Sometimes you read a book that you sink into so completely you don’t want it to finish, and when onward time means that you reach that final page, you want to hang it around your neck on a simple strap so you can wear it always against your heart.
So it is with Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, a book that fills you with the true feelings of life, all the way from struggle to joy. It makes you want to live on the top of a mountain for a summer or hitchhike across the country or meditate in the woods or go to poetry readings in small downtown bars in San Francisco. The main character, Ray Smith, does all these things, living in the 1950s and roaming around in a way that feels easy to him in his twenty-something wild-riding years, whereas you are advancing through your early fifties and only just connecting with Jack Kerouac’s writing, only just beginning to deepen your hunger for the freedom of travel and adventure and meeting unexpected people with unexpected ideas about this huge and tender journey that is life.
You feel glad that you didn’t have these urges in your twenties. Then, you didn’t understanding yourself enough to know the choices you had, or what they would mean while and after you had them.
You feel you understand this more now, or at least you know enough to understand that you know nothing.
And even though the world is in a state where travel isn’t a thinkable option and strangers may back away from you, you can at least read books like The Dharma Bums and think and write and plan. And you can be free in your mind, closing your eyes to be amongst the pines on the top of a mountain to meditate beneath the cloud clusters and birdsong.
This is where freedom lies, your skin tingling in the crisp haze of everything and nothing.
Some of the best road trips are long-planned and desired, whereas others are best done impulsively, such as driving to the beach on a hot day, or going out looking for one thing and finding another. But always the best trips are when the unexpected happens. An unexpected place, an unexpected person, an unexpected thought.
You borrow a friend’s soft-top car and drive along the south coast of Wales. The day is hot so the roof is down and you wear a sunhat and factor 50. You stop at The Mumbles and Three Cliffs Bay and end the day at Worm’s Head, the island shimmering in the evening sun, a place where Dylan Thomas once became trapped in the dark, afraid of the rats and ‘the things I am ashamed to be frightened of’. Before you set off on the return journey you sit on the terrace of the cliff top pub, writing and smoking cigarettes until your dinner order arrives. The day feels full and rounded, burning with heat and unexpected adventure.
If you discover a warm day amongst the Mondays to Fridays, you and your son will drive down to your favourite beach. You listen to his music while you drive, feeling the delicious pull of the cliffs spectacular in their orange glow and ragged sheer drop. You have driven to this place so often it’s like a pilgrimage, picnicking and swimming, browsing the beach-side market, going to the fish and chip huts for dinner. Your son in particular needs this place to replenish, to pull back from his life and gaze at the sea, reminding himself of the truth of things.
The biggest detour you ever drive is over a hundred miles to see your friend, who called just before your first trip with a new lover to say her boyfriend had assaulted her and was on the run from the police. When you finally get there you find her strangely excited as she recounts the story to you, explaining that the police are still hunting for him and she has an emergency number to call if he turns up at her house. When other friends arrive to take care of her, you continue your trip with your lover, the days coloured by these events as though a rip has been torn in time and the guts of someone else’s drama has spilled out.
Your longest road trip (in time and miles) is from San Francisco to The Grand Canyon. Over the course of three weeks you stop at various log cabins, mountain holiday apartments and desert motels, visiting small towns and vast landscapes, discovering the unexpected. But it is the unfolding miles that you love, the space between places, the road ribboning ahead and smudging away behind, through the ever-changing character of Yosemite, the moon-like threat of Death Valley, the prairie plains of the Hualapai Indian Reservation. You are so present when you drive, your concentration unwavering in the moment you are inhabiting, and you do not want to be anywhere else but right here.
Your Sicilian friend takes a road trip from the south to the north of the island to collect you from the bus station at Palermo. You have been excited about this final phase of your trip in her soft-top convertible, anticipating music and laughter as you plan your stay together. But on the way she has an accident on the motorway, her car flipping onto its non-existent roof where she hangs upside down from her seatbelt. She calls you from her hospital bed and tells you to catch a bus to Castelvetrano where her friend will meet you. A trip that never happens. A trip by bus instead of car. A trip of worry that your friend might die. This is not the right kind of unexpected.
Your son has been obsessed with On The Road for many years. You think he sees himself in Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty, as many young men have before him, the story fuelling his desire for the epic potential of a road trip. Out of all the people you know, however ordinary his road trip may begin, his is the most likely to turn epic. You are envious of this.
There are many road trips you want to take. Up the Atlantic Road in Norway, over the Rockies in Canada, through the volcanic landscape of New Zealand. To your favourite beach with your son. The hills and valleys and rivers and trees and cities and oceans and islands and interlocking roads are waiting for you. One day soon you will get in your car and drive, and you will find the unexpected.
The car is a fragile thing. If it hits another car its bonnet will buckle, its windscreen will shatter, the dashboard will crumble and fall around your legs where you sit in the passenger seat, and you are trapped. There will be miniscule shards of glass in your hair, scattered like gems across your cheeks, burrowed into your ears and nostrils and shoes and pockets. Its engine will catch fire with a delicate orange flame that you can watch from your position as a captive audience. Sometimes, people are more fragile than cars, but sometime not.
Your first car was a Morris Marina, bought soon after you passed your test at seventeen years old. Within a few months you scraped its wing driving too close to a wall, but this was the only wound it bore from your inexperienced parenting. You had all you needed to escape the small village where you grew up, and you understood that injuries where bound to happen somewhere along the way
Your next car was a red Datsun Sunny, old and rust-riddled, reluctant to participate in any journey when it was cold. Sometimes you would become stranded across roads or at junctions, its engine stalled and unwilling to start again. You hated this car to an unreasonable level for an inanimate object that was just trying to die in a dignified way.
You think fondly of the racing green Honda Quintet you owned for many years. It had an electric sunroof, which felt like the height of luxury and sophistication, and when your then boyfriend stoved in the front crashing into another car, it started straight back up again. You have had a love and respect for Japanese engines ever since.
You once sat in a TVR at a motor show at Earl’s Court. It had a walnut steering wheel and dashboard, and you fell deeply and eternally in love. You are never likely to spend vast sums of money on a car, but if you did, this would be it.
Several years ago you took your teenage children on a road trip from San Francisco to the Grand Canyon. Early in the trip you broke the rental car, and then you lost it. You had no clue where it was, so you rented another and continued your journey. This new car was a bright red Toyota which was ridiculously photogenic against the chalky mountains or the heat-hazed desert, so you felt the previous loss (a car so generic you can’t even recall what it was) as a kind of serendipity. Those days driving on wide empty roads listening to the soundtrack from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Velvet Underground or Dope Lemon were some of the happiest days of your life.
(Afterword: The rental company found the car and fixed it, so when you finally returned home there was a large bill waiting on your doormat).
You were nineteen when you were trapped in that flaming car. Later, you were told that you and the car that came towards you on the wrong side of the road were both traveling at 50mph, so you both stopped dead, a combined impact of 100mph. Your then boyfriend was driving and he climbed out unhurt. When he saw the two cars welded together and the flames rising from the engine, he ran for help. The first car that came along that quiet country road was driven by a man who happened to have a fire extinguisher. Soon, firemen arrived and cut you out. Ambulance men ferried you to hospital. Doctors and nurses patched you up and you stayed in hospital for four days. The man in the car that hit you stayed for longer, but he did recover from his injuries.
You sometimes wonder if this is the closest you’ve ever come to death. Possibly, but you didn’t feel it at the time. Even as you were watching the flames, unable to move your legs with no-one around to help, you knew that you weren’t going to die there. You knew that you were safe. Something was going to happen and your days would keep on turning. Something like a man with a fire extinguisher.
Driving to you is more than getting from one place to another. It is an effortless drawing away from the familiar, a shifting into the unknown and discovering the unexpected. It is turning a corner to find a valley with the sun cutting low to make the fields of wheat glow orange; it is topping the brow of a hill to find the ocean glittering with promise; it is a sudden hailstorm that forces you to stop in a layby to listen to the clatter on the windscreen; it is the sleepy churchyard with yew trees carved into extraordinary roundness; it is the road running along a river where you catch glimpses of deer and rabbits and hovering sparrow hawks.
It is all both fragile and resilient. It is stillness and movement. It is security and adventure.
Your car is sitting below your window now, waiting for the adventures to begin again.
Auster writes his journal in the second person. He is the you of his own story, but the reader is also the you of his experience, living with him and inside his mind. And so my own you is born, a you who is both me and not me, who has permission to access my thoughts and my life and lay them out on the page. You are brave and honest and sometimes reckless, while I hide away, trying not to be noticed.
7. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
O’Brien understands the human impulse to tell stories, describing the need for soldiers in the Vietnam War to let the words spill out, shaping and reshaping their reality until it became a tolerable truth. He says that stories are for ‘joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are.’
You feel Ray Bradbury’s advice when you read this, that O’Brien is your ‘someone higher, wiser, older’ who says you are not crazy, that it is all right… hell… fine, to tell your stories. And as time is forever moving forwards, you will forever be discovering how you got from where you were to where you are.
8. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
You read this alongside Working Days, Steinbeck’s diary account of writing the novel at his house in Los Gatos, California, while building work was being carried out nearby, noise and kerfuffle and self-doubt constantly disrupting his flow. You think of this whenever you feel yourself making excuses for not writing… too noisy, too quiet, not good enough, not time enough, too much coffee, too honest, too difficult….
You also remind yourself that he lived for a while in Bruton, Somerset, a mere eleven miles away from where you live now. Sometime in the future you will visit his desk that resides in the museum there, and you will stand in the room with the ghost of his brilliance.
9. Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer
At some point you feel the need to find the slippery edge of your creativity, to understand how it can sometimes be elusively uninterested and sometimes surging in its urgency. You want to understand why you dread the page, held back by the dead weight deep in your stomach, but then when you find your way creepingly into the story you are lost, suspended elsewhere, and then afterwards, you feel weightless and free, unfettered by the things that troubled you before you began writing.
You find many practical answers to your questions in this book, learning about the functions of the frontal cortex, the hippocampus and the basal ganglia, so you can fool yourself into thinking the vagaries are now a navigable journey. In truth, you know the answers are beyond you, beyond language and biology, beyond anything earthly, and really all you need to do is to pay attention, pay your respects to this unknowable universal force, and write.
10. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
In Angelou’s first memoir, she said ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ She told her story with clear-eyed honesty, and you felt the complicated shame of keeping your own secrets in comparison to the simplicity of telling the truth. You find that once you begin telling the truth, it is very difficult to stop.
Of course you are human, so you still have your secrets, but you try to tip the balance towards honesty, and somewhere along the way you discover that writing is a way to find the truth when it has been mired in mystery and muddled perception. If you can achieve a fraction of the elegance and grace that Angelou showed through laying words onto the page, it will be worth the knotted pain of cracking open a difficult truth. And somewhere there, perhaps enlightenment comes.
Brande taught you how to think into your stories. She explained the strange alchemy between movement and creativity, a cocktail of circumstance that is both individual and universal, and, if the measurements are right, as potent as morning light on a sunflower.
Still now you think while washing up, while driving, while soaking prune-like in the bath (also a favourite with Douglas Adams, planning the next turn of events in Hitchhiker’s Guideto the Galaxy, draining the bath and refilling when the water went cold). Movement and thought… movement and thought… as inextricable as love and longing.
A student recommended this book to you, and you were astonished by the fluidity of Strout’s sentences, like rivers of rhythmic words that capture the heart of her characters and the people and places they love. She moves like a spell, into and around her people, slipping through time from past to present to future, collecting and polishing meaning and insight along the way. For similar reasons you fell in love with the writing of Vladimir Nabokov and Laurie Lee, all practitioners in the art of fluid punctuation.
Isolation, repressed emotion, fires of destruction and the shame of insanity all combine to create, for you, the perfect novel. These ideas and themes you revisit again and again in your own fiction and nonfiction, and you secretly hanker to live in an old house on the moors, the wind howling at the walls and windows while you write by candlelight.
Shonagon, a 14th century Japanese noblewoman, wrote her memoir in the form of a list. It is wise and funny, poignant and articulate, and there is a simplicity to list-making that you will be forever drawn to. You will write essays this way, and you will write your blog this way, leaving space for the reader to make her own connections between seemingly disparate items. That space, you have come to understand, is where meaning lies.
apophenia • noun the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things (such as objects or ideas)
Experiment: To take a selection of random words, phrases or ideas and find a meaningful connection between them (meaningful to you, that is).
Method Take 1x novel, 1x textbook and 1x catalogue and choose items at random. Write them down and stare at them. Stare out your window until thoughts begin to unravel from each item. Wait until these unravellings begin to find one other.
Materials Novel — Pine, by Francine Toon Textbook — Teaching Today, by Geoff Petty Catalogue — Crystal & Gem, by Dr R. F. Symes & Dr R. R. Harding Pilot G-2 07 pen + Leuchtturm Notebook + several hours of lockdown isolation
Experiment 1 Base materials: ‘driving home’ + ‘student interest’ + Abrasive behaviour Observations: This one is easy, coincidental even. You barely even need to stare out the window as the words come at you already unraveled and connected into the story of a student you taught several years ago. She had an abrasive character, a mature student whose interest was in lodging a litany of complaints against you, as she had done with almost all her tutors. You were called in to talk it over with your manager, and on your drive home you were glad you sent certain emails to this student that proved your innocence. You also reflected on how you should really learn how to use the classroom technology, as this was one complaint that stuck. This story comes to you so effortlessly that you wonder if your base materials were tinged with an excess of serendipity, so that you haven’t experienced apophenia at all. Result: Inconclusive
Experiment 2 Base materials: ‘hungry’ + ‘discipline’ + Lenticular Observations: You begin by discovering that lenticular means ‘shaped like a lentil or lens, from the latin, lenticula, a lentil’, and according to Crystal & Gem, the shape of gypsum crystals. You are struck again by the coincidence (related to serendipity) of this word being placed alongside ‘hungry’. The main character in the novel Pine, ten year-old Lauren, is hungry a lot, her father not neglectful but distracted by grief. He never gives her lentils to eat. You, on the other hand, would smuggle lentils and all manor of pulses and vegetables into your children’s food, but on the whole, discipline was not present at family dinners. You discovered in your own childhood that conflict at the dinner table does not make for happy children. You imagine that taking three disparate words and finding yourself at your childhood dinner table constitutes ‘meaningful connection’. Result: Observable evidence recorded
Experiment 3 Base materials: ‘the traffic vanishes’ + Scheme of Work + moonstone Observations: A relative once told you that she saw her thoughts as traffic passing through her brain, the good and the bad coming and going, all vanishing eventually. A scheme of work in teaching circles is a long term plan over a semester or a year, which surely requires the traffic to stick around for long enough for you to at least see what’s in the boot or lying around in the glove compartment. If you found The Moonstone in the boot, for example, you would seriously consider it as a teaching resource. You regularly teach The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, so why not Wilkie Collins’ seminal detective novel? You are someone who likes to plan (note ‘plan’ rather than ‘scheme’), so your mind is regularly a car park with book-filled cars just hanging around waiting for you to root around inside them. Only then do you let them vanish, while enjoying what remain of the humming vibration of their engines. You initially felt this would be the most taxing experiment, but with enough strong black coffee it seems that anything can be achieved (although reference should be made to the ‘balony’ phenomena referenced below) Result: Conclusive and catagorical evidence recorded
Conclusion: All available evidence points to you having a convincingly severe case of apophenia, which you suspected from the outset. You have always believed it was a natural way of being, looking for the truth between the gaps, the light within the darkness. Why are we here if not to connect to each other and everything around us?
Further research informs you that it was the German neurologist, Klaus Conrad, who first coined the word apophenia for seeing connections in random or meaningless data. He deduced it was a form of psychotic thought that could lead to schizophrenia, but luckily for you, and the human race at large, the science historian Michael Shermer later explained that this need to plug ourselves and everything together is merely because our brains do not contain the necessary ‘baloney-detection network’ that would tell us if we’re looking at a true or false pattern.
You are happy to be accused of baloney if you can continue to seek out those things that connect together, things that give meaning to the precarious randomness of our daily lives.
And while you think about it, surely there are many stories to be found in Symes & Harding’s Crystal & Gem, so perhaps you won’t put that book back in the boot, not just yet…
You live in a town that likes to festival. Back in 1861 the first was founded, an agriculture and cheese show that celebrated country life. For a long time it was held in the small show ground within the town, its gentle slopes filled with stalls to supply all your country needs, cattle and sheep paraded around the ring to win rosettes and admiration. In recent times this festival has become so big it has moved out to the true countryside, where the vast fields are carpeted with people and stalls and machinery and creatures of many kinds.
Other festivites include a lantern procession through the streets before the Christmas tree is illuminated in the market square. Then there is the Chocolate Festival, the Vegan Festival, the Steam Punk Festival. The summer festival sees the town busy with writers working in shop windows, poets reciting their work on a soap-box, musicians singing and playing in pubs and cafes, houses opened up to exhibit art or reveal their hidden gardens.
There is a market every Wednesday and Saturday, but it is the monthly Sunday market that has grown like a living breathing being, the veins of the town filled with stalls selling jewellery and ceramics and glassware and sumptuous knitwear and food from Africa and Greece and Thailand and Korea and the West Country. And cheese of course, and things that go with cheese, such as chutneys and pickles and chilli jams. And the townspeople and the townsvisitors browse and buy and eat, pause to talk to strangers or long-found friends, and sing or sway to the live music playing at the centre of it all.
You wonder if this instinct to gather is a throwback to the days of the carpet factories, wool mills and printers that kept your town alive, vast spaces of noise and industry where everyone arrived together, worked together, left together, so that together felt like the natural order of things. But then, at the turn of the nineteenth century, togetherness was disrupted like a slice through the vein. A photograph of Gentle Street circa 1918 shows the cobbled street and roofs thick with snow, not a single person to be seen, and you wonder, are all the mill workers at home staying snug from the cold, or have they locked their doors for fear of the Spanish flu?
And now, over a century later, the streets are quiet again. Instead there is a slow flow of existence through the roads and side streets and interlocking pathways. There is more walking than driving, more pausing to watch a water rat swimming across the river, more smiling at unfamiliar faces, more cakes delivered to your door, more spending your money in independent shops and cafes on take-away anything in the hope they will stay open.
And the snow falls again. You walk with your lover around the old cheese show ground, watching the children and adults build snow men and women, throwing powdering snow balls at each other’s backs or rolling snow into giant shapes like plinths waiting for a sculpture. You watch children and adults slide down the slopes on brightly coloured sledges or re-commissioned plastic bags. And there is a sound in the air, both muffled by the crystal carpet and sharp from the sky-blue clarity of the day, the sound of people drawing together in one place, the sound of collective purpose, collective thought, a collective way of being.
You live in a town that likes to festival. In whatever way they can.
‘Then here again aretwo lovers, flesh pressed to flesh … their bed heaves as with the swell of the sea, whispers and sways, as if it were itself alive and joyful because it was seeing the consummation of the rapturous mystery of love.’ from Le Lit, by Guy de Maupassant
47. The bed is a place of many things. Of love and motherhood, of rest and illness, of tranquility and turmoil. You know people who write and study here, who watch films, who don a suit and go to work on their laptops here, who meditate, who read books or listen to music, who argue and make peace here. Some count the number of sleeps until escape or joy or adventure, and some resist the count when the only escape is sleep.
When your son acquired chicken pox at four months old, he was so jarred with discomfort that you brought him into your bed and laid him on your body, chest to chest, skin to skin. He slept and woke sporadically at the itch and the sore, and you placed your hand on his back or stroked the soft down of his hair until he slept again. You didn’t sleep that night, but you knew that this state of wakeful bliss was what it meant to be a mother.
A bed of carved ebony was found in the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amen, in Thebes. The legs of the bed were shaped like a cat’s, and the foot-panel was overlaid with gold and garlanded with petals, fruits, papyrus and sedge.
There was a time when you lived nomadically, the bed of each surrogate home the anchor of your nocturnal life. There was the hard mattress and cool sheets of your friend’s spare room, where your restless nights were filled with longing and confusion after your relationship ended. There was the sofa-bed at your daughter’s house, so nubbed with raw springs that you had to unroll memory foam onto its surface, transforming it into a soft and yielding burrow, a respite from the turmoil of your emotions.
Frida Kahlo began her artistic career by painting the surgical corset that encased her bed-bound body while she recovered from a horrific accident. It is said that Winston Churchill dictated much of his six volumes of The Second World War from his bed. Other bed-nestling writers include Voltair, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain and John Milton. Composers of opera have also been reluctant to leave their beds, including Paisiello, Rossini, Donizetti and Puccini. Rossini once dropped a new aria on the floor, but instead of leaving the warmth of his bed to retrieve it, he stayed where he was and wrote another.
Maupassant’s sea-swell lovers ‘mingle in this divine kiss—this kiss which opens the gate to heaven on earth, this kiss which sings of human delights, promising all…’. You have recently come to know this mingling, absorbed in the moment of not knowing the end or beginning of yourself, your lover or the bed itself, all one thing and fully part of the world within and without the warm hold of time and place.
In Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting The Bed, you see a couple burrowed deep under the covers with just their heads showing, nested into shimmering white pillows. They seem to be thick with sleep, hair mussed, but their eyes are open and they hold each other in a steady gaze, taking in the features of the face that shapes the mood of each day and night. You imagine them to be a long-married couple, but then you discover they are prostitutes, this the most famous painting in Lautrec’s series depicting the inhabitants of a Parisian brothel in the late nineteenth century. You are reminded again that you can never truly know a couple’s reality, even when viewing them at their most vulnerable and intimate.
You once had to choose between two people, what seemed like an intractable decision that felt jagged in the vessels of your mind and heart. One night you went to bed and lay staring at the ceiling, preparing to ask a question in the hope that your dreams or the simple nocturnal passing of time would provide the answer, knowing that truths lay in the hours spent in the shadow of the earth. You raised the words in your mind and let the question mark hang, let yourself open up to sleep, but instead you felt a swift rush of imagination and there you were, standing with another, the two of you as solid and definitive as the pillow beneath your head. The question was answered. You understand now that the soft warm of the bed, the familiar scent of yourself and the enveloping darkness had all loosened the coils of your mind to present the future that had always been there, as surprising as it was inevitable.
46. Today the river that runs through your town is high after days of rain, a fine mist rising from the weir. Her water is brown and thick, the currents and eddies rippling the surface as she seeks out a favourable path, finding pleasure in her intimate relationship with the land.
You and your sister have both lost shoes to this river. Your sister, many years ago when her then boyfriend swept her up on the bridge, lifting her from her feet and swinging her around, a shoe flying over the edge and into the water to be taken away by the current. You, many years later, walking across the same bridge in sandals, the leather snapping and the sandal skittering across to the edge where it slipped between the bars and dropped into the water like a gift. You stood for a moment, none of your life lessons preparing you for this moment, one foot shod, the other foot bare. Finally you knew what to do. You took off the remaining sandal and put it in your bag, continuing your shopping barefoot. Your sister went on to marry her shoe-hoisting boyfriend, and perhaps somewhere downriver your shoes dwell together too.
Today the river feels like the heart of the town, walkers gloved and hatted, talking together or walking apart, children laughing and running along the mulch-strewn path, the crows cawing from tree crowns, the ivy curling around branches or trailing into the water, feeling her flow and giving thanks for the continual provision of nourishment.
In To the River, Olivia Laing writes: ‘I am haunted by water . . . I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby.’ Her river of ease is the Ouse, where Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself, and Laing goes on to quote from the poet Czeslaw Milosz: ‘When it hurts, we return to the banks of certain rivers.’ Perhaps it is the constant shifting of water that we find so comforting, a reflection of our emotions that ebb and flow beneath the shimmering surface of our eyes.
Today a girl paddles in her canoe, her fists and cheeks red with cold, her breath billowing white. Sometimes she feels the pleasure of flowing with the current, sometimes she turns and forces her will upstream, testing her other perceptions with questions of how? or why? or when?, the press of water against her paddle gauging how much she listens to the answers.
Your copy of Laing’s book has wrinkled pages that are stiff with grit, as though it has been brought up from the riverbed itself. You bought it second-hand and it arrived in the post this way. You imagine someone receiving your order, going down to the river to fish for a copy, carefully drying it before parceling it up with your address. You imagine a river that is teeming with books, their covers shimmering in the dappled sunlight, a whole ecosystem of thought waiting to be fished. By now we would surely have overfished, the scarcity of wild books making them a prized commodity on anyone’s bookshelf. Or we will have found to way to farm them, feeding the ready market to those who can tolerate a thinner version that may or may not be infected with page mite.
In the summer you see the river rats scuttling across the path or swimming in the water. A woodpecker has bored a nest into the tree and you sit listening to the cheep cheep cheep of her chicks, their mother flitting back and forth and occasionally hammering on the trunk in annoyance at their impatience. Be quiet, she tells them, I’m here now. There are swans and ducks, dragonflies and bees, and the stirring movement of fish beneath the surface. Sometimes there is pollution too, icebergs of brown foam that send the wildlife into the ragged edges of undergrowth.
You walk along the river nearly every day and every day her character changes depending on the weather and the wildlife, the growth of trees and bushes and brambles, the events that happen upstream. But always she flows strong and smooth, feeling the riverbed as her closest friend. You feel the continuity of your own surface but know that you are still mutable, your friends, your family, your lover, your home, all forming the riverbank and riverbed for your own freedom of flow.
The first time you lived alone was in an attic bedsit in Laura Place, Bath. Your window overlooked the rugby field and you shared a cold bathroom with the woman across the hall. You were nineteen years old, and for many years you’d longed for solitude and freedom, but now that it was here you had too much time and not enough wisdom to know what to do with it.
You were studying at catering college, back in the days when the Government paid young people to learn. On the way home from class you bought your food for the week from the vegetable stall at the Guildhall market. You practiced your new-found cooking skills on the two-ring stove, tortellini with white wine sauce a speciality.
Once, you invited your student friends around for a party; flame-haired Rachel from Liverpool who was quick as a whip; butch Martha who found an equally butch girlfriend by the end of the course; gentle James who was darkly handsome and in love with the blonde Melissa; the sullen Tom who dressed like he was homeless but whose parents were so wealthy they lived much of the year in the Cayman Islands.
You wish now that this party had involved drinking games, dancing and kissing, but no, it was a decorating party, everyone invited to strip wallpaper from the crumbling Georgian walls with occasional breaks for scalding cups of tea and cheap biscuits.
The wall beside your bed was cracked and crumbling and when everyone had left you began digging into it. You kept on digging as though there was something to discover, but all you found was a giant hole and the panic of knowing you were truly lost and detached in this small attic room in the centre of the city. You gave up trying to find the end of the hole and began filling it with fresh plaster, layer upon layer until the wall was bulging like a gently pregnant woman.
Eventually you moved out to live with your boyfriend, who you married after a few years. You had two children and a collection of meaningless jobs, you went on holidays, celebrated Christmases and birthdays, you wrote novels and raised your children, you went to university and became a teacher. At some point along the way you realized how the heft of your days were driven by the needs and wants of others, marriage and motherhood a secretive cage that was kept in plain sight, your children the prize that kept you blinded to the bars. So you got divorced, you travelled, you met people, you loved and you lost people.
And now, thirty years after living alone for the first time, you finally live alone again. Daily you relish your return home to find your water glass on the counter where you left it, still imprinted with the shape of your lip. You dance before breakfast, light candles at the window, stay in your pajamas to write. You pause at your window to see the rooftops of your town, the smoke-curling chimney pots, the church spire, the greenhouses and gardens, the multitude of birds and trees and cumulus clouds. You stand and wait for the setting sun. You close your eyes and feel the room pulse to your own beat, knowing there are no holes in the wall you are trying to fill.
Now you have time and you choose how to use it. At your window you feel apart from everything and a part of everything. You stand and breathe, feeling time stretch wide and long before you.