Sunday, 24 October 2010

Monday, 11 October 2010

And it isn’t winter yet, but only autumn

Nicola is five years old again. She is somewhere wide and grassy, lined with paths and ancient trees, and her Dad is there, walking beside her. He’s laughing. It’s so easy to make him laugh; all Nicola has to do is pull a face, or swing from his coat sleeve, or simply chatter. It’s a kind of magic. When he glances down at her, which he does frequently, his grin is wide and real and full of glinting teeth. Even stooped over like that, he seems impossibly tall, as high as the treetops, and impossibly happy. There are dense, glowing ashes piled inside him. She can see them smouldering gently through his eyes.

And it isn’t winter yet, but only autumn. "My favourite time of year," he tells her. The trees are full of autumn. They’re brown and yellow and rust-coloured, a waxy lipstick-red. One of the tallest is even a glorious deep purple. Nicola has been watching that one for a while, watching it grow larger up ahead. She’s longing to reach it. She wants to touch those purple leaves; she’d like to sniff them. If Dad isn’t looking, she might even slide one across her tongue . . .

Biting back a secret smile, she turns her head this way and then that, taking in the clean, crisp sky and the dewy grass, the mushrooms that sprout among the tree roots in a spongy, spreading rash. There are conkers everywhere. They litter the path like fat Maltesers, but Nicola isn’t collecting them, not today. She feels one roll beneath the sole of her boot and her smile grows. The conker’s too hard to crunch down on, but nonetheless the roll itself is satisfying. She steps sideways to make it happen again, but Dad snatches up her hand, and the air stirs and thickens all around them.

It’s smoky, this autumn air, full of the promise of Halloween and Bonfire Night. It makes Nicola think of wet socks and coming home, of potatoes and foil blackening together amidst white, untouchable coals . . . But then Dad pulls her closer still and the smokiness gives way to the familiar scent of his creaking leather jacket. Briefly, she nuzzles her face into his side. He smells sweet and musty, like the inside of the car.

As soon as they reach the purple tree, he’ll swing her up into the branches. Nicola knows that it will happen without her even having to ask. "There you go, Princess," he’ll say, his face big and pink and beaming, and as he lifts her, she’ll reach down with her small, stubby hands. She will run her fingers over his wiry head and watch the ripple of his thick brown curls. Then she’ll look past him to admire her own feet, kicking back and forth through empty space.

He won’t be able to reach high enough to ruffle her hair in return, but his grin will somehow spread even wider, splitting his beard, and: "On top of the world, kid," he’ll say in one of his silly T.V. voices. Then it will be Nicola’s turn to laugh.

Time will pass up in that tree. The bubbles of sunshine between the leaves will slowly stretch and burst and turn a deeper shade of orange, but he won’t make her go home. She’ll cut him off before he can suggest it: "Please, Dad, not just yet . . ."

And he will nod, his big face flushed with the early sunset. He’ll go on holding her safe and steady among the swaying, purple branches until eventually Nicola will feel as if she’s floating. Fluttering. On top of the world. She’ll never have been as high before, never so knowingly happy.

(extracted from The Dawning)

Sunday, 3 October 2010


During the weeks when he was leaving, the feeling that she carried almost constantly, that she lugged to work and around the supermarket, the sensation that flattened her to the mattress every single sleepless night – that feeling, was canoe shaped.

She came to see it very clearly.

An old, wooden canoe with cracked, warped boards, its paintwork weathered grey. The sort of given-up boat that’s sometimes transformed into a tourist sign, stabbed vertically into the ground before a row of cabins, a forest campsite. Once it might have been daubed with words, ‘River View’, or ‘Hiawatha’s Retreat’. Some such brochure-shit.

It wasn’t a canoe anybody would ever actually use. You couldn’t even bob in the shallows with it, let alone negotiate rapids or glide between dragonflies and lush green banks. Undoubtedly, it leaked.

And what use was that, a canoe like that, inside her?

She could feel it all too keenly.

Her flesh, her skin, draped awkwardly around it, like wet clothes heaped across a cheap hanger. Her stomach was crushed thin beneath it, and she had no idea how her ribcage managed. And yet it was such a waste of space, that canoe. While it’s oar-less heart remained stubbornly, greedily empty, filled with nothing but aching, sour air, she had to struggle to live around its edges. Some nights, in bed, when he was there, or not there, beside her, it made it difficult to breathe.

The only time she’d ever experienced anything remotely similar was after her mother had died. Remembering this, she wondered if the feeling wasn’t canoe-shaped after all, but more like a coffin? Except how did that help? How did that make anything easier? The idea of hauling a coffin about, of it rearranging your insides?

And even after he’d finally left the house for good, the feeling didn’t go.

She couldn’t escape it and there came a point when she feared she might start telling people, as if she couldn’t help it. Running into friends or colleagues, or even the familiar strangers at the station each morning, she became filled with the urge to reach out, to pluck at a sleeve or a hesitant hand –

“There’s a canoe,” she might tell them. Hissing: “A fucking canoe, inside me.”

Except it was far too easy to imagine how their lips might twitch or their eyebrows jump. The whole aghast or overly polite way they’d probably nod back at her. As if they hadn’t even heard of a canoe before. As if she was the type of woman to go mad.