Mon seul désir

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

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

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

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

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

Yid

Look at my Father’s hands. Flat, fleshy spades, golden bands slid over swelling knuckles. I cannot imagine my Mother ever wanting those hands on her body, but the loneliness of women is chilling. Many will do anything, no matter how grotesque, to end it.

Look at my Father’s eyes. They are still sharp, and they drift and settle, drift and settle, like snow. They carry about as much warmth. He watches the door to see who enters and who leaves, lazily assesses people walking past the window, but when he looks into your face his concentration is absolute. He is scanning your words and expression for a chink into which he might slip the blade. He is less menacing these days. The backs of his hands are crinkling with age and his eyebrows are turning grey, but an old wolf is still a wolf. Blunt teeth can still puncture and tear. He grins, showing me those teeth.

‘You wanted to talk about the family history?’

I sit up straighter in my chair, my spine fairly gasps with relief. ‘You know I said I was going to do some digging? I found quite a few records with the name, mostly up near the Russian border. Some Holocaust survivors.’

He idly stirs the spoon in his coffee, it is strong and bitter brown. I think it must hurt to drink it.

‘And?’

‘And nothing, really. They’re in the Jewish census, too. A couple of Polish POW records.’

‘Hmm.’ He stares into the near-black liquid. I wonder if he can see his face in it.

‘Well, keep it down.’

‘The prisoners of war?’

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‘No, the Jews.’ His eyes flick back to my face. They are a milky, clouded blue, as though cataracts might be blooming underneath the colour. I might think that were the case if they hadn’t always been this way. His nose is bulbous and red from drink. Once, on one of his rare visits since his infamous abandonment of me in Manchester city centre, he was so drunk he relieved himself in my bedroom sink.

‘There was talk of an rather infamous French Jewess, and of course your great-great-grandmother, but she converted to Catholicism, you know.’

I did know. My Grandfather’s memoirs tell of ‘That high, dark lady with the veil who was so in love she converted to our faith.’

‘What about cousin Jakub? And Dawid?’

He shrugs, grimaces. He was not, so far as I knew, an anti-semite, but then it was years before it was disclosed to me that he was a clinical sociopath, too. An ex gun-runner. A man with skeletons in the hold. Scorched earth spinning around a dead sun. ‘A lot of these sprawling Polish families have Jewish and Catholic branches.’

‘Same tree, though.’

‘Aren’t we all?’

I concede the point. ‘The First World War records are interesting. It’s there, too. Lots of Bavarian soldiers.’

‘German soldiers? Really?’

I nod. He bursts out laughing, drawing the curious gazes of other diners. He has what I believe is known as an infectious laugh, warm and expansive. People turn towards it like sunflowers to our star, unable to repress the sympathetic curling of their own mouth. It is utterly at odds with the rest of him, and I wonder how such a precise machine came by such a human attribute.

‘Oh! Oh, that’s wonderful! Oh, he’d have been heartbroken!’

He is speaking of his own Father. Tortured in the G.U.L.A.G. Suffused with painful honour and corrosive hatred. A hundred nails scratching against the inside of a jar.

Zdzisław is still rocking with laughter. ‘A bunch of Kraut bayonet-bashers and Jews, all mixed up with his noble Polish blood and his precious Catholic sentiment, oh, he’d have been furious!’

I am staring at the backs of my hands. They feel the cold easily, it is winter now and they feel stiff, swollen and raw. They look old today, the skin is too thin. Sluggish blood beneath.

He breathes deeply, becomes serious. ‘You know he used to walk miles everyday to go to school. His brothers couldn’t even read, but he traded everything he had for books. He used to read them in the attic when they were all farming potatoes.’

‘Yes, I know.’ I have a picture of him somewhere, this complicated, displaced man. Skin the colour of strong tea. Serious eyes. Thin little spectacles. I wonder at the boy he must have been, walking until he dropped for the printed word’s particular magic. I imagine him squinting as his eyesight failed him young. I imagine the ridicule from his stolid, dirt-stained, practical brothers.

My Father is rolling one of his disgusting, liquorice-papered cigarettes. He taps it thoughtfully against his lips. ‘Fourteen miles every day! And for what? Books!’ He shakes his head, chuckling. ‘What a Pole! What a Yid.’

Momentum

Opposite my window lurks the gaunt, grey shadow of the old people’s home. I look straight into their dining room, lit almost every hour with dim, soothing lights. The glint of ready cutlery. There is one woman in particular who sits out in the garden when she can, and always on the second-floor balcony at three. She wears a white dress and has beautifully styled hair the same bleached linen colour. The White Woman. Last time she was sitting out there she had a birthday balloon tied to her chair. My neighbour and I were going to take some roses around, but we got drunk in the afternoon and forgot.

I feel like pounding my fist against the door with a question – what the hell happened to me over the last few years? Too much solitude, the keyhole whispers. That long, dark brain of yours ate the silence and then it ate you. I ended up hating this pretty town; endless rainy pavements mocking every step, the ocean’s whisper sultry and lethal: ‘Come away, come away with me.’ I was most happy – back to the question of happiness – on a little boat, surging out to a jagged full stop of an Irish island, salt-fresh, lungs expanding. The sensation of movement (this is also why I adore trains). I clung on to some railings with the flute strapped to my back in case we sank and smoked cigarettes with a cable-knit man, so massive his shoulders took out the last view of the vanishing mountains. That was happiness, simply moving forward in no-place, no-time. A speck of flesh with momentum. The sea is so hungry and deathly and uncaring and obsessed with its own momentum too. I didn’t rate my chances if we flunked it, smooth as it was that day. The sun beating it into diamonds in a second when earth takes a million years to be so intensified.

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The Glass Boat, 2009

And then I was back, heavy again. Back into the world of execs quibbling over cab fare, back into the world of birds that sing only when the traffic dims down its white-noise mechanical hum at the close of day, or the opening of it. Back to the world of the communal (yet also of the solitary and desolate, as without action the relationship between you and the other lives stacked up above and around and below would remain passive and insensate). It’s too peculiar. I can feel the splinters of other lives in the walls working into the skin of my own, getting under the cells and itching there, like a piano being played atonal in the next room.

I said once to him that other people’s lives picked me out like torchlight; a beam slung under a canal at midnight, and all you can see are skeletal shopping trolleys and the dark, rainbow obsidian gleam of dirty water. Toads, reeds like green razors. Broken radios that have stopped talking about stranglings in basement flats and other unfortunate things that end always, always, in boxes being lowered into the exhausted ground. One of the windows opposite has been dark for a while, a tiny postage stamp of black. There is no wheelchair patiently parked on the balcony at three. I don’t think the White Woman is coming back.

Vampire Hunting in Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liminal

In the dream (because I am still dreaming odd, impossible dreams) I am running down a naked road at night, taxiing down it like a plane in the muted glow of the the dim streetlights; and my foot hits the ground in one decisive smack, propelling me into the air, and I’m suddenly back in the lucid indigo sleep of my childhood full of these secret flights. I rise quickly, grinning and giddy, my arms out at my sides. I know I can go anywhere, anywhen; open those doors hidden between seasons and orbiting stars and behind the rain and leap.  I turn as the wind streams around my limbs, thinking of a name…The scenery streaks past me like messy oil paint until I arrive…But I can’t find them in the great green field I’m standing in, butter-bright sun lighting up the grasses.

I feel myself settle back into my skin. Someone is next to me, sitting on the sofa blanket. I open my eyes suddenly, and now no one is there. Sometimes that happens, someone, something, follows me back. I hate these things; chittering, scrabbling creatures sniffing around the melting candle of my wandering spirit.

As a child, I never knew whether these nocturnal journeys were simply the whorls of my brain processing the day or if I was always lifting out of myself like smoke; so lightly tethered to my own flesh that falling asleep was one long, easy exhalation out of my mouth. Ectoplasmic, mystical, free.

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Now, for some reason, they’re back. I close my eyes and find myself in the ocean, or between the clouds, or standing in an unknown city; all reflections, clean metal and blown glass. Sometimes I visit places more than once – the cemetery with tombs engraved in a language I’ve never seen; the chapel that changes historical period every time I’m there; the grove of tall firs with a granite throne, covered in moss and ivy; and the city, of course. That golden glass citadel, temple bells ringing, saffron-yellow silk hanging from the doors and windows.

I don’t know; perhaps the fragile-fingered grip on my own sanity is loosening again. These explorations between dimensions mean I don’t sleep well, barely rest. Is it spiritual? Is it mental? I no longer know…I just desire a dreamless night, the cells of my body calmly soaking up the hours. If anyone knows how to stay nestled safely within your own soft shell, let me know.

Licking Toads

I see you. On trains and escalators; buying bread and walking the dogs. I see you clutching history books and muddy hiking boots in plastic bags. Invisible or too visible, broomsticks disguised as vacuum cleaners and butterflies nesting in your hair, cunningly mimicking plastic clips. I see you on the train; toying with old necklaces, picking scars, scribbling in miniature notebooks, sipping cans of pre-mixed Gin & Tonic.

I see you when you are young, and sad, and waiting to blossom; way behind the other girls. Barely tethered to the world, on slim and lonely paths the deer wend through the green; or padding through the city alleys, urban fox paws slipping out of denim jacket sleeves. I wonder if you are like me. I wonder where the cauldron is, it will be somewhere in your body but not full yet, or not ready to be tasted on the end of a burned thumb, like Gwion Bach. You must believe that your wet-leather skin is no less beautiful than the plumage of the blossoming girls. I see you. I see you when you too are riding the Hedge of a liminal late decade and the reality of your life – of what your life could be – is sinking in like clay.

I sit on those same itchy train seats with my own history books and fizzy green water. There are stoat bones around my neck and I am wearing sensible shoes and a lone dash of badly applied lipstick. I have started seeing you everywhere; in cafes and churches and doctor’s waiting rooms and yes, always, always on the train – or at least waiting on platforms speckled with gum like a hen’s egg. Toad Women. I see you everywhere phasing like ghosts through linen as I hoard more years, as I grow into my role with relish, leaning into the crooked bones of my house.

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I, too, am a Toad Woman. I have glittering eyes and hallucinogenic skin. A jewel hidden inside my head. I creep through dying leaves and pond sludge, fingertips sipping eccentric nutrients from moon-drenched soil. My palace is a hollow space in the earth to sleep in, my great hall is lined with lichen tapestries and pillars of decaying mushrooms. When I sleep, it’s to the sound of rain seeping through the tangled roots of my canopy bed.

I am glad for the invisible circle of us; sometimes one, sometimes thirteen. Endlessly together in our strange sisterhood, the ocean forever rolling stones around its mouth. I wait in threshold spaces for you to appear; public gardens, libraries, zebra crossings, A&E. Without fail I will spot another Toad Woman even if she is sitting behind me, with those extra, shiny black eyes rolling around the back of my skull like dice. Then I swivel my neck, Minerva’s owl, cough. She understands; she too has a throat full of mouse bones and hair from mourning lockets. She also feels the creak in that one glowing rib.

Come and creep with me. Let’s discover hare’s nests and hidden green stems no human eye has ever seen. Let’s slip between the loose stones in the wall, where tiny purple flowers thrive. Let’s find all the holy wells where a saint’s head fell, and hold out cups of silver, wood and gold. Let us rejoice, because the water tastes of myrrh, and apples.

No Space for Wild Girls

I never stop marvelling at our changing world.

When I was young, and could have sailed away on the sheer volume of my tears as I looked for somewhere I belonged, the world made sure I was buried alive; pushed down to explore fierce underworlds illuminated only by rock quartz and fireflies. Spittle on the bus and fractured fingers, and later, blister packs full of soothing syllables to keep the lid on a boiling girl. These were the days of dial-up AOL taking wobbling steps toward the future; of plastic barbed wire bracelets and grimacing around smeared cherry lip gloss and wondering how to be like them. Girls. Girls My Age. The ones who could talk together without creating awkward silences around them; they went to town in groups and got good science grades despite laughing through class and the boys liked them. They didn’t embarrass their families by getting caught naked in the open-air community swimming pool after breaking in to feel the water against their limbs in ripples of living silk. They didn’t sleep in their clothes. Or see ghosts.

I know, things were different for me even beyond the realms of alternative then. Lying on scratchy hospital linen, I wondered how I’d got there. I knew girls in baggy grunge shirts and thick kohl eyeliner, who streaked their hair pillarbox red and wore their outcast status like medals. They were spat on too, sometimes, but they were never in the bed next to mine. Perhaps they hid their Otherness better, or kept their scars from stumbling through womanhood’s bramble patch a secret underneath their long sleeves. I never hurt myself like that, in descending ladders of shiny white tissue; but I saw the world in wild paint and heard music in empty rooms, and spent too many hours in an obscure and mystical world of my own. I tasted the fresh trails of other lives and infinite possibility on the air the same way you know the season is changing; when the sweet breath of spring exhales itself into the world, or a frost yet to fall on orange leaves flicks out an icy tail in premonition. I worshiped the world too strongly, saw it without veils.

Back then, you didn’t talk about it. You took your pills and were mute as a novice under new and silent vows. It would upset your family, damage your chances, if anyone knew you weren’t a real girl. You took step after blind step through the thicket, heart and eyes held out in your hands for wicked queens to eat. There was no space for wild girls. When your ears pricked up, you flattened them down before anyone could see and cry wolf. When a rogue feather sprung out through a papercut, you apologised, smoothed it back down with handfuls of spilled oil, and brushed the fledgling stars firmly out of your hair.

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Now I see them in colourful crowds or unapologetically alone. On the bus, online; packs of wild girls, with watercolour hair and winged dreams. The world blinked while I was away, busy being an aura floating in drugged isolation; it had code pumped straight into its veins that changed its digital DNA forever. In just five, seven, ten years; the lungs of the globe expanded and suddenly all those girls like me could breathe easier too. I see them striding purposefully through the tube station, across the road, with sleek fur and smiling lips, hips that demand space to swivel, teeth out and dipped in ink, and know they are bolder than I could ever be. Whether they live with or without a diagnosis, minds clear or clouded, they live.

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It feels too late for me.

I know – it sounds so defeated, so self-pitying – but I have years of this enforced solitude and doctor’s orders like bleached cotton bandages wrapped around my head, and don’t know if my skin could take this new sun after all. I feel too old to join the pack. I’m just a handful of years ahead of this tidal wave of new women tumbling sand and sea glass into something more refined, but what a difference those years have made. Or perhaps it’s the toffee time effect of all those waiting rooms blurring into one another; perhaps I’ve sat behind so much shatter-proof glass it’s simply grown around me.

Now there is space for wild girls. They tap destinations into online journey planners with foxes’ claws. When they get papercuts and a hawk’s feather springs out, they laugh, and test its strength against the wind. I hope you soar as high and far as you wish, now that the sky is open.