Dead Chao

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Sonic Adventure 2 Battle (Sega, 2001/2002)

(Short story, written sometime in February).

The first time we met, he was already talking about hallucinogens. This isn’t to overemphasise their significance within our relationship, but to give it context, enlightenment. I got a friend request two days later and I knew that maybe he wanted to follow up on our 4am conversation, fueled by chewing tobacco and copious refills of Bombay Sapphire. He had a laugh you could hear in the next room, but he wasn’t by any means American. I liked that about him though, the sitcom quality. He was sort of shivering at the edges, always anticipating the applause. I seemed to find a way to dwell in the beat with indecision, and I suppose he liked that about me. We talked about the deep sagacity of blue glass and later exchanged blue messages. We sent each other trippy, nicotine music over Messenger and then slipped out of each other’s lives awhile.

It was August, the brink of autumn, the next time he messaged.

Now, it might be the prerogative of my story to give details here. Oh I don’t know, things like: what happened in the intervening months, what happened afterwards, what were his intentions–what indeed, were yours or mine? I was listening to this cute track by Teebs called ‘Double Fifths’ and watching the dust scroll through the empty space of my room. I’d cleared everything out to obtain a sense of minimalist realism. I hadn’t cleaned. I’d left stacks and stacks of junk in the street, for the council to pick up–you just had to phone them to arrange a time. At 11.45 on a Friday, I watched from the window as a truck scooped away the residue of my life. What was left: a laptop with crackling speakers, a few clothing items, two types of eyeliner, a book of Tom Raworth poems with pages missing. This was to remind myself that there are other types of logic. Recently, all my words come out riddled with typos, I don’t know why.

I wasn’t to know that you can fall through cleaves where the sky is not quite finished. I can now recall a glitch in Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, a single or multiplayer GameCube game which occupied much of my childhood. There was a special limbo location called the ‘Normal Garden’ where you could raise teardrop-like critters called ‘Chao’. The garden, essentially, was a floating island. If you selected a precise point where sky met cliff edge on the raised mountain I don’t believe you could climb, and you double-dashed real hard into the blue–you could literally fly out the garden, beyond screen, beyond the brown and green. Your sprite would double as it swung out in each overlay of sky and sea (or was it all just sky?), invoking a genuine sense of terrestrial and existential vertigo. A glitch, by its very name, enacts a rupture in the game’s organising logic. Sometimes you can see the little Chao prowling around, half-submerged in the ground. Every arrangement of object and space gets just slightly, temporarily distorted. I didn’t do the glitch often enough to find out if prolonged abuse would damage the code of my game, triggering all sorts of other glitches. Sometimes though, that serenity of repetitive steel-band lullaby leaks into my dreams. I can hear the muted moans of the Chao themselves, the blend of animal cub and human baby that was so unsettling, electronically warped by my television’s poor sound quality. I am always pacing around, jumping up and down, looking for fruit. I fear all the Chao will die before I wake up.

This happens over and over. There is a dark sweet part of me that longs for the Chao to die. The abuse could go on forever. The seasons in the garden do not alter; you cannot align your emotions to fading pastures, solstice awakenings or imminent harvests. Chao abuse is different from crashing cars into innocents, shooting shop owners or beating up on a passing prostitute–the kind of reprobate behaviour you can indulge in via GTA or the like. This felt more perverse. I was but a child and already fantasising over violence, albeit the delicate torture of hurling a Chao at the wall, tackling it into the water. I told myself it was all experiment. The more you hit the Chao, the shorter its life. A simple mortal formula. On the brink of death, the critter goes into a cocoon: grey is the colour of failed reincarnation, pink indicates it will leave an egg behind. A new egg in lieu of a grave. There are numerous ways you can cheat this death, namely by exiting the garden without saving and returning to pick up your Chao before the internal clock does its doing. You can place it in a water location; Chao cannot die when swimming. You cannot, I suppose, drown a Chao; although I seem to remember Sonic himself was supposed to be a terrible swimmer. Some noughties cartoon where he falls through the sky and helplessly into water. There’s an Eley Williams story that ends with all these hedgehogs floating in a twilit pool, ‘right in the very centre, sitting like asterisks, like parodies of stars’. That really stung me; the sense of nobody really knowing what to do.

Once upon a time, my father rescued a hedgehog he’d found in the garden, curled in my collie dog’s empty water bowl. It was covered in frost and shivering profusely, so we knew it probably wouldn’t make it through the night. I wanted to stroke it, express my primal sympathies, but my father reminded me of the needles. Everything sweet will prick eventually, he might’ve said.

Was there something sick inside of me, that made me want to harm the Chao? I wanted to break them, shorten their lives; albeit often only to go back and comfort them. I wanted to be their protector, but to do that I had to instate a threat. Through this, I learned the psychology of the abuser. It was the taste of bile, a question of power: I literally held the balance and duration of life in my tiny, pixelated paws. For every smash against the wall, there could be a caring caress. Binge and purge. I could leap to the heights of a palm and drop back down with fruit, an apple to hand to my tiny darlings.  

As I said, the music got into my head. I hadn’t played the bloody game in over ten years but the tropical, jewellery box lullaby was lodged inside of me. There were palms and psalms in my dreams for weeks. At first, we only cooked a measly, careful, handful of shrooms; they were not as abundant as my new friend said. Well, we were going to cook them but actually I think we had them raw, in a sort of brew. If memory serves. He rubbed off the dirt while I tried to find blankets, because it was cold in his flat–too cold for August. His flatmate was milling around, doing the dishes, watching. I think he knew exactly what we were up to.

There have been times since. I thought I was made out of sugar, my whole flesh a trembling of visible particles, and I knew this meant I would die soon. We were at a party on the other side of town where you have to cross a river in a car or train and I was kissing all my friends, all these people I didn’t know, simply because I knew I was going to die. There was no control anymore. I was going to be this heap of sugar, and I thought I would die there alone and my body would fade to grey like a Chao cocoon. I think this was because an old guy at my work once said, ‘Sugar is cancer’s best friend’. He was loading sachets of aspartame sweetener into his tea at the time, while I was devouring a bar of Cadbury because I’d been on my feet for hours and was starving. We enjoyed our mutual poisons, dragging it out. I could not reply with my mouthful of caramel. Now when I look at cakes and sweets in the supermarket, I only think of my own body, its bubbling of blood and skin, a confectionary of molecules. I have lost two stone in the months since; my family at Christmas barely recognised my toothy, skeletal smile. Something about their candour, their concern, really thrilled me. I could tell they were hurt by my behaviour, which they were judging before understanding. They were fools from another dimension. How could they possibly grasp the cannibalistic implications of consuming sugar? I started to dash and leap around them, looking for fruit I could gift to heal the effects of my cruelty. It was exhausting.

My mother laughs out loud to the radio still, and for that I love her–even though she leaves pieces of fruit to brown in her handbag. There is such a thing as too much ripening. How ever could she know the fatal expense of every tangerine or banana? There is less to be said about apples, potent of juice and shining.

On New Year’s Eve, I read ‘Errory’ and finally fully understood. He was messaging me the whole while, his reflections and concerns. Very little about the year to come; everything honed in on the past. Still, I believe he is to become an engineer of sorts. His job is to fit things together, even memory. Mine: to take all apart, quite deliciously, like an intricate honeycomb melting. You have to enact a hovering, to see between beats and worlds and feelings. This is especially visible in Raworth’s line, ‘silhouettes of participants / dangle in their own data’. You see there are stages to everything, and damned if I was to remain purely neutral, Normal. One time, I saw my future as a singular, golden halo, stretching and stretching outwards like one of Saturn’s rings: it became so huge I couldn’t see the edges. It was beautiful. But then all these other halos started to spill from the invisible centre, just gurgling up hundreds of golden rings like from the spout of a fountain and they were spilling outwards and filling all that holy, haloed space. There were too many rings to count. Altogether a gorge of purity. They started to melt into a pool of liquid gold, and suddenly I felt ashamed. This was the time, I think, when I woke up a day later and found him licking my eyes when I thought he was gone. He murmured something about wanting to eat my soul, in a good way. His tongue stung a little and I slipped it into my mouth instead, mulling over our secret. I thought this boy perhaps was the devil. And could I build something with him; what good would I do?

At home, afterwards, I took a long bath and cried and cried. My tears were hot and perfectly formed. I could not stop crying. The salt, I hoped, would neutralise the sugar. Chao cannot die in water.

Mushrooms at Dusk

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She found the quality of light at this time of year awfully confusing. Dull grey in the morning, silver streams of mist that lick the sky like butter from your fingers. The twilight haze of three o’clock, where the amber lamps come out like fireflies and shadows gather ominously across the sky. Maybe a wisp of some foreign wind, darkling in the fade towards four, where she’d be sitting at her window, wondering. It was the time of year to tend to the garden, pile up the heaps of leaves, clusters of rotting pinecones and acorns that clotted in the soil. The earth was hardening for winter, and soon the frost would come, eating into the grass like a glittering poison. She’d see it as she dressed in 7am sunlight, the whitish mist making crystals at her window. Everything still and beautiful.

It was a luxury, to be home now. She waited for the seasons to change, right at the hinge between autumn and winter, before she made her journey. Asleep on the train, dreaming of being small again, so small in the bubble of childish memory. She could smell the peanut crunch of M&Ms, the sparkling particles of someone’s perfume. Soon, soon she’d be home. The place grew tighter every year, as she grew fatter on the milk of new years and their offerings of plastic joys and flattened dreams. She stood in the kitchen, watching the steam swirl out of her first cup of tea. No new mugs, of course. Later, she would press her face to the window and her breath would fog a dewy canvas, and with one finger she’d draw pentagrams, like she always used to. There’d be the rubbery squeak of skin on glass.

No-one was at home now, just her in the wide archives of the house. In the dusty shelves that made her sneeze, and the picture postcards, she imagined a thousand phantoms. They were pretty phantoms, ornamented with the smiles of children and the pinkish sheen of memory. They did not speak to her, but she was somewhat comforted by their silence. What counted was the presence, the ghosted sigh of a skin-prick or coldness. She would wait till her parents got home and read books, in that nook between the banister and the cabinet on the landing. Imagining herself as Jo in Little Women, taking great bites out of Braeburn apples, lines of prose flying before her eyes. She did not fit there as well as she did as a child. The wood cut into her arm as she read the strange poems covered in gold-frosted dust. Somebody had been spraying glitter in the study, making Christmas decorations. That was a long time ago.

***

Morning came like a murmuring of starlings, and slipped away again just as quickly. Her body was heavy, her limbs tree-trunks of aching muscle. She felt she had been away again, and the new hours were another return. She worked them over in her mind, pondering the way their shapes formed with her hunger and sleepiness. Moulding, slowly. At the window she stood and yawned. Some machine was whirring away, making her coffee. The smell dissipated through the room with its warm opulence, stirring her brain to life. Yes. She peered closely into the garden, staring at strange dark shapes which clumped in the fronds of long grass. Most peculiar. Later she would investigate. She ate her breakfast of burnt toast with the radio humming in the background, speaking of a war somewhere, and then advertisements for hair salons and special restaurants. Onto her toast she spooned pools of blackberry jam that looked like crushed rubies, and the soury sweetness bit at her tongue between her teeth. She chewed loudly and grinning, the wine-coloured juice staining her lips. Afterwards, she left everything on the table: the crumbs peppering the wood like a pixie’s debris.

It was almost enough just to be here, out of the shouting sirens, the madness of the city. Home, she supposed. She sat at her laptop, fingers clicking ruthlessly at the keys. She was writing a message to someone, a sad story about why she would no longer remember them. She would keep it saved, locked deep in her computer’s hard-drive, and then one day send it. When she had the person’s address. When the time was right; which it wasn’t just yet.

Everything stretched out like the languid yawn of a giant, just a long morning and the gape of afternoon, uncertain evening. The sheerness of time was narcotic, rendering tiny signals that pulsated in her brain. She was at once sleepy and electrified. She rushed up the stairs to check something in her room, but her phone was dead and all that was there were her clothes strewn across the carpet. She messed around looking for things to read. She highlighted her favourite words in the dictionary. It was a big dictionary, and a whole hour shed away like the flake of skin that layers the top of a scar. She remembered only a handful of this vocabulary: sapphire, salience, stardust, Saprotrophic. She was cleaning the window with lemon vinegar, making sweeping lanes in the film of dirt. A thin moon peered out of the weary sky like a wink. Saprotrophic…she had forgotten something. Ah…the mysterious clumps in the garden! Of course, they were mushrooms, only mushrooms…

She pulled on her mother’s wellies and trod out into the garden, up the concrete steps. The air was very still; mournful, even. It smelled of wood-smoke, and somewhere she could hear the crackling snaps of burning tinder. Plumes of it rose against the blueish dusk in dark arabesques. She sighed contentedly. The clumps were even more abundant than she’d thought; the whole garden was teeming with their shadowy figures. She knelt down to inspect some. She thought of the honey fungus they’d found out in a forest once, clinging prettily to a rotting stump. In the sunset glistenings that glazed the silhouetted trees, she had thought she could almost see fairies, fluttering above the mushrooms. They were lovely mushrooms, with their smooth peachy caps. Her friend had said they were edible; but you could not be sure with wild ones, so they left them alone, like a living relic, noting their path. The toadstools she saw now in the garden were a putrid brownish colour, etched with black lines and little white spots. They were ugly in a kind of otherworldly way. Ethereal, even.

Her knees were going numb from bending so she stood up and did a lap of the garden to get her circulation back. She was recalling things. The party where a boy brought out a sandwich bag of suspicious-looking vegetables, frying them on somebody’s pan. She’d stood in the doorway of the kitchen, her mind full of cheap red wine, watching the way the little things unfurled in the buttery oil, their spindly stalks stretched out like tentacles, their heads jiggling like jellyfish. As they started to sizzle and wilt, they let out a curious, bitter smell. The boy had shared them among his friends and then they had disappeared for most of the night. Later, one of them was hanging upside down in a tree at the village park, and he was reciting streams of Byron’s poetry. Sometimes, she still heard his voice, even now, reverberating through the dark.

The cold was coming out of its slumber and creeping into her bones. She stood still, wrapping her cardigan tight around her. She crouched down again and dug her nails into the earth. A weird feeling gripped her, a feeling tinged with homesickness. She pulled nothing out of the ground, no trace of seed or root. She stood up again. The quietness made her feel smaller than ever, but her mind was huge and overbearing, stretching itself across the matter of the garden. It all glared in her vision like the close-up shots of a dream. She wished some sound would break the silence. A bird-cry, even. But the little creatures were so quick with their wings that they made no noise as they flew between branches. She was trembling now, remembering everything.

The fungus at her feet now looked like the severed heads of something. She had to breathe.

If only a car would start in the drive, or a plane fly overhead…something, something!

They say that magic makes you happier. And she thought there was a thing she could do, before going inside again to the womblike comforts of heat and sleep. She brushed through the grass with her wellied feet, and stood in the centre of one of the fairy rings. It was a near perfect circle. She stared first at the mushroomy clumps at her feet, then up at the sky. It bore the dramatic flashes of an expressionist painting: great bolts of violet wounded the blue, and rivulets of yellow broke away from the horizon, approaching amber and spiralling, spiralling. Then she found again the moon. Brighter now, it was a sharp crescent, the fold of an eyelid. She waited, waited. Her body was cold and her skin prickled like coral on a sea-washed rock.

The clouds began to gather, slowly at first then fast like an army.

You could smell it in the air, the sourish dampness that held as a breath.

She closed her eyes and the rain came. She felt the initial sprinkles that bounced off her skin, the cries of birds as they darted into the hawthorns for shelter. Drizzles of silver slashing the landscape. A downpour of water and chilly air. She stuck her tongue out for the cold shock and the sharp taste. The crescendo sound of it showering louder, coming down thick and heavy from the west in globules fat as teardrops. She opened her eyes and her hair streamed down her face like seaweed, clinging to the marble of her skin. She felt it surge within her, the waterfall sounds of this injured nature. A grumble of thunder. Something stirring in her chest, a rush in her pulse. Almost like someone was watching her, a million things flashing around her. Her laughter was lost in the cavernous sound of the rainstorm, another echo pirouetting through the chambers of memory. And as she stood there, the fungus and mushrooms soaked up their nectar, before crumpling to a wasted doom. The rain had poured through and through her, and she felt hollow and purged as a mermaid tossed from the sea to a tomb. And she was the still point in the tempest around her, her body soft and sad with its sickness. This was it; home was just this, wild and true, the beatific glow of a hullabaloo.

Mould

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It was a moon-scape she saw, peering into the mug in her mother’s study. Yes, a moon-scape with little lumps of perilous blue and grey, seeping into one another. Or maybe it was another kind of space terrain: she imagined the ground of Pluto, with its eye-like holes and fissures. She gave it a shake, and watched the particles break up and drift away, flotsam on some unreal ocean. A polluted ocean; maybe the earth’s oceans in a hundred years’ time. They told her in school that the world was filling up with waste and one day everything would melt away, like those paintings of dissolving clocks she saw when her mother took her to the museum. You could already tell it was happening, her teacher had said, the way that it gets so warm these days. The mildness of winter. It wasn’t right.

Well, the moon wasn’t right either that night. No; she could not stop thinking about what she saw in that mug. Another world, was it? She wished she could go back and count the dots, knowing that if she did she could start to chart this new universe, and in knowing it better she could sleep. She could enter its landscapes, drift across it with the powers she had in her dreams. Her mother put a sachet of lavender under her pillow and she could smell it through the cotton, soft and sweet…but it was not enough distraction. She needed to know what she had seen. But her mother might hear her and send her back to bed. It had to be worth a try. Sucking in her breath, she tip-toed back into the study, closing the door quietly behind her and flicking on the light. It was an energy-saver bulb, that took ages to properly glow. So she stood in the dull orange light, watching the wall till it got brighter. Then she would pick up the mug and see. Then she would know again.

Finally it was bright enough and so she went to pick up the mug…but this time, oh how the smell caught her! It was sharp and evil like the stench of seaweed, only worse, like the most rotten thing in the world, slowly fermenting. Yes, she smelt it and was knocked backwards almost. But it was fascinating. She let her nostrils quiver and sniff deeper as she held the mug to her nose. The she looked into it again and saw how the dunes and lumps had mushroomed and the blue was turning greenish, or maybe that was just the duller light. Still, these were definite changes. And she was thinking of the clumps of toadstools she’d seen in the school playground, while they were out measuring soil quality and watching the teacher bending in the grass with a thermometer. They were big brown flat things, ugly and intriguing, and she knew that some of them were poisonous, and some of them if you poked them let out a puff of steam. She wished she could touch these mushrooms but the thought of putting her finger in the mug was repulsing. It was kind of like a horror movie, she thought, where they showed you somebody’s festering wound, only it never looked quite real. Still, you would not like to touch it, it was just sort of funny to look at. No, she would not touch it; instead she shook it again, and this time the dunes did not dissolve, but she could see little fissures rippling across them. Her stomach turned over as if emptying something, and she felt a surge in her gullet. She put the mug down and breathed in deeply, trying to rid herself of the awful smell that clung to her like a disease.

She wondered what it was that these microbes loved so much about her mother’s tea. She considered if they’d accept her into their colony. Like them, she was partial to a glass of milk, but maybe not tea, unless it was laden with sugar. She wondered how they’d order themselves, scattered about as they were like that. Bulbous, growing over each other. It would be a ruthless economy. She sat down on the comfy office chair and span around slowly. The queasiness was leaving. She liked how all the objects rushed around her, melting into long white and orange lines. She stifled a giggle; she must not wake her mother up. She whispered stories to the mug. Telling them about the boy she wrote a letter to once in class and the time she left her homework on a bus. Soon she would say goodbye to her mother. She knew that it could not be long before she was ready to join them. They would be like ants, or the tiny people in Gulliver’s Travels – Lilliputions – running all over her body. Only, they were so small you could not see them. You could just imagine them, growing and multiplying, all over her skin.

They made the moon rocky and bumpy, like that boy whose skin was cratered with pimples. She had seen on television once two fat ladies in white coats scrubbing away green things from the corners of a bathtub. She and her mother didn’t have a bathtub, but sometimes she saw things come out of the plughole in the shower. Great streams of wiry hair that poked out, or smeared themselves upon the porcelain. Once a huge spider. She heard its legs patter and she screamed, and her mother tried to lift it out with a gardening trowel. Sometimes there were little black seeds all over the bath, and the first time she thought maybe a plant had vomited up all its babies (in class that morning she had been drawing diagrams of sepals and stigmas and filaments and seed-pellets), but then her mother told her it was just exfoliating beads from some lotion she had. She tried the lotion and it made her skin burn, but it was not unpleasant; kind of like the scratch of dry sand. It left a pinkish blotch on her legs. She was wondering if the moon was like that: all pastures of dry sand. Were there lakes or ponds or waves? Trees, even? In the mug she could not see any trees, and the only waves were from when she rippled the sticky liquid with the swirl of her wrist. She thought maybe if she lived there she’d have to invent some more things, to keep her interested. There would be a gift shop, for one thing. You could buy t-shirts with maps of the land on them, with close-up details of the blue-green growths and the tea-stains that ringed the china walls. It was like a whole continent splayed out, with all the countries slotted together, their landmasses enveloping each other. A strange thing.

She would take the mug into school on Monday, for show-and-tell. It was the right thing to do. Everybody else would bring in their cinema tickets, their remote-controlled helicopters, Pokemon cards, a book they had read over the weekend. And they would talk about themselves, nattering away about this thing that had brought them  their childish joy. Then she would take to the stage, like the prime minister on the telly, clasping her precious mug, and she would tell them how she had found the moon. At first they would laugh, she recognised that, but then they would realise how clever she was. How amazing was her discovery. She giggled just thinking about it. But I must let it rest, she reflected. After all, she needed to let her colony expand, for the spores to pile up higher upon one another until they were spilling over the edges of the mug. She wanted her colony to be huge and impressive. I mustn’t let them escape. She took a postcard from the wall – it was a painting of a lemon and a teacup by Francis Cadell – and she placed it over the mug. The moon was safe, and its surface would continue to bubble and grow in their new warmth and darkness. So she tip-toed back to bed and lay awake, her mind floating around this wondrous space. Each star was a point of contact, a possibility.

And she spoke to the stars, even as she jumped between them, as you jump between chairs and tables and sofas when you play ‘The Floor is Lava’. Each one told her a story, and she basked in the glow of all those words weaving a tapestry around her. Soon she could slip into sleep, soon, soon, soon…she closed her eyes to a new darkness, felt the warmth of the space beneath the sheets. The smell of mould dissipated from her brain, and now there was only silence, the scent of lavender, wafting in delicate waves…

When tomorrow arrived, it was Monday, so she got dressed for school and went downstairs. To her horror, she saw the mug up-ended on the draining board. What on earth…? Mummy? Her mother came down to boil the kettle and make her porridge, but was startled to see her daughter crying so early in the morning. What is it, darling? She was already late for work, and starving. She threw her handbag on the table and brushed down her jacket. What is it? she repeated. The child was pointing at something next to the sink. Mummy! she wailed, you’ve killed the moon! 

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Autumn Reflections

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The dawn cracks open the sky like a chestnut, and gold light pours on the concrete and grass like showers of molten topaz. Somehow it’s October and I’m wondering how I got here. Where the summer has disappeared, along with the warm air and the billowing roses, with August and its hydrangeas; it seems time has elasticated itself, and snapped at the strangest of places. Everything may break free now. The world slows down, as trees shake themselves clean of another year. Leaves cascade on the ground, and as I walk I hear the susurrations of their skeletons, rustling like the sound of rain at night.

Autumn is a quiet season. We retreat inwards. Gone are the sparkles of summer voices, the throb of fashionable neon and jet planes soaring to boozy utopias. The Pimms is perhaps swapped for something richer, sweeter, warming. A good cider, red wine, some inventive cocktail combining Kahlua and caramel-flavoured tequila. You think of those people hanging out of balconies, their bare skin glowing in the cold air, the slivery iridescence of cigarette smoke curling from their nostrils. There are the box-sets, the television dinners. Going out is such an effort; it is the not knowing, the tentativeness of the weather. Things would be easier if the sky kept to its promises.

I wanted to go blackberry-picking this year. I found a place along the Kelvin where they sprawl out of the bramble-bushes, poking like fat sapphires through wire mesh fences. I need to find some leafy suburb for conkers. When I was little, we spent the October holidays at my Nan’s in Milton Keynes. There was a copse of horse-chestnut trees and every year we brought back a black bin-bag full of conkers, and I’d shine them up with vinegar and nail varnish before taking them into school. There’s something incredibly satisfying about the way they feel in your palm, solid and smooth, nourishing somehow. I didn’t quite make it in time for the blackberries, but I did the walk again all the same, sweeping my feet through the trails of leaves. Autumn had left its burnished light, a shimmer on the river. I love the feelings of these late afternoons, where darkness is like a comforting hug, handed through chasms of stars and amber.

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Once, we had a school project, to gather up all the fallen leaves we could find and press them into a picture behind glass. A lesson in natural materials, perhaps, in arranging colour. We were flattening the landscape, making art; in the veiny intricacies of each leaf lies a million hidden histories. We’ll never know, and they’ll fade and die eventually.

Autumn is always a time of nostalgia. It is that paradoxical time where death reveals itself through visceral beauty. The life forces of summer unfurl and wither and fall away, and yet there is a beautiful melancholy in the sad palette of reds and golds and browns, the snuffling of squirrels amongst tufts of bracken. Everything is scattered: the husks and roots and fragments. You find them in the strangest of places, tucked not only in forests but flowing out of drains, wedged in concrete and windowpanes. People spend their Sundays loafing with films and Scrabble and roast dinners. Or maybe they don’t anymore; but maybe they did once.

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By September, we’re back at school, back at uni. Fresh starts amidst the fall. Sharpened pencils, the smell of polished leather. The heating goes on for chilly mornings. Socks warmed up on radiators. That was before I had a flat of my own, and became too stingy. The wind, like some malicious spirit of winter, slips through my single-glazed windows, blasts the rose from my cheeks. I make do with the illusory effect of candles, the quick fix of hot water bottles. You can warm anything with the scent of nutmeg and cinnamon, a flash of cayenne pepper. Stodgy soups and slabs of bread. I watch the pumpkins fill up in the shops, imagining a sea of faces, waiting to be painted on. Or carved out. Stacks of apples to be bobbed, pubs to be terrorised by the horrid costumes adorned by students. Halloween is not quite what it was when I was younger. I miss the parties with the clouds of cobwebs and incense haunting the rooms of my house, fake spiders draped from the chandelier; the echoing sound of dub-step, and the taste of vodka and food colouring. Edible brains and blood-coloured fizzy laces. The sugar-rush; the hungover fall and slumber. Soon there’ll be fireworks, splintering pigments across the sky. As ever, I’ll watch them from the high-up floors of the library. Remember being in first year, where I sat on a Saturday night, my eyes blinking at a computer screen as I read Byron’s poem ‘Darkness’, for a seminar. The rockets flared and pinks, yellows and blues blossomed in flowers of light as I imagined his vision of desperate apocalypse.

That same semester of uni I sat in a cold lecture theatre, teeth chattering as I pressed my face into a perfumed scarf, the animated man standing on the podium in a tweed jacket reciting snatches of Shelley:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes […]

And I, feeling so small and new and ignorant in the world, was sucked in by the spirit of the wild West Wind, not knowing how it would take hold of me and make me fall in love with this city that I have now grown so used to. Fallen into, as one sinks into a favourite old sofa. The ‘hectic red’ is blood-like, beautiful, sinister. Isn’t it lovely, to imagine every leaf a little ghost, cast away from its tree into a journey of exploration and retreat? Wearing the plum-coloured lipstick, the thick mascara and black coat; could not I be one of the ‘pestilence-stricken multitudes’? For autumn is infectious; her colours allure like the striped warnings of insects, the ‘Smoking Kills’ labels on cigarettes…we cannot help but buy her palettes, absorb her force through woollen fabrics…

image source: ladyhollyshawblog.wordpress.com
image source: ladyhollyshawblog.wordpress.com

Slowly, it would be nice to become more ginger, adding redness to my hair through soft washes of auburn. I would like to have hair the colour of leaves, as they enter that strangely vibrant stage of fading. From fire to fawn. Can you not imagine the smell of the roses as they wilt for winter, so luscious in the fat of their fragrance? There are roses, still, weathering the rainfall and cold. There are white ones on University Avenue, dripping with raindrops; their petals lie about them like the shredded remains of love notes.

By the time autumn has ended and entered the shrine-like stasis of winter, I will have forgotten my sorrows, finished my dissertation. This is all hope and relief; but isn’t that what autumn is: the sparkle of Christmas festivities on the horizon, the embracing of frugality and calm after a toxic summer? Apple pie, with ice cream and Amaretto, instead of beer and salad? An ethereal, rustic beauty that inspires fountains of poetry? For what better thing to do on a crisp autumn evening, than to sit at the window with a cup of tea, leafing the pages of a book and feeling purer – not just a hipster, defined by the vague fashions of everything around you – but a lost soul re-enacting the perfect scene of reading, as it plays out through the ages. For global warming might prolong the first fall of snow, but for now autumn will always be coming, and there is nothing quite like language to capture the tinctures of foliage, the crunch of acorns underfoot – the endless song of autumn’s calling. Right now it is raining – a luxurious, slow rain that pours through the one o’clock darkness – but next time the weather is good, I will go to Victoria Park and watch the swans, white against the scarlet leaves, the silver glass of the pond.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

(W. B. Yeats, ‘The Wild Swans at Poole’).

Ten Things for Autumn: 

  1. Apple Pie Soup http://thesoupfairy.tumblr.com/post/19640840152/apple-pie-soup-literally-my-favourite-soup-ever
  2. Blackberry gin! http://www.deliciousmagazine.co.uk/recipes/blackberry-gin
  3. Burgundy lipstick http://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/beauty/how-to/a4900/rules-for-wearing-burgundy-lipstick/
  4. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Autumn Song’ http://poetry.about.com/od/poems/l/blrossettiautumn.htmhttp://poetry.about.com/od/poems/l/blrossettiautumn.htm
  5. Manic Street Preachers, ‘Autumn Song’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cw9tazfA3aY
  6. Go foraging for mushrooms and fruit, or just fairy-spotting
  7. Cinnamon-stick candle http://www.yankeecandle.co.uk/en/restofworld/shop-by-fragrance/cinnamon-stick/icat/cinnamonstick?setpagenum=
  8. Ginger tea http://www.ecogreenstore.co.uk/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=1372&gclid=CjwKEAjw2f2hBRCdg76qqNXfkCsSJABYAycPz_Ug8Seq2xidtaVJGBOBCdbZNqgIe2J0dfvrqB6pGBoCgTXw_wcB
  9. A tartan scarf
  10. The Alasdair Gray exhibition at Kelvingrove http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/kelvingrove/current-exhibition/Alasdair-Gray/Pages/default.aspx
IMG_0019
mushrooms in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, Edinburgh

three haiku for tomorrow:

sky of fire opal
opens a new morning of
coldness and woodsmoke.

a new harvest moon:
I could take all these gold days
for some old solstice.

these trees shed apples
to sour in the turning ground
as those other hours.