Let it be known that the ballerina is not a woman dancing:
that, within those juxtaposed motifs she is not a woman,
but a metaphor that summarises one of the elemental
aspects of our form, sword, goblet etc.,
that she is not dancing, suggesting, by the wonder of
ellipses or bounds, with a corporeal writing,
that which would take entire paragraphs of dialogued
as well as descriptive prose to express in written composition:
a poem detached from all instruments of the scribe.
Mallarme, “Oeuvres Completes”
Lines written at 6.35 a.m. on Tuesday 11th August 2009
We’ll walk together over grey pavements
and cross in busy night traffic
– wider than usual, this road –
and you’ll touch my arm
to keep me safe.
We’ll talk at the bus stop
and all the passing people are
everything you know
and you’ll check the time,
knowing it’s a new place for me.
We’ll climb together
into a big, fat, red London bus
to the top deck
– you like a feather
in a bedroom breeze
and me testing the gravity
of each stepped move.
We’re on a roll:
loving me, loving you,
and going home.
January has passed and I’ve given the birds the last of the Christmas cake…
I like this – especially because it came from Susan Sontag…
“There is something about facing a mortal illness that means you never completely come back. Once you’ve had the death sentence, you have taken on board in a deeper way the knowledge of your own mortality… there’s something in you that’s permanently strengthened or deepened. It’s called having a life.”
Frogs and Conkers
I love my brother Eric to the moon and back. As a child he was my best friend.
He always rang the bell upstairs on the bus on the way home from Sunday school when I dared him and he was always the one who got told off by the conductor while I sat in innocence. .
He walked out on to the ice on Longholme Lake in Bedford when I dared him and fell through it while I watched in horror. A man rescued him and we went with him in dripping freezing clothes to Nan’s.
He and Patrick Francis stuffed a frog down my back and thumped it. I went completely hysterical. I didn’t think that’s what frogs were for. They also showed me how to cook bread on a stick over an open fire. Cubs was an interesting place. I used to walk across the allotments to meet him coming out of cubs with Buster, our dog.
He was always a good listener. He taught me how to smoke a fag properly, having watched my early attempts. He was always quiet and brave.
We were standing by the garden gate getting ready to play conkers. The scissors worked a treat and made a hole in the conker and went on to make a hole right through his hand. We stood there, amazed. As we have done many times in our lives since.
I have a precious friend called Jo who lives in the Midlands with her husband Shaun and their daughters Lydia B and Rosie B. Jo and Dom were very close as stepbrother and sister and it meant so much to him when she visited in the months leading up to his death. They were kindred spirits in many ways I think. It is really to Sandra that I owe this special relationship. Sandra Bickley is Jo’s stepmother and she brought us close.
It’s lovely to have the little gifts and notes sent from Lydia B and Rosie B at different times of the year – although I must be a very mysterious Nanaleigh to them. I love how Jo remembers her big brother and am happy that she remembers me.
It’s February 2019 now and the birds are happy.
Plenty of tiny bits for them to gobble. An old gardener in Tenterden, Kent, told me that by February 17th the birds know who their mate will be. Percy was the last man in England to plough with oxen and the BBC came down to Tenterden to make a programme about him. So he was probably right about the birds.
The garden at Ye Olde Cellars in Tenterden was an Elizabethan walled garden. He cared for it every day and it was a source of great peace for me. He even let me help him now and again and I carefully followed his instructions as I planted his asters or picked his loganberries. He could never have known what he meant in my life. When I left, he gave me a plant with a note pinned to a stick in the soil:
“The kiss of the sun for pardon, the song of the birds for mirth,
You’re nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth”
Nearly midsummer – a night’s dream – I love that play!
In June Stuart asked me ‘What do you write?’ and this made me think. I do lots of thinking and not enough writing these days. A complete lack of self-discipline.
Water Melons and Hurricanes for Stuart
The melons are running and hurricanes coming,
and our texts cover oceans and oceans of stars,
like strong-hearted pirates,
on wind-blown galleons,
chasing the waves.
setting sail for Bim.
Your hurricane blows and the skies darken low
and you batten the hatches and make safe below.
It is patience and hope that will lessen the rain
and it’s love from the dear ones will soften the pain.
Now it’s time for the crow’s nest,
to hold, climb and balance,
watching the water for first light of dawn…
‘Land ahoy!’ we can holler,
and all haul away to the last morning stars.
Then we’ll play on the beaches and sing in the bars.
“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shits that weigh you down.”
I’m tryin’ Toni, I’m tryin!
Jean O’Keeffe and I share a fifty year-plus friendship, give or take a few more years….
In 1967, I lived in Burton-on-Trent with my husband-at-that-time, John Mathews and our three children, Ria – nearly five, Chow – three and a half and Dom – about six months. We lived in a grey, granite house, rented to us by Ind Coope Brewery and formerly the home of a Chief Constable. It felt as if a uniformed person still haunted it. The children coped with the house better than I did with my postnatal depression
When you used to hang nappies out on a cold morning, it was a good thing to have a long washing line in a long garden. You just couldn’t help but notice if someone else was doing the same thing at the same time, a few doors away.
Walking along the street with the children, a smile and a wave from the dark-haired woman who looked busy and, before long, a chance to feel at home in a family home very like my own. Early mornings, nappies and nappy buckets, feeds, fish fingers, chocolate cake, biscuits, toys and children’s laughter. We’d push our prams out together and look after each other’s bairns and, generally, find ways to stay sane in the expanding bubble of young motherhood.
Jean is a Yorkshire lass, which chimed well with my Geordie heritage and our love of the north. We are northerners. Burton-on-Trent was definitely in the south.
Ria, now almost fifty-seven, says Jean is “the twinkliest person I know”. What Jean does is tell it like it is. I soon got used to that and to appreciate its great value. We’d go for picnics on the mound near Tutbury Castle – a Royalist stronghold – and still holding on strongly. I remember an amazing occasion when we met Oliver Reed in Burton. He was coming to grace some boring midlands event in the town and Colin, Jean’s husband-at-the-time had got us some tickets to get in with the in-crowd. We mingled with the scrubbed-up-well and drank posh drinks, ate tiny snacks – and waited.
A sudden hush, then Oliver was conjured up – drifting quietly through the double doors. All eyes were on him, as he started his magic weaving motion round the room. He was like a genie, oozing warmth and charm. A tall, strong man, with twinkling blue eyes and dark hair, who held the whole room in the palm of his hand. Quite a presence! One that is forever associated with Jeanjeanie in my mind.
Jean is a writer, with a mercurial wit and a dancing sense of humour, easy to warm to and great to get up to mischief with. Her husband-at-the-time used to come home from his work as a journalist with migraines. These were new things to me. I’d never come across them before. Highly visible, because you could tell what was happening when you caught sight of the clothes which started at the foot of the stairs, as he undressed on his way to lie down in a darkened room. Colin and John, my husband-at-the-time, would eventually come to share their love of motor bikes and cars and be off on adventures of their own.
When my marriage broke up later and I was fighting a legal battle for the custody of my children, Colin and Jean were right there with me, standing at my side, supporting my case as a mother and helping me to move forward through those dark days and nights. I remember their anger when the judge felt it was ok for Ria and Chow to go to boarding schools with a guardian appointed while their father and stepmother were overseas. They fumed at his remarks that boarding school had served his own children well when he was doing his colonialist service in Sierra Leone. The Sixties was good for hippies and Beatles fans but not good for women and children.
The Seventies brought re-structuring and our paths diverged. I lived in South Benfleet, then Ellesmere Port with Dom and second husband Howard. Jean had moved north to Norton, near Stockton-on-Tees and their home there became a place of sanctuary for the times when I could have my children with me – usually boarding school holidays. Christian was born in 1973 and he spent his first Christmas there – our children all so happy to be together. We share our children.
Later, when her marriage broke up, Jean moved to Dublin with her boys. In 1980, I took the Dun Laoghaire ferry from Holyhead and Jean met me off the boat. We spent a few days together and a friend of hers from Derry gave me a copy of Ulysses. Early one morning, Gary, Jean’s eldest son, let me borrow his bike and I rode into Greystones along familiar lanes. On the way up the hill into the town, I noticed blood trickling down the edge of the road. At the top I found a cow lying on the verge – dead – and bleeding into the grass. I knew some vehicle from the ferry had hit it in the night. I stood by a gate looking across the landscape I loved, but it wasn’t long before I turned around and peddled back. Ireland was a country where cows crossed the road and dogs lay down in the middle of the road at that time. The bloody innocence stayed with me always.
We paddled our way independently forward, Jean and I, probably watching the horizon hoping to catch a glimpse of one another.
I can remember Jean coming to visit us in Oldham when Hinnie was born in 1984 and her joy when she saw the new babe. “Is she ours?” she asked with joy. Our children had grown and we both worked in vulnerable communities and started and completed studies we’d missed in our youth. We were both with new partners, Jean with Dougie Steel and me with John Cook. Jean was in York and I was in Manchester.
In the winter of 2010, after lots of looking, I found her and we met again. It was as if no time had passed and there had been no pain in our journeys.
I drove up to Hebden Bridge, parked the car near the ducks, got out – and there was Jean, waiting for me! I had conjured her up and found one of my most precious pieces in the jigsaw of life. We had a coffee, talked non-stop and asked someone to take a photo of us. Jean pointed to a house high on one of the Hebden Bridge hills – an old school house I think, where she lived with Dougie. She told me she was teaching at Sheffield Hallam and about the Readers’ group she ran. Ant, Jean’s middle son, was teaching Art in Todmorden she said – and living in Mytholmroyd, not far away. Ben, her youngest, was away living in or near Bath and she loved going down there to see him. Gary was still in the northwest and she was seeing him regularly.
In March 2011, Jean got in touch because she was worrying whether Chow was safe. A new submarine had got itself into difficulties in the Kyle of Lochalsh. I explained to her that Chow wasn’t directly involved – but also told her I was in Peckham, south London, with Dom. Our son had just been diagnosed with aggressive rectal cancer. 2011 was the hardest year of my life. All the hard times I had ever known were simply rehearsals for what John and I faced throughout 2011. Dom came home to live with us in May.
Hearing the consultant tell our son that he had within one year to live and then leaving us alone to gather ourselves and try to grasp the fact was hard, but listening to Dom’s question to me “What did she just say to me?” and having to answer him was of another dimension.
We set up a ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ list. When he had his heart attack in June 2011, I remember how cold the emergency A & E space felt as I sat with him in the early hours until he was taken by ambulance to a specialist unit in south Manchester. I remember the courage of his sisters and brothers at the time – and the dedicated visits they made to him.
Jeanjeanie was always there for me. We wrote letters now and again and I have all the emails she sent. The chemotherapy and radiotherapy visits were regular, with Dom lying in the back of the car on pillows on the journey to and from hospital. We had a last holiday in August 2011. “Now is the time to take that holiday”, the consultant had told us. So, north. It had to be north. Dumfries and Galloway – with its hills, its woods and its night skies – was such a comfort.
In October 2011, our grandson Eric was born. Dom lived long enough to wonder at him and watch him. He loved children.
He died on November 6th 2011.
I remember Jean in her red dress at the funeral. I remembered Dom’s colour poem as a child, which ended “Red is the brightest and best colour of all.”
Our opportunities to be together dwindled after I had a kidney removed in 2013 and it took a while to recover. Jean mentioned tripping and falling and forgetfulness in her emails and that she had been diagnosed with a kind of epilepsy, which was interfering with her teaching and travelling. We were both growing old, doing too much and young in our heads. We swapped recipes and snippets of news about what we were up to or about the children. She was hoping to be able to move house and seemed very busy and occupied with it all.
Dougie’s message in May of this year about Jean’s fall and diagnosis of dementia was such a blow, but nothing compared to the blow to her boys. I could feel the depth of their pain. It’s so hard to be once-removed from the caring and closeness. I had lived through that with my children and Dom.
There is nothing can come between Jeanjeanie and me. “I love you dearly Leigh”, she would say or write to me and that is always with me. She knows she is loved dearly in return. It breaks my heart to leave her after a visit.
Our hearts were lifted so much when Ant and his partner Aga came for a cuppa with us recently. He brought two silverpoint drawings for us and we got to know each other a bit. So like his twinkly Mum.
Ria went to Dublin and brought Jean back a little leprechaun. She loved his red hair! Hinnie, our daughter, came with us with her four year old Ella to see Jean, (who hadn’t seen Ella since she was a babe). It was such a joyful meeting. They talked about elephants and chocolate pennies.
Jean and I are forever young. It’s not our favourite song, but we have a song we agreed would be our ‘Help!’ song…