Tuesday 30 January 2024

Segments #2, Winter 2024

The Seamstress

Look at you, look how pretty you are!

Do you think?

I don’t think, I know! You are scrumptious, darling, scrumptious!

Katerina ground down the end of her cigarette in the amber glass ashtray. Pipi-Jeni stared at her with those wet sauce eyes and tugged at her blue dress.

That’s velvet, you know. All the way from St. Petersburg. Don’t you go pulling on it so tight! I don’t want it to break before you walk out the door. Your father will never hire me again and, oh God, I’ve worked for him for the past twenty years!

Sorry, Pipi-Jeni said in a small voice. Th- th- thank you, Mistress.

Don’t call me mistress, child. Katerina’s voice boomed, the grandfather clock reverberated. It was getting dark outside and there were geese flashing past the window, somewhere distant but noticeable. Call me Katerina. Katerina was my mother’s name and her mother’s grandmother. Not her mother. She was shunned from her village for marrying a Mongolian after my grandfather had passed. Oh yes, her name was taken from her. They can do that, you know. 

Pipi-Jeni stared and swallowed. 

Stand up! Katerina ordered. Once more, stand up! Let me check the hem. I make a point of having no frayed edges, never. Those buttons there…at the back, yes. Reach around and feel them. That’s it. Pure pearl, those buttons.

There was a noise outside. Low engine and gravel. 

That must be your father. Are you ready? Shall we meet him at the door?

Yes, I’m ready.

Well, come on then! Let’s show you off. Like a pretty picture, look at you! A little ballerina, a little doll. Come, come!

Pipi-Jeni followed the seamstress to the heavy oak door. The room was cavernous and smelt of polish, which smelt of gas. The door handle was so shiny it looked slippery to the touch. 


Glass Heart

You gave me a glass heart as a symbol of our love. Because it’s transparent? I remember thinking. Because you can see right through it? I did not say this out loud of course, but that’s what I thought. I was grateful for the gesture, though it had come too late.
Predictably, we were in Paris. We were on a break, not from each other, but from our lives, and it was our final destination on our Euro trip. We’d been to Brussels, Amsterdam, Vienna and back to Bruges. Paris was our ‘romantic’ segment, which of course meant it was unbearable. All the restaurants were overpriced, the food undercooked. All the museums, crowded and dull. It rained incessantly, soft and insidious, like the hiss of a broken pipe or a sound you think you might be imagining.

You must have bought the glass heart in a souvenir shop while I was in the toilet or arguing with a waiter. You were rich in those days, we both were, and so the idea of you choosing such a lacklustre, common ornament to declare your love to me, to patch things up, was a little ridiculous. It would have been charming if we were seventeen and backpacking, but we were far from it. I held the peace offering in my palm, clasping it all the way through dinner.

My focal point for the evening was an old, disused phone box which stood just outside the restaurant doors. Someone had placed a wreath of flowers at its feet and I wondered idly whether someone had died there, or whether it meant something different in France.

Your mouth, so wide. Your hair, a loud undulation of grey and white. Always so confident. Always so eager to laugh - at me, at an innocent bystander, but never at yourself.

‘Here you are, mon cherie. A token of our love. Don’t break it, mind, it’s precious,’ and I couldn’t tell if it was tongue in cheek.


Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife

In the room it was dark and hollow and cold, the chandelier hung still like something grown and the curtains fell, voluptuous in their draped velvet. I could hear him breathing by my side, he was a loud breather, the sort of breather you could hear coming down the corridor. Respiratory issues. He held my hand, a good foot between us, at arm's length. He wanted to hold me and he wanted his distance. The mirror on the wall before us lay still as a lake and I longed to gaze into its mournful glass because I believed it held more reality than this room, I could get lost in there, potentially. We stood like this for the portrait. I could hear him breathing and the floorboards creaking. Minute noise, an even ticking, a rhythmic passing of seconds not from a clock but from the time that passed between us: my husband, the painter and me. I tried not to swallow but of course the more I tried the more I swallowed. It became endless, saliva down the throat, saliva trickling down to mysterious canals, and then I started to imagine the stomach and its pool of saliva, collecting and - and all the while I wondered how could such stillness contain such activity? This activity of arteries and heartstrings and that organic, tenacious ticking. My own heartstrings were pulled taut and I could not bear the way they reverberated in this waiting - this anticipation echoed by my husband’s rasping breath. 


I hold the rose between my quivering palms. I hold the red rose as it breaks apart, petals falling and resting. I hold the dying rose in my pale dry palms as the swamp-like gurgle of the river engulfs me, on this small island, in the middle of this forest. Small critters and birds holler their songs in the distance. I am the only human here and in this knowledge I feel safe. The water is warm and viscous, runs lazy and still. A film of dead things and given up seeds line the surface and I swear I can even see smoke rising - I imagine perfume, I imagine musk. I am far away from my husband here. I am far away from his incessant breath and the chandelier that hangs heavy, threatening to spill its dripping candles. I am far away from the echoing bedchambers of my existence. I am naked in a forest, unprotected as life crawls upon me, a breeding ground for ticks and ants and mosquitoes. My nails: brittle rocks. My hair: split into the veins of a leaf. I could sink and the earth would be warm. I could gestate; mingle with fossils and become something old. I brought the rose as my final souvenir. There will be men on horses looking for me, lanterns leading the way. Galloping horses, resounding, click-clacking, taking me to the dungeons, the underground dungeons, where I might as well have been born.


No Reflections

The world changed when the mirrors stopped working. Even lakes, the backs of spoons, windows in the dark, even TV screens and the eyes of our beloved. No reflections. We could only imagine ourselves in the lens of that particular day, that particular moment. 

We focused on others and in others we recognised our own gestures: a smile held too long, darting eye contact and fidgeting legs. When we passed shops we looked at the displays, not just ourselves walking past. 

Dinners were more engrossing after a few glasses of wine, though it was a nightmare sometimes imagining stained teeth - there was no way to check, of course, and so we had to practise non-vanity or rely on the honesty of friends. 

The view from above meant you always had a bloated, skewed view of your stomach. You had no idea how deep your bags sat under eye, how furrowed your brow. 

It balanced out, though, as people became more present, moving with time rather than chasing its tail, grasping at the chemtrails of comets. 

Death became a beautiful melting, a receding into hills. We became more reliant on others’ impressions of us, which was both healthy and annoying. 

Of course there were questions. There were theories from all corners of science and religion. Reflection became a symbol of the old world. We saw this new era as a time of merging, species into species. 

Enmeshment, un-self-conscious.  


Courting Narcissus

He was a gorgeous boy and I did love him. The way he hunted through the tall reeds, scoping out the birds that feasted on freshwater fish. His feet crunching the stalks of plants, crackling under his substance. 

Narcissus: like the flower. 

Narcissus: the smell of white peach and pollen, the taste of everything un-eaten, the taste of flesh wrapped up in skin. 

I could have eaten him, and indeed I dreamt of it. I am not used to rejection, being a nymph, and so I did not take it well, when he turned his head to the side and showed me his cheek, dropping my gaze as if it were a hollow nut. I, with my bounteous curls and reams and reams of charm. I, with my voice of silver satin, my knowledge of moonlight, the cut-glass sonata of my song. It was I he rejected, I. I could not fathom one single reason why he would deny himself the pleasure of courting a nymph. 

I wore little clothes to help guide his decision. I lay like a prize goose by the pond, friends with the low vibrating frogs. The day had reached its crescendo and we basked in its glow, sated and heavy, after a long sun-drenched meal. I could see the boy but he was distracted, watching a water buffalo cross the plain, lumbering towards its herd in the distance. Always, he paid attention to animals. His focus was unwavering. You could say he got lost in their movements, their sinew, their joints. 

I watched him and waited for him to notice. I'd already played out the scene: him, looking over, catching my gleaming naked breasts, plump and ripe and yielding, and my legs, covered thinly with gossamer, my dark patch of jungle, beckoning. He would take me in. Slowly, in disbelief. I had been there so many times before, the shock of attraction, that thick gloopy desire spreading like ink, staining me with attention. And I loved it, I yearned for it. My desire called out and responded to itself. I was the queen of repetition: over and over, limbs, shoulders, hot breath. 

Can you imagine, then, my horror to see him turn away, red-faced, an awkward clearing of the throat, bending his head downwards towards the pond’s surface: the hunter ignoring his prey. 


The Feast

I sat down at the feast, the plates piled high with golden cooked birds, mounds of cherries, figs, vases strewn and overflowing with willowy grasses, snowing seeds all over the tablecloth. It was a gathering of important people and I did not shy away from calling a spade a spade: we were here to impress one another and secure lucrative deals - subtly, but with force - to build and forge relationships, to secure bonds. Underneath it all: the brittle belief that, together, we were stronger, but also, we all had backs that needed to be scratched and we all had two hands free, at least for the duration of the evening. 

The smells circulated like the chatter: intoxicating and drowsy. Oaky wine, flowing freely form clay jugs, something sweet from the large pot of stew - could it be apricot? Something Moroccan? - and the savory tang of roasted chicken skin. Thyme somewhere too - citrus. I was enjoying myself in a moderate, distant fashion. Usually these gatherings bored me to tears but I was in a good mood, I had just visited Cecilia and had emptied myself of all that pent-up feeling I’d accumulated over a stressful week, all that stored-up heat. 

I felt lighter and placid, removed from the social niggles and awkwardness I’d usually have felt, being amongst all these men; hungry, older men who both intimidated and disgusted me. Well, there I was, at the table. On my second plate of the evening. Grease running happily down my chin like a gluttonous river. In conversation with a man who pulled a fair amount of strings at the printer’s, knew who to speak to about getting a new paper printed, which was my intention. I was respected because of the success of The Star, but it was still fairly unknown. I still had something to prove. 

Segments #1, Winter 2024

Jack, holding a cruffin

You hold the cruffin there in your hand, domed with meringue. Inside I know is lemon curd and folds of pastry. It is your new favourite; you usually buy three at a time. I spent fifteen quid on croissants, you said to me, and really you sounded like a dad, like a loveable dad, like a dad I know is there, just behind the ribs. You with a face so pleased, with your kind sloping eyebrows, your ever so kind smile, that look on your face: sated, placid, serene.

Outside the day is bright and boasting. We have a carpet of leaves by our front step, a carpet of leaves all the colour of autumn, all the crispness of dried tea in a bowl on a shelf that smells of cinnamon. Your legs, muscled, bent, in some kind of wide-stanced celebration, a smug frog kind of gesture. I would like to make you desserts but I get nervous if I have to measure. Those verbs - the ones like simmer, the ones like char - they indicate to me a right and a wrong way, they indicate to me a hidden failure.

I said, when I asked you to pose, look pleased! I am terrible at taking pictures, that’s why I rarely do. I’m terrible at taking nice clean steady ones because my hands have the tendency to shake, they come out in a blur. We are not a picture-taking couple though we pose from time to time. When I’m drunk I demand selfies. I like to look at our faces together, gleaming with champagne, on occasion.

You, in your tight gym clothes, your blue shorts and hat. You, the one who is home, the one who is solid, the one who spreads consistency, seeps into the avenues of my days like mercury, but warm.

You love sweet things, as do I. We have different tastes, though. You like berry-sweet custard cream. Puff pastry, shortcrust. I like coffee, chocolate, banoffee. I like ganache and oozing. I like dense.

We enjoy simple things together. We have our worlds and we love to judge, though ultimately we are kind.

I wish I was the one to make dessert sometimes, set a timer, fill the house with the warm smell of butter. I could be flour-stained, I could be adept at spotting when the cake’s reached golden. I wish I could serve you new inventions laid out on trays. I make you tea instead and I gladly eat your inventions, your staples, your stews.

What we do is we cook in our own ways and we feed each other and there’s nothing more to it. 


When I was little

When I was little I believed that rocks were living beings. I believed that there was a fresh and instant magic that meandered through the mountains in the shape of streams and that silent, certain mysteries lay in empty fields and at riverbanks: fairies, and grander secrets — tales. 

I believed I could be anyone and I often believed I was an orphan, walking the gale-blown landscape looking for shelter, trying to find someone that would take me in, anyone, and I’d cry, walking home in the evening in winter, eating handfuls of snow, the freezing wet powder a sort of quenching.

When I was little I believed I was special. My father told me I was beautiful, or would be, when I was older.


That’s how I got here

I remember the green, green grass; the lofty veil; the world between us. 

The aching gap between father and child, the woeful trying of the mother. 

The woeful effort of the ancestors, as they used all their energy and power to influence the making of the child, to infuse all its being with existence, with a friendly sense of place and home, urging its being to resist the tide, the flow, the aching inclination to thunder into ruin; to be in place, to be put into place, to be near a place, to stake a finger into the earth tentatively, stake a hand: the flag of flesh signaling I’m here, I’m here.

Claiming; the fanfare of aliveness. 

The ancestors begged their ancestors before: let us, let the child live, let us, let her live, let us, let her live.

Let us, let the child live. 


My Queendom 

Domes laced with gold. Walls with nooks and crannies. Blue paint, all around. A jungle of fragrant fruit, monkeys. 

There would be a religion, it would be called Magical Realism. It would mean that everyone, everyone, would worship the beauty and the majesty of the everyday. Simple systems, such as the sunrise and sunset, would be perceived as magic. There would be a reverence for murmurations of birds, the tinkle of a stream, time passing by, the many stories told by our ancestors, and everything there is yet to know. 

We are a peaceful yet raucous people. We do not fight, there is no violence, but we argue spectacularly. We encourage debates and differing viewpoints. 

There is always lots to see. Down cobbled streets, hanging plants, vines growing in and out of open doorways. People don’t close their doors, you can catch wafts of cooking, warm, sweet smells and clanging of metal, and a chorus singing, and a tuning guitar. 

There is one law, and that is: you must find your life’s purpose and you must dedicate yourself to it, and that is how you contribute, that is your work. There is no money, only the promise to share your gifts. You may be a deep thinker, needing years alone living on a cliff edge, surviving off food packages delivered by a young cook. You are supported, because our belief is that everyone will be taken care of, we are a living organism made up of manifold particles, we are a joined-up and symbiotic system, we bow down to the mysteries and we trust them. 

There is freedom here, and there is respect. Because everyone is free to be exactly who they are, no one feels hurt or hard done by. There is still pain because pain is the necessary golden poison that runs through all endeavors - pain induces change, change is the very air that we breathe. 

All around the city is jungle. Tall trees, popping flowers, long stems and gnarled roots. Animals: parrots, monkeys, leopards. Cats all around the buildings, the cats are our co-habitants. They aren’t owned by anyone. 

We are known for our festivities: every week we have time to enjoy, to rest, it is at the heart of our community. Indulgence, celebration, freedom. Lights everywhere. Ever-burning candles through the night. The moon shines as bright as the sun and casts a clear silver balm across all who sleep - some are night owls and so tinker away in libraries or frolic in underground tunnels. 

We grow the finest coffee, plates of olives, soft hearty bread, grilled seafood, sparkling wine. 

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Being Welsh is Like a River


The place to start is at the beginning. For me that was on a mountainside in Eryri, the land of the Mabinogion, one early morning late October. I was born in a tiny shack with two rooms: one up, one down. You couldn’t get there by car so the midwife had to find her way with a torch through the howling wind and hailstones. She was joined by a two other women, a friend of my mother's and a local grandmother who saw lights on and came to investigate. It was there, in this warm company of characters, that I entered the world. 

It’s hard to imagine a beginning more rooted. My ties to Welsh land are literal, visceral. My first breath gulped in the cold, crow-laden air; my placenta buried on Cnicht, the Matterhorn-shaped mountain that protects Croesor valley, my home. My sense of being Welsh, however, has never been straightforward. Neither of my parents are Welsh, for a start. My mother is from former Yugoslavia - she moved to Britain as soon as she started hearing the whispers of war. My father is from Bristol and settled in Meirionnydd when he found a gardening job in Plas Penrhyn, former home of Bertrand Russell, near the surreal Italianate village of Portmeirion.

I’ve often wondered what it was like for my mother, who, after divorcing my father, was left alone with me as a baby in this remote slate-mining village, so far from her own roots. What she remembers most is the kindness she received. Everyone welcomed her as a new member of the community and she soon learnt the benefits of living in a tight social pocket, with all its familiarity and security. On my first birthday, for example, she invited the whole village. Photos show everyone piled into the sparse living room, crowded around a cake, and me, hovering above it in my mother’s arms. Like my birth, what this shows is an involvement, the experience of being part of other people’s milestones. No pomp or ceremony, just being there, witnessing, knowing the ins and outs. 

I started learning Welsh from an early age when I was looked after by our neighbours. One of my first phrases was ‘Sia bia!’ which I used to proudly point at objects and claim my dominion. I spoke Welsh in nursery, then school, so it was never something I questioned, it was just something I did and always had done. Because we didn’t speak it at home, though, my commitment started to waver. The heavy, definite sounds made strange shapes with my tongue - it felt awkward. Borrowed. Not mine. In typical rebellious fashion, I began discarding the language, avoiding it wherever possible, and focusing instead on my Englishness, which felt more international and full of promise. 

It was only after travelling to the Peruvian Sacred Valley in my twenties, where many of the locals still speak the indigenous language Quechua, that it struck me how lucky I was to speak a similarly ancient, precious and endangered language. When I came home, I vowed to re-learn Welsh, working in a bar in Blaenau Ffestiniog, one of the most Welsh-speaking towns in the country. I enjoyed shocking people who presumed I wasn’t local due to my English accent, asking, ‘Tisho peint?’ As well as the language, one thing I valued moving back to Wales was the wildness. I don’t just mean the landscape, I mean the people. Not a misty-eyed mysticism, but a guttural, mad, romantic-with-a-capital-R sort of wildness. So many poets, musicians, teachers, philosophers - professional and not. So many hard drinkers and howl-at-the-mooners. We certainly know how to party and it is wholesome, it is magic (and not just because we go picking in the hills every autumn). 

I remember reading once about the psychology behind celebrity. Apparently, what drives people to be famous is an evolutionary need to be recognised. In ancient times, when communities were smaller, to be recognised would be a given - an intrinsic part of life. Since many of us have sprawled out into cities, moving from one place to the next, it’s more common to be anonymous, or at least have that option. I used to crave being that mysterious stranger who appears and disappears, who has no past or future, coasting on an eternal present. Sooner or later, though, we desire context. We wish to wrap its downy warmth around us, sink our toes into its inviting earth. By context I mean finding yourself in the pub, and sitting to your right is the partner of a woman who babysat you, and to your left, a teenager who you remember being born. It’s people knowing your name without an introduction. Like a homing pigeon, I, like so many of my peers, returned. 

As an adult with experience of living in different countries, settling back home has been a process of reclaiming. From the ungrounded hedonism of travel and a capricious sense of identity, I have come full circle, landing back in a community which has now shifted and grown to include my schoolmates and their children: a generational resurgence. It has taken me years to accept my place here. So much of my youth I felt a split in my heritage. I wasn’t as Welsh as my school friends, whose Nain and Taid we’d go and visit off the school bus, who’d feed us cheese and jam sandwiches with our panads. I wasn’t English like my cousins who lived in cities, and I certainly wasn’t Serbian like my Baba Rosa, who came from a different world entirely, whose everyday life felt so painfully foreign. 

I may not have the claim of ancestors here, spanning back for centuries. I may not have a Welsh name, or even an accent. What I do have, though, is my beginnings, memories of the landscape stitched into the very core of me: the familiarity of bare tree on craig, wool torn on barbed wire, fresh tinkle of stream freshly thawed from snow. I have the physical fact of playing in my neighbour’s farm, exploring the labyrinthine sheep pens. I have the experience of attending Croesor primary school, now closed, that was set up for miners’ children and housed no more than thirty pupils at a time. I have the secret of smoking my first cigarette in an abandoned barn where it was rumoured a woman had hung herself due to a scandalous affair. I have the pain of facing teenage trials, shameful mistakes aired out in public.

Now I understand more and more that Welsh identity is of an ungraspable nature. It is inseparable from place, and therefore each county, town and hamlet has its own version of Welshness. I know my community’s flavour and I recognise it in myself: a radical focus on eachother’s needs, a fiery fuck-you to cookie-cutter conformism, an unpretentious understanding of the seasons and an unwavering respect towards the land. It is the stirring pride when you see the Welsh flag, a giddiness in knowing how slight, how impossibly tucked-in we are geographically, and yet how deep our myths are planted, how old the words we still utter. I feel part of something worthy, now especially, with the ever-more pressing need for ground-level action, and the increasing focus on smaller, truer entities - such as the village shop, such as the granular rallying for social change. 

Speaking about national identity can border on the nostalgic and the quaint - especially, I feel, with Wales. So often we are regarded as a tourist attraction, a time capsule that can be accessed for a fee. Welsh cakes and daffodils and choirs, etc. What cannot be sold in a gift shop is the tangible connection between people, story, and place. It’s not always pretty, it’s rarely simple. In my case, an identity wasn’t handed over, but rather, I had to mould it myself. The clay was there already but it was up to me to shape it into something that fits and captures all of me - my foreignness included. Perhaps what I have experienced is a journey all of us take - a journey back home. Let’s not discard our complexities along the way - through contradiction healthy tension arises, and then, movement. Change.  

Being Welsh is like a river - running from the same source yet branching into a thousand streams. Fluid, elemental, it takes many forms, joining the estuaries of something bigger, the wider world, the sea.