From Grace

Last night I dreamed I sprouted golden dragonfly wings,  I often fly in my dreams but it’s usually a strange, half-swimming through the silky lightness of the air; I jump once, twice, three times and bob upwards in floating fits and starts like a balloon whose string has been let go by a distracted child. This was different. As the wings unfurled I was launched into the sky as though fired from a gun. I soared above a familiar field, dotted with the pale freckles of dawn mushrooms. I realised the clouds could part like silver hair being brushed away from the planet’s face and I could go anywhere, trailing glittering dust and liquid light like a meteor.

Then I fell back to earth, wings torn on tree branches and stray farm wire, dismayed at my own limitations. I woke up sighing.

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Mind the Gap

I didn’t become a minimalist on purpose.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to live with less or pare down my material life to make way for other, more important things. I went into rehab, which in many ways could be read as an attempt to preserve the important things (i.e. my life), but it wasn’t mindful in any way, it was a last-chance saloon in wild, wild Bedfordshire serving two fingers of the best gulping tap water.

I packed whatever I thought I’d need for 28 days in my grandmother’s old tan leather travel bag; jeans, t-shirts, toothpaste, books…there wasn’t much. A scrapbook of a life, a Polaroid shot squashed into torn polyester lining. I walked up the concrete path to the clinic wondering if I was making the worst decision of my whole life. I’d just blown most of a small but serviceable inheritance on a spell in this place and here I was rocking up in torn jeans and an old flannel shirt, face raw and red with anxiety, sober and two hours early.

Day in, day out, I wore the same things, worn scratchy and thin in the end from the big industrial dryers, holes in my socks and soles. I extended for two weeks so spent a month and a half in total living out of one tiny bag, recycling my threads until I could see the last of the summer sun through the weave. And you know what? There were a couple of shirts I barely wore, that languished on the hangers while I brawled with my ego in the group therapy room, or read quietly on the garden wall, or gave myself groin strain attempting to play football with guys who had to stop every five minutes to retch into a flower bed because they were being smashed to pieces by their heroin detox. I’d brought almost nothing, and it was still too much.

When I left that place, it was with the same bag over my shoulder, but I wasn’t going home. With one week to go I had a meltdown, I walked into the office and cried until my head pounded and said I could not go back. I said out loud that I needed to be where the recovery community was strong because I was not strong, but the truth was my heart was screaming at me that this moment, these weeks suspended in the atmosphere of possibility, this weightless time spent in utero – a womb of blank walls and uniform duvet covers and linoleum floor – waiting to be reborn, this was the time to start over. If I could just trust this bonkers impulse and dive in, just quell my fear for long enough to do something that on the outside looked outrageously stupid, I had a shot at something bigger and brighter than I’d ever imagined.

So I did.

I moved into halfway housing with that one bag, and I’ve never looked back. Sure, I’ve gone back, sorted through the wreckage of my old life haphazardly shoved into big Sainsbury’s bags and donated 90% of it, but my heart remembers the time Before (life now is A.R. Anno Rehab) in the same way it remembers my dreams, real but unreal.

Part of that unreality haze was being surrounded by stuff, and now I didn’t have that crutch, had spent months living without it, realised how much clearer everything was without it. I didn’t truly need any of it in the same way I never truly needed a drink, they were both just plasters over a wound too big to heal alone. I look around the room that six months in is still home and know I have more to do and less to cling to, but it’s okay, it is – as you hear in recovery – progress not perfection. I thought I’d be tempted to fill the gap but it turns out, flying in the face of all health and safety announcements, that I don’t mind the gap.

Not anymore.

Not at all.

Treasure in the Walls

The zip and hum has grown louder in recent weeks, sunlight glinting off the jewel-bodies of the honeybees as they slip in and out from under the muddy red tiles. They shoulder their way through the lavender bushes, the sky-blue borage in the vegetable patch, the strangely pale violet poppies by the rotten fence. We turn the lights off in what has become ‘their room’ when they become quiet, as the sun dips below the horizon and the air begins to cool. To make sure they sleep well.

Two days ago the windows went black, the whine of the dogs drowned out by a terrifying, bone-grating drone you could feel in your teeth. My mother looked out of the kitchen door and saw vast, writhing stalactites hanging from every available surface before lifting in an apocalyptic cloud and flying over the oak trees. We decided it was time to ask a nice man in a large veiled hat to start a gentle eviction process for those remaining. We do not kill bees.

We also no longer have a dining room wall.

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The first swarm had indeed floated away over the hills, but the new Queen’s empire was vast and she wasn’t going anywhere if she could help it. The picture above is a small and recently built piece of honeycomb; they had created these soft little geometric bubbles throughout the wall and roof in a colony estimated at ‘between 30 – 50,000’ rare old English honeybees. Fifty Thousand.

As Bee Man gently began lifting their white, waxen honeycomb away, they swarmed again under the thundery clouds. The queen burst out of the jagged cutaway and a roiling tide of black and gold bodies followed her as warm rain began to pelt the flagstones, the noise was incredible. I could not see to the other end of the garden, I could barely hear what Bee Man was saying over the frantic roar above our heads. He stood in the middle of the whirlwind, one hand on his hips, a piece of dripping honeycomb in the other.

‘This is so rare!’ He shouted, grinning at us. ‘This is amazing.’

Yew and hazel branches are smoking on the fire, to stop them flowing into the chimney. Now they are congregating high up in a tree next to the old stone wall. If you hold your breath, you can hear them sing. If you stare, you can see the whole hive breathing.

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 pre-mixed Gin & Tonic, 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 hares’ 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.

Milagro

Once when I was alone in Italian fields I saw a spirit on a Palamino horse. A female spirit in smooth white linen and in my vision I knew she was called Milagro. I waited as she rode straight towards me, whole body trembling like an arrow about to fly out from between someone’s fingers but when she was foot or so away she vanished, leaving a cool halo of misty air around my face like a cloud of flour settling on the swaying yellow grasses.

My windows are open to the night and to the smell of all the flowers that have gone to bed or are still up, sipping honey rain water from the ground like coffee. I don’t really sleep despite the chemicals I wash down every night with filtered water. Sometimes I drift into a half-awakening and go and visit that beautiful and terrible city in my liminal dreams that I call Somnopolis – go visit its surreal cathedral and walk long, polished aisles inhaling candle smoke and furniture polish. Watch the junkies on the kerb shoot up lucidity.

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Writing is an occupation full of jangling hours, like the minutes are silent windchimes telling you another silent storm in your head is coming. The sky at dawn here is a mass of shifting violet with silent Roe deer grazing in the green fields and I always felt at my most alive in the dawn, connected to the world wide wisdom while the energy is fresh and undiluted by car horns and plastic and advertising. I rise with the mist from the waking grass, I am the steam pouring from the backs of the brown herd.

When I was a kid I’d walk down to the farm and talk to the horses the sky was that star-freckled watercolour. Take an apple for the sleepy amber mare in the long field, she was a true gentlewoman in ginger and ash blonde with velvet nostrils the colour of cinnamon, wholesome animal breath curling away into the minerals given up by the soft soil.

Stroke her coarse, bone-pale mane. remember the bleached robe of the miraculous spirit. Give the fruit to those blunt teeth in grateful communion, because the wine in the heart of the apple is sweet.

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.

Dreamscape

The journey to and from the south is gruelling, despite the beauty of the French countryside. Seven hours on the first train, buoyed up by bottles of cheap wine. The sea was so blue, as we rushed past the coast, it felt as though I could have reached through the window glass and come away with paint all over my fingertips.

I miss the sun already; the way it looks slanting through the long pines of the forest. The silence broken only by birdsong; the rush of cool, silky water on my skin. I miss how clean the air feels, wildflowers and tree resin and warm rain, as fresh as Eden. My head is still thrumming with a week of strange dreams; they slumber behind my eyes, serpentine, waiting for analysis.

I dreamed I hired an anonymous room in the city to live out a secret life.

I dreamed my tattoos washed off in the rain.

I dreamed of a woman in a pale wax death mask.

I dreamed the Devil dyed my shoes and hair red.

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This place is an incubator for such things. I said once that this was somewhere full moons bred empty beds, somewhere it’s easy to feel alive. The nights are so clear that the stars are almost shocking; so many and so bright, they seem to rush at you in a dizzying wave, as though the sky were tilting.

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The jasmine flowers are just beginning to open, spilling that distinct, heavy perfume through the kitchen door. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a black, fat-bellied lizard crawling in staccato fits and starts over the walls. Everything in the garden is a startling green, crushed emerald grass freckled with blue and white petals. The roses – soft and full and powder pink – nod their drowsy heads in the breeze, also dreaming.