away

There’s a softness that comes with waking up somewhere warm, worn out from doing very little. On the first morning it happens, sheet kicked into rough twist by our feet, I realise that we’re away; that we’ve left the country for the first time in two years. It has taken time to get here, and it takes me time to sink in. Our bodies, our minds, have been through such strange things. I have coped mostly by filling all those newly empty hours with things to do: writing and deadlines and taking on new projects. Here, there is none of that. The day stretches out, and at first the sheer length of it is dazzling. In the night, I find myself awake with TV theme tunes ricocheting around my head, wrestling with the complexities of small nothings. 

It takes days to sleep through the night; I think it always has done. I try to explain to M that I am not a person for whom doing nothing comes easily. I will grow restless, I will research bikes to hire and mountains to think about climbing. He is patient; he knows this already. 

It is so surreal and so familiar to be in a European town. The sulphuric bounce of yellow off tiled streets after dark; the untranslatable nonsense of bus stop adverts. Olhao is a sleepy, salty place. As has become tradition, when I first try to shoehorn the hire car into the only available space (immediately outside someone’s front door - how is that even allowed!?) a gaggle of elderly people watch on stony-faced. I take this personally, until, as the days pass, we realise that these locals are on the doorsteps most of the time. We say hello to one another. 

There is brine in the air, you can smell it. I find salt between my ring and my finger, inside the conch of my ear, around the rim of my glasses. Every day, we walk past a chapel - snuck away behind the grand facade of the church - dedicated to women who awaited the return of their lovers from sea. We take the ferry to the beach and turn off the main drag too early, find ourselves among the dunes and scrub, sand shifting through my sandals. The water is clear and beautiful but the tide is strong; I go for a swim and look back to find M beckoning furiously for me to head left. When I do, it pushes against all of my skin. 

Soon, quite soon, I start to watch the sunrise. There is a terrace on the roof and from there the gulls fly past at eye-height. They are smaller than our cawing, chip-hungry lot, and speckled. They seem businesslike and handsome in comparison. We start and end the day on the terrace, and the skies are so good. I long to read the clouds, their swirls and smears, their fluffy edges and deep heft. At this time in the morning, everything seems taken from the same colour card: the whitewashed buildings, the roof tile, the distant crane, the mountains in the distance. How perfect, how ordinary, how far from where we’ve come.  


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seaweed

We arrive to blistering blue and talk over open books as the tide pulls out. At first, only the small cars try the wet road beneath the sea. Then the minutes pass and with them come the vans and the SUVs, nudging carefully around the boulders. The water shrinks beneath the hulls, lingers lower at the ankles of the paddle-boarders. In the morning, the first thing I open the curtains to are the clouds of catmint in the neighbouring garden. It takes me a while to clock that the water has gone, leaving tufts of green behind and a path that people use to cross the harbour.

It has been a long time since I’ve felt the peripheries of something in this way. It reminds me of Lindisfarne, at the other end of the country. There were vanishing roads to navigate there, too. Bigger signs, a more dramatic sense of time passing and standing still at the same time. I spoke to someone recently who saw the ghosts of Roman soldiers passing by her on New Year’s Day on Lindisfarne. I’m not sure such things have been seen in Bosham. That was January - the Romans, my last trip up there - and this is July. The sky, though, is the same uninterrupted blue. The light carves silhouettes on the warming ground.

We came here by happy accident, and I have left the men to doze. I was last in Bosham almost exactly a nine years ago - by a week, I think - and I trace my footsteps in the churchyard, remembering the patterned tea dress and vertiginous heels of my early twenties. The red lipstick, the music the band played, the toffee vodka on the tables. Also ghosts, of a sort.

There are piles of seaweed by the war memorial, some hundred metres from the water, and I wonder how they got there. I watch the sailing types gather their things. There’s a distant wheeze of a foot pump on the air; ropes against metal.

Further back in the village and the windows are full of sleeping things. Ceramic swans and santas, a noticeboard with activities for the “fed up and lonely” (tempting) and £20 lawn edging shears (even more so). On the way down I joked that this would be the land of hollyhocks and so it is; purple and pink and pale yellow. There’s a hit of roses as I edge around the post van.

It has been needed, this little jaunt. So many months in the same space, with the same unanswered questions and anxieties. So many weeks of waiting for sunshine. And now it is here, on skin so early in the day. A new breeze, smelling of drying salt and leftover things, to trouble the cobwebs. How lucky we are! I wonder if we will return in another decade, and I will remember this bench, these tatty plimsolls toe capped with dew, these piles of seaweed.


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and sun

The showers arrived, and they were late. In April the soil was cold and hard. Cracks appeared underfoot, small and thirsty valleys. We took to train to Hertfordshire and walked on chalky white paths. It felt like looking down at late summer, not early spring. Every blue-skied day gnawed a little; instead of the dizzying heat of last year, I turned the fan heater on several times a day. Hot ankles, three jumpers. The tulips were stubborn green buds that opened one warmer week. Cold nights kept them tall and late.

When the rain came, we were in the Cotswolds, in a bloody hut with a wood burner that wouldn’t hold enough to last the night. I woke up at 2.30am, shivering, and fumbled around with matches. A brief flare, and then nothing. So we clung together, all elbows and knees, on a hard mattress. M slept through, I held aches across my shoulder blades. I drowsed through the rain, woke during the dawn chorus in the dark, then drifted to a damp, grey morning, with none of the energy to boil nettles into my tea. 

We drove through it across the border into Wales, where the roads warned ARAF and the trees showed off their bright new leaves. Off the motorway and into a valley, the curve of the Wye below us. One swooping exhale as we remembered what it was to be elsewhere, properly elsewhere, and together, after a year inside. 

Then home where there were gales coming. I dropped my bags, kept on the coat and went out with the kitchen scissors, slipping the blades around the stems above as much leaf as possible. A precious handful of tulips on the cusp of blown out, petals fat and heavy. A girls’ night out three rounds in; smeary and delicious. Sat them in the jug, in the dark, where M had set up the ironing board, and settled in as the sash windows rattled. I peered out the window for the water to come, tetchy with impatience.

It did, and it lasted. Tuesday morning was clear but with none of that threatening haze. Once a shower had passed I went out and chucked seed about, roughly at the gaps but with the wind it was anyone’s guess, really. Finally, moist soil for them to bed into, and a hit of sunshine to warm them up. Cut a couple more tulips weary from the wind. 

By day, I sit and watch the light catch the grass, the clouds roll in, the paving slabs wear that tell-tale darkening. There was thunder, lightning, big rain. Mac on just to take in the novelty of it; puddles forming on the lawn. The tulips, unfurling now - swapping lipstick with strangers in the ladies - catch teaspoons of it. And sun, and sun, and sun, beaming from the west. They catch that, too. All lit up. 


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roses

The mornings have been growing yolky. M insisted on deep yellow curtains in the bedroom, and so we get Chelsea mornings even in Brixton, on grey days. For months, when he gets up to make tea, I’ve squawked instructions to open them - even though it is dark. I want to see the light roll in, the changing colours of the stubby little dawns one sees from a lower ground-floor bedroom. 

But in recent days we have been opening the yellow curtains to a flat, pale light. Yesterday, when we came back from the Big Shop, I told M to look at the sky. Nearly half-five and still dusky. The days are stretching; how we’ve all needed it.

In the morning, the water on the common was frozen and the sky bounced off it, and you could feel spring on its way. It’s been colder in London that we’ve been used to. The conjuring of snow left limp leaves behind. Most will survive, but I lie in that half-light hinterland thinking of the ones that won’t. Much gardening, lately, happens in my head, under the covers, before the day begins. 

We don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day. On about Thursday, we looked at one another and reminded ourselves of this. But M has nevertheless agreed to help me dig the frozen ground (easier frozen, clay, than cold and sticky with the thaw) for steel angles; to help me pull a tape measure along the bowed fence, and do the measuring maths that he can manage in his head and I can never be bothered with. Before I crack open the curtains, I play the choreography of the job in my head: of drilling the holes, of opening the turnbuckles, of stringing the wire and winding it around itself. 

This valentine’s day, I would like to plant a rose against these hard metal things. At the moment, it is a jointed stick in a bag. It seems impossible that it will grow swiftly and well enough to warrant its own support system, but what a brave and bold hope that is. Pink roses by the summer, rather than red ones in February.  


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white

Before the curtains open, before my eyes open, it is my ears that try to detect what the weather is doing. The hard slick of tyre on wet tarmac, the push of wind between window sashes. The presence of snow can be heard in the absence of sound. A tell-tale dampening of noise, as if the ground had been covered in egg boxes, rather than frozen water. 

Sound, and light. When the ground is white - and the sky - a dull new brightness emerges. This morning I thought both lay beyond the curtains, but opened them to find red skies instead. Shepherd’s warning. 

The snow arrived with breakfast. I boiled the water for the eggs and the rain was slower, thicker than usual. As I gently patted the cloudy yolks the flakes were fat and mesmerising. Childish excitement tussling with the slow breath of wonder. 

It was settling, and fast. The top of the brick wall turned grey, then white; the blurry edges of the beds and the lawn daubed over. By noon, a good inch and a half covered most things solid enough to hold it. A bleached backdrop for the red of a fox who trotted with indignation from one corner of the garden to another. I go out in it and catch flakes on my eyelashes, my nose, the wool of my cuffs. I film the flakes fall. How magic it feels.

Takes a while for me to think about the plants. I pull the nasturtiums in, a job that should have been done weeks before but they’ve resisted frost so far, mostly because our walled garden has, too. Mostly, it seems, the snow makes the green shoots look somehow stronger. They’ve withstood squirrels and sog. The chill will introduce a kind of dormancy, and they’ll wake up again with the warm. Beneath the soil, those that have been waiting for the cold - the tulips, mostly - will have received it. Messages of temperature and time working their way through the ground.

As for the others, I’m more curious than anything else. Frost is, increasingly, an absent thing here. I see the hoar frost of the countryside through little squares on my phone, the crisp glitter that turns an ivy leaf into a marvel, and sometimes think about the icicles that used to hang off the low roof of my childhood home. But here, the only thing that gets properly frozen is the car windscreen. It’s concerning and sad, mostly, even if it makes growing things a little easier.

We’ll see as to what will happen to the more temperate plants that are now laden with snow. The asparagus ferns and the maidenhairs, the supposed houseplants that get so crispy and miserable in the house that I have long pushed them outside and watched them flourish through our dingy winters. I suspect I shall lose some and be surprised by the hardiness of others. So it goes. 

The first snow in our first home. The first I’ve seen in London in three years. It feels rare and somehow heavy; I’m conscious that our warming planet has made them so. Perhaps later we will wrap up and go out in it, before it turns brown and wet with tomorrow’s sunshine. But for now I watch it through the windows, thighs against the radiator, letting go of the little control we have.  


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