Bara Rida (word count approx 3050)

*So I thought I’d post a few short stories here, just for a change. Here’s the first, a dark fantasy version of The Little Mermaid.*

Wild. The coast of the North country. Untamed. Inhospitable. Never silent, never still. Wind screams a constant shriek, echoing in dark sea caves, the cries of the damned drowned. Foam-topped waves taller than ships crash against towering basalt cliffs, bringing ruin to long-ships, bringing death to the men who crew them. No beaches here on this cliff-tall coast. No landings but those hewn from hard rock by the seafaring people who inhabit this unforgiving place. People as wild and unwelcoming as the terrain itself. Untamed and ferocious as Great Mother Sea.

Ragnar stands on the prow of his long-necked wave’s steed. Watches the wind-whipped waters, an insolent smile stretching his lips. Ragnar, Mother Sea’s son, favoured in her watery eyes. Hair the colour of sun-ripened wheat whips and flails about his face. Salt-sodden strands sting his half-closed eyes. He tastes the birth water of his turbulent mother on his tongue, savours it, and shouts to his hard-labouring crew to hold the damn sail in place, my brothers, urging them on to row, row for their lives, his voice competing against that of the howling wind. Row the serpent. Bring it down the icy stream. Fly us home. 

He cannot afford to lose the plunder they’ve fought for, risked their lives for, spilled blood for, died and murdered for. Bolts of silk, treasure chests brimful with coins from all lands. Ropes of milky pearls, droplets from the oyster’s breast. Single black milk-beads, more valuable than gold. Jewels. Diamonds. Rubies. Emeralds the colour of Kara’s eyes, sapphires the colour of his own. Fragrant treasures reaped from foreign far-flung Aesir. Much as he loves her, Ragnar will never willingly surrender them to his demanding mother. He yells a curse against her that he would rather die than be so dishonoured, and feels himself swell with the excitement of his challenge, with the possibility that today, his mother’s favour may finally desert him.

Mother Sea knows his arrogance. Hears his defiance. Up until now, she has spared her most favoured son her terrors, the son so beautiful he will not allow a beard to hide his features. But now, furious with his mutiny, she sends another of her sons against him. Squall becomes Storm, screaming out warnings, pouring rain and hail down upon the sea-dragon and its proud riders. On its young master. Waves lash against the slender wooden hull, saturate the snake-emblazoned sail. Timbers groan. Men cry out with fear. Heave their oars in desperation. Pull, you bastards. Pull. But the waves toss the ship like a wildcat tosses a rat. Ship pitches and falls. Pitches and falls. The water-peaks rise higher, the troughs dip lower. Ragnar feels his stomach rise. And fall. Rise. And fall. Clings tighter to the guard rope, tries to keep his balance. Shivers in the teeth of icy North Wind and, refusing the unmanning of terror, laughs, defiant in the face of death and…

Losing control. Oars snap. Timbers gape. The sea-dragon falls apart. Again, Ragnar shouts an order, but his words are lost in the screams of his mother’s fury. Now he feels fear invade him. Now he must join the poor bastards he’s condemned. Must die amongst them, his warrior-brothers. But he will die an honourable death, a sword-reddener’s death in his mother’s arms. Not standing here, frozen in emasculated terror. He abandons the guard rope, lurches as the ship plunges. Cries out as a wave, fiercer and greedier than any other, engulfs him. Knocks him off his feet. Sends him down into the watery depths of his mother’s furious lust for her once-favoured son.

Dead. He knows he’s dead. Images of his homeland run through his mind. The village at the end of the deep sea fjord. The ring of high mountains that protects it from invaders. Mountains that always have snow on their peaks, even in high summer. The meadows where the short-horned cattle and white-fleeced sheep graze on sweetgrass. The sound of gulls wheeling overhead, screeching at the catch of fresh fish. He sees the sky above him, clear and blue. Feels the deep heat of the brief summer sunshine. Sees people. His father, an older, flawed version of himself, the massive scar that seams his face creasing livid with laughter. Sigurd always laughs at his own jokes, no matter how bad they are. And he sees his flesh-mother, care-lined, her body bent from working too hard carrying for her wayward husband and eight strapping sons. Yet her eyes – sky-forged as Ragnar’s own – twinkle with wry good humour and love. 

And Kara. Flame haired emerald-eyed Kara. Skin the texture of the white samite he stole from a Southern trader two days past. Nipples that taste of milk and thighs that taste of sweat and woman musk. When he left her she was big, distended with his child. Long wished-for boy-child. Must be a son for Ragnar, who will be the father of many sons, and this the first, with the strong legs of a warrior kicking inside Kara’s belly. Bunched fists punching against her womb, waiting to hold an axe or an iron short sword, eager to conquer the world his father has created for him. Never to see that boy-child. Because Ragnar is dead. Drowned in the birth-fluid of his vast mother’s sac.

When he opens his eyes he knows he’s arrived in the Otherworld. A place of holding where souls await judgement. A cavern in the depths of the earth-mother, far away from the brief summer sun. Far, far away from the too-brief lives of men. No warrior long-house for Ragnar. He sits up; his aching body, clothes ripped away by the storm, protests; his chest heaves, and he coughs up great gouts of sea water. Pukes it up until his guts hurt and his lungs are consumed with fire. Surely death does not feel like this? Surely his heart should not beat so wildly, wild like the drumming the elders use to summon the spirit-gods? Surely his every movement should not feel like a torture? Slowly he understands that he’s not dead at all. But if he’s not dead, then where is he?

After he has finished spilling his guts he tries to rise. Screams out involuntarily as agony sends him crashing back down. His new world whirls around him. Sight blackens. Sweat, hot and cold, pours from his brow, his sodden body, clammy with fear and faintness. He feels himself unmanned, reduced to a whining dog. Biting his lips, he looks at his legs. The left is black with bruising, probably broken. But the right… the right is a bloody mess of bone-rent tissue. Destroyed and useless. Probably forever. Ragnar pukes again and bites back another agonised howl. Blinks back tears. A warrior does not weep, no matter the pain or the torment. It’s only water from his hair that runs hot down his face, only the salt of the sea that he tastes on his lips, in the back of his gulping throat.

With a huge effort of will, he gains control of the pain, proves to himself he is no whining cur. Rises on his elbows and peers around him. Sees that he is stranded in a basalt cave lit with phosphorescence and glinting mica, hears the gentle lapping of water. No storm here, but a wyrd lull that seeps into his bones and almost unmans him again. Scent of amniotic salt rises from the sea pool that half-fills the space. Scent of fresh fish-catch and rotting fish-flesh. Scent of something unfamiliar. Scent that sends him back to puking. Quivering in terror, he curses himself and his weakness.

She watches it. Bara-rida, the wave rider. Elliptical pupils in yellow sclera open and close, open and close, capturing the vision. Paints it on the retinas of her slanted eyes. Gills in her neck open and close, open and close, capturing air. Something stretches her thin silver-scaled lips. Some might call it a smile; some might call it hunger. All would call it terrible. Something like longing beats in her many-chambered heart. Her catch is beautiful. They are all beautiful, the land-walkers, even the old ones, the ugly ones. Beautiful in the way they carry their bodies. In the way they move, with long lower protuberances so different from her fish-scaled tail. Her inhuman mind searches for the word, and her thin mouth stretches again as she finds it. Legs. Marrow-halls she longs for but will never have. 

She cares nothing for the threats made against her. Bara-rida has been following this feeder of war-gulls for many moons, and refuses to give it up. Attracted by the paleness of its flesh-cover, its sunlit scalp-cords, and its strong lean bone-house, she has yearned for many moons. She, who has sought the most favoured of the land-walkers, the sons of earth, now owns it. She, who has prayed endlessly to the sea-gods for this prize, in saving it, has finally been rewarded. True, its legs are damaged, and the scent of its wound-sea drives her hunger relentlessly forward. But she has desired it so long, she must heal it, keep it for her own. Surely, she will not be punished for accepting the gift that the gods themselves have given her? A thought, clear and strong, passes through her mind and lodges there: I will not tell.

Bara-rida watches as it ejects salt-water from its mouth, scents its terror as it understands that it’s injured, and watched by unseen sight-paths. Strange, associating terror with this creature, this sea-warrior. But humans are superstitious, stuffed full of tales of spirits and demons and mythical beasts. Living on the edge of death as they do, it is easy for them to believe in such things. Bara-rida knows the truth that men can only guess at, for is she not part myth herself, she and her race? Hasn’t she been told tales by the elder-kin of how her kind are harpooned and killed by the land-locked ones? Of how they are hunted by the fish-eaters, the chase considered sport, and their murdered flesh a rare delicacy? Yes, she has heard. And seen. But it makes no difference to her. Bara-rida claims this one as her prize, as her trophy, and she will not be denied.

Who’s there? Ragnar’s voice echoes around the glistening basalt walls, comes back to him, high and helpless. Who’s there? There…. there…. Show yourself. Show yourself. Yourself… yourself…. He hears a splash in the centre of the sea-pool, feels the pressure of a gaze upon his prickling skin. Strains to raise himself up higher. The pain of his shattered leg descends the black veil over his eyes once more. For a few seconds he writhes on the cave floor like a landed fish, gasping, sweat pouring from every pore, then, still gasping, raises himself on his elbows and sees it, the source of the splash, the sensation of being watched. 

Water ripples and splashes, ripples and splashes. Something – a fin? several? – breaks the surface of the water, disappears again. Breaks again. Rises. Rises higher, revealing the humped back of… of what? Ragnar watches, horror-struck – whatever it is, it has almost reached the lip of stone – propels himself backward on his arms to the basalt wall of the cave behind him. Shudders and whimpers. Whimpers and shudders. Sees what his Mother Sea has sent to him and wishes he had died. Or maybe this is Hel.

For this is what he sees: female. It is female. Or at least, on its fish-scaled torso, it sprouts swellings that resemble breasts, centred by chitinous nipple-peaks. Its mouth is a shark-toothed, flat-nosed nightmare set in a triangular face, from which lidless eyes the colour of fresh bile watch him intently. What that intent is, Ragnar can only guess at. And none of the guesses bring him comfort. It raises itself up on armoured arms, at the end of which knife-claws erupt from webbed fingers, scrape-scraping on the wet-stone floor as it tries to gain purchase. Briefly, he glimpses a pulsating opening where her cunt would be, were she a woman, and tries not to puke again. As he takes this nightmare in, watching now the slow opening and closing of the gills in its neck, Ragnar can already feel his guts spilling from his body. Wonders if his next breath will be his last.

With effort, she hauls herself out of the salmon’s hall and slithers out onto unfamiliar land, watching as her prize scrabbles away. Why does it try to escape her? Bara-rida is considered a rare beauty among her kin-kind, sought after by many suitors, and has rejected them all. No spawning for her; her mind has been fixed on this sword-blade’s messenger, this tree of gold. Awkward on land, she propels herself toward it on her arms, and approaches, dragging her tail behind her. Reaches out a four-knived hand and clasps it around its wrist.

When he feels its touch, cold and hard-scaled, he thinks he’ll faint. Strong, he realises as he struggles to remove its grasp, this thing has more power than he, weak and enfeebled as he is. With its bile-yellow eyes, it stares at him, bares white fangs, the likes of which he’s only ever seen on the great sickle-sailed sea-fish his people sometimes catch, and snake-like, it susurrates air from its mouth. Its exhalations carry the stink of rotting sea-water, decaying fish and death. Ragnar prays that death will be quick. Closes his eyes. Waits. But the bite doesn’t come.

Warm, its soft body-covering. Warm and soft with skin-fur. Bara-rida, who has never felt the casing of a land-walker before, hisses softly. Brings her mouth down to a pale five-branched arm-appendage, extrudes a long black tongue and runs it upward, tracing a rapidly beating blood-river. Salt. It tastes of salt, familiar and beloved. Bara-rida hears the sound of its breath, panting in the sea-hall, echoing off its walls, and more salt floods her mouth. The water comes hot from its skin, and with it a rapid increase of the beat of its heart. Bara-rida feels something swell inside her, and names it desire.

At the touch of her tongue, Ragnar hitches in a breath and howls. He howls like the wolves howl outside his village at night. Louder. Ululations rip from his throat, and he writhes in his desperation to get away from this monstrous female. His legs twist beneath him, bones grating against each other, and agonised, he howls louder, feels warmth run from the wounds, knows he is bleeding again. But his mind refuses him the blessed unconsciousness he seeks, and now, he wonders if his death will not be the quick release he wished for, but one slow and lingering. A coward’s death. Please, not a coward’s death, he prays, howling louder. Let me fight and send me quickly to the gods’ house, the storm-shrine of glory. Let me be a man one last time.

Why is it making that noise? Is it from pleasure? Pain? Bara-rida of the Silent Ones, has never heard its like, and the desire to spawn, fresh and new and strong, explodes inside her, races through her, a roaring ocean-swell. Gripping her prize tighter in her excitement, she presses a clawed hand hard against the slender column that supports its head, and pushes its body back against the cave’s wall, balancing herself on her tail. Looking into its face, she sees a blaze of blue-stones that burns her, and now she understands, for she has seen that expression before, in the catch-wounded ones of her own kind, of opened lung-cages, of guts spilling out into the birth-fluid of Mother Sea.

On him. She is on him, and he cannot move. Constant pain in his legs evokes a continual stream of screams from his mouth, and his sight is failing from blood loss. Dying now. He knows he is dying and no longer fights it. Thoughts of glory desert him, and his mind conjures more images of his homeland to comfort him. Wrong. He was wrong. The stench of decay becomes the scent of woodfire and wild flowers, and this is no monster reaching for him. Tearing at him. This is Kara, ripe and swollen and beautiful, opening her arms, beckoning him, touching him. Making him hard despite the pain of his shattered legs and his slow-pierced throat. And he’s in her and she’s hot… and she’s cold… and he’s moving in an ice cavern lined with knives… and it’s agony… and when he bursts inside her he feels himself ripped to shreds… and the screams become whimpers. And now silence. And now darkness. And now. Nothing.

Bara-rida feels warmth flood inside her for the first time in her life, feels pleasure flood inside her, and her spawn-sacs burst open, releasing eggs to meet the deposit it has left. She tastes its corpse-sea in her mouth, and chews the gobbets of meat she tore away in her frenzy. Swallows, savours the taste. In her grip, it hangs useless, and she knows that now it has become fish-food. Another strange emotion pervades her mind, her soulless form. It makes the chambers of her heart heavy, painful, and she cannot name it, for she has no words. But it lasts only a moment. Then she adjusts her prey in her arms, crawls to the edge of the sea-pool and splashes into the water. As she descends into the depths with her catch, a gift to her kin-kind, a wound-wave of red trails above them, before it dissipates into nothingness. She wonders what its seed will grow inside her, and knows that that will be the best gift of all.

Auto)biography: musings on the who-am-I-now(?); and who-might-I-be(?) in the afterdays.

(Auto)biography: musings on the who-am-I-now(?); and who-might-I-be(?) in the afterdays.

I have read somewhere, I can’t remember where, that we are all (auto)biographies in the making. We are constructed and constructing on a continuous basis. Some of that construction is conscious – how we present ourselves to others? Do we dress up? Do we dress down? If I say this, will I have an affect on that person? If I take this decision, what will be the consequences? All  these and more are conscious decisions, we have to think about them. Other processes are not, generally, under our control. They happen anyway. The functions or otherwise of our bodies are the most obvious example. Our bodies happen to us. Of course we can make decisions that can help or hinder those processes, but they happen, one way or the other.

But I suppose, like so many of us now, I’m trying to take stock. I’m not a philosopher, or a psychologist, but I’m trying to work out, in these times of uncertainty, some things about myself. Yes, more navel gazing, it’s true, but I have always been (far too) prone to introspection, always examining my thoughts and feelings. Hyperaware. And I’m hyperaware now, of all my thoughts and feelings, of every single little change in my body. I ask: is this it? whenever I have…. I’m not sure I can call them symptoms exactly, but feeling a bit hot and cold, having a bit of upset stomach, just really feeling off and unwell – that I’ve noticed occasionally. The tight chest has been the worst, a feeling of a constricting band and a kind of what I can only describe as a deeply unpleasant ‘itchiness’ at the base of my lungs for around four weeks now; it’s getting much better, but just when I think it’s gone, it comes back. Much less than before, but just sometimes reminding me it’s there. Probably all psychosomatic, but it feels very real. Every time I go into a shop, which I’m also doing much less now, I think – have I caught it? And I’m nervous for days afterwards. I’m trying really really hard not to think like that. Trying to remember my CBT teachings about ruminating, catastrophic thinking, assuming the worst. But part of CBT counselling is about perception – is this threat as bad as you think it is? And these days, the answer is ‘yes’. Because as we’re constantly told, ‘Anyone can catch it…’ 

I’m trying to stop my mind going into overdrive. Trying not to be overwhelmed by everything I see and hear. But it’s hard, and I know I’m not the only one to feel overwhelmed by it all, by the enormity of living through an event that will change us irrevocably. How can it not?

I was talking to my partner yesterday on our daily walk. The sun was shining overhead in a cloudless sky. The grass on the hill where we walked was green and lush. Birds were singing their songs oblivious of the human crisis unfolding around them. For a while, walking in the open air, with hardly anyone else around, it was almost possible to believe that life was normal again. After all, a walk filled with sunshine and birdsong can’t ever be anything other than something beautiful. And it was. But then I began to think about the impossibility of anything ever returning to what we call normal again. That nothing will ever be the same again. That we will never be the same again. We had a conversation about it, and we differ in our views on that subject. That’s okay. His view is much more… I’m struggling for the word… maybe pragmatic. He says we will go back to how we were, that he really believes that. I wish I could. I mean, I guess on that pragmatic level, it’s logical that we will return to a kind of normality. We have to. We can’t sit in our homes forever more waiting to become ill or die. But I guess for me, I just can’t envisage it. Or maybe I just dare not. 

I’ve read a lot of articles about how many of us are feeling a kind of grief. There’s an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review by senior editor Scott Berinato ‘This Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief’ (https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief) that resonates with me, that describes the stages of grief: the denial, the anger, the bargaining, the sadness. What’s  added here is something Berinato calls anticipatory grief. I know that all too well in the context of my parent’s’ illnesses and subsequent deaths. I lived with that for too many years as they both, eventually, succumbed to dementia. But this is different of course. Hard though it was to deal with my parents’ conditions, I expected their deaths. Almost welcomed them at the end, because they ended the suffering. But now wonder if we will lose someone we love to this new disease, lives cut short. Will we lose our own life? Is our old way of life gone forever? This kind of anticipatory grief, the article says, is actually anxiety. Even for those who don’t have an anxiety disorder, things are tough now. For those of us who do…. Well, you can imagine where our minds go. And it’s hard to call them back.

But the article offers hope with the last stage of grief: ‘And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.’ So yes, how to proceed? How will I get to the afterdays? And what do I want to learn from this? I’ve been here before, kind of, this time last year, when I was off sick with depression and anxiety. Then I just wanted it to go away. But then, as now, it wasn’t that easy. Nothing ever really is, right? It wasn’t easy. It was and is ongoing. I’ve accepted that those two things will always be part of my life, and that’s okay because even when they do come back, I’m better at dealing with them. I’m stronger than I was last year. That’s acceptance, and that’s healing. So what do I want from this situation? Well of course I want it to go away, but it’s not going to until there’s a vaccine, or antibody therapy, or whatever else our wonderful scientific and medical communities can come up with. So I have learn some more about myself, learn even more resilience. I have to relearn techniques that I’ll admit I’ve let slide a bit. And I will try to take comfort in blue skies and birdsong and my partner’s pragmatism and certainty that things will be okay. Personally I want things to be better than okay, that we’ll really learn some deep lessons from this, but until then, okay will do fine. 

In the meantime, I’ll let the article have the last words, because they’re compassionate and helpful, and I will endeavour to remember them when my mind feels overwhelmed, because I don’t want my (auto)biography to be one built entirely on fear:

‘Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.’

Signs

Signs

The writer is a sign-maker, inscribing the wall of the blank page with sigils and symbols, black on white. A graffiti artist in letters that are supposed to mean something when they’re put together, that are supposed to send messages that can be interpreted by knowing eyes. But how do we make signs for the previously unheard of signifier? How do we define what we cannot understand? I don’t mean in a nominal way. We know its name and shake before its horror. Coronavirus. COVID19. Virus. Symbols of sickness and death. Symbols of lives cut short. Of a pandemic grief. Of a world that can never be the same again in ways we can’t yet imagine, maybe dare not imagine.

I’m talking about how we express it, on a human level. A humane level. I’m just one of billions of people trying to express how I feel about it. And the truth – or part of it – is that other than the constant dread that sits inside me, I don’t think I can. Not really. I can only write these unstructured, spontaneous ramblings and hope that with each word, something might become clearer.

I’m surrounded by many voices (we all are), some of them in my head, all speaking many things. Who do I listen to? Reporters at the BBC telling me the latest figures, reducing human beings to infection rates and death tolls? The Guardian health editor, and her clickbait, irresponsible headline about a US study that claims there will be 3000 deaths per day in the UK, while the actual article presents an opposite opinion on trajectories? Do I listen to people in the Twitterverse telling me that our government are murderers, that this (mis)handling of the crisis is eugenics, and that they are rubbing their hands together in glee because the old and the poor are dying? These are awful things to read, to hear, and they are damaging people (myself included), almost as much as the virus is. And really, how are they helpful?

I ask myself these things hour after hour, sometimes minute after minute, my mind unable to make sense of it. I know we need to be informed, and I know people have the right to their opinions. Just like me, they are trying to make sense of a situation that doesn’t seem to make any. They are venting their anger, their sorrow, their frustrations, in a way that perhaps helps them in the only way they know how, shouting in the echo chambers with other hurting people who feel the same way. Places of safety in what we now perceive is an unsafe world. And as I said in my post before, although this is very early days, there seems to be no ending to this situation, because the virus isn’t going away. Until there’s a vaccine, or a treatment that’s useful, or the so-called herd immunity takes hold, the risk will remain. It may lessen, but it will be there, the virus, waiting to regain its hold on vulnerable, non-immune populations. So for now we wait for the flattening of the upward curve. We wait cowering in our houses, afraid to go near other human beings in case they are A Carrier. We listen to the news in hope, to have the hope dashed at another report of rising death tolls. We listen to idiots spouting conspiracy theories about 5G and alien invasion. We have no idea of what or who to believe. We watch the signs and cannot interpret them. Or I can’t, anyway. 

I wonder what fall out of this extended crisis will be. I’m lucky to be able to do my work at home; it’s not the best, but it’s better than not being able to do it at all. I’ll still have a job to go back to (I hope, unless higher education crumbles like an eroded cliff in the meantime, which I highly doubt). But many won’t have jobs. Have already lost them. Our wonderful overstretched NHS will be on it’s knees and people will continue to suffer the consequences. I have my own prediction that parts of it will for sure be privatised now, maybe paying for non-urgent GP services that are now taken for granted as free; or being fined for missing an appointment without a reason. More services cut back because there aren’t the staff or resources anymore. A grim picture. 

But maybe some things will be better too. Pollution is already clearing. People are showing amazing kindness, support and humanity to others. I hope we come out of this more considerate of others, and with more respect for the amazing world we live in, although a small, cynical part of me can’t quite believe that will happen, given some of the stupid selfish behaviour I’ve also seen in recent days. But we have to hope, right, because without hope, there’s nothing.

Personally I’m trying to take pleasure in the small things. The heart-moving joy of listening to the fluting calls of blackbirds singing the dawn chorus, and piping in the evening. I’m taking joy in the flittering of newly emerged butterflies. Yesterday I saw a large white, an orange-tipped white, and a common blue butterfly shimmering in sunlight. The sight of spring flowers emerging from the earth, bright and beautiful. Signs of new life.

Signs that we can interpret simply, because we need those simple signs of hope right now.

Meanderings

 

I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t have anything to say that can possibly be any different from what other, more articulate, people have already said better than I can say it. I don’t have anything inspirational to say about this awful situation. I can find no inspiration. My mind is blank except for this constant and overwhelming dread. And now I sound like some B character who’s about to die an unremarkable death some B movie. Forgettable. Undefined. Completely unimportant in the grand scheme of this pandemic horror show that’s playing out in front of our unbelieving eyes.

And yet today, when I’m really struggling, when I can’t stop weeping, I feel the need to write this down. To expel it, vomit it onto the page in the hope of bursting the abscess festering in the pit of my stomach. I’m a writer, aren’t I? Someone who’s supposed to live through words. Not this fraud who’s forgotten what words are, who lives, right now, in a maelstrom of useless emotion. So I’m writing. It may not be my best writing, but I’m writing for now, because now is all there is. Cliche without the accent. Words without meaning. Meaning without… meaning. Besides, when I was having counselling, my counsellor advised that writing it all down would concretise my thoughts. Give them shape. And ironically, before this, I’d wanted to work towards helping others through writing, become a writing therapist. So let’s try it on me, shall we? I’ll try to be my own therapist and see if it helps. A little.

My mind has gone blank, so I’ll write through it. I’ll write a list of what I miss. It’ll be a list, in no particular order, and it’ll be a list of things, no doubt, that other people will miss too, depending on their own circumstances. 

I miss…

Seeing my children.

Hugging my children.

(Those two things are in fact top of the list because – to be brutal – I’m afraid that… I can’t put that into words. Read the dots as you will.)

Socialising with my wonderful colleagues, who are also my friends. 

Eating tapas in a tapas bar.

London (yes it’ll still be there when this is over, but I miss it now.).

Work – or at least going into work, having the face to face interaction with students instead of this facsimile of a sham of online teaching that feels so sterile, so… unsatisfying (but yes, I know there’s no choice, and it keeps me busy!).

Shopping for trivial things that are, in all honesty, meaningless. I realise, at least, the difference (now) of want, not need. I guess that’s a Good Thing. Check my privilege, right? 

Going to bed at night without the dread of closing my eyes because of the things I imagine in the darkness of my brain.

Going birdwatching, especially to RSPB Rainham Marshes, with its wonderful vistas. Soon chicks will be hatching. I wish I could see that.

Decent chocolate. 

Going shopping in a big supermarket.

My imagination – or at least the part of it that dreams up fiction and wants to write it. I do not miss the part of my imagination that tells me that there will be no end to this. Ever. Because that’s still there, louder and more vivid than ever before.

Enough of that for now. I feel the abscess tensing. Not quite yet at a head. Not yet ready to burst. 

So let’s make a gratitude list. Because despite it all, and under all the pain, there is gratitude. I know all too well how privileged I am to even be able to write this at all. That knowledge doesn’t always help. But it’s there. So the list, again in no particular order.

The love I feel for my children, and the love they feel for me. I’m lucky to have that.

Talking to my children on the phone, on FaceTime, via WhatsApp, on Instagram. Knowing that although they’re not with me physically, we are together virtually, and bound by something stronger than touch.

My partner, who abandoned his own home without a second though to move in here with me when the lockdown went… down. 

My friends, who are all, in their own way, coping with this in their own ways. Unity in hardship, in difficulty, in pain and, importantly, again, in hope and love.

That I have enough food. That I can afford to buy food.

That I still have my job, that I’m still being paid to do it.

Books. Without books I couldn’t stay even slightly sane.

Food TV. Thank god for shows like Masterchef, Great British Menu, reruns of Rick Stein and the Hairy Bikers.

Beauty YouTube. My safe space.

My own home, with no mortgage.

(So far) my physical health. People I know are ill from this vile disease. May they recover soon.

Sunshine and fresh air and being allowed, for a short time, to be out in it. At a safe social distance of course.

Those are the things I can think of for now. Of course there are more. I will discover them, I hope, these lights in the darkness. 

I don’t know if this has helped me (or anyone else), but it has indeed put the sucking whirlpool thought in black and white. Given them form, rather the formless chaos they were before. In fact, writing this felt like an act of self-preservation, the page a place of safety. So I guess more words are needed.

Love and hope to all. 

 

Styling Style – Musings and experiments

The discussion in the classroom today is about literary style, and trying to find definitions. No one in the room seems to know, and we discover that it’s much harder to define than simply that literary style is about the way a writer presents their thoughts. It is more than the way we use word choice, more than description, or the way we create character. More, even, than syntax. Style varies according to the writer, and according to the subject matter. Style is everything combined together. So is it the writer’s ‘voice’ that we think about, when we think about style? That thing that defines someone’s writing, so we can tell – sometimes at a glance – who wrote what. The question also arose: should a writer be versatile and able to adapt style/voice? I thought I’d try, and below are some experiments that came out of the seminar. It’s my own work, but influenced but students and my co-teaching partner. So thanks to them too.

Do I have style? Do I have a voice? Am I drowned out by all the other voices out there? Am I lost in the language I have learned, too far away from the language I have yet to learn, isolated from the innumerable languages I will never learn? Am I asking too many questions? I always ask too many questions. I question everything and everything is a question. And the question is complex, complicated and almost incomprehensible. When I discuss style, I discover so many things from so many people. Every one an individual. Every one the same. Different definitions from different people. Different styles. Different people. Hyper-reality of stylistic decisions. We are having a discussion now, about this very thing. We still cannot define it. Style is the question and there are too many answers. We may forever question: Do I have style? What is my voice? And who want to listen?

i am asking too many questions. style. say something. say it again (sam. or whoever. you all clamour. voices. voices. voices). innumerable languages crowding me out. excluding. we say style we do not mean. lost in a language too far from the language we have learned. everything and everything is a question. does a style mean? and if my style is avoiding rhetorical questions, how to version something that has seven is a problem. to have a style that is not a voice that someone wants to hear.

The title might have been ‘Alice Through the Glass’. But it feels as though something is missing. Oh, we can see her, this little girl, this little brat of a girl, because she’s here. She’s here right before you, or at least it feels like that. But she’s just words, a mirror facsimile created by the power of language, a reflection of the world of words you wish to create. Your language? Your language is a myth. Oh, it’s style, says Alice, you’ve used description with a flourish, you’ve created clear images, your pace is just so, and your plot is perfect cause and effect. But it’s all a lie, because she is a lie, and she’s not there. She is a spectre, a ghost that emerges from the absence that you fill with inadequate words that create the image of the little girl, this brat of a little girl. Language forces us to see her, but we cannot approach her, for she is never truly revealed.

The book fell upon the glowing grave dirt, beneath which thick white worms squirmed and writhed and ate their way through the stories written there. One of the worms became a queen and tore through the words to rule over the cemetery, issuing edicts with a wormtongue. Another worm grew to be a crown and wound its way around the queen’s head and blinded her; pierced her eardrums, and deafened her; ate her wormtongue and silenced her. Yet another became a sword that slithered into her hand and she wielded it blind and deaf and mute. She bent and felt for the book that had created her, felt for the wordworms and they crawled all over her, writing their stories, for they each had a story, they each had a style and that style had a name, and they all clamoured for her attention in the queen’s deaf ears and blind eyes and . She became the queen of writ(h)ing insanity, and she ruled the world, and the wordworms ruled with her.

This is a description of an exposition. The writer is writing the words. Her job is to write the words. She has always written the words. She is a wordsmith. She types the words one letter by one letter. An O. An N. An E. A B. A Y. Another O. Another N. Another E. Her fingers move rapidly across the keyboard, which is slightly grubby and needs cleaning. She hasn’t cleaned her keyboard in weeks, and the keyboard holds imprints of her fingertips, is covered in her DNA. Her fingers are half covered by grey fingerless gloves that need washing. She wears the gloves because her office is cold, breeze blowing through cracked seals and flaking pain, which once was white, and is now dull brown with rust. Her desk is covered with books of fantasy and horror and language and writing and myth, and papers and pens and pencils and highlighting pens and scissors and wet wipes, and there are several packs of board markers sitting on a pile of books, red, green, black, blue. Red, green, black, blue. Red, green, black, blue. On her right hand side is a telephone and a pair of headphones. A set of red and pink box files containing all her lecture notes sit by the telephone on the right hand side. A reusable water bottle, half-full, sits by her left hand. She wonders why she’s typing, for her mind is as disorganised as her desk, running in loops and down rat-runs that are unlit and full of dead ends. This is the end of a description of an expostion.

The characters, who shall not be named, except by X and Y, wind their way across the blank white landscape. Their steps are slow. And. Faltering. They look across at the wide expanse of space unpunctuated by any description of the terrain they are trying to traverse and they feel daunted at the miles and miles of empty page they are expected to cross because there are no marks for them to follow no evidence of page markers just a meandering nothing. And then. And they, they find themselves at the edge of a great ravine and X loses their footing and they….

fall

down

the

page

onto another. Above them they hear Y screaming. Screaming loudly on the edge of the precipice. There are sounds of a scuffle, more screaming. X cranes their head up but they cannot see anything. All they can hear is screaming. Then a blur of shadow, and Y lands beside X with a thud. A crunch telling X that Y… that Y is hurt. Hurt so badly. This character will soon cease to exist. Already Y is fading into whiteness, blending with the blank page. X is suddenly alone. X feels as though Y never existed. X has always been alone. X turns to face the white page.

And, alone again, begins to walk.

On Going Part-time: Working less is best, but it comes at a price.

Once upon a time, my generation – I’m one of those much maligned baby boomers born in the 50s – were promised that one day in the future, we would all work a three day week. We would earn just as much money, and have a better lifestyle with lots of holidays and our own houses. We women would – and did, at least those women who worked then – retire at sixty and continue to enjoy a good life. We believed that, we believed in the dream of living a better life than our parents, the Silent Generation, born and growing up in times of poverty and terrible wars, who had seen and experienced things that we, thankfully and hopefully, never will. Who had given their lives and health for those of us who came later. No more, they said, never again, and so we grew up in hope, if not in wealth. We were always poor, and I do mean poor, but – to be clichéd – I remember being happy and well looked after.

Anyway, that’s history, and this isn’t a history lesson. This is – I don’t know – a mix of hope and fear. Hope because since choosing to work part time, I feel more in control of my life. Fear because those dreams of the future have not come to pass and I look toward a time where I may well be poor again. Because like so many generations, we were also lied to. People are working harder than ever, for less security, less pay. Less satisfaction, more stress. I won’t go into how we academics have not had a significant pay rise in years, but our salaries have in effect decreased as the cost of living has risen. Many younger professionals are on short term contracts, living precariously from position to position, unstable lives, not daring to complain in case they are seen as ‘difficult’. But this is not about that either, except to say that it’s an immoral way to treat people who are trying to build a career for themselves.

This is about me having had enough of the constant bombardment of ridiculous bureaucracy, stress and poor mental health, which anyone who has read previous posts will know about. This is about me taking the step to work part time and the liberation I feel having done so. I now work four days a week. That feels hard won, to be honest. Again, anyone who has read my blog will know that I’ve battled hard to get this far. I’ve had to compromise in ways that have damaged my recovery, and that I’m still trying to come to terms with. But, I feel I am coming to terms now. And when I signed my contract to work four instead of five days, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I could breathe again, and despite the impact on my earnings (my take home pay was less than I’d calculated – a bit of a shock and I’m still taking that in), I wish I’d done it sooner. I can now have a day where I don’t look at emails, where I don’t have to feel guilty for not being in the office. Where I don’t have to worry so much about being inadequate, something I’m always having to work on.

Some people have been sceptical of my doing this. Colleagues who know how conscientious I am have said, ‘Oh, but you’ll be fitting in five days’ work into four,’ and, ‘But I bet you’ll still…’ But I won’t. I’ll be fitting four days’ work into four. And I won’t work on the fifth. Because I won’t get paid for it, and because I’ve learned that looking after myself is a priority, and I no longer believe that the harder you work, the more rewards there’ll be. Because sometimes, there just aren’t. Sometimes you work hard and you burn out and are worse off. I won’t do that to myself any more. I’m older now, feel as though I need to start winding down from that ‘be competitive all the time’ mindset, to start to please myself rather than constantly trying to please others in ways that are detrimental to my wellbeing. It’s taken me sixty-two years to learn that lesson. Apparently I’m a slow learner!

Is my new resolve selfish? Well yes it is, but sometimes we need to be selfish. That does not mean that I will slack off at my job. Of course not. I love the teaching, and I really look forward to seeing my students and helping them to want to learn. That’s why I do what I do. That’s the only reason, other than the hard fact that I have to earn a living, of course. I believe passionately in education. But I have to say now, I don’t believe in a system that damages people. And I know too many people – including myself – who have been damaged by it.

That’s a rant. I didn’t want this to be a rant, but maybe it was inevitable given the reasons why I decided that enough was enough and that I had to cut my working hours. I’m lucky that I can afford to do so. I don’t have a mortgage and can pay my bills. Next year my partner will be moving in and can share the load. I’m really grateful for all the privileges I have; I wholeheartedly acknowledge them. I’ll always have a roof over my head, for example. But as I get older, I worry about how I’ll heat my house, because my pension will, contrary to popular belief about academics’ pensions being huge, be very small because I didn’t start to pay into a pension scheme until I was older. So I have to take my life in my own hands and, somehow, turn it around.

I have ideas. Last week I attended a very inspirational talk about how we might change the ways we look at students, about how we teach them and, most important of all, how we relate to them. Everything I’ve ever thought, everything I’ve ever said, and been told I was wrong to say it, was echoed there in those talks, and now I want to try harder to help make changes to a system that values procedure over people, instead of the other way round. It will be really hard – how do you turn around an oil tanker with a tug? – but it will give me something to work towards, and I hope – if I’m allowed to start talking change – it will make my last couple of years before retirement more positive. Alternatively, I can drop my hours even more, and concentrate on my writing.

This is my horoscope for today (I’m a Pisces and use the ‘Co-Star Personalized Astrology’ app):

‘The rebel in you is on fire. Focus on larger truths. When you open yourself up to the world, every book and every person you meet, becomes a component of your                                learning process.’

This rings true to me. I haven’t decided my future yet – maybe it will be a mixture of both of the above – but finally I can see a glimmer of light, a rebellion against what has gone before, an opening up of doors and choices, and I’m slowly heading toward it.

World Mental Health Day

So it’s World Mental Health Day, and I’m watching a video made by a colleague for their students, explaining how they themselves live with anxiety/depressive disorder. It struck me as an act of bravery – the university as an institution would no doubt frown upon this act as being ‘unprofessional’ and ‘too personal’. I put these words in quote marks because I can imagine them being spoken by managers – and maybe by other colleagues too – who see our function are purely providing a service which does not involve too much personal involvement. And I can understand that. As lecturers, we are not counsellors. We cannot give advice, as such, because we are not trained to do so. We are, on a pastoral level, there to direct students to support services who can advise. But we can listen, and we must listen. If you feel listened to, if you feel that you can talk to someone without judgement, without bias, but with empathy and understanding, then surely you’re more likely to be able to build a bond of trust with that person. Perhaps, through that bond of trust a person who otherwise would not have sought help, will. Empathetic listening will, just possibly, save a life. And that is why I feel my colleague has made a big step over a line that the institution may see as something we maybe shouldn’t cross. But if we can help, maybe save a life, then that is worthwhile. And it’s why I believe that everyone in professions like ours should be helped to learn that most valuable skill.

For myself, someone who also lives with anxiety/depressive disorder – note I don’t say ‘suffering’, because although I do suffer, in periods of non-suffering, I’m still living with the condition – I am also open with my students. I mean, I don’t announce in class, ‘Oh hi, I’m Lesley and I have mental health issues!’ because that would be totally inappropriate, but if a student comes to me to discuss an issue, then – again, if appropriate – as well as listening mindfully, I can also reassure them that they’re not alone. That I have, in some way, experienced what they might be experiencing, or at least can understand their pain.

Empathy.

Despite this, I have wondered – sometimes worried – if I am too open (examples would be keeping and sharing this blog with anyone who wants to read it, having honest discussions with students on other occasions, posting on Twitter and Facebook) but watching my colleague’s video – a true and honest account of their own condition – has helped me to understand that actually, I’m a human being sharing my humanity, my story, and my experience and understanding. And in a time where as a society, we’re trying to raise awareness about mental health in the contexts of maintaining good mental health and helping others and ourselves to cope when we’re having issues, surely I need to be part of that on-going conversation. It would be wrong of me, immoral of me, a person who communicates for a living, not to participate in that conversation. And so I will.

I will say openly now that I’m struggling quite a bit. It’s an adjustment to a stressful time at work, which hopefully will begin to settle soon. And I’m trying to remember to use the techniques I learned in therapy sessions. Reminding myself that the world isn’t going to fall in if I don’t do something perfectly. Learning not to catastrophise. To make the most of the moments of peace that I do manage to find. It’s really hard now, but I feel I’m recovering a little quicker than I was before. And I’m going part-time too, to address the work-life balance.

I’m looking towards a future that might be better than the past few years.

The charity Mind has some great ideas about talking to people who may be vulnerable, or people you may be worried about. The ‘Ask Twice’ campaign (https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/asktwice/) for example, is worth taking a look at. People often ask, ‘are you okay?’ to which the answer may well be ‘yeah, thanks’. And people often are okay. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they may feel they can’t open up. Shame, fear, social stigma, not wanting to be a burden, and many more factors can stop us from expressing what we really want to say.

So today, on World Mental health Day, and then beyond, for those of who are able, let us join in the conversation about mental health issues. Let us use our humanity and develop compassion so that we are able to listen, learn to empathise, not just sympathise. Let us be open with people so that bit by bit, we can erode the stigma that’s still there.

Autumn is Coming: Turn, turn, turn.

I look out on a rain soaked garden, at the rain heavy clouds above, and try to keep a hold on my own turbulent emotions. I’m in a reflective mood, rather melancholy as I look back at the year that’s gone, aware of the anxiety building in me, afraid that this year will bring more stress, more stuff I can’t deal with. Another breakdown. Where is the serenity and joy I felt during my Italian break?

And yet. And yet…. I am here, and even within the anxiety that wants to overwhelm me (new academic year, new students to teach and impress, new responsibilities that I’m terrified of not being able to fulfill), I can see how much has changed. That despite it all, I have a lot to look forward to.

One day at a time. One day at a time. Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Both are much used phrases in recovery from addiction, but surely they can be used by people in any kind of recovery? Surely I can adopt them as mantras for my life. They’re certainly powerful reminders to me that I’ve allowed myself to fight against myself for too long, that the catastrophising and the second guessing habits my brain has adopted have been allowed to take over. CBT helped with that enormously when I was ill, and I’ve still I’ve largely got them under control. They’re still there, of course, along with the self doubt and imposter syndrome and all the other stuff that’s held me back. It’s a constant battle not to let them take over now. I think I will always be prone to mental health issues, and that’s okay. After decades of shame, I’ve learned not to be ashamed anymore. Because there are other voices too, now, that are helping me to keep them at bay.

So I look at what has been granted to me, or because I don’t particularly believe in a higher power, I look at the help I’ve received and the help I’ve allowed myself to accept, and realise there’s a lot to be grateful for. And it’s good.

Work has been chaotic this week. It’s been difficult, distressing and stressful, and to be honest, some of the ridiculous stuff that has happened because of poor communication (a pet peeve of mine, to say the least) and misunderstandings, you honestly couldn’t make it up. But I’ve realised, as I’ve looked on at the stupidity of it, that you have to laugh at it, and realise, that in the grand scheme of my life, it really doesn’t matter.

The world too is a difficult place these days. I guess it always has been but we live in the now, and the now is how we experience our lives; the problems we deal with are in the now, and that’s much harder for me to deal with. I look at climate change, species on the edge of extinction, our own species in chaos and conflict, with the obvious changes in our particular society and I often despair. I sincerely believe that our over-mediated, money-driven, success-pressured world is contributing to the poor mental health of people who may not even have been vulnerable to it under other circumstances.

But now, beyond my growing despair, is anger. White hot burning anger. Why are we so apparently intent on destroying everything? Why are the Far Right being allowed to trample over our democracy (whatever that means now), while common decency and politeness seem to have been forgotten, outdated and in danger of extinction themselves. Polarised and extreme opinions block reasoned discussion. You are either ‘right’ or you are ‘wrong’ and therefore ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for expressing whatever opinions you may hold in the echo chambers of Twitter and Facebook, and so many of us no longer bother expressing them because if the opinions are even slightly different from those heard in those chambers, it’s like unleashing a pack of bloodthirsty baying hounds who will tear you apart for a dissenting word.

I don’t understand. But I want to do something. I want to take action. When the climate change protests were taking place, I felt ashamed that I wasn’t somewhere adding my voice. Instead I put out a tweet praising those who had gone out and been counted. It felt like cowardice. It still does. I want my voice to be heard. I want to revolt and be present, instead of listening to the voice inside me that says: you’ll have a panic attack if you join a march. That says: you’ll upset people if you’re openly rebelling. That says: what good will it do anyway when The Powers That Be are so… powerful?

I don’t know how to begin to do those things. I’ve never been a rebel. I’ve never wanted to be. But now…. Now I feel I want to start rebelling in some way. Maybe this writing is a start? Words are powerful. They are both weapons and defences. We use them against others, we use them against ourselves. Maybe this year is the year, after everything I’ve learned, after everything I’ve been through, I need to use them for others, and for myself.

Autumn is coming, and as the leaves turn, as the season changes, I understand that I should accept the changes that are happening in me, and learn to act with the bravery I want so much to embrace.

One day at a time…

Venice: On the Trail of La Serenissima.

I barely sleep the night before our trip to Venice. It’s always like this when something big is going to happen. Anxiety gets the better of me. Will I be disappointed? Will the train be on time? Will I fall into a canal? These questions and more rush through the tunnels of my brain like the high speed train we’re going to take today.

But the train is on time (at 07.53), our prima seats are really comfortable, and Kat and I eat our croissants and train snacks and just sit and chat for the two hour journey, and of course, my anxieties dissipate one by one as excitement overtakes me.

My first view of Venice is from the train window. As the lagoon comes into view, we hit the Via della Liberta, the causeway that connects the mainland to the main island. My breath catches in my throat as we pass some of the smaller islands dotted throughout the water, as we pass boats, pleasure craft and fishing craft, and then… there! A line of buildings, immediately recognisable as Venetian. I’m almost overwhelmed by the desire to shout ‘There it is! Venice! Can you see her?’ But of course I don’t, although I’m fidgeting in my seat, eager to get off the train. And then the train arrives and we alight onto Venetian soil.

I’m not prepared for what I see when we exit the Santa Lucia stazione. It’s so amazing I almost can’t take it in. Because the station concourse is on the Grand Canal, directly opposite the Chiesa di San Simeon Piccolo, a most magnificent church, which shines white in the sunshine, topped by a verdigris cupola. Immediately my eyes fill with tears. I’m here, in this dream, this fairytale city, a place I’ve longed for ever since I learned of its existence. My tears are of relief, of joy that I’m here, and a response to a place I’ve never seen the like of before. Kat stands next to me, and I think she’s a bit teary-eyed too, although she’s been here before. I think she’s as much excited for me as she is for herself. And I’m so glad she didn’t tell me about this view before, that she’s allowed me to see it fresh, to see it unbiased by her recollection of it.

 

Venive1.jpg

 

We stand and stare for a while, and I eventually pull myself together. Originally we’d thought we’d get the water bus to the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), but the queues are long and it looks confusing so we decide to walk instead. And so I have my first experience of a Venetian bridge.

The Ponte degli Scalzi is a beautiful white stone bridge with elaborate balustrades, and spans the width of the Grand Canal. It’s also steep and stepped, and I watch as a couple of young girls try to haul massive suitcases upwards. It occurs to me then that Venice is even more different than I’d thought. The canals are the streets and all transportation is by boat, or on foot. Thinking about it kind of blows my mind a bit as I consider various scenarios, and this continues to preoccupy me as we move through the city.

Off the bridge and we’re off in search of the Piazza San Marco. Immediately we’re sucked into a warren of narrow alleys filled with old buildings. It’s exciting, like being thrust back in time. I imagine the swirling skirts of women hurrying to meet their lovers, shrouded by the night and intrigue. I imagine murders committed in the dark. I imagine… so much. Through and through and through the streets we go, following the signs to the Piazza, which are at least clear, although a couple of times we get lost in the labyrinth and have to retrace our steps. It’s wonderful, and I mean that in all ways. Wonderful and wonder-full. We constantly cross bridges over canals, where houses overhang the water, where gondolas sit at the bottom of steep slippery steps, the gondoliers looking like men out of romance novels, dressed in their uniforms of striped tops, black trousers and wide-brimmed hats as they wait for customers.

Occasionally the alleyways open up into streets lined with shops selling the masks that Venice is so famous for. I become obsessed at studying them, because many of them veer toward the grotesque. Skulls. Creepy baby doll faces with blank eyes and red lips. Feline faces. Long nosed plague masks. Devils and Day of the Dead. Steampunk masquerade masks. Feathers and filigree, full and half face. Too many styles to describe, all utterly fascinating. Kat finds them disturbing and I guess I can see why, but for me, as a writer of the weird and strange, they inspire stories in me.

Venice is making me want to write.

 

masks.jpg

 

The Piazza San Marco, when we arrive, swarms with tourists. Again, it’s to be expected, and although it’s crowded, it doesn’t really matter. This is the main public square in Venice and I’m here, here, here. The Piazza is overseen by St Mark’s Basilica, and I can’t do justice to a description. Suffice to say that like so many buildings I’ve seen in Italy (Rome included) it’s a triumph of architecture and design. Then there is the clock tower (Torre dell’Orologio), and its beautiful, recently restored clock face, which feature golden figures representing the astrological signs around its centre. And then there’s the Campanile, the free-standing bell tower of the basilica, which stands proudly alone. It’s so tall (323 feet in total, including belfry and pyramidal spire) it hurts to look up at it. Like so many other landmarks, this is also recently restored, and there’s a queue of people waiting to climb it, but that’s not for me, so I just stare, awestruck. I find, as I continue my journey through Venice, that I become a little obsessed with clock towers. They are everywhere.

The rest of the square is open, shops and restaurants lining its perimeter, but we leave the actual square and walk toward the water’s edge, still on the Grand Canal, gondolas bobbing in their moorings, but here it widens out into the enormous lagoon. We’re opposite a couple of islands, and it strikes me again that Venice is unique; its water based way of life is compelling and yet a little alien to me, who’s used to roads and traffic.

venice me.jpg

Now we’re at the Rialto and its famous bridge. It’s choked with tourists and it’s not easy getting onto the bridge, but we haven’t walked through dozens of little streets, crossed so many bridges, not to stand on this one now. We take in two views – one over the lagoon – spectacular of course; and one toward the Bridge of Sighs (named in English by the poet Byron) or, more sinister, the Ponte dei Sospiri, its name reminding me of the Dario Argento film, Suspiria. The Ponte dei Sospiri is white with stone-barred windows, and passes over the Rio di Palazzo. It’s a link between the Doge’s Palace and the New Prison, and it is said that prisoners would pass between the two to their place of execution, and sigh at their last sight of the beautiful city. Anyway, that may or may not be myth, but it makes me sad to look at it, the idea of passing from paradise to hell, with no hope of escape. My writer’s mind writhes with imaginings.

It’s lunch time by now and we search for food. It’s a shame that in a city as special as Venice that good food is a little hard to find, because so many restaurants cater for the tourist trade, and we don’t bother too search too hard, just find a pizzeria that serves good enough pizza. I’ve heard it said that the Venetians keep the best restaurants secret – fair enough!

After lunch we wander some more, and cross to the other side of the city, via more bridges, through more squares with gothic looking houses that we play ‘would you stay there overnight?’ games (no, we wouldn’t, is the general consensus we come to!) so that soon we’re walking opposite the Piazza San Marco. We pass the Santa Maria della Salute, a magnificent Roman Catholic Church, known as the Salute because it was built to offer thanks for deliverance from the plague in 1630, and which stands on the narrow tip of the Punta della Dogana, which pushes out into the lagoon, and offers a breathtaking view of the water and the skyline with its basilicas and campaniles. By now time is passing quickly so we take our leave and begin to walk back, although a shower of rain stops us for a little while and we seek shelter under a lush tree growing behind a wall in what must be a private garden.

When it stops we go in search of gelato. We find a Grom, a small chain that we’ve visited in Rome before (and there’s a ranch in London too!), and order our flavours. Kat has strawberry meringue – yummy and tastes intensely of strawberries, but a little sweet for me, and pairs it with pistachio; and I choose a single flavour, raspberry, which is tart and again, tastes intensely of the fruit from which it’s made. It occurs to me that I’m purely and simply happy. I’ve been like this since we set foot on Italian soil, and it’s such an unusual emotion for me that I wish I could bottle it to take away with me, for when times get tough. Maybe I can find a Venetian apothecary who can extract its essence from my mind and body? But this is fanciful of course, and I must enjoy these moments when they come. Store them away in my own spiritual vessel, so open it when it’s needed.

I want to buy some Murano glass earrings so we look in shops now. Murano glass holds a real fascination for me. I love how it looks, the depth and swirl and intricacy of colour and design. I love the idea that there’s an island just for glassmaking, romantic in itself, as well as the idea of the craftwork and dedication to this one form of art. Eventually – I’m being fussy – I find a pair that have been made on the island (at least I decide to trust the label), and that are neither too cheap nor too expensive. They’re drop earrings, spheres, gold the colour of molten sunshine, flecked with ruby-red running throughout the gold, swirls of god blood. Anyway I don’t have anything like them, and although I ‘um’ and ‘ah’ – there are so many colours and patterns – these are the ones that keep calling to me. I’m satisfied, and I’ve been wearing them a lot since I’ve been back, and I imagine I can hear La Serenissima whispering to me when I do, and her voice is sweet, yet dark with mystery.

We arrive back at the station concourse and sit on the steps, looking at the Grand Canal, at the traffic of boats, at the people disgorging from the station towards their own experiences in this city of wonders. Of course I cry when we have to leave, but as Venice disappears from view, I hope and wish that some day I will return.

 

venice train.jpg

Florence Part Two: Admiring Art. Finding Food.

We wake up early today, and step out into bright sunshine and 26 degree heat, and go in search of breakfast. Over Danish pastries, we discuss our plans for the day. A visit to the Profumu Farmaceutica di Santa Maria de Novella, originally home to an infirmary in a Dominican monastery, which has, over the years produced perfume for Caterina de’ Medici, become an apothecary’s shop (opening to the public in 1612), to what it is now, a most beautiful home to a pharmacy and perfumery. We enter a paradise of ornate rooms with painted ceilings, into the pharmacy’s perfume shop, where displays of old bottles hug the walls.

As we expect, the perfumes are expensive, way beyond our price range, but we look and explore anyway, wandering from room to room, sniffing scents and soaps, examining the displays of bottles, old mixing paraphernalia, lists of ingredients and the artworks on the walls and ceilings. One of my particular favourite sounding mixtures is Pennywort Compound, which claims to have an ‘aesthetic’ effect on cellulite; and the Pausadonna, which – and its name speaks for itself – claims to aid the menopausal symptoms.

We emerge from this display of opulence and claims of cures into the street, and head for the Piazza della Signoria, which is crowded with tourists. We’re here because we’ve made the decision not to visit the two main galleries – the Uffizi and l’Accademia – because we’re time stretched, so we’ve come to Florence’s main square instead, once the site of Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, where thousands of pieces of art, cosmetics , musical instruments and even books – including the works of Dante and Ovid – were burned in a warning against immorality, sin and temptation. After Savonarola’s execution, the Palazzo Vecchio, which overlooks the piazza, welcomed the triumphant return of the Medici family and the rebirth of the Renaissance. The piazza is also the home to copies of many famous statues, including Michelangelo’s David, which was placed outside the Palazzo as a sign of rebellion against Medici tyranny. I’m not sure of the year that happened, but this David is impressive anyway, and beautiful.

In fact the whole square is full of wonderful sculptures, and we’re particularly taken by the Nettuno, erected in 1575 to celebrate Medici fortune at sea. To our left, is the Loggia dei Lanza, an open air art gallery with yet more impressive Renaissance sculptures. It’s almost impossible to take it all in, but we sit on the steps inside the Loggia for a while, soak in the atmosphere, and then decide to move on. We’re on a mission to try what are alleged by some to be the best sandwiches in Florence. So we get up, press our way through the crowds of tourists, towards lunch.

We see the queues before we see the two sandwich shops, one on either side of the Via Neri. This is the Osteria All’Antico Vinaio, (http://www.allanticovinaio.com/it/) which Kat discovered via YouTube. We take our place in the queue that’s on the shady side of the street, and wait, eagerly discussing what we might eat, despite the fact that we can’t see the menu yet! But we’ve heard about the sandwiches, made with schiacchiata all’olio, a flat bread special to Tuscany. As we wait – and the queue moves quite quickly – we watch a man carry piles of this bread to and fro between shops, and the smells of warm bread and preserved meats fill our nostrils. It’s only midday, but we were up early, and we’re made extra hungry by this assault on our senses.

Finally we’re in the shop, where our orders are taken quickly and served with ultra efficiency – I’ll admit it’s all a little too frenzied for me, and I exit the shop as quickly as possible once we’ve got our sandwiches, which are monsters, and an absolute steal at five euros each. We take our first bites – Kat has decided on a mix of porchetta, truffle cream, fiery pesto and roasted vegetables; and I’ve decided to try the Speck ham, Parmesan cream, porcini cream and scamorza cheese. Our first bites are heavenly. I’ve never eaten a sandwich like it. They’re ridiculously good, each bite full of flavour. We swap regularly – and we get moved off the street by patrolling police officers who tell us we can’t eat near the shop, presumably because it gets blocked so easily. So we eat and walk and savour the food and the atmosphere, and observe that most people passing us by on the street have sandwiches clutched in their hands.

We walk towards the River Arno and Ponte Vecchio, the major bridge in Florence. A bridge of shops, it was, in the thirteenth century, home to butchers and fishmongers, but it was decided – because of the noxious stench and concentrated rot – to house the city’s jewellers there instead. Apparently it was the only bridge spared from bombings in WW2, because Hitler couldn’t bear to destroy its beauty. And so it is now the most famous bridge in Florence, and, naturally, a massive tourist trap. Of course, being tourists ourselves, Kat and I don’t care. We ascend the arch of the bridge, occasionally stopping to look in a particularly beautiful shop, and finally get to a place where we can take photos of the Arno and the other bridges we see from this one.

We spend a little time admiring the view, then decide to go in search of gelato – it doesn’t matter that we’re still rather full from our sandwiches – we’re in the birthplace of gelato and it’s rude to not try as much as possible! As Jenna Evans Welch says in Love and Gelato (2017): ‘So… Italian gelato. Take the deliciousness of a regular ice-cream cone, times it by a million, then sprinkle it with crushed-up unicorn horns.’ We need to prove this assertion to ourselves, one flavour (or two!) at a time.

We head back the way we came, to the Via dei Neri, and find the Gelataria dei Neri, recommended as one of best gelataria in Florence. Again, the queue isn’t too bad, and moves quickly. I pick peach – I’ve never had peach gelato before, and it’s gorgeous – and pair it with fig and ricotta, because fig is my favourite fruit. I can’t remember what Kat has, but they’re equally delicious concoctions. By now it’s around three pm, so, gelato cravings satisfied, we decide to wander back to our hotel and have a rest before going out to dinner.

Tomorrow we’re taking the train for a day trip to Venice. Kat’s already booked first class tickets, and I’m excited and terrified in equal measure. Like Rome, Venice is a bucket list destination for me. Why I’m excited is obvious; why I’m terrified isn’t so much. Examining my feelings, I can say admit that I’m scared I’ll be disappointed. Add the fact that I get super anxious about travelling to new places, and I think I understand it. Partly to allay my fears, we decide to go to the station we’re travelling from tomorrow, in order to check it out, and to see how long it takes to walk there from our hotel. Turns out the Santa Maria Novella station is only ten minutes walk away, max. It’s an uncomplicated place. My worries about finding it difficult to discover what platform we might be travelling from disappear, because they’re all there right in front of us. I feel a little better. We have a little look around the station shops, then go to eat dinner.

We’ve decided to eat pizza tonight, and are visiting the Pizzeria da Michele, which serves Neapolitan style pizza. It’s very close to our hotel – like everything else – and we stop on the way to have a drink in a trattoria. I feel quite drunk after two glasses of a delicious house white, and so we go to eat. The pizzeria comes highly recommended and is one of a small chain across Italy, including one in Rome, where some of Eat, Pray, Love was filmed. Weirdly perhaps, there are two restaurants in Japan. We sit in the outside area. It’s very hot but the Italians have an interesting way of cooling their patrons down – with a very fine mist of water. It’s a bit weird at first, being sprayed, but you get used to it, and it’s refreshing. The menu is pretty small, and most of the pizzas are vegetarian, except the calzone, which has salami on it. We both decide to order the doppia (double) mozzarella, which also has pecorino cheese and basil in the mix. When it comes we have to laugh – at only nine euros, they are absolutely enormous, edges hanging over the plates. They’re cheesy and gooey and utterly delicious. We eat what we can, savourin every decadent mouthful, until we’re almost bursting and can’t eat any more. Full and satisfied, we pay up, and go back to our hotel room and prepare for tomorrow’s adventure.