Elizabeth Sings

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HAIKU

Elizabeth sings

Too long her voice was silent

Her throat swells open

The image here is of a Clematis Montana ‘Elizabeth’ in my May back garden in Leeds. It has taken a few years to establish, and its flowering was delayed by a long winter. But now, here she is! The haiku celebrates the May blossom. It also commemorates my beloved paternal grandmother, who had the most beautiful contralto voice. I am named after her. I, too, sing.    My grandmother and I, each in our very different ways, were silenced for long periods of time, by circumstance, sex or (in her case) class. Difficulties not withstanding,  both our voices have been heard. To all Elizabeths everywhere: sing on!!

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Flights of Freedom

“I love trees. They are so solid. They give me strength and support. There they stand, surviving for years and years and years – roots going deep down, right to the centre of the earth… What kind of tree would I be, I wonder? I know. An oak tree. The strength of it. The power.”

(Rosa Peterson)

SIX MONTHS AGO, I sat down next to Rosa Peterson and we started to write a play together. A short piece – just fifteen minutes long – to be performed, alongside two others written in the same way – at West Yorkshire Playhouse’s ‘Every Third Minute’ Festival. The festival (brainchild of the formidable Nicky Taylor), was so-named, because every three minutes in the UK, somebody gets diagnosed with dementia, and was a groundbreaking theatrical investigation into, and celebration of, people’s lived experiences of dementia. More than that. Their creativity and resilience. Each person’s story: unique and special. Life after such a diagnosis. What can that be like?

Well, surprising and strange and different, reports Rosa, who spent three months sharing with me her own particular story. She has lived with dementia for the past three years. Her life – both prior to her diagnosis, and after – has thrown up many challenges. Indeed, they come on a daily basis. The lows can knock her down into a dark place. But what I didn’t expect, when I first began to write with her, was her wit, her strength of mind, her charm. And her wild and wonderful imagination.

Certainly we talked about the bad times: the hallucinations that come at night; the strange visual tricks her mind plays upon her – making the simple act of walking down the street, or crossing a threshold, sometimes difficult, even frightening; the disorientation and memory loss; the flashes of frustration and the real core of anger at her situation.

But, just as powerful, was the clear eyed wonder that Rosa takes, in the simple, natural joys of the world around her. She is someone who has never written a word in her life. Yet with a little gentle coaxing from me, the poetry soon began to flow. And she taught me to see with fresh eyes, just what beauty there is, in everyday life. How we must never take that for granted. Not for a second.

Images – of clouds, of trees, of waves, of horses – came unbidden to her mind. And very soon, a play began to emerge, shaped and moulded by me, but the words – entirely Rosa’s own.

We called it ‘A Horse Called Freedom’, and a woman called Ruth was its central narrator.

Often, it is the things that happen early in our lives – in childhood, or adolescence – that imprint themselves most strongly in our imagination. And if the memory is good, then we can return to it in our minds: catch it, like a talisman, to help us through the more complex pathways of adulthood.

So it was for Rosa. “When I was about fourteen,” she told me, “I used to go riding. I loved those horses. They said I was a natural. Sometimes we went bareback, too. No saddle, nothing. We just took them to the field and climbed on. What a lovely feeling it was. The freedom of it. Being out in the open, with the air on your face, the wind in your hair – just you and the horse beneath you, and nothing else mattered. Nothing.”

Rosa walks with a stick, after surviving a stroke fifteen years ago. These days, she has the vicissitudes of vascular dementia to deal with, too. So it’s not hard to see how magical this remembered feeling of freedom – the reality of the horses, with their power and animal vitality –  remains in her mind. Better than that – her favourite horse, Jet, “black and fierce and strong”, once set off like thunder, with her still on his back, clinging on for dear life. “It was so thrilling,” she remembers, “galloping away like that!”

In the final scene of the play, after Ruth has described the predicaments she faces in her ordinary daily life, the struggles, the barriers and the disappointments, it is – appropriately enough – Jet himself who takes centre stage. He carries  his rider Ruth off through the woods, faster and faster, till he sprouts wings, as wide and feathered and beautiful, as any mythical Pegasus, and flies high above the clouds, deep into the vault of the sky, into the wide blue yonder. To freedom.

And now, although the play is finished, and our weekly scribblings have come to a halt (like the runaway horse, back home in its field), I am still held in thrall to the power of Rosa’s imagination – her courage and her indomitable strength. She is an oak tree, indeed. And her wise words – and wicked laugh – resound loud in my mind and in my heart.

“It’s cool and clear

In the deepest night

There’s a handful of stars

Glittering – bright

Although they are really

So far away

If I reach, I can touch them

And here’s what they say.

It’s a message of hope

They are shining on me

‘Hang on’, they are saying

‘Soon  you’ll be free.’

‘A Horse Called Freedom’ was first performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre, on March 9th, 2018, alongside ‘I See Land Ahead’ by Bob Fulcher and Dominic Gately, and ‘Hamaari Yaadain/Our Memories’ by Hamari Yaadain Memory Cafe and Ming Ho, as part of the THREE trilogy of plays in the ‘Every Third Minute Festival’, Festival Director Nicky Taylor.

https://www.wyp.org.uk/events/every-third-minute/

 

 

Homesick

HUNGARY 1989

Hungary calls her – this curious, displaced, skinny English girl

pulls her under its blanket of Cold War snow

draws her to its jealous magyar breast

and suffocates her.

Heimweh.

Honvágy.

Home?

 

Just before the wall comes down,

just before the end.

 

And always she is struggling here,

in the bone shattering winter – city statues wrapped against the crack of cold,

and the stifling heat of an East European summer.

Such melancholy in that fresh, bright, cherry blossom spring.

 

How she longs to be in England –

on those dirty London streets,

where people know her name

and say it in a language that is forever hers.

 

Clear the call to leave:

but her heart is split in two.

 

Homesick.

Heimweh.

Honvágy.

 

And when she does go home

in that hot, hot summer of 1989

when the borders are flung open – and the West says “Come!”-

and the people sing their long lost songs of liberty,

it is too late for her, too late.

 

And she is homesick once again,

for a place relinquished,

for a man who has refused her,

for a country – harsh and full of paradox –

its language a mystery and a music forever on her tongue,

where she will always be on the outside, looking in:

nose pressed to the sash window,

as the heavy wooden blind falls shut.

Frontier to a vanished freedom – no longer to be crossed, or found.

 

Barney Bardsley

This poem was inspired by a call for submissions to an international anthology on the theme of HEIMAT or HOMELAND, by a group of German writers in Dortmund, which is twinned with my home city of Leeds, UK . The project got me thinking, right away, about my long connection with Hungary, and how I feel pulled – both towards and away – from this home-that-is-not-my-home! After the intense experience of my youth, encapsulated above, I was absent from the country for the next 20 years. But when I returned, in 2009, the feeling for the place was just as strong, and now I study the language seriously, have a wonderful circle of friends there, and return every year. Nothing is quite so powerful in my mind and heart, however, as the memory of those first days, in 1988 and 1989: spent in a country locked behind the Iron Curtain, yet open, warm and loving, to a stranger in their midst. Magyarország, annyira szeretlek. 

https://www.autorenwelt.de/verzeichnis/aufrufe/heimat-beiträge-für-internationale-anthologie-gesucht

 

 

Winter in the City

31 October 2017

Number 49 bus to St James’s Hospital, Leeds. Fractured shoulder. Physiotherapy. This route is so familiar. Harehills Road running like an artery  from home into the city. Every nationality under the sun (or Northern rain) steps on and off, as we trundle along. My shoulder hurts. It’s hard to balance, as the driver lurches to a stop. Time to kill. Wandering around the gloom of Beckett Street Cemetery. Tumbling gravestones. Strange lurking characters.  A man, perched alone on someone’s tombstone,  secret with his thoughts. A lad on a bench, headphones tight clamped, jiggling to a silent tune. Red bouncy curls escaping his cap. Roll-up fag on his nervous lips. Coffee at his side. “Hiya” he calls, too bright and twitchy. A little high. A little provocative. I step away fast. Later, on the bus home, I see him again, at the front, near the driver. Still jiggling and bouncing and ready to run – or pounce. I hold on to my shoulder. Everything feels unsafe, when a bone gets broken, and the feet are swept away from under. Not able to run myself, these days, through the wet slippy streets. It would be hard to escape.  But he soon gets off. Grateful for the bus, and the tight swell of people. Happy to land at my own stop again. Easterly Road. And then just round the corner through the rain. Making it home – a little tentative – in the gathering gloom.

 

26th January 2018

“I’m pleased with you. Your shoulder is doing well. All credit” says the physio. “I’m signing you off.” I grin like a tiny child. Praise indeed. And out from the scaffolding of the scruffy old hospital, back onto Harehills Road again. The sun is shining. A rare benevolence. And I wait for the bus. But the bus doesn’t come. So I walk – with new confidence – take in the squalor and grime all around me. And look at it with a new appreciation.

Past the cemetery across the road. Round the corner, where the tiny businesses and mini markets jostle side by side, all the way downhill, in the sweep back to Roundhay. Wave after wave of immigration and re-settlement has made its mark here – working class English, then Asian, now East European. Krakow supermarket. Polski sklep. Peshawar Asian stores –  and here and there,  self-made shanties made of wood, packed to the gunnels with fruit and veg. An old Victorian church – no more prayers now – but a carpet warehouse instead.  Banstead Park on my left – a scrubby patch of green in the middle of tightly packed terraces, red and black, holding on tight to their Northern hillside. Then a tiny back- to – back, packed floor to ceiling with used and remodelled tyres.Would you  live here if you had a choice? With the noise, and the cars, and the  wary hustle of the people, all struggling to make a living, just surviving, cheek by jowl? But it’s extraordinary, too.  Energetic and fighting and always moving forward. Full of dirt. Full of attitude. Full of life.

A man lurches towards me, white, dreadlocked, pulling an ancient rottweiler on a lead, hat pulled down, dark glasses, distinctly lairy. I stiffen and speed up. We pass each other, he looks, and he grins, and the tension disappears. Just a man and his dog. I wander on. And its good to feel the cold winter sun on my face. Feel the ground coming back to me, safe under my feet. The shoulder strong and healing. The body on my side.

Then I am there, at the bottom of the road – East European Foods and the defunct Delaneys Bar nestling opposite me, side by side. Irish and Russian.  Another unexpected marriage. Everything surprising can happen in Harehills Road.

Turn up the hill, and a man in a Kurdish hat and elegant baggy trousers makes his way down towards me. He doesn’t meet my eyes. There will be no smile here. But back near my  home, an elderly Sikh man, turban immaculately coiled, bids me a courteous Good Morning, as he always does.  And it always lifts my spirits. So much life all around me. If I remember to open my eyes again, trust my feet. Just look. And walk.

December 25th

Winter Walking

Winter walking

In the stripped back branches of the mind.

When the wind hurls itself at the black windows of early morning

And the broken and bruised pieces

Of the body – hacked like a Christmas turkey

Throb with familiar soreness and fatigue.

Winter walking

As the small fading light of the year’s remembering

Gradually extinguishes itself.

And this – this mere survival – has its beauty.

And here – this waking solitude – is celebration, of sorts.

Without salvation or divinity: a kind of  prayer.

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Broken

‘For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.’

E.E.Cummings

 

JULY. Life changes in an instant. One moment I am upright, and hurrying to the shops in the London rain. The next, a crash: a fall from full height, to flat out, cold, motionless, stunned. Total silence – no shrieking – and a searing, terrifying pain. I am smeared across the wet concrete – foot caught in the looped lace of the other boot (a borrowed pair, far too big) – my right shoulder taking a direct hit from the pavement beneath. Too shocked to speak, or even draw breath. Shoulder mangled and trapped under my right side. Smashed to pieces with a hammer, or so it seems. Pain like a hot rod of lightning to the brain. The people around me on the busy street are as shocked as I am – “Don’t move!” “You came down with a hell of a bang!” – and are solicitous, very kind, as they help me to my feet. But standing is impossible. I have forgotten how to walk. My right arm hangs loose: falling – fractured – from my back, all moorings lost. And I am a bag of loose screws and nails. A thundercloud, angrily rolling and boiling. A collection of bones that no longer belong to a body, just break off and separate, and go their different ways. I am a frightened empty space, and life has changed in an instant. Broken.

Speech does return, cognition too. Sugared water from the nearby cafe, stops me fainting and falling again. I find the words to call my friend, who drives me to the hospital – every speed bump an agony, every corner turned, a roller coaster of jingle jangled nerves. Every second a head burst of jagged colours, and splintering zig zag lines. The Accident and Emergency department is Sunday quiet, which is a mercy, and the nurses are kind, though mostly cool and disengaged. An X ray reveals a deep fracture – the head of the femur is split from the impact of the concrete. A collar and cuff supports my arm, and opiates ease the worst of the pain. But I feel sick and fatigued. No longer myself. Split apart, body and soul.The immediate days and nights pass in a fog of bewilderment and disarray. I cannot dress myself, cannot wash – I find the descent towards the toilet, in order to pee, almost impossible to navigate, and feel the victory, when I achieve it, like the conquering of an Everest. Life is reduced to the smallest detail of survival. And on it goes, endlessly, day into night.

AUGUST. Sanctuary is sweet in London, despite all the trauma: my friend is a Florence Nightingale, who brings pieces of toast on a tray to my bed, and carefully cuts them into uneven pieces, for easier eating – and for amusement; and she sneaks in small glasses of wine, despite all the opiates swimming round my body, and with the head nurse’s approval, it has to be said: “With what you’ve been through, I think you deserve it, don’t you?” But through all the kindness, the solicitude and love, I am suffering a lot – am sick and feeble and shocked – and my home is two hundred miles away, up North, in Leeds. I have to get back there, no matter what, though the thought of the journey is making me cold. London, Kings Cross is insanely busy, bad tempered, bullying. The escalators are a nightmare – how to get on, how to get off? Everything is awkward, impossible to manage, trudging along one-handed, suitcase dragged behind me – the fear of being knocked in the shoulder, haunting me at every step. But I do it, because I must, because that’s why we do anything in life – and because I have to get home. The train journey picks up such speed that it almost breaks me all over again, as it hurtles north along the tracks, mangling my damaged shoulder, with the glee of a big kid in a school playground, picking on the little kid without mercy, and everybody else gathered round, cold-eyed, watching. But somehow… I do it. I am home and I am safe. If not quite in one piece. For everything changes. And I am not who I was.

I cancel all my summer plans  – including a much-prized scholarship to study in Hungary – and spend the whole of August in almost total seclusion, walking from bedroom to bathroom and back again, with monotonous regularity. I am sleeping fitfully – waking, but not quite awake. Never fully. Not myself. Someone strange. And when the four quiet walls of the house press in too close, I make it down to the local wood, and then the park, and I walk and I walk and I walk, to exhaustion. Because even though it jars my arm, I know my legs, at least, are in good working order – and I need to find my body again: little by little, limb by cautious, trepidatious limb. The nights are horrible – full of pain and every kind of discomfort. “You can take a lot more codeine, you know”, says the doctor at the fracture clinic. But when I do, the nightmares crash my sleeping hours, and I wake with a violent gasp, heart leaping from my chest like a wild panicked bird. And it feels like I’m falling, all over again.

The days, meanwhile, are full of boredom and ennui. I have no mind for reading, cannot drive, to get myself away from here – and avoid most company, except my daughter’s, because people tire me and confuse my brain. The speed of crowded bars, and the business of city streets, are impossible to manage. I get fearful and unsteady, too quickly, in society. So the society I keep, is mainly my own. Claustrophobia comes in little anxious bursts – and then I am out the back door to the nearby trees, to soothe it. Then the opposite hits me : and I scurry back to the comfort and languor of my room, the security of my own trusty bed. I wonder at the kindness of people: the woman in the supermarket who packs my shopping and lifts my bag and smiles with a sympathy that is not strained or manufactured. And I wonder, too, at people’s cruelty. The man who pushes at my broken arm – hurried, irritable, and quite unapologetic. The bus drivers who lurch into motion the minute I’ve clambered on board, sending me flying for support, whether it’s a roof strap,  the handle of a buggy, or some poor person’s outstretched leg. And the cars, the cars, the cars – that hurtle past me on the road: blind to the blue sling binding my neck and arm. Blind to the blasted broken wing, on this strange, stork-like creature, wafting anxiously at the pavement edge, waiting endlessly to cross to the other side.

There is tiredness. Boredom. Empty, empty time. And I find myself waiting for the night to come, so that I can lose myself in sleep, and while away another day. For even the nightmares are more interesting than this. And always there, at the back of my mind: the deep black hole of depression. More than anything, I must save myself from that particular dark and vertiginous fall.

SEPTEMBER. In the end it is the sea that rescues me. I book a week in a tiny cottage, called, with beautiful exactitude, The Little House, in Robin Hoods Bay, on the North Yorkshire coast. Train and bus is worth it for this. It is a house that wraps itself round me and it tells me I am safe, that this will be the place where I will heal. So I listen. And I hear the rhythmic sound of the waves – and the water that rushes through the stream outside my window,  pouring down with enthusiasm to the ocean’s edge. And I wake every day, and walk the few steps to the edge of the shore, and I gaze at the distant horizon. I feel the sea spray fill up my lungs – and it makes me bolder and stronger, minute by minute, day by day. Till I can climb the steps, one-handed, to the steep cliff edge above, and sit on the old wooden bench, and lose myself there. I follow the flight of the seabirds, arcing and swooping through the wide grey-blue skies. I look at the sea. I look at the clouds.  I breathe myself better, and I dream myself free. And I end each day with a smooth pint of Guinness, in a hotel bar, that perches right at the water’s edge, and plays hits from the seventies on a permanent loop, which suits my tastes just fine. This is a place where no one judges or pushes me, or wonders why I am there. They just leave me to my pint – and they let me get well again. And I do.