…trains of thought

The Grand Canyon Train

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.

…things you have lost

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. 

You have lost the willingness to be bound.

…marking the page

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.

…in praise of dreamers

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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. 

…birth of a story

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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. 

Happy 21st Birthday, my beautiful son.

…beginning with rain

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Winter rain puts you in a funk.  You wrap up against it, hat, scarf, raincoat, hating the cold and the low grey sky.  But summer rain is an entirely different creature.  The birds retreat to the shelter of trees but you go out with bare arms and legs, feel the warm drops on your skin, smell the earthy rise of wet dirt and tarmac.  Above you a renegade seagull shivers the water from her feathers mid-flight.  When the rain stops the world glows in reflection, a heat haze fazing the horizon, and the following day the trees and bushes and flowers will have grown fourfold, nourished by this mid-summer gift. 

Thunder and lightening
Outside Las Vegas airport you watch giant forks of lightening crack open the sky.  Beside you are two police officers discussing a case of stolen cars that seems to have run cold.  They have stopped their day of law enforcement to gaze at the electric sky, and you are amazed at their amazement.  You are here to catch your flight home and you are eight hours early.  You cannot leave Vegas quickly enough, with its slot machines and loud music that overlaps from café to shop to café to shop.  But Vegas has given you one final show, so you’ll leave with no hard feelings.

You dislike Vegas but you have loved the desert, driving for hours through the ever-changing landscape.  You stop the car at the lonely restaurant in Stovepipe Wells.  The temperature is 122º and when you step outside you can barely breathe, the heat like an animal that wants to suffocate you from the inside out.  You want to cross the road to browse in the shop, the only other building as far as the eye can see, but you’re afraid you won’t make it, that you’ll collapse with dehydration before you get there or your eyeballs will shrivel up and pop out of their sockets.  The heat animal tells you there’s no time for this contemplation so you begin walking, every step slow with your leaden-heavy feet and you make it to the delicious air-conditioned palace of goods, buying gifts of native American art for your family.  When you leave you drive towards the salt plains, a vast white horizon that glows in the glare of the desert sun.

There is little that has the power to transform quite so much as a thick blanket of snow.  City or country, the familiar becomes something new, a muted halt to the regular, a brilliant white pause.  When you go out to be amongst it everyone smiles and says hello, minds quickened by the slowing, senses sharpened by the cold. 

A lover once told you things must be bad if the only thing you have to talk about is the weather.  He’d drawn the clouds so low around him it shrouded his thoughts, his eyes a mist of grey that distorted the truth of what lay before him.  You want to always talk about the weather.  How the sun burns on your shoulders.  How the rain trickles down your scalp.  How lightening purifies your heart.  The weather is the world expressing her moods.  To respond is to be alive. 

…on shaping the earth

Giant’s Causeway, Ireland


You stand on the seashore feeling the mutability of time.  Under normal circumstances you would gaze at the steady horizon, trying to absorb the enormity of the ever shifting ocean.  Its depth, its strength, its unknowable currents and flavours.  Under normal circumstances you would be awed by the way it has sanded and pebbled and beached the world.  But here, today, the mystery of the sea is insignificant compared to the dark hexagonal column beneath your feet. 

The shush of the tide is far away but your fourteen-year-old self is so close you can feel her, looking down at her white-socked and school-shoed feet framed by the face of the six-sided basalt.  The words of your teacher feel close, telling you about places of significance: Gaping Gill, Durdle Door, Arthur’s Seat, Lyme Regis, Fingal’s Cave, and the place where you are now, Giant’s Causeway in Ireland.

Here, millions of years ago, the earth was so hot it was liquid.  When something shifted in the atmosphere and the lava finally cooled, its chemistry of minerals chose to coalesce as interlocking columns, creating stepping stones of the most elegant kind.  There is legend that these columns were created by feuding giants to bridge the sea-silver gap between Ireland and Scotland, but why create a fantastical story when the truth is so fantastical?  Is it not enough that the earth itself designed these perfect and consistent polygonal shapes? 

Like the enormity of the ocean you find it difficult to comprehend this, but then you see how your feet step easily from one stepping stone to another, quickly as though you are in a child’s game, or slowly where you have to climb and the waves have worn their surfaces to slippery slopes, and you realize that the earth has designed you too, and all the other people that are stepping from stone to stone across the world. 

A world that great thinkers have decided is not a being but a thing.

Today is your forty-eighth birthday, and you’ve been brought here by your new lover.  He can’t fully comprehend the value of this gift, and you’re not sure how to explain it to him.  Neither of you know that your relationship will only last another month or two, merely the blink of an eye in the moving cogs of both your lives, a moment’s brush with the tide in the moving cogs of the earth.

But now, as you write about this moment of standing on the top of a volcanic column, you know his gift was a wondrous demonstration of the world showing its capabilities.  The gift of moving through time to transform a school-girl to a woman, her passions intact and still burning, from the imagined to the real. 

…the last great day of May


It is the last day of May and we gather in the garden beneath the high sun, some of us meeting for the first time, some already old friends.  Once we’ve eaten the collected treasures of olives and cheeses and harmonies of chocolate, we untangle ourselves to the drowsy lane, down to where we cross the stile and snake through the field that takes us to the meadow where the buttercups shimmer in their melting powdery yellow.  We divert for a time to the shade of the woods, finding ancient beech trees and a trunk to loiter and rest, letting the group catch up with itself and cool pink-tinged skin.  When we snake back down to the meadow the heat feels lush and buttery, so we lounge on blankets at a clearing beside the river until again the heat pulses us beneath the trees and a wooded river bank where we pull off our shoes and let the dappled river sharpen our senses, swishing our dusty feet or meditating or hanging from trees to let our feet dangle or dipping giant leaves to see how the water turns mercury-silver.  When we eventually emerge from this dreamless siesta the mayflies are dancing in the glow of late afternoon.  We stand amongst the tall grasses and look up.  Above us the mayflies rise in a flutter… pause… and drift back down… rise up… pause… drift down… rise up… pause… drift down… a fairy performance of filigreed wings against the infinite blue sky.  They are still dancing when we leave, this last great day of May.

…the slice of the knife

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You enjoy the motion of the knife cutting, the smooth sweep of the wide blade as it meets the chopping board, your fingertips curled against the onion’s domed back.  When you are done the dome is transformed into a heap of translucent cubes alongside a stub of woody stem.  Soon the smell of heated onions will fill the kitchen, the first tangible sign that dinner has begun.

You turn the knife flat to press the heel against a garlic clove, crushing the skin away from its body.  There are few things you crush with the knife.  Cardamon pods to release their pungent flavour, but you can think of nothing else.  You wonder if the knife is surprised by this turn of events, its blade ready for the slice, only to be laid flat as if ready for bed. 

If your knife presses down on a tomato and does not cut through its flesh like butter, you know it needs to be sharpened.  For now, you make a neat incision with the tip and with this beginning the blade can do its work. You’ll then wash the blade and sharpen, wash the blade again of its steel shavings.  You cannot tolerate a blunt knife.

You have a friend whose kitchen knives are all blunt.  She had a difficult boyfriend who would pick up a knife when angry or drunk, and even after she left him, the fear still remains.  You will tolerate a blunt knife at her house, but whenever you are chopping in the haphazard way of bladeless steel, you always think of him.

You never learned the fast chopping of TV chefs, although you did train as a chef many years ago.  One of your first lessons must have been how to use the knife, but you don’t remember this.  You do remember the sweated heat of cooking food, your hair damp under your chef’s hat.  You remember the fatigue of hours on your feet.  The clatter of spoons in pans, the slam of oven doors, the obedient call of ready chef hanging in the expectant air at the beginning of service. 

Cooking then became the food-making of motherhood, and your knife the enabler.  You taught your children at a young age how to use the knife, their soft little fingers curled against the dome of an onion.  They have both become good cooks and you feel glad that they can feed themselves, and they can gift their food to others.

Now your knife is like a good friend, working with you to create from the elemental.  The onion, the garlic clove, the tomato.  The slice is the beginning of something new. 

…mind games

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Sometimes, you say something to your lover and a moment later he’ll ask you for a number between 1 and 100.  This is because the thing you said was the thing he was thinking, and so now he needs to test this moment of cosmic connection.  Very occasionally you get the number right, but often you are just a few numbers away or the numbers are transposed.  Either is a satisfying result and you can both continue with your day.   You wonder about this need to test the unseen, the unexplainable.  You wonder if the unseen is bothered by your doubt.

The parapsychologist J. B. Rhine invented the term extrasensory perception in the 1930s.  He carried out 90,000 experiments in the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University in North Carolina, and went on the establish the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man.  Now renamed The Rhine Institute, their current research projects include investigations into psychokinesis, bioenergy, healing and extrasensory perception.

You know someone who can see your thoughts.  You have known her for many years and how closely she feels other people’s emotions, sometimes a disorientating overload that she’s had to learn how to manage.  But you have only recently discovered she can see things too.  You were having a conversation and there was something you refused to tell her but it was too late, it was already in her head and she gave you one word to describe it.  You couldn’t speak.  This thing that she had no way of knowing had risen up unbidden in her mind. 

You once remarked to your lover that this person hadn’t called in a while, and in that moment she called. 

Coincidence, fluke, serendipity, happenstance, synchronicity, luck, destiny.  These are the words we use to explain the things we cannot see or measure.

When you were young you had a fascination with extrasensory perception.  You watched films like The Fury and Village of the Damned, and then later The X-Files.  You wanted to move cups and read people’s minds.  You feel that children in particular desire this skill to compensate for their lack of power.  It is a universal truth commonly known that some adults deserve a cup flying towards their heads. 

For most of your life your alignment with others has been a result of deference, so you found yourself swimming in their sea and calling it love, all the while confused by the riptides that pulled you away from yourself.  But now you discover a new body of water, a place where you and your lover can swim together, a place where numbers between 1 and 100 drift through the currents of your thoughts, where hope and desire and strange imaginings can mingle together as one. 

Think of a number between 1 and 100. 

Let it linger in the ether of your mind, and see who finds it there.