We learn what poetry is – if we ever learn – by reading it.’
T. S. Eliot
As part of my writing process, I read – for enjoyment, for enrichment – but also to learn more about the art of poetry. It may be the ex-literature teacher in me, but analysing and reviewing what I’ve read really elucidates the craft in the work.
The collection opens with a sequence of poems that explore the fragility of the mind. The second poem ‘Alzheimer’s Villanelle’ is an astonishing piece of work. The choice of form is fantastic – the echoes mimic the confusion of the mind and some of the visual descriptions are incredibly visceral, creating a very unsettling feel.…Keep reading
Published in 2012 and winner of the T.S. Eliot prize and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Stag’s Leap charts the poet’s journey through the end of a thirty year marriage. Poignant, passionate and unrelentingly personal, it’s an astonishing collection. The collection follows a chronological order as Olds takes us through the breakdown of her marriage…Keep reading
Published by Cape in 2020, Tongues of Fire is Hewitt’s first full collection after the remarkable ‘Lantern’, a pamphlet published by Offord Road Press. It’s difficult to write about this collection without a heavy reliance on superlatives. It’s a wondrous book, full of hope and beauty. There’s a lot of darkness too – grief weighs…Keep reading
The sixth edition of this series is a pantheon of contemporary female poets. The book opens with Claudia Rankine. Through her poems we accompany a series of women as they navigate racism, the strange intimacy of pregnancy and the difficulties facing women who choose to step from the expected path of motherhood. The poems here…Keep reading
This was the last collection Porter published before his death – which means it’s no surprise that mortality is very much at the forefront. However, it’s not a maudlin collection – there’s enough humour here to give balance to the levity of the subject matter. The short opening poem ‘Better than God’ opens the collection…Keep reading
The thing that really stood out in Sprackland’s debut was the sense of cohesion. The first poem ‘Poached Eggs on Toast’ creates images and motifs that are carried through the collection – eggs and yolks appear in many poems. The second and third poems form a mini sequence exploring Sprackland’s memory of being hit on…Keep reading
Everything about this book is satisfying – the size (pleasingly pocket-sized), the texture (heavy-grade, slightly rough paper) and of course the contents. It’s a beautifully wrought insight into the mind of an artist who explores her craft, her inspiration, her influences and the world around her in little sequences. Many of these sequences read like…Keep reading
There’s a mythical, dream-like quality to this collection, filled with motifs of stars and apples. It’s also rooted in place – there’s a sense of journey as we move with the speaker across Portugal, Greece and Ireland in a voyage of self-discovery as they look to move beyond failed relationships and find their own roots…Keep reading
Tom Sastry’s debut collection thrusts the reader into a world wrapped in deadpan metaphors. The opening poem ‘A Man’s House Catches Fire’ sets the tone as self-deprecating from the outset with the lines: “I thought the smell of smoke was just me going off my head which I have learned to expect.” The poem ends…Keep reading
This second collection from Julia Webb is published by the fantastic Nine Arches Press. Consisting of four sections, the reader is thrown into a world of violence, loss and family expertly examined with an unflinching eye. In the first section, ‘Body of evidence’ the poems have a sinister tinge, rooted in the physical. The opening…Keep reading
The poems in this debut pamphlet are filled with ghosts – not ‘physical’ ghosts, but the ghosts of the past that live in the present through inter-generational stories and experiences. Natalie Linh Bolderston weaves a haunting tapestry of trauma, exile, cultural legacy and loss in poems that examine the scars left by the atrocities of…Keep reading
Louise McStravick’s collection explodes into the reader’s consciousness, seducing with vibrant, colourful imagery while also shining a light on life on society’s fringes. The opening poem ‘Just another road in Erdington’ sets the tone, filled with vernacular phrases and talk of prisons, arson and drug addiction that was the backdrop to childhood. From the outset,…Keep reading
There is so much movement in this collection of beautiful vignettes, whether through the physical movement of the characters in the poems or the movement of the elements that meander through the poems. From the opening line “Late night like unopened letters” it feels that these are secrets whispered to the reader, elusive and illusory,…Keep reading
From the opening poem, it’s clear that this collection is an unwaveringly close examination of the modern world, its landscapes and its politics.It moves from the fresh and interesting descriptions of “buses are bison and people are grass” (‘No Longer Quite so Sure’) to the didactic “You’ve made a pact with the digital devil” (‘The…Keep reading
Vertigo and Ghost is Fiona Benson’s second collection and the winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2019.. I was bowled over by Bright Traveller, falling in love with the way she weaves the natural world with human experience in a way that feels both warming yet sinister. I love the immediacy of…Keep reading
This had been on my radar for a while – the wonderful cover had me thinking of extended walks by the seaside – like a coastal Sebald or Solnit. It’s a little different, and not 100% what I was expecting. Instead of a poetic piece of psychogeographical narrative, this is a biography of a couple…Keep reading
I devoured Porter’s first book Grief is a Thing with Feathers in one sitting, so I cleared an afternoon and settled in. Although I am a bit of a traditionalist in terms of form, there’s something about the way Porter dissolves the boundaries of form that is really accessible. Lanny opens with a barrage of…Keep reading
This collection is an ode to Emily Dickinson – to her work, her themes and her poetry. In an interview with Twist in Time magazine, Horan highlights the similarities between her own work and that of Dickinson in terms of themes, but this collection isn’t simply a reflection of Dickinson’s work – in some ways,…Keep reading
I loved his poetry collection for its astonishing use of lyricism and twisting of classicalism (like in the incredible Telemachus) so I was very excited to get my hands on this. I heard him read at Toppings in Bath and knew from the short extract this was going to be something special – the delicacy…Keep reading
The debut collection from the award-winning poet was a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Deeply personal, it covers motherhood, landscape and includes a beautiful sequence of poems for Vincent Van Gogh. The opening poem ‘Caveat’ forms an epigraph for the collection with its message that it is possible to find the…Keep reading
Spitting Distance is a Laureate’s Choice pamphlet from 2016 that I bought after hearing the poet read at an event in Bristol last year. From the moment he finished reading the first stanza of his first poem, I knew it would be special due to the concision of the language and the way in which…Keep reading
Laing’s To the River is a travelogue of sorts as the writer sets out on a midsummer morning to walk the banks of the River Ouse from source to sea. Peppered with memories of a failed relationship, this is a journey through memory, not just hers but those of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, whose diaries…Keep reading
Described by the Guardian as” A dazzling journey into deep time” this is a story about the worlds underground, which seems naturally more sinister in tone than his other books – perhaps because of the connotations with death, Hades and the spectres that haunt the underworld. It delves deep, both physically and metaphorically. This is…Keep reading
Described by the author as “a baffling text”, this is an entirely unique piece of literature. Admittedly, it’s quite difficult to grasp at the outset, written in the second person where the narrator seems to be addressing other forms of himself – but the beauty of the language and the phrasing compelled me to persevere. …Keep reading
Although set in a completely different part of France, this book reminded me of Bonjour Tristesse. Perhaps because of its central character – a female left to her own devices trying to find a foothold in idleness. Narrated by Edith Hope, a middle-aged English writer of clever romance novels, Hotel du Lac opens with…Keep reading
It’s difficult to decide whether the main feature in this novel is the relationship between the honeymooners or the Orkney seascape. This is a novel with a very voyeuristic feel – a nameless young bride with long, silvery hair sits for hours gazing out at the sea. Inside the rented cottage, her husband Richard, a…Keep reading
It’s with some shame that I admit I’ve had this book on my shelf for years but only just got round to reading it. Described as an influence by many of the psychogeographers that fill my bookshelves, I was expecting great things. Based in August 1992, this piece of writing weaves history and landscape together…Keep reading
This is an extensive selection of poems, many of which feel like the poetic interpretation of a Chagall painting, full of dream-like, surreal imagery haunted by ghosts and steeped in natural imagery such as ‘The Girl who Married the Reindeer’. The earlier poems at the beginning of the collection are filled with references to agriculture…Keep reading
This debut collection feels very much like a prayer in praise of the natural world and the symbiosis between man and nature. Almost every poem is steeped in the language of the natural world and many make direct reference to religion. From the opening poem ‘Leaf’, we are treated to natural images that feel both…Keep reading
Being Various was one of my favourite books in 2019, so I was intrigued to read more fiction from Lucy Caldwell. Enter All the Beggars Rising. Written from the point of view of Lara, a middle-aged woman with a chequered childhood, it’s a story about struggling to shrug off the ghosts of the past. It’s…Keep reading
This series aims to introduce readers to new, contemporary poets. I bought this collection as I’m of the belief that one cannot have enough Sharon Olds poetry in their possession and I’d never read any substantial amounts Booker or Shire although I have been a big fan of everything I’ve read or encountered. Suffice to…Keep reading
Although published in 2002, McGahern’s last novel has no tangible sense of time – apart from a reference to watching ‘Blind Date’ and the recent Enniskillen bombing, this could be set anytime in the 20th century. Set in rural Leitrim amongst a smattering of houses around a lake, this is a novel where time is…Keep reading
Centred around the four Essinger family as they descend upon their family home for Christmas, this is Markovtiz’s seventh novel and a typically incisive examination of the tensions in familial relationships. With each member of the family given their own turn at the narrative we get an insight into the conflict between living a life…Keep reading
Big Sur is the quasi-autobiographical tale of Jack Duluoz who tries to escape his life in San Francisco by seeking solitude in a cabin the wilds of Big Sur. Expecting a lyrical exploration of adventures in the wilderness, I settled down in the dark night at Deetjens on Big Sur with the copy I’d picked…Keep reading
Everyone knows that social media is making us unhappy. If like me, you’ve tried to put your phone away, cut down on social media use etc only to fail miserably after a couple of days, you’ll understand the frustration of feeling like you’re controlled by the need to ‘stay connected’. What makes this book such…Keep reading
It’s not very often that the protagonist of a novel is described with disgust but yet manages to elicit our sympathies, but that is just one of the many astonishing things about this wonderful book. The central character is Helen Franklin, a fairly pitiable woman in her early 40s working as a translator in Prague,…Keep reading
Being Various is a collection of new, especially commissioned short stories curated by Lucy Caldwell. It takes in the whole island, with the list of contributors reading like a who’s who of award-winning contemporary Irish short story writers. Kevin Barry’s ‘Who’s Dead McCarthy’ brings Dublin to life with a poignant vernacular whilst Eimear McBride plays…Keep reading
My first encounter with Paterson’s work was his second collection, God’s Gift to Women, a Poetry Book Society recommendation. One of the things I love most about that collection is the way Paterson has mixed a whole host of different elements to create a real poetry personality – there are references to ancient Greek mythology…Keep reading
This collection of short stories was published in 2018 and takes some of the best stories published in the pages of The Stinging Fly since its inception in 1998. Featuring works by writers who won, were shortlisted and longlisted for the 2019 Sunday Times Short Story Award, (Danielle McLaughlin, Kevin Barry and Wendy Erskine respectively)…Keep reading
From the opening anecdotes comparing the veins on a stranger’s hands to earthworms, it’s clear that Solnit intends to dig under the topsoil and put the notion of ‘Irishness’ under the microscope. That it is so enjoyable to read is due to the beauty of her descriptive prose and her knack for breathing life into…Keep reading
In this collection of short stories, Li examines the reality of daily life in modern China, opening our eyes to a world where society is trying to balance the weight of tradition with the fast pace of modern life. In ‘Extra’, a lonely middle-aged woman finds herself abandoned in a wilderness of strangers, dehumanised and…Keep reading
Unsettling from the very start, the fourth book in the Cormoran Strike series takes a little while to find its feet. When a mentally distressed young man explodes into Strike’s office requesting help on finding out about a crime he may have witnessed as a child, Strike feels compelled to help, in part due to…Keep reading
This is a collection centred around space – the space in time between now and Etter’s childhood, the space of the great Illinois prairies and the space on the page that Etter uses so masterfully. ‘Night Ode’, the opening poem in the collection sets out the stall – the poems that follow will explore nostalgia,…Keep reading
At the risk of using hyperbole, this book will change the way you look at the world. I can say, without exaggeration, that it is possibly the most interesting book I’ve ever read. Storr sets out to examine raised suicide rates in the west by studying our relationship with the notion of self, starting with…Keep reading
Although published twenty years ago, this collection still feels incredibly fresh and contemporary. Due to its place on A Level set text lists in the UK, the poems in this collection are probably familiar to many poetry fans, so there’s no need for a long introduction. In this collection Duffy takes a whole host of…Keep reading
One of the most surprising things about living in Madrid was the sheer choice of parks available. There were so many I don’t think I managed them all (even though we allocated a week one July to exploring them). So, apologies if your favourite isn’t listed – it may be I never made it…or, more…Keep reading
This is a sublime collection, redolent of a masterfully arranged bouquet – no sparsity, beautiful details and gathered together in a way that draws out every nuance. The title poem is full of darkness, sinister in its use of anthropomorphism. This is a feature across the collection as Maguire humanises a number of different plants…Keep reading
Before beginning the collection, I was struck by the title. I knew that it was written while Borodale explored the Somerset caving systems, but I wondered what the connection with Asylum could be – is Borodale making the suggestion that we are safer underground? The sheer number of questions in the opening poem ‘Rehearsal at St Cuthbert’s Swallet’…Keep reading
Published in 2014, this is Burnside’s 13th (!) collection and weaves familiar topics (death, perception) with the grounded detail so typical of his work. Divided into four sections, the collection moves through a journey of self-exploration – it’s an emotionally tiring read, unsettling and enlightening in equal measure. The opening section is titled ‘Self-Portrait as…Keep reading
‘The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx’ is a song to feminism. It’s not a paean as such – it’s too subtle for that in its messages. It feels fresh and surprising even as it twists and turns and puts the reader through a mangle. The opening poem ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx’ is playful…Keep reading
This collection really resonated with me. Perhaps this is due to the themes of moving away from home and living in a foreign country that I relate closely to, but I agree with Vicki Feaver’s description of it as a collection that is both “unsettling and often incredibly moving.” The collection opens with the quote…Keep reading
There is a very strong sense of place in this collection – almost enough to term it psychogeographical. The post-industrial landscape of the Midlands lingers on the fringes of most poems, taking centre stage for many. Commane sets out her stall strongly from the very start. The opening poem presents a gritty world with lines…Keep reading
Spain is famous for its markets – but they’re not all about fresh food. Many of the city’s best eating experiences are to be found tucked away in stalls in the food markets. Here are my top four: Mercado San Miguel Just beside Plaza Mayor, this used to be a whole sale market, but it…Keep reading
Regular readers of this page will know I’m a huge fan of Robert MacFarlane, so I was really excited to get my hands on his first book. Although it’s a little more scientific in parts than I was expecting, it’s still filled with poetic descriptions and enlightening observations. The book opens with an anecdote about…Keep reading
I’d read a lot about this book before picking it up myself – that it was too obscure, too literary (since when has that become a bad thing?!?), so I was a little dubious before starting. I flicked through the first page before getting my hands on the whole book, and was instantly hooked. The…Keep reading
About two hours west of Madrid, Cuenca is one of Spain’s most memorable cities. A World Heritage Site, it’s famous for its hanging houses (or casas colgadas), with their wooden balconies which hang out over the sheer cliffs of the gorge, but it’s the location that makes it so remarkable, with its old centre perched…Keep reading
If you’ve not yet encountered Dostoyevsky Wannabe, I’d highly recommend them. A small, independent press based in Manchester, they’re at the vanguard of accessible, innovative literature, producing work at a prolific rate (51 books in four years) One of their more popular projects is the Cities series, where they invite poets to collaborate to produce…Keep reading
I’ve ALWAYS wanted to visit San Francisco, primarily because its synonymous with the Beat writers, who I was obsessed with as a teenager. Every year, I revisit Kerouac’s On The Road, but I realised it’s been a long time since I picked up Ginsberg’s Howl. Wondering if it still held the same magic to thirties me…Keep reading
I recently listened to an old Scottish Poetry Library podcast with Lavinia Greenlaw (if you’ve never tuned in, you must. They really allow the poets to open up on their art and influences) and was really struck by the way she talked about growing up in Essex and the impact her scientific background has had…Keep reading
One of my favourite things about returning home for a visit is the opportunity to revisit the awe-inspiring beaches of Donegal. Tucked away in the North-West of Ireland, this part of the land has some of the most spectacular beaches I’ve ever seen. In some ways, although the weather is ‘changeable’ (read ‘ can be…Keep reading
I’m a sucker for a thriller I can devour in an afternoon, and from the back cover, this looked promising. With quotes of praise from Stephen King, Gillian Flynn and Val McDermid, my expectations were high. The opening chapter immediately intrigued. Developing in a manner similar to Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’, as the protagonist spies on…Keep reading
I’m really excited to be heading back to Madrid for a visit this weekend and to dive back into life in a HUGE metropolis. Obviously, the main attraction is reconnecting with all our friends, but I’m planning on visiting a few favourite old haunts and interesting new places. In the process of noting down all…Keep reading
Morrissey’s T.S.Eliot Prize-winning fifth collection is defined by the poet at the outset as Parallax (Astron.) Apparent displacement, or difference in the apparent position, of an object, caused by actual change (or difference) of position of the point of observation. It’s a collection about perception and paradoxes, opening with 1801, inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s ‘The Grasmere…Keep reading
I’ll admit that expectations were low. I’d visited Portugal many times, but avoided the Algarve, believing it to be over-touristed and lacking in anything cultural. Oh, how I was wrong! Faro is a compact, coastal town with typically Mediterranean paved streets winding towards the sea. On our approach, we were bemused by the amount of…Keep reading
Leontia Flynn’s third collection was first published in 2011, but it’s taken a while for us to come into contact. In general, I try to avoid reviews of poetry collection before reading a book and in this case, I think it was a wise decision. Not because the reviews weren’t excellent – they were, most…Keep reading
Sean O’Brien’s collection Europa comes at a fitting time for a poetic exploration of European and British identity. It’s a heavy read, moving across the continent, but still retaining the ability to focus in on the details in breathtaking and meaningful ways. The collection opens with ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’ – a title which…Keep reading
Our visit to Coimbra was an accident. A happy accident, but an accident none-the-less. With a close friend choosing to marry in Cascais, we decided to venture into the parts of Portugal between Porto and Lisboa and Coimbra seemed an ideal location. A little bit of research told us it was a lively university town…Keep reading
It is the delicacy with which she transforms the mundane that makes Clanchy one of my favourite poets and this selection opens with ‘Slattern’ from her debut collection of the same name. In terms of the sequencing of the collection, this is a beautiful note on which to open, where she explores the notion…Keep reading
One of the greatest things about my MA course was being introduced to the joys of sublime non-fiction writing. For me, Macfarlane is at the top of an illustrious list. I came across Landmarks when researching the notion of an ‘untranslateable’ word for my poetry manuscript and fell in love with his poetic turns of…Keep reading
I’ll start by admitting something – I really wanted to dislike this book. Not because I’m not a fan of Kate Tempest’s work – I find her performance style invigorating and was swept away by the anger in the voice of Let Them Eat Chaos. So, why was I so keen to find fault? Jealousy? Resentment?…Keep reading
Cáceres, Extremadura. The first thing anyone said when they heard we were going was “The meat there is amazing!” But, as the thermometer in the hirecar pushed past 45 degrees, cured pork was the last thing on my mind. In fact, all I could think about was ice. Or an ice-cold glass of beer. Wandering…Keep reading
To say I was excited about Mérida is a bit of an understatement. Roman Iberia, in all its wonder. And the ruins did not disappoint. The amphitheatre and theatre are spectacular, but a lot of the rest is ruined – which may seem obvious, but when you traipse around the city in the July heat…Keep reading
Ornate sandstone buildings, meandering cobbled lanes and cranes’ nests – Trujillo feels much like Caceres, but without the warmth. Perhaps this is due to the different tones in the brickwork, or the fact that its buildings feel a little less loved, but it feels a less hospitable place. With it being a Sunday afternoon, the…Keep reading
Another bout of twitterstorms. Did Jeremy Corbyn leave a wreath or not? Was Boris Johnson being deliberately antagonistic with his comments on the burqa? News items are filled with politicians airing their views on the matter, discussing it in minute detail. Meanwhile, NHS waiting times grow. The number of homeless dying on the streets has…Keep reading
“What the hell is that smell?”
“I know, it’s totally disgusting. Like someone rubbed cheese all over themselves and hasn’t had a wash in over a week!”
They sat there, giggling over their iced coffees, oblivious to the light June breeze that carried their voices over the empty shopping arcade towards me. I’ve heard similar comments many times. At first, they were only in my mind, a figment of my paranoia, but now? Those critical comments and sly remarks are real. They follow me everywhere, like the smell I carry with me. It’s beyond the comprehension of most people and I’ve grown used to the recoils and lowered gazes as people struggle with the musky scent I’ve cultivated. I’ve grown used to it. It comforts me. But I’ve never heard the cheese comment before – that’s definitely new.
The wind shifts, pulling the words across the arcade and into the street. Although I can no longer discern the exact words, I can tell I’m still the subject of their conversation. They’re probably wondering why I don’t take more care of myself. So do I, sometimes. I certainly used to. I’d shave and scrub and smooth and slather myself with an array of potions and lotions and creams, enjoying the velvet touch of my smooth skin that smelled of Provencal meadows or fresh ocean spray. But that was then. Now, I’d rather carry my own smell, wrapped round me like my favourite blanket. Like I’m always home.
I don’t blame them, really. I’ve grown used to it. I wouldn’t blame you either. Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. But now, it’s more like a scratch or a graze. Almost unnoticed. Bearable. Heals quickly without leaving a scar. I know what I must look like. A real ragamuffin, Ben would have said. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been seen dead in socks and sandals, but that was before I realised that it was madness to force my feet into uncomfortable shoes just because the weather is slightly cooler. And yes, the sandals are old, but they are moulded to my feet, supporting every undulation of my sole. Maybe that’s where they’re getting the scent of cheese from…
Something my psychologist used to say to me, when I started on the endless roundabout of therapies all those years ago was “describe the scene, Sylvia. What do you think others see when they look at you?” Oh, Dr Randall. How things have changed between then and now.
An unkempt older woman hunched over on a metallic seat outside a coffee shop in a shopping arcade, hunched almost double over an interior design magazine. She’s wearing a salmon pink padded jacket. In places, the polyester has worn thin and the white stuffing pokes through. Her curly grey hair is wiry, like coils of oily springs. Her grey jersey sweatpants are stained and worn on her thighs. She wipes her hands on them after eating her crisps, transferring the grease. On her feet, large woollen socks are jammed into old fabric sandals. She furtively glances around and then begins eating something from her pocket, stuffing the food into her face, barely pausing to swallow before bringing the next fistful to her mouth.
Hardly a contender for any beauty awards, that’s for sure. Not so much a sight for sore eyes as just an absolute sight. ‘Look at the state of you,’ Ben would say if he could see me now.
But, one of the benefits of looking so dishevelled means that usually people give you a wide berth. As if the smell is contagious… The waitresses here tend to ignore me – and my contraband snacks. As long as I’m outside and it’s not busy, they turn a blind eye. Which is kind of them, I suppose. There are plenty of people in the world who almost seem to take pleasure in shooing me away like some sort of pigeon or unwanted vermin. But to others, you’re almost invisible. They feel guilty that they exist in a world where the homeless exist. Which is almost as bad. But of course, I’m not homeless. Let’s get that straight. Far from it. Would a homeless lady sit at a café reading interior design magazines? Of course not.
This month’s edition is all about the Danish concept of ‘hygge’. It seems to me they’ve just rebranded the word ‘homely’ and made it fancy with some expensive rugs and a few strategically positioned tea lights and floor lamps. Apparently, the Danes are so happy because they ‘focus on the good things in life, like friends and family and good food.’ It’s not as if they invited this notion – if you take a look at history, you’ll find all myths and legends revolve around the banquet and the gatherings around long tables groaning with food. It always amazes me how people can repackage common sense and make a fortune from it. Take the new obsession with ‘upcycling’, for example. Back in the day, repurposing old furniture was just called ‘making do’, if it was called anything at all. Page after page of ‘hygge’ this month – muted colour palates and minimalist décor. No flair or sense of personality in these homes. Everything is safe. Balanced. Neutral. Uninspired.
The bells of the local church ring out six o’clock. Tea time. Time to get back. I’ve had my two hours out and about. Time to head home. I gulp down the last dregs of the now cold coffee, spilling it down my jacket in my rush, creating a stain like the outline of Scotland. What a wonderful place. It’s where we went on our honeymoon, Ben and I, all those years ago. A week in the Highlands. It was all so exciting – the sleeper train from Euston to Mallaig. I’ll never forget that first morning, lying there in each others’ arms watching the gun-metal sky glow rosy with the morning light as the craggy peaks and mossy meadows whizzed past as we trundled further and further north. Lying there on that tiny single bed, muscles cramping with the effort of not falling onto the ground but reluctant to move and break the magic, I was happy. Ben’s arms were wrapped around me and I just lay there, feeling the movement of his chest as he breathed and the steady rhythm of his heartbeat. It was a morning full of promise. Little did we know then, of course, how quickly things would change.
I’m not as steady on my feet as I used to be. The chair falls backwards with a loud clang, echoing across the concourse. People turn to look and I catch their pity as they avert their gazes. Pity is something I’m used to. Sometimes the air is so thick with it I feel that I could almost put my hand out and touch it or catch it in a net like a dying moth. The texture of the air changes slightly. Becomes just that like bit heavier. Rain is on the way. I’d better rush if I’m to get home before it starts properly.
I’ve always enjoyed the walk home, especially at this time of the evening when people are just coming home from work. It’s that period when the streets seem to cast off their day time somnambulance ready for the buzz of evening activity. The houses in this part of town are Victorian. Terraced, with little gardens out the front. Well, they used to be gardens. Now, they seem to be mainly paved car parking spaces. Time was, walking along these streets, especially at this time of year, the air would be fragrant with the delicate scent of honeysuckle and the sweet smell of wild roses, but now it’s petrol fumes that take precedence, choking anyone foolish enough to try and enjoy their front garden. I remember how we used to sit, Ben and I, in our front garden, catching the last heat of the sun amongst the rhodedendrons, him reading the evening edition of the paper and me finishing off the schoolbooks I’d brought home with me. More often than not, Mr and Mrs Smith from number 58 would be doing the same thing and soon both books and paper would be forgotten as we’d chat across the hedgerows until Kate would pop into her little garden with little Simon and we’d watch and coo over him playing with whatever new toy he had. But that was a long time ago. It’s strange how quickly the decades fly in and people move away – Mrs Smith sold up after poor Mr Smith had that heart attack. He wasn’t even sixty. And Kate and Will moved up North when he got that new job. Of course, we stayed in touch for a while, but that always stops, doesn’t it? Cards at Christmas, that’s about it. Little Simon is probably away at University now. Funny how the time just goes, isn’t it? Now, most of the houses have been divided up into flats and people seem to come and go a lot. There’s no sense of community spirit. There are still one or two young families living on the street, but they like to keep to themselves. You certainly never hear the children out playing in the street. No wonder, with the amount of cars – it wouldn’t be safe. There was an article in the local news bulletin about a ‘fun day’ for the kids on a street not far from here. They got rid of all the cars and the kids had free reign – it looked like great fun. Reminded me of why we chose to live in this neighbourhood – I remember the flush on Ben’s cheeks as he hinted that it might be “nice to move into an area full of young children.” Of course, that was before everything went wrong and the very notion of having a family disappeared, along with the rest of our dreams.
The next door neighbours have forgotten the bin day again and left their bins out too late. Every fortnight they do exactly the same thing. The binmen arrive between 7.30am and 8am on a Thursday. Without fail. So how can they fail to put the bin out at the right time? And they always leave it partly blocking my gate so I have to squeeze past it to get in my own home. I wouldn’t mind, but they’ll leave it there now until next Thursday, attracting foxes and rats. And it’s not as if I can say anything to them. Not after the last time.
Breathe, Sylvia. It’s not that serious a problem. Nothing to get worked up about. I try to remember the doctor’s advice and take a few deep breaths as I struggle with the front door, trying to head off the panic before it takes a firm hold. I want tonight to be a good night, not one spent cowering in the corner of the living room under a blanket. On the exhale, I push the door open and step inside.
The interior of my home would be a shock to most people. In fact, sometimes it is a shock to me that I was capable of living like this, in such luxury/harmony. And so the rituals begin. Carefully, I ease off the sandals and place them in the teak sideboard in the entrance hall. It used to be that I’d struggle to fit my shoes in, what with all the heels and boots and brogues, but now, there is plenty of space. Gripping the cabinet for balance, I swap the sandals for a pair of beaten and torn house slippers before padding up the stairs towards the bathroom. It’s actually my second favourite room in the house. It always reminds me of the seaside, with its turquoise walls and driftwood furniture. Ben made the cabinets himself with some wood we found on a beach in Devon. I run the bath – Victorian, of course, and pour in the last of the jasmine bubble bath I’ve been saving for special occasions. The smell has faded over the years, but there’s still the faintest trace left, its exoticism filling the room, transporting me back to Anadalucian hill top village adventure all those years ago.
As I wait for the tub to fill, I potter downstairs, through the living room and into the kitchen. This is my favourite room. When we first bought the house, we decided to have a large extension fitted, so now the room is flooded with sunlight. In fact, I’m used to telling the time of day by the light. Pre-noon, it’s a sort of creamy glow. Mid day until late afternoon, the room glows green as the light reflects off the bushes outside and dapples and dances through the glass and against the walls. In the late evening as dusk starts to fall, the light glows a rose gold, gilding everything within like Midas himself had trailed his fingers along the surfaces. The garden is a lot wilder than it used to be. Ironic how it’s called husbandry, isn’t it? Since it was always Ben who looked after things. I just let them be free. Out in the garden, I breathe in the smell of roses. The next door neighbours have their back door open. I duck out of sight. Too embarrassing after the last argument. They caught me unscrewing their back gate. But the squeak – it was too much. Going through my brain. I couldn’t let it just be. I had to do something about it. That in itself wouldn’t have been too bad, but it came off the back of them finding me asleep in the hedgerow. I thought there was a mouse or a rat, you see and I was looking around. But then I just got so comfortable, I forgot myself and fell asleep. Which would’ve been fine if it hadn’t been in their garden. I know it must have been a bit of a shock, but they had just moved in, so of course they called the police. That was pretty embarrassing.
Anyway, I’m not going to let any of that distract me now. I can hear the bath running upstairs. By the sounds of it, the tub is half full. About another ten minutes left. I shuffle over to the sofa and sink into it with a sigh. I’ve spent so many hours curled up in its arms that it has moulded itself to my shape. The living room is full of memories: the walnut antique table from Provence that Ben insisted on buying as a memento on our first holiday together. What a palaver trying to get it shipped over. The burnished bronze mirror over the mantelpiece that was bought in the souks of Marrakech. The photographer from Home Interiors had been very impressed with the collection of items – like a souvenir tapestry. But that was a long time ago, that photo shoot. Really just a favour from an old friend. She knew how much I loved design and thought it would be fun to get my home featured. Started a whole new craze – ordinary people in their extraordinary homes.
But they are just things. It’s the memories that will stay. The fountain in the hidden square in Aix on whose walls we spent a blissful summer afternoon. Getting lost and stumbling into the tanneries. The smells. The disorientating bright lights. Of course, it was Morocco that it all started. The trembling hands. The rising fear. I’d just put it down to a difficult year at school, but when September came around again, I just couldn’t go back. Physically couldn’t get a foot over the door. Of course, everyone was very understanding and patient. Up to a point. After the first year, Ben suggested I look at employment elsewhere. Apply my skills elsewhere. Learn something new. I tried. I really, really tried. But nothing seemed to work. Everything I touched seemed to crumble to dust in my hands. Of course, there was no way I could even think about starting a family in this state, so that got put on the back burner. I could barely stand the feel of Ben’s touch as it was, so dark was my despair. Another year passed, and I was just plunging deeper and deeper into the jungle of my own mind. People stopped calling round as my irrational paranoia began to drive them away.
But I could cope. Just about. Clinging on with my fingertips to the ledge. Until the day Ben didn’t come back. Looking back at it, I don’t really blame him. He’d always wanted children and it was clear he wasn’t going to get them with me. I could see the toll looking after me was taking on him – it was etched on his face. So one day after work, he just stayed away. He hadn’t cheated on me – he just put his future children first. That’s why I fell in love with him, after all. I’d known then what a great Dad he would be, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when he sacrificed me for his imaginary children. Which he now has, by the way. He lived in the city for a while, met a nice girl at work, settled down in a lovely Victorian terrace just like this and soon the babies arrived. A boy, then a girl. They moved away a couple of years ago. There’d been a court case, but I’d just not been able to keep away. His happiness gnawed at me, ripping me apart. I tortured myself with his joy. So, one cold February morning, he’d come round to tell me he was going. There was no anger, just sadness. And then they went. The little home he’d built for himself was divided up into flats and all those roses and honeysuckle he’d tended were burned down and turned into a paved parking space.
That’s probably what will happen here. I have to leave, you see. They’ll be here in the morning, the bailiffs. The money ran out. And although I’m only fifty-two, the council have offered me a place in a residential home for the elderly. On account of my “mental health needs”. They’ve assured me that I’ll be happy there and that I’m very lucky to get a place – even if it means leaving most of my belongings behind. Space is at a premium, they say. Not enough room for my furniture. So tomorrow, I will leave this all behind. But first, I have a final bath to take.
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Hi, I’m Lillie. Previously a magazine editor, I became a full-time mother and freelance writer in 2017. When I’m not spending time with my wonderful kids and husband, I love writing about my fascination with food, adventure, and living a healthy and organized life! Read more