by Rowena Price – an autobiographical piece
The garden of my family home is graced with new growth: pale green shoots of daffodils and anemones. Last night the government told us that we can enjoy these green outdoor things on our own or with one other person, but only if they’re far away enough that I’ll have to put on my glasses to tell what facial expressions they’re making. There are plenty of green things in the West Country, though, so I’m thankful for that.
I leave my boyfriend’s birthday cake on my doorstep, the first day that seeing him is illegal. He walks through the fields and up the hill to pick it up and stands three strides up the drive while I shout happy birthday from the doorstep. I have a very strong urge to make a stupid, obvious joke about Boris Johnson and the MI5 watching us with binoculars behind the neighbour’s hedge.
Thanks. I wish I could hug you.
Me too. I don’t know what to do with my arms. I stretch them out across the steps towards him, feigning desperation.
Keep your arms and legs inside the household at all times, Madam.
I laugh, but not properly. Yeah, yeah, good one.
At this point imagining a hug being against the law is pretty funny, but it doesn’t stay funny for very long. I start talking about the cake because I know my Mum can hear everything from the kitchen where she is making her breakfast porridge and also this is much more stilted an interaction than I imagined it would be. I thought it would be vaguely tragic in a heart-warming, cinematic kind of way, but actually it has made me realise how weird it is not being able to touch the people you love when you say hello and goodbye and all the time in between. Even if you’ve known them for a long time and by all accounts it should otherwise be normal. But I can’t imagine this ever feeling normal.
Anyway, um, the cake is the same as last year, kind of, but I left the sugar out of the whipped cream because d’you remember it was that weird American recipe and way too sweet?
It isvanilla sponge and whipped cream and jam, a fractal of sliced summer fruits pushed into the top. I have started making origami, too, not very well but with a nice purpose in mind, because birthday presents are expensive and my last-minute coach ticket home from uni was fifty quid. I have made him some wonky paper cranes in varying colours of the rainbow, descending round a circular loop of bent coat hanger. It is meant to be a mobile but frankly it is a bit shit and maybe quite a childish gift for your boyfriend who is turning twenty.
Yeah, I remember. It looks amazing, thank you.
He is standing like someone who really doesn’t want their photograph to be taken. Like he’s trying to compress himself into a smaller, less painful existence. I think about his hands pushed into his pockets. Are they balled into self-conscious fists, fingers fluttering, picking at the bits of fluff and old crumbs that seem to be impossible to completely remove in jacket pockets? And what will this be like when we are still apart in a month, in two months? In three? Will this still feel wholly, horribly bizarre? How easy it would be to walk over and loop my hand through his and slide both of them back into the pocket, like we always do when it is cold and we are walking somewhere together.
Well. I hope it tastes okay.
I guess I’d better go. Or the government will be after me.
Alright then, (and, affectionately), piss off. I love you.
I love you, too.
Later, he sends me a picture of the cranes hung from his bedroom ceiling. The sunlight is casting the colours in a wide arc on the wall above the bed – these things that I have folded and frowned over and the time I took with my hands to do this, now a ridiculous paper aviary wheeling above his head. He is 0.2 miles away, just down the hill and past the maypole and the grotty old Tesco express, instead of the usual 300 while we’re both at university. My best friend lives two minutes’ walk in the opposite direction, up the hill to the nearest village, passing at least seven houses of people I know on the way. It is strangely somehow more painful to be apart, but so tortuously close.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently, about how the space we take up with our hands is quite a personal thing. How we hold ourselves when we don’t want to be seen, when we’re thinking, when we’re proud – it shows in our hands. When I’m thinking, I curl up my fingers into the palm and press the top of my thumbnail between my teeth. And when I’m nervous I’ll pinch my earlobe between my thumb and forefinger like a penny. You can’t really hide how you feel with your hands like you can with your eyes – with your eyes there’s an extra dimension between the surface and what it shows.
And I wonder what the people I love but can’t see or touch are doing with their hands right this second. There are a lot of people we love that we can’t see right now. Maybe they are stirring some soup or rattling a pen against a desk or scratching the back of their neck. I’m not really sure why this interests me, but it does.
impression of moving hand
upon moving hand
enfold time upon time’s side
press patient fingers
into every corner pleat
APRIL-MAY-JUNE (GLOUCESTERSHIRE, STILL)
Every day I get up at midday and read a couple of hundred pages from something dusty I’ve picked out from the living room bookshelf. It feels good to touch these things that haven’t been handled in years. They smell of old oak furniture and the pages are mottled and yellow. Some have notes pencilled in from the 80s and 90s: happy birthday; merry Christmas; thinking of you; from _ with love. Yellow oak. Old hands. Pencils. I wonder what trees went into making these books, in what land and time. Possibly there is a little bit of every continent in this bookshelf.
The spine of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is cracked with familiarity. I read a little bit of it every day in the rocking chair, legs crossed, trying to make it last for at least a week, between cups of tea and hysterical circles around the garden. I have been wearing the same woolly jumper and stripy trousers for probably five days.
Mum pokes her head around the doorway.
Hellooooo. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin? That’s one of my absolute favourites. I bought that when it came out, you know.
Five? Or something. Do you want any lunch yet? Dad’s made soup.
Not yet please. Can I have it later? I’ve got to a good bit.
March and April come and go in an indistinctive swathe of grey skies and the occasional rain shower, but in May the earth swells into full bloom. Here, summers are rosy efflorescence and a horizon trembling a haze of heat and pollen. Picture buttercups and cowpats and sitting on dry stone walls. Picture sun-bleached commons bristling with the full-throated cries of larks. Between the shoulders of wooded hills, the Severn valley stretched like a collarbone, the river a polished meditation of sky. The hills hand me summer through my bedroom window, and I am mostly seeing it through from behind it. My soundtrack is the chug-chug-chug of my Mum’s sewing machine and, faintly, underneath this, sporadic drifts of Women’s Hour interviews.
It would be a lie to say this isn’t all a bit of a love letter to my childhood home. But it would also be a lie to say I don’t miss my university. I miss my seminars, meeting people from all over the country, even the world, for the first time, and hearing what they think about all the things we have to read. Hearing their poetry and their jokes. I miss dancing with my friends, dragging each other home through windy streets in November, dressing up in tiny glittery clothes. I miss painting tiny blue stars on my eyelids, and drinking cheap vodka with cheap juice, and running down the long corridor of our flat in the costume wizard hat I found in a charity shop. Standing in the kitchen and trying to hit a ping pong ball with a frying pan all the way down the corridor, through the gap in the bathroom door and into the toilet. The disgusting messy hilarity of all of this is how you want to live when you are eighteen. We will do these thing again, I know, but how much older will we be? Will we still want to hit ping pong balls into the toilet with the back of a frying pan?
So I think that this is a love letter to more than one home.
In July, when the ban on mixing households and travel is lifted, my boyfriend and I go to stay in his student house in Wales. We have the place to ourselves and make macaroni cheese every day, argue about the crossword clues, and drive in his tiny silver car up the coast to swim in the sea. One night we stay awake and sit at the seafront and watch the sun come up behind purple-heathered hills. The tide is so far out that you can’t really see it at all. The three weeks we spend here are a break in the clouds.
all night we sit
and pin definition –
until the lining of the sky
begins to pearl
with the necessity of revolution.
silk of mud flats, dense
with embroidery of oysters,
your hands weaving your relation,
your voice sewn into seams.
who else will change but the young
bastes itself horizon-wide
and I am in love
with patchworking the world to rights.
cushioned by the thread of your words
and moored under your two arms,
I listen, watch your words
slip stitching stars, seas,
a world we want to live in,
plaintive quiet of the button moon;
and all this within a thimble.
In early November, I leave my student house one Saturday to pick up some more cereal from the corner shop and I get a call from Dad. Mum is ill again. Ring your sister. We love you. Carry on being normal as much as you can. When I call off I continue walking to the Co-op, pick up milk and bread and cereal and walk back again. I make myself a bowl of granola but I leave it on the counter-top and go outside and smoke two cigarettes in a row and then forget about it. I call my sister.
‘Hello… where are you? Are you okay?’
‘Fuck cancer. Fucking bloody cancer. Again.’ I look at my bowl of soggy Country Crisp and start crying. ‘I let my cereal go soggy and it was fucking expensive cereal.’
I can hear her voice catching down the line. ‘Can I come and pick you up? Please? Please let me come and pick you up?’
‘I want you to but you can’t. It’s lockdown tomorrow.’
‘It doesn’t matter, Ro. We have the car, it’s fine.’
‘I have to stay here. My plant needs watering and I can’t leave my friends-’
‘I’m coming to get you and you can stay with us.’
‘Are you sure?’
Right now I am exhausted by the noise of my brain, the sight of the insides of my eyelids. I keep thinking about how I’m the only person I have to live with for the rest of my life and that means having to forgive every oversight and cruel thought and missed opportunity.
In lockdown you are confronted with yourself, and truthfully, not the best parts of yourself. It’s not that I don’t enjoy my own company, but when you don’t have certainty about things to look forward to or any news to tell about interesting things you’ve been doing, it can feel like an echo chamber inside your own skull. I know I am not unique in this at the moment, and that I have a lot to be thankful for in the current situation – a warm home with enough room to move around a fair amount and have privacy, and family who are safe and (mostly) well, a lot more time to spend with my elder sister who usually I hardly get to see – yet nobody’s situation right now is at all conducive to good mental health. Even people in the best possible situation during a lockdown are not exempt from those difficulties. I miss my friends from home and my friends from uni and my independence there and my family home and my parents and my boyfriend and my cat. I know everybody misses those same things in their lives. But honestly, I think it’s allowed – necessary even – to mourn for your small, everyday losses, the derailment of your usual life, over your separation from the people you love, the ability to move freely – however temporary those losses are.
It is likely won’t hug my parents until sometime next spring. My sister and I won’t be at our childhood home for Christmas; we’ll be at her home, in a different county, with her husband and his family. This is where I’ve been over the second lockdown after we got the news about our Mum. By now we are all used to paying these small prices for the sake of survival – even if it isn’t our own. Bodies and brains are fragile. They might do any number of things at any point in time, and usually when it’s the last thing you need. Your legs take you from one day to the next and your brain is a vastly complicated instrument so it ought to be kind to itself. And as I’ve said, your hands do a multitude of beautiful things. If looking after your body is the only thing you can do right now, it is even more important to do it. I don’t really mean exercise or whatever. I mean care, and hope.
‘Oh No! The Weevils Have Eaten My Vital Organs’
the bathroom sink
has swallowed me.
I was peeling my face off in the mirror
when the plughole pulled it in.
freckles flaked off,
old paint and rot the sweeping sinews
of my cheeks.
my eyes old pennies
marked with the mint of a dead Queen
that slipped through floorboards ribs,
swelled with water and worm
and the kisses of bootsoles.
the small colony of shrews
nesting in my throat and hair
were embalmed for posterity
in the oiled embrace of soap scum.
the glycerin smile swilled off my skin,
I fulfilled my corporal destiny:
fleshéd membranes grilled on sewer grates
with cartoon refuse and a little tea.
when it was done
the bones were spat out
on the linoleum.
the dog ate those,
and with a series of howling ejections
heaved them up again.
On Christmas Eve my sister and her husband and I drive west to Mum and Dad’s in Gloucestershire, and sit on the steps in the front garden, where my boyfriend stood holding his birthday cake nine months ago. It is very cold, but this is the last chance we will get to see their faces in a while, given that the tier system is changing on boxing day so we won’t be able to go anywhere. We have about seven layers on and a blanket stretched over our shoulders, but the wind does not bite as hard as seeing my Dad open the front door, eyes joyful but shoulders heavy. I take one look at his face when I put the presents down on the doorstep and I burst into tears. To comfort our various sadnesses (and warm up our hands), Dad makes us tea and brings out mince pies, shop-bought because he doesn’t have the time, nor Mum the energy, to make them homemade with the little pastry stars on top like most years.
This is because Mum had her first surgery just under a week ago. She is sitting in a chair at the window upstairs, wearing pyjamas and a face that’s almost grey. Unsurprisingly, she is in a lot of pain, and taking a vast concoction of different pills and potions that combat the side effects of the other pills and potions that stop her getting an infection. That’s enough to make anyone grey.
So, we sit on either side of the door to swap Christmas presents and try to make each other laugh and share the tiny, quite boring little things we have achieved recently. But the oncoming dark and the constant draught because of the open door don’t allow us to stay long. I’ll come home again, just not yet.
these little bright shards,
held and hoarded and
loved into shapelessness:
the missing arms of papier-mache
glass-blown apples jewelled with cracks,
2-4-1 tinsel plucked bare by the dog.
dust and glitter look the same after
thirty-five years, let me tell you.
in any house
there’ll be someone begging to bring down the box,
holding up to the light
these tiny traditions, furred and felted,
immortalised in the gluey whorls
of ancient sticky fingers