The living principle
On the very embrittlement and cusp of adolescence my parents took me to see Hamlet as performed in the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey. We brought hot lemon drink in a thermos, green bean and potato curry in buns. ‘The ruin is easily assimilated,'
writes Georg Simmel, ‘because, unlike a house or palace, it does not insist upon another order of reality'; this is how we're taken in by nature. I remember a gentle rain
didn't phase the players - and how, partway through his soliloquy, Hamlet released from his fist a falcon which unfortunately flew up and perched on the microphone atop a real stone pillar: the sound of an ear drum bursting.
Also, how in front of us two elderly women hemmed and shushed through the first act - blaming the rustling of crisp packets for what they couldn't get out of the language. Or was it my assiduous dad flipping noisily through my York Notes?
The things they pass on. In my kitchen, a model of Eilean Donan Castle, five years in the making. On its stand, it is as tall as I am. Do not refer to it as a doll's house; it is a tower house, though, yes, dolls live inside. Dad let me down, he should have made a shrinking machine as well to let me in the front door. Then I'd boot out those bland faced Edwardians in their satin waistcoats. Their lips are buds, their cheeks are wax. I'd bring the hot oil, I'd thud down the anticlockwise stair, forced to hold my sword in my wrong hand; my right hand. Then intuition would kick in. I'd kick Mr Moustaches in his felt clad privates, I'd tip Baby Flossie from the minstrels' gallery. The spiral: Dad constructed it out of a coathanger while I watched. Plastered the ceilings in slices of cardboard, stained the bookcases in the library. Snap, snap, one after the other, as though the past were as simple as building a tower, one brick after the next. I grew up in the spaces between. The broom stays away; beneath Eilean Donan spiders live among cheese-bits and onion petals.
For his birthday we wrapped each volume individually: The Fortified House in Scotland. Dad likes to scour the lowlands, ticking them off. One time I remember; we pulled into the owner's driveway, early spring. A Mickey Mouse tower, weak sun on the crowstep gable, smell of rain-damp fern, curled into itself in ever smaller iterations. Chilly. From the nearby house lopes the toff in residence, and shakes my Dad's hand. We spoke on the phone, can we have a look? Up we go, one dank step after the next. He looks like Freddie Mercury, both old and young. I would guess forty, but he can't meet my mum's gaze. He talks too quickly, addressing my father only. Pausing in the great hall, he blushes, and fiddles with his cuffs. On the roof-walk the sun lights on the tender parting of his hair, revealing a white stripe of skull. He lives with his dowager mother, trying to drum up funds with which to renovate the old pile. You need to win the lottery: my mum leans over the parapet, eyes his mansion all the way down there. It's the altitude makes her sarcastic. Ah! He looks at his Oxfords; then Dad's head appears out of the floor. Isn't this just charming? Beneath the owner's moustache, a grin spreads. A pigeon launches itself out of an ancient Caledonian pine, and we follow each other downstairs.
By the car, he and my Dad linger, but the conversation spirals inwards until there is nowhere else to go. I hope you won't mind if I give you something for the upkeep? Not at all. A twenty pound note passes between them. The giver apologises skilfully. And then they stand for a moment, staring at their Oxfords, these two men in their jumpers and slacks, while their shadows form twin streaks on the castle wall.
That lad of twelve or thirteen I watched sink
glorious three-pointers over his father's Volvo
then stand with hands on hips like one of the girls
he'd learn to banter with wanting a scolding;
I saw him today with his air-pedalling offspring
strapped to his broad chest like explosive
and could not believe the blue plaque over his head
Don't touch, they say. The grown-ups. I hear, and I know, but I can't help it. Tomorrow I'll be different, maybe, but today I stick out a fist, I open my mouth. Rabbit pellets I break open between fingertips. Dusty grains of stuff in there or threads of plant matter. The sheep's skull on my nana's porch, crowning the pole Grandpa uses to skim the pond. A sheepman. Chalk surface, and darker, dirtier, in the holes. I put a finger between the jaws, want to feel the bone's edge. When Grandpa comes to see what I am doing I freeze, and maybe he won't see me. A stickman. If I see a feather I pick it up - though it's matted like my teddy dog's hair from where I keep him under my arm and take him with me at night. He's never there, though, when they chase me through ships which sail in the sky, or point guns at my heart and blame me for the terrible things I have done. I sweat, or sometimes think of a sweetness in sleep and wake, wet, so my mummy must pat me dry, and wish I was a braver girl. A big girl. At the museum they tell us how they used to lay the sheets on a bed of cowdung and pour on old urine to get out stains. It doesn't happen so much now, but when it does I feel angry and worried and wish that I could be clean and stay that way, that someone would put me in a bubble of air.
Sometimes I pretend my bed is a slice of tree and I share it with the caterpillars and beetles. I have to count them before I can sleep, and hope that the moths don't find me. They press their white tummies at the window but I won't let them in. I don't want what's out there.
At the zoo I watch the cockroaches crawl over one another, and I wonder what it would feel like to have them on your skin, rattly shiny backs and those feelers touching you. Like when you know there's a spider and the skin of your ears is extra sensitive in its slip of air, and your bare neck wants a jumper and good doors between you and him. That's why they build houses, to keep the creepy crawlies out. Mummy doesn't like it, but I can watch them forever in their moving hill. Sometimes she cries. I want to stop it for her so I try to get the teardrop onto my finger like a ladybird but it won't stay rounded, it squashes against her face. She pushes my hand away and is angry.
She doesn't like it but I can watch the cockroaches forever, like I can wait on their bed for daddy to come home from work, my knees up so I am a box. I take the batteries out of the remote and put them on my palm and clink them one over the other too and put them back and take them out and then he appears; I see a head come up the stairs and he calls me his Flora and takes off his tie, and once he is in Dad clothes he lifts me onto his shoulders and carries me downstairs, though I am too big for it now and have to duck my head under the door, and then we are in the kitchen and Mummy looks round and sighs, and stirs the dinner in its pan, while I come back down to earth and slide on the black and white floor squares in my socks, moving like the knight in a game of chess.
With nothing left of last night's drunken bitching but a new-painted today I'm tempted to buy - how much booze must remain in my system? - and the kebab left mouldering in the kitchen,
one grey sliver of meat poking out of the lid like the hand of a zombie set to roll back its stone, I recover what I can of the barbarian who when he saw the marble walls designed
to keep him, or the idea of him, out shine come dawn like the idea of themselves, an idea he'd never had, turned and fought on behalf of the empire he had come to raze
- it must have been Rome, or Greece? - against his own tribe. Ungooglable: I try a classicist I know. She can't place the story, wonders was it Gibbon or Macaulay?
Meanwhile, on the brink of the Pitt Rivers, a boy finger-walks the spiral staircase of the ammonite... How could I lose touch with that happy disarray the bow tie's silk must flusker through into shape?
From the window in the back bedroom, I see it all; fields spreading to the horizon, a horse white against a far hedge, and the distant slope which the whole of me wills downwards to the shore, to a pummelling sea. But what is there beyond that slope but more fields, fields and houses? Farmoor Reservoir, a platitude, with its little white triangles tilting pathetically. Such breadth of landscape leaves me gasping, I need an edge to cling to, but all I have is the flat old sky, taking up most of the view. Not so much as a plane's crucifix sparkles there, just the colour of cold air. In Bruegel's painting there is one bird, perilously small and high, and yet closer to you than those figures acting out their individual joys and grievances below. And how that bird opens up the entire scene, makes you catch your breath as you follow the hunter over the lip of the hill and see how far you have come, and how far you have yet to go.
Turning from the window, I see a panel of gold on the wall, and my shadow passes through it. Spring is flashing its warning, and will make mincemeat of winter. I'll make mincemeat of you - this is my mum's phrase; a threat, faux-stern. Spring is jealous of the time we have given to these sadder pursuits, to remembering, or picking fights with the past, swishing a line in the air with a foil of the coldest, thinnest steel, and trying, really wanting to, for God's sake needing to stay on one side of that line. The heating clicks on and from the airing cupboard a hum climbs the chromatic scale, as though the house will take off. My own passage across the hall to the other bedroom sets off a series of creaks in the floor; these are the noises which make me foolish and jumpy, checking and checking the locks. At 5am most days I am woken by pigeons plodding across the roof. They are growing fatter by the year. I don't mind though; their noise takes me straight back home, to summer and being seven years old.
I was working on a Natural History project; a competition for over-keen children set by local dignitaries - the Rotary Club perhaps, or the still unimaginable bigwigs at the High School, where girls smoked behind the tennis courts and my big brother came gleefully to me with stories of Human Pinball and kids throwing chairs at teachers. I took the competition seriously, as I was to take everything academic seriously - not finding anything outside of school worth straying for, finding every pleasure I needed in those little achievement stamps in my planner, and certificates with WordArt borders and ribbons glued on. A terrible swot; how I wanted to make my parents proud! I meticulously measured the poppies I had planted, and noted their pollination. I transcribed into my notebook the movements of the blackbirds nesting in the Euonymus in front of the kitchen. I drew a bird, and a tree. Summer ended, and with it all of the things I loved; the lawn with its shady patches and my mum's watering can in the evening, and her patience for seeing these things through, the smell of the water trickling on hot soil, or the thunk of the croquet mallet, the ball rolling sweetly through papery arches. A blackbird's yellow beak and falling over on the patio, both knees already plastered, and how red blood looked, how green-blue or yellow-green the grass. And those bowlers across the road in their blazing whites, who when the first fat raindrops came simply unleashed their brollies and sent the storm packing, so that the click click of the balls seemed to me one of many constants, and every view was closed up, and satisfactory. All of this, somehow, was in that competition notebook, with my joined-up letters anally precise between their lines, and a smudge of dirt, and tilting dates, so beautifully close to one another. After the 16th of July, the 17th. Dutifully, I submitted my work for scrutiny. When no one else entered, I won the competition by default. They handed over a £5 cheque, but withheld the trophy shaped like an owl. I went home sadder, and older, and learned to court disappointment.
When April comes to Oxford I will think about visiting the Natural History Museum, its contents gleaming dully inside its great iron skeleton, and will choose to stay at home. Anyway, I'll say to myself, I'll never remember the names of the epochs; I might as well not bother. Anyway, I'll say, I never will feel anything but incredulity when, standing on the upper balcony in front of the little marble sized Earth, I raise my eyes to the far side and spot the Sun, the size of a football, a shining brass fellow, set there to remind us just how small we are. The smug bastard, with his hundreds of zeroes. I am crawling inside myself, legs tucked under me on the stair where I sit, thinking about thinking about it. The older I get, the more I shy away from big numbers. We are going round in circles, and I for one am sick of it.