Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Keep Your Head Above Water

I keep thinking this is it. I do my sad little wave, a quick bow. Goodbye, au revoir. Then I turn in my flip-flops and start my brief walk home.
    Of course the following day I return to the water’s edge. Since autumn has arrived it happens less, but this game isn’t over. I refuse to leave the sea alone; I refuse to commit to King Alfred’s chlorine depths: the stinky changing rooms; kids’ hair in the plughole. There it's all straight blue lines, rubber-capped old ladies and the flailing arms of front crawlers. There I'm a machine cutting up water, a chugging mechanism, hidden behind goggles and cap. Nameless, sexless, meant for movement and breath, there I am the number of seconds it takes for me to touch the concrete ledge of the deep end. I disappear, no longer weighed down by the burden of being somebody. It's for this reason that I tolerate that ugly pool. 
     Seawater magnetises, hypnotises, pulling me in to where it’s deep and slightly treacherous. Buoyant and serene, it calms my thumping heart and floats me home. Often it’s hard work (the dragging current, those endless bloody waves) but the reward is in the crashing orgasmic flood of the senses. The serotonin kick. 
     I like swimming far out. But these days I listen to friends who say For fuck’s sake, Clare, be careful.  I chit chat with lifeguards. Check wind speeds on the Web. Never go in if waves break violently on the shingle. This summer I even surrendered my solitude and swam with others - we sped past buoys, circled the West Pier and sank back onto hard pebbles, thighs trembling.
     The sea has a character and a culture of its own, a world apart from the hectic town I live in. This town doesn’t feel like mine, but down here is – amidst this silent, sturdy society of swimmers, surfers and fishermen. The sea’s an addiction, I know; I'm aware of the risks I run for the high I experience, for that joy peculiar only to open water – the vast expanse, the arctic chill on the toes, sun on face, an unhindered smile. I wonder who, or what, I'd be without it, what shape my life would take. No coincidence, of course, that I started sea-swimming when mum had her last stroke, the one that finally silenced her, that condemned her to unseeable depths somewhere between sky and land. Back then, swimming far out I escaped the world, escaped people, the tick tock of life; I entered her world for a while - fluid, formless and all that quiet
     Sun's out. Sitting here writing I keep one ear out for the waves, and my nostrils still sniff seaweed. This could be the day. Last week the buoys disappeared – no markers now, no edges to swim out to. No yellow globe, slimy with seaweed. Just a cold abyss, a charcoal smudge beneath a cloudy skyline.
     But I wade into a new experience every day; keep my head above water. Chance it one more time. Before friendly waves turn frosty. Before the last farewell of the season. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Chaise Longue

The golden chaise longue wouldn’t fit through my door. It didn’t matter how often I uncoiled my tape measure or how many fags Hev smoked on the front step, it was too big - or my doorway was too small. I was stuck with an already paid for sofa in the hallway of my block of flats. Fellow tenants circled the chaise longue,  prodding it with fingers, offering up solutions, but we all knew the real answer: I had to get rid of it. 
     Hev and I had driven it over that morning; it stuck out like a giant banana from the back of Jo’s Grandma’s Estate car. This was meant to be my new start, the opening credits to my freshly arranged life. If I am not to move from my flat in the near future, I'd vowed, I shall beautify, brighten and spruce up what I already have – a tiny attic flat, and rudimentary, with blue office carpets and a kitchen the size of a shower cubicle. But my tiny flat has an extra-special bonus – it’s thirty seconds from the sea, from swimming that sends me shivering back through my flat’s doorway. And that’s enough to keep me here.      
     But the chaise longue wouldn’t fit. We propped it up in the hallway, and pushed the old one back up the three flights to my flat. It was like some poor old grandmother who refused to go back into the nursing home. Back inside my flat resembled a crime scene - furniture, cushions and rugs roughly thrown into various corners of my living room, my bedroom entrance blocked by an empty bookcase. Days earlier, I'd carefully arranged my books into sub-genres - now they trailed, sad, across the bathroom carpet. I sank down onto my living room floor with a cup of black tea (no milk; my fridge broke yesterday). Rain battered my windows. The chaise longue felt like a symbol for my life: a beautiful bright idea, but frankly, impossible.      
     A friend dragged me out for chocolate cake. When I returned, rain lashing at my legs, hands and face, the chaise longue was still standing in the hallway, gorgeous and golden and looking bigger than ever. I squelched past it up the stairs (Converse trainers soak up puddles like Kleenex) and upon entering my flat, saw I’d left my bedroom window open. Rain had gushed in all over my laptop and the precious items of Mum’s that I’d gathered in Wales and placed by my shrine. Notebooks, a lacquered box, her hand support brace, trinkets, letters, all sodden.     
     I'd like to think joy's around the corner. And that when it comes I will capture it in my palms and, after a while, set it free above the waves and pebbles. But the rains keep coming and little feels sacred anymore.     
    I have this memory. I’m on a hillside smothered in buttercups; the sky is cloudless and blue. Buttercups stretch as far as I can see. They merge with the sunlight that’s half-blinding me, that drops golden over distant treetops. I am dancing down this hillside. With each step I take I shed a year of my life. With each thrust of my hand I shed another. Years drop from me like dead skin. Under soft sunlight and between two fences and the horizon, all pain disappears. There’s no cancer. No lupus. No epilepsy. No Alzheimer’s. No stroke, coma, pneumonia. No death. No struggle. No loss. Only golden light and a sheep staring at me from over a wooden fence. Only me, dancing, momentarily a girl again, sweet, silly, captivated by a perfect moment.    
     There’s no way back to that hillside. So I move forward. Push chaise longues up steep flights of stairs. I work; write. I make absurd birthday presents out of ping pong balls for my friends. I put my flat back together again. I chase waves when they are big. I watch the clouds moving above my house. Wait for something golden to enter my life once again.   

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Today in my bathroom, after I'd arranged shampoos and beauty products according to their  exact colour shade, after I'd scoured and sluiced my bathtub, sink, and toilet, after I'd painted the walls in Morning Mist and ummed and ahhed about what pictures to  hang, after I'd scrubbed the grouting with a toothbrush, I realised I might be avoiding a few things. What I felt most sad about avoiding was writing this blog. 
      This blog used to be a place I turned to when the writing bug bit. It fulfilled a need to express powerful and not so powerful events in my life. It provided sanctuary for my soul. Then I started writing a book, completed an MA in Creative Writing and what-dya-know, I'm lucky if I write here a few times a year. Though I do blame lack of time (most of my energies are poured into agonising over where to place my next semi-colon), that's not the sole excuse. It's fear. I want to be taken seriously as a writer and so whatever I write and whatever medium I write it in I feel must be worthy of that. Yet when I wrote most on this blog, and best, I think, was when I wasn't worried about being taken seriously. I wrote because I wanted to. 
     Writing a blog is exposing. Especially when writing about the kinds of things I tend to write about. I always tried to fight the desire to hide behind words - clever words, beautiful words, original language. My blog was rough and tender. It had strange poetry splattered across it. Posts about innocence and galaxies and stalking Bearded Collies along Hove seafront. About sea swimming and dinghies and falling off my bicycle and being rescued by old ladies with purple rinses. About my mother's stroke. My Dad's absence. About toppling into love and crawling back out again. Oh, and I wrote one post whilst on E.
     My day-to-day life has never been that usual. Which is why I'm bothered to write in the first place.  I don't want to fall into that trap of seeking to please or of trying to be like other writers. Because we are all different breeds of creature. The animal I am can only walk, climb, kill and give birth my way. 
     I've got a little hidden lately, down in my burrow. Dark eyes to the ground, incubating my babies.
     So it's time to show myself again.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Scarf

I thought all I had left of him was a beige cashmere M&S scarf. This scarf is soft as cat fur. It goes everywhere with me.  A gift, one Christmas, he’d left it in a flat box, slipped between two others, on my Mum’s front step. He’d left gifts for several years after I stopped seeing him. We threw all the others away – on principle, you know? But I couldn’t bring myself to part with the scarf. Then one Christmas, all through Christmas Eve and the next day, I opened and shut Mum’s front door, snagging the holly wreath, letting in a chill. But the step remained empty.
     That was the end of 2000. Tonight, as I returned home across town through a windy drizzle, I knotted that scarf around my throat; pulled it up over my mouth. I remembered our phone conversation, a week ago.
     It was as though no time had passed at all. The first thing he said to me, after ‘Hiya love,’ was ‘There’s a fella here I’d like you to meet. History Professor. I’ve told him all about you. He's two beds down from me.’ That’s so Dad. Twelve years of painful nothingness between us and now he wants to show off his ‘clever daughter’ to the man in the other hospital bed. It was sad hearing him in the ward. The nurse talked about him being up and about on his Zimmer frame as though that was a good thing.
     Zimmer frame?
     The second time we talk, he tells me ‘You always were your mother’s daughter.’ Asks me what we are doing about Mum's house. ‘We’ve got to go for probate,’ I say, not mentioning the protracted grief, trauma and health problems my sisters and I have endured since our mother's death. 'But then I think it’s best that we sell it as soon as’. ‘Very sensible,’ says Dad. ‘You want shot of that millstone.'
      I’m stunned by the mysteriousness of my Dad’s life: it lies behind a door I’ve never opened - I never even so much as curled my fingers around the handle. Dad gave himself another family, another wife and stepchildren, even grandchildren. How did he do all that... without me? I know virtually nothing about the last twenty years of his life or the people in it – just a few names. In my mind, my father has stayed the same man as the one he walked out as in 1991, wearing the same clothes, holding the same attitudes, and with the same mistress. He's occupied some ethereal space in the back of my mind. I've had vague images of a hump-back bridge, a quiet leafy lane and a bungalow, paintings of landscapes from our old house hanging on its salmon-coloured walls. 
     But for my Dad, of course, life moved on. For over half my own life-span, he’s lived another life – full, not empty and containing something approximating love. The mistress became his wife, the blonde bit of stuff became his step-daughter. Then what? Holidays to the South of France? Afternoons out to stately homes, with a cream tea for afters? Cosy nights on the settee front of the box? The question mark he left for us, his three children.
     I’m not angry with Dad. Not now. Not today. Too much time has passed, and there is so little time left. It’s funny, he sounded like my Mum on the phone – that same softening of the palette, that child-like laugh. Is that how all people sound when they’ve reached a certain age or degree of illness? And a Zimmer frame. Bloody hell! That’s a far cry from his purple Porsche blasting 120 down the motorway. Dad shouts at the doctors, and argues with the nurses about his medication. That man could argue his way out of any situation. Any parking ticket. Any hotel bill. Any extra-marital affair. My Dad, the self-made man, unmade. He falls over on the living room carpet. Is at the mercy of medication and heart monitors, bad hospital food. He loves his food, my Dad. Butter spread thick as cheese.
     I want my Dad to be happy. Not lonely under thin white sheets. Scared. Still I wonder how he lived all that life without me. How it became normal, to make me into a memory. It’s not nice feeling erased. So of course, I erased him, or tried to. I know when I’m not wanted.
     When something has gone, it’s gone. And if it was never there, nothing will ever, ever, make up for it. Some people understand this more than others; they’ve learned it by experience. Yet so far, a couple of phone calls to my Dad have made a difference. Everyone has such a different relationship with their parents - and some people are better at being parents than others. Some are just plain rotten. But good or bad, the relationship simple or complicated, your mother, your father – they made you what you are today. Call it biology. Call it blood. They bloody know you.