It’s night when I most feel the need to write.
I’m painting small pictures of frogs. The paper is cheap and the water causes it to buckle unsatisfyingly. All artists seem to have a jealous hoarding desire for paper. It physically effects me to waste or witness unnecessary waste of paper; a turning of the stomach. I’ve never known an artist who doesn’t covet even the crappiest of paper as if it’s of incredible value. Notes, phone numbers and shopping lists, written on impossibly small, illegible scraps.
The last few nights I’ve been hearing what sounds to me like a turkey in the garden. The quiet mewing of a hen bird talking lovingly to her chicks. Of course it isn’t, I’m in a village too far from any farm to hear such a delicate, private call and it’s the wrong season, but that is exactly what it reminds me of. I don’t know what it is. A pheasant?
I heard gleanies in the valley the other day. I struggled on my crippled feet down to the large immaculate estate; all sharp vibrant green lawns and asphalt lanes, ugly and uninspiring. I can’t be bothered by minimalism. Diggers have scrapped away winter cover around the now heavily gushing stream. Wild pockets of bramble and habitat devastated to reveal bare earth like slick chocolate, heavy tyres slewing their tracks through the mud, destroying generations of bulbs and mychorrhizal fungus networks.
To hear gleanies made me realise I haven’t heard them for years. Sounds, like smells, can shock you back to memories you didn’t even know you’d lost. My grandmother kept gleanies at the farm, or Guinea Fowl as they’re more rightly known, I assume to assert her claim as a royalist. Embarrassing badges of honour for aspiring neocolonialists; as British as lions.
Like this phantom night turkey I can now hear, to hear gleanies makes me feel 10 again.
I will paint frogs tomorrow. Not for any reason. Just a yearning and because I can. The one I’ve started isn’t very good but I’ll pursue it. I never paint on the thicker watercolour paper I have stashed away. The reason being every piece of art I’ve ever started is the draft for the real thing. I’ve never started a real painting yet.
Frogs are living watercolours. Their natural wet-varnish texture means they need to be painted in the medium of water. They are water. Like glistening iridescent jewels of impossible colours, their eyes are pools of amber with living green-gold flecks, their skin is mineral glitter and their toes, translucent fungal probes.
Early in my uni days, when I was struggling to settle into city ways as much as general homesickness, my mother, paraphrasing Dolly Parton, told me, that I am a country girl. Which means I can do anything; I can drive tractors or sit in fancy cocktail bars. City girls can’t. It was said to give me conviction, confidence. Strength.
I still think of that at times, when I have found new circumstances challenging or slightly beyond me, it has consoled me.
By the time I started uni I had years of drinking under my belt. I had been served in rural pubs from 15, in full school uniform no less. That was before bar staff might be convicted of fined for serving underage drinkers.
I remember in a city bar full of masculine men, I was playing the part of bored, dutiful girl friend, when I was challenged to a doubles pool game. No one wanted to be on my team, including the boyfriend. The astonishment at my adeptness far outweighed my skill and the then boyfriend even appeared to take pride in my ability, like it somehow reflected well on him. I had honestly claimed I didn’t know pool, having never played the game before. I had however played snooker for years. My brother and I had played on a damp table in a huge disused shed in the farm yard at home. Whole Sundays, hours and hours, relentlessly, never tiring, we played game after game. The table (or possibly the shed) was pitched at an angle, so in play one had to counteract the slope of the table. We both mastered using the puckers and raised mounds of moss and damp in the table felt, to advance our shots. Every match we fought for the better queue, a fight I invariable lost, and I mastered the scoring system and rules as I was always elected score keeper, being the youngest. I have no doubt I was a superior player for all the disadvantages of our stolen, gleaned and faulty equipment. I was 16 when I retired, or, more likely, when the shed was dismantled and the table finally burned.
The same was true of darts and shooting.
A later boyfriend and his friends were disturbing my university study in his trailer, by firing a rifle from the doorstep at a target. It went on and on and I couldn’t concentrate. Eventually I came out to watch. How can you keep doing it? I asked. There’s no challenge, doesn’t it get boring? I was immediately handed the gun with jeers and jokes that I might not accident shoot one of them in my ignorance. I had asked sincerely, I genuinely could see no fun or challenge in their game, the target was too close and unobstructed. It consisted of little cut out metal shapes with weights, so that when one was hit accurately it lay down out of sight. A row of metal duck shapes in the forefront, 2 pigs in the middle, and in the shadowy recesses of the contraption, the little silhouette of a man.
I hadn’t held a rifle for as much as 7 years (I was now 21). When I had last played with a gun, I had lain in the mud on my belly beside my brother and his friends, always treated like an equal despite a 6 year age gap, shooting at tin cans or (if there was no wind) plastic bottles from behind a feed trough, as though to protect ourselves from enemy fire. The barrel of the gun was slightly bent, so you had to check you target a touch to the right to take a clean hit. The boys or myself would run as the cans went down, rearrange them at different places and distances and then dart away for the next assault (though in truth reloading took time). For this reason the targets were never fixed, unlike this joyless (no doubt expensive) device I was now faced with. Needless to say, I hit all the ducks, pigs and man; never missing a single aim. I repeated my previous questions as their smiles faded and as I walked back inside to my study. Their raucous fun dyed away quite rapidly after this and they soon left, one by one in their embarrassingly oversized Mitsubishi Warriors; beer cans and spaniels sliding around helplessly in the pickup beds.
These bragging, work-shy men, the sons of land owners disguised as farmers. My brother’s friends; estate kids, and us the ‘free school meal’ grandchildren of tenant farmers.
In some circumstances it’s ok to be smug.
Neil Young is playing somewhere in the cottage, leaking up through the floorboards. Outside there is a tempting winter sun, turning browns gold and shimmering. I wish I could walk. Take a stroll. Face the pain. 31 and housebound.
The tin-can clink of blackbirds’ calls punctuate the quiet of dusk.
Plumes of crows boiled up into the sky this afternoon, sharp, black, paper-cut silhouettes, scattered over a blinding white sky. Everything looks drained of colour, bleached out, as if preempting snow.
Distant sounds; a dog barking, an intermittent chainsaw working lower in the valley, a front door closing in a yard, travel clearer in the winter air.
It’s funny how being faced with an interview or CV update makes you look at yourself and the ‘story’ of your life objectively.
A friend of mine insisted that I am eligible for an application I wouldn’t have believed myself a candidate for. As she went on to explain all the ways in which she thinks I am perfect for the role, she wrote a story of me and my life that I absolutely had not had the vantage point to see.
I see only the absences. What she was saying had so much more form and structure and positivity than I see. I am only familiar with a drifting, shapeless failure with ever-widening gaps.
We all like to be flattered of course and that was what she was doing. But in the eyes of another we see ourselves. I’ve just read Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline’ with perfect timing for this new Outline of myself. Although the gaps I berate myself with are painfully present in their absences, I can now see that an alternative story might be written. It is not just through the eyes of friends we see ourselves, but the eyes of children, strangers, animals, even landscapes. Positivity and perceptibility are needed to give shape to otherwise empty spaces.
I ate my lunch in the Learning Lab at school today and read the motivational classroom display:
Change Your Frame of Mind.
‘I’m rubbish at this’ > ‘What can I do to improve?’
‘I can’t get it right’ > ‘Mistakes mean I’m learning by trying.’
‘That’ll do’ > ‘How can I do better?’
I understand that how we feel about ourselves, our failures, each event, big or small, comes down to attitude or frame of mind. That’s what we’re trying to teach our young people.
It’s just so much easier said than done.
Lucy hugged me mid-class on Wednesday. I was crouching on my haunches behind her classmate, supporting his learning and for no reason she got out of her chair, came to me, put her arms around me and nestled her face into my neck. “You’re my favourite” she told me quietly. I could cry.
It was like a blessing. As magical as a songbird choosing to land on me for a moment. Like being filled with a golden light, totally out of the blue and totally without warning.
All these gaps and regrets and worries regarding the trajectory of my life, when life is really moments like these.
(Also, there really is no protecting oneself from the risks of a pandemic in Primary education).