The house beside the river is a house of lazy, hazy days. You have gone there looking for something in the low grey sky and the thick flowing river, the still of the trees and the arched stone bridge.
You are there with your lover, laden with food and wine and strings of lights, and later, when your friends find the flashing beacon and appear at the door, the thing you have been looking for has arrived.
The arrival of love.
The arrival of stopped time.
A pause in the chase for a slow deep breath, the river house slipping into a held moment, the air vibrating with a buzz that thrums in your collective bloodstream.
Love infuses the wooden beams, the pillows and soft blankets, the shared food, the words that flow with a river’s strength. Love bulges out from the river house, spilling onto the bridge and into the darkening woods.
And when you leave, these days will stay inside you, beating to the sound of your heart and the shifting breath of your lungs. They flow through the river of your veins.
What to do when you’ve said everything but there is still everything to say? Your mind is both depleted of words and so full you barely know where to begin. As always the tools are waiting for use, pen and paper, keyboard and screen, but the starting point is elusive, a mere fleeting glimpse. Instead you sit in the wilderness of not knowing.
You breathe. You listen to classical music, piano notes that smooth the frayed. You feel the coiling tensions that have gone unnoticed, and in your space of solitude they begin to unwind, the red of the berries against the rain-dashed window becoming more clear, more vivid.
In this hung place where a new year begins, you decide not to reach for answers, but instead seek out the questions that need to be asked, having faith that if you search for truth with wandering steps, the truth will come to find you.
The dead are powerful. The dead are invisible but their imprint is everywhere, tendrils of belief that curl and hook into sight and sound, winding their way into darkened rooms and open spaces, into minds still soft from birth.
Tradition wants you to be Mr/Mrs/Ms and to tick a box for your gender. Tradition wants to know how to treat you. Deference or dismissal?
Tradition spent time sorting the world, categorising and labelling in its neat boxy handwriting:— — School: Geography, Maths, Chemistry, English Literature, English Language, Physics, French. Instructions for use: Choose one or the other. This or that. — Hospital: Dermatology, breast cancer services, endocrinology, haematology, pain management. Instructions for use: *Choose one or the other. This or that. *You were once asked to choose between the leg specialist and the back specialist. You needed both so you chose neither.
Tradition delivered power to private schools and exclusive universities, posted it into the mouth of children so they got to like the taste. The flavour lingers on the tongue, fattens the belly, stays in the blood stream.
Tradition likes a committee, an agenda, a set of rules. Tradition sets out the punishment when the rules are broken, frowns upon the transgressive, the queer, the outsider and free thinker.
Tradition brought you up to be a good girl, a good wife, a good mother. To smile, make an effort, to be selfless and nurturing.
What the hand does the mind remembers Maria Montessori
Your hands are more familiar to you than your own face. Every crease and freckle, the corner of your thumb that cracks in winter, the sweeping lines of your palms. You are fascinated by other people’s hands too, how deeply intimate it feels to look at another’s hands, and how rarely you get to touch or examine another’s fingers.
There are 27 bones in the hand. They move with 29 joints and over 123 ligaments, but fingers do not have muscles. They are operated instead by the muscles in the forearm.
Your hands hold extraordinary sensitivity and muscle memory. You learned to touch type thirty years ago so your fingers instinctively know how to shape every word, even though your mind struggles to remember where the keys are. You trust your hands to chop onions and herbs, to check the heat of your bath water, to carry out the delicate action of turning the pages of a book.
You once broke your little finger falling up the stairs in a margarita-fuelled haze. As you fell forward your little finger found the wooden edge of a step, saving your face from damage and bouncing you back to upright. Your finger was splinted for a time and now feels stiff in cold weather, but you are constantly amazed by this little finger that was able to take the weight of your entire body.
You read that if you have to choose, the index finger is the best one to lose as it’s the one you need the least. You will bear this in mind the next time you’re involved in a bank heist and the robbers feel sure you know the numbers to the safe, advancing towards you with pliers in hand.
The Venna Amoris is the vein that runs up the ring finger and is known as the vein of love, as it leads directly to the heart. You once wore gold rings on this finger, one embedded with a diamond; a marker of love but also possession. When you no longer wished to be married, removing your rings was a statement to the world and yourself that you were free, you were your own and yours alone. Now you wear only silver rings on your fingers and thumbs. Your ring finger remains free.
You know that your hands can reveal many things about you. When you’re feeling nervous you rub your nails and the skin around them. When you’re excited or deep in conversation they move in accompaniment to your words. The ridges in your nails show you were cold several weeks ago, and again a few weeks before that. Your party trick is to make your double-jointed thumbs dance in time to the music.
You currently have a white line running across the middle of the nail on your ring finger, evidence of trauma to the nail bed nearly a month ago. Your lover was walking along a wall and you jumped up to join him but misjudged the height and fell instead, grazing your legs and hitting your hand. Your son rushed to help you back up, as did your lover, and you sat on the wall for a few moments, in pain but laughing, your breath coming fast with the shock. Now, every time you see that white line on your fingernail, your think of the love you felt from them and for them, and how your body is prone to slapstick misadventure.
The whole of your life is written on your hands, and yet, with so little effort they keep turning the pages.
66. The first classroom you remember has a high ceiling, high windows, a plastic trough where you play with water. There are books that are read to you while you sit cross-legged on the floor, your feet tingling with pins and needles. You sit at your desk pondering over workbooks that have puzzles and questions, the paper shiny and smelling of chemicals. You are afraid of this place. Every day you leave hoping you’ll never have to return.
When you’re older, your Home Economics classroom is portioned up with tables and cookers, counters with food mixers and chopping boards. In your memory the room smells of butter and sugar, beaten together in a china bowl until the mixture is a pale and creamy swirl. Everything is brought to school in a biscuit tin, ingredients portioned into plastic bags or old margarine tubs. In the classroom they are transformed and returned home, steaming in the same biscuit tin.
Your biology classroom is rows of counters, each one with a sink and a tall brassy faucet. You once dissected an eyeball here, and possibly a frog. One summer day the room is heavy with a heat that presses against your face, drawing the oxygen from your lungs like it wants to steal your life. A boy sits in the row in front. He wears thick-rimmed glasses and always brings a briefcase to school. He is smart. Today, you watch him sink into the chair and then slowly slide to the floor, the heat gleeful with such evident success.
You learn your writing craft in a classroom at the top room of a castle beside a lake where swans nest amongst the reeds. Regardless of the weather, inside the castle is always cold and cramped, its mullioned windows letting in little light. But here you talk about writing for two hours every week, your fellow students sharing your passion. You have found your tribe. You absorb everything you possibly can in that year of learning, attending all the lectures, all the bonus talks by visiting writers, all the after-talk gatherings down the road at The Globe. Your mind fizzles with conversations and ideas and a sense of belonging.
When you learn how to teach your craft yourself, the classrooms are bright and clean and brimming with technology that doesn’t always work, or you don’t always know how to work it. You learn what it means to be in the moment. To do your job you cannot be anywhere apart from that classroom, with those students, talking about that topic. You learn to love this state of being, and at some point you realise you are in the same place as when you are writing. You do not want to be anywhere else but here.
Now your classroom is often the screen of your laptop. When you do make it to a classroom, a place of walls and desks and smiles behind masks, the room smells of whiteboard markers and cleaning fluid. You’re aware of how clean everything is. How diligently you’re being cared for by an unknown person. And with the laptop comes a different kind of care. To be in people’s homes while you share knowledge. To be part of someone else’s journey.
65. Today you catch the train from Bath to Oxford, transferring your teaching self from one beautiful city to another. You haven’t done this journey for several years and you feel the anticipation of the bicycled streets and the lofty quads of University College. On your way to surprisingly ordinary classrooms, you hope to walk past the marble statue of Percy Shelley, drowned and washed ashore, his features an expression of surrender. You once stood in the quad at night and saw your first shooting star, framed within the famous square of learning. All these things do not stop you feeling like a fraud.
Train Romantics: (spoiler alert) The Railway Children’s tear-inducing ending — Jenny Agutter’s character, Bobbie, standing on the steam-steeped platform waiting for her father to return home. A cloaked figure finally emerges and she shouts, ‘Daddy, it’s my Daddy!’
You once took the tourist train from Williams to the Grand Canyon. Almost immediately you knew this was a mistake, discovering the slow journey there and back took longer than the time you’d have to gaze at the impossible canyon. The landscape you trundled through was flat prairie only brightened by glimpses of elk, their fur as sleek as velvet. The train itself was silver and dripping with historical authenticity. At the canyon your son threw his sandwich into the canyon which triggered a horrible argument, and on the way home cowboys hijacked the train, coming on board to take your money. They didn’t succeed, and you felt a wriggling shame that you didn’t have the good humour to participate in the play-acting.
Trains of Action: Multiple films where action heroes run across the roofs of carriages, dropping down to avoid bridges or hanging signals, or reaching up to hold onto a rope ladder hanging from a helicopter. See the film franchises of James Bond and Mission: Impossible for further research.
You feel like a fraud because you left school at sixteen, so you don’t have A-levels and you don’t have an undergraduate degree. You didn’t go to university until you were thirty-six and even then it was only for one year. You try to avoid this train of thought by remembering that your year as a post-graduate student changed your life completely. You achieved a first class MA, you committed yourself unapologetically to writing, and you somehow got a teaching gig at the same university where you studied. It seems that frauds can also learn to be good at what they do.
Dystopian Trains: In the graphic novel, Snowpiercer, the world has been plunged into an ice age and the only way to stay alive is on a forever-running train, which is long enough and high enough to accommodate multiple layers of society, intrigue and injustice. Arms are lost and some resort to cannabalism. You try not to think about this while hurtling towards Oxford.
You once worked with a man who was obsessed with Winnie-the Pooh, and trains. He was round, like Winnie, and had a wistful longing for the comfort of hearth fires and a warm drink. His other comfort was watching train videos, real-time recordings of train journeys filmed from the driver’s cab. You imagine he felt safe in the predictable surety of following the tracks, the banks of rustling green and the occasional dash of water or road.
On the return journey from Oxford you remember the first train you caught alone, to see your first serious boyfriend in Liverpool. You were only sixteen, naive and desperate for experiences beyond the small village where you grew up. You wonder what that girl would have thought of you, a women bearing unmistakable signs of lived experience, a woman who writes and teaches, divorced with grown-up children and a man she loves. She would not believe you are the same person, and of course you’re not. You both exist independently and simultaneously, feeling the tracks bear you forward, waiting to see what will happen next.
64. You have lost the tattooed lemon that lived in your freezer for many years. The lemon was illustrated by your daughter during her apprenticeship, the waxy yellow skin bearing a swallow in vivid blue and yellow and red. It was one of the most precious things you owned, and was lost during a busy few years of house moving. Still, you find it unexplainable, losing something so beautiful and so unique.
You have lost grandparents and your bird-watching uncle, but the majority of your relatives are long-lived. Your grandmother is still alive and happily living in her childhood, which is a different kind of loss.
You have lost the willingness to be angry with certain people or at certain situations. It came as a revelation that release was an option. There was a process, of course, of seeing your self-justification for what it was (fear of being wrong, fear of another being right, fear of the unknown), but you came to understand that you learned nothing by holding onto your indignant rage, and you learned everything by letting it go.
You have lost your step-brother, who died a few years after you first met him. He was a tall man with dark eyes. He loved cars and he loved his daughter, who shook from head to toe at his funeral. You barely knew him but this loss tore into your body and your mind, the incomprehensible question of why someone so full of the world could die so young. You will always feel the injustice of this.
You have lost more animals than you can remember. Dogs and rabbits, guinea pigs and goldfish, cats and mice. Some departures were a blessed relief, such as the rabbit who began spells of seizures, but some were deep losses, such as the golden Labrador who you took on long walks as a child to escape the turmoil of your home.
You have lost the fear of your own voice. Since teenagehood the page was your safe space, a place to write and hone, to find and shape the truth. But to speak it was a different matter. Were you raised by your parents to be a good, compliant girl? Were you raised by society to avoid outspokenness, avoid being shrill, avoid being a bitch? Or were you born with this introspective fear? Whatever. Now you are speaking on the page and with your voice.
63. You sometimes read a book without thinking about the bookmark that holds your place. As you read, this strip of cardboard gets tucked into the back pages or casually discarded on the bed covers, seemingly dispensable for all its functionality. But when you begin a new book the feeling is deeper than practicality, starting as you do by choosing the right bookmark for the tone of the story, as though this pairing will affect the way you’ll absorb the words.
When you count the bookmarks you own, you find you have twenty-four that you can find. There may be others, tucked into half-finished books of short stories or essays, or particularly relevant pages of reference books.
You can categorise these bookmarks into two types. The first is purely functional, adorned with advertising for books you’ve never read or the ones proclaiming Yes, I’m really reading this. And then there are the others. The ones that are used over and again, the ones you keep close by in your bedside drawer and you feel something for.
These are the bookmarks that hold images of birds or cities or mermaids, or colourful scattered letters rising up from the pages of a book, or abstract drawings in black and white or full vivid reds and blues and greens. There is one that is homemade and given to you as a gift, made of red card and decorated with gold paint, one end threaded with a golden tassel. There is one from Shakespeare and Company in Paris, a bookshop you longed to go to for many years and finally visited with a past lover. The bookshop visit was magical, the time with the lover was not.
Your current book, Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver, has two macaws on its cover, their red, yellow and blue feathers dappled with light. Your chosen bookmark has a quirky colourful bird pecking the speckled ground. This bird is a special favourite. Perhaps you feel an affinity for its persistent solitude, living within the frame of this strip of cardboard, inside the dark of the closed pages for much of the day and night.
You once bought a second-hand book and found a slip of paper inside that was printed with the words Embassy of Zimbabwe, With Compliments, which you used as a bookmark for several years. And when you received delivery of a second-hand copy of On The Road by Jack Kerouac, you found an unopened packet of sunflower seeds between its pages. You are unsure if this was used by the previous owner as a bookmark, or if it was a gift to you, the new owner. You have heard stories of people finding stranger items in books, such as strips of cooked bacon, but these may just be urban myths.
You don’t consider yourself a collector of books, or of bookmarks, but you are passionate about both and the paraphernalia they entail. You love bookshops and bookshelves, bookstands and reading lights. You love bookmarks hastily made from flimsy receipts or torn strips of paper, or in desperation, the frowned upon turned-over corner. You love the sense of possibility within each and every book, and the bookmark that tells you what you’ve learned so far with the promise of what’s yet to learn.
A well-used bookmark is the ticket on a journey for knowledge, a fellow traveller through the pages of life.
62. Sometimes, when the rain comes, you take it as a sign to let the days arrange themselves. You and your lover wake up late, drink coffee in bed, listen to the pigeons skittering against the window. You eat breakfast after noon, tear olive bread and pour red wine, you read poetry and watch old films. You watch the impossibly glamorous Grace Kelly in High Society and a frilled Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis, and when night finally falls you begin The Dreamers, a film you’ve never seen or even heard of.
The director is Bernardo Bertolucci, who also made Last Tango in Paris, and the film is set amongst the student riots in Paris in 1968. The dreamers are twins, a brother and sister, who bring a young and beautiful American into their lair, gifting him a coming-of-age of sex and wine, long high baths, and intense discussions about old films, politics and dubious morals. The twins seem to have no morals, except the imperative to never leave each other and to pursue pleasure wherever they can find it.
Your own pleasure seeps into exhaustion and you turn the film off half way through to slip into a deep and dreamful sleep, waking in the morning to drink coffee in bed and return to the film. The twins and their American continue to drink wine and smoke, eating fried eggs and barely leaving their shabby Parisian apartment. You and your lover have barely left his house, eating laced cake, taking long baths, kissing whenever the urge takes you. You feel you have not watched the film but instead lived it, only drawn out to hazy reality when the sun briefly presses itself through a window and you find yourself outside and barefoot on the lawn, or wandering to the end of the road and around the slanting park where you sit on a slatted bench and feel your blood shift in your slow veins.
You feel the languorous enjoyment of time’s drift, a nowhere-to-be and nothing-to-do stretch of days that dreams only of itself. And even when the clock begins its normal movement and you remember the other people and places and duties you’ve tied yourself to, these days will remain as a blurred and exquisite memory, to be slipped into with the shameless will of a dreamer.
61. Twenty-one years ago a new story was born. It is a classic story of birth and death, and the coming together of unexpected events.
It begins with the news report that Air France Concorde flight 4590 has crashed in Paris, killing all 109 people on board. Your husband is a newspaper photographer so a few days later he’s asked to travel to France to cover unfolding events. You are heavily pregnant but your baby isn’t due to arrive for another three weeks, so you both agree that he can work away for one last time.
The following morning your husband and a reporter board the car ferry to France, and that evening a tightening begins around your stomach. Braxton Hicks contractions, you tell yourself, your body practicing for the real event. But the contractions get tighter, your swollen belly as solid as a football. You try to sleep, dozing fitfully, woken at regular intervals by the band tightening and tightening and tightening, and you say no, this can’t be happening now, there are three weeks to go. But in the early hours you know you can’t deny the inevitable, so you call your mother and take a taxi to meet her at the hospital.
You call your husband to say the baby is coming. The midwife is convinced it will be quick so you tell him not to rush back, he won’t make it in time. The contractions continue and you squeeze your mother’s hand and still the baby doesn’t come. Every time your husband calls the midwife says it won’t be long now, don’t rush back, he won’t make it in time. Again and again this happens until he and the reporter abandon the assignment and drive to return on the ferry. Finally, at 7.35pm the baby is born, but his father is not there.
At midnight your husband arrives on the ward. All the nurses know the story of the father in France, so they quickly guide him to you so he can lift his son out of the plastic crib and hold him against his heart. Eventually he has to leave the ward of mothers to their sleep, and the following day he returns to fetch you both home where he lays out the gifts he bought while he waited in Paris. He tells you how he and the reporter went shopping to pass the time, and as he talks you imagine their excitement and the strangeness of the situation they’ve found themselves in, sent to report on death while a new life is born.
He bought gifts for the baby but you only remember the gifts for you: a striped jersey dress, a bottle of perfume, a Chanel lipstick.
Twenty-one years later and you tell this story again, as you often do at this time of year. Sometimes you forget to tell about the gifts, but you always remember the small piece of metal on the runway that punctured the aeroplane’s tyre, and how this caused a piece of rubber to fly up and rupture the fuel tank, which caught fire and melted the wing. You remember the people who died on the aeroplane and in the hotel it crashes into. You remember the crushing pain in your abdomen, and you remember calling your mother and your husband, the nurses saying over and again that it won’t be long now, don’t rush back.
You tell this story because you are amazed by the events that led from death to birth, and by the father who waited. You are amazed that the story of your son’s birth begins with a small piece of metal on a runway in another country. And twenty-one years later, you’re amazed by the son who is now making his own stories, sometimes expressed through words on a page or words with music, sometimes through paint on a canvas, but always born through a life thoroughly lived, and people thoroughly loved.