Venice of the North

‘Look at that,’ she says, pointing out of the train window. There is a wave of roiling cloud washing through the trees, streaked with yellow; a bruise flying over the fields. The long key is a kind of cold bone in my hand, the carriage smells of damp wool. ‘Do you think we can race the storm?’ I smile, I don’t tell her that we raced it months ago and lost. The little bed under the eaves has a patchwork quilt. An old dressing table leans by the window as the rain gently hurls its melody against the ground. She twirls, laughing, the hem of her black lace skirt ghosting across the old floorboards.

‘Isn’t it perfect? Isn’t it sweet?’ The beaded necklaces around her neck clack together, lapis lazuli, carnelian, amber. Her hands are as white and smooth as lilies, the brass buttons on her coat catch the light like old coins. ‘It’s Alice in Wonderland! You can be the Hatter.’

Yes, I think. Eat me. Drink me.

Outside the surreal womb of the hotel, the clip-clop of hooves striking the cobbles is always in the background, like the church bells. Faint wisps of snow flit across the bridges like tentative spirits; a haze of Christmas lights and camera flash and the raw wind stripping you, like silver bark peeled from a birch tree.

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We go to see the Holy Blood, a strange, speckled cloth housed between jeweled crowns, and her eyes fill with tears. I know she is not Catholic, but she crosses herself and smiles with folded hands and damp eyes at the woman standing patiently behind the sacred relic. I see communion in the woman’s eyes; happiness, approval. How does she do this? How does she connect so completely through so much impulsive artifice? It’s like holding a gloved hand, can’t they see? I want to drag her out into the aisle and shout, ‘It’s an act! Look! She’s an actress!’ As though the plaster would crack and fall and they’d all see the brick beneath.

I won’t. It never happens. Only my silence is required. I wonder sometimes if I am even there at all. I watch the glow of candlelight warming the old white stone and think of all the people who huddled in church as winter roared silently on down the centuries, staring at the little flames as I am now. Sanctuary. A pool of gentleness in the long, medieval terror of freezing water and salted meat.

After the wedding, we walk slowly through the town. There are shreds of cornflower and rose petals in her hair, from the moment they rained gently on the bride and groom. When she smiles, I remember everything. Somewhere underneath the plaster, the brickwork shifts. The laughter of tourists in a canal boat reaches me, a babble of French voices in a major key. I love that musicality transcends language; that I can tell those souls upon the water are happy, even though I do not understand what they are saying.

 

Begin Again

I’ve never met an artist – whatever their canvas – who wasn’t impulsive, and I elevate impulsiveness to comical proportions. I can feel the old itching starting again; underneath the thin, clear lenses of my eyes, the thirst for anonymity. Sometimes it’s very hard to be authentic without a mask; Wilde knew that. Perhaps the relative no-body a person can sneak past Google’s gaze these days is better for the soul…Mine at least. I get stifled under the weight of my name; the smooth, oval eyelids of my own thumbnail photograph. Writing about the intricate, gorgeous, frustrating mechanism of my brain folds the creases of me too neatly into ‘mental health’ at times, when the swirling galaxy of me cannot be so contained. No one can. The creases start to chafe.

I hear writers who can’t wait to pour out their truths to people they know, to proudly strip bare for their peers, family, lovers, ex-lovers…I don’t feel that, never have. I love to write without being distracted by the eyes of anyone I know. People see you upright and talking for say, 10% of your life, and assume they can seamlessly predict the other 90, as though paddling in the waves means you know the depth of the sea. That’s the attraction of the masquerade; I might speak through papier mache lips, but the words are still my own. Eyes laughing behind the plaster, face clean, without fingerprints.

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Anyway. On the windowsill, a clock is ticking. I think it was my Grandmother’s, we’re still clearing the odd, forgotten debris of her life away. Nylon dresses piling up like snow drifts outside the door. Every tick, soft and muted and swishing, feels like a papercut snagging seconds out of the tender skin on the backs of my hands. I never felt young, even as a child. I buried my head in books and documentaries about Egyptian mummies, Pompeii, Anne Boleyn; inhaling flaking bandages, ash and printer ink. I wanted to be an archeologist, I imagined brushing away a thousand years of earth and revealing a queenly lionesses’ head; or Hathor’s long, sleepy eyes peering out at me through the dust. I traced velvet with my fingertips and found myself at Tudor banquets; all heat and light and the smell of roasted meats; candle flames lined up like pilgrims, hair stiff with sweat under a french hood. When I surface, that itchy voice whispers to me relentless as a river: begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again begin again…

I thought this would become simpler with age, but perhaps for fragmented mystics like me it doesn’t – perhaps the lines between this place and all the others become just blurred enough, until your life is something you’re watching to the sound of the lute, or birdsong, or the tips of whispering pines – through an invisible pale pane; a courtier watching the lavender bloom in the green tangle of the old knot garden.

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 own 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 graveyard 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; the city, of course – always 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.

Flying in the Crucible

‘I’m not a mental health writer.’ I say, watching the water beneath me tangle itself up in silky spirals that vanish again in an instant. Beside me, he blows the air out of his mouth hard, frustrated.

‘You should be. Do something with it.’

I try to explain that teasing everything that’s beautiful about the world to the surface is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It was never about how the warped lens of my brain saw the way sunlight looks rippling across a shallow riverbed, or the way the ground in that blistering olive grove I visit year after year steams after the rain. The silence you only ever find in church, candle smoke and frost.

On Sunday, walking home at night, I breathed in the air as it turned towards a new season and instantly flew backwards 22 years to throwing open my grandmother’s bedroom window, amazed at the sweetness of the evening air as summer comes. I remember pulling in deep lungfuls of it as a child, high on its perfume, and even the fullest, most rib-breaking breath never being enough. The same drugged sensation came over me again on Sunday night; it was intoxicating, it was Midsummer, it was faerie, it was limitless possibility and I wanted to run and run over the fields until I slipped somehow through the veil to the world beyond I always secretly knew was home.

It reminded me of all the time I’ve been wasting, trying to be normal. Because I do want to talk more about the strangeness that blooms under my skin in secret petals, about always being impossibly Other.

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Honesty is a refinement of the spirit, a crucible that makes a molten puddle of your deceptions, but in this case I ask myself what good would it do. I worry; wonder if my words would disappear into the void of ‘mental health’ rather than remain standing as they are, barefaced. The way I see the world is warped, through sea glass and stained glass; lit by halos and moonlight on silver shillings. It’s the sound of doors to everywhere opening inside me, a thousand grandmother’s windows thrown open to let the night in. I don’t want my world to shrink to a word, would it? Why should I care?

Perhaps I’m protesting too much. Perhaps he’s right and I do have a gift, something to say about living with a mind full of watercolour. The fact remains that my name is stamped in black photocopy in doctor’s offices along the coast. I eat pink pills every night just so that I can get some sleep, but when I do dream, it’s of flying.

No space for wild girls

I never stop being amazed.

When I was young, and wanted to run and run until I finally found a place in the world I felt alive, dip my hair in feral mermaid greens, creep into empty practice rooms and talk to the piano all day long, or just wake in time to watch the dawn shift into that singular, magical violet, 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 marbling waters 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, by 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, 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 shout 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 sacred 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.

Tripwire

There is a tapping against the window. This time of year, spirits are abroad; floating like solitary shells or thundering through the teeming clouds on horseback. And because I see things they tell me are not there, I turn my head. The glass, of course, is blankly black. Raindrops shiver where they have fallen; tiny, delicate globes. No ghostly hands. No wavering faces.

In the morning, the bed is quicksand. I dress slowly, slipping on dirty shirts. I haven’t slept again; spinning in the 3 a.m. eye of a constant storm.

They tell me breakfast kickstarts your metabolism into solidarity, but too often I forget, and brew bitter coffee instead to wipe my eyes and rearrange insomnia’s regret. The fear hums through my body at night like a soundwave, reels of imagined and inevitable catastrophe; shadow play on the walls. I take my seat and buckle up, answer emails on automatic pilot, crash.

Because I am an adult, but I do not know how to live adulthood with its loss and focus and exit wounds. Its filthy fingernails, its silent, stoic, grown-up crying, its poisoned wells. I am sick, and yet my sickness manifests invisibly; in walking on clouds until my wings scorch like Icarus. In tidal waves of frenzied creativity. In terror of coffin-lining.

I call the crisis team, they say: Make a cup of tea. Have a hot bath, have two.

Imagine if I changed my name and ran away. To Amsterdam, Rome, Prague. Imagine a pretty, functional girl trailing through picture postcards. Imagine if I could starve myself back into perfection; ethereal slenderness, escape my life with a skeleton key. It’s never worked, it won’t now. Defeated, I sit back down, press send. Answer the phone and rattle out affirmations; yes I will do the things you ask, even though my head is a helium balloon held to my collar with safety pins.

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Daere (Fiend). Self portrait.

I hate this loneliness, hate skittering around the inside of my skull like a spider in a matchbox. The sheer, pinned-butterfly exhaustion, the long squeezebox crush of the clock, the deathly irritant of the same frustrated faces all wishing they were somewhere else. The sudden surges of my too-bright rage and happiness, swirling together in terrible colours. Might as well plunge your hands into a bucket of nails, spend your cigarette break standing in a barrel of gunpowder.

I go and wait on the street corner speckled with drizzle, just to look at the people. Headlamps glide past me, a continuous river of will o’the wisps. A half-bottle, 6o mg, and the vague beat of music through the wall ceases to fall across the tripwire of anxiety, and the fire in my head dulls to a chapel’s glow. A soft prison formed of old walls, protecting the marshmallow and butter of me.

These things are a shield against the long silence, against the fear. It is a wall between me and the things I half-glimpse; behind my reflection, in doorways, stairwells. It is protection against the evenings too scared to leave the room, fervently imagining the flaming sword of the Archangel Michael sweeping down in a blaze of ferocious light. Watching shadowy heads fall. It is in these long nights that I realise the depths of my own insanity, covering the mirrors with cloths and saltwater.

Dark Amber

I’ve been away for a while. I try to explain why, but it’s like opening a bag full of amber beads, polished into whiskey darkness, that scatter everywhere. How do I say, ‘my brain is a bear trap and it’s caught my sleeve again.’ Sometimes, they try to blame it on the time of year. My doctor and I look sourly at each other, we both know I am more likely to be hospitalised in the spring.

One of us has to die, I realise. One of my selves, because the tug-of-war is getting stale, like trying to chew old bread. It makes my gums bleed.

But which self lives, and which is taken away? Can you even remove a part of yourself like that? They say ‘fake it ’til you make it’ but what’s there to fake? I am twins, but only one of us can be born again. Do I save the soft and anxious ingenue or their darker, cleverer sibling? A fairytale in each hand, but I have to cast off one of the witches. Which one burns?