of these things exist in your absence, but that will change and I know that you would wish that. Movement. That’s all we can do really, isn’t it? Just keep on moving until we stop.
When I was green
and you were six
we danced the maypole at the church
down the lane
and you would be
my last straw
though I didn’t know
we built fairy houses from catkins
in the playground
where the trees met the tar
ran around screeching
at the sky
because we could
to rage is better than
sharp smell of chlorine
nose and eyes
you threw water at me
I scooped up blue from the pool
in my swimming hat
to fling at you
I got in trouble
I didn’t care
We were friends
Am I misremembering?
from the empty air?
(I did that later
I don’t deny
I was so lonely
I wished to
I could neither scream
even though I
b u r n e d
all through my threads
the sewn together strands of what
a child on the tarmac
the swallowing sky
I didn’t know then
that catkins don’t hold
that water is not
blue as bells
that you would
(you were a friend
you were my friend)
I did not know
the flanks they flay
the wounds they rend
the names they chant
Lillie and I walk home from school together. In the past six months she has undergone a staggered transformation: she has grown breasts, her hair is highlighted with careful swathes of gold. Every so often she will press a hand to her stomach at break-time, face pulled taut in exaggerated discomfort. “Oh, it’s that time of the month!” And the others of our group will cluck in knowledgeable sympathy, proffering tampons like batons.
I have yet to experience any time of the month. Time as it is has taken on a strange quality for me. At school it seems to stretch out immeasurably, like the elongated earholes of women in African tribes. I look at the clock, it is five minutes to three; I look back to my workbook, write about the metaphors in Romeo and Juliet, breathe deeply and slowly through Emily and Blaise’s whispering, the way that midwives on TV tell mothers to breathe through birth pains; look at the clock again. One minute has passed. It is only once I am safely out of the front gates, away from the crowds, from Lillie, from all lingering remnants of the day, that time regains its normal speed and I feel like am moving through air instead of treacle.
Today it is raining, so we are huddled together under Lillie’s starry umbrella. She gets most of the room, as the umbrella is hers and her hair frizzes in moisture, but I don’t much mind; I like to feel the droplets on my face, passing down through the corners of my eyes and continuing their journey warm, like tears.
Lillie says, “You ought to be friendlier to people.”
She has always said things like this throughout the trajectory of our friendship; her instincts veer towards what needs improving, in herself, in an outfit, in me. Lately, though, these comments have started to hold a more anxious weight. She has begun to realise that I, like the red on her lips or the colour in her hair, am an extension of her reputation. Though she never says that I am bringing it down, she doesn’t need to.
Every day it is more than implied.
I chew my lip, a bad habit that I have picked up over the past year, in the same way that Lillie has taken up painting her face, and say, “If they don’t like me now, I have no interest in being friends with them.”
There is a beat in which I watch my feet stamp the ground in their sensible black loafers. Tides of water spray out from around their tread. Lillie draws a breath, and I expect it to precede agreement; reassurance of my validity, of the others’ bad behaviour, followed perhaps by a mitigating “but”, which I have the option to ignore.
This doesn’t come.
Instead, she says, “You can’t have that attitude.” She says it regretfully, chidingly, as you would to a wayward child. I tear a strip of skin from my lip with my front teeth, taste blood, swallow it. Say nothing. I know that she will read this as agreement.
We walk on in silence and I watch the puddles form on the tarmac, cradling water as grey and hard as the stone lodged in my stomach.
Don’t you think that it’s time you stopped being angry?
Swept up these ashes, numbed down the flames
Became the bigger person
Put the shovel away?
I know, I know
For so long I have shrunk myself,
Been sliced down
At a time.
I fear I have forgotten
How to be