A bus is at its best when it’s a taxi

Dan and I are walking over the bridge to the bus stop. It’s not yet six o’clock, but the winter darkness has the river hidden. Only the streetlights can cut through the black, casting golden beams across the sodden streets. We’ve had non-stop rain for a few days now, though thankfully the clouds have wound down for the night. I can hear water running into drains beyond the hum of traffic.

Dan is telling me that a week ago he decided to stop trying to motivate himself to get his driver’s license.

I mean, look at it, he says, pointing to the backed-up traffic. Why would I want to get involved in that?

I say that when I took the train to Salisbury the previous weekend, I came through the barriers with my bicycle, wheeled out the entrance, swung my leg over the saddle and was suddenly cruising downhill. The sense of freedom and spontaneity hit me so profoundly that I started to sing. It’s worth not having a car for moments like this, I thought.

Dan and I wonder if these epiphanies came to us at the same time, whilst acknowledging that we are lucky to not have to rely on a car: no kids, no school runs; Dan’s studio is at the bottom of our garden, and the majority of my work is in London, which is a simple train ride away.

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The other weekend, we were in Brighton with friends who stopped to talk to someone they recognised in the street – a young man with wiry hair and a melancholy look about him.

I’ve just handed over £450 pounds with nothing to show for it, he said.

Dan and I listened to his story. He is a gardener and has his own van for work. He’d been manoeuvring out of his space, early in the morning. The night before had brought a thick frost and his windscreen hadn’t fully thawed. Unable to see properly, he managed to scratch down the side of a car parked opposite – a Porsche.

Aren’t you insured? I asked.

It turned out he is, but that he’d agreed with the owner of the car to give him the money for repairs in cash – that way his premium wouldn’t go up.

Let me get this right, I said. You’re making monthly payments to your insurers, for the privilege of handing over cash to anyone whose car you damage?

He shrugged, and there was that melancholy look again.

I found this information perverse. What world is this that the insurance companies are escaping the expenses we’re paying them to cover?

I’d like to buy you lunch, Dan said, touching the gardener on his shoulder.

Perhaps we could send the receipt to your insurers, I joked when they brought us the bill.

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When Dan and I cross the bridge and arrive at the bus stop, we notice that a section of road on the other side is flooded. Bollards have been placed around the oily lake, closing the way into town. We are going the other direction, but now we wonder if our bus is running.

I’m happy to wait – even when the scheduled time comes and goes. One thing I’ve learnt from taking regular public transport – especially in Winter – is: adopt all measures possible to ensure comfort. This means wrapping up warm so that delays are not exacerbated by the sharp sting of freezing bones.

Standing here in the damp and darkness, I am relaxed, looking forward to the evening ahead.

Thirty minutes later, we see our bus coming. Dan holds up his arm, and then begins to wave when the bus shows no sign of stopping. It splashes past and he swears. I notice how packed the carriage is – the windows filled with people. Each person could be a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, slotting together so that no space remains.

Dan and I start to laugh now about our earlier enthusiasm to a carless existence. Still, I cannot turn my back on public transport. For me, it offers challenges, the lure of the unpredictable, which are the exact buttons that turn on my creativity. If I decide to embrace all potential of delays, cancellations, crowded interiors, then I can float on an unknown current, see what shore I wash up on.

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The other day, I noticed a woman, waiting on the platform for the train to London. She caught my eye because of the way she was holding a yogurt pot with such care, taking graceful spoonfuls, swallowing with such a look of concentration.

The train arrived into Paddington. I crossed the station, heading for the underground, squeezing past people on the escalator. I changed at Edware Road, waiting on the platform, unable to take the first train because it was too crowded. Now, I ascend at Euston Square, listening to the classical music they always play at this station. Ahead of me, there is a kerfuffle on the stairs. Someone has fallen. It is the woman from Oxford – the woman who was eating that yogurt – who not only wanted to get to Euston Square too, but managed to stay by my side, despite the line change, and the crowds. This is what I love about public transport – these miniature, miraculous narratives that play out.

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In Mexico, there were various types of bus: the ones that Dan and I took from city to city – long journeys that lasted through the night, where we sat alongside families who seemed to be travelling with all they owned.

There were also the local buses.

When I moved to Mazatlan, I used to take a stumpy, rickety ride – sitting in an interior that smelt of boiled corn, salty hot skin and the thick, bitter-sweet stench of collective breath.

I loved these buses. There was a string that ran down the length of the carriage. One gentle yank and a bell would sound. Soon after, the bus would come to a halt – whether it was an official stop or not.

I was living in an apartment at the top of a dilapidated hotel in the old part of town. Further up the coast was the Zona Dorada – the Golden Zone. Here, the shore was lined with tall, highly-reflective hotels; restaurants with huge neon lights that seemed a strange contrast to the dusty streets a few blocks back from the sea.

Sleek, green buses spent the day, ferrying tourists in their clean, air-conditioned interiors. Thick glazing kept the sounds of the city out.

I’d been taking the local, rickety ride to and from the language school where I was studying. The route didn’t go past the hotel, but several streets back – so even though I could stop the bus exactly where I wanted, it was still a fifteen minute walk back to my apartment.

I’d noticed one of those green tourist buses, driving right past the hotel. So one night when I was up in the Zona Dorada, having a drink with a Canadian woman I’d met, I thought I’d spend the few extra dollars. It was nearly eleven o’clock and I didn’t feel like walking the fifteen minutes from where the local bus would drop me.

I wasn’t sure of the tourist bus route, so once I was inside I kept watchful at the window. It became clear that this bus only made scheduled stops, but that was all right as I’d noticed a bus stop very near the hotel.

We kept on. Gradually, the tourists got off and we left the thick of the city, driving down quiet streets that were lined with squat dwellings. No more streetlights. I didn’t recognise the area. I was squinting to see into the darkness, hoping for something I might be familiar with. I wasn’t nervous because I kept thinking that at some point the bus would swing round and bring me back to the sea front where my hotel was.

It stopped. I was the only one on board now.

After a moment, the driver turned and said something to me in Spanish.

No, I want to continue, I managed to tell him, carefully enunciating the verb endings.

Last stop, he said.

He must have noticed the expression on my face because, as I came down the aisle, he asked me if I knew this place.

I shook my head.

Where do you want to go? he said.

The Hotel Bel Mar, I told him, asking where we were.

We were at the port, he told me and I remembered. I’d been there once, catching sight of a huge cruise ship – tourists disembarking like cattle at the market. In the thick night I hadn’t recognised it. We were a few miles from the old part of town where I lived.

Where are you from? the driver asked.

Inglaterra.

You speak Spanish, he said.

I’m trying to learn, I told him.

He said he could understand me very well, and then he told me to sit down.

I’ll take you to the Hotel Bel Mar, he said and started up the engine.

He drove back through the quiet streets, until I saw shops fronts I knew – the matador bar I liked to drink at. There was the hotel.

He pulled up on the side of the road, explaining that the bus only passes here on the way out to the Zona Dorada. Coming back, the journey ends at the port. It made sense – a bus for the tourists, going between the port where they come in and the Zona Dorada.

But what about the old part of town? I asked him.

He shrugged and his expression seemed sad to me.

I thanked him then, but when I tried to offer him money he gently pushed my hand away.

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Finally, a bus comes down the wet street, past the bollards, throwing up water. Dan and I climb on board. It’s been a wait of over an hour, but I am still warm. We journey out to the villages beyond the ring road, and finally reach our stop, walking from the bus shelter down the dark, narrow streets as the wind investigates us in a heavy-handed way. I don’t mind the walk, the silent hedgerows that I know lie in the darkness around me. I do find myself thinking of the door to door service I received in Mazatlan though. Certainly, a bus is at its best when it’s a taxi, but it seems you have to go to Mexico for the privilege, and speak enough Spanish to earn your fare.

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A collage of trees

My father says that he’s going to chop down the pines in the corner of the garden. They have grown beyond the space, their silhouettes distorted from pruning over the years. Still, this has never stopped the pigeons roosting and mating on their broad, shaggy branches.

I stand at the kitchen window, looking down the lawn at these colossal peeks of green. It isn’t just the thought of the wide space their absence will create, the clear view of the neighbour’s house – that sense of exposure. It is the fact that they have always been there, huddled together, stretching shadows across the garden as the sun makes its journey each day.

I used to have a den in there where the ground was spongy with pine needles, and the air was spicy with sap. I took stubby logs from the woodpile and made a circle of seats; sat listening to the crackle in the branches as pigeons came and went. Sometimes, the neighbours would be in their driveway and I caught snippets of conversation. I would imagine I was on a stakeout, and make notes in a small pad. A girl in the village was missing and we were certain he was involved – though his wife was innocent. I had a partner – Jules – who I was sometimes in love with. I kept records of the times the neighbour came and went in his red van, peering through the pines to see what it was he was unloading from the back: narrow planks of plywood, sacks of cement – perhaps he had buried the missing girl in the foundations of the new building he was working on. When I heard him and his wife arguing I wrote: could she be his next victim?

All of this amongst the pines.

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A week ago I had a friend to visit. We grew up on opposite sides of the river and spent most days of the school holidays, playing together. Back then we only had to dial three numbers on the telephone to reach each other.

What are you doing? we would ask.

Nothing much.

And then there were several minutes of negotiation while we tried to persuade one of our mothers to drive us the few miles over the bridge so that we could do nothing much together. Often, we played outside. We might pick rose petals and crush them up into small portions of tap water, filling paper cups with this sour-smelling, lumpy mixture, and then tout our wares through the village as the latest eau de toilette.

On this particular day, we are trying to climb a tree in my friend’s garden. She has thrown a rope over the lowest branch and stands back, gripping, putting all her weight into it, while I try to scale up the other end. I’m not getting very far. Each time I just about manage to get both feet of the ground, I can only hang there, unable to pull myself further.

This isn’t working, she says, letting go of the rope – but I’m still suspended on the other end.

Without her weight to balance, I fall backwards onto the ground, reaching out my left hand at the last minute to break my fall. A sharp, hot pain races up my middle finger into my wrist and I scream out.

Now, her father is insisting that I just put my hand in the basin, which he has filled with cold water and ice. But I don’t want to. I’m cradling my burning wrist against my chest.

Come on, he says. It’s not that bad.

He’s trying to peel my hand away from me, and now he bundles it into the water, and I’m crying as the cold reaches through my bones and makes them throb louder.

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As we walk along the Isis River, towards the city centre, my friend and I are giggling about this memory. She still carries the guilt of it. I tell her that actually I think I was more annoyed with her father. I was in so much pain – desperate for pity.

He was probably freaking out, my friend said. No one likes to phone up another parent and say that there’s been an accident on their watch.

This had never occurred to me. It gives a perfect explanation for his hurried, insensitive words, telling me that I’ll be fine in a moment. But I wasn’t fine. I ended up in the hospital with a broken arm. And then two weeks later, at the first ball I ever went to, I was certain no one was asking me to dance because of the hulking cast that overshadowed my neat, velvet dress.

All because of a tree that wouldn’t be climbed.

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In 1829, Thomas Wilson was the first European explorer to set foot in Denmark, Western Australia. He had been travelling from Freemantle to Sydney, but his ship ran aground and needed recaulking. While he waited, Wilson decided to lead an exploration party west of Albany. He set off with an aboriginal guide and interpreter, two convicts, and several other navy men. Eight days after setting out, Wilson came to a stream, which he named the Denmark River, after a surgeon in the Royal Navy. He could not know that a town of the same name would rise upon its banks.

I sat on that shore many times when I lived in Denmark, watching ducks paddle past. Trees line the river’s edge, growing out across the water as if captivated by their own reflection.

Thomas Wilson was the first to recognise the future value of the Karri trees in Denmark – he described them as having ‘enormous girth and altitude’. Towards the end of 1895 a saw mill was assembled on the bank of the river and a tent town grew around. It was thought it would take fifty years to cut all the trees down, and by then more would have grown.

I fell in love with those Karri trees. Some of them grew up to 300 feet. The house where Dan and I were living had been built by his cousin into the side of a hill. On the ground floor a huge rock sat in the entrance hall, which he had assembled the building around. It kept the rooms cool. Even in summer, to place your hand on that stone was fresh and soothing.

The main room upstairs had a wall of glass that looked down the steep hill into the forest. In the bedroom above, you could see over the tree tops at the ocean– grey and patterned, giving up foamy strips, like lace trimming, to the wind. I remember standing at the window, the first day we came to the house. There was a sensation of my brain uncoiling – like an animal, waking from sleep – as I watched red and green parrots fly from treetop to treetop; pink breasted pigeons fluffing their feathers. I could watch the forest for hours. Dan and I called it tree TV.

These Karri had been there nearly 100 years, since the millers had left at the beginning of the 20th century. Their hope for a lasting sawmill had evaporated when they had destroyed most of the forest in less than 10 years. Even if it had taken 50 years to cut all the trees – their astonishing height and width was the result of centuries of unchecked growth. There’s a photograph, which shows a Karri trunk, hollowed out with age, a car cleverly parked inside. They were giants.

The town of Denmark remained after the sawmill – fighting through depression and agricultural hardship. The Karri trees grow on.

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As we move into winter, the trees in Oxford stand in skeleton form, naked through frost and rain, but they will survive till Spring brings buds of bright lime. The other week, I played tennis with Dan in the park. The tock of the ball was loud in the quietness of autumn with so few people about. The tarmac had been swept clean, but a slope of leaves ran along the netting, at its highest in the corners. I had to tread into these mounds to retrieve the balls, feeling the bushy carpet underfoot. Soft, dry fragments fell from my hand, lifting up in the breeze, transparent in the light. Some of them had the tiniest traces of green.

Clouds of breath hovered around my face – almost grey in the dim light. The sun was resting on the roof tops, tired – making less of an ascent each day. Fewer squirrels hopped the tree-lined paths. Birdsong lacked that celebratory ring. Dan stopped to point out an ordered V-formation in the sky and we wondered if this was a group already on their way out to a kinder climate.

As we shift into the cold of winter, I have the feeling something is being taken from me – though a something I never possessed in the first place: shut up much of the summer, checking at the window to see if anything new was coming in; often disappointed as the rain continued.

I feel a relief with the days clouding over and dark sweeping in. I know what to expect. June and July, I waited for that freedom a run of hot days can bring – where the outdoors becomes my indoors and I can revel in space – but it never seemed to arrive. The turn of seasons always makes me wistful – autumn in particular. There is such beauty in this melancholy shedding, the slithers of gold that pile up on the ground. Whatever lies beneath the green of leaves in summer comes forth as the days shorten and the air cools. Branches spill. I have the sense I am being asked to be fascinated with life – as it goes on. Simply that. Such a clear and clean focus seems to give the most chance of really living – in the way that a light, concentrated by a magnifying glass can be quite dazzling and powerful.

And perhaps those pines at the end of my parents’ garden will be gone soon – this backdrop to a fragment of my childhood. But their memory will live on amongst broken arms and parrots and branches that grow towards the sun.

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An unexpected comfort

I’ve been in pain this week. Over the weekend, someone I trusted said many hurtful things, including unkind words about my writing.

I’ve noticed the days going by – a reluctance to post on my blog, even though it has provided me with such astonishing satisfaction. It’s a great pleasure to have been read these last few months. Friends and family do their bit, but the fact that people I’ve never met – who live on a different continent – have been visiting my posts with an unexpected loyalty, makes me buzz with happiness. Thank you. This is why I can sit down now and continue.

Pain can be elusive: we might tell the osteopath  that we’ve got a weird sort of buzzing sensation in our shoulder; my wrist hurts, but only when I do that, or this; I keep getting these headaches, but they’re not really headaches – sometimes they’re in my eye, sometimes in my neck; I can’t sleep, but I don’t know why; I hate my job for some reason; I think maybe I’m unhappy.

It can be a signal, a caution – a shot through the arm might mean you’re about to have a heart attack. A twinge in the knee says, stop running – you’re going to do yourself some real damage. The heat of fire keeps us from getting too close.

But sometimes pain comes at you headlong, without warning, and there’s nothing elusive about it. A betrayal can happen as fast as lightning, and the result is as though you have been struck a sudden, unmitigated, searing blow.

Several months ago, Dan and I argued. I woke the following morning with a great need to heal, but his presence made me so angry and defensive that all the parts I needed to repair were shut up tight. I took myself off for a few days.

The first night, I had this dream: I’m lying in a camp bed – that sensation of dampness, salt on the skin. I’m drowsy, unable to open my eyes, but I know I’m back in the house where I grew up.  I hear my dad, arriving with people. They are talking on the stairs – somehow they know about my argument. My dad comes to the door of the room. I’m wrapped in a sheet – self conscious about being in bed so late in the day.

We’ve disturbed your precious writing peace, my dad says, and his empathy and understanding bring a prickly sense of tears behind my eyes. He tells me something about hulling, or hoeing. It’s nothing he’s ever said to me before, but in the dream I know he means doing something that will rekindle my inspiration. I begin to cry because I’m in pain over Dan. My father leans towards me and kisses my forehead. This is nothing he has ever done in real life: such a show of sympathy could only exist in my dreams. Because this tender act is so unexpected I feel a great rush – like a profound answer to a question that, although I’ve never asked, has sat inside me, wanting.

I remembered that dream this week, and I asked myself what it was telling me – what I was trying to show to myself: my father’s tenderness and compassion? These are things he does not reveal in life – not because he’s a cruel man, but because they’re demonstrations he’s not capable of making. The dream was my offering to myself, perhaps something I’d always wanted, which I decided to give in a moment of real need.

And then it happened in real life: comfort from the last person I expected.

After the dream, Dan and I met to talk. Our words were disjointed. The silences were painful, frustrating. At one point Dan said that he would leave – it seemed we’d got as far as we were going to that day, which wasn’t anywhere. But he didn’t get up. We both sat there for some time, looking out of the window. The garden was very still beyond.

Dan asked if I wanted to go for a walk.

Okay, I said.

We headed to Whytam woods. It had been raining and the long grass soaked our shoes and trousers. I spotted a deer in the trees, springing through the undergrowth. Later, it was standing in the path ahead, watching us. The butter-coloured fields, which I glimpsed through the woods, had patches of weeds growing, their almost translucent tops reaching above the wheat so that it looked like clouds of gnats hovering.

Dan asked if I was going to eat later. I’d mentioned earlier that I was finding it hard.

I said I really fancied bolognaise, but I wasn’t sure if I had the energy.

I told him I’d been to the supermarket twice and it had been impossible – I’d wanted to yell at people for getting in my way; when I couldn’t separate the plastic bag to put my shopping in, I’d almost cried.

Dan went to get the things from the shop. Then we cooked together.

This is surreal, I said as we stood side by side, adding things to the pan.

When we were eating, I gave an impression of how my meditation had been that morning. I sat with my eyes closed for a moment and then mimed sobbing, stopping for a moment, sitting in stillness, and then sobbing once more. It was weird that it was funny, but it was a relief to share the experience with him – perhaps because he had been the cause of the pain.

The bolognaise lasted a few days. Each evening, we would meet and eat some more of it together, and gradually we found our way back.

As each day went on this week, I was surprised I hadn’t cried. I came close a few times – especially when I summoned the courage to look at my blog, which had gathered a rancid air about it because of what my friend had said. I read the comments people had left for me. Such kindness. Such generosity.

I made notes for a new post – something about my experiences, finding an agent – but my friend’s words rang loud in my head and I couldn’t gather my ideas together. A few days later, I sat down to write something about where stories begin. Again, I faltered.

Today, I was standing in my sitting room. The low winter sun was coming in bright through the blinds. I was putting some books away, and then I stood for a moment, glancing through the titles. I picked up The Prophet.

I’m going to open this, I thought. There is a message, waiting for me.

I let the pages fall apart.

And a woman spoke, saying, Tell us of Pain.

I went upstairs, sat down on the cushions in my spare room where I like to work and read on.

And he said: your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self chosen.

It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.

Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:

For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen.

And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.

Once more, comfort from a source I had not expected, especially as this book had been lent to me by the friend who had betrayed me.

 

In this quiet week that I’ve spent moving carefully between tasks, I’ve been watching over myself in a way that’s new. I’ve not always been an obedient patient – often getting out of bed too soon in my convalescence. But these last few days, I’ve told myself to rest. I even thought to question my lack of tears, looking beyond the part of me that was proud at my strength, determined to move forward at a decent pace. I stood in my bedroom and began to shake myself – at first starting gently in my hands, then following the movement into my arms, then my chest, and finally my whole self: wriggling, trembling, shivering. From far down I sensed the grief rising, until at the last moment I felt a tingling sensation in my cheeks and I began to sob. Several deep, unbroken sounds came. It was enough.

Sometimes, that unexpected source of comfort can come from ourselves.

I crept onto the bed, knelt down, flopped the top half of my torso over a pile of cushions, and watched my breathing. My whole body came back to me – for days it had felt distanced, shunned almost, and I’ve been walking around feeling like a kernel of popcorn, so very hard and small. But now I had burst open.

Posted in Essay, Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 56 Comments

The blank page is like a first kiss

I live in the student heart of Oxford. The supermarket is always filled with groups of young twenty year olds, wearing coats over their pyjamas – shopping baskets filled with jumbo bags of pasta. Some of them are discovering each other, cuddling by the eggs, indecisive at the meat section, saying, I don’t mind, in that soft, untroubled voice of infatuation. It’s an intoxication this besottedness – kissing by the breakfast cereal, holding hands to navigate the aisles. Gone is the burden of inhibition. New love is an open arena with no limits.

 

Growing up, I often had the feeling I should tone it down. Inside, I wanted to leap and play and talk and spin, but something of the world around gave me the impression that this wasn’t the place for that.

My mother enrolled me in an after school drama group. I felt the space around me begin to open up, though at the same time I was frustrated. To really have the chance to express myself, I needed a part – lines – but I was often overlooked. I watched other kids shuffling about, fiddling with their hands and mumbling when made to stand up in front of the group. I was bursting with stories and feelings. Even if it meant humiliating myself in front of a whole crowd, I didn’t care, just for the chance to do something spontaneous.

Being in love seemed like the one area where unbound exhibition had a place – songs and poems all spoke of intense experiences without restraint. Love offered the possibility of being in a huge, wonderful performance and I was dedicated to seeking it out. I can see myself at sixteen, fleeing up a stone staircase at school, being chased by my boyfriend like we’re in a movie.

What’s wrong? I’d asked him earlier when I found him looking miserable and pale.

He hadn’t wanted to tell me.

Fine, I said. But if you’re going to end it, at least have the guts to tell me why.

He stared at me, speechless. I thought him a coward and began to run.

He grabs my hand on the stairs.

Don’t you know? he says. Can’t you see it?

What? I shout.

I’m in love with you and I don’t know what to do.

Oh, the drama. It was thrilling!

But the first time a boy asked me out in person, I nearly ran from the room – although it was a question I’d waited over a week to hear. We were sitting in his study room at boarding school. It was a Sunday. We were thirteen or fourteen. There must have been a point where the two of us were out on the lawn with our friends, as we were every Sunday – these large mixed groups that were full of wondrous potential.

The situation between us has been building for a number of days. I’d told a friend I fancied him – she’d told a friend of his, and that friend had come back with information. Now, it’s got to the point that both of us know how the other person feels. I’m waiting for the moment when something will happen.

We’re making our way through the long corridor of his boarding house towards his study room, which he shares with a dozen or so other boys. Desks line the pale walls, messy with books and papers. I move in between the haphazard chairs, looking at things, asking who sits where. This is lung-shrinking small talk. The bones of my sternum ache with embarrassment. I wish I could shut up, yet I can’t seem to stop buzzing like a bee trapped in a glass, until, finally, he and I are sitting on chairs near each other. He looks ill. My brain is a lump of dough and I can’t move my mouth to say one more word. He bends over and put his elbows on his knees, runs his hands through his hair.

Shit, he says.

And then he looks up and asks if I want to go out with him.

The awkwardness of saying yes is profound enough that I feel like running from the room, as if I’m insulted. He has revealed so much in this one question – still, it’s too painful to admit I like him.      

Suddenly, unable to bear any more, I say yes – quickly and sharply. That one word releases everything.

We are silent, but relaxing into the softness of our feelings, which now lay open between us, comforting. It’s an oozy sort of warmth that begins to envelop me, bringing a need for contact. He takes my hand and I feel his fingers in mine. The thrill of this – the key that has enabled us to touch – is so delightful I want to giggle. Now, we are kissing, and it’s adulthood.

It’s like an elegant room this feeling – grownup because it’s not filled with toys. The walls are beyond my realm of vision so they appear black and yet, standing in that blackness isn’t frightening because the feeling is so exquisite. Where I am, the light shines powerfully. Even though all around is in shadow – unknown – I can bear it all. I am happy to be here, in this nameless place, exploring. Walking and walking into endless black, feeling my way, isn’t frightening – as it would be if I were in the dark, bumping into things. I don’t feel trepidation. It’s a luminous, gifted feeling. I am in the light of laughter.

 

It reminds me of the writing process, this falling into your feelings and being engulfed by them. The blank page might be the possibility of love – at first terrifying, but if you give yourself to it, what pleasures! But just as there was a long period of frustration in my after school drama group before I started getting the parts I wanted, there was something similar with my writing – having a need to tell stories and yet not knowing how. Finding my writer’s voice was like getting that key when I was thirteen. I had wanted to run from the room, but something made me stay, made me say yes. After that, a door to a whole new arena of life was unlocked. Just as the stage and the act of love drew me in, so did the page, offering boundless space and never-ending possibility.

I was in a cafe the other day. Two girls sat in armchairs a few meters away.

It’s so annoying, one of them said. I mean, he quotes from books he hasn’t actually read and for his last piece of work he got seventy-eight!

How? the other girl said.

Ugh, he’s just really good at writing essays.

There was a wistful silence and after a moment they both agreed how hard it was to write.

I know what I think, one of the girls said. I just can’t put it into words.

Me too, her friend told her. I mean, it’s hard enough to write down the argument, without having to put it all into this fancy, intelligent language.

Writing isn’t easy – the page may be limitless, but that can make the idea of filling it a little daunting. We only make it harder if we try to fill it with something we’re not.

It’s often in sections of description where I find my students attempting to be beyond what they are. They read exuberant prose and feel they have to mimic it. But if you copy, the words come out without heart, and really it’s the heart that gives prose its glory.

Thomas Hardy speaks through the wind and rain. His landscapes hold emotion. He feels every green – from the lightest shade of lime, to the dark, almost shadow black of foliage under a half moon. He isn’t trying to be lyrical, he simply feels for everything he sees and tells it like it is. Words don’t have to have four syllables to impress. We’re all unique individuals: simply writing our version of the world is enough to make readers take a breath, because until that moment such a perspective was unknown to them.

But, how do I know? my students ask. How do I know if this is my voice?

How do you know you’re in love, I tell them.

When we allow ourselves to love we move as if on air – everything becomes effortless. Truth is ceaseless energy – just us and air and no resistance, like those couples in the supermarket, giggling over apples and mangos, unaware of anyone else in the supermarket. If we are driven by how we want to appear or be perceived, we might start big, but often we fall flat after a few paragraphs. Writing in a voice other than our own is false love. Our doubts will let us know if that’s the case, which is often why we don’t want to listen to them.

I spent months in a relationship, running away from my doubts, trying to take a deep breath and get over it – to appreciate what I had. But it was fear – fear of having to say, it’s over; fear of having to start all over again. It’s the same with writing. If it’s not going well we don’t like to admit that to ourselves.

While I was trying to ignore my misgivings about this relationship, I began to write a story about a couple, living in a cramped flat. The boyfriend gives the girlfriend a bonsai tree. Not only does she feel burdened by the responsibility of looking after the plant, she can’t bear the times she has to take the special scissors from the drawer and cut it back. The story ends with the boyfriend coming back to an empty flat. He walks out onto the balcony and sees that the bonsai has been planted in the wide border of the communal garden below.

Doubt is often where we find our true selves, if we’re brave enough to listen. It speaks to us, guides us. The only fearful thing about doubt is the way we dread it. Take that away and it’s only a voice, offering advice from deep within us where our guts lie, feeling the pulse of our heart, knowing truths. Doubt can feed damp into a relationship so that it starts to rot and crumble, just as doubt can ruin a piece of work unless it’s brought out into the open to air. For love to flourish you have to be yourself, and it’s the same with writing. When I’m honest about what’s really on my mind I feel liberated – I feel as though I’ve removed a blockage and the words rush in.

When we find our voice we are like kids in love: opened up, feeling each nook and cranny of our inner selves with little hindrance of self consciousness. We are not trying to be fancy, or intelligent, we are simply asking ourselves: is this what I want to say? The blank page can be like a kiss – a silent exploration where we go by feeling alone, listening to our thoughts, eyes closed, falling deeper and deeper into the experience, surfacing with the right word, then moving onto the next.

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When you find yourself in a room with two strangers, having to fake an orgasm, it’s best to leave the country and change your life

I’m in the upper gallery of the Sheldonian Theatre, watching a graduation ceremony take place in Latin. Ad honorem Domini nostri Jesu Christi, the Vice-Chancellor intones, but I’m distracted by the fact that a few hours earlier I had to take a crap in a plastic bag…

 

I’m going to be in Oxford this weekend, a girlfriend had told me earlier that week.

I’d offer you a bed, but we don’t really have a bathroom, I said.

The other day I’d gone to a hot yoga class so I could use the showers afterwards. There are probably easier ways to get clean, but I’m not great at thinking things through.

My girlfriend was coming to Oxford to watch a work colleague graduate. She asked if I wanted to join her.

Definitely!

I thought you’d be up for it, she said.

This, coming from a woman who persuaded me to drive to the New Forrest for dawn so that I could stand barefoot in one of the small lakes, wearing a nightshirt, holding an enormous white globe – while she took photographs, and Carp swam between my legs, slapping my ankles with their chunky tails.

 

After the ceremony, my friend and I meet with the graduate.

You’ve grown a beard, she says.

(Apparently, when you’re doing a PHD there isn’t time to shave.)

A small area has been fenced off, where a man is taking official photos of the students in their gowns. My parents have a similar photograph of me in their bedroom. My hair is doing something it’s never done before or since. Usually, it’s big and curly, but here it hangs either side of my head, bland and limp. Besides looking nothing like me, it scarcely seems to represent my time at university.

I spent my first night, careering through the bar, laughing uncontrollably about the fact I was in room 69. That whole year I’d get knocks in the middle of the night, slurred voices calling out: sixty-nine!

They weren’t after me, they were after the promise of a number: I once met a sixty-nine from another block and their experience was the same.

One of the first guys I did let into my room was a man in his late thirties who I was doing promo work for. I was under the impression he wanted to pick up all the old flyers and unsold tickets I had, but as soon as I closed my door he was trying to climb into my mouth tongue first. As he kissed, he made this creaking noise in his throat. His voice was so distinct that all the people who worked for him always did an impression whenever they said his name.

I leapt away, so that my beanbag was between us, saying: I have a boyfriend!

Oh, he said, confused. Apparently, he’d asked around and everyone said I was single.

It’s a secret, I said, trying to think hard. Um, his parents are Jewish – they wouldn’t approve.

He stared blankly. He had a wide nose with nostrils that looked swollen, and a 3D mole on his cheek. I began to feel queasy.

You better go, I think I’m going to cry with regret. I turned away and waited for the click of the door.

There I am, high on my parents’ bedroom wall, looking formal in my Bachelor of Arts gown, two wilted flaps of hair either side of my startled eyes, holding my first class degree.

 

My girlfriend, the graduate and I make our way into town for lunch. The restaurant is full, but we’re promised a table in fifteen minutes.

That’s great, the graduate says.

What name?

Lucifer, he tells the bright-looking waitress.

Lucifer, she repeats, writing it down in her reservation book. I press my lips together and walk quickly on.

It’s still funny twenty minutes later when I hear LUCIFER! called across the restaurant.

 

We have been joined by Dan and another PHD student – a handsome man in his forties with a compelling Spanish accent. We talk about my girlfriend’s photography – whether it’s possible to produce work on purely creative terms.

Lisbon story, I write in my notebook – the first words since being back in Oxford. It’s a movie, which has at its heart a man’s disgust with commercialisation. He tries to capture images of Lisbon, removing the subjective view. Above these two words is a poem I wrote in my final days in Wales:

On rainy days we huff,

Stand by the window, staring out;

Sigh,

Look at the clock,

Walk into rooms, and,

Just as quickly,

Walk out again.

The poem then moves out of my head to look through the window, where sheep graze – their manner plodding, oblivious. Trees and saplings reach and stretch, grateful to the wind as it shakes free their loads; the leaves glide away on their own adventures.

 

The graduate wants to know if I got any writing done in Wales. I say it was a rich time.

He says if he found himself alone in a cottage he would spend most of his day arranging things, and then rearranging them.

I tell him the best thing is not to have any preconceptions about what you’re going to write: to put trust in the experience of a new place, and observe what this brings up.

Several years ago, Dan and I left our jobs in London and moved to Mexico. I planned to write a play. The previous year, my agent had arranged an audition for a commercial. I was shown into a tiny room with a sofa. A man and woman stood beside a video camera. The ad was for the rampant rabbit. I had to sit on the sofa and fake an orgasm.

Try and look surprised, the man said. The whole point is that this vibrator has unexpected results.

There’s footage of me somewhere, looking very surprised – surprised at how I’m in a broom cupboard with two strangers, faking an orgasm.

I walked back to the tube station afterwards, thinking: there has to be a better way to be an actress.

When Dan and I got to Mexico, we found a room at the back of a restaurant run by a woman called Celia who wore khaki shorts and men’s suit shoes. She had ferocious eyebrows and several dogs that liked to lie in the alleyway, which led to the street. On hot days, after Celia had sprayed the passage with water to keep the dust down, the air in that confined space became warm and moist, carrying the aroma of dirty dog. The room had a triangle of grass out the back and each evening, Dan made a fire and we cooked toast on an oven tray he’d found in a hedge. 

I never wrote that play.

What I became was a short story writer. My first piece was set in the English Civil War. There was a woman in a castle under siege – her husband far off, fighting for the king.

 

I’d like to read some of your work, the graduate tells me.

Read the buck, I say.

I wrote it when I was back from Mexico, after I’d had a few pieces published, but didn’t really know what I was doing, and if I was on the right track. But then I received an email, telling me this story had won an award – an award named after one of my favourite writers. That night, I rode the tube into London, standing in the half-empty carriage. I was listening to music and moving my body, smiling. There was no self consciousness, no jittery feeling of concern in my bones. I moved gently, subtly, thinking: I’m a writer. I’m a writer.

My life made sense, finally – the fact that on the surface it appeared to be one thing, and yet deep down there was so much more going on. Now, that bottomless whirlpool had been given a purpose.

 

The graduate produces paper and begins to explain a game. We’re to each write two lines, folding the paper so the first is hidden. On the basis of that one line, the next person writes two more, folding the paper and passing it on again

We play round after round and the process is like the combing of a huge, bushy mass of hair, which finally unites in a smooth, shiny finish:

Coming together after a long separation,

they still hadn’t found the right language to speak to each other.

Braille seemed the ideal form of communication:

they didn’t need to see each other, speak or touch.

The silence was enough for them.

They reached across it and made it theirs.

Beer glasses, old wooden tables,

The odd Penguin Classic or two…

Read me

Motherfucker.

 

Writing makes me love life, seek out unexpected openings, which I can slip through into new experiences. I’m grateful for days that work rather like that poetry game, each moment rolling off the previous one – inspired in some way, yet moving in a new direction: one minute I’m squatting above a bin liner at seven in the morning – the next, I’m watching dozens of men and women in their gowns, beginning a new phase of their life.

 

A few nights later, there’s a knock on the door. It’s dark and the wind is talking loudly.

Excuse the outfit, says a young voice, which carries on with: for some reason I didn’t pack any trousers!

This is a young girl on a road trip, trying to sign people up to monthly direct debits for a charity.

Come in, Dan says. Get warm.

I’m lying on cushions by the fire. I create a little spot for her and Dan goes into the kitchen to make tea. She begins to tell me about the charity, but suddenly stops and says: it’s a bit weird, giving you a pitch.

I laugh and say it would be mean to kick her out now, empty handed, but I explain that Dan and I have entered a period of austerity.

We’re putting in a new bathroom, you see.

But this makes the thought of not donating even more perverse – the fact that soon we’ll have a beautiful wet room, yet people out there, whose homes have been washed away by floods, have nothing.

Sign us up, I tell her.

I then go upstairs and get her a pair of jeans.

Can I use your toilet? she asks when I come back.

You can, but there’s no door.

While she pees, Dan and I talk loudly to cover the sound.

We’re the same size, she says, once she comes back into the room, wearing my jeans.

Keep them, I tell her. They look better on you.

She leaps forward and gives me a hug.

I hope I’m like you when I’m older, she says.

You might be, I tell her. You remind me of me when I was your age!

After she goes, I glance at Dan and say: lucky we had the toilet plumbed back in.

It was only out for twenty-four hours, but during that time Dan and I happened to get drunk and I happened to wake up with the feeling that if I didn’t get to a loo in three minutes there’d be trouble.

 

When I met her the morning of the graduation ceremony, my friend asked how I was managing without a bathroom.

I’ve been enjoying the challenge, I said – even since the toilet has been unplumbed and sitting out in the garden.

My god! But what are you doing?

You don’t want to know, I said.

She began to tell me about a house party she’d had with her flatmates. The whole thing had become fairly raucous. The following morning they discovered a plastic bag in the bathroom with a poo inside.

 No! I said. That’s just shocking…

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The magical act of returning

The sky is beginning to drop its heavy white. Clumps of fog tumble down from the mountaintops into the valley where the cottage is. I stand by the window with my dad.

I’m not sure it’s a good idea to get up too high, he says – today we’d hoped for a climb.

He’s here for my last two nights in North Wales. He hasn’t been back to this spot in over twenty years. At breakfast we talked about how he first came with friends from university to tackle the mountains.

I hope you’re not disappointed, my dad says, knowing I’d wanted to climb Snowden.

Of course not, I tell him, suggesting a low route along Llyn Ogwen instead. This is a walk I’ve wanted to do, but not on my own because I thought the rocks along the water’s edge would be slippery. I’ve cycled past the lake several times during my stay, mesmerised by its shape. It stretches out at the top of the valley, reaching as far as it can up the surrounding mountains. The water is impenetrable, often looking like molten lead. I suspect this has to do with the fact that the sun has shined very little over the last few weeks – but another part of me thinks of the myth of King Arthur, knowing that this is one of the places rumoured to be the final resting place of Excalibur. The lake remains dark, holding its secret.

 

A wooden fingerpost marks where we need to leave the road and locate the path alongside the lake. The initial way is hard to trace through the scattering of rocks. There are abrupt steps up, mixed with narrow, flatter passages. We’re scrambling, which is what I like the most – that act of balance, where the eye has to be really keen, always looking one step ahead.

I had a wonderful scramble years ago when I was living in Mexico, renting an apartment at the top of a dilapidated hotel in Mazatlan. The rooms were set around a crumbling courtyard. Next door to me was a Shaman from New Mexico who taught pottery. A young friend of his had come to visit with his mother and the three of us set off one day, as the pottery lessons were beginning. We walked miles down the coast. The road was high above sea level. A steep cliff dropped down to the water on our right. In the afternoon, we spotted a small beach below, and followed a staircase cut into the rocks. Down on the sand, huge boulders rose out of the water, lining the coast at the bottom of the cliff, until the headland, which hid the hotel from view. We picked out another set of steps, leading to a school at the top. Here we could rejoin the road for the last few hundred yards home.

We set off. I only had a pair of flipflops, but it was manageable. The three of us went steadily. It was a long way over those stones, but we found a rhythm and went in single file. We only spoke to talk of the experience: if we’d landed a particularly slick combination of rocks, or lost balance for a moment. Sometimes, we had to stop, if the way looked tricky and needed a minute or two of planning, but then we’d set off again. We were a chain, linked by the day, by what we felt, navigating the dark spaces between each boulder. Often, the only sounds were of our feet, slapping down.

When we reached the school at the top of the steps, there was no way through. The door we’d seen in the wall was locked. It was all quiet. We followed the wall, looking for a low point where we might be able to climb over.

We agreed that if there was a staircase there had to be a way through. Eventually, we found a narrow alley between two buildings, wide enough for a person. At the end, was a steep slope of smooth rock, which rose a couple of meters, and then a wooden fence that was another two meters. It was scale this or scramble back over the boulders to the beach, climb up to the road, and then walk the long miles home. Going back seemed to threaten undoing all the joy from the day.

The son went first, scrambling up the slope of rock and coming to stand on the small ledge, before gripping onto the top of the fence and springing up to get his leg over. He stayed lodged on the fence post to help his mum next. I pushed her up the slope from below, wedging my shoulder into her arse, the two of us groaning.

Come on! yelled her son.

I am, bloody hell! she shouted.

Finally, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her over the fence. Despite the heat of the day, it was only now that I became aware that I was sweating.

I stepped, pressing my fingertips into a sharp edge of rock. Then, I brought my foot up, rubbing it over the stone to find another place where I could get a hold. Trying to take as much weight as I could with my fingers, I pulled, feeling a strain in my knuckles. I got my foot onto another lip. My flipflop pulled sharply between my toes so that I winced.

Keep going! I heard.

I reached up and put my fingers through a hole in the wooden fence and tugged – my shoulder socket popped – but I finally got onto the ledge. The son took hold of my wrist, helping me onto the top of the fence, and then we both jumped down.

I had met them only a few days earlier, but the three of us hugged – the mum in tears. We cheered and said how much we loved each other, and couldn’t be separated for the rest of the day.

 

What I love about such tests, is the pleasure of arriving home. This was how I felt in Mexico – that satisfaction turned euphoria. It’s consolation for the experience having ended: something new and powerful rushes in, redirecting your feelings, so that they aren’t snagged on the sadness of an ending, clinging forever, unwilling to release.

As my time in Wales drew on, I often wondered how I would let go. I imagined that, when the moment came – once my dad and I had packed the car – I wouldn’t be able to leave.

Some things are hard to give up. When King Arthur lay dying after the Battle of Camlann, he asked Sir Bedivere to throw Excalibur back into the sea. The knight took the sword but, tempted by its beauty, concealed it under a tree. When he returned, Arthur asked what he’d observed. Bedivere said: nothing but the waters deep and the waves wan.

Though art untrue, Arthur told him.

He went back a second time, but only threw the scabbard into the sea, still unable to let the sword free.

 

My Dad and I stop for a moment, breathless. We are on the return journey, beginning to wilt. Across the lake we see the bright dots of helmets, making their way up the dark, vertical rock.

That’s a good spot to learn, Dad says. He smiles and I can see all his memories, rising up inside him, glowing like the sun.

We carry on, a final push, our legs weary. And then we both stumble in quick succession. I’m surprised at how little it hurts, even though I slap my back on solid rock. It happens so fast I don’t realise, until it’s clear I’m unexpectedly looking at the world from a different angle.

What am I doing down here? I think.

Are you all right? Dad calls back.

I nod and we keep on, hitting the road, and then going through the valley to the cottage.  

Slumped in chairs with the kettle boiling, it’s clear how happy Dad is. The look on his face is as if he still can’t believe it. So many years have gone by. He was young the last time he came, but perhaps he still feels young.

It’s only been several years since I was in Mexico, but I think about that time and the person I was, and I’m struck by the distance between then and now.

It was the longest I’d been away – a year and a half – and it was hard to come home. I felt sickened by shops, having spent so long only buying what was necessary. I had a limited budget, using what I made from baking and selling chocolate brownies on the beach. Back in England, fashion made me sad. Even now, as we move into Winter and I see manikins done up in fancy coats, I find it strange we’re induced to buy new clothes, just because this season’s styles are different.

Travelling takes us back to our most basic parts – flesh and bone. We can spend so much of our lives ‘covering up’, that these unknown places seem frightening; like strangers. But, when you get reacquainted, happiness comes at a deep level, and it’s not easy to give up – just as it was hard for Bedivere to relinquish Excalibur. I don’t think it was simply because of its splendour: there was everything it represented, everything that had gone before, which he couldn’t let go of.

Both in Mexico and Wales I grew accustomed to the beauty around me: the quiet, peach-tinted Pacific sunsets; the Welsh mountains, rising out of the ground, unconquerable. But there was also the way of life: so calm and deeply animal, which had created a space for learning.  

 

I sit down, for the first time since coming back to Oxford, on the cushions in my spare room, where I often write. Picking them up to rearrange them, I am swamped with the feeling of the cottage in Wales where the cushions had been for nearly three weeks. I see myself coming back from a long cycle, talking out loud at how glad I am to have finished, sinking into the rocking chair to summon the last dregs of energy so I can light the fire.

The cushions still have a dusty, damp, smoky smell to them. They have come home changed.

Bedivere went back to the lake a third time, and only then was he able to hurl Excalibur into the air. The sun hit the metal so that the sword appeared like a streak of lightening for an instant. A fair, glowing hand, and arm clothed in white, rose from the waters and caught it. Finally, the magic was allowed to happen.

My dad can remember his youth on those mountains in Wales and feel, wordlessly, the great space in between, which is more than time: it’s the way we change as individuals. This change feels like the work of some magic too – this great learning and transformation. Standing in my spare room, amongst my cushions, I am amazed how I can be in one moment, remembering powerfully some other that came before, so that in an instant I’m two people at once.

I think of Bedivere, standing on the shore of Llyn Ogwen, holding the sword in his hands: this great act of returning. It feels that whatever it was I took to Wales, inside me, I didn’t bring back. But I have not come home empty handed. I have taken enough trips to know that we go with one feeling and return with another – like some wonderful chemical process. When all is done, experiences remain. And they can rush to the surface at moments when we least expect, fluttering beneath the flesh, delivering time and again.

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What we write about when we write

A sheet of A4 is pinned beside the bar. It hangs loose against the stone wall. There’s an image of a four or five year old in an orange sundress. I notice a plaster at the top of her arm.

Missing Girl.

My eyes flit between the picture and the text – letters done in bold, centred on the page.

Last seen getting into a light coloured van.

I have to back away, shake myself. It’s taken me over three hours to cycle here. I’ve covered two valleys. The wind was so strong that by the end I was hardly moving – peddling hard just to maintain my ground. This poster was the last thing I expected.  

I order food, but can’t stop thinking about that little girl. I keep exploring the sickly feeling inside me. Without the van there might be a chance, but its presence is too ominous. There’s also something about the photo. Even when I try to look away, I’m drawn back.

  

A few years ago I wrote a story that went through various titles. It began as An anniversary of sorts, which sounds like something in a women’s weekly where a neglected wife thinks her husband is only pretending he’s forgotten their anniversary. This is the worst title I could have chosen because it’s actually about a married couple, coping with the disappearance of their son.

The story starts with the mother in her son’s room, twenty years on.

She steps towards the bookcase and runs her finger across Sam’s notepads, which she has read again and again. It’s the doodles in the margins she likes the most – wondrous confessions of boredom, caricatures of teachers whose real faces she has forgotten now. That’s where she finds him, for brief moments each day.

She turns at the sound of footsteps. Malcolm’s head appears, his hand on the banister, drawing him up – that bad leg of his. But, life is not as clear-cut as growing old. As well the things one anticipates, there are the things one doesn’t. She sees girls as young as fourteen on the streets – drunk, or worse – and she wants to grip hold of them, ask them do their mothers know, tell them children can be here one moment and gone the next.

I can’t, she says as Malcolm comes into the room. He’s still holding those paint samples. She gestures to the largest patch of wallpaper where a red train speeds towards her.

*

I had trouble with this story. My writing group thought the language was decent, but disliked it for treating a subject in a way they didn’t believe.

The idea began, driving through the town where my parents live, seeing the bare interior of a fish and chip shop. I’d imagined a couple bound to this place.

*

They stare into the dazzling interior of the take-away from the car.

Sam had fish and chips and a coke. That’s what Ray said. Though he wasn’t Ray then, he was just the owner. She has an unusual love for this man who was able to tell the police that Sam turned left out of the door – which is the way to the bus – so that when she lies in bed, listening to the darkness, she can comfort herself that Sam did his best to come home to her that night.

Blue, plastic chairs are scattered around haphazardly. Ketchup bottles are glossy under the striplights, labels stained and peeling. Posters hang limp on the walls, their colours dulling in the greasy air.

It’s odd to be here, isn’t it? she says, and then quickly, wafting her hand: I don’t mean here…or maybe I do. Maybe it’s all odd. Even that word. Odd.

Malcolm kisses her. Are you ready? he asks.

She nods and climbs out of the car. Her breath holds itself briefly about her face, before being pierced and scattered by the rain. They navigate the road together, around puddles that grip the city beneath their slick surfaces, a city that looks up at them, intensely coloured yet distorted.

I wanted to draw that fine line between absolute, raw tragedy, and having to move on, having no choice – simply moving on from the very fact that time cannot be stopped and the days continue, and therefore, somehow, so do you.

But I knew that the story needed something – or lacked something – but it wasn’t possible to know what I was trying to put into words.

Why do you want to write this story? my writing group asked as we went round and round discussing the piece, trying to get at the heart of it.

The urge for a story can come thick and strong even before you know what it’s about. Often, a first draft is a search for what’s there. It can be excruciating, going about in the dark, with only your hands stretched in front, feeling, hoping.

I was experiencing something similar in the pub. There was something of the face of that girl – the painful normality of her round cheeks and tiny chin, the plaster on her arm – which drew me in, yet wouldn’t explain itself.

I thought of her stepping up into the shadows of a van and my body felt grey with dread. The feeling was so deep there were parts I couldn’t reach and name. I couldn’t stop glancing at the poster, overwhelmed by sensations that kept eluding me, yet which I was compelled to interpret. It was exactly the writing process: how we write to fight our way through from confusion into understanding; how consuming that exploration is.

I didn’t know why I wanted to write that story about the grieving couple. It was something of the fact that even though the tragedy of something as powerful as a missing child can fade from the public eye, it will always be vivid for the parents; the agonising jumble of emotions, which change so often yet will always be there, forever changing. Strange, how something in perpetual motion can feel like limbo.

Ray stands by the counter in his apron and cap. She wonders if he dreads their coming as, in a slightly nervous flurry, he asks about the dogs, their golf.

They fill him in.

Retired? he says, glancing at Malcolm.

She is reminded of how, to Ray, they are frozen in time until each visit. Something hovers nearby, something in the corner of her eye.

Are you all right, love? Malcolm asks as she moves to the window.

I’m fine, go on and order.

The road is silent, shop fronts dark, rain splattering. She stares down at the cracks around her knuckles, the loose skin on her wrists, and thinks of her youth, buried beneath posters and newspapers and the sound of children who aren’t hers.

When did we get old? she asks as Malcolm moves towards her.

We’re not old.

We’re not young! she says, adding: I think I thought we could all go back to how it was. One day the phone would ring and we’d all be as we were.

She looks at Malcolm, but he’s staring at the floor.

My writing group said she would never go back there, year in year out, but it was impossible to imagine rewriting the story without that. It was the place I’d marked out for my ‘search’, where I made my discoveries, like the moment the wife suddenly confesses: sometimes I wish Ray would tell us to stop coming here.

Ray is at the table laying down their cartons of fish and chips. She doesn’t remember when he stopped asking whether there’d been any news.

What are you thinking about? Malcolm asks.

That sweet girl. What was her name?

Lisa?

She smiles. That’s right.

Do you remember…Malcolm says, but doesn’t continue and they eat in silence for a while.

Not as good as last year, Malcolm whispers and she grins, touching the corners of her mouth.

Ray! Malcolm says you’re losing your touch.

Ray laughs. Perhaps I should sell up! He stops and gawps at her.

For a moment nobody says anything.

It’s OK, she says finally. You probably don’t remember him.

I remember, Ray says. He was a nice boy.

And words like that will always bring her down. She sees him running across the lawn to her: Mummy, I can go fast! he calls. Mummy, Mummy, look at me!

In the end, they do repaint Sam’s bedroom.

Borrowed Light is the colour they use, and eventually became the title for the story. I think the reason I’d struggled with the title for over a year is because I couldn’t pinpoint what I was writing about. Sometimes those discoveries can come in the most unexpected way. For me, it was looking through a paint sample booklet.

Borrowed Light speaks of how people live after the tragedy of a vanishing. Everything – happiness, the will to live – is on loan because heartbreak has hollowed them out, leaving nothing. A flash of lightness comes, like a gift, but unfortunately pain remains, and will rise up again.

*

They dress in old clothes and open a tin of Borrowed Light, a bright white with hints of blue and green: the type of colour she imagines Sam imagining himself coming home to. They paint straight onto the wallpaper. After one layer, they stand back and stare at the trains.

It will take three coats, Malcolm says. Maybe four.

Her chest burns at this reluctant yielding. Do you mind? she asks. I’m sorry.

Don’t be silly. It would have been wrong to steam the paper off. Aside from all that scraping and pureed rubbish, it would have been wrong.

He picks up his roller and she gazes around the room, panicked.

How can we do this? If we wait for him every day, every day hope for him to be found – alive – how can we do this? she says. I couldn’t have done this last year, or the year before, or the year before that. Don’t you see? Yesterday this would have been unthinkable!

You mustn’t! Malcolm says, giving her a shake. He’s grown out of this. He wouldn’t want it. That’s all this is about. Nobody’s giving up!

She moves over to the window and looks outside. The sky is an immaculate blue. It’s beautiful. The world is beautiful, and yet she’s sure it shouldn’t be.            

There’s a short story by Raymond Carver called What we talk about when we talk about love. In it, two couples discuss what they believe to be love. Terri tells about her ex, dragging her around the living room by her ankles so that her head keeps knocking on things.

I love you, I love you, you bitch, he keeps saying.

What do you do with love like that? she asks the others.

Mel her husband says, that’s not love and you know it.

Then he adds: I don’t know what you’d call it, but I sure know you wouldn’t call it love.

Later, the wife of the other couple says that she and her husband know what love is. But neither of them seems to be able to put it into words.

The story, for me, ends with a powerful sense of how it is to feel deeply, to reach a point in that intensity where we are outside of words, nevertheless drenched in some powerful form of insight.

I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

It is the experience of this insight that I believe we write about, each draft going deeper, searching more and more thoroughly, until we find the centre, and the words, and our search is over.

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Maes Caradoc

For weeks I have been trying to explain to people how I came to be going to an isolated cottage in North Wales for a holiday.

It was a friend of my dad’s who told me I had to go to Maes Caradoc.

What’s that? I asked.

The cottage, he said – as if I knew.

But I suddenly did. I saw his boys, jumping on beds. Now, rocks burst up out of the mist. I wander outside in the middle of the night, feeling something unknown in the darkness.

 

Maes Caradoc means Meadow of Caractacus.

When the Romans took North Wales, they were to occupy Caernarfordshire for three centuries. Despite this, they have left no traces in the valley here. Nant Ffrancon would simply have been a way through the mountains, this wide, meandering valley floor. Now, there are farm buildings set at wide intervals either side of the river, and walled areas of pasture where sheep roam, but then it would have been an uninhabited place, heavily forested.

Caractacus was to take refuge here, among the pines, the steep and rocky mountains beyond. His father held a command under the Romans, but he was to defy them. He became a British king, and was eventually slain. Caractacus fled to Maes Caradoc, though of course it had no name then.

I imagine him sleeping in the woods, howling over his father’s death, his presence perceived as beastlike, forming a legend. This was the space he prowled in his grief. Perhaps those who feared him were too afraid to come near.

Meadow of Caractacus – all because of a man who came to hide in this empty place with his solemn burden.

 

The room is full of beds, colourful rugs – a burnt orange. Boys are bouncing on their knees – thumping their palms on the mattresses. They look up to where a steep set of stairs leads to a small gallery.

I have climbed over the banister and balance with my bottom against the railing. Something of the drop to the room below seems to suck at me. Even though I am preparing to jump, the thought of falling before I’m ready is chilling. I will jump, but I must ready myself first.

Each time, the boys flung themselves, fearless, messy – sometimes dropping as they swung their second leg over the banister, giggling, shouting, laughing. But I am quiet with concentration, taking my time. I have a firm grip on the rail – but then, there is a beautiful, blissful second when I let go, and down I come in a flash of bright ecstasy, a whoop.

 

My Dad and I get out of the car and I open the small gate. I think I remember the slate path that leads along the front of the building; perhaps, the small enclosed garden as well, that contained, patch of grass by the cottage – strange, with the vast space of valley and mountains beyond.

We come into a main room with an iron kitchen range on the far wall. Behind, a steep staircase leads up to a small gallery, but something doesn’t fit.

All right? my dad asks.

I nod, moving around to the table, set beneath the window, the rocking chair. Then, I spot the low door beneath the gallery. I duck, going through into a narrow room. Another door leads into an identical space, almost as if the wall between were a mirror. There is a third door. I crouch down and step through. I am in a room filled with beds. Behind me, a steep staircase reaches up. I stand for some time, looking at it, then I turn back to the beds. They are all made up with rugs.

 

My dad has made a small list of nearby walks, seeing as he will be leaving with the car in the morning and all I will have is my bicycle. Now, he begins to explain how to use a compass.

You have to orient it with the map first, he tells me.

He has me moving the map, with the compass laid on top, until the arrow points north.

Hang on, wait, I’m not getting this, Dad.

No, you’re not are you, he says, looking up at me. He thinks for a moment, flattens the map on the table, resets the compass.

Okay, try this, he says. Where are we? Point on the map.

I lean over and take in the thick white strip that is the Nant Ffrancon Valley, which is rather like a sausage, tied tightly at both ends.

You hold the compass, my dad says. Move until it points to North. Now, look at the map, lay it down and do the same.

Slowly, I begin to understand.

So, my dad says. If you were to walk out this door, which direction would you be headed?

If I went up the old road, I would be just about going north.

He smiles.

I don’t have much familiarity of being with my dad, learning from him. Despite this, I have a powerful desire to please him. In fact, it is more than desire – it is an entire disposition, an inherent quality that exists, despite his absences throughout my life. It’s as if all the organs of my body are inclined, or arranged, that way.

In the past, kidneys were thought to control disposition and temperament. I remember much talk of bile, or bilious natures in Shakespeare. Perhaps this is why fathers are so rankled when their sons are disposed against them – because it is almost a betrayal of genes, cuckolding them.

Spending this time with my dad, observing these instincts, seeing his joy at being back at Maes Caradoc, I can begin to understand those parts of me, which before had no apparent source.

 

As I spend my days here, walking, cooking simple suppers, sitting and reading until I notice it’s grown late, I think of my father, coming here as he did with his university friends. I see them gathered around the coal fire in cotton polar necks – even the Prussian blue of my dad’s, the string he has dangling down the side of his face to keep his glasses secure. He would have been a young man then – daring, athletic – later, dragging his family along with him on his adventures.

This is my second memory – that slate, bursting up out of the mist. It is a mountaintop. Slabs of dark grey rock, forced upwards from the earth. There is a small semicircular shelter, built of the same stone. I sit there with my dad. We have come up through the fog and are above it now, so that we can see clearly about us. My mother and brother wait below. They hadn’t wanted to come any further when we touched the mist and it began to travel along our arms and engulf us. I am sorry that they didn’t know it would be clear up here.

That night, we arrive at the cottage and meet the others. This is the night I go out into the darkness.

Seeing now, the sheep that roam the surrounding mountains, I suspect this was the presence I felt in the night’s black. I didn’t have a torch, but there was a light shining. The cool air was damp – it had darkened the slate path beneath my feet. I felt excitement, being outside at night, having to make my way in this outdoors to reach the toilet; I felt the sense of adventure.

 

Is this an adventure I’m on now? What it feels like is an act of survival. I’m not like Caractacus, trying to stay alive, but there is an element of endurance involved, compared to the modern world. I am alone, and each day is a struggle on my bike. The track out of here is steep and the altitude makes it hard to breath. The sheep like to dash across the road in front of me. It’s strange to see sheep dash. I expect them to fall over at any moment – everything seems so out of balance, out of proportion: their big fluffy, wobbly figures, and these little pegs, sticking out beneath. But now I’ve seen one leap over a river, I know them far more capable than their ungainly bodies suggest.

 The elements are strong, wild. The rain has a sting to it, heavy as if falls with the wind behind it. Often the track is flooded. Though, these are not the inert puddles of the city after a rainstorm, waiting for the sun, or a car to disperse them. Here, the water is in perpetual motion, descending from the hills above. It plunges down steep slate drops, white and powerful, crashing – throwing itself back up again, but always falling back down, habitually, continually, and running on.

I think of Caractacus, hiding here amongst the pines. There would have been little light. Even now, with very few trees, the light is limited. Cloud keeps the sun hidden. Often, I look up and have no idea where it may be. The mountains too, create a sense of being in great shadow. They are the masters here, the great survivors of time – how small they make me feel.

My parents live in a valley, but it is like a little shrunken jumper compared to this. My cottage sits in a vast basin, mountains all around. It is almost as though I am in an enormous, long dormant volcano, something huge and quite beyond belief. When the sun does find a way through the cloud to rest a fingerprint on the slate and grass around me, I am silenced. For in that moment, I see even the sun put in its place, hardly able to light a fraction of these great edifices.

There is also the isolation. How loud and repetitive thoughts can be in the silence. They are like children, clamouring for attention. But listen to them, give them your time, comfort them, and they begin to quieten down, content. This is when the earth starts to speak: the real silence – healing silence – where the body can be at its own pace, moving like an animal without premeditation or concern, just the draw of the world, spinning on its axis and day turning to night. Then I am Caractacus as I lay my head down and know not what of tomorrow, only what the moon speaks now.

 

I’m glad I came. Through the land’s epic shapes – its shadows and precipices, gullies and curves – I can feel the history of the earth and how it was formed: ice and wind, but most of all time – a vast length of time, which I can only make an attempt at fathoming. It makes me rich with life to be so small amongst these mountains: it is a feeling of privilege, that, in a place so big, I came to exist at all.

Now, this place is peopled – but man is in the minority still, just a tiny scattering of dwellings in this Meadow of Caractacus, layering life on life. It is a meadow of memories too, both mine and those that lie within the earth, all these great secrets of how everything came to be, and will be again, I am honoured.

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A place to write

Daphne du Maurier was five when she first discovered Cornwall. That summer, she had watched as the gardener caught a snake in the grass of her Hampstead home. He nailed it to a tree, standing back to watch it writhe.

‘He’ll do that through the day,’ the gardener told Daphne. ‘But the venom will go out when the sun goes down. Then he’ll die.’

She watched the snake and then went over to the wall near the downstairs nursery window where she had a cage with two doves inside. Suddenly they bored her. The snake would struggle until the sun went down – unaware that only death awaited him. He was brave because he was wild.

That was when she opened the cage door wide.

 

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me.

This is one of my favourite openings; its rendering of the dream state – the enticing quality of menace and wistfulness. But, most of all, it is the longing for a house, which I find enchanting. It’s something I’ve felt all my life. Even today, over twenty years on, I still dream that I am back at the farmhouse where I spent the first ten years of my life. Queen Manor. The name has the same exotic magic for me. There were times, after we moved, when I felt my happiness had been trapped there – that I would never get it back.

We can never go back to Manderley again.

 

During my sailing trip the other week, a day or two before the storm hit, we were on our way to Fowey. I was on the tiller and my Dad’s friend was sitting in the cockpit with me.

Have you heard of Daphne du Maurier? he asked me.

Of course! I said. Actually, I’ve got a short story published in a collection alongside her.

I felt myself blushing as I told him this.

Oh, he said. Then you’ll know she lived at Fowey.

I didn’t.

He began to explain that there was a house there, which had provided the inspiration to one of her books.

Rebecca? I asked, excited.

I’m not sure, he said.

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again, I said.

Manderley, that’s it, he said. Or, something like that anyway.

 

The house is called Menabilly.

Once we arrived in Fowey, my dad pulled up alongside the jetty so that I could jump ashore. They were going to moor onto a buoy.

Call us when you’re done, my dad said. We’ll send the dinghy to get you.

I found the tourist information and got hold of a map, and then I began to walk through the town. It was filled with holidaymakers. Dogs marched on the ends of their leads, their nails clicking on the tarmac streets. The sun was bright. Cloud had kept it hidden most of the day, but now the sky was a sharp blue. Heat radiated, though it was drawing towards the end of the afternoon. Children stomped in the narrow streets, tired out, grouchy – needing to go home, but unwilling to part with the joy of a day at the beach. I passed several tantrums as I made my way to the coastal path. And then I was alone, surrounded by hills that lifted up to my right – long grass swept over by the wind, which came in cool and salty from the sea.

There was a beacon on one of the headlands further on, a slender thread of cloud resting just above so that it seemed as if the beacon held it there, balanced on its narrow top. I could feel something rising within me – a powerful sense of luck or gratitude, to be here on this mission, heading with hopeful purpose. But it was more than that. Yes, I wanted to get close to the place that had inspired Daphne – the house Menabilly – but really, I was already here, seeing everything she would have seen. This was where her life as a writer began.

 

Daphne was nineteen when she first came to Fowey with her mother and two sisters. The hire car dropped them at the foot of Bodinnick hill where they would pick up the ferry to Fowey. They decided to stop for lunch first. Before climbing the hill to the Ferry Inn, Daphne and her sisters caught sight of a board on a gate just above the ferry. ‘For Sale’. Behind the gate was a rough piece of ground and a house by the water’s edge.

I went and stood beneath the chalet, the water immediately beneath me, and looked towards the harbour mouth. There were small boats everywhere, and yachts at anchor, but more stirring still a big ship was drawing near, with two attendant tugs, to moor a few cables’ length from the house itself. There was a smell in the air of tar and rope and rusted chain, a smell of tidal water.

After a blissful summer, learning to row, to snare rabbits, gut fish; bathing naked in deserted coves, climbing upon the rotting hulls of ships and trespassing upon estates, Daphne’s aunt wrote to her: ‘isn’t it time you came back to London?’ It was the same aunt who had given Daphne those doves.

‘We can’t think what you find to do with yourself in Cornwall,’ her aunt wrote.

In the second hand bookshop at Fowey, there is a book in the window by Daphne du Maurier – Vanishing Cornwall. Signed copy, it says. There is also a framed photograph – a beautiful shot of Daphne. There is a quote above the picture, which is the very moment she first saw that house at the bottom of Bodinnick hill.

Here was the freedom I desired, long sought-for, not yet known. Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone. It could not be mere chance that brought us to the ferry, and the bottom of Bodinnick hill, and so to the board upon the gate that said For Sale. I remembered a line from a forgotten book, where a lover looks for the first time upon his chosen one: ‘I for this, and this for me.’ The cage was not fastened…the way was open.

It was this that I thought of as I walked along the coast, feeling the calm rhythm walking brings. Each step I feel as if I’m shedding. It is like walking out of a mist: a thick impenetrable white surrounds, but as you move onwards, it begins to thin, and slowly the light shines from ahead, guiding you into the clear; and what a blissful clear it is, like a soft sandy beach, which awaits the rush of ideas, flooding upon it, soaking into it, leaving it tinted with inspiration.

As a child, I had that freedom Daphne talks about. It is the love of what that space can bring, which guides me now, keeps me at my writing. I know that words are the path back – they are like the missing link.

Did you see it? my Dad’s friend asked once I had got back to the boat. My body was tired, my deck shoes filthy with mud, but I could feel the ache of my cheek muscles from smiling all that time.

Not the actual house, I said. There were too many trees.

I had climbed through the barbed wire and navigated my way a little into the forest, enough to see the edge of a brick wall between the thick dark trunks. But I lost my nerve then.

Oh, I thought you’d just walk up the front drive, my dad’s friend said. You could have told them you’re published in the same book as Daphne.

I smiled, blushed again and looked out over the estuary where all the brightly coloured dinghies were bobbing on their buoys.

Actually, I said. I was happy just to roam in her territory, imagine what it would be like to have my own.

My dad’s friend grinned and nodded. He knows all about territory – this boat is his: the peace of the open sea.

So, he said. Any other adventures?

Actually, I told him. There’s a painting in Wales I’d like to go and see.

Who’s it by?

Rex Whistler – I’ve already seen one and I’d like to visit another.

Whereabouts in Wales? My dad’s friend asked.

Plas Newydd, I told him.

You’ll have to go to Maes Caradoc.

What’s that? I asked.

The cottage, he said – as if I knew.

But I did. I saw his boys then, laughing, jumping on the beds. There was hard, grey rock, bursting up around me out of the mist. Now, I wander outside in the middle of the night, a small light shining the way; there is an unknown feeling in the darkness, or a sense of what it might hold within its dense black.

 

My spirits soared, Daphne wrote, as the hired car swept round the curve of the hill, and suddenly the full expanse of Fowey harbour was spread beneath.

I’d felt it too as I walked away from that photo of her in the bookshop and that line: here was the freedom I desired, long sought-for, not yet known.

I carried on through the busy town – families had come in like the tide, and would go out in much the same way, leaving debris just as the sea puts down its own offerings – driftwood, plastic bottles, seaweed.

As I made my way up the final hill that would take me to the forest, which surrounded Menabilly, I passed a group of little girls not more than five of six years of age. There were adults a little way behind, carrying balls, towels, and bags. One of the girls was flashing her pink knickers, dirty from the sand. Look! Look! she kept calling.

You have to step in mud! another said, thumping in her wellingtons.

I stopped at the top of the hill to eat a banana and finally the girls reappeared. Two dogs came next, one of them holding up its front paw and going on three legs. Then there was no one for some time so that I imagined the children, living free by themselves, running up fevers of uncontrolled emotions, bursting beyond boundaries. How those memories would shiver inside them in adulthood.

 

I wanted something feral, untamed – old rock, open space that the wind could rush through. Silence – or the silence of the wild. I have found it here in North Wales – along with my memories, but those are for another time!

The splendid solitude of a grey manor house set deep amongst tall trees and rhododendrons growing wild, its owner ever absent from home. Perhaps if I won a sweepstake I might live there. Menabilly…Menabilly…Manderley…

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The story of a room

Don’t believe anything you see.

This is what the curator says as I enter the Whistler Room at Mottisfont Abbey – a line he repeats as more people come and go. I can hear the pleasure in his voice as he points out the room’s hidden secrets.

Slender columns run down the walls at regular intervals. Gothic-style moulding extends around the top of the room. A rounded urn sits in a deep recess, smoke rolling upwards. I wonder how the smell of incense hasn’t yet reached me.

But, none of it is real.

Shadow and light have been artfully reproduced. Even the pelmets are painted, preserving perfect folds of rich green, lined with ermine.

The room at Mottisfont is far bigger than any Rex Whistler has worked on. He wants the space to be colourful, diverse; suggestively mysterious.

Perhaps four separate romantic distances, he tells Maud Russell as they move through the space. We can have gilded statues in niches. And here, in the corner, a spiral staircase, descending to – he thinks for a moment before announcing – the dungeons!

Maud appears to have sucked on a lemon.

No archways to beyond! Her words are slow and clear. She draws on a cigarette and taps the ebony holder against a nearby ashtray before adding: the look is to be of shallow plaster relief. No emphasis, nothing personal.

Rex is silent. It seems Maud has in mind a rather superior kind of wallpaper.

Back in Oxford, I am installed in the Bodleian Library, but it is difficult to find much information about Gilbert and Maud Russell.

Cecil Beaton was to stay at Mottisfont one weekend shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. Of Gilbert he says: only a poet could say dash in such a way.

When Maud first met Gilbert, she thought him such a shit that she wanted to hit him in the face.

‘The idea of his wife saying such a thing is extremely comical,’ Cecil writes in his diary – ‘as, of course, Maud is very elegant.’

During a break in painting, Rex takes a walk in the garden. Norah Lindsay has come to design a small parterre garden – the ornamental arrangement of flowers and bushes have been inspired by the window above the front door. For the last two days she has been gardening in pelting rain.

I’ve been very sorry for you, Rex calls to her.

I was in mud up to my knees! Norah says. I nearly caught cold.

She joins Rex as he heads towards the river. They come into the shade of an enormous plane tree and Rex groans.

Oh dear, Norah says.

Maud isn’t simply cramping my imagination, Rex says. She’s bent on frustrating it! And she seems to feel the need to adopt every minor suggestion of her weekend guests.

Maud is too anxious for approval, Norah tells him, touching his arm.

They have reached the river. Both of them step forward to see their reflections in the water.

Have you tried speaking to her? Norah’s asks, her face scattering as a leaf floats down and breaks the surface.

I have a weak character, Rex says. I try to be nice to everyone, even when I dislike them.

Perhaps rebellion is the only solution, Norah says.

For once, the house is eerily silent – Maud and Gilbert have gone to London for the weekend. Rex cannot sleep. He slips out of bed and comes to stand in the drawing room where he walks in circles for over an hour. Finally, he stops in front of the newly painted urn, shown in light relief, according to Maud’s instructions. A feeble little woman, he thinks. Afraid of her own taste!

He reaches for his brushes and, as he paints, the urn begins to swell further and further from the shadowed niche. Rex adds a lute, a forgotten glove, books, a packet of letters – all will be tangible objects when viewed from across the room. But what for the final touch? He recalls how Maud’s voice can often be heard, shrieking from the windows, whenever she spots smoke on the estate, calling to the groundsman to put it out!

Everything had been carefully preserved at Mottisfont. With a book of Cole Porter’s music open on the piano, a half-played game of cards laid out, shoes kicked underneath the chaise longue, I felt as though I was in 1930s Britain.

Even though it was morning, the curtains were drawn, saving the room from the aging effect of the light so that Rex Whistler’s Trompe d’oeil can endure. It was his last of any size. He was still engaged in the final stage of painting when the Second World War broke out. We know exactly where he was when Churchill’s announcement came on the radio – up a scaffold by the bay window with his portable radio beside him.

At the outbreak of war, Rex’s brother Laurance wasted no time in getting married. Rex was left to mourn the loss of his companion. He felt very ill. His own amour had begun to carry a photograph of her dead fiancé – the one man Rex couldn’t warn to lay off. Since war began he has dreamt of the front.

He writes to his friend Kenneth Rae: I have been in great misery and perturbation since this horror began…while at the same time being tied hand and foot to this wretched job at Mottisfont, which drags on and on.

Rex was sure he would be bankrupted by the Russells. Maud was in no hurry to pay by instalments and he had been unable to license his car for the next quarter.

After seeing his brother and sister in law, he asked Kenneth if they could share a flat together after the war.

Of course, Kenneth says. But I hope by then you’ll be married.

I shall never marry, Rex tells him.

Why not?

Because now I’ve seen real happiness I know for certain I could never find it.

They set sail on June 29th 1944. The convoy encounters rough seas and many of the crew are sick. Rex comes on deck in the morning and sees the French coast. The entire sea is covered with ships, stretching to the horizon in every direction; nothing but the sound of shellfire in the distance.

They wait for low tide before unloading and immediately make for different sectors in the southern vicinity of Bayeux. Rex and his squadron set up camp in an orchard, with a farmhouse nearby. They are surrounded by flowering countryside, which is surprisingly undamaged.

On the 5th July, Rex writes to his mother: ‘I am writing in the evening glow, the light failing rapidly, so that I am not sure that I will have enough time to finish…Everything looks the picture of peace in the twilight and only the almost ceaseless gunfire contradicts.’

The day is hot. The tank crews are cramped and stuffy in their machines.

They advance across the flat, open country, twelve abreast. During the afternoon, they halt just across a railway line running out of Caen, waiting to hear if the Canadians need armoured support. Some of the tanks lie in the shelter of woodland, but Rex’s troop are in the open. As they begin to move again, the wheels of the tank become enmeshed in trailing telegraph wires and the tank is unable to climb out.

Mindful of his crew’s discomfort, Rex orders them all to dismount from the tank, while the wire is cut away. Suddenly, they come under small-arms fire from a nearby German position, which prevents them from climbing back into the tank. There is no means of radioing for help and so Rex decides to run the distance himself – a dash of 60 yards. He manages to get to Sergeant Sherlock in the nearby tank to instruct him to deal with the attackers, but as he jumps down to run back to his own stranded tank, a mortar blast throws him into the air.

After the fighting, the men lay out their commander’s body. Rex’s neck has been broken, but there is not a mark on his body.

Even in death, he was capable of illusions.

Gilbert and Maud Russell are entertaining. Earlier that day, Gilbert had taken Cecil Beaton through the house, showing him a slab of stone on which he had a Latin testament inscribed, telling the Mottisfont has come back into his family after 26 generations.

I like that sort of thing, he says. It’s romantic.

Gilbert pours drinks in the drawing room.

Dash! he says, as a slice of lemon slips onto the carpet.

Everyone is admiring the room.

Oh! one of the women squeals, grasping a section of curtain in her hand. I wasn’t sure if it was real or not. She giggles, but stops when she sees the look on Maud’s face.

What is it, darling?

Maud says nothing – she simply raises her arm and points above the pelmet. All the guests gather round to read the tiny handwritten inscription: ‘I was painting this ermine curtain when Britain declared was on the Nazi tyrants. Sunday, September 3rd, 1939 R.W.’

On a stroll one evening with Mickey Renshaw, Rex is glad to get away from all the metal in the orchard. They have had streaming rain every day – sometimes all day and night. Pink clouds glow on the horizon, promising a better day tomorrow. He can dimly see the grey stone walls of an ancient farm. A gold moon shines.

Now, they pass the grave of an airman recently shot down and Rex stops.

Mickey, he says. I’d like to be left just so. I can’t stand the thought of lying an enormous cemetery.

Rex hears the soft breathing of his friend beside him. He supposes that one would feel lonely in the process of dying.

If it is to happen – make it quick, for god’s sake, he wishes.

Don’t believe anything you see.

Each section of wall at Mottisfont displays painted trophies, armour, flags. But one section is slightly different from the rest: here a pair of hands hang. They are tied, firmly at the wrists.

To the left of the bay windows, on top of the cornice, may be seen an illusory small pot with a brush in it, carelessly left there by the artist – as if he had hoped to return one day.

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