(The following is an extract from a piece of writing I embarked on after myself and family moved into the cottage where my Grandmother lived for fifty years. The cottage is buried deep in the woods in West Sussex...)
It is deepest darkest winter. Dave has been on a mission to get tobacco and wine. He says the car’s interior light is stuck on. A vision of him driving spot lit through the town pops into my head and my laugh explodes into the pokey cottage kitchen.
Before this move he was disappearing too - shoulders rounded forward in that droopy brown coat as if he were trying to fold in half and disappear. A moving target through another town, head down, shrinking inwards, paranoid, never meeting anyone’s eye. Or in the gloomy shroud of a dust filled angle poise beam, tap tap tapping on his keyboard, going grey, counting out the days, getting smaller, smaller and then a life line - the cottage, and suddenly here we are – smash - bursting into the light and him – his face a full moon, framed by a bobble hat and scarf, beaming in the interior light beam of our crappy Vauxhall Corsa, a proper bobble hatted dazzler crashing back to life, wide open and grinning from ear to ear.
I need to learn this house that’s stuck to its
patch of earth lolling around in the dark
universe spinning through the centuries.
The moon laughs, ‘all will roll over and roll on’
but I lie here right now and open my
heart to the night. The stars send shafts
of light, invisible threads to pin me
to the turning earth and I, stuck to the
surface, turn with it. My face facing
the revolving skies spanning about me.
Pulled to the centre I am as smooth as a sail.
Oh frost and ice and cold and clear
tie me to this place which is as much mine
as the falling night.
It is now winter and the sky is a grey net of snow ready to dump down on us. Inside we are nooked up in our cottage cocoon and the spider is in her webhole at the bottom of the stairs, cosy in her pocket of spun perfection. She is in there creeping about, having to deal with the booms and varooms of hoovers and balloons. The spider peers out as my big bleary eyes peek in. Half in love, half hate, I can’t suck it up with the hoover so I leave it day after day, week after week. A little bit of me wants Dave to hoover her up though. Sorry spider, but it’s the truth. That’s how it goes.
There are mice everywhere. I am in our bedroom and one scuttles across the floor and I scream and leap onto the bed. They are in the kid’s room too and we hear scratching in the roof at night, and things bumping and shuffling. One day I am outside with Eveline building a bonfire. I pick up a piece of carpet and three mice drop out and speed off bewildered and I scream. Eveline jumps and I quickly recover myself knowing that fear is catching and I want my children to be brave and strong. I have no worries there. Eveline squeaks ‘Mummy aren’t they cute?’ But Dave and me are jittery and on edge. One night two mice are tearing around our room and Dave has had enough
‘Tomorrow we’re getting a cat’
We go to Haslemere cat rescue and arrive home with Puss. Puss was my Grandfather’s pet name for my Grandmother. This new Puss lives up to his namesake. He’s a big black tom with a history of violence who, until half an hour ago, was unhomeable. He has already bitten me once. He turns out to be a good mouser and they disappear almost overnight.
A couple of months later it is Ned’s seventh birthday. He is opening his presents over breakfast before school. Puss bursts through the cat flap and stands like a jaguar, chest puffed out in the doorway, proud to deliver his gift on the rug.
Puss is a gladiator mauling it in exaggerated moves, tossing his head side-to-side, spitting out mouthfuls of feather and flesh. Dave and I freeze, petrified.
‘Christ Dave what do we do with that?’
The pigeon pins me with its rolling terrified eye. It is still alive. Ned is nonplussed; I am not. I throw a towel over it and lob it out of the door. Dave whispers,
I tiptoe over to the chest by the wall and peep behind it. I can see the rounded back of some small brown thing. I turn white. I feel sick. What if the house is overrun with rats? What if this is all a terrible mistake? What if we can’t really cope in the country, can’t handle this? I ring pest control and tell them we have a rat in our dining room. They say to keep all the doors shut, to not let it go anywhere and they’ll be along in a few hours. I take the kids to school while Dave keeps watch. Then we both stand in the kitchen for two hours too scared to move.
Finally pest control arrives. After two minutes the man motions for me to come over, and sat trembling violently on his gloved hand is a baby bunny.
I still can’t believe that I live in this cottage that I have loved all my life. I still can’t believe that I am the one who allowed themselves to have the thing they wanted most.
And although we have moved away from all of the stress, I haven’t registered the change in my soul. I can’t stop charging around, feeling twisted and angry, about to explode. I can’t unwind and let this place work its magic. There’s just too much peace, too much good and I’m off kilter. Do I deserve this?
I have to compensate, rectify the tilt, find some balance. I find the place in the garden.
I slice my arms: grass cuts, little rucks, grooves in my skin and my thumb - a thorn jammed under the nail turns red and throbs, oozes pus. I writhe about amongst the roses, the smiling thorns bring shuddering release. I mean ill. Eyes watering, I wrap myself in brambles which hook into my skin, tearing as I tear past. I stand in stingers up to my neck. Red hives and bumps, itching and sore. More...I stay out and am eaten alive. I get cold and I get wet. And then I get colder. I pull muscles and pull limbs, exhaust myself, use myself up. I look like shit.
The pain is vivid green and lurid. It hurts but feels good. It snags and screeches. The sound is high and cutting. Time holds me...Oh if only I could reach that high. I tear myself open to the clay, the moss, the grass and the sky.
Me and the kids go into the woods. Eveline is dressed up to the nines. Pink frou frou skirt, fur trimmed shrug, tiara. We are getting some kindling for the fire. We find a piece of wood that looks like an angel’s wing. Eveline finds a lollipop log - a slice cut from a tree trunk with a long twig sticking out of it. Ned hurts himself, a stick in the face, in the eye, and cries and we decide to go back to the cottage. We start walking up the path through the trees but Eveline won’t move. She’s wound up, getting crosser and crosser, bumpy knotted brows and then furious.
‘Come on Evi, Ned’s hurt himself, we need to get back..’
She starts bashing her lollipop log on a tree trunk harder and harder: whack, thwack, smash.
‘Eveline, if you carry on doing that you’ll break it, COME ON’
WHACK, THWACK, SMASH, WHACK, THWACK, SMASH, harder and harder until CRACK, the handle snaps off and then silence…Then Evi is screaming at the destruction and howling wild fury into the trees.
Myself and Ned start walking off, and Evi, now in a fowl rage follows, too scared of the forest to be left but furious at not being able to stand her ground. We go down the drive and into the gate where she throws herself onto the ground and starts thrashing about, rolling around in the mud, screaming and kicking. I watch her from a distance. Little thing letting it all out.
I watch her flailing around for half an hour and then I go and sit down next to her and fold her into my arms.
It is summer and we go to the Isle of Wight for a week to a caravan in the middle of nowhere, a strange choice when we live in the middle of nowhere but we need to get away. At the caravan we have neighbours though and I feel like I have to hide when I sneak out to smoke a roll up at night. It’s unbearable. Over the road from the caravan site is a cliff with what feels like a thousand steps down to the sea. The weather is ragged and the beach too with dark rough sand and then sharp stones and then pebbles - the roundest pebbles I have ever seen. I spend most of my time searching for completely round pebbles.
Later I lie still, toes to the water, face to the sky. Thundering waves roll and rumble and then crash onto the sand and cackle back across pebbles and shingle, back to the heaving swell. On the beach Eveline is dapper in her apple jumper, tomato in hand, in mouth, pink lips, pink cheeks. Ned’s branch of muted blue veins reaches over his shoulder and down his little white chest, a faint tattoo. Dave is in the waves.
I lie still toes to the water, face to the sky.
It’s that time of the month, my cycle, the spell of the bloody moon and I just can’t scrape this evil out of me. I can’t relax. I am still stressed. I am going to ruin our holiday. I am going to ruin my life. I am toxic and I wish the bile would drain away, dissipate, but no, it builds up in me this bitch chemistry: toxic lurid yellow-green witch acid until I’m snorting and steaming, seething, spitting little caustic drops of venom, hurting words which Dave says roll off him but I know some burn.
I lie still toes to the water, face to the sky. And then a shift happens – and I sense the shape of a possibility:
The sand starts to feel warm on my back. Breeze flutters over me. I place a white heart shaped pebble on my solar plexus and a grey globe pebble in each hand - two lost worlds in my palms, arms outstretched to the sky. Each pebble is blunt and matt, round and squat and flat. They are balls of stone rolled by the sea. Jurassic perfection. Planets in my hands, eyeballs, a sun, (an atom, a brain), the moon. A rotund tune. I put one in my mouth. The salt sooths me, smooths me. I hold one in my hand. This orb reflects nothing and contains everything. Substrata, substance, sense.
For a moment I can see past my fury. For a moment I become stone. I neutralise.
I sit in the garden on a bench tucked around the back of the cottage in front of a border which is now wild and overgrowing. Brambles reach over the few straggling rose bushes and nettles, clamouring for attention. This is where my Grandmother used to sit – in the quiet by the pond. The garden is so green. The grass is full of soft moss, a cushion. The trees layer and divide. Here she tumbles through me, with her strong hands and nails full of dirt, holding her glass and smoking a bent brown roll up. Roses are bright blurs in amongst the weeds and brown scraggy grass. Every plant here touched her hand, every broken pot, piece of gravel. This is what she left behind. I have only taken what I need. This garden is what I must now pick up and turn in my hand.
It is my 40th birthday. I have given up smoking again. We have been here a year. We go to the pub on Friday night with friends. At two o’clock the next day Dave says
‘Do you remember what you brought home from the pub last night?’ and with a gasp I run, laughing, outside to the privy and pull open the door. There they are, two fat pheasants hanging from a hook, staring at me with empty black eyes.
‘What the hell do I do with them?’ Tomorrow I might get Dave to take a photo of me with the gun and the pheasants. A folly. Then I might pluck them and cook them. Or I might get scared and throw them into the woods. I am scared of everything here.
I am scared of the dead mice and even more the live ones
I am scared of the birds and the worms and the slugs
I am scared of the spiders lurking under the stones
I am scared of the snake in the sun and the toads
I am scared of the baby bird that fell out of its nest
I am scared of the compost heap, the weed bank, the wood shed,
I am scared of high grass and the pitch black coal hole,
I am scared of the trees, of the dark, of the cold
I am scared of the man outside in my head
I am scared of the woods when I run to the shed
I am scared of each shuffle, bump and scratch in the night
I am scared, I’m on edge, I twitch, I’m alive.
©kate owens, 2013