Thus Spoke the Songs of Love, by Naida Redgrave

Yesterday

“I am a forest, and a night of dark trees: but he who is not afraid of my darkness, will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.”
―Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

I woke up to a beautiful spring afternoon. Birds chirped in the distance and the house felt still and empty. Memories of the previous evening trickled like sap and stuck to every passing thought of all the chores I’d been ignoring. I tried to read, but the words danced off the page and tangled into meaningless sentences. I sat for two hours, listening to the birds and watching the world sway in the gentle breeze, feeling peaceful and uncertain. On the kitchen counter the unpacked shopping sat in the sunlight. I have nothing to give you, my dear.

Whenever I look at you, it’s like I’m looking at you for the first time. It’s as if my brain cannot retain the scope of your beauty. You smile and my heart feels warm.

I can’t believe we got to here.

I don’t know if you’ll ever know what that means, if I’ll ever really be able to explain how much I mean in those seven words. But I want to try so that you know how much I fought to find you. One day I will be old, and I won’t remember to tell you about following your heart as fast and as far as your feet can bear.

When I was three

“Man is something that shall be overcome… Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss… What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”
―Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Back in the eighties, small kids were fine to ride up front in the car without even a booster seat. These days there are laws about disengaging air bags and rear-facing car seats. I’m not even sure our car had airbags, but dad would always make me wear a seatbelt after mum’s accident. She lost control of her car down a winding lane on a winter night. The car flipped over three times — I remember seeing her in bed with multiple casts. I was only three so at the time didn’t realise how close we came to losing her, but I always remember being told how the seatbelt saved her life. My memory of early childhood is comprised of several unconnected snippets of moments, which are not complete scenes in themselves, but tend to play on a repeating loop like GIFs. Whilst I know there were many journeys in the car with my dad when I was little, I only have the specific memory of one day in particular, when he took me to get something to eat. I remember it being a fast food place but I don’t know what I ate besides chips. I know we sat on stools facing out of the front window. I remember it was crowded — I was holding my dad’s hand and felt engulfed, like I was drowning in everyone else’s height. The thing I remember most from that day is my gold necklace. I remember crying because of it. A man grabbed at it, and dad caught him just in time. I was terrified and started to wail, and he tucked it under my t-shirt and jumper. When we got to the car and I’d stopped crying, I asked him what would have happened to the necklace if he hadn’t been there. I knew, of course, that I would probably no longer have my necklace. I can’t remember what he said, but he had a look on his face like disappointment. I didn’t realise at the time that it wasn’t directed at me. I didn’t realise what he felt actually, until I had you, and the badness and sadness of the world took on a new meaning. 

When I was five

“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame;
how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?”
―Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

There are things that nobody can control – social situations and circumstances that we boil down to bad luck. There are others that we do, but often we still find that same injustice. People can be mean and cruel. Mostly, when I think back to this time, I remember the soles of my shoes getting stuck in thick mud and later scraping the dry chunks from the crevices with a twig from the garden.

I climbed trees and made wishes to the sky at night.

I don’t remember much of the start of primary school. I know my first teacher was Mrs Willoughby, and she gave me my first taste of kiwi. I pretended to like it because I liked her, and I wanted her to like me. Proper school was when I really started to feel like I was different. It was the early nineties, and although there were other black faces around outside of my own family, it was still a novelty. A pretty blonde girl, Sally, once asked me why I was brown. I told her that when I was a baby my parents had left me in the sun too long. I knew that this wasn’t true, but I didn’t really know why I was brown, except that my parents were and that was how it worked. I knew my dad had told me many times that I would have to work harder because I was black; that it wouldn’t be enough to just be good, I had to be the best. In subsequent years my parents would get a real kick out of seeing me win the prize for English each year end. “You’re better at English than the English!” I remember one of them saying. When I asked them where I should say I was from, as it was a question I received constantly, they were adamant that my answer must always be that I was born in England; therefore I’m British. Entertaining anything else was not an option. I didn’t tell them that saying this only prompted a further question, “But where are you really from?” To which I was always quite proud to respond, “My dad is African and my mum is Arab.”

“How exotic!” people would say, and it would make me proud, but that pride came at a cost — the resignation that I was always going to be different, no matter where I went.

We spent alternate summers in Tanzania and the Middle East, where I became very familiar with the term ‘mzungu’, which means English person but, more loosely, it is the word in Swahili to describe a white person. In 2000, the year I turned thirteen, I started a fresh diary on the plane to Africa. “I’m going home from home,” I wrote, “but I belong in neither.” That was the year I started collecting love songs, and noticing boys.

When I was fourteen

“Silence is worse; all truths that are kept silent become poisonous.”
―Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

 

When I was a teenager, all I ever wanted was to fall in real love. I would cycle a couple of miles from home to a park tucked away behind one of the A-roads towards Stansted airport in Notley Green with a packet of cigarettes and my notebook, and I’d write terrible poetry about nothing at all. The summer I turned fourteen I became obsessed with smells – the sharp but sweet smell of freshly cut grass, the deep, dry smoke of a barbeque in the distance. I would write about a love I had yet to experience, about the aching and longing that took up so much of my time. March of that year I’d become withdrawn. I could feel the pain and the weight of the world in everyone I knew. That summer I listened toLast Goodbye’ by Jeff Buckley and wrote the words out into my notebook. I circled lines and scribbled in fountain pen that dribbled onto my fingers, ‘find that’. A solitary duck skimmed the pond and I had no bread. I threw a cigarette butt beside me and reached for another in the pack. The duck flew away. I wrote on my hand, ‘Find the truth in Love Songs’, and it stayed there all afternoon until the cycle home where it disappeared into the rubber of the handlebars. Many years passed by quietly. A stillness surrounded me that I filled with the noise from my heart. I often wondered when my life would start. I watched sunsets where the sky faded from peach to blue to black, and I couldn’t connect the purpose of the world’s beauty to experience.

When I was nineteen

“The lonely one offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters.”
―Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

 

My first love was like my first bicycle with stabilisers. Every now and then, when it tilted just right, both stabilisers hovered off the ground and I was riding on two wheels for real. I could feel myself doing it and I was proud and excited, but I knew that if they weren’t there I’d fall. It was as real as real could get, without being quite right.

One day a boy on pills stumbled into my room. I was nineteen and had never had a boyfriend. His girlfriend was in my living room. “You know,” he said, inviting himself to a seat, “you’re actually really pretty.” I had no makeup on and had just finished a late shift at Blockbusters. I did not feel pretty. We talked a little until someone called his name and he left. I put on a song I’d heard a thousand times and fell in love with him to it.

A week later we were together. The first time we held hands I felt a shock run up my arm and down my spine. His lips were thick, the bottom one flat, right in the middle. His eyes were wide and set close together, and his long, dark hair was dreadlocked. He looked like I’d pictured the love of my life to be, and often I would think about what our children would look like.

“You’re drunk.”

“I’m not.”

“You are. Look at you, you can’t even stand up!” I’d been in his room alone long enough to read half of Never Let me Go that his mum had bought me.

“It’s Christmas. Why don’t you–”

“Because, Matty, I’ve got the appointment tomorrow.” I was careful not to shout. His brother’s room was next door, and he and his girlfriend were still up.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t drink. I mean, you can drink because–”

“I know I can drink. I don’t want to. I don’t feel like it. I feel sick, and upset, and you’re just fine and carrying on like everything’s normal.”

“I don’t know how you want me to act.”

“I don’t want you to act like anything. Look, I don’t want you there tomorrow, okay? I just want to be on my own.”

I left his parent’s house just before sunrise, and walked the two miles to the train station in the snow. Amber lines warmed the road ahead from the street lights, and the ground was white and untouched. Just before I arrived at the hospital, my mum called to tell me my aunt was pregnant, and I threw up right there on the pavement. Afterwards, a friend picked me up. I got into the car and burst into tears. “I thought he’d come,” I said, and we drove the rest of the way in silence listening to NOFX.

In all the ons and offs, the years, the birthdays, and Christmasses, when I try to remember now all that time, there aren’t a lot of exact memories. If I really force myself, I remember two things the most. Early on, the rose petals leading to him on one knee, with Canary Wharf in the distance like fairy lights, and years later, seeing a picture message flash up on his phone of a lady’s body, wearing the kind of sexy underwear that looks expensive and uncomfortable, with the words, “Thinking of you,” followed by three kisses.  After Matty, I was a shell, choosing to wallow in the injustice of rejection over recognising the situation for what it was. Everything was scooped out of me except a need to be filled with something of substance. I was hollow. There’s something soothing about pain felt in the company of music. The melodies skimming your ears somehow dull the hurt of a troubled heart. They sing your rawness when your voice can’t speak.

When I was twenty-four

“Become who you are!”
―Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

 

When I was 24 I met a guy who had freshwater blue eyes and dirty blond hair.

1st December

Dear N

I have assembled a questionnaire (below) – please don’t be intimidated, but I have masked my intentions with a series of questions so cunning that even Poirot himself couldn’t see through them.

  1. Do you like food? If yes, move to question 2. If no, move to question 9.
  2. Do you find the company of others enhances your enjoyment of food? If yes, move to question 3, if no, move to question 9.
  3. Have you any desire to eat some food in the near future? If yes, move to question 4. If no, move to question 9.
  4. Do you like going to places where they cook food for you? If yes, move to 5. If no, move directly to 9.
  5. Do you like Piña Coladas? If yes, move to 6. If no, move to 9.
  6. Do you like walks in the rain? If yes, move to 7. If no, move to 9.
  7. Are you not into yoga? If yes, move to 8. No, to 9.
  8. Do you have half a brain? (It’s clear Rupert Holmes was only looking for a modicum of intelligence in his significant other – I hope he found it.) If you answered yes then congratulations, you have completed the examination. Please supply me with your answers and I will get back to you with the results. If you answered no then move to 9.
  9. WTF? Despite the questioning being largely subjective and of the yes or no format, you seem to have answered incorrectly. Go back, re-read, think long and hard, then give the opposite answer to the one you gave. M

That was the best text ever. N x

When I was twenty-four I had nothing to lose. I told a guy that he had kind eyes — that the pale blue reminded me of a lake and when his face lit up every word I spoke gravitated towards them. He exuded happiness.

A year later he asked me to marry him. Between the ceremony and reception we snuck off, us two, and we laughed. He held me and my whole body melted into his arms.

Today

I’ve been back at work for a month, and at the end of each day you’ve grown more sturdy in your movements, more versed in your mannerisms and babbles. I ache for you when you fall asleep, and for all the smiles I missed. I ache at the thought of giving you nothing today, except a vague promise of working towards an uncertain tomorrow. Weekends with the three of us are my happiest place.

“If you could do anything in the world right now, what would you do?” I asked your father, with you asleep between us as we napped after breakfast.

“Anything?”

“Anything in the world.”

“I’d buy a motorhome and we’d drive around Europe.”

“Forever?”

“For as long as we wanted,” he said.

I want you to take your first steps adventurously, courageously, on unfamiliar soil in magical lands. I want you to see that beyond the closest clouds, there are hidden mountains to climb and secret paths to explore. I want to walk along with you.

Today I handed in my notice. In six weeks we leave for France, then Spain, then wherever. So much of my journey so far has been internal, so closed and close. Whenever I look at you, my girl, it’s like I’m looking at you for the first time. It’s as if my brain cannot retain the scope of your beauty. You smile at me and my heart feels warm. You have such life behind every interaction with everything around you, and I want to show you the world. I want to show you that there are wonderful adventures around the corner, if you choose to have them, wherever, and however, and I’ll always be here with you, sharing my secrets and playing you love songs.

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