Courageous Life

I say, ‘I’m going to write you a letter, do you mind? I prefer it to emailing, it’s more personal.’ When you write somebody a letter, you give them secrets from within your body; breath, sweat, the outline of your lips, fingerprints. Barely legible.

I am in France at the time; Lorgues to be precise. The scent of wild thyme drifts through the baking air. At night, the croaking of green frogs carries through the garden; in the heat of day, the slithering of black lizards across the yellow stone walls.

Everyone has gone out. It is just me, pen flickering over virgin paper.

Yesterday I saw a woman walking slowly, painfully up a hill to the church. Her footfalls were like a penance, her face was veiled in a red shawl. I wonder if she waits there in the candlelight for the solemn wooden faces of the Saints to part their lips and speak. I wonder if she believes they listen to her. I wonder what she is thinking.

I wish he was here, this man I barely know. This un-stranger. I watch a jade-green mantis slowly climb up a pile of terracotta pots. I take walks in the olive grove. Wild boar lurk in the forest beyond; sometimes in the morning you can catch a glimpse of their thick, iron-grey bodies shouldering through the little trees.

The light this morning was a miraculous pale gold, flowing over the cobbles, illuminating the painted shutters – I wondered what you would think of it. I wanted to hear your opinion, I wondered if we would see the same scene or if you would pick out different shapes and colours.

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It means ‘I miss you,’ but I do not write out those words.

The beauty in the world must be honoured by a courageous life; I worry that I’m falling short.

The smell of the wild herbs is overpowering. I can still taste coarse meat on my tongue. Sweet wine and peach juice.

I pick a sprig of thyme; rosemary; a few olive leaves from the grove. I slip them into the letter in the hope they will carry the scent of this Eden to him across the sea. I summon my courage. The patient mouth of the post box swallows this new piece of me, and I stand there for a while, arms hanging simply, breathing even. The red rooftops scattered through the valley are hazy in the heat, the vast green carpet of the forest stretches away. I am weightless and without form. I am ascending.

La Sirene

Waxed leather; a shooting jacket. The smell of it was like laying back in a mouldering armchair. In the dim light of the port, I thought he looked like a spy. The drained vessel of my body is docked in the crook of his arm.

We half-wake, unconsciously shifting closer together. We have both sealed up our bodies against the whipcord of cold. The ferry will not be here for another five hours. Trembling fingers have long lost their grip on cardboard coffee cups. I have forgotten where I am supposed to be going; I have already reached the destination of this unfamiliar man.

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My head lolls on his shoulder; his skull is flung back, resting against a dirty holdall. We are in a grey desert beyond tiredness; when I open my eyes the world has no definition, only a thick mist over the water. His hair is long and dirty blonde; it tickles my frozen cheek. Somewhere in my chest, I feel infantile sobs cracking like ice. The glare of harsh overhead lights is reflected in a dozen windows, a blinding kaleidoscope. Safer, better, to close my eyes again.

I imagine my fingers curling over the rail of the ferry, leaning forward to watch dark water churning below. I laugh because even the dull metal belly of the boat has direction when I do not. My hands grasp at unravelling thread in a monstrous Labyrinth, the bellow of the Minotaur sounds a long way away. Hansel’s white pebbles beckon my feet down a crooked path; the birds that fly about the wood have eaten all of my cunning crumbs.

Queen of Hungary Water

In the bed this morning, I found a single long, blonde hair. It cannot be mine; my hair is dull bronze brown, and short. Carefully, I make my coffee very strong and dark so I can sip it as the sun phases through the long, crimson curtains and believe myself in some Moroccan bazaar. What clothes does she wear? What does she eat? How many times did she open up this big sash window and taste traces of sea salt in the breeze, feet pressing like cat’s paws into my sheets? Transfixed, I wind it around my fingers; fine and intimate, thinner than memory.

I listen to the cold dawn pass underneath my window, shivering, half-dreaming. It’s monstrous, how much is going on in the world at any one time. Somewhere, a hand is gripping the armrest of the airplane seat; bacon is frying in a thousand pans; a mother is pulling a soft, chemical-clean t-shirt over her daughter’s hair. It is the 10/10/10. Around me people awake to their lucky wedding days and superstitious c-sections.

I place the hair between the pages of a thick book, ghostly and near-intangible, visible only in the lazy dance of Saturday sunlight. Perhaps it’s sex, perhaps he loves her. She must be a thing of unimaginable delicacy.

​​​*​​​*​​​*

‘Seguine will be there.’ That’s how he referred to her, surname alone. Breaking eggs into a bowl. Sleep-ruffled hair, striped blue pyjamas. ‘So at least one person you know.’

​​​I pour more coffee, the sun on the backs of my hands. They look old today, skin thin with the need for water.

‘I haven’t seen her in years.’

‘Perfect time to catch up then.’ The empty shells are that perfect, freckled honey-brown that makes you sad to have to break them.

‘She might be different.’

‘People like that don’t change, and anyway, aren’t you different?’

I say I haven’t made my mind up yet. I retreat to the study half suffocated by ivy, where a sliver of his other woman is trapped in a book on Seneca; where each new season teases out a different kind of mould, forty minutes from our glittering capital. The sound of a knife rhythmically hitting the wooden board like an axe, Luke executing ham.

Seguine will be there.

A steaming plate is dumped in front of me, an omelette folded over melted Gruyere, pink meat slices sticking out like bookmarks. I put a basil leaf in my mouth, the taste is always new, somehow. Isn’t Basil supposed to be holy? That’s something I used to know.

Seguine will be there.

Luke folds his cutlery neatly on his plate and speaks slowly, deliberately; like someone who’s been waiting all night to lay their ace on the table.

‘She’s bringing her new boyfriend.’

Ah, but I’m clever, I already know. Facebook messenger is today’s Hermes, winged feet have already delivered the news.

‘Yes, Finn. Something in computers, isn’t he?’ My eyes are innocent as milk. Head down, he watches his shot hiss harmlessly into the water and clears his things away.

I think about booking my ticket secretly, so I can arrive at a different time to him; enjoy the white noise of the train as it speeds through the countryside; watching the fields change colour, the mountains looming suddenly out of low cloud and heat haze. I’ve been clinging stubbornly to my introversion all week; no, I don’t want to spend a week with near-strangers forcing small, safe words out of myself, and yet…I hear forks clatter in the steel belly of the sink as Luke scrapes everything clean. Padding in feline silence across the blue Turkish carpet to the bedroom, I open the dresser drawer silently, take the top off the elegant bottle nestled under plain cotton knickers and neutral t-shirt bras.

Inhale.

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***

I ​​​​​​think my favourite things are doors painted white.’ We were talking across shared plates, thin slices of carpaccio like stained glass meat.

‘Why?’

She shrugged, looking at the ceiling as though the answer was hidden in the rough, cobweb-haunted beams. No one but us and two tight blue-grey buns in pearls sipping coffee at the other end of the room, shaking their heads at that woman daring to show her face at Mass.

What about her boys? They’ll have to change school.

​​​​​​Did you see his face? Went white, completely white.

Married, you know, this other one.

Took Communion! Face like butter wouldn’t.

Trollop.

Earrings, something brassy and Indian, tinkled like pixie bells. ‘There’s just so much potential.’ Trista said finally. ‘They might be new or old, they could go anywhere; I could open a door like that and be in Rome, or a forest, or at the edge of the sea.’

‘All doors are magic.’ I said, grasping the shape of her thoughts.

‘Exactly.’ She held her glass up to the light with her customary half-smile, watching the wine shift into luminous rubies (Took Communion! Face like butter wouldn’t). ‘But doors painted white are endlessly possible.’

Those words stayed with me all through that hasty lunch, and all along the dusty concrete walk past the station, and all along the carpet to the psychiatrist’s office. I didn’t like this doctor; cool-eyed and remote and sinister somehow. A fairytale witch in polyester pencil skirts shoved into that fluorescent office, manicured fingernails of barley sugar.

I have sixty minutes to explain it all; the sense of being a sun hurtling around the edge of a black hole, never quite falling in even when gravity has crushed you into glittering dust, you remain in orbit, half-eaten. I must have lowered my gaze, eyelids bleached by bobbling hospital cotton. I felt as though the weeks in that place were written indelibly across me; as though every bone was a white linoleum corridor.

She smacked her lips together happily, as though my diagnosis was something vulnerable and tender to get her teeth into, pink and fleshy and served on a bed of clean paper.

‘In personality disorders of this kind, you might experience an unstable sense of self, a persistent lack of identity…Can you relate to that?’

I told her, the taste of truffle oil lingering on my tongue: I am a door painted white. I could be young or old. I could lead anywhere; to the colosseum or to the sea.

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***

Behind me, I can hear laughter spilling out of the kitchen, tinged with blushing pink. Luke watching our hosts fill up their flagon from the vineyard with his mouth open.

How much?

Three litres? Six euros.

Holy shit, we should move here.

I sip my wine and think about curling my body up inside a suitcase and posting myself somewhere he’s never heard of, but Luke is a good man; anyone living with me would need the golden head of a ministering angel, even here in Eden where parma-violet butterflies skip in the gentle, grassy palm of the land, freckled with nodding poppies. Laura, all opulent curves and honey-blonde and Luke’s old college friend, is playing the part of gracious hostess in this villa while the owners are in America. Earlier, she offered his wine taster’s nose a tanned wrist, laughing, a wave of sour sugar settling around our ankles.

‘‘Every woman needs a new scent after a break up.’

Now Luke turns over in the smooth sheets; the glow of the lamp falling over his face. In sleep, he still purses his lips like a judge; eyelids flickering as his earthy features soften, rolling backwards into clay.

***

‘Is it a feminist consciousness thing?’ She said, leafing through the pages. Torn at the corners, the cover splitting where I’d dropped it in the bath.

‘No, I just like reading about them.’

‘So, which is your favourite goddess? Which one do you relate to the most?’

I said, Diana, of course; the boyish hunter-woman of the forests; distant and strange and wild.

‘The Gaulish Celts called her Arduinna, she rode through the Ardennes forest on the back of a wild boar.’

‘Diana was always in the company of women, wasn’t she?’ She tilted her head, regarding me with laughing, dark sapphire eyes. ‘Isn’t that why you went into the wilderness?’

I felt an ugly sweep of blotchy red roar past the collar of my shirt; I’ve never blushed prettily. She giggled, one hand over her mouth. The other set her glass heavily on the table, it had the perfect imprint of her lips around the rim in raspberry.

​​​​​‘Beth told you that too.’ A great gulp of wine, choking on acid.

‘Oh!’ Now she leaned forward, appalled at my trembling lips like a child swallowing awful medicine. ‘Oh shit, I’m sorry…’

I pushed the apology away, boiling with embarrassment and misery. It was suddenly horribly fresh, the crater of a lost love, the site of a pulled tooth. The sensation of spine and hipbones pushing themselves through unwashed skin. Ghosts appear everywhere, on every street corner, in bar booths and lounging at cafe tables. Dead love requires a strict exorcism and you have but one weak-willed and weeping priest.

‘It’s fine.’

‘It’s not fine, look at me.’ She put her hand underneath my chin, tugging my face upwards towards the rainbow glitter of her kitchen fairy lights.

‘Look at me.’

She stroked my cheek quickly, as though it were too hot to touch. Then slowly, soothing the red puffiness away with the moisturiser in her bag. I wondered at the smell, somehow familiar, as it sank quickly into my skin. She told me it was the rosemary I could smell, because the cream contained Queen of Hungary Water.

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​​​*​​​*​​​*

We have a storm.

I stand like a child at the bedroom window, mouth open, skin prickling with delight. The sky is a flickering patchwork of violent, palpitating clouds, the thunder sounds as though the air is tearing itself apart; folding inwards in a quantum equation. The sky is imploding above Arduinna’s tall house.

A great fork of lightning streaks towards the earth, and I wonder if she’s called it to herself; the goddess riding through the forest, lithe and golden and free. I can see her, ragged-haired in her short tunic and hunting boots, racing through the long pines; the air reeking of warm rain and animal sweat. The wine I’ve drunk rolls around inside me like melting copper; I feel as though I could fly out to the rain-soaked trunks of the trees. I can hear the patter of hooves on the wet soil, I can feel prickly bristles between my fingers. This is her gift, I think, drunkenly. This is a seduction.

When Luke comes to bed I am half conscious, daydreaming on the emerald satin coverlet. The back of my hands are soft with moisturiser, shea butter and almond cream.

‘Are you alright?’

‘Happy.’ I murmur, the rain has done its work and rinsed the inside of my skull clean.

‘Good,’ He slides his body between the sheets, voice peevish and thin. ‘You could be more social, you know. I said you were still tired and needed sleep.’

I nod as though my head were suspended above my body. Downstairs I can hear Laura clinking glasses with her tinkling laugh. I don’t care what people think is happening in this bed; I am hovering above it, cocooned in white fire, making love to a spirit.

***

The sun gleams off the surface of the pool until the blue vanishes in its glare, it looks like mercury. She is here now, bobbing silently at the deep end, staring at something clinging to the sides. Her hair is in a long plait that will dry in copper mermaid curls. I feel – if not envy, if not longing, if not hatred – displaced. Shunted aside by all this unconscious womanhood that lends itself to the naked smell of the jasmine flowers. It’s inborn, a tiny curled seashell growing in the stomach of girls until a day comes when, like Aphrodite, they coast to shore upon it with wild white foam rushing around their ankles. I was born with the powder blue of a Robin’s egg in my stomach.

‘What are you looking at?’

She turns to me; the pool’s reflection playing over her face in greenish streaks. It might not be her face at all but that of some vicious water nymph ready to drag the boys under.

‘Come and see them!’

At the edge of the pool a writhing mass of millipedes curl and uncurl their bodies over the warm stones. Up close, you can see in detail how they move, a microscopic, alien undulation.

​​​​​​​‘Aren’t they amazing?’

The smell of coconut bronzer hazes above the water. I feel raw, the skin between my shoulder blades is crab-red with the sun. Someone shouts at us from behind the pink drowsiness of the roses, Luke is waving a spatula.

‘Lunch you guys!’

I join him on the patio; the look he gives me is cold and pitying. I feel the terrible urge to scream; like the ethereal hair of his unknown woman is trapped in my throat. In the kitchen, Laura is laughing with Something In Computers; her wide mouth framed in soft pink lipstick. I look back at the impossibly blue pool where Trista is taking off her swimsuit; a sinful apple peeling itself.

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​​​​*​​​​*​​​​*

‘I’m not like you.’

‘I’m not like anything…I love souls.’ I waited for the rest of my explanation to fall out, but it never did.

The texture of the air had changed. Before it was thick with the warmth of her body creeping through me, through the slick walls of my organs, making them steam. Now it was jaundiced by sickly yellow streetlights. I wrestled the sheet away before she’d finished speaking, looking at the unlovely naked gibbet of my body in the mirror, wondering if abandonment was always like this when you didn’t know whether you loved someone, or if you wanted to become them. I thought about the goddess who weighed the truth of your heart against a feather.

She didn’t try to follow me as I dressed, walking with thickened, stupid limbs to the kitchen and cleaning the plates left in the sink over and over again, the glass warping night’s reflection so that two moons appeared side by side, the future predicting itself. Patiently, deliberately, I could have worn the china to nothing. At some point, the door shut quietly and I put my hands to my chest, my mouth. I stared out of the window at the man who lived across the street. I could see his shoulder-blades moving under a white t-shirt as he padded around the lit kitchen. I willed him to turn and look. I wanted him to wonder who I was, this empty wasps’s nest with arms dangling, mouthing across the night, ‘Look, look. I am annihilated.’

​​​​*​​​​*​​​​*

I wake to the shadow of a tree dancing in windswept sunlight across the dresser, feeling as though I’ve surfaced from a sunken house; corridors full of deep green water and mysterious light. I dreamed I rented out a secret room in a city where I lived another life. When I go down to breakfast, I compliment skin, hair, smiles. I pass butter and the groaning cafetiere as the faces before me open up like flowers to this new and unexpected sun; Luke brushes past me with a plate of buttered croissants, rolling his eyes.

‘Borderlines,’ he mutters. ‘You should be all be bloody actresses.’

I kiss him where crumbs have caught on his stubble. He grins, hugging me into the familiar, broad plain of his chest. He buries his nose in my hair. ‘You smell nice.’

I smell like wooden floorboards and wild thyme and a secret pocket of the past. Laura is watching us, warm brown eyes flitting from my face to Luke’s as she listens to Finn’s plans for solar panelling. She puts a friendly hand on his arm as he talks, and I wonder if it’s her hair pressed between the pages in my study; if she’s trying to make Luke jealous. I don’t care, I forgive her. I forgive them all. Trista is face down on her bed in a rage, sulking in her aloof, Aquarian way after a row with Finn on the landing, a hissing viper on the terracotta tiles. I imagine running up the stairs; she will be curled up in thoughtful agony, face schooled into death-mask serenity while the bruises bloom violently inside.

I should tell her that I did get her letter but just didn’t reply, it would have been like a General going to sign the surrender and bleeding all over the flag. I should tell her that downstairs Laura is all sunlight and laughter and ease compared to her crucifixion in the sheets, and that Finn has started looking at that lovely, coral-pink mouth. I baptise myself in the pool instead, tilting my head back to watch passenger planes roar in a silent line above the trees. I think, I’m going to need a new scent.

I tread water and unravel gently, becoming a loose cord of memory. The summer heat has caused a love-blindness, a kind of flowering cataract. I remember things through a haze; flower petals raped by violent rain, Luke asking gentle questions of a blind man in an elevator, like someone trying too hard to be good; the spots of blood from a nosebleed on the back of my hand; a swathe of stubborn poppies blooming in a white field. I realise there’s nothing to stop me taking the train to Venice tomorrow. I get out of the water, curling my toes with pleasure like one of the garden’s fat-bellied lizards at the warmth of the saffron coloured stones. I can hear Arduinna’s laughter through the listening pines; the winged exhilaration of summer lightning, striking upwards through the nerves of my body.

Ghosts of the Olive Grove

The outward train is booked. I am finally going back to the south of France, where the dusty soil, little olive trees and vast, dense forests dotted with red roofs speak of enduring and primitive beauty. There is something savage about this part of the world; bloody and heady and plated gold.

I miss awakening to the birds, and drinking sweet wine at breakfast before the sun climbs to its searing zenith; tearing chunks of bread and smearing them with rough duck pâté . Walking in the dawn at the edges of the forest populated by iron-grey boar; crushing wild Thyme between my fingers.

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Going legend hunting this new year. It is still fairly unusual to meet people here – apart from expats – who aren’t Catholic, in the rich, blood-and-bones way of rural Catholicism. I’m sure the little towns and more isolated villages have tales of vampires and werewolves galore. White-gowned virgins spirited away, returning thirsty; or warding off a risen evil with a litany of prayer spilling from rose-pink lips at the altar.

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The soil strikes me as unquiet. It is too vital, too alive, to hold the damned for long. I watch the bulky bodies of the wild boar shouldering their way through the olive grove. This is a place where full moons breed empty beds.

Prometheus

I tell them in my letters that I am well, that I am eating properly, that I have found a modest little job which covers a modest little room where the crime rate is low and the streets are lined with whispering trees. I tell them I have made a few casual friends, in cafes and music venues. I talk about health food shops and real coffee. I sketch out for them in ink the warm cream pastries of the bakery a mere two avenues away, slow walks along the sea’s shifting edge.

There is a lot I do not tell them. I think how stupid it is that so much of my life, so much of importance, has to stay hidden like incriminating photographs. There is Will. I can tell them about our public transport system but I cannot tell then that Will has become my life. That I have given up the drugs and replaced them with Will. That a bold knight errant has weaved himself into my life tapestry, with his clever sculptor’s fingers.

The sun rises, throwing ethereal steaks of pink and gold across the sea; angels dancing in the morning waves. I smoke, continuously, savouring the dawn silence. Later, when I get back to the flat I will clean my teeth as though possessed, trying to erase the smoke gripping them so that my tongue is sweet and fresh for him. Not that it matters, if there is anyone who smokes more than me it is Will as he paces his studio floor. He exhales like a dragon, a fine bluish stream rolling from his nostrils.

The studio is bright,  sun pouring in through two tall windows looking straight into the sky. If I twist my neck I can make out the spidery sprawl of the rooftops, the outline of the city. I pull the windows open on Sunday to hear the church bells for miles around piously singing. Then I become angry, and clap my hands over my ears to block out the gong and hammer of weekend praise. Will gently picks apart my distress, deftly reworking a tight seam. I clasp his strong fingers around my wrists, handcuffing myself.  The muscles of his arms are well-developed from practicing his art. He is slicing away my exterior, setting free the minimal thing that lurks beneath the crude outer layers – all clean lines and near-transparency.

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I taste fennel on his breath. He is Prometheus, fashioning men from water and earth, and giving me the stolen fire through that mythical spice on his tongue. He presses the taste into me, and makes me immortal, immortal.

Sometimes, on a grey day, I see him staring out of the windows at the heavy clouds, booming overhead, storm-pregnant and lazy. I imagine him reaching up and up, working them until the texture and form of the very atmosphere is different. Sculpture is a strange discipline. Will’s work squats defiantly in three-dimensions; drawing the gaze the way a black hole pulls in the universe, eyes orbiting his creations like stars about to make that irreversible leap of faith.

Later, we will drink rum and work; his fingers deep in the damp clay, my pen leaching midnight blue. I will watch the cigarette smoke hit the mirror glass and vanish, as though it has passed through the silver into superstition. I smile secretly, turning suddenly at the sound of my name. Will is there, watching me spin under the bleeding trees, and I am eager, very eager, for him to continue his work; until the sculpture emerges from my centre. A masterpiece that echoes down our lifelines, replete and terrifying in its fulfillment.

Wanderlonging

I’m pretty partial to melancholy. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that melancholy is partial to me.

I spin the globe around and around; suitcases, bags and boxes at my feet. Moving, I remember, rubbing my swollen ankles and my aching back, is acutely stressful. I dream of landing at some anonymous airport, at the beautiful Gard du Lyon, stepping off the train at dusty Draguignan or glorious, sensual Rome; leather sack bag slung casually over my shoulder.

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I offer my morning Frankincense to Our Lady pondering the strange twists in the knickers of fate that lead us along one path or another. Prague. Florence. The winding, reeking canals of Venice. The rich loam and sheer black cliffs of windswept Ireland. The flat plains of Poland, Granddaddy’s country.

I miss the urgency of travel and the way it forces you open and spills all the colourful wonders of the world into the empty vessel you become hopping train to train. Today perhaps I am a little sad; a little self-indulgent, restless and hungry for the richness that life offers us when we have the courage to step out with a light bag and a lighter heart.

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Soon, I tell my compass. Soon. Let me hang in comfortable suspension a little while before you spin again, my tiny wheel of fortune.