WINIFRED-EMMA: FORGET THE NOBLE TRUTHS CHAPTERS 1 – 5 © sophia wellbeloved
July 4, 2008
contents of post
before we begin
list of chapters
CHAPTERS 1 – 5
Before we begin …
I want to clear something up straight off, which is: I am writing this, that’s why I know what’s happening. It doesn’t mean that everything that happens here has happened to me, let me clarify.
I’ve been moved by a piece by Nora Ephron in which she says that, as the author of Heartburn, she is often accused of writing a ‘ thinly disguised’ novel, and that this term is used disparagingly of women writers, though not of men. She says that Philip Roth and John Updike “picked away at the carcasses of their marriages in book after book, but to the best of my knowledge they were never hit with the ‘thinly disguised’ thing”. Then she goes on to explain which bits of Heartburn are autobiographical and which bits aren’t.
Had she said her book was autobiographical she would have been attacked for distortion of the truth, however faithful she had been to the events as she experienced them. It goes to show that writers should take not one bit of notice of what others say about them, and I do not intend to take any notice of what anyone says about this, unless I enjoy what they say. When I say ‘I’ I mean, of course, the writing ‘I’, which, in my view, is as little like my non-writing I as can be. This is because, when the writing starts, as everyone knows, the self is changed, and things happen in the narrative that have not been planned for.
I do, however, have some notion of boundaries within which the subject mater will fall and since I will be revising this introduction later, it is mainly for my own benefit that I can now affirm there will be no exchange of body fluids of any kind in this account. In my view many fine works have been near, or actually, ruined by the author’s insistence on the sex scene.
Nor will I be framing this writing within the usual format of chapters that run on drearily with hardly any indication of where they are going, giving simple chapter titles or worse, just the numbers. That used to be fine when there was a common understanding of what should happen in each chapter, or when chapter titles told the reader what was about to happen, as in Chapter Eight: ‘Things Go From Bad to Worse’, or more explicitly, ‘Natalie looses all her money and then her house burns down’. Not that I expect there to be much in the way of violent action, nor am I looking to excite you dear reader by suspense. When I read detective, crime or mystery fiction I always read the end first in order to be free of the distraction of trying to work out the who, why, what and where questions which would mar my enjoyment of the unfolding. I shall willingly let you know everything I know as we go along, if any murders occur , and I know who did them, I shall let you into the plot right away; I do not anticipate murders, though of course I could be wrong.
Also, I want to say something here about fantasy and the creation of other worlds. As an example, I remember with distaste a so-so novel, read many years ago, in which the lives of apparently ordinary people in the South of England were plodding along until about half way through the story when one of the women turned out to be a mermaid. Had she been a mermaid from the beginning I would have had no quarrel with the author, even a hint of some upcoming mermaidness might have saved it for me, but as it was I closed the book in disbelief and a resentment still lingers. I do not want the same to happen to you. All the manifestations in the following spring from my own internal processes, there is no need whatsoever to give them substance or sustain these figments as anything other than fictions, though the fictions are necessarily products of truth.
Nora Ephron closes the piece about her novel by saying that in it she transformed a tragedy into a comedy, but of course in doing that she revealed her past as having been a comedy all along, not a thinly disguised tragedy, just not a tragedy at all. That is the difficulty with coming to a conclusion, an end, there is no option to keep on circling through the tragic-comic-tragic-comic cycle, either the tragedy or the comedy get transformed, the process ends, and I am in no respect different in my desire not to end than anyone else.
For all the above reasons, I have chosen a somewhat academic format of descriptive headings to chapters because it has the democratic benefit of allowing you to know what is coming, to go on reading if you want to, and to form you own opinions. To conclude, this story is entirely autobiographical and entirely fictional as are all bits of writing, in whatever form, and a look at the chapter headings and their contents together with the outline should be enough to let you know what you are in for.
Winifred-Emma (w-e), being of an age that was well schooled in what it means to be ‘good’ and that includes being a ‘good woman’ finds herself bored and more imprisoned than enlightened by all the advice, knowledge and understanding she has taken on in her life and seeks a way to loose them. It is more difficult than one might imagine to forget what one knows, but she remembers Umberto Ecco saying that information on the internet is largely unreliable, and decides to use what she hopes will be misinformation, accessed via Google, to dilute and confuse her data. So starting by randomly finding seven words in her dictionary she begins to look them up acquiring a host of new inter-relating notions. Her reverse-quest draws her into an examination of the words: muller, trachyte, defuse, learn, ohone, jesserent, language, and an involvement with the myth of the goddess Inanna, who looses her powers during her decent to the underworld.
The First Gate: Muller
Winifred-Emma met death; coffee morning; well-roundedness; Helmshore Apartments; ruthless dinners; a small picnic in the cemetery; setting her ear; w-e professional life, Death reappears, muller the first gate; the computer course.
The Second Gate: Trachyte
Trachyte; Chalkedon and its Creed; eruption and Ascension; blood in the corridor; w-e dreams of her grandmother; out walking; the Advice book; Helmshore and Christmas.
The Third Gate: Defuse.
Defuse-Lear; a cemetery walk; the sub-post office; the necessity to acknowledge fate; dead baby stories; in Homebase.
The Fourth Gate: to Learn
At the Wilheim Institute; Looking after Clara; in church; ordinary paint; her turquoise necklace; dentistry.
The Fifth Gate: Ohone
Listening to the great below; one night at the end of a long walk; tooth–centred living; the year turned; Sedna
The Sixth Gate: Jesserent, Jazzerant
The process of loosing the scriptures; the motives for Innana’s descent, jesserent, Molly’s bones; coverings; the cemetery re-visited; the dentists return; wave and mountain dream; Ucello’s St George and the dragon.
The Seventh Gate: Language
the most diluting word so far; naked; the sound of cotton; memorial; checking out at the supermarket; jealousy; Donne’s poem; Helmshore refurbishment; rotting; Terminator Two; the flies; life-stories; love and the most noble truth; Lent; First time reinstatement
Return – Entoil
Entoil; sacrifice; day one – acquisitions diary; another day; hair; crossness and hairdressing; flowers, fish and disability beds; sunny day; veneers; conference entoilments; the Land of the Tulip; menu dream; replacement
The Above – Tweet
Tweet; Easter; At St Elmo’s; Saturday; On Sunday; ends; Clay bowls
On Earth – Capitulum
Winifred-Emma met death; coffee morning; well-roundedness; Helmshore Apartments; ruthless dinners; a small picnic in the cemetery; setting her ear; w-e professional life, Death reappears; muller the first gate; the computer course.
Winifred-Emma met death
Winifred-Emma met death while writing on her computer. This is not an indirect way of saying that she died, nor does it herald the arrival of a magical realist or Bergmanesque figure with a cloak and scythe. The death she met was non-specific as in medical terminology, for example, ‘this is not syphilis it is a non-specific urinary infection’. So, less dramatic than one might imagine, a bit on the death-lite side.
She had found herself writing: ‘I’m sweeping the courtyard for your arrival, not for an ancient sage to tell me right from wrong, or how to proceed, no, I am waiting for you a mercurial being to jump from the chariot and somersault towards me, take me with you to dart like a dragonfly across the pond, through the air to places I have never been, and now the yard is swept and I am ready, I have pushed the gate open, looked down the lane, found my sandals. I remember Pigsey and Tripitaka and Monkey on their journeys, though I want to loose the scriptures rather than find them, go on a scattering expedition, forget the noble truths that bind me.’
She looked at this with some surprise, it seemed to be a kind of prayer to Mercury though the image she had had her mind was of the leaping Bacchus in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. She understood that she was bored and wanted someone adventurous to run away with, travel the road with above and below ground, but, as she imagined this, Bacchus had morphed improbably into the figure of Death, his leap carrying him out of the picture and onto the gallery floor, and now here he was, taller than Mercury should have been, and with deeper less glittering eyes. It was Death who was promising to come with her, to help her to scatter the wisdom of a lifetime, all the female trappings of her generation, which neither birth-control nor women’s liberation had removed, patience, endurance, acceptance, kindness, restraint, conformity, and greater than all of these silence.
Silence was the power that reinforced female wisdoms, and because of it she was not just voiceless, the silence extended to her body, eyes, and to her still face. Silence and stillness, these brought separation, kept her from contamination. She did not seek excess or vice, simply the cessation of constraining wisdom. She asked Death, ‘What shall I do?’
‘Put your ear to the great below, listen to the screaming’.
‘But I hate noise’ said w-e ‘I’ve spent my life on my toes, straining upwards, in ascent, surely that was right?’
‘Then fly like a shaman’, said Death obligingly ‘watch the globe disappear to a dot beneath your elevating feet’, then dropping his voice a couple of octaves he said, in the tone and phraseology of a television relationship guru, “and how has that worked for you?”
w-e went to the kitchen and tied up the rubbish ready for the chute, washed her hands, came back to the computer. Looked at the cursor blinking for a while, then got dressed and went out.
It was coffee-morning in the communal room which w-e could not bring herself to call a lounge. It had the traditional wing-chairs, in upholsterer’s mid-pink and mid-green, their backs stoutly against the wall. It had taken Sylvia two years of being there to encourage anyone to use the room, and even now they were resistant to moving the chairs into a circle, preferring to sit in surreal isolation, like saints in separated cathedral niches. There was a small open-plan kitchen at one end of the room and towards this Sylvia moved, her hair drawn from her brow in a balletic bun her face nun-like in its kindly serenity.
Net curtains flowed down the long windows mostly obscuring the residents’ garden, a concrete square edged with narrow beds and dotted with a row of plastic urns lavishly filled in the summer with bedding plants. Beyond the fence, the bit of grass and the iron railings, the North London traffic glittered and fumed making the garden noisy and overlooked, unsuitable as the peaceful grotto where the aged could doze-out their days, which is what must surely have been in the mind of whoever planned it. Sylvia was taking out cups and saucers when w-e came in.
In a sense the ‘great below’ to which w-e felt she should listen were the newspapers, there was certainly a lot of screaming there, but w-e could not bear to read them, she used to until she felt they were produced on a loop-track like a toy train set in which each disaster came round the tissue paper mountain at regular intervals: earthquake, famine, flood, airplane crash, uprising, war, torture, murder, child abuse, road-rage, toxicities of land, sea and air, of food, of interpersonal relations, an then, ‘here comes another earthquake’. Instead she learned to listen to all of these things mediated through personal experience, her own and other people’s. She was tired of sympathies, empathies, of listening to screaming however moderated. Surely Death was wrong to suggest this.
A Google search of the ‘great below’ gave 9,230 references in 0.31 seconds, most of them related to a suicidal lyric by the Nine Inch Nails, a few were about Inanna. w-e looked through pages, one, two, three, nine, thirteen, seventeen and thirty-something of the Nine Inch Nails sites, lots of rocky depression, black sites with small white writing, or smudged arty b/w pages of visually distressed looking lyrics, NIN were huge with decades of romping across global rock venues behind them, hard to imagine never having even heard of them. She downloaded an odd photo from one of their sites, the head and shoulder of a man, head bowed his right ear which was fairly central was the only intact, un-roughed-up part of him.
She found an interview in which the NIN person said. That being able to make art is dependent upon him having some well-roundedness, the had some work ahead of him on an emotional and spiritual level. But knowing the need for it, he was more willing to work on those things. He’d realized that there is a resolution to self-destruction, which is death, he laughed death and said he’d like to put that off for a while.
Would the scattering of scriptures count as self-destruction, was death directing her towards well-roundedness? The computer itself seemed to have come up with the peculiar piece of writing in which Death had arrived and now it had helped her find a reference that might be useful.
The computer and death, as she went downstairs to find Sylvia, she wondered if these might not be the helping companions she needed to start on her quest to forget the noble truths that bound her?
In the lobby she met Sadie, Mike, and Esther gathering ready for transport to another centre for an introduction to a computer course. Through the drizzle she could see Sylvia supervising the entaximent of a wheel-chaired resident into a specially adapted red taxi, other damp people were waiting outside for the off. w-e had no shoes on and so could not go outside to ask Sylvia about booking the guest room.
While she held the door opened, so they could look for Sylvia, Sadie remarked on her right hand incapacitated by a ‘small stroke’ and which she feared would impede her computer skills, w-e was consoling, Sadie said she hibernated and had become lazy, had grown from a size ten to a size eighteen that she hoped the computer course would get her out more, because of looking things up on it that she could go and do, she talked of her daughter, her daughter’s injunctions. The draft was icing w-e’s shoeless feet, she saw a small hole in the toe of one sock, noticed the internal balances moving, the cold discomfort on one side, the need to listen and respond kindly and helpfully on the other, when the discomfort significantly outweighed the need to continue listening she detached herself. The question was: what was the point at which a normal person would have stopped listening, or have managed to ask Sadie to close the door and then felt alright about it?
Helmshore Apartments, built in the 1970s were laid out, and that might be more of an appropriate phrase than usual, like a student hall of residence. Two storied with flat roofs which periodically wept into the building, the apartments were cells opening off long internal corridors, each an identical L-shaped room and attached to it, a lavatory, balcony and the blessing of an individual kitchen. Also leading off the corridors were separate shared bath and shower rooms. Alliances, if any, were built between neighbours, those next door or on the same landing might get to know each other in passing, later words might be exchanged. The nether ends of the building were gangrenous and foreign to those living in the middle, the middle unknown to those at the edges.
If there were long term time lapse filming of Helmshore it would reveal a regular cycle. Men would come to renovate and paint an apartment, a resident would arrive, there would be a blur as the door opened and closed many times a day, then a slowing down would occur, and some pain, and communal ambulance ferrying to the hospital, sticks and leaning on the wide supports bolted onto the sides of the corridors would give way to wheelchairs, the elderly person become increasingly confined, eventually immured, those outside would forget their faces, there would be a briefly renewed round of activity from care-workers, then death, usually in hospital after the apartment had been empty for a while. The effects would be cleared, then men would come again to paint and renovate.
Perhaps it was not the scriptures that she wished to scatter to the winds, but her uncomfortable relationship to them, the endless difficulty in deciphering them, in adhering to rules which were conflicting in themselves and whose results were so often unsatisfactory. Mostly scriptures seemed to deal with concepts of less. w-e was of the view that what might have been useful injunctions to curb all-powerful patriarchs as they swaggered across the deserts jangling with tents, camels and wives, was, on the whole, less useful when addressed to congregations of elderly women in fawn cardigans who had mostly given their lives to others, and were even now striving not to think of themselves, but to put others first, keep the peace and keep going. Young female persons of course, were no longer like this, which was good, but they could be unpleasantly brutal. w-e remembered sharing a house in Islington with a set of girls whose approach was ‘Its never too soon to be unfaithful’, they cooked ruthless dinners for boys they wanted to sleep with, fed them, had sex and then unkindly dispatched them. w-e often found lost boys waiting around in the kitchen, or standing outside the house with their bikes, moping.
A small picnic in the Cemetery
Beyond a soft layer of garden, Helmshore angles into the junction of two roads to the west and south, is bounded to the east by the back of a short row of shops, with flats above, and to the north by the cemetery wall and behind it storm blasted oaks.
On the last day before the hour went back, in the cemetery the golden leaves of the ancient trees were lit by late sun. It was best to walk in the cemetery because her regular walk up the hill to the duck pond was sunless at this time of day. w-e read ‘In loving memory of my wife and mother’, she was wondering idly how this might be rephrased so as to be less Oedipal, could there be punctuation, on a gravestone? She could not remember ever having seen any. The cemetery had many red notices which said ‘Danger, avoid headstones and monuments at all times’. Most of these were stuck into empty ground, nowhere near headstones, and it was not a cemetery for monuments, there were a couple of war memorials, but no people were to be seen dashing about endangered by foolish proximity to them.
At intervals there were small wooden structures, on which hung five or six watering cans with a tap nearby. A notice explained that the cans were for the use of visitors to the cemetery and asked that they be replaced. “So far so good” thought w-e, but then there was a following paragraph which gave a request for all complaints to be reported via a telephone number to the council. “What might all the complaints be? About the watering cans, their litre capacity, type and efficiency, the replacing of them or not”. The council in whose bosom Helmshore nestled, or perhaps wrestled would be more exact, was obsessed with communication to as near the absolute exclusion of any other activity as they could manage. A weekly flow of full colour statements reports and requests for feedback came through the doors of every resident, ecstatically breaking down the changes and benefits planned for the future, earnestly seeking their approval, soliciting their comments on forms, their participation in focus groups, their attendance at numerous meetings, for which transport would be provided. Sometimes a light lunch was dangled as an enticement. w-e knew from sad experience that nothing whatever would result in a practical way from these exertions. This was because the people who launched themselves into these projects invariably left the council for somewhere else just before the plans had to be carried out. The new incumbent would solicit a full report on the project and the council would roll on printing and evaluating statistical analysis of data, soliciting new and more relevant feedback until all the annual allocation of funds had been exhausted. Meanwhile no complaint could ever be addressed because there was always a committee already in the process of looking into it, and no blame could ever be levelled at those struggling so earnestly for a manifestation of the democratic ideal in which the needs of all would eventually be assessed and attended to.
Up at the other end of the cemetery she saw a man she thought was visiting the grave of a sixties’ singer, but when she came closer she saw that he had been leaving gifts at the grave next to it, five white bowls of cooked rice with chop-sticks stuck in them, and an abundance of fruit and vegetables. From the date on the stone she realised that it was the anniversary of the death. It was somehow a shocking sight, a link to prehistoric practices, thought w-e, the man could not possibly have imagined that this food was going to the beloved buried there, and yet he had been compelled to carry out the ritual, come in the car and place the things in this picnic at the foot of the grave. She could not stop and stare at him, though she would have like to, but she saw in the second of passing him that none of this was bringing him any peaceful resolution.
Maybe even in the distant past no one had believed that the food was needed, knew there was no underworld, no afterlife, but wisely kept the stories, brought the rice, the fruit the vegetables, the beads, and the amulets, because otherwise there would have been nothing to do, and doing nothing is an uncommonly difficult accomplishment to acquire.
She realised that loosing whatever it was, the habitual restrictions that narrowed experience, caused muscular contraction shortening her ligaments, made her eyes and ears close, and fully occupied her energies in observation of laws that might enable her to achieve objectives set by others, could not be done directly, because these approaches to living were so entwined within her that to stop them would be to stop living altogether. What was needed was dilution, effected through the introduction of new experience, new matter, new nourishment.
Setting her ear
It now seemed clear to her that Death in asking her to set her ear to the great below had been referring to Inanna’s journey down through the seven gates that led to the underworld, loosing at each gate some of her powers. Or, in her own case, at each gate willingly dispersing some certainties into the darkness.
The portals she chose to fall through were words, because the process of investigating words through the world wide web would allow her to drift, open up to serendipitous, synchronistic findings far from her usual processes of classification and control. She remembered Umberto Eco’s assertion that internet sites were full of miss-information, and that too seemed to be an advantage, since it would present her with multivalent unravelling strands of obscuring and confusing information.
She would find seven words in her dictionary, look them up in Google and then follow whatever random path the words brought her along.
She used her orange 1975 reprint of the 1972 edition of Chambers with an unpleasant plastic cover which she had found with a yellow ‘please take me’ post-it note stuck on it, abandoned in the staff room of an educational institute in central London. Taking the wrist wrenching brick of it on her lap she closed her eyes, started by turning the dictionary around, then over and back, eventually opening it, placing a finger on the page, then looking down and accepting whichever word her finger landed on.
These were the words she arrived at: muller, trachyte, defuse, learn, ohone, jesserent, and language, of the seven, four were completely new to her. She felt the immediate draw to order and connect these words, make some coherent message out of them, even to feel them as ‘channelled’ to her by some spirit of the Chambers, surely no more absurd than seeing the computer as a quest companion. But she could not go on with this now, had to get dressed and go to a conference.
w-e professional life
w-e had been commissioned by publishers as a researcher for a forthcoming anthology draft title, Advice, which was to contain useful or unusual advice proffered through the ages, a mix of conflicting scholarly and folk admonitions, to be matched to persons with some public profile via academic, filmic, or political prominence, who would be ready to expound on the effect the advice had had on them. A kind of up-market celebrity fest in which the celebrated could appropriate gravitas, become enriched by the wisdoms of others. w-e’s section of this tome was to be interviews with academics.
During the coffee break at the ‘Gender in Brotherhood: Man and Mason’ conference, w-e approached one of the people on her list who was attached to a university in Scotland, he was loitering by the slide projector with a young woman from central Europe who handed w-e an embossed, engraved nineteenth century-looking calling card which announced her as a Miss Constance something so long and unfamiliar that, disabled by the excess of unexpected consonants in curly writing, w-e could not take a stab at pronouncing it, not even silently to herself, though she could see immediately that Miss Constance lived just by Claridge’s. w-e proffered her own card and turned to the academic.
“Unkempt” she thought, “not a word I have applied to anyone before” but she pushed forward through his confused aura of writhing body language and discomforting laughter. She mentioned his university. Stepping back and turning his shoulders from side to side he was dismissive, of himself and his university, “I’m not really there, well only there occasionally, thank god, godforsaken place”. She mentioned the name of his head of department, he paced about, like someone ineptly practising a Latin American dance pattern, “Oh yes, well, he is constantly pressing me to go and stay with him in Cornwall, it’s a terrible trek from the Highlands”, “unkempt, ungrateful and unwilling to travel” assessed w-e, handing him the publisher’s card.
“ Good god, Henry Trimble, I once interviewed him for a film”, he made two unkind remarks, one about Henry “an extremely nervous young man”, and one about the television studios where had met him. A person unlikely to have ever heeded advice, thought w-e and abandoned him to Miss Constance who had begun intensive eye-flashing and was saying “its very complicated, I could tell you over a drink” as w-e left for the refreshment area.
As she was falling asleep that evening death came back to her mind, soft eyed, beautiful,and told her, “I am not triumphant, I do not conquer all, it’s true that I catch everyone, that everything, falls to me, hence the universal dread of me, but what I take I cannot hold. Life keeps on bursting back, even the constellations, the swollen planet-consuming suns reform, everything that scatters is re-gathered. I am not as you imagine me, time rules me as it rules you, like you I loose everything I seem to know, or seem to have, everything passes, but I am aware, and have memory, which you do not.”
“What do you mean?” asked w-e “Do you mean we have past lives, yet forget them?”
“Every day the sun dies and enters the Neter, the Nether-world, each morning it is reborn”.
‘Wasn’t that was a primitive understanding of something given a narrative form?’ questioned w-e. ‘Could there ever have been a time when children lay down to sleep without the certainty the sun would rise? Did learning that it would lay the foundation of all resurrection stories?’
She was drifting, then suddenly the story of death and re-birth fused with her, she was it, the whole process, she was the secret Egyptian mystery of the sun, the mystery was herself, she was revealed to herself, she fell asleep.
Muller: the First Gate
Next morning she read the definition for muller: a pulverising tool, [Perh. O. Fr. moloir – moldre (Fr. Moudre), to grind] and applied it to Google, which sprang forward with 2,140,000 hits for Muller as a surname, “oh” thought w-e “Muller is like Miller, mill, millstone, grinding, so then she asked for muller + grind and found 4,530 references to mullers as grinding tools and chose a site which showed a chapter on pigments and brushes from ‘The Practice of Tempera Painting’ in The Craftsman’s Handbook, a 1933 translation by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr of Cennino D’ Andrea Cennini’s Il Libro dell’ Arte.
Daniel V. does not think it romantic to grind one’s own paint, but if you want to he says ‘you must obtain a slab and muller and the best material for these is, as Cennino says, porphyry.’
According to the website, this Florentine painter lived from around 1370 to 1440, ‘his treatise marks a transition between medieval and Renaissance concepts of art. Closely following the tradition of Giotto, he offers detailed advice about the established technique of painting. At the same time, Cennino is one of the first to call for imagination in art and to advocate the elevation of painting from artisanship to the fine arts.’
w-e was transported to her grandmother’s studio, she was three, standing by the sink and her grandmother was showing her how to wash brushes, it was a thorough process which w-e adhered to later when she became a painter, and which she subsequently taught others. As for the passage from being artisans to fine artists, surely that could now be recognised as a process towards extinction for the majority of painters. Much as if plumbing became an archaic residue afforded only by the rich, plumbers would dwindle in number, have to dress nicely and go to parties in order to gain clients for their services. It was difficult to imagine a world without plumbing, but that in itself was probably an indication that plumbing was on its way out.
Art, its function and value were not subjects w-e wanted to pursue, they were funnelling her back to focus on past issues, whereas her search was for new subjects, for the dilution of her old experiences. With thoughts of descent into dilution in mind, she decided to investigate the rock and to her surprise, the porphyry search brought 105,000 hits, most of them about the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry.
“Its hard to see how this is going to work” thought w-e, “ it seemed a brilliant idea but now, as much as I try to move away from what I know, this word keeps connecting me back to past experiences and interests, not that she was a Porphyry expert, but she had cycled about in Neoplatonic theory long enough to become irritated by it, there was an unsettling amount of it in Advice. w-e had already taken steps to try to exclude giving her own personal advice to others, the need for this having been spurred on by the failure of a Lenten giving up of the giving of advice. It turned out that she was unable to free herself of the compulsion to let others know the simple steps by which their difficulties might be overcome.
The computer course
Almost two months had passed since the huge pine cupboard, looking like an outsize commode, had landed in the common room. It housed the computer, allocated to Helmshore by the housing association for a year, to encourage the elderly to become computer literate. They had been dabbling about in it, gaining help from Scott, in what news readers now call ‘ahead of’ the arrival of the computer course tutors.
When the day arrived, a long table with blue and white checked tablecloths had been assembled down the far end of the room and the Helmshore residents sat ignoring it in the wing chairs, backs to the wall awaiting the tutors, who were male and seemed to be called Kad and Kidden. Black lap-tops and their mice were strung along connecting cables like Christmas tree lights, the lids were lifted and the residents called forward to gaze into their desktops, stab at the keys and in some cases hold the mice aloft. w-e watched while they learned to find and open the Word icon, type a word, use the cap lock and then the shift key. Sylvia made room for herself at a separate round table with her own lap-top which had a cat office assistant that meowed and wriggled and made the contorting paperclip a Buddha of restfulness in comparison. w-e was unable to completely stifle the urge to teach and correct, but eventually managed to leave them to it.
CHAPTER TWO: THE SECOND GATE – TRACHYTE
The second gate; Trachyte; Chalkedon and its Creed; Eruption and Ascension; Blood in the corridor; w-e Dreams of her Grandmother; Out walking; The Advice book; Helmshore and Christmas
Trachyte, ‘a fine grained intermediate igneous rock answering to the coarse-grained syenite, commonly porphiritic with sanidine – adjective trachytic, trachytoid [Greek trachys rough.]’ read w-e and was none the wiser.
How did rock answer to rock? It seemed Biblical, or Neo-platonically romantic, the fine matter and the coarse in dialogue, an opera in which lumps of rock could stand immobile and sing for hours about something incomprehensible, something perhaps by Philip Glass. w-e had once endured the first two acts of a Glass opera with an old or ex-boyfriend, it had not been a successful re-union date.
Now she pressed on and the computer defined trachyte as ‘usually light grey in colour and breaking with a rough surface. It consists chiefly of orthoclase feldspar sometimes with hornblende and mica. Apparently the going rate for a bag of it was £3.41.
Once on a visit to an actor friend in Cornwall she had met an amateur geologist and gone for a cliff walk to look for stones, but shortly after they left the car on the headland and were a little way along the path a light rain began which got steadily heavier so they had to run back. As they got to the car w-e determined to find a stone, picked up a tiny irregular pebble the size of half a pea, it turned out to be red jasper, rare in Cornwall.
Cornwall had not leapt into w-e’s heart, the fishing villages had small narrow streets lined with mean dark cottages and were crammed with men in penis hats eating fast food. The coast was a multicoloured frill of screaming tourists, the lanes seethed with cars, the locals cutting up the ones with non-Cornish number plates, biting, as it were, the vehicles that fed them.
After she came home she bought a book on rocks and found that her birthstone, bloodstone is a dark green variety of chalcedony sprinkled with red jasper, and then that that chalcedony, named after Chalkedon near Istambul, is a cryptocrystalline, translucent variant of quartz. Later w-e gave the book on minerals to a small solitary girl she met once wandering in the communal gardens of a crescent in Notting Hill Gate. The child seemed to have come from an embassy house across the gardens beyond the trees, she loved the book and w-e was happy to see them disappear together into the foliage.
Chalkedon and its Creed
Moving easily into the flow of dispersing thoughts w-e abandoned herself to the diversion of Chalkedon. This city, which gave its name to a rock and a creed, was also, according to the website she found, called the ‘City of the Blind’, on account of its position being opposite and inferior to Byzantium, it was on the wrong side of the river, a no star city opposite a six star one. It had been founded by a colony of Magarian exiles, Magara turned out to be the ancient Attic city of Euclid’s birth. In her childhood, Euclidian geometry had been a blessing for w-e. It gave method and certainty, modes of proof, the security of knowing where you were, in an entirely safe world of diagram and proof. But also, it provided her with moments of revelation when the mysteries of equivalence of angles and line length were unveiled, the impossible drawn down into the reach of her mind.
Creeds too, in common with Euclidean geometry were a safe place to dwell within, hacked out as though from a rock face creeds forced the issue, allowed for no deviation where deviation would have weakened central power. Not founded on proof, but on the exhausted marriage bed of schismatic argument where, all passion spent, rest and relatively peaceful isolation could be obtained. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 was read w-e, a geographical and ideological node in the long-running disputes between Rome and Byszantium. It denounced monophysitism: the single nature of Christ, and embraced a dogma of the dual nature of Christ as both fully divine and fully human. W-e considered it a miracle of diplomacy. It had united two branches of the Christian church, the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox, although it also alienated the Oriental Orthodox church whose doctrinal differences with the other two branches still remain.
The decisions at Chalcedon, she discovered, are considered infallible, another worrying, or comforting concept depending on how you think about it. There is something inherently parental about infallibility, it is the theological equivalent of the ‘because I say so’ which brings an end to a long afternoon of sibling squabbles.
Eruption and Ascension
A further exploration of the trachyte links led her through to Ascension Island, to a site with a Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Islandish map and great names of the nakedly descriptive kind, Spoon Crater, Comfortless Cove, Letter Box, Broken Tooth. Names given perhaps at much the same time as those that are also found in the American west, Sawtooth Peak, Goat Mountain, Horse Creek, their meanings still clear and understandable, before they became composted down via sets of changing languages, abbreviated, becoming only words that signified place, much like all other urban places. Places with roads and houses, bye laws, public health policies, taxes, a place over which humans had flown, lava-like and grey, obscuring the broken teeth, levelling the goat mountains. Maybe in years to come when transport had been somehow restructured and traffic had finally become a thing of the past, places would be called things like Congestion Cross Roads, Asphyxiation Pass, Unending Noise Crescent, Road Rage Square.
Trachyte seemed to be just one of the substances that volcanoes sent up, presumably they erupted anything that was down there to be erupted. Somehow she had always thought that lava was in itself a specific something which resulted in pumice stone, a small whale shaped piece of which sat always on the side of the bath in her childhood.
Apart from the fact that the one at Pompeii had destroyed the city but preserved its wall paintings, she knew nothing about volcanoes. Once, a painter she knew told her that on a visit to Pompeii to see the paintings he had woken up in the morning naked and holding an egg. He had no idea where it came from, but he was late for the tour of the day, threw his clothes on and ran to catch up with his party. Rounding a corner he came face to face with a painting of a youth lying naked on a bed holding an egg. Decades after he had told her this story she met him again, having seen a set of beautiful large drawings of his shown in a gallery. He recounted how floods had destroyed his own studio and all the work within it. He pulled off the wallpaper which was hanging down in sodden trips from the walls, dried it and used it to make the new drawings.
There was some sort of anthropomorphic empathy that w-e admitted to feeling for volcanoes, she knew her own temperament to be volcanic, dormant and apparently passive for aeons, then blasting out in landscape-burning destructive flows. But volcanic action brings the underworld to light and makes enduring changes, and change did occur, would occur, if not tidally in defiance of Canute, then imperceptibly, like the slow whitening of hair, or drooping of the jaw, just as the rules of right and wrong, the areas of permissible thought and feeling seemed to move so that there was no way of orientating oneself correctly within the kaleidoscope of changing demands. There was no way to evade blame, except in death. She remembered Jane Harrison’s discovery that blameless had been an epithet applied to the dead. Harrison had read ‘Blameless Agamemnon’ and thought “Agamemnon, blameless, surely not? The epithet was a cosmetic or structural effort to bring the past under control, put, as it were, an emotional layer of damp proofing between the dead person and oneself. Blame and resentment were part of w-e’s larva flows, but there might be other substances, useful ones. She turned the computer off and went out.
But, going up the hill to the duck pond the volcanic imagery returned and she thought of talking therapy and how it dug out all the buried about-to-erupt substances, and how there was a great deal to spew out and that this process this would not end as long as the fire raged and the therapy continued. Against this there came to her mind the notion of de Causade’s call to abandonment to divine providence, which she had recently heard re-expressed in terms of neuro-linguistic reprogramming as affirmations of trust in god’s providence, though with the with neurolinguistics there was no necessity to believe in god.
Blood in the corridor
w-e back from shopping, got off the bus into a fine drizzle, she put up her rose pink umbrella walked the hundred yards from the stop, came in, and was half way up the stairs when she saw Molly in the corridor leading to the laundry talking to Merrys. Horatio was sadly putting newspapers in the recycling bin. Molly was in the wrong place, she was in full outdoor clothes and according to usual practice ought now to be walking down the corridor to the other staircase and up to her apartment on the same landing as w-e’s.
She looked up and said “did you see the blood?” w-e had not. Horatio was signalling something of import to her, she tried to focus on both, but ended by listening to Molly. “There is a lot of blood on the front door and the net-curtain over the door, and outside all down the path. Ernest must have fallen, there is blood all the way down the corridor to Scott’s apartment and back again to his own door”. Horatio was beckoning them to come and see the blood, Molly went on recounting. Apparently Merrys had traced the blood to Ernest’s door, found him and called an ambulance.
When they finally got to their own landing Molly worried about cleaning up the blood on the carpet downstairs, w-e dissuaded her, was glad to find that she did not feel any urge to go and deal with it herself. “These things always happen when Sylvia is not here” said Molly, but w-e knew that this was not so, it was just the Sylvia picked people up and called the ambulances and so usually they never heard about many of the accidents nor the serious illnesses. w-e knew this because her apartment was next to Sylvia’s and they often met on the landing outside the office and exchanged notes on the frustrating happenings of the day. In Sylvia’s case these often included inept or badly trained ambulance people, clueless, in her view, as to how to pick up elderly and or disabled persons.
While they put their umbrellas up to dry near the radiator on the landing and took their shoes off, w-e told Molly about the pink satin slippers she had bought with the black piping and the side lacing and bows in black velvet. But she was thinking, “what a great detective I am, a Sherlock-Homes-alike though without the hat, the pipe, the cocaine, the violin, Dr Watson, or sadly the powers of observation.” How could she have walked down a blood spattered path, opened a bloody door and seen nothing?
Cryptocrystalline that was the word for it in w-e’s definition, clear as a crystal to some people, but hidden from her. It was as though she were a microscope short of normal vision, she felt kinship with the preacher she had once listened to speaking from the high pulpit in Norfolk Cathedral who had asked in evening prayers for the grace and help of almighty god to be visited upon the coming of the circuit judge, his court, courtiers, helpers and complete train, but just before the amen, a shocked look passed across his face as he added “and of course the prisoners”.
She did see the blood on the net-curtain early the next day, and then later saw the lack of the curtain, taken off to be washed, Scott told her that he thought the blood had come from a nose bleed rather than a serious wound, they were in the common room in which an upright piano had arrived. It was standing in the middle of the room despite a notice on wall which said “Piano Here”.
“The truth is not easy to ascertain” conceded w-e, “think of traffic accidents, or any event where witnesses are called for, think of the Kennedy shooting, accounts of what happened vary, diverge are contradictory, the mistake is to believe that somewhere amongst these accounts is one that is correct, or the most correct, that there is a hierarchy of accurate reporting in which grades and shades of truth could be laid out from high to low like a Pythagorean scale, whereas,” w-e said to herself “maybe all the reports are true.”
Not that Pythagoras could be blamed, but Pythagoras sieved through an English Protestant obsession with single octave defining hierarchies of the godly, the good, and class, where each note was a prison in which the occupants were safe from the polluting infection of the above and the below, was still held to even while breaking down. She saw the rotting infections of the long-imprisoned leaking out all round the building, into the litter, the spitting, urinating, raging children, it was difficult to celebrate the emergence from centuries of feudalism while experiencing the evidence of it.
It is as though, thought w-e, everyone has been foot-bound from birth, and now the feet are unbound and people fall over, the drive is to rebind the feet, restore order, but that order has gone and the chaos is necessary. w-e had been brought up to middle-class misery, this was different. The boy who came and sat by her in the bus shelter that morning, perching as she did on the uncomfortable ledge-seats strategically tipped up and narrow in order to prevent anyone from sleeping on them, emitted something emotionally uncomfortable, she felt she could not move away without making things worse, and yet passively sitting with him was also wrong. So she asked him the time, which he did not know, saw his face move, had a sense of him, then saw him twist around to look at the building behind them, perhaps looking for a clock?
Even the micro-connection formed through asking the question had changed things for the better, for w-e at any rate. She wanted connection that was not umbilical, a connection but one that did not overwhelm, a connection with some valves. Her friend Michael had advised her “smile, at people, sometimes that is as much as can be done” she had tried it but in the spirit of an arctic explorer who has been advised to go down the road, but only as far as the shops.
When she saw Sadie on the turn of the stairs with plastic bags of rubbish to put down the chute, she said hallo. Sadie started to pull herself up the first few stairs to where w-e was sitting on the landing. Her leg was painful, she had been out the day before by the river fishing with her son, “you don’t notice it then” she said of her leg, “when you’re enjoying yourself, but the next day you do”. She supported herself on the banister Her telephone would not work, water had leaked out of her water bottle in her bag and saturated the phone. It had dried out, but now the seven and the four would not function, she could as a consequence only dial numbers which had no fours or sevens in them, it was a mobile which her son had bought her in Brent Cross, she dreaded going back there to get another one.
w-e dreams of her grandmother
In her dream w-e sat with her grandmother who was dressed in red, beautiful and radiantly alive, more than just alive, superabundantly alive, w-e was urgently telling her how much she loved her, as though there would be no other chance to say it. Her grandmother said in a most cheerful way, “don’t make a friend of death”.
Still in her dream, w-e remembered other dreams of her grandmother from which she had awoken to the memory that her grandmother was dead, that she would never see her again. How strange thought the dream w-e “why did I think that she was dead when she is obviously alive?” Other dreams had followed, uncomfortable dreams, in one of which she tried to tell a friend how much she had loved the friend’s mother, also dead, but the friend was not paying attention, w-e was isolated from the people around her. She wondered about her grandmother’s injunction, surely it was right to befriend death as part of the process of living? Yet she knew the words were wise, must be attended to.
Taking a necessary break from writing up the advice interviews, w-e set out up the hill for the duck pond in a heavy rain. Coming towards her was a small old woman in a blue felting coat who looked swiftly at w-e, then away, then after some internal calculation looked back, inviting an hallo. “Wet” said w-e to her as they passed, “ you said it” came back with a surprisingly robust laugh. By the time she got to the top of the hill the rain had stopped, the sky began to clear, underfoot were hundreds of bright yellow star-shaped leaves on the black road, as she turned into the private road down the other side of the hill the wetness lay in a flat sheen where the new pavement had been laid, and dribbled out of the pockets and bucket-sized holes in the uneven decaying road surface. Later, on her way back down the hill from the duck pond, she was passed by a heavy bouncer-looking man with two mean dogs on extending leashes. One was small and white, the other, a mid-sized wolfish brindled animal, extremely thin and ill looking. The bouncer-like man looked as though he ought to have an Alsatian and a bulldog with him and this couple were a sort of reduced ill version of those dog breeds. w-e watched them move down the hill towards the opening into the common where he was no doubt taking them, she wondered what were the signs of meanness she discerned in the dogs faces. What had she seen, what had the old umbrellaless woman seen in her that had made it safe for her to invite the hallo? Were these judgments right, were the consequences of them far-reaching, did such instinctive or intuitive interpretations form the whole flow of life? Did they make for specific kinds of connections, did she w-e asked herself only connect with people who suffered?
Once in the shade of a stone arbour in Holland Park w-e had sat next to someone who drew energy out of her, she felt as though she were being drawn down a plughole, glanced at the woman and seen her suffering, was determined not to get involved, stared to the front for a while and then turned to the woman and said “are you alright, you look unhappy?” The woman pointed out a man sitting in the sun, “my husband, the thing is, he is ninety-six and a painter and he is going blind, and painting is all he wants to do, its so hard for him” They had talked for over an hour and then w-e was taken to meet the husband who was in a wheel chair, she went back to their house and had tea with them, they were a spirited couple, they gave her their telephone number on a piece of Los Angels Hilton writing paper from a desk which held Hilton writing paper from round the world, the woman looked at her shyly, “we do take paper from hotels” she said.
Then again recently she had been waiting for someone in the lobby of the national Portrait Gallery, frustrated and stuck without anything to read, she began to talk with one of the attendants, sympathising with her for having to stand and do nothing for hours, the young woman clear skinned alive-looking said that it was not a job that demanded much of her brain. In between checking visits to the café to see if her friend had gone there, w-e continued talking with the captive attendant, said to her, “this would be a good job for a writer”, “I used to write” said the attendant, “I had a notebook, but now they are strict and won’t allow us to have notebooks, and I can’t remember anything”. w-e launched into an earnest tutorial on memory systems, taught the attendant to programme ideas into her fingers. She was just aware that this filled her own need to be helpful, to offer options for change as much as any need the attendant might have. But how did that change what was happening? Did it matter? The search for the truth about everything was her prison.
What about the Israeli husband of an actress friend who happened one day to be at home when their cleaning lady arrived? He immediately asked her about herself, and, before she had got her coat off, found she was married but had no children, “Why don’t you have children?” he asked, she didn’t know, “don’t you want any?” There was a Niagara of tears and in twenty minutes time he had booked her an appointment and was in a taxi with her heading for Harley Street to have her fertility investigated. Beside him, w-e felt almost saintly in her restraint, and at the same time jealous of his means to propel the problem towards possible solution.
She never did hear the end of the story, nor even the next section of it, so she did not know if that drama had resulted in children for the cleaning lady or not. Even if it hadn’t, the event would have changed her life simply by having experienced someone take so much action on her behalf. The Savoy chef she once heard on the radio talking about his teaching role at the great hotel, said that in order to teach someone something it was not necessary to point out where they had been, only to show them the road that they could now take. But much advice, folk wisdom, or spiritual admonition, came from the destination, it pointed out where the person ought to be, or might be, but did not help them to take the initial step into the road that would lead them there.
The Advice book
Most of the quotes she had to work on from Thornburn Press’s compilation of out of copyright quotations, were nuggets of truth resulting from reflections upon life and unconnected to the world of actions, while the advice w-e felt obliged to give was always related to immediate steps that needed to be taken. Look for instance at: “he that respects himself is safe from others”. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “Of what possible practical use is that saying for a person who does not feel safe? thought w-e, “all that would happen would be that a person would feel bad about the implied or actual lack of self-respect in addition to the lack of safety.”
She could see that, for the purposes of the book, the advice sayings were an enhancing of the self-contained celebrity aura and helped to contribute to the media-induced sense of the famous as inhabiting a quite other world from the rest of us and also that the sayings and interview stories would, not incidentally, transform the quotations into a marketable product.
Trying to match quotations with well known persons she found “He who wants to do good, knocks at the gate; he who loves finds the gates open.” R. Tagore Thakur, depressing, suitable perhaps for pairing with someone who had set up a charity, and could therefore be seen to have, in some sense, loved and opened or had found already opened gates.
“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. – Martin Luther King Jr.” looked like something for musicians, maybe the NINs, now she had heard of them.
The unsuitability of these sayings for giving any real help was reaffirmed by a site which the computer offered her on which people posted questions to which they sought answers and or advice on an odd variety of problems . Scrolling across the screen in a loop were technical questions, “how can I change a car’burettor?” bewilderingly obscure but look-upable questions, “how much was a loaf of bread in1932”, and possibly related to that “What is most frequently eaten in Berlin?”. Some questions were incompletely formed, or required context, “How many other senses do humans have?” for example, and some were sad, “what is my name?” drifted past at intervals, on the revolving band of that day’s enquiries.
In brief prophetic mode w-e could foresee a spate of television theatre of cruelty ‘reality’ shows in which the advice given brought disaster and pain upon those who took it.
Helmshore and Christmas
Sylvia and Scott together had transformed the common room into a glittering, twinkling light grotto, but the dank, damp December weather would bring a pause in the computer course while the residents braced themselves for Christmas, the New Year and the grandchild besprinkled interval between these. Year three of the nearby Brinkorder School for girls would visit bringing plastic wastepaper bins covered in glittery wrapping paper containing tins of tuna, teabags, and mince-pies, each item parcelled up with touching quantities of creative effort and Selotape.
The year was drawing to and end and w-e felt that her explorations had left her with far more knowledge than she had before she started them, but paradoxically and pleasingly freer due to her understanding of the yet vaster reaches of knowledge surrounding her that would remain for ever beyond her grasp. She was ready now to embark upon a cheerful exploration of defuse.
CHAPTER THREE: THE THIRD GATE -DEFUSE
The Third Gate – Defuse
A cemetery walk; the sub-post office; the necessity to acknowledge fate; dead baby stories; in Holmbase; the academic view of healing; no exact contemporaries.
Chambers’ gave defuse as Shakespearian, meaning to disorder, the adjective was defus’d (for diffused). w-e looked for a Shakespearean reference for the word and found this from act one scene four of The Tragedy of King Lear. In a Hall in Albany’s Palace Kent enters disguised.
“If but as well I other accents borrow,
That can my speech defuse, my good intent
May carry through itself to that full issue
For which I rais’d my likeness. Now, banish’d Kent,
If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemn’d,
So may it come, thy master, whom thou lov’st,
Shall find thee full of labours.”
[Horns within. Enter King Lear, Knights, and Attendants.]
She wondered that Kent, the person in Lear whom the dictionary had drawn into her stream of dilution was to be one of the three people left alive at the end of the play. His kindly deception, the disguise of his appearance and voice were set against the wicked deceits of the two daughters and Edgar. Seeing this isolated extract she recognised the play’s themes of truth and lies. Kent, who after all, had changed only the outward aspects of himself, internally remained true and wished Lear well is set against Cordelia who told the truth without disguise and dies because of it, while the daughters put on pleasant faces which disguise their ill intents.
She remembered Kurasawa’s Ran, his film version of Lear, the simple opening with the sons dressed in primary colours, sitting within a small fenced off part of a mountain, the story begins like a fairytale, the good and the bad are easily defined, seem obvious, the results of actions predictable. There was a moment of boredom while she thought “this is going to plod along”. But then a small complication occurs in the plot, the argument is not so easily divided into good and bad, and as each scene continues the truth and lies, good and bad motives become entangled, cannot be separated, the journey is from primal order to terminal chaos, it washes out easy assumptions, and in the end forces an abandonment of judgemental attitudes and an embrace of what? She remembered crying for Lear, the final shots, as she remembered them of the flute-playing blind fool wandering on the edge of a cliff, safe for the moment, but destined to fall to his death. At the time she had felt the universality of this ending, but only today had it’s meaning settled into words. The power of the story had lodged itself, as the Snow Queen’s splinter of ice had lodged in Kay’s heart.
An Indian story told her by one of her tutors expressed a Lear theme in a different form. Her tutor had lived in a house that backed onto a canal and had started a ‘pirates’ boating club for children which, fifty years later, was still thriving.
The story was about a snake that killed everyone that came along the road where it lived. Then it had been converted by a holy man and stopped attacking people, as a result it was hungry, badly treated and miserable. The moral of this story was that even if you are not vicious, you must not let other know you are not vicious or they will attack you: so writhe and threaten, hiss and attack, pretend to be about to attack, or be attacked.
Presumably her tutor had told her the story for a purpose and although w-e had understood the essence of it, she had not experienced herself as powerful, nor had she acquired any established mode of rearing up, of hissing in a threatening way. Though she had had the feeling of the hissing striking snake while at school where there was a lot of bullying, but she kept it suppressed. She had argued to herself that violence was unpleasant and wrong, she did not like suffering it and was determined not to be the cause of it in others.
Not that withdrawal from the violence was a passive response, it took strength to refuse to fight back, and w-e now recognised that she had formed a fierce strength but it was used to withhold, to avoid violence and the threat of violence, and by extension life itself. Here was a noble truth, perhaps the very central one in her being which she needed to let go.
A Cemetery Walk
It was computer course day. On her way out, through a glass door in the hall, w-e saw set amidst twinkling lights, velvet bows, origami foil stars and loops of tinsel, the long lap-topped table garnished with diligent residents each now seated upon a newly provided cream and gold municipally donated cushion. When she reached the bottom of the duck pond hill there was a tangle of noisy children in a school group. Not wanting to walk behind them she turned into the drive that led to the cemetery gate and found herself behind a man puffing out small coughing sounds and in front of two women who followed her talking, she was not pleased. The cemetery had always been quiet and that is what she required and expected of it. If only people could be turned on and off like lights, usefully there when you wanted company and conversation, and not when you didn’t.
She noticed for the first time that there were two distinct types of arrangements for the watering can stations. The older kind had a plinth on top of which there was a box for the watering cans, and some had hooks down the side for additional cans to hang from. But newer and clearly funereally-influenced stations had been made recently. Each had a tomb-sized and tomb-shaped concrete base with a solid wooden cross at each end which supported a Swiss chalet pitched roof rising to about ten foot high. The cans hung from a cross beam, sheltering under the roof. It seemed an extravagant arrangement for watering cans which surely by virtue of their function were made to withstand wetness.
w-e was immensely cheered to find a version, new to her, but clearly older and more courtly than the red notices warning of the danger from falling headstones. It read: “Some of the old and dilapidated memorials may be unstable. All visitors should keep to roads and paths and prevent children from walking on or between the memorials.” This flexing of tense and preposition came from a different era, it was in its linguistic way a monument to something no longer with us.
Some way behind the notice in the middle of a pathless patch of ground was a grave which looked like a bed, propped against the headstone was an alarmingly large teddy bear, and a framed full colour painting of the virgin. Through the many bunches of flowers there glinted lights, surely not Christmas decorations? They were oil lamps. The holly trees were weighed down with berries, more berried than w-e had ever remembered, their abundance a portent of extreme winter cold, there was a small alpine shaped mountain of clay beside a waiting grave.
The Sub-Post Office
A subject on which there was much communal Helmshore conversation was the sub-post office and the ogre that dwelt therein. Often, drawn together by a cathartic need to outflow their experiences at the counter, residents found themselves in informal groups for surprising amounts of time recounting their blow by blow postal dramas and though it would be possible to see this as less abstractly ludicrous than the experience of realising that one had spent time talking about the royal family, yet again, and though it hit some common theme about which everyone held views, practised tactics, the ends of these conversations were never satisfactory.
The woman just visible behind the post office bars was a hissing snake, she had her own theatre of cruelty. Decades of practice in the art of wrong footing enabled her to entangle customers, forcing the most patient of them into frustration that aroused angry self-protection. Being extremely slow in everything she did softened up her victims by causing queues, mostly of elderly people who, because they could not easily stand for long, tried to find something to lean against, during the long wait, but there were only cardboard or plastic shelves displaying sweets which offered no support. The queues stretched through the corner shop and outside into the street, loosing emotional elasticity. By the time they got to the counter customers were easily broken. w-e had tried to carry out a whole transaction with this woman without an argument, but so far had not succeeded. Her near neighbour Mark came by as she was recounting her latest unsuccessful attempt to post a parcel and emerge in good humour to Sylvia. They were upstairs in the narrow corridor. “You must get more aggressive he said, “I gave her a terrible time, she will never forget it.”
He had once gone in for a renewal of something the post office renewed and by a miracle there was no queue. This resourceful woman shouted at him for being there on a Wednesday, which was her busy day. “But I smiled at her and said, “”I don’t think you understand, I don’t care if you are busy or not. I don’t care about you at all, I only care about me and I have all the time in the world.” “ This shocked her into submission and won him the day, but lost him the future use of the post office. The only person w-e had witnessed getting through a transaction pleasantly was a blind and deaf man who could neither see nor hear her unpleasantness and so remained immune to it. There again, this seemed too great a sacrifice to have to pay.
The necessity to acknowledge fate
w-e’s friend Electra was writing about gambling, saying that risk-taking is a part of life, that it is necessary to learn to manage risk in relation to skill, and it reminded w-e of a book she had read about fate and the value of fate as a concept, acceptance of there being events or situations which are not susceptible to alteration. According to the author it is necessary to be neither bowed down nor resentful of fate, nor to try fruitlessly to overpower fate by will, but to set sail by it. By taking this approach to gambling Electra was entering a usually polarised discussion where harmless leisure activity, “we like to have a flutter” was set against destructive addiction, the unfolding dramas of Gamblers Anonymous.
But, thought w-e, stories that we read or tell have an end, and, while still on earth, we do not. We roll on, are rolled on, overcome and overcoming, and if we are to set sail what is needed is multiplicity of story, some new stories starting before the force of the old one is spent, waves of stories interconnecting and interrupting each other, going on after we draw in the last breath, the story of which will be in the middle of someone else’s story.
Looking again at her plan to dilute her way to freedom w-e became aware that dilution on its own certainly would lead to dissolution, but that that both dilution and restriction were necessary, it was learning to manage them that was necessary; chaos and order, the inclusion and exclusion of others.
We can remember that whatever stories we have been told about ourselves, our families, our pasts and futures, which ever story it is, it is only one, one of many, we can enter another one, at any time, hop buses, become contained and destined, on the way to somewhere for a short while, then leave and try something else.
Dead baby stories
Clay baby sculptures by Camille Allen
w-e had always understood from her mother that her paternal grandmother had died of appendicitis. Not till years after her mother’s death did she learn from an uncle that his mother had died in childbirth, her baby had also died, a fact her mother must have known but had perhaps wished to protect her from, unless she too had been shielded from this truth. No way of knowing if this deception belonged to the Goneril and Regan camp or had the kindly deception and disguise of Kent, and who was there left to say either more or less about this now, her father had had no memory of his mother at all though he had been ten when she died. Dead babies fill the calendars with uncelebrated dates, are a crowd of unacknowledged shades bumping like bunches of heavy balloons along the ground on umbilical cords. Imagine if they could sometimes be seen, as in children’s stories which suggest that elves and fairies may be seen sometimes, at dusk on midsummer evenings. Suppose in Oxford Street one should suddenly see all the dead babies hung like seaweed about the ankles of the women and some men. Suppose also that the men could look down and suddenly become aware, for the first time, of the dead babies they had fathered.
Not until she was in her seventies had her maternal grandmother told her that her first child was still-born; that her own mother, who had disapproved of her marriage, arrived to say “you made your bed, now you must lie in it,” and left. Her grandmother’s grief had been terrible to witness, she expressed the fear of what had happened to the baby, which she had never seen, that it had not been buried, no one told her what had happened, she was terrified that they had thrown the body on the fire. This story had not been told for fifty years, and was told then only in a most intense and fragmented way, little was said about before, the pregnancy, or the aftermath, no mention of her husband and how this affected him or them together.
This was a stopped story whose narrative had not been allowed to wash upon the shore, advancing, breaking and receding until it mingled with other tales, became part of the whole, a communion. There had been no sharing of this with friends, and no absorption of it into the great stories which hold emotions we cannot contain, no reading of Job that might have comforted her, for in w-e’s opinion, Job is the greatest story, the greatest comforter wrapping every suffering in the mantle of divine creativity, allowing the inexplicability of suffering to be without denial of the magnificence of life itself.
w-e embraced notions of the conscious reforming of experience, irrespective of whether this corresponds to any usually accepted view of actuality or not, holding to religious belief for example. The Twelve Steps motto ‘letting go and letting god’, de Causade’s trust in divine providence, the practice of meta, ‘may I be kind, may I live in loving kindness’ which had inexplicably transformed her relations with the sub-post office lady, who nowadays treated her with maternal friendliness.
On Sunday w-e had gone to Holmbase to buy some paint, it was quiet and peaceful, a cathedral of long aisles, mercifully without electronic carols where it was possible to fall into a trance communing with products, envisioning an unending future of interior improvements. The paint colour she wanted turned out to be for wood and metal only.
“See”, the man said pointing at the chart, and w-e saw that over the marigold coloured square was a note which said “suitable only for wood or metal”.
“Couldn’t I use it?” she asked,
“You could, but what you need is bathroom paint”. He was a kind man, and his friend who drifted up to consult was also kind, in the moment there was niceness all round.
“What is it like to work here?” asked w-e as the man negotiated the computer screen and obeyed its instructions squirting shots of colour from a machine in to her tin of marigold substitute bathroom paint base. He thought about it, he had to keep unblocking the nozzles of the machine, so that the colour streams could be milked without squirting paint essence over the side of the tin. He had a bundle of special disposable plastic implements to do that with, and tissues to wipe down the side of the splattered tin.
“Does it depend?” prompted w-e.
“On your manager”.
“Much like everywhere, I suppose, some good some not so good?”
“Some appreciate everything you do, so that is nice, but some are angry and shout.” He paused, “but then they do come back and say ‘sorry I shouted’. So overall yes it is a nice place to work”.
“Do I need white spirit for this paint?”
“No, water based”.
“Well that is a blessing”
The man’s face softened, “it is”, he said, “I’ve just painted my bedroom and I ran out of white spirit, I used a whole bottle of it trying to clean a brush.” This was a pure joy for w-e, she knew about brush cleaning and was able to give a succinct though detailed account of how to do it.
“What colour did you paint it?”.
“Green, but it was too much, I had to redo it in eau-de-nile. My mother is really impressed, she wants me to do her bedroom, so I’m doing that next”. “What colour?” asked w-e as the tin was shaken in the shaking up cupboard to mix the colour. “I think she wants lilac said the man fastening little spring clips on the tin lid, “nice” said w-e and “thank you”.
At the check-out she queued behind a Jewish man wearing his kippah, who had been sent out to buy light bulbs, a task manifestly beyond him. w-e wondered what his wife had been thinking, but then, as the man floundered over screw or bayonet fixings, about which he had made the wrong choice, the young girl on the till, said “don’t worry” and rang for someone to go and change it for him, it turned out he had the wattage wrong as well, they were obliging, they would change that as well, “bayonet then not screw, and sixty watt not a hundred, no problem”, the man apologised to w-e for holding her up, she was gracious, the till lady consoling, really, thought w-e this is like a how-to video of inter-customer and shop-person relations. When the right bulbs came back the man apologised again, to the till lady who smiled and said it was fine and to w-e who did the same. Then, when he had gone, the till lady apologised all over again to w-e for the ‘hold up’ and w-e consoled her, the flow of niceness purled on, a healing stream which carried her out into the car park, up the illicit shortcut path made by customers through the industrially planted shrubbery along the side of the motorway, down the pedestrian bridge and back along the road to Helmshore.
The academic view of healing
Once at a seminar at her university, the great and good had gathered to hear someone speak about his research into healing. w-e never knew why this man came under attack from the academics, he set forth a disparaging account of the healers he had met, their methods and results. More or less what w-e would have expected the academics to approve of, so there must have been some politically institutional in-fighting that made them gather so vengefully. What w-e remembered most was the man giving an account of someone who lived in squalor and poverty in a high-rise flat who had experienced miraculous relief of pain after a visit to a healer. “But then” said the speaker with satisfaction, “the pain came back again”. For him that invalidated the healing, but w-e thought, why not look at it like eating. If you went out to a restaurant and ate, hunger pains would subside, you would feel well, then afterwards the hunger would return. No one who understands the necessity for food would say, “see food does not work, it does not cure pain, it is invalid”.
No exact contemporaries
For no reason that she was aware of w-e began to think about the birth of the Christ child, and the slaughter of the innocents, she realised that because of this there would have been an entire age group missing in Bethlehem. It raised questions about fate, about how much a person knows of the entire story that will be wrapped around them from swaddling clothes to shrouds. If Jesus understood his fate, which the story says he does, did he also realise the relation of his own birth to the fate of the slaughtered boys, and if so when did he come to connect these? Inside all stories are a hundred others waiting to bulge out of the acceptably bandaged myths.
The feast of the Innocents lies painfully between the celebrations of Christmas and the New Year, though avoiding it is understandable, its suppression weakens the efficacy of the wheel of the liturgical year, the function of which is to acknowledge and touch on all and every aspect of human living.
CHAPTER 4 – THE FOURTH GATE – LEARN
At the Wilheim Institute; looking after Clara; in church; ordinary paint; her turquoise necklace; dentistry …
At the Wilheim Institute; looking after Clara; in church; ordinary paint; her turquoise necklace; dentistry
‘learn v.t. to be informed: to get to know: to gain knowledge, skill or ability to: to teach (now illit.) – v. t. to gain knowledge or skill: – p.a.t. and pa.p. learned or learnt. New Learning, the awakening to classical learning in the 16th century, led, (in England) by Colet, Erasmus, Warham, More, etc. [O.E. learnian; Ger. Lernen. Cf. O. E. Læran, (Ger, lehren to teach.]’
At the Wilheim Institute
At the Wilheim Institute w-e had tea with a professor whom she wished to match up with a quotation from Erasmus, for the Advice book. At the small circular table the two chairs facing one another were low and deep enough to cut out the possibilities of conversation unless both parties leaned forward in earnest seemingly conspiratorial crouches, thus the options were to shout, not in keeping with the general atmosphere, or huddle awkwardly. No middle ground, thought w-e whose mind had been running on Erasmus and his admirable search for middle ground. Whatever subject was raised, her professor had the ability to skim gracefully like a flat stone across the surface of it before inevitably entering his own subject: flutes and flute playing, upon which he discoursed interestingly for forty minutes. w-e did not feel resentful, she could match what he was saying with certain of her own thoughts and the two streams of information allowed her to make useful connections. The flutes the professor was saying “were each made to resonate with the specific geographical place of their origin, each flute sounds differently depending upon the location it is played in”, and though of apparently simple construction, a wide bamboo with five holes, no reed, or other embellishments, it was capable of such a variety of sound qualities that a single note might be played on it everyday for a life time without exhausting its possibilities or boring the hearer.
This process reminded w-e of a patchwork blanket she had once made from knitted squares of soft angora and cashmere, in white, pink and black with a small purple boarder. Each morning she would pick the blanket up, fold it and then throw it on her sofa, every day it fell differently, eternally, pleasurably new and not new. So was not this the same as the practice of blowing and listening to the note, or the same as anything attended to on a daily basis? The beauty and wonderful variety surely lay, not in the flute nor its sound, nor the blanket and its folds, but in the process of witnessing them.
The quotation from Erasmus that she wanted her professor to reflect upon was: “in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king.” (In regione caecorum rex est lusucus) Adagia (III, IV, 96), she had been surprised that this was not a twentieth century quotation, it had the weariness and resignation she attributed to that time.
The question that this thinking aroused was: why do people need to devote themselves to daily prayers, for that is how w-e regarded both the flute paying and blanket throwing activities, could life not be worth living without clinging to some process to make it so, was life worth living or not? Years before, in time of trouble, she had clung to a new age guru’s tape, listened to it night and morning, followed the injunctions of the soft Californian voice that suggested she thanked her furniture, ‘for being there’. Though absurd and interestingly so, this was beneficial, it worked perfectly to raise her spirits, and when she lent the tape to a friend he also loved it, later he told her that every time it rained he could hear the guru voice saying solemnly, “without the rain we would have no
Coming home on the tube it was crowded, she did not usually travel on the tube in the rush hour, she clung onto a pole and got out a cultural studies book on the influence of rock music on American politicians, and tried to screen out her surroundings. With a youngish man with dark healthy hair and a yellow silk tie to her right, and a woman with an older Botticelli face in front of her there were flickers of something nearing a transmission of reaction, a giving of the self in a microscopic way. The train had drawn into a station where the doors in the last carriage would not open, this fact had been spelt out over the speaker system, yet, when the train was already in the station, a couple from the very back of the train had begun the almost hopeless tasks of getting themselves through the congestion to the distant open door. The brief drama of this had created some fragile communal linking resulting from an us-and-them division, it had died away shortly after the train had left the station.
Looking after Clara
Years before w-e had looked after Clara, a baby about eight months old who was determined to walk. In the summer afternoons they went to the park and Clara demanded to be held up, to stagger along the grass for as long as w-e’s extended arms and bent back could manage it. She hated to be in her pram, her entire focus was on walking, when they encountered walking people she would cry with anger and frustration. The full flow of her passionate drive was entirely successful it magnetized w-e to help her, it carried Clara herself through a whole range of emotion to the glory of standing and taking steps. In the moment of achievement she was a small goddess radiating joy and power. She compared Clara to herself and to the people on her journey home in the tube, hundreds of people burying their frustrations and any joys behind closed eyes and mouths, actually numbing large parts of their receiving apparatus, as a recent neurological study had shown. People who regularly travelled on crowded trains managed to anaesthetise themselves to the point that, when researchers asked them questions about their journey, they could remember absolutely nothing. There was something disturbing here in the comparison, looking at both extremes w-e felt that whatever process she had followed to arrive at the numbed-out travel state was also something she needed to let go, or at least to employ only rarely, she suspected that she spend a large part of her life in this veiled condition.
Being in church confirmed her in this opinion, the sermon had been what w-e thought of as a video sermon, these are the kind that start, “Mustn’t Mary have been exhausted on that donkey?” In fact the discomforts of riding a donkey while pregnant were brought up later, but the actual sermon began, “Imagine how Joseph must have felt when he learned Mary was to have a baby? w-e’s heart sank. Fortunately, in a way, there were so many noisy young children that only patches of this dreary sermon reached her, she looked at the alter screen on which seven angels made by children from the primary school next door had been attached. Each angel somehow manifested something of its maker, one was especially buoyant, the wings rising straight up from the centre of the back looked like a parachute that suspended the angel in mid air, it reached forward with a smile, while a heavier more nervous looking angel had outstretched arms that seemed to be warding off something. The others hung there in commuter mode, with no transmission of awareness of where they were or what they were doing.
The point was Christmas had not ever been happy in her family and there seemed to be only so much you could do to alter that now. When her father was twelve, his own father had remarried. The new wife was a Quaker whose first decree after arrival in the family had been to banish Christmas, there were to be no presents, no celebrations. Hard to imagine any woman being so foolish, she was a mild woman when w-e met her, given to crafts, poker-work and appliqué cushion covers, but she was a fairytale ogre step-mother to all four boys who hated her, and by association Christmas. Thus, though generous at other times of the year, at Christmas her father gave no presents and went into a depression. Her mother felt obliged to be cheerful for both of them in compensation, and used to say so, resentfully. The Oprah guru’s “and how does that work for you?” would have been a useful question, had there been any prospect of an answer, but the concept of inter-relation with feeling and event had not been active around that time which was drained of all hope that change might be helped to occur.
“In the Biblical sense of a time for everything, there is a time to gather together and a time to disperse”, said w-e to her self “but we did not learn how to do either, to connect with each other or to separate from each other”. Without the skills for a seasonal, or moment to moment, changing flow of closeness or distance in relation to others, w-e recognised that her relation with the computer was almost perfect, it was what she wanted, there when she needed it, and switched off when she didn’t. Or, it was what she had wanted, but in terms of the Inanna descent, in the process of loosing her jewels, what she valued, the symbols of her power, this mode of being might also need to be lost, even at the price of nakedness. It was not a welcome thought.
w-e was on the floor putting a fourth coat of yellow paint on the, originally black panels round the bath in the communal bathroom when Merrys put her head and one hand around the partly opened door, “Oh”, she said unconvincingly, “I thought Margaret was in here,” “the paint is wet” said w-e, not pleased to see her. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” this was an opening designed to herald trouble. Merrys was not ever found on the first floor, she lived downstairs where she guarded the entrance hall against incoming strangers.
“What kind of paint is that?”
“Its bathroom paint”
“But it is just ordinary paint?” w-e added nothing so Merrys continued, “only” she said “the paint everywhere else is fire resistant, and this is just ordinary paint, isn’t it?”
“Sylvia is quite happy with it,” said w-e “if you have a problem with it you must take it up with her.”
w-e’s painting of the communal bathroom was unprecedented, the general understanding was that you had to wait until the housing association painters came in to re-spray grey speckled paint over the textured walls and there would be no choice in the matter. w-e had been tired of bathing in an institutional bath-house atmosphere with no curtains and had set about making the place comfortable, the others on her landing had been pleased, now she foresaw letters quoting infringement of Helmshore Housing Association rules, a procession of fire-proofing paint inspectors, perhaps carrying small monitoring gadgets with dials, the Inquisition. Scenes from Brazil came to mind. So she stopped work for the day and only hours later remembered that the bathroom along the corridor had recently been painted by the housing association’s painters with ‘ordinary’ paint in a pleasant aquamarine colour chosen by Sylvia.
In terms of connections with other people, the encounter with Merrys had certainly been one, but not one that was enjoyable. w-e expressed her irritation to Sylvia, they were in one of their usual discussion places outside Sylvia’s office. Sylvia was wearing a sparkly knitted gold top, in keeping with the festive season, somehow on her it looked demure. She listened to w-e and sympathised, she is like a plant thought w-e, with leaves that respond gently to every drift of air, its like talking with a bamboo grove, as calming as standing by flowing water, looking at the light move across it.
“When people get old” Sylvia said kindly, “they have no power, no choice over anything, I see them in hospital and they can’t even choose what to eat, so they need somewhere to exercise power” w-e knew that was true, looked down the days to her own approaching powerlessness. She thought of the yoga she did to keep her body from cramping and seizing up and thought “I want to take notice of this now, to plan an area of power for myself, somewhere I can continue to exert influence,” she wondered about Sylvia, “where would her area of power and influence lie after she retired?” Lear suddenly came back to mind, and Karosawa’s blind flute player wobbling on the cliff top.
He was a better image of death than Bergman’s silhouetted medieval black clad scythe carrying figure, which he was surely a filmic quotation of, because he aroused compassion for human fate and not just horror. Compassion led to a feeling of union with others, horror to a separation from them. In relation to choice, one seemed more desirable than the other, but both must be necessary and a kind of emotional mobility needed to be practiced, a workout of the full range of the affect, so that all these responses would remain in good condition, all shades of reaction available so that the world would neither shrivel into something uncared for nor inflate into something terrifying.
It was wrong to enthrone certain conditions and ways of being as superior to others. w-e knew from her quotations book that emotional approaches to life went through fashionable cycles. Both approaches, assertion: ‘taking charge of your life, making it happen’, and submission: ‘not pushing the river, going with the flow’ were communal attempts to find a mode of being that would be always right, whose voice would be strong enough to drown out dissenting anxieties, but the anxieties themselves must be listened and attended to,
To return to her word, ‘learning’ for her had been the acquisition of a shell, a necessary protection from the unmanageable flow of life, but now the restrictions of learning must be eased, loosened, not destroyed or abandoned but allowed to adjust, reform.
Her turquoise necklace
Three days after a walk up the hill to the duck pond with Mark, she had found her turquoise necklace lying at the entrance to the cemetery, most of it smashed, she had picked up the surviving fragments. This was a loss she had not been aware of, her necklace had simply gone. Perhaps, as in loosing her powers, Innana did not have to remove them, maybe no one has to actively make this happen, one day the hand will go to the neck and find the necklace gone.
Due to do an Advice interview with a French political writer w-e had discovered a boil-like swelling on her upper right gum, and fearing that it might be an abscess, she cancelled the interview and splashed her way through the rain to the nearby dentist’s surgery. A wraith-like procession of the ghosts of dentists past filed through her mind, days when dentists were men and had substantial surgeries, were Anglo Saxon and stayed put. Then there were the waves of Antipodean male dentists working their way in series of six month breaks in their global travels, days when conversations were still held, the dentist enquiring in hairdresser mode about the patient’s occupation or holiday plans or if they were a family dentist enquiring after grandmother, parent or sibling. Dentists who gave a running commentary on the treatment, let you know what they were doing in there and why. Gone, was Mr Handison who extracted her wisdom teeth but was know for his brutal injections, gone beautiful Mr McDermot who had a breakdown and went to Richmond, gone the nameless Bayswater dentist who dropped a drill in her eye, the Harley St ex-opera singer whose surgery was squalor but whose conversation and dentistry were confidence boosting. Gone, she acknowledged all gone, the National Health in its blessing was supported by young just-qualified dentists for the brief period before they acquired their own private patient lists, for many of them English was a foreign language, and there was no looking forward to any interflow at all.
Sighing she entered the reception area and hearing that her own dentist was not in, agreed to see a private dentist straight away. The dentist herself led w-e to an upper surgery, she was solicitous, money was present, it perfumed the air, sweetened the process. w-e’s last but one dentist had been a Chinese young woman trained in Norway who had held oddly intense conversations with her dental nurse as they both bent over, poking implements into her mouth, about the dental nurse’s preferences for certain types of biscuit.
Today’s young woman dentist, however, had acquired many of the old fashioned attributes of the dental visit, still necessary no doubt in private practise. She communicated, enquired, expressed concern, and while writing her notes and a prescription for anti-biotics, asked a hairdressery question, “What do you do?” and having heard the answer, got out a sheet of A4.
“Will you read this? It was given to me in a Christmas card by one of my patients, he wants to be published.” This was what w-e now termed a ‘Homebase moment’, she had been asked for advice and was fully qualified to give it, she looked down at the set of four line rhyming verses, a homily on multicultural religious differences set against the common human need for compassion, hymnal in form it was surprisingly touching, w-e felt tearful, but repressed the sentiment. She was able to explain about poetry groups, how they might be found on the internet, recommend them for the writer, sais why she thought he might benefit from joining one. Her dentist became exuberant, she thrilled at the wonder of w-e appearing just in time to help her to help her patient.
The next day w-e went back to see her own dentist and was treated in such a friendly and open manner that she was ashamed of the previous day’s thoughts, her comparisons of private and National Health treatment. Resentment was such an unpleasant emotion, but like the beginnings of a toothache it needed to be taken notice of, a symptom that she must allow to stir within her, a reminder, in Death’s words to her she must “set her ear to the great below, and listen to the screaming”.
CHAPTER 5 FIFTH GATE – OHONE
Ohone, (Ir and Highland) interf. of lamentation [Ir. and Gael. ochoin]
Listening to the great below; One night at the end of a long walk; Tooth–centred living;
the year turned; Sedna.
Listening to the great below
This Gaelic lamentation brought w-e immediately back to the Ireland of her schooldays, the recounting of legends, the history of oppression and lack, of mourning the loss of culture, to feel the fate of the Highlands and Ireland, conquest, ruin, dispossession, these must be relevant to dispersion and loss of noble truths.
As she fell into thoughts of the Ireland of her childhood, and the Ireland she had learned of in legend, which had never been, she felt not just the loss of the time and place but the annihilation of that time and place, as though with every door through which she walked she destroyed for ever the room she had just left, and it came home to her that her past was a glittering jewel that must be laid aside or given into the hands of the gate keeper, she should gather her stories and tell them one last time, give them away, send them away for ever.
Though of course this could not be done, not one by one, not even in the whole span of stories, it could only be done as the legends did, as in Lear, by collapsing and condensing, compacting and reforming materials, just as the minerals were pressed and reformed, mined and polished and cut and set to became adornments, but for others.
One night at the end of a long walk
One night at the end of a long walk with a friend, at about three in the early morning, they found themselves down a small near cul-de-sac in an alleyway that led to the main road. He was tired so they sat on the curb, and there came over w-e the memory of walking down that road to her family home in a nearby square, and that now the road where they were was exactly as it had been years ago, there was no sign of change, and she felt in her body the life that she would have been walking towards, the lives of her parents, brother and grandmother spinning along just as if they were all there still. Her body walking towards them carried in its cells convictions and certainties that her mind contradicted and in doing so it was as though her body and all its constituent parts had been shocked into an awareness of their deaths, as though a terrible accident had taken all of them from her in one moment. So that, before that moment in her memory they had all still been alive, but then, suddenly they had died, not just dribbling away, one by one, as had been the case, but all together, and also not just them, but all the people they had known, the shops they had shopped in, the cars they had driven, all the threads that webbed out from them were broken.
She understood that before she had been born, had known them, there were other lost worlds of which she had only heard, and the weight of these dragged at her parents invisibly, funnelled them into the black holes where everyone she knew would go, herself, her friend sitting there exhausted on the curb. Time with its processes undisguised or unadorned by future dreams in which escape seemed possible, was revealed to her.
Meanwhile, or in the meantime, there was the need to find ani-biotics for her tooth. Sylvia was away, and Helmshore seemed in a post-festive coma, the decorations glittered, but no one was about, the waves of children and grandchildren had subsided, probably drawing breath for, or reserving some strength for the New Year celebrations, when the fleets of identically bobbing, giant inflated snowmen and Father Christmases would shrivel down, giving way to fireworks, the annual ritual money–burning sacrifice.
Dentists were no exception, they were collectively away, leaving behind the technical means of acquiring help such as might satisfy a report written on the provision of access to healthcare during a holiday period, but not one that in actuality was less than hostile.
Eventually, w-e got to a memorial hospital where an ‘immediate access’ ‘doc-centred’ doctor had agreed to leave her a repeat prescription. Her mini-cab driver, whom she had already had the pleasure of being driven across London by, kept an unusual silence in which nevertheless w-e could hear on internal auto-tape his usual round of miseries: financial, social, marital, together with the general pains of mini-cab driving, for none of which she had ever had helpful solutions.
She went first to the wrong place, the emergency building, and entered the reception area, festooned with decorations and lightly dusted with quietly sick-looking individuals. She sought help from a woman, with nicotine stain coloured hair and skin like corduroy, sitting in the glass information box who was turning away a patient who had failed to follow correct procedures, and was re-directed to a small hut at the side of the building with a closed door, she rang the buzzer. After she had confirmed, through the entry phone grill, that she had telephoned, had given her name, spelt it, and said why she was there, a brisk-looking woman quarter-opened the door and thrust out an arm, flapping the prescription at her. By this time an agitated couple carrying a child were standing behind w-e, the door woman was defending the entrance apparently determined that they should not be admitted, as she was leaving w-e heard the mother say, ‘but we tried for thirty minutes to get through’.
Back in the emergency building w-e found an exceptionally kind nurse who stopped filing long enough to come outside with her and semaphore the complex route she might take to catch a bus home again. When she found the bus stop the shelter was crowded with cold people, she asked a hatless woman nearest her about the bus she wanted, buses came into view but too far away to see the numbers, so she asked a man nearby who couldn’t make the numbers out either, but in any case, none of the buses were stopping at their stop. A micro-climate of fellowship formed around w-e, the very cold woman, the man and his girl-friend a willingness at least to acknowledge one another. When a bus did arrive it was wanted by all of them except the cold hatless woman, as the queue to get on the bus formed, w-e suggested to the woman that she move inside the bus shelter to be warmer, but the woman called out to her like a child ‘Oh, you nasty, nasty person,’ and w-e thought what a magnificent projection that was, or to use another terminology, ‘what a clear example of abandonment trauma’, triggered by experiencing the moment of friendliness, the maternal concern for her warmth, followed so soon by desertion.
w-e wedged herself in the back of the bus, her mind still running on mothers and babies, she thought: “the baby Jesus and the New Year baby are really one and the same, though wrapped in different stories, each baby is a redeemer of time, an Alexander whose eyes and smile promise a radiant future, an emotionally ventilated, unpolluted lobby where death if not completely held off, was challenged by continuance of line. Looked at this way it was no wonder parent child relations were difficult thought w-e as the bus hiccupped its way south. Redemption and deliverance, it was a lot to expect of babies, to demand of children.
This demand was what weighted down the unborn dead babies, secured them to their unmothers. The babies had never had the chance to fail as redeemers, the obscuring layers of resentment which would usually have silted up, and eventually separated them from their womb-myth destiny, had had no chance to form. Then she thought “but the mothers never do give birth to the myth babies, even when their children are born, their saviour babies remain residual shadows, wrapped as the miscarried and aborted babies were like wet seaweed around the legs and ankles of the mothers.” The now nearly empty bus lurched down the hill. “How much better it was to pour the hope and trust of salvation into the baby new year, ‘things getting better’ or if that seemed impossible then trusting to the divine child, the perfect son who would save everyone, and die before things could go wrong. But, would either of these alternatives have helped the poor regressed woman at the bus stop whose relations to salvation were so painful that even the separation from a bus queue acquaintance speared straight into her heart?
The next few days were not pleasant, the cold she caught, probably on her journey back from the hospital prospered and developed into ‘flu’ which formed its own micro-cosmology of pill schedules inside which her life revolved. She focused on throat-related activities, breathing, swallowing, coughing. On a rare excursion into her corridor she met Molly who had her right arm in a pink plastic collar and cuff support, she was standing by one of the emergency two-way radio ‘lifeline’ link, boxes. These were attached to the walls of the corridors throughout the building and they were also in each resident’s apartment, as were unpleasant dirt patinated white cords with orange triangular pulls that dangled worryingly in each room and bathroom foretelling and almost inviting the emergencies to come. The red light was on in the contact box, which otherwise seemed inactive. “What happened to your arm?” asked w-e, “did you slip on ice?”, “getting off the bus” said Molly and “it could have been worse, its only a broken arm”.
“I did pull the cord when I slipped” she said and they sent an ambulance, they wanted my son’s telephone number, but that’s no good, all of them are away for the holidays, then they wanted someone else, whose name they have, to go with me to the hospital, I said ‘please don’t bother him’, but apparently I am not allowed to go to the hospital on my own.”
She was trying to contact the lifeline office now because all the night before she had been woken up by voices coming through the lifeline box in her own appartment, addressing her by a number of different names and asking if she was all right, or what the matter was. The system had gone a little crazy and now was not functioning at all. They stood there patiently but there had been no response from the corridor box apart from a loud bleeping noise which they could not shut off and which sounded through the building for the next few hours. w-e helped Molly to put her left arm into her cardigan and draped the rest around her right shoulder, she wondered at her serenity. Molly was an example of how faith might benefit a person, she was out each day, all day, with her Bible and notebook, knocking on doors and making appointments to visit, she spread the good news and you only had to look at her elegant composed self, walking at even pace through all weathers to see how the good news sustained her, “we have the truth you see” she said to w-e “and that does make a big difference”.
The year turned
The year turned. A tidal wave took uncountable numbers of lives, the emergency relief organisations went into action, an astrologer on television said that the huge amounts of money donated to the disaster fund might be connected with the discovery of the new planet, Sedna, who would now represent a new global sympathy and awareness. Good, in a round about way, it seemed, could come out of mass slaughter, there was something to look forward to, as humanity, reminded of its intrinsic helplessness pulled together. Google told her that the planet, distant and icy, had been named after the Inuit goddess of the ocean, ice having been the link between the two. The tidal wave, though not resulting from an arctic earthquake, was a terrible manifestation of the power of the ocean. The astrologer did not dwell on this, he thought the coming year was going to be an exceptional one, especially for Taureans in whose sign the Inuit goddess’s planet was right now.
Sylvia reappeared in the corridors, and w-e caught up with her while they stood with Sylvia’s arms full of carrier bags, and exchanged medical news. W-e recounted her doc-centred experience, “it doesn’t surprise me at all” said Sylvia, “Poor Ben was found by Dora collapsed on the floor and the doc-centre refused to send a doctor, because he did not have a telephone.” “But Ben is deaf and blind” said w-e “ exactly “ said Sylvia” so he doesn’t have a phone and could not have answered one even if he did. But you have to make a telephone call in order to get a doctor and they absolutely refused to treat him. You’d think they’d have more common sense. What are they thinking of, to leave a ninety-one year old man without treatment because of some bureaucratic ruling? Anyway, Dora called an ambulance. “Probably” thought w-e as she let herself in “the ‘doc-centre’ people, under the influence of the Inuit Goddess planet or not, had sent donations to the disaster fund.
Google supplied w-e with a version of Sedna’s story, it was not heart-warming. Loved by her family and staying at home long after most girls were married, Sedna was eventually persuaded to marry a man said to be a great hunter, provider of furs and food, who took her to a distant island. But when they got there, she discovered that he was not a man but a bird, who lived on fish, which Sedna disliked, and he must, w-e imagined, have been unsuitable in many other ways. Though it seemed simply to be a fairy-story the shock of the species change was in its way realistic, that was what happened after marriage when the spouse turned out to be something quite shockingly other than had been expected.
Things took a turn for the better when Sedna’s father, who had not heard from her, came to see it she was alright, and finding her unhappy, put her in his kayak to take her home. But then, a storm blew up and such was its severity the father feared he would be drowned and to save himself threw his daughter out of the kayak, but she clung on to the side and would not let go. Not wanting to be capsized the father took his knife and cut her fingers off, so that she fell bleeding into the sea and became what she is now, the goddess of the oceans.
In its compactness, and its emptiness, this was a wonderful story, it did what w-e had understood was necessary to do with her own stories, her own understandings, it transformed events and left the transformations unexplained. The transformations were of course explanations themselves, “why did the marriage not work out?” “Well, he was a bird.” “Oh, OK.” but this did not close the subject down, the question still remained, why had she not seen that he was a bird all along?
Freudians, Jungians, feminists and others must have written reams about this thought w-e, she could see the story might also be regarded as a myth of origin, why the beautiful, beloved sea became a raging, people-devouring monster, why it mourned, moaned, and rocked itself in its unhappiness. She also recognised Sedna’s similarity to Erishkegal mourning in the underworld, though she knew no-more of Sedna than the computer had told her, that when food was scarce, and they wanted successful fishing, shamans would go down to comb her hair, make her peaceful, that sounds a bit of a euphemism, she thought, although hair combing was a pacifier, and apart from the terrible little mermaid story, hair-combing seemed to be the most generally recorded mermaid activity: sit on a rock, sing, comb hair and be watched by sailors.
She remembered Meriam, a temperamental Egyptian young woman in her university hall of residence who used to stroke her hair, and how calming this had been, how maternally soothing. Meriam’s life had see-sawed through a series of intense dramas with her boyfriend, whom she eventually married in a set of international weddings, civil and religious. w-e kept the jade, ruby, sapphire and gold Limoges lidded dish she had been given by them in celebration of the weddings, inside it had a minute photograph of them seated in some kind of hotel ambience leaning towards each other. w-e looked at their photo from time to time and wished them well.
Perhaps there was always a level of politeness in stories that edited out certain elements. w-e recognised now that she herself had edited out the little bleeding fingers, which according to the story, transformed as they fell into all the creatures of the sea, fish, whales and walruses. So a story about the pain of giving birth and perhaps, thought w-e remembering her own brother’s shocked guilt at the pain his wife endured when their daughter was born, about witnessing the blood, pain and sometimes also the death of the mother as a result of giving birth. Her brother had never recovered from witnessing his wife’s pain during their daughter’s birth. It could not just have been that one experience that tipped him out of the world as it is agreed to be by the majority, but it was significant. After the birth he was lost, perpetually on the road, for a long time he tried to get back, to where everyone else was, but as it turned out, there was no way back for him.
Somehow this process was more severe than she had expected, she was being stripped of her garments, and at the removal of each one she heard coming closer and louder the mourning of Erishkegal who would fix her with the eye of death and hang her corpse on a hook in the wall.
SEE POST FOR
WINIFRED EMMA: CHAPTERS 6 – 10