So Long, Marianne

So Long, Marianne

(a story I wrote back in April, after a friend gave me two prompts: ‘railcard’ and ‘lonely’).

She found the railcard lying in a puddle. It was the case that caught her eye: its plastic glitter coating blinded her momentarily as she waited to cross the road. A single beam of sunlight had caught that glitter and Amanda knew it was for a reason. She knelt down to pick it up, wiping it clean on her jeans. The man standing next to her on the pavement eyed her warily as she examined it. The name on the card was Marianne Holbrook, and the picture, slightly blurred, showed a girl of Amanda’s age, with cropped brown hair and eyes rimmed thick with kohl and shadow, lips a deep rich red. On the flip side of the case was another card: a student ID, whose expiry date was last year.

“You should hand that in you know,” the man beside her said, interrupting her reverie.

“Yes,” she replied.

Amanda did not hand it in. She took it home with her and tried to go about her evening as normal. She put it up high on her bookshelf, next to the little cat ornaments her grandmother had given her as a child. She put the radio on, to make the flat seem less quiet. She boiled the kettle. She stood in front of the mirror, brushing her long thick hair. The jangly pop music seemed only to ricochet off the silence, intensifying instead of subduing it. Amanda tugged and tugged at her hair but she could not get the knots out. Tears of frustration sprung to her eyes.

She felt pathetic for crying. Her arms crumbled to her sides and she threw down the brush. The kettle began to whistle. Amanda burnt her tongue on the first sip of tea. She checked her phone but there were no texts; there had been nothing, now, for three days.

The following morning, she went out on her lunch break and got a standby appointment with a hairdresser near her work.

“I want it very short,” she said carefully, fingering the long strands of hair that framed her face.

“How short?” The stylist asked, lifting clumps from the lengths of Amanda’s hair and letting them fall again, as if she were trying to gauge how much her tresses weighed.

“Oh, a crop. A pixie cut.”

“Bold, huh?”

“Like Laura Marling. Very short.”

“I don’t know who that is honey. You sure you have the features for something that short? I’m not saying you have a big nose or anything but wouldn’t you like to look at—”

“No,” Amanda said firmly, “I want a crop. Please. I don’t care about dainty features.”

“Okay, whatever you want.”

It took an hour. Great wads of hair fell away past her shoulders as the stylist attacked Amanda’s locks with her scissors. She cut away in steady, hungry snips until all that was left was a ruffled mess, short as a boy’s.

“Don’t worry,” the stylist assured her, “it’ll look weird until I’ve wetted it and done the layers.” Another half hour and it was done. The blow-dry took minutes. Amanda blinked in the mirror and tried to imagine what she would look like with heavier eye makeup. Marianne Holbrook. The girl in the railcard photo, blankly staring, mysterious.

“Thanks.”

“It does look rather amazing,” the stylist admitted, surprised.

Amanda went back to work and everyone was so shocked at what she had done that they all forgot to reprimand her for being late.

“Very sexy,” her boss said, biting his pencil. Amanda felt hollow inside as she sat down at her desk. The afternoon stretched before her, empty and dark as an elevator shaft. She couldn’t wait to get home; there were things to be done.

That night, she took the glitter wallet off the shelf and carefully pulled out the two cards inside. She took the student ID and held it over the bin as she snipped it into pieces. The girl in the photo looked very young: she had shoulder-length hair, blonde, a shock of fringe and a lurid shade of lipstick. It hardly seemed the same Marianne as the one in the railcard photo. Amanda turned the railcard over in her fingers. She had looked it up online and discovered that it granted the user unlimited free travel to any UK rail destination. It was a mystery as to how this girl obtained such a privilege, but Amanda realised that it had fallen into her hands for a reason. Without the obstruction of fares, the whole of Britain opened up for her like some elaborate flower, ready to ooze its precious nectar. She googled train routes across the rest of England, Wales and even, with some timidity, Scotland. The red patterns spiralled outwards, running their veins lusciously across the green countryside, alongside rivers, canals, forests and coastline. She looked up towns and cities, high speed connections and leisurely scenic routes. There was so much to see that soon enough, Amanda could hardly contain her excitement.

She would take time off work to live on  Britain’s trains. How difficult could it be? She would give herself up to the whims of timetables and route planners, to vague and uncertain destinations and journeys. There were some trains that ran through the night. There were stations with shelters that didn’t kick you out. If worst came to worst, she would tap into her savings and stay in hostels and cheap B&Bs. The whole while she would assume her new identity. She would be Marianne Holbrook. She would never be lonely.

She phoned up her work the following morning.

“Hello Gina,” she said, “can you tell Mr. Raymond that I’ll be gone for a few weeks?” Gina, the manager’s personal assistant, raised her voice to a shrill pitch.

“What do you mean, gone a few weeks?”

“Oh, I’m going away for awhile. My circumstances have…changed.”

“‘Manda—” She cleared her throat loudly. “I’m going to need a better explanation to give him…do you have a doctor’s note? Are you leaving? You’ll have to hand in your notice, there’s procedure—”

“Tell him I’ll just be gone awhile. He won’t mind. Have a nice day, Gina.” Amanda hung up. For once, she realised she did not care about procedure. She stuffed her phone back into the side pocket of her rucksack, and turned back to the window. It was partially open and a cool breeze rustled the bare skin of her neck, which felt deliciously naked without her long hair to cover it. April hadn’t brought many showers since it turned its first few leaves; in fact, the weather had been glorious. Outside the carriage window, the sky was a bright bright blue and the crumbling buildings that skirted the city gave way to fields which rolled over and over in verdant, romantic green. It took forty minutes before they were properly out of the city. Once the ticket inspector had checked her railcard, Amanda plugged in her headphones and listened to an old Cat Power album.

She had to change trains a few hours in. The whole process was far less stressful now that she had no fixed destination, no time constraints. Every hour was her own, and time itself did not matter. She sat on the cold station seats, trying to read a leaflet about a local whisky distillery that she had picked up by the ticket gates. People looked at her differently with her new hair. Girls glanced at her with lingering intrigue. Boys rarely noticed her, or else they had to do a double-take. Amanda wasn’t sure if these were good double-takes, or bad ones. She wasn’t even sure what the difference was.

As the station clock clicked to ten o’clock, Amanda checked her phone. Still no texts. And yet, why did she care? She had already told him it was over. 

She travelled up and down the whole of the UK. She spent a day in sunny Brighton, looking out to the limit points of this country she called home, at the sparkling lights at the end of the ocean. In the nightclub that evening, she found herself dancing to Eurotech, face gleaming with metallic makeup and sweat. A stranger slid his hand to the back of her neck and she let him kiss her amidst the flashing lights and thumping music. His mouth tasted chemical sweet. Outside, gasping for breath on the beach pebbles, she wondered whether this was something Marianne would do. Take things on impulse. Treat people like shadows, passing through your day, swelling, shrinking, disappearing. Somewhere in the darkness, the sea whispered its history of secrets. The city withheld its judgment.

Back up the country she travelled. She skirted round London, past the rolling hills of the South Downs; past Basingstoke, Luton, Milton Keynes. The changing accents haunted her with their shrill cacophony. She slept in a Travel Inn that night, washing her hair with the complimentary lemon shampoo that smelled good enough to eat. It was a very lonely motel: all the corridors were empty. Even the cleaners drifted along like ghosts, never looking up or smiling. She caught herself checking work emails on the WiFi and had to force herself to stop. She took a small vodka from the minibar.

What would Ruaridh say to all this?

Night after night, the meaningless names drifted through her mind. She had seen so many towns and cities now that she had lost her sense of what made each one distinct. England became unreal, this vast, impenetrable stretch of motorways, train tracks, telephone wires and suburbs. The crowds and the people and the buildings were different, but each time she felt the same. She did not feel real, floating aimlessly down street after street with no direction or purpose, nestling into the armchair of yet another Starbucks. Amanda told herself she was just exploring.

Sometimes she found herself wondering what Marianne had studied at uni, what she now did for a living. She imagined her, all cropped hair and smoky eyes, leaning over a desk at some sleek fashion magazine office. She pictured her in a court of law, sharp in a suit, scrawling notes. She saw her lifting weights at a gym after a hard day at the bank. She saw her serving tables at a classy restaurant, drinking martinis at some downtown bar. These were all possibilities. Marianne was made of possibilities.

On the train from Birmingham, disillusioned with cities and their grey array of indifferent buildings, Amanda managed to bump her way onto the first class carriage. This was something Marianne would do, sleek and easy like her hair. It was simple enough to turn tricks when you were less self-conscious. She brushed her fingers over the plush seats and nestled into her headrest. A skinny man dressed as a waiter came round with a trolley bar and every time he passed, Amanda ordered another Bloody Mary. She licked her lips as he stirred in the celery, the other passengers impatiently waiting.

Three drinks in and she kept dialling his number on her phone.

“Come on Ruaridh, pick up,” she hissed. People around her were staring. She was an odd sight on their carriage, with her little white belly poking out of her cut-out dress. She dialled again and again and of course he did not pick up. It was three months since they had last spoken, since she told him they could no longer be together; three months since the silence started, since she cut herself off from the world. And yet, a fortnight was all it took. Two weeks since her first outing as Marianne Holbrook.

“You never tell me what you want, how I can make things better for you.” Is that what he said to her, or did she say it to him? It hurt that now she could hardly remember; there was a time when she thought she had the words they exchanged engraved in her soul. Now it seemed, they slipped away, easy as the faces left melting on the platform as the train pulled out of the station…

She was in Leicester, Nottingham, Coventry. She found herself addicted to all the stations, their absolute sense of space devoid of place. In the stations, everyone could be anyone. She liked the dull parquet floors and the green painted railings and the matching uniforms, the logos and slogans, the slow and constant stream of announcements. People coming and going, bags and suitcases rolling along, teenagers moping around by the Burger Kings, waiting to be asked to move on. In so many ways, each station was the same. Aside from the stacks of leaflets advertising local attractions, it was easy to forget where you were. Each one was a kind of anywhere. Accents blended and clashed and Amanda felt like she was in some way everywhere in Britain at once: the stations were just another node in the network of cities, people and identities. The same chain stores brightened her view as she stepped off the train. She started buying the exact same things every time: the superfood salad from M&S, the Wrigley’s gum and magazines from WHSmith, the treat bag from Millie’s Cookies, the almond butter hand cream from The Body Shop that depleted so fast, what with the air conditioner on the trains drying out Amanda’s skin. It was so satisfying to follow a pattern.

“What’s your name?”

It was the day that somebody broke the pattern. She was hovering by the ticket gates at Preston station, clutching her railcard and hoping to catch the northbound train.

“Am-Marianne,” she found herself saying in reply. The stranger was an old man, laden with a heavy-looking rucksack.

“Ammarianne, it sounds Greek or something.” Amanda bit her lip.

“I’m Jim,” the man added. He wore an old tweed cap and had a vaguely Scottish accent. She did not know what to say, what he wanted from her. She thought about what Marianne would do, the possibilities that the interchange offered for experimenting.

“It’s actually Marianne,” she said.

“Hm?” he was checking the screens, squinting to see his train time.

“My name. Not Ammarianne.” She forced a smile.

“Where are you heading then?” He gestured towards the board of departures and arrivals.

“Well, somewhere up north I think,” she replied vaguely.

“Glad to hear it,” he said, “me too. I’m a fish out of water here. Scotland is a good place to go for the lonely.”

“Yes.” She hadn’t planned on heading that far north. Carlisle had been her limit point.

“Oh. Well,” he hauled his bag from the ground. “That’s my train. Better hurry.”

“Bye,” Amanda whispered, watching him stumble through the ticket gates. Just before disappearing around the corner of the platform, he turned and shouted out to her.

“So long, Marianne.” She could see that he was grinning and she did not understand the joke. What would come upon a person to make them approach a stranger like that, for no reason other than to say hello? It was so foreign to her, that kind of politeness, that pointless brand of interaction. Stepping on her own train, the thought of the man lingered in her mind. So easily he had broken the silent contract of anonymity which seemed to govern the stations. Was this something she could do too?

The thought of talking to strangers made Amanda feel powerful. She knew, then, that Marianne was the kind of girl who had no problem letting her guard down.

They had thrown her off the train where she sat in first class. She had drunk one too many Bloody Marys and was slurring nonsense at her fellow passengers, bits of celery still stuck in her teeth, tomato juice stinging her lips. It was difficult for her to recall now, but she had more than once broken the silent contract herself. She had not so subtlety propositioned a businessman, declared to everyone an undying love for her ex-boyfriend, blithely told a woman that she should eat less of those chocolate bars because they were making her fat.

“But don’t worry,” she had droned on, “look at the state of me too,” she pinched a roll of flesh that clung to the skin of her dress, “I’m gonna lay off the cookies too once I get off this ride, once all this stops…” She had promptly vomited all over the polished floor and the conductor had to clear it up while the train was still moving and his mop bucket sloshed and then at the next station he escorted her to the exit, while everyone eyed her with disdain. She threw up again on the platform and knew that night she could not stay at the station. The world had clocked her for who she truly was.

The thing was to keep moving. She got herself to Blackpool on the bus and won some money on the slots. There was such a pure satisfaction in the click and spin of the fruit symbols, turning and turning. The leap in her chest when they matched up: three bright sets of cherries. That night she watched the boats twinkle over the bay, the carnival music blaring wickedly from the Pleasure Beach. There were couples everywhere, locking lips as the blue lights shone down from the rides, as the waves slushed gently on the sand, as the breeze whistled in the cold dark air. Leaning over the pier, Amanda ate fish and chips drowned in vinegar, hoping to cure her hangover. Her phone bleeped with a message from her mother: Hope you’re OK honey. Guess who I bumped into in town today? xxxx

Amanda hardly wanted to know. It was probably an old school teacher, or some pal that Amanda hung out with in primary school.

Who? x The grease from the fish supper made thumb prints on her phone.

Ruaridh, of all people! and we thought he had gone away! 

Ruaridh?

I don’t know how long he’ll be here for. He was asking after you.

Not that he ever texted her back. Not that he ever really tried to touch base anymore. She flicked through her messages to him:

I’m sorry. Can we talk? 

Please can you answer the phone. I want to explain. 

I miss you. I’m faraway from home and I still miss you. 

Call me back. 

Please Ruaridh, call me back.

It had been so long since they had talked that he had started to appear to her only in the abstract, the name on her phone a source code that might unlock some pattern from the shards of memory resting useless in her brain.

And yet he had asked after her; he had spoken to her mother. Had he perhaps changed his number? Was his old phone lying, battery dead, at the bottom of the desk drawer where he kept his protein shakes, his condoms and badges and passport?

She thought of those texts, drifting on through the ether, directionless as she was. Town names and station signs blurred into one. Even the old-fashioned stations seemed the same, with their pretty red brickwork, their giant clocks and gleaming phone boxes. The whole journey she had been going nowhere, but all the while she longed for one destination. Was it him? Could it possibly just be him? The city she had lived in all these years seemed so distant. It felt impossible, the prospect of just going home. In the carriage with the tables, the ragged newspapers, the empty bottles and coffee cups, she was leaving her old life behind.

The train was so quiet. A little girl was licking crisp crumbs from her fingers, staring at Amanda across the table, eyes wide and oddly fearful.

What does she want, what does she want?

She was in Scotland now at last, passing by sparkling lochs and pine-covered mountains. She hadn’t planned on coming here. The train just kept going, rolling on slower and slower, and Amanda had lacked the energy to change her route at Carlisle. Scotland seemed like the end of the universe. It was easier to stay on the same train, easier to let the world direct her like this. This was the land of accents she could hardly understand. Silvery land of wilderness and silence. Everything enveloped in mist. Everything cold, mysterious, romantic. The train tracks wound dramatically round mountains, farmland, fields pregnant with the summer harvest. Sometimes the mist cleared and Amanda would glimpse patches of bright sky. In the past few weeks, the evenings had grown longer, so that now at half past eight the carriage was bathed in a soft yellow light. The grass that Amanda could see from the windows was a kind of supernatural green, so vivid it was difficult to look away. The fields stretched out into endless hills, lush with ferns and trees, fluffy white sheep and even the odd telephone line. Often they passed little cottages and farms, or villages speckled with lights that twinkled through chimney smoke. There were very few houses in the mountains; the train was disappearing into somewhere very remote. Surely by now they should be in Glasgow, or maybe Edinburgh? She couldn’t remember which one came first. All that surrounded her now were the mountains, snow-capped, rust-coloured, rocky, sometimes a deep and sinister green.

It struck Amanda that the mountains reminded her of her father, who used to take her up to the Lakes sometimes when she was young, forcing her to learn the maps even though the sight of all those squiggly lines and symbols made her dizzy, more disorientated than she was before. He made her traipse across acres of countryside, reciting his favourite segments from the guidebook, stretching out the hours with his constant narration. Reviving himself with cider at some farmer’s pub, where the locals would stare at them suspiciously as Amanda sipped her lemonade and the whole while her father never noticed. It was in the summertime, two years ago now, that he died.

Nobody talked about it. Amanda’s parents were halfway through a messy divorce when he discovered he had cancer. It had all happened so fast. The appointments, the vomiting, the weight loss – the transition into anonymity and sickness.

At rockbottom. Please call me, even just for a minute. 

She hated herself even as she typed the message. All I want is to hear your voice. The thought of all those pathetic unanswered texts piling up on his phone made her physically sick. The train churned on, its sluggish rhythm another source of her nausea. The only messages she’d been receiving were voicemails from work, telling her she’d missed deadlines, meetings; telling her they were disappointed, telling her not to bother coming back.

In the cracked glass mirror of the carriage toilet, her reflection looked strange somehow. There were new shadows etched under her eyes, greenish as some disease. Little flecks of red that veined the whiteness round her irises. She realised she hadn’t slept more than three hours a night for weeks.

She thought of her father, emaciated, pushing a supermarket trolley, his fingers gripping the bar so hard you could see the tendons round his knuckles. The smile he forced as she shoved bottles in the trolley was grotesque and strange: a Cheshire cat grin smeared upon those hollow cheeks. He was buying her vodka because she was going to a birthday party, because she was not yet eighteen – a clandestine mission concealed from her mother. She thought how he would appear then to a stranger, vodka rattling in the trolley, this gaunt figure swathed in scarf and overcoat, incongruous against the mildness of that May.

There were secrets in these hills, Amanda thought, that nobody knew. Such endless stretches of greenery, pure as the wool on a lamb’s back; stretches which no man had touched with his brick or chisel. In the hills, there was a sense of possibility; in the hills, you could be free.

This freedom was quite terrifying.

The train had slowed as it finally approached a new destination. Nervously, Amanda fingered the plastic coating of the railcard with Marianne’s face on it. She was tired of always playing a role. It drained you, the whole process of never revealing your true name, spinning webs of lies to perfect your anonymity. Brushing past strangers and missing out on meaningful conversation. Out of a picture she had fashioned an entire existence, but now this identity felt crude and shallow. She was tired of staring out of windows, tired of flirting with strangers. She found herself missing her mother, the 24-hour shop down the road, the memories that haunted her home in Bristol.

She disembarked from the train in some small town, the name of which she couldn’t even pronounce. Everything was tiny, shrunken somehow, like a toy sized version of reality. Standing outside the town’s single newsagent, Amanda checked her phone. There was no signal whatsoever. She walked round and round the village, but to no avail. She knew then that she had completely left civilisation behind.

This was probably the loneliest place she had ever visited. Her father had never taken her somewhere like this: his favourite destinations in the Lakes were the comparatively bustling towns of Ambleside and Windermere. Tourist hotspots with ferries and buses and trains. Here, all the pretty streets, with their flower baskets, their plant pots and cobbles, were empty. Only the humming bees provided company. It was, perhaps, a town that time had forgotten.

Amanda realised she was starving, that the pains in her stomach meant something. She came across a tiny shop which seemed to be the only amenity in the village. The sign in the window said: “No More Than Two Children At Any One Time”. She stepped inside and a bell tinkled. The woman behind the counter greeted her in a thick accent. It was not like the Scottish voices on the radio or telly. The shop was so small that Amanda had to duck her head the whole time as she looked around. There were only a handful of aisles, shelves half stocked with off-looking bread and chocolate bars and tin after tin after tin of beans. At the counter there were a few fresh rolls and some fruit. Amanda bought what she could and thanked the woman.

“What brings you to these parts?” she asked, noticing Amanda’s conspicuous Englishness, the Queen’s face on the £5 note she handed over.

“I don’t know,” Amanda admitted. “I guess I’m looking for something.”

“Well, you might find it here. Folk have found worse in this village.” She smiled wryly and the wrinkles of her face creased up like the sand folding in patterns left by the tide.

“Oh?” The woman handed Amanda her change but her lips remained shut tight. Outside the shop, the weather had changed ever so slightly. There was a faint breeze stirring in the surrounding trees. The village seemed to be in a valley, protected from the harsher elements. It was a miracle there was a train station at all here – probably it was some relic from the Victorian era. Maybe there was a coal mine here once, or maybe the roads were in such bad condition that even the buses couldn’t get out this far into the wilderness. Amanda had the vague sense that she was in the Highlands, but she couldn’t be sure. The air had a thick moisture to it, a soothing texture to every breath she took, to the smoke that rose from cottage chimneys, the clouds that curled round the snowy tops of mountains.

She wasn’t quite ready to eat yet, though she was very hungry. She wanted to explore every inch of the village first. There were a handful of tiny winding streets, windows in miniature, house after house with Gaelic names etched on the door. Wild cherry trees flowered with late blossom round a square, in the centre of which was a war monument. Amanda stood and read all the names of the deceased carefully. Everyone seemed to have the same names: John and William and James. She touched the thick grey stone and its coldness seemed to spread through her bones. All those people, whose minds and bodies were lost in the turmoil of something far larger than themselves. The memorial seemed the only thing, apart from the ancient railway line, that connected this place to the outside world.

Ruaridh was a soldier. His job was to fight in whatever war they sent him to, to follow commands with cold precision, to give himself up to the mechanisms of higher forces. He had been in Iraq when Amanda was still at school and Afghanistan when she took night classes in college, serving coffees in Starbucks during the day. This whole other life had washed over him, while she remained at home, slowly growing, mostly staying the same. He had seen things he could never explain to her.

I miss you. I’m far away from home and I still miss you. 

Perhaps his reticence was worse than hers. Perhaps he was the one who was truly unreachable, the one who could never match her in their silent exchanges beneath the sheets. She remembered the way he used to shake with nightmares, though denying them upon waking. It could’ve been his name, up there on a monument like this. Only no, because soldiers these days didn’t fight for glory, not like the old ways of valour and poetry and bravery. These days, even more they did not know what cause they were fighting for. They were just sent away, hardened with protein bars, coldly dished therapy and standardised training. She thought of the muscles in his neck, quivering as he spoke. Despite the strength of his body, it seemed all the time like it might snap, like the stem of a rose.

A photograph from the news: skinny, doe-eyed children, the reverberating dust of explosions, debris flying through a colourless sky. Soldiers in their khaki uniforms, praying for this world that they had not yet had time to properly love. For this world they might lose.

She remembered kissing him for the first time, in his mother’s living room, while they watched a black and white movie. The sound turned down, the whisper of their voices rustling the air. The walls would still contain those voices. Her fingers brushed the cold marble setting of the monument. Youth and innocence. Was that all that love was worth? And what about war?

Was loneliness the reward for all she had taken the guts to sever?

She thought of the scarring on his arms, the swellings of all those magenta welts which flowered outwards in jagged patterns, not unlike the etched textures of tree bark, both coarse and strangely smooth. The burns he had suffered were some price he had paid, his dues to the people he lived and fought for. Sometimes he would lie awake at night in pain while Amanda rubbed them with expensive oils and honey. She would watch his eyes close before the tears could leave them.

She turned away and the wind picked up and stirred the trees, shaking fistfuls of cherry blossoms from the branches, swirling them in the path with the shrivelled daffodils and the silver gravel. Some of the blossoms settled in Amanda’s hair. She walked away, past the church, following the tinkling sound of a river. She sat on its mossy bank and ate her apple, watching the midges rise above the water, spiralling in the gold light playing in the reflections of the pines in the river. Afterwards, her mouth felt sour as her soul. She wished she had cigarettes. She looked through her texts.

At rockbottom. 

At rockbottom. 

At rockbottom.

Three times she had sent it. Three times, and no reply.

She pictured herself, tied to the stir of the riverbed, pulled along by an unseen current. She would let it drag her where it willed, battering her on the sharp stones.

Somethings you just have to let go. Her father, whose ashes they scattered from Friar’s Crag, looking out upon a brilliant body of water, the light in the sky the colour of indigo as she watched her mother tearfully smile her final goodbye. The wind in the pines, the light on the lake.

Somewhere, Ruaridh would have stood among dust and chaos, a gun in his belt and his heart encased in a golden cage. In sparse Internet cafes, he would have written all those emails to her, sent her pictures of the crumbled houses and the desert. From this lush valley of greenery and quiet, it seemed another planet. She realised, then, that she was so many people. She wasn’t just the Amanda that maybe he had loved and grieved over and then ignored. She was the girl who would always mourn her father, who would long for summer afternoons in the Lakes; for the taste of ice lollies, for the breeze on her face. She was the lonely employee, biding her hours in her stuffy office. She was all these Amandas. But she was also Marianne: this monster who had burgeoned from a picture, larger than life, a figure of surface and depth, past her expiry date, readymade to inhabit. She had built this person from nothing but a picture, its plastic gloss the surface foundations. She knew, then, that she had the power to put herself back together.

I want to explain. 

The midges danced on the water. The clouds moved overhead, the gloaming settled its purple shadows around the pines.

She no longer needed him to remember. Probably he was broken too, broken beyond her control. He would be back for awhile, but the call to leave would always drag him along again. War was, in a way, another kind of travelling. She did not crave the same excitement, the same desperate thrills of horror and danger that lay in the army; but still it was the impulse for movement that drove them both. She saw that now. They were both trying to escape the same lonely feeling, the hollowness that gnawed out from the bones that once held them up, that once fused their connection to the land and earth. To each other.

She caught the last train out of the village, finishing the last of her picnic. She watched the river’s silent starlit glitter stretch along the valleys, turning round the hillsides. She waited for her phone to regain its signal. She knew when it did, she would text her mother back at last: Tell him I’m fine. 

And then she would delete his number from her phone.

And later, when she fell into sleep, she finally realised what the old man at Preston station had meant when he bade her goodbye. What it was he was quoting. The rich deep baritone of Leonard Cohen drifted into her mind and she remembered, she remembered. A song her father used to play on Sunday afternoons, smoking illicit cigarettes from the bedroom window while her mother was out getting the shopping.

I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web
is fastening my ankle to a stone. 

And the chorus came to her, easily as sleep did, easy as the loneliness that now she embraced, languid and happy; as easy as the slow tug of the train that would take her who knows where, that would link this life and this self to the next one and bring her always some fresh memory that was better than home:

Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began…

Road Trip

highalnds

Picture the scene. You pass sea after sea of pines, their tall green points misted with a fine web of vapour, a greyness that stretches over, concealing the tips and the distance, and you are not sure whether it is fog or woodsmoke, the wisps of early morning or perhaps the smoulders of a landfill. Probably you’re somewhere deep in the moorlands, glens and peat bogs of the Highlands; or maybe not that far yet, maybe just the Trossachs. If you open the car window a tad, you can almost smell the midges, their damp, thirsty breath in the air. This is air so clean that its purity counts as a flavour, claimed by many who have flogged the native whisky or bottled water. You would leave the window open, indulge yourself, but there is a sharp cold breeze that tickles the fine hairs on your neck, waters your eyes. It is always windy here; or else deathly still, like a valley out of time. Mountains rise up around you, growing closer and grander as the car turns another corner. They seem monstrous, towering over your small car, and you feel like William Wordsworth (the boy version, out of The Prelude) plodding along in his stolen boat, gazing fearfully up at the mountain peak beyond the lake, the peak that gazes back like an animal: ‘a huge Cliff / As if with voluntary power instinct / Upreared its head’. You can’t help but stare at the streams which splash down from each hillside like silver belts, which glimmer in the pale light which makes it through the misted sky. They catch your eye, pull you in myriad directions. You know that rain is imminent; its scent is as clear as the water that runs on the burn alongside you.

There is always birdsong, even in the evening. You can hear the cacophony of many different species as the car rumbles on in the silent space between two tracks passing on the stereo. You and your friend spent a whole day curating the playlist for this trip. Curating. She said that word, jokingly; but even so, it makes you feel special. This isn’t just any trip. It isn’t like you get out like this all the time, free from the bustle and smoke of the city, the people lingering outside pubs, the strangers drifting through in street-lamp darkness.

You spent a childhood in the back of your mother’s car; the smell of her cigarettes always blowing straight back into your face, rolling down the window to snatch breathfuls of that sharp, fresh air – an escape. You scrambled alongside rivers which rolled on over gleaming boulders; you scrabbled together heaps of stones and logs and built dams, pools and waterways. You fell over, bruised your knees, skelfed your fingers on the pine branches. You watched the water for hours, while your mother smoked and your big brother showed off, scaling rock after rock, cliff after clifftop. You ate cheese and pickle sandwiches made soggy by the damp that seeps in everywhere, through the aluminium and glass, the plastic glovebox and the silver foil. Midges clung to your neck; constantly you felt their hot, sticky itch. Sometimes the car smelt of engine oil. The food made your cheeks flush afterwards, as you washed your lunch down with bottles of flat lemonade that had lingered on the backseat for days.

There was an innocence to those holidays which literally makes you ache to think of. You would do anything to be that small again, crouched by a river, dipping your toes into the freezing water while your brother splashed you from afar, shouting declarations of war. His always taunting words, his grand arrogance. The way your mother scrunched up the sandwich foil into tiny, crumpled balls, collected them in her purse. The day you found them all, still there, when you were digging for lunch money.

Fog coming in thick and deep from a distance. You saw it roll over the mountains like God’s own shroud. It was comforting, feeling the moisture prick in the air, seeing the landscape slowly disappear. When you retreated back into the car, packed up the camping gear, fought with your brother over the radio. He always wanted the sport – Five Live – and you wanted the songs, the music. The stereo pumped, crackling and loud, audible even through the walls of the car, drifting in and out of signal, static…

Her sadness, leaning against the bonnet, sipping from a flask of coffee, staring out into the distance. The tears that you couldn’t see – not from behind – but you always knew they were there.

And why are you going? Why set forth again into the world of fog, of deep enveloping glens and silver rivers? The soft moss and the heather, the greenness that haunts your sleep. Was there some mystery you thought you could solve? She said it would be cathartic, your friend, her name irrelevant. Anyway, it’s Eilidh. When you met her, you didn’t understand the silent letters.

The playlist comes from an iPod, the classic one with the spinning wheel and the white casing. You were going to sell it, after you lost your job and faced the end of things, but something pulled you back. Gone were the Nike trainers instead, and now you are here in the car with your best Sports Directs. What sounds pass through your head? There are many conversations you always wanted to have with Eilidh. You wanted to ask about her purple hair, the bright lilac colour of heather. What did it mean? You wanted to ask whether she was still seeing that guy she met at uni, the one who studied law and played cello for an orchestra; who spoke French in a way that defied the limits of his Edinburgh accent. But you had known her five years, and still you could not speak.

The songs were lovely, dark and deep. Miles were consumed by the roar and pulse of the engine, roadsides slipping away as easily as signs fading into hill fog. You were long gone from the city, its tall grey buildings a mere memory, the pillow of mist you sank into at night. Remember the times you shaved an inch from your life? The bus turning the corner, sharp; the tiny sliver of razor on the white bathroom china. The dark colours flowering out in water, as you watched your ex-girlfriend wash her paintbrushes in the sink. Shades of crimson, violet, blue and scarlet. You were slipping through all these images, the shock and the bruising; the little jolt to your heart as the car passed over a pothole. You were driving, then she was. It’s difficult to remember.

There’s a lot of Mogwai on this playlist. When you first hear ‘Heard About You Last Night’ it’s a bit like waking up for the first time, the blinking beat and slow entry of bass bringing into colour a brave new world of beauty and fear. So many people, you suppose, have died out on those mountains. Battles fought and lost and won. Rain that fell for so long, it seemed the whole landscape might be swallowed up in shadowy puddles. Then there’s the anxiety of ‘Hungry Face’, those infuriating repetitions which build up to the twinkling innocence of the xylophone against those quietly thundering drums. It gets in your head; you can’t help but think of ghost ships disappearing over the Clyde, a set of yellow eyes opening and closing, suspended in the dark, clouded air like the smile of a Cheshire cat. The sound of soft, steady bleeping. Eilidh says something funny about the sheep. They have an absurd look about them out here, she says, but then so do pretty much all sheep. They glance up at you, but instantly their expression fades into blasé. They have only two emotions: indifference and fear, the fear coming out when they jolt their necks back and scarper.

Soon you fall into the melancholy of ‘Cody’, so slow and serene you might as well be stoned, sinking away from your thoughts like being pulled out into a vast, shimmering ocean. The bass echoes slow through the car, its thick walls. You press your face against the glass, leaving steam marks which fog up the world outside, the tall green mountains now coated with your breath. Reality blurs with the material of sleep. And would you stop me? If I tried to stop you? You imagine this is what heroin feels like, plunging into a slow, majestic ecstasy, the kind that drags eons of time through your veins; and from all those hours draws out this kind of awesome mournfulness even as your whole body tingles with euphoria. You could sleep forever in blissful, evil dreams. When I drive alone at nights, I see the streetlights as fairgrounds / And I tried a hundred times to see the road signs as Day-Glo. So slow, the car turning corners. An elegy to a lost raver, stumbling through the darkness of some urban labyrinth, the upturned bins, old condoms and leaking glowsticks spilling out the wasted remainders of another good night, another goodbye to childhood. Would you care at all? Eilidh rests her hand on your leg.

“Stop crying,” she says. It’s a statement, not an instruction. You are still staring out the window.

Your mother used to listen to The Waterboys, maybe even Primal Scream in her more rebellious phase. She liked to dance around the living room doing the dusting to ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, all the dust motes swirling up in a maelstrom of childish untidiness and neglected housekeeping. Her voice would crack and she would laugh at herself, breathless, collapsing onto the sofa. Make me a cup of tea, eh boys?

You were at a house party once, at uni – not that long ago really – and this girl was playing a song that stirred something familiar in your memory. You knew that voice, its growl, the twists of electric guitars.

“What is this?” you asked, the joint smouldering between your fingers.

“Oh, it’s The Waterboys actually.” You resented her showiness, of course, but this was interesting. “I know, so lame right? I like it though. They put Yeats to music. You know the poet, W. B. Yeats? ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. It’s a lovely poem.” She was drinking port, of all things – you remember that too.

You inherited, perhaps, a gloomier tradition of the nation’s music. There would be no Proclaimers on this playlist.

Arab Strap, the disco beats, spat poetry and everyday apathy.  The sort of post-hardcore or drum-soaked indie that felt like having the rotten parts of your brain stripped out as you lay on a boat, slowly being drenched in dreich Scottish rain. You were always a fan of Frightened Rabbit, ever since you saw them at a festival once, danced yourself into a frenzied ceilidh of mud and tangled feet, even as the songs sung of sadness and bleakness and heartbreak. The endless drone, the refrain: it takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm. Teenage campouts in Loch Lomond, worried you would all die of the cold, of the rain and the midges. Drunk out your minds, desperate and scared of the river which burst its banks sometimes even in summer. The expectations of nothing but the prospect of falling into the same abyss as everyone else. Fag butts drifting by the edge of the river, the scorched remainders of a bonfire. Listening to it again now, well, you can’t help but think of how this seems to be coming true somehow. The same abyss. Even as the drums collapse over the screaming words, there’s a waterfall out there somewhere, maybe the one you floated in once, upside down on weird pills with the cold so deep in your bones that you didn’t feel the punches of your best friend who hated you because you kissed — no. That was another time. You are driving forward now, you are at the wheel.

Maybe there is something that you know that I don’t. 

“We should stop soon, you look like you need a rest.” The world outside is almost darkness; it is twilight spinning webs of navy and sapphire gold around the edges of trees and mountains. Trees with their shimmering leaves. Clusters of stars emerge from the velvet blackness. You wouldn’t stop for anything.

Next: There Will Be Fireworks, ‘From ’84’. The simplicity, the sorrow which isn’t yours; for how could you feel so much nostalgia for a year, a thought, that came before your time? The not-belonging is what makes you feel lonelier, the minor chord, the rustle of Eilidh in her woollen tights turning the page of a cheap magazine. Just a kid, in his room / No-one hears him howling at the moon. But you have lost touch with friends too, you have felt the strange pain that comes from seeing people you love change, grow apart. You cannot hit the high notes; you cannot sing along. So we’ll put it down to fate or bad luck. The plain, bare strumming pattern haunts you, even after the song finishes and something new comes on. You’re thinking of another lyric – sad song in a minor key – and wondering how you ever heard of this band in the first place. Why is it you love them so? Whether they’re actually any good, or just another expression of bleak Scottish winters, the lack of sunlight, the endless, down-pouring rain…but isn’t that beautiful too?

Eilidh has, perhaps, more interesting taste. The next song is hers: Cocteau Twins of course. She mutters on about how their best album was Milk and Kisses, though everyone thinks it’s Heaven or Las Vegas. Elizabeth Fraser’s dreamy soprano takes you straight through the night and into the morning; you could both listen for hours and hours, not realising that the songs were changing or repeating, just drifting into the dissonant guitars and distorted lyrics, the hypnotic drum machine loops, better than sex. You would like to float, suspended in a disco somewhere, each song playing out the pattern of a strange, intense kiss. You suppose these are all the 1990s discos your mother would’ve went to (if she hadn’t had you). What does it matter now? The sky before you bursts through in pastel smudges, which break up the dark silhouettes of the Trossachs mountains. In the distance, through the windscreen, sparkles of sunlight play upon a pale blue pool, the first loch you have seen since yesterday. There is something about the shape of the peaks, the space of the valley. You have been here before. 

The Twilight Sad come on the car stereo. There’s no mistaking the intensity of that voice, the thick accent and its distinctive rolls and howls. Each song with its own atmosphere, a haunted quality reminiscent of The Cure.

“Let’s stop here.”

The loch is so close now. You can feel something inside you, a tension breaking, the rapid increase of the beat from the heart that burns in your chest. Eilidh is humming along, though her voice crackles and breaks as easily as the gravel on the road below your tyres. When you climb out the car, cold air sucks your breath away as you slam the door. Suddenly, the signal floods back to your phone. Three missed calls from your brother, and you know what that means. Another night, another row of bottles slowly emptying, slowly being broken in a dive bar of old men, the black hole at the bottom of every street in every Scottish city. Once he was an eagle, soaring down those hillsides, ready to leap out and scale the lake with legs made strong by football, with arms that could reach out for anything they wanted. He couldn’t save her, any more than you could, weak and pathetic, wrapped up in all that suppressed panic. Hidden in your room, even when it happened. It rolls through you, the realisation. This loch, like a terrible mirror. This beautiful loch, the very one you all picnicked by, the year your brother finished high school, the year of your first kiss, the year she —

‘There’s a Girl in the Corner’ on the stereo, and Eilidh is speaking, but her words are muffled through the window, the pounding drums and resounding lyrics. She’s not coming back / And she’s not coming back again. Standing here, the cold wind at your neck, another summer nearly ending and here you are – you finally feel it.

(all embedded lyrics attributed to respective artists).

To a Dog

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We brought you home for the first time one sunny day in the year 2000. Seems strange saying that now: the year 2000. I guess it was a long time ago; before Twitter and being a grownup and even 9/11. Nobody even really had mobile phones then, did they? I guess that makes you special, that you were born in the year 2000. You might’ve been a dog, but you were a proper Millennial.

You were such a tiny thing, with little floppy ears and massive brown eyes like polished conkers that blinked back at me full of curiosity. You were a collie dog, except there were crosses in you, so that you had lovely patches of chestnut brown on your face. Mum wanted to call you Bella, but for some reason this annoyed me at the time – probably because there was some Disney princess with the same name, and/or I had some ridiculous mythical title lined up for you. I remember when Twilight first came out, years after you were born, I couldn’t stop giggling at how the protagonist shared her name with my little old dog. But Bella means beautiful, and beautiful you were. You spent all afternoon scuttling round the garden, nibbling playfully at our ankles, before falling asleep in the flowerbed. We really panicked until we found you, curled up among the bluebells and buddleja.

I think having a puppy is a brilliant idea to lessen sibling rivalry. My brother and I spent less time pulling out each other’s hair and shoving each other about over who stole whose Game Boy game and more time throwing ball for our new dog. We took you to Kelburn Country Park and you walked about a mile with your tiny legs before giving up. Mum and Dad took turns to carry you all the way to the car. After that you rarely let anyone try to lift you up – you always retorted with a snarl when they offered. Maybe you were embarrassed at having once had to be carried. You were as sporty and competitive as my father. Probably because when you were a bit bigger he used to take you out running for miles and miles. You were like the wind, chasing after a ball or dashing after Dad’s bike. He took you to some of the finest golf courses in Scotland. Mum, my brother and I took you to some of its remotest campsites, where you would curl up in a tent with us as the rain and wind howled outside.

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One of the best thing about collies is their ears. Floppy and fluffy; soft and furry on the outside and pink and waxy on the inside. When I was younger I could sit and stroke your ears for hours; it was such a comfort, like the way a baby sucks its thumb or a stressed-out adult chews their fingernails. One day, one of your ears suddenly pricked up, straight and triangular like an Alsation’s. The other remained flopping over for another week or so before joining its partner. They never fell back down again, but remained tall and alert. They were a bit like rabbit ears, the way they fell back when you were scared or angry, but mostly just stood up with a look of mild absurdity or surprise, like when people pluck too much arch into their eyebrows. You could probably hear everything in the world, with ears like that.

You had crazy amounts of energy. You went through a phase where all we had to do to exercise you was take you to an open space and shout, ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’ and you would run around us in endless, frantic circles, occasionally yelping with excitement. It was as if we had unlocked some unknown, race dog gene in you. Whenever we were in public, you would abandon your loyalty at the drop of a hat (or stick) if it meant you could get someone to play with you. When we were tired of playing endless games of fetch, you would wander off and drop your ball or stick at the feet of some other family, before sheepishly trundling back when we called your name repeatedly. There were a few times where you gatecrashed people’s games of frisbee and ended up winning (or breaking their frisbee with your teeth).

You would cut up people’s lawns with the amount of running you did. If we went for a walk with you, you’d trot on ahead then circle back to check we were all still together, as if we were sheep. You weren’t a trained collie or anything, but clearly you had the protective instinct in you. Like when you went through a phase of dragging my beanie babies into your box, as if you were pretending they were your puppies. I used to resent the way I’d have to put my beloved, saliva-slathered animals through the wash, but now I guess it’s kind of sweet.

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Then there was the bi-annual task of giving you a bath. It was a feat of will for both us humans and you. If we tried to call you into the bathroom, the merest hint of the word ‘bath’ would send you running. Once, you hid in the laundry basket. My job was often to keep you soothed while Mum rubbed your coat with flea shampoo and my brother sprayed you with lukewarm shower water. You were awfully fussy about temperature. There was one time when you managed to get one half of your back covered in white wet paint and we had to shower you outside with the hose. You would think that you’d be grateful for the warm indoor shower after that, but maybe you had a short memory.

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I’d like to apologise for the time we were staying in the Lake District and we had been out walking and you were covered in mud and stinking river water (funnily enough, you loved water when it involved jumping in oceans, lakes and rivers for sticks), and I decided the best thing to do would be to give you a shower. The problem was, we thought human shampoo would be too harsh for you, so we ended up washing you with vegetable oil and vinegar, because I’d read online somewhere that oil was meant to be nourishing for your hair, and vinegar good for your scalp. I think they meant olive oil, or coconut oil or something, because afterwards you smelled like a chip shop; although your coat was super shiny. Maybe that was just the grease. Still, you didn’t seem to mind because you got lots of smothering attention and god knows how many dog treats as a consolation afterwards.

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Perhaps you were at your best at Christmas. There was something about the festive season that you just loved. Maybe it was having the family together and having everyone in high spirits. You could sense human problems as quick as you could sense someone turning on the hoover. If we were having some kind of argument, you would always sit in your box quivering and looking sad. At Christmas, you morphed into a four-year-old child, ecstatic at the prospect of presents, food and Santa. When we were unwrapping our own gifts, you tried to butt in with your paws pattering everywhere and your nose sniffing every present we opened. I used to tie all the excess ribbon, string and tinsel around your collar, so that by the end of Christmas Day, you were as decorated as a festive reindeer, or a walking advertisement for Paperchase. Often, we would paint your nails sparkling red with Rimmel’s finest, and have to explain to fellow dog walkers that no, our dog’s feet weren’t bleeding, she just happened to have her seasonal manicure.

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You were a much-loved dog, and everyone who visited us at Christmas seemed to bring you some kind of present, which you gratefully whined over excitedly until us children had helped you unwrap it. You were bought stockings of doggy chocolate and other treats, your favourite Schmackos sticks, fluffy toys and weird squeaky creatures. When I was too young to buy you my own present, I’d carefully pick a stuffed animal toy that I didn’t want anymore and pass it on to you, as a sibling passes down old, grown-out clothes. As I got older, I graduated onto collars. I bought you the prettiest, tackiest, gothiest collars I could find in the aisles of TK Maxx and Poundland. You had red, gold, studs and skulls, leopard print and silver glitter. When I was Christmas shopping this year, I walked accidentally down the pet aisle and it brought a tear to my eye. I was surprised at how much I missed this; it was like walking up the stairs and mistaking empty space for the final step. I was reminded that you were gone.

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I have to admit, there were times when you could be hard-going. You had a temper, which maybe you learned from the people around you (hell, nobody’s perfect) and you did bite people a few times when you were over-excited or pissed off. Nothing serious, but enough for us to fall out with you over. But only for a few days, until the sorrowful look on your face as you plodded into the kitchen melted our attempts at icy reserve.

Another problem was that often you also had terrible breath: a sort of stale, fishy smell that we could never work out the origin of. We had some of your bad teeth removed; we gave you dental chews. Sometimes the smell was okay, but you could really notice it up close when you were panting happily in people’s faces. I blamed your diet, which consisted of dog biscuits and ASDA SmartPrice tins of meatballs. The odd helping of tuna. I used to gag and hold my nose as I poured the grim pasty reddish mess into your food bowl. You seemed to love it though, especially Lidl’s Luxury Irish Stew that you had for Christmas Dinner. When you were old and frail and your joints were riddled with too much arthritis, we had to squirt a horrid-looking medicine in your dinner and find ingenious ways to get you to take your pills. The most effective way was to crush the pill and roll it up in a piece of brie – you always were a dog of class.

In car journeys, you’d either be an angel or a nightmare. My brother and I would argue endlessly about how we were going to shove your arse off the seatbelt so we could buckle ourselves in and set off onto the road. It was better when we were old enough to sit in the front. Sometimes, you got to sit in the front while we had to pile in the back. You would sit bolt upright, back straight and ears pricked high as you looked straight ahead. One time, a ticket lady made a joke about how handsome Mum’s husband was. When we drove off, it took her a while to realise that the lady was joking about Bella, sitting up all serious and erect in the seat beside her.

In traffic jams, you would get fidgety and whiney, which didn’t make life much better amidst the din of Motown music on Radio 2 and the smell of the steaming poo you had done, now tied up in a bag on the dashboard, slowly releasing its awful odour. There were some tough hours but we got through them together. Luckily, you fell asleep and the traffic eventually dissipated enough that we could stop at a service station and dump your mess and spray the car with aftershave. I used to hate the way that you’d never get out the car when we stopped on long journeys, like you thought we were going to leave you behind.

You used to hate when we went off to school in the mornings, as you jumped up at the window, scratching the glass with your paws, or sat whining at the gate. But there were other ways of keeping you involved. You had your own MSN, Bebo and Facebook accounts. You were a popular dog. When we took you for walks around Maybole we literally had to fight the strays off you because clearly you were the sassiest bitch in town. The box that you slept in even had the Kerrang! sticker to prove it.

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And well, there isn’t much else left to say. You were the best dog a kid could ask for, with your endurance, energy and sense of humour – your almost human personality. It feels weird talking about pets passing away; perhaps there’s less of a taboo around animals than there is humans dying, but still, not many people write about their dead pets. I still talk about you in the present tense, and get pissed off when people correct me. It’s a year since the vet came for you because you had fatal tumours, and a year since you last sat in your box, a year since last Christmas. I’ll never get used to the space you left, the way you’re not there to jump up excitedly when I come home to Maybole. Not there to take for walks, even though you were slow as a tortoise in the end. I didn’t want to be sentimental, writing this; but it’s true, I miss you.

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Wordsworth’s The Prelude and the Death(?) of the Author

Wordsworth’s The Prelude is a pretty formidable poem, not least due to its length. I initially encountered it in my first year of studies as an English Literature undergraduate, within a course entitled ‘Writing & Self’. There was no obligation to tackle the entire poem – we just had to look at a few extracts and try to get to grips with Wordsworth’s philosophy on the relationship between nature, memory and selfhood. Selfhood. That elusive concept; you think you know it, but no – the post-structuralists, modernists and Samuel Beckett have something radically different to say about it. Not going to lie though, I really enjoyed it in the end. The really long poetry? Not so much…

At the time, I was disinterested in the seemingly repetitive obsession with the natural world, what seemed like bland blank verse, and the endless length. However, after studying more recently Milton’s marathon-of-a-poem Paradise Lost, with all its mythical references beyond my grasp, Wordsworth’s doesn’t seem so scary. In fact, I felt the urge to go back to it and think about how my perception may have changed. What interests me about it now, with (hopefully) a little more intellectual maturity, is not only the poem’s emotive value but also the way it sheds an interesting light on some theories I’ve been looking at recently.

Roland Barthes, in a famous essay called ‘The Death of the Author’, argued against the Romantic conception of author as god-like genius held by writers such as Wordsworth:

[…] a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.

The idea that no writing is original, but instead a ‘tissue of citations’ borrowing meaning from the myriad of texts and other references (written or oral) floating in the social world of language has profound consequences for the way we approach literature. The notion that literary texts do not contain a single, ‘intended’ meaning released by the authorial author was posited by the New Critics of the early twentieth-century, Wimsatt and Beardsley. In ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that good criticism shouldn’t try to decipher an author’s intended meaning but instead look at how the poem succeeds in creating meaning through its form, claiming simply that ‘judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.’ Their definition of what ‘works’ in poetry was that style contributed to substance; in other words, the poem’s metre, rhyme and metaphor evoked the feelings and understandings appropriate to the poem’s meaning – a meaning that should be deciphered, then, not in reference to the author’s intentions but in reference solely to the text on the page. The New Critics, however, differ from Barthes in that they believe a text contains a complete, unified meaning that can be ‘unlocked’ by studying the text, whereas Barthes is saying the text is inherently plural, due to the unstable and intertextual nature of language and literature.

Going back to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, an epic poem defined by its status as the autobiographical unfolding of a poet’s personal and artistic growth (a quest for self-expression famously rewritten by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh from a female perspective), seems problematic within the context of twentieth-century New Criticism. How are we to approach a poem that is concerned primarily with the poet’s mind and experience?   A poem that Wordsworth has literally put himself into? The poet himself described The Prelude as ‘a poem on the growth of my own mind’. Is it possible, then, to ignore his presence, and relegate the autobiographical context of the poem to a shadowy distance?

I think the two positions can be reconciled. Wordsworth’s poem may delve into personal experience, but he is by no means the only poet in the world that does so – let alone the only poet interested in the relationship between art and nature. Criticism is used to finding inventive ways of looking at a poem that may or may not involve the poet’s self and life. We could, in the following of Harold Bloom’s ‘Anxiety of Influence’, consider how his use of blank verse constitutes an Oedipal struggle with his predecessor Milton. We could examine the more political elements of the poem, and how they relate to the cultural and social context of the time, or even the complex philosophical ideas Wordsworth espouses.

I myself am interested in the poet’s voice: the way he narrates fragments of experience to build up to the whole of his self, his artistic vision. I am also interested in the fluctuating effects of self-estrangement and unification, and the evocation of memory that permeates the text. Here is one of my favourite extracts of The Prelude:

One summer evening (led by her) I found

A little boat tied to a willow tree

Within a rocky cove, its usual home.

Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in

Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice

Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;

Leaving behind her still, on either side,

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,

Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point

With an unswerving line, I fixed my view

Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,

The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace; lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat

Went heaving through the water like a swan;

When, from behind that craggy steep till then

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,

As if with voluntary power instinct,

Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,

And growing still in stature the grim shape

Towered up between me and the stars, and still,

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own

And measured motion like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the covert of the willow tree;

There in her mooring-place I left my bark, –

And through the meadows homeward went, in grave

And serious mood; but after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts

There hung a darkness, call it solitude

Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes

Remained, no pleasant images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live

Like living men, moved slowly through the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

 

A New Critical reading here could look at many poetic elements and examine how they contribute to an overall meaning. Indeed, I think the New Critical approach always has great value in unlocking the text – not in the sense of unlocking some kind of hidden meaning – but in unlocking the nuanced structures and framework of techniques that produce particular effects. Yet this kind of close reading can also go hand-in-hand with considerations of writerly subjectivity and creation, especially for an overtly autobiographical work like The Prelude. Although Wordsworth termed poetry ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, he also noted that it was ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’; in other words, poetry comes from the self, from a kind of organic inspiration caused by worldly experience, but it is only upon reflection and considered reconstruction that good poetry is created.

Of course, whether poetry comes from the self or not is irrelevant to New Critics, and for Barthes, this notion is flawed since all language is social: ‘it is language that speaks, not the author’, he claims in Image, Music, Text. It is, however, worthwhile to perhaps consider the ‘ghostly’ presence of the author in the text. Barthes himself admits in The Pleasure of the Text that the reader’s idea of the author plays a fundamental role in his/her reading of the text: ‘in a way, I need the author, I desire his presence’. This intimacy between reader and author is enacted as a kind of strangely corporeal, erotic relationship – where the reader desires the author’s body, in a kind of strip-tease effect as the text is unravelled before the reader’s eyes; but also by the reader, as the text is ‘played’ – as it offers up its ambiguities and gaps for the reader to fill in with his/her own meaning. The presence of the author is the promise of meaning. When I read Wordsworth’s poem, and look for meaning, I am not just thinking of the words on the page – inevitably I have some hazy conception of the writer who writes them, the man wandering the Lake District with words whirling round his brain like blossom caught in the wind. Without my sense of the author, I feel as I open the cover of a book, the text seems hollow; I need to conjure his/her presence to enter the threshold of fiction, and of meaning.

This of course applies to certain texts more than others. If I have no real knowledge of the author, I am able to approach a text with a ‘pure’ mind, but even then, I unconsciously scan for clues as to the possible links the text has to other writers and traditions. The text, then, seems always to be situated in some intangible web of meaning, and only sometimes is the author present, a spider or spectre creeping elusively around my reading of the text.

So, back to the ghostly presence of Wordsworth in this extract. Who is he – who and when and where is the speaking ‘I’ – is it Wordsworth, the physical hand, gnarled with old age (and those trips to the Alps) writing the poem, Wordsworth the young boy (returned to in memory or literally re-living his younger self?), Wordsworth the imagined author, behind a desk in Dove Cottage, conjured by the reader’s imagination…Or perhaps all of these, an uncanny amalgamation of identities? Wordsworth himself never lived to see the poem published; indeed, he was revising it again and again until his final years. So we can’t even be sure which temporal Wordsworth was writing these lines. Which words came at which age? When reading, I feel the fragmented sense of time come together in the quiet and consistent flow of the iambic lines. It seems like the author’s true identity, his ‘true’ intentions or involvement in the poem, slip away under the seduction of the poetry and language.

Milan Kundera in Art of the Novel mentions a distinction between poets with and without history. Wordsworth might here be difficult to classify because he wrote both intimate, lyrical poems and also ones which dealt with the politics and history of the time, such as the Industrial Revolution. In the above extract – a mere snippet of the whole poem, which does at points get historical – I’d like to consider Wordsworth a poet without history; the ‘I’ of the speaker merged with both the poet and the young boy who steals the boat. Memory has transformed the experience into a sublime perspective on the transcendent greatness of the world, the ‘familiar shapes’ evolved into ‘huge and mighty forms, which ‘do not live / like living men’. In other words, forms that will not breathe and change and die like humans, but remain in a powerful position of natural supremacy – an existence that to Wordsworth as a developing poet and young man was almost formidable, ‘a trouble to [his] dreams’. Kundera points out that ‘pure lyric poetry lives in feelings’ which ‘are all given to us at once’, but intensify in the mind of a poet. I feel that Wordsworth’s moving account of the transition of the landscape reflects this, particularly as the weighty blank verse and enjambment create that sense of moving, progressive and natural feeling.

Yet it is also a strange feeling, the sensation and memory of terror that recalls in the eye/the ‘I’ of the poet’s mind. The emotions experienced as a boy are part of the bank of material that builds up to produce poetic inspiration. And yet memory is not a film-tape, recording past events with absolute accuracy. It is malleable, subject to revision, always related to the present moment in which it is recalled. Wordsworth called these ‘spots of time’: moments where some flash of previous existence will burst into consciousness – a thought, a memory, a feeling, a scene from a novel, a line of verse, a melody from a song. This strange release of the past into the fiery now of the present can not always be explained, but they are essential, in Wordsworth’s philosophy, for the development of self. As Locke argued, the self is a continual being only through the continuation of consciousness, and it is through these ‘spots of time’ – gaps in the fabric of our present that catch some thread of our past – that our identity continues to be woven together into a coherent selfhood.

And so, in slight relation to selfhood, the idea of genius, or a poet without history. Barthes has destroyed genius, in his destruction of authorship. We can accept the theoretical ‘truth’ or weight of this, but still acknowledge, at least psychologically, some kind of notion of genius. Genius doesn’t have to mean brilliance, but as Kundera’s book suggests, it conveys something special and unique about creative writing, in that it is inevitably in some way produced by feeling – and this feeling is inextricably related to one’s personal experiences, even if the writer is not aware or rejects this in their writing. Personal experiences are unique, and even though language is not, it is our individual way of assembling language in direct relation to feeling and consciousness that makes writing something special, perhaps magical; that makes writers not merely what Italo Calvino in ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’ calls ‘literary machines’, churning out elaborate patterns of words from the dictionary.

Moreover, and this may link with Barthes’ writings on readerly pleasure, genius can lie in the reader too. A genius that transcends language, the feeling of what Barthes calls ‘jouissance’ or bliss, that occurs when a text ‘imposes a state of loss’ upon the reader. For if the reader is involved in producing meaning from this lost, he/she too has some kind of genius. When faced with the lines: ‘For so it seemed, with purpose of its own / And measured motion like a living thing, / Strode after me’ we are struck with the sudden, lightning bolt connection between past and present. ‘Seemed’ highlights the idea of visual recollection, of memory recalled in the present. The uncanny anthropomorphism of the ‘huge peak, black and huge’ recalls a childhood terror, but also the adult’s terror of the unknown. Wordsworth, the writing poet, cannot recall exactly what made the peak so terrible. It is merely ‘huge’, ‘huge’ – a monstrous presence burgeoning repeatedly in his memory and thought. This strange severance between feeling and meaning is a kind of bliss, and a kind of fear. The loss is what is left out in the mind; just as Wordsworth’s recollection is a distortion of childhood fright and adult ‘trouble’, the reader’s perception of that looming black peak is the facing of an abyss: ‘there hung a darkness’. An abyss of possibility. What is the nature of the child’s fear, why can Wordsworth recall it – what is it in his present moment that brings back that memory? The only way to find out is to trail the poem’s entirety, searching endlessly for clues that connect the ‘stars’ of the poet’s psychology, of the poem’s constellation of meaning. Yet there will always be these chasms, where it seems that meaning is lost – where, as the black peak separates the ‘I’ from the ‘stars’, the reader faces an aporia, a non-road separating the word on the page with its meaning, its interpretation. The author’s intentions are lost, and the dictionary fails us.

I have tried to compare Wordsworth’s experience of nature with the experience of reading, as an activity profoundly connected with both loss and creation, with darkness and strangeness but also the ‘sparkling light’ that seems to seduce us into the bewitching land of literature.

‘To give an Author to a text,’ Barthes argues, ‘is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing’. I don’t think this is entirely true. I think that if you allow the author’s presence, at least at some ghostly level – and this has been discussed somewhere in Derrida’s writing in a much more sophisticated way than I have here – you can open the writing. For the author creates more problems, as a character not quite inside or outside the text. The uniting of the reading and writing self; navigating the text and giving it meaning; facing up to the strange array of images and sounds that lead a meandering path through the poem – that is poetic genius.

 

Works Cited:

Barthes, R. (1967) ‘The Death of the Author’, translated by Richard Howard, Available at: http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf [Accessed 11.3.13].

Barthes, R. (1980) The Pleasure of the Text.

Kundera, M. (2003) The Art of the Novel. New York: HarperCollins.

Wimsatt and Beardsley – ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. Available at: http://letras.cabaladada.org/letras/intentional_fallacy.pdf

Wordsworth, W. The Prelude. – began in 1798 and published in 1850, the year of Wordsworth’s death.