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.

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.