Onder Meer (Among others)
There’s a patch of burnt grass,
Still blackened by the sausage rolls
We set alight when we were
Fourteen years old.
By the Beck, our prepubescent
Hand holding professed a love
Now lost. But still I hold
Onto the memories like a tree
Clings to its leaves-
And somehow fall
I hear our laughter
When I see the burnt patch,
But I cannot place our faces
And I cannot taste the ash.
I am a world of many worlds,
And though I am no longer
A fourteen year old girl,
I am the smoke – the embers- of
All I have ever known.
This poem was written for a friend who’s putting together an anthology based on the significance of one’s home.
Having survived my first semester at university, albeit somewhat haphazardly, I like to think that I have already learned a great number of things with regards to surviving the ‘outside world’. In what I hope will become something of a ‘how-to’ series, I will share my snippets of advice alongside my first-hand woes that naturally stem from a girl who has yet to master the art of living smoothly.
A lot can rest in first impressions- it is the difference between being ‘that intelligent female who knows a lot about 17th century literature’ and being ‘that girl who parades around with yesterday’s lasagne stuck to her face’. And never are first impressions quite so important than when you start university; when every impression is both first and nightmarishly immortal. It’s not breaking news to reveal that a drunken slobbery kiss the night before is a terribly awkward encounter in Tesco’s the day after.
But even those ‘did I really lick his face last night?’ encounters do not compare to the events of my first day of higher education. It started with the mishap we all dread- walking into the wrong class- complete with a sorry face of pleading embarrassment together with lost eyes longing for a hug and a forgiving cup of tea. The mathematics seminar group looked almost offended when I asked if this was the literature seminar. It wasn’t.
But all hope was not lost.
I turned around to see a young man waiting in the seats opposite the room I had attempted to enter. He was witness to my shortcoming and in a blaze of nervous adrenaline I blurted out my unrefined introductions. ‘Are you waiting for this room?’. I was relieved to learn that he was indeed waiting for the same class as me and- seeing a fine opportunity to start my quest for making friends- I began to chant my pleasantries.
‘Oh! That’s so cool! Where are you from?! That’s awesome! I’m from North Yorkshire! I really like your jumper! Do you have any plans for tonight?! That sounds awesome! Me? Oh! I need a night off, had a bit of a mad one last night that ended in me and my flatmates comparing dolphin impressions in the kitchen! …So, is it American literature you’re studying?’
‘Oh no’ he said.
‘I’m teaching it.’
And that is how not to make a fruitful first impression with your lecturers.
If I am to love only once,
Let it be with you-
For the Sun shines out your ass
And from your mouth- the moon.
I’ll call you a Summer’s day
And you will call me a silly cunt,
Waking in a puddle of your drool
With a glare, a middle finger, a grunt-
In bed with our socks on,
Stroking the hairs on our legs
Like stray animals on our sheets-
I am to love only once.
It was sixty seven days later at three o’clock in the month of January when I met my father for the first time. I remember the knock and my mother shooting to the front door with an explosion of rehearsed cheer. Then I wandered through. The man from the letters looked down at me with his unfamiliar eyes. He was not as tall as I imagined. In the scenarios performed in my head, my father would run to hug me before lifting me to the ceiling as though I was everything he had ever wanted to hold. But when I came into view he stood still and lifeless like a hanging cow at the butchers. There was an unadulterated silence as I waited for him to do something. My mum intervened, cooing me over in such delight to mask the awkward encounter. Eventually he patted me on the back with a noticeable hesitation. I went along with it until bedtime.
The last time I had heard my mother scream was when she gave birth. But this was a different scream. I heard it from my bedroom and then I heard it again. The night was entirely dark still, a coldness wrought the air. My chest started to pound as I feared what might be causing my mother to wail. I trembled across the hall, her desk lamp bled a dim light beneath her bedroom door. In my childish bravery I pushed at the handle. Four wide eyes greeted me with terror. What I saw devoured anything child-like that was still within me at seven years old. The man I was told to call father had enveloped my mother’s naked body that was stark red with
tender beatings. He was clasping her waist with his determined fists and clutching at her skin. Tears stained my mother’s cheeks as she was contorted beneath my father’s lurching body. The man stood still and my mother screamed at me to leave. I didn’t know at the time what it was he was doing to my mother. What he was taking from her. I yelled him to get off her but he just threw my mother to the ground before pushing me back through the door. I screamed and whimpered but the light in her room did not go out and neither did her cries. They have never gone out.
On the day I pushed my sister I stood at the cliff’s edge and glanced down at her body. It was still. In my mind I felt relief. There was nothing this world could do to her anymore.
This story was my first submission towards my literature with creative writing degree! For this portfolio we were asked to write 1500 words on any subject matter and in any style. Of course, this led my mind to wander down some questionable paths.
A smile bled from her lips the moment I pushed her. My little sister. Her nimble limbs collapsed before she hit the floating shore. There was a crack and something of a splutter between the screams and the waves that began to claim her body. The air was thick; I imagined her splitting it in half, like Moses and the red sea, when
she fell through it. Like a curtain call, the roaring sun played a spotlight to the show.
This wasn’t the first time I had seen her covered in blood and grasping for life. Her birth was disgusting. When she came out she was as pink and as raw as undercooked chicken; wailing as though entering this world was a punishment beyond all that Hell could muster. Babies are perceptive like that. I would wail too if my first encounter with world included a television screen playing the Sound of Music, as she did. That day was when I became aware of the human tendency to mask what is undeniably hideous for the sake of politeness; a convention for the civilised. I watched my mother writhe and howl for eleven hours only to be handed the consolation prize of a squirming gory infant. Yet, the audience cooed and cackled over the ‘miracle’ that was wrapped in the parcel of my mother’s own shining guts.
I was not supposed to be there. My father was due to arrive in time for the birth of his second child but he was seven hundred and sixty days late. I knew that because I’d been counting down the days to his return from the moment I knew how time worked. I had never met this man but my mum reminded me to call him dad despite this fact. He was a sergeant in the Vietnam War. He’d often send letters telling of his heroic endeavours. One tale, in particular, still clings to my memory. My father was in the jungle, he wasn’t a descriptive writer but in my head this jungle was like the picture books I was given at Christmas, full of wandering shadows and towers of green, teeming with creatures of a child’s nightmares or effervescent fantasies. He was alone until he heard a scream. A mother carrying an infant, not unlike my baby sister, and running. Her clothes were so ripped her naked flesh beamed through the tears of cotton. My father noted the terror on her face; the helplessness of a mother who couldn’t save her baby. For it was only a second or so later that her body turned into a cloud of
burning ash, an explosion so hot my father said he could feel it hit the ends of his own skin. Strips of red flesh fell from the sky. The particular letter ended there.
My grandmother did not want me at the hospital during the recovery of my mother’s own exploding body. She said little boys did not belong in wards where women’s screams bled into a chorus of an unforgiving pitch. She said to my mother, just loud enough for my child’s ears to hear, that I was in the way. I would be better off elsewhere. Her nose sat above a cup of tea as she spat the demands of my leave. But an old hag bound to a wheelchair had no chance of standing in the way of me meeting my father. And so I waited beside my mother’s bed. Her head rested like the moon, cratered and blotched with unfamiliar shades as she cradled the new-born beneath her breath. A vacant air possessed the sadness on her face. An obnoxiously large clock face was floating on the wall, distorting the silence with its regimented ticking.
We had been in the hospital a total of five days when a faceless nurse handed us the letter. The foreign stamps and half-assed handwriting revealed its sender before my mother tore the envelope. The rattling of the paper unleashed a screaming outcry from my little sister who had yet to learn the art of receiving bad news. My grandmother shooed me out of the room with her plastic bag arms. Her sickly-sweet scent was enough to coax me, but I already knew what the foreboding papered rectangle meant. ‘Daddy won’t be coming home for a little while yet darling, but you know our country needs him more than us…’ My mother was fond of this platitude. My father –her husband- was a hero who did heroic things in a country that needed heroes. He was my hero, this man I’d never met, and for almost three more years I carried on waiting.
When my sister became vaguely aware of her own existence, she took a fondness to the park. She gargled at the ducks especially, the curves of her mouth would grow wider as they waddled closer to her outstretched limbs. I did not like the park. It was a breeding ground for pre-digested amusement. It made me wince to watch children greedily run for the swings and bundle down the rusted slides. Some of the boys who did not like the park would protest their boredom in the form of mass slaughter behind the nearby cabin. They would take it in turns to rip worms from the ground and pull at the bright pink ends until they broke in half. Their eyes gleamed like little red sirens watching the worms writhe. Some days it was spiders. They took it in turns to pull out a leg until the winner pulled the leg which finally left the spider unable to walk. But they did not kill the spiders. On her second birthday, after a breakfast of waffles and ice-cream cake, we took my sister to the park. At this point her legs could almost keep her sufficiently balanced to let her play at running around. The sunlight danced between the trees that day. My mother had received a parcel from my father the day before, it was full of little wooden trinkets for my sister, her favourite of which was a little brown duck, and a pack of playing cards for me. My mother still wore the smile that parcel left her as we settled on the park bench. As soon as a chorus of quacks fell from the lake my sister leapt from her diapered behind and hurried towards the birds. On this particular occasion my mother left her to run as she pleased and my little sister chirped like she might too have had a little bird’s beak. The ducks appeared to play with the little girl. They were quite far into the distance when the slaughter boys headed over. Their tall, overshadowing bodies made the ducks scarce. My mother didn’t sense the trouble of these boys and besides, it was too late. The tallest boy plucked one of the frightened ducks from beside my sister and without even a murmur, twisted its neck. Scream.
Yesterday I befell an inevitable ageing that, as always, provides me with the troubling realisation I am getting old. Yet, as my optimistic flatmate and dear friend consoled me on several occasions, I am no longer an ‘old’ teenager but, rather, a ‘young’ adult. But perhaps that is just an unconvincing attempt of a girl who is half way to forty clinging onto youth like a squirrel to a shining acorn.
But a change in age seems only fitting in my world that, in the past few months, has changed entirely; it seems almost crazy that I am nearing the final few weeks of my first semester at the University of East Anglia.
I awoke on my birthday to a shower of felt-tipped confetti, a bundle of flowers and a room of friends. With a mouthful of cheesecake, an armful of hugs and earful of The Beatles on blast, turning twenty was, in a most shocking turn of events, a most blissful of occasion.
University, thus far, has been a dazzle of successes and failures and the shortness of this post can not reflect the abundance of adventure and the exquisite moments I have had here. In finding friends who are impossibly amazing writers and poets, I am in a sea of limitless inspiration and encouragement. Though living in Norwich still proves to overwhelm me, it is a place I am most glad to have found myself entirely lost in.
Above photographed is my room’s door! How is it that I might have been so lucky as to twirl my fingers around its creators hand?