I was turning all the lights off, trying to mute history. There were several moments in which it felt like things were changing, possibly blossoming for the better. The aftermath stung and went backwards again. There was a song about the M62 I followed briefly, thinking about motorways more generally and something expansive and grey, crossing the Pennines eventually. For a week, I wrote down descriptions of the sky. Mostly they read: the sky today is grey. I then started noting the patterns in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, which often begin with vignettes of the morning:
3rd February. A fine morning, the windows open at breakfast. 6th March. A pleasant morning, the sea white and bright. 26th May. A very fine morning. 31st May. A sweet mild rainy morning. 2nd June. A cold dry windy morning.
Mostly, she summarises the day. There is much letter-writing, Coleridge dining, William writing. Walking, cooking, taking guests. There is a rhythm and comfort to her entries, the circling of Ambleside, the sauntering in sun and air. Days condensed and hours expanded, cute little details in pastoral glimpses: ‘Pleasant to see the labourer on Sunday jump with the friskiness of a cow upon a sunny day’. She sees into the life of things. She inspires me to mark the simple, joyous moments of daily existence. Like walking home along Sauchiehall Street (the nice part towards Finnieston), close of midnight, seeing a couple in each other’s arms, sobbing, the man with a bunch of flowers held behind his back. They were not by any means striking flowers, probably bought cheap and last minute. I wonder what sort of gesture they were supposed to convey. At what point in the night did he decide to buy them; did he attain them from those wandering women who pray upon drunks with their floral wares? Did he cut himself, ever so slightly as he paid for those unlovely thorns? Is love always a form of apology for self? The self when it expands beyond too much of itself, hotly craving?
17th March. I do not remember this day.
It seems irrelevant to say, today is Easter Sunday. Jackdaws torment me in the expensive fruit of a wakeful morning. I imagine pomegranate seeds falling from a pale blue sky. These days unfold with wincing clarity, like the hypnotic drag of a Sharon Olds poem: ‘I could see you today as a small, impromptu / god of the partial’. There are things we are maybe not supposed to remember. As if survival were a constant act of lossy compression. Like a contract between two people, pinkie promise, except one of you has broken it. Has let out the glitches. Your dreams and daily reveries are full of the content you’re not meant to remember. You are clasping this thing as if it might live again, and indeed it might really. It is not easy to simply file away memory. Its particular phraseology of physical pain comes floating to the surface regardless. There are techniques of displacement. Letting yourself shimmer in the wind. It was one more step to be gone again. So every song I went to put on, clicking the laptop, he was like, stop, it’s too sad. When they ask what’s wrong and you’re smiling instead, worrying the edge of your lips into muscles you don’t recognise at all. The room was a singular bottle of beer and a breeziness to other people’s sweetness. They wear lots of glitter and laugh as we did once. They are singing. I feel like the oldest in a test of forever. But anyway this is all only temporary. Things break down but they do not go away.
30th March. Walked I know not where.
I watch a film about plastic in the ocean. They haul fish after fish, bird after bird, prise exorbitant quantities of bottle caps, ring pulls, microbeads and indiscernible fragments from stomachs and lungs. It is quite the display. Hopelessly choking. Seems obscene to describe that deep blue as ever pure again. There are patches of plastic in all its particles swirling. It makes not an island exactly, more like a moment in species collision. Whales absorb plastic in the blubber of their skins, digesting slowly the poisons that kill them. I wrote a story about a whale fall once. The protagonist trains in swimming, in underwater breathing, in order to enter other worlds: ‘This place is a deep black cacophony; you hear the noises, some noises, not all the noises, and you feel the pressure ripple pulling under you’. There have been bouts of sleeplessness this month that feel like dwelling inside a depleting carcass. If every thought dragged with subaquatic tempo. Blacking out at one’s desk into sleep. Forgetting in the glare of screen flickers. I meet people for coffee and feel briefly chirpy, stirring. There are pieces of colour, uncertain information, clinging to the shuddering form of my body. Do not brush my hands, for fear of the cold. I am so blue and when he squeezes my fingers my insides feel purple. The woman at the counter remarked on the cold of my hands. I am falling for the bluest shade of violet. How anyway in such situations I become the silent type as I never do elsewhere. So ever to cherish a bruise as violet or blue. I polish vast quantities of glassware, lingering over the rub and sheen. One song or another as 4.30am aesthetic.
Emily Berry: ‘All that year I visited a man in a room / I polished my feelings’.
The questions we ask ourselves at work form a sort of psychoanalysis, punctuated by kitchen bells and the demands of customers. What superpower would you have? The ability to live without fear of money. We laugh at ourselves as pathetic millennials. I have nothing to prove but my denial of snow, power-walking up Princes Street on the first bright day of the year. The sky is blue and the cold flushes red in my cheeks. But I am not a siren, by any means; I wish mostly for invisibility. The anthem for coming home the long way is ‘Coming in From The Cold’ by the Delgados, feeling the empathy in lost dreams and the slow descent into drunkenness that arrives as a beautiful warning. Like how he deliberately smashed his drink on the floor in the basement out of sheer frustration with everything. The ice was everywhere. As though saying it’s complicated was an explanation for that very same everything. The difficulty of cash machines. Emily Berry again: ‘I wanted to love the world’. In past tense we can lend shape to our feelings. Will I know in a week or more the perfect metaphor for this dread, this echo chamber of grey that longs to be called again? I punch in four numbers.
I covet my exhaustion in slow refrain. There are people whose presence is an instant comfort. There are people you’d like to kiss in the rain; there are people you’d kiss in the rain but never again. What of the gesture of that bouquet? Surprise or apology? The sky is catching the mood of our feelings. Is this a melancholic tone of regret, or maybe an assured and powerful one? I twist round the memory of a mood ring; its colours don’t fit. I photograph the rings beneath my eyes, finishing an eleven hour shift. She shoves rose-petal tea biscuits under my nose but I smell nothing. I watch the chefs at work, caressing their bundles of pastry and sorrow/sorrel and rocket. I climb many stairs and assemble the necessary detritus of another funeral. Sadness requires a great deal of caffeine.
I eat mushrooms on toast with Eileen Myles. I long for the lichens on the trees of Loch Lomond. I sleep for three hours in Glasgow airport, on and off, cricking my neck and drifting in and out of vicarious heartbreak. Lydia Davis is often perfect:
But now I hated this landscape. I needed to see thing that were ugly and sad. Anything beautiful seemed to be a thing I could not belong to. I wanted to the edges of everything to darken, turn brown, I wanted spots to appear on every surface, or a sort of thin film, so that it would be harder to see, the colours not as bright or distinct. […] I hated every place I had been with him.
(The End of the Story)
Must we coat the world in our feelings? What of the viscosity that catches and spreads on everything? There is an obscenity to beauty in the midst of defeat. Year after year, I find myself dragged into summertime sadness. There is so much hope in the months of June and May, soon to dwindle as July runs spent on its sticky rain. The lushness of a city in bloom, all fern and lime, is an excess beyond what dwells inside, the charred-out landscapes of endless numbness—or ever better, missing someone. We covet the world’s disease as externalisation of our hidden pain. Let things fragment and fall away; let there be a sign of change in motion. How hard it is to be happy around depleted friends; how hard it is to be sad among joyous friends. They pop ecstasy and go home for no reason. It is self-administered serotonin that mostly buoys up the souls of the lonely. There were songs from the mid-noughties that now sound like somebody shouting down a coal mine. I want to offer them a smile and a cup of coffee. It’s all I have, the wholesome concatenation of smooth flat-whites.
There is a song by Bright Eyes, ‘If Winter Ends’: ‘But I fell for the promise of a life with a purpose / But I know that that’s impossible now / And so I drink to stay warm / And to kill selected memories’. Winter’s demise in conditional form. Alcohol convinces us of a temporary rush into the future that blooms and is good, is better than before. The drinkers I know have muffled recollections, blotted out mostly by false nostalgia. We covet a swirling version of life in the present, its generous screen flickers, its spirals of affect. We pair off in the wrong. There are days when nothing will warm me up—not the dust-covered space heater, not the hot water bottle, not the star jumps that scratch heart-rates out of the hour. Was it the same sensation, hanging on for his vowels on a hazy afternoon, four o’clock stolen from whatever it was I was supposed to be doing?
Summer, however, is forever. It is supposed to be best. The clocks skip forward.
I learn to riso-print. To work with the uncertain blot and stealth of brighter inks. What results is a marvel in teal and burgundy, splashed with cyan. See it as past with glitters of future.
In a cramped, fourth floor hotel room in Amsterdam, I lay on my bed, leg-aching, listening to ‘Shades of Blue’. Yo La Tengo get it, the vaporous sprawl of the days upon days, days replacing days: ‘Painting my room to reflect my mood’. It is a kind of overlay, the new versions of blue which are deeper maybe than they ever were before. Which lend alter-visions to original blues, the ones you thought were bad before. I see my first IRL Yves Klein in the Stedalijk museum. Words elude this particular blue. It is deep and extravagant and more oceanic than the ocean would dream of. I have no idea what materials or dreams created this blue. Lazuli, sapphires, the pigmented stain of a rare amphibian? It is the steady, infinite eye of the Pacific. It is sorrow itself, the wound of the world. The Earth bleeds blue, not red. It is this kind of blue, a supranatural blue. After the first crisp cold of a new blue day, the rest of the week is brumous and mild. My feet get wet in a cemetery. I learn that Paradise Valley is an affluent town in Arizona, and not in fact merely a Grouper album. I drink mint tea all week to detox, then stay up all night when I get home. The gin sodas sparkle within me for days, but I’m feeling guilty.
The canals are parallel, the streets are winding. There are neon and fishnetted girls in windows, drolly sipping mysterious drinks. Their eyes are heavily lined. Nobody is looking. The air is warm and spicy at night. The tourists admire displays of various erotic paraphernalia; I take pictures of the lights splashed gold on the water. They say if you get to know the place, you can really settle into a meandering layout. A guy at work supplants my name for ‘Marijuana’. I wonder if ever I’ll be someone’s Mary Jane, and what that means in the long run. Feels like a Green Day song. Marijuana, they’ll say, Marijuana I miss you. There are pockets of Finnieston that waft forever between early summer and fullness of June; evenings hung by the scent of a stoned hour poised on forever. I stay sober. I think of the river, the people and dreams it steals. The world crystallises with ridges of cold, so I must sleep beneath sheets in my click&collect coat. Blue-fingered, shivering.
Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ has been lingering on my mind: ‘Consider that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us’. I keep writing out line after line, just for the sake of avoiding full stops. I’m not yet ready for that singular compression, even as it strikes in its simple beauty.
There was the massive, narcotic blue of the sky from the airplane. A blue you can cling to. A blue you descend through.
Lana Del Rey: ‘Blue is the colour of the planet from the view above’.
Pop singers these days are attuned to new scales. That Bright Eyes song opens with a whole lot of static and children shouting, rasping. It is like watching some black-and-white film in a museum, shudders of war or monsters in every low boom and flicker. There are ways we strum ourselves out of the mourning. It’s okay to be enraged and frustrated. Oh Conor, how I love you: ‘and I scream for the sunlight or car to take me anywhere’. So when things fall apart, fray at the edges, I’m thinking of myself as a place, a location elsewhere, ‘just take me there’, and the ridge of my spine is a highway that ends where the best palm glows afire by its imaginary desert. The curve of my neck and uncertain horizon, something of all this skimming around by the brink of etcetera. What else do I have to say but, ‘it’s gonna be alright’, not even realising when I am quoting something. It is hot here, adrift on this sofa, then cold again.
The walks grow ever more indulgent, Mark Kozalek humming in my ear. I think of all his familiars. I think of my younger self thinking of all his familiars. Is it cats or is it women. How many supplements do we make of lust?
The day afterwards, it’s best to drink again. Grapefruit is cleansing. You can order whole pitchers but I choose not to. A certain suffusion of gossip and horror, ice cubes crunched between teeth to ease up the gaps where I’m meant to speak. I see Hookworms play the Art School and they were incredible: they were a rush they were eons of dizzy vigour and sweetness, the music you want to surrender to. I stop giving customers straws with their orders. It snowed again. I wasn’t drinking; I was wearing green for Paddy’s Day. I was so tired my eyes felt bruised. I keep dreaming of islands, motorbikes, exes; broken tills and discos. The flavour of these dreams in surf noir; like even in the city it’s as if a tidal pull is directing everything. I don’t mind being sucked away into nothing; I don’t mind feeling the impulse of a pale blue dot. At least in my sleep. A good collapse. The order of pain is reducing.
29th June. It is an uncertain day, sunshine showers and wind.
This week I will find a hill for my vision. New forms of erasure. I see myself boarding a train.
Disclaimer: my middle name is Rose. This means nothing, as far as I’m aware. I have never received roses for Valentines (as far as I’m aware). What follows comprises an essay on what a rose is a song is a word is a rose(?), feat. the likes of Gertrude Stein, Idlewild, Oscar Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, the French Symbolists and Lana Del Rey…
Despite having two degrees in literary studies, a lot of my more convincing intellectual references were first encountered through music, not books. The Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible album introduced me to Foucault, Plath, Ballard, Nietzsche, Mailer and Pinter in one fell, aggressive swoop of a Richey Edwards lyric barked over the guttural shudder of Nicky Wire’s bass-lines. Gertrude Stein, the awkward goddess of modernism, first came to me via an Idlewild song—deep in some distant vestige of the noughties, when I still bought CDs. She’s mentioned in ‘Roseability’, the last single to be taken from the band’s 2000 breakthrough, 100 Broken Windows. It’s a typically angsty track, reflecting on the futility of being dissatisfied with the present and finding pathetic solace in the past: “stop looking through scrapbooks and photograph albums / because I know they won’t teach you what you don’t already know”. Say it and already you know, right? ‘Roseability’, like ‘Idlewild’, is a compound word, a mashing of nouns that seems to promise deep meaning as its very premise. But where is it pointing us? What of Stein and what of her roses?
Stein’s famous quote on roses, ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’, seems to do two things. Firstly, it indicates an essentialist perspective on semantics—circularity conveying the uselessness of further description. Secondly, it enacts a qualitative echo chamber by which the reader must question what constitutes this essence, this roseness which is the rose’s identity. The repetition suggests the elusiveness of this essence, deferring with dreamy assertion—the kind of beautiful aphorism you might coin on an acid trip, completely sure of your own new logic. There’s a sense, with every ‘rose’, of meaning’s possibility blooming. You want to wrap the sentence in a circle (as Stein did, selling the phrase on plates) and close a precious loop, devoid of full stops and fixed meanings. Is a rose a rose or the space between a rose and what a rose is? Swap Saussurian triangles for sweet hips and sepals, a new rose budding in the roots. Lose all fixity for the chance trellising of structure, turn attention to sunlight, rainfall, temperature and other environmental conditions. Acquire tautologies and promise of spring. A rose is a whorl, a loop; a delicate head so heady with beauty. Humans like roses share beds sometimes. Look too long into the corolla and maybe you’ll lose your mind.
Idlewild: the secluded meeting place in L. M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables Idlewild: the original name of John F. Kennedy International Airport in NYC Idlewild: to idle wildly; to wildly idle; to idly go wilding.
“You’ll always be, dissatisfied.” Perhaps the mere act of flicking through memories is a form of idle wilding. Making a wilderness of memory’s stasis. Depart only at airports; dwell between continental impressions of kisses.
100 Broken Windows marks a turn in Idlewild’s direction: from their 1990s brit-pop/punk roots to a more spacious, ambitious sound, influenced by the likes of The Smiths, The Wedding Present and R.E.M. When I first started listening to Idlewild, 12 or more years ago in those tender, pre-adolescent times, I sort of filed them as the Scottish version of Ash: they had that punk sensibility coloured by stadium choruses and a cheeky pop strain that balanced the anxious lamenting aspects. All sincerity, sure, but the lyrics were sharp enough to lift them from the sentimental pitfalls of subsequent contemporaries—the end of alt. history that was ‘Hey There Delilah’. Here we move into screaming emo or post-hardcore as inherent hauntology of the fuzzy rock club: the bourbon and sweat, the greasy hair, the frank, shuffling indifference of stoner punters. There were words that smouldered, sparked, then extinguished in the wind; but Idlewild had something different, a primitive attunement to human sorrow that cut through the gum-snapping cool of postmodern irony games, even as its affect blew up in a drumbeat or solo, the loquacious, Michael Stipe angst of Roddy Woomble’s voice. Think sonorous violins and a solid rock chorus, all the energy and wit being typically Scottish. Like the Manics before them, Idlewild did punk and guitar pop, did the stylised mosh and generic fusion, did the political and personal. The millennial malaise in their songs was very much of the times even as it seemed already tired of them:
It’s a better way to feel When you’re not real, you’re postmodern (It’s not that one dimensional, it’s not the only thought)
Cut out all feeling, except wait. There’s more. We don’t have to languish in the paralysing grunge of the nineties. The drama of strings would grace each melody electric and maybe you’ll find historic truth in this plugged-in homage to folk turned on its head. If postmodernism is a Mobius strip of self-referentiality, that recursive collapse of linear progress (figured as a Scalextric set in the video for Idlewild’s ‘These Wooden Ideas’), then how to find meaning again, to find sense at all? Stand in a doorway and find yourself blasted with void fill, flick grapes in a wastebasket, count up your demons for the old stoned longing. Shrivel like raisins. The turn of the century has already happened, but maybe if you surrender to the chorus you’ll feel less jaded. There’s a reassurance. The thing about choruses, after all, is that they repeat.
As it does with choruses, algorithms and perennial blooms, repetition happens a lot in Tender Buttons,Stein’s infamously cluttered collection of prose poetics. With repetition and modulation, a queering of standard grammar, everyday objects become less the tools which underpin human existence, and instead things in themselves—the wasteful artefacts in excess of definition. Paratactical, concatenating assemblages which entangle like vines or else accumulate. Grapes on the carpet, styrofoam littering the floor, a word or two oozing through the backdoor…Am I far too close to the things I mistrust? Maybe there is always a stammering, a stilted stilling. I buy roses for the restaurant in which I work and the very act drags me into heteronormative time: the time of expensive dates, birthdays, weddings, funerals, candlelit dinners. What preference for the deep, luxurious, elusive bloom? Must lovers cut their tongues on thorns? I wonder, do those erect stems contribute their strange teleology…to what, to what…are roses always in excess of themselves—showering petals, shedding, being ever so much just roses?
“I stopped and waited for progress”. Back in the day (2005), the NME rated Idlewild ‘a stolid group of trad guitar manglers’, whose new single ‘Roseability’ served ‘both as a rabbit-punch to the head of agnostics and a celebratory three-and-a-half minutes of safe, predictable, wholly generic, utterly brilliant rock ‘n’ roll.’ It makes me dewy-eyed to remember the magazine’s honest, scathing days. That insouciant, throwaway cool. Music criticism was pretty brutal when I grew up, and you basically had to tick every indie rock’n’roll formula (hello Alex Turner: snake-hips, haircut etc) to get consistently decent reviews. Or you could nail the attention on some eccentricity (The Horrors), or perhaps mediocre throwback to rock’n’roll times gone by (need I name every white boy indie suspect circa 2007). ‘Roseability’ is how it feels to be in your twenties, surrounded by people looking backwards; not quite in anger, but in nostalgia. It’s been a long time since I’ve considered something new as ‘utterly brilliant rock ’n’ roll’ in the transcendent sort of way Idlewild pull off—hardcore guitars, thrashing drums, literary references and all. Sweetness and thorns. Uneasy noise secretion. Tip your hat at tradition and then blast through the chorus, scatter your petals to cover the seams. What words in ‘Sacred Emily’ follow the roses? ‘Loveliness extreme’. I miss the NME, I miss being young enough to get lost this easily.
To veer into Idlewild itself, let’s wallow in passages from Anne of Green Gables:
You know that little piece of land across the brook that runs up between our farm and Mr. Barry’s. It belongs to Mr. William Bell, and right in the corner there is a little ring of white birch trees–the most romantic spot, Marilla. Diana and I have our playhouse there. We call it Idlewild. Isn’t that a poetical name? I assure you it took me some time to think it out. I stayed awake nearly a whole night before I invented it. Then, just as I was dropping off to sleep, it came like an inspiration. Diana was enraptured when she heard it. We have got our house fixed up elegantly. You must come and see it, Marilla–won’t you? We have great big stones, all covered with moss, for seats, and boards from tree to tree for shelves. And we have all our dishes on them. Of course, they’re all broken but it’s the easiest thing in the world to imagine that they are whole.
That endearing, childish hyperbole, the absolute thrill of invention. The special grove in a ring of white birch trees, heart of the circle, the rose’s secret pistil. Place of germination. Fragments congeal as expansive imaginings, disappointment evaporates in hope.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough”. I’m not quite sure how Roddy Woomble, Idlewild’s lead singer, intended the Stein namedrop, but I take it as a reference to her poems’ weird loops of recursion. In the video for ‘Roseability’, Stein’s portraits are hung up all over the room; her face is even on the front of the kick drum, looking all knowing and stately. The video’s aesthetic has the feel of a 90s television set, all pop art circles whose colour has faded, sharp swivelling camera angles and hair swishes. The pop iconography of teenagers flooding the room with their plastic bracelets, braided hair and awkward moshing. It would be totally American if not painfully, most Britishly sincere—I mean just look at how the guitarist crushes into his own instrument, how Woomble wipes sweat off his face, paces around with the mic so close it could feel his breath. Loveliness extreme. When this was released, I wasn’t even a teenager. When I finally see him live, it’s in a church hall in Maryhill 2k17 and it’s utterly beautiful: how generous the set-list, how gracious a frontman with his small-talk and nods to the band, his thank yous. Watching the kids in the ‘Roseability’ video recreates that weird oscillation between feeling old and seeing in their faces the bizarreness of MTV ennui: the ghost of what I would temporarily become at thirteen, fourteen; cladding myself in discount Tammy girl, then Topshop, dying my hair pink and donning studded collars. With the hormones, you lose that ecstatic childhood imaginary hope; desire is amorphous and endlessly droning. You close your eyes and it seems the world has already ended. Sometimes it comes back, sometimes not. Maybe roseability simply means innocence.
‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’ (Woolf). But customers rarely do. It’s up to me to ornament a room, to flourish a mood, to mark some milestone in another life that’s not mine, whose linearity’s not mine.
My mother bought rose-coloured roses for my eighteenth birthday, blush pink. Red when I turned twenty-one. I stopped acting sweet and rosy, dyed my hair red too. Fell through the whorls, the plush abyss.
‘Roseability’: the ability to be of roses, for roses to exist? Sensibility is, according to my laptop’s built-in dictionary, ‘the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity’. Does roseability denote a similar sensitivity? When we think of roses we think often of Englishness: that angelic Laura Marling figure, a garlanded Bronte heroin, Paul Weller’s ‘English Rose’. We think tenderness, pastoral, a certain enclosure (marriage, gardens?) and guaranteed loveliness. She who coils golden hair round her porcelain finger, who knows how to talk to sheepdogs, who paints watercolours of the dawn. We think Shakespeare—‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’. But we also think north of the border, a little bit of the visceral made kitsch: Robert Burns’ ‘my love is like a red, red rose’, whose unfortunate fate is to garnish every dishtowel bought on your granny’s last visit to Alloway (Roddy Woomble, perhaps not incidentally, is also an Ayrshire lad). The faint rose scent in a golden cologne, mingled with tobacco; the glistering sweetness of a youthful, drugstore perfume. Roses are roses, but roses are so many things, are poised on the lips of also…
The rose is a complex flower, a perennial whose species number over 100. Roses are typically ornamental, grown by those who know what cultivation means and spend their Septembers clipping away the thorny remains. An old man round the corner from my flat is out in all weathers among soil and stem: grafting, trimming, tilling for his roses. Perhaps he loves them more than his children. In summer, walking home on warm evenings you can smell them in the pale ambrosial air, a delicate bounty. If properly cared for, roses can live a long time, perhaps over and over, perhaps forever…what exactly does perennial mean?
The appropriately named Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, stands on Cumberland Street and opens a letter from Martha Clifford—a woman who responded to his newspaper ad requesting a typist. The Dublin postal system facilitates a sort of illicit exchange between them. Half-rhyme, consonance: petal/letter. The delicate thrill of letterly infidelity. She wants to know ‘what kind of perfume does your wife use’; the animal possession of scent. She attaches to her letter a flower, slightly crushed:
He tore the flower gravely from its pinhold smelt its almost no smell and placed it in his heart pocket. […] walking slowly forward he read the letter again, murmuring here and there a word. Angry tulips with you darling manflower punish your cactus if you don’t please poor forgetmenot how I long violets to dear roses when we soon anemone meet all naughty nightstalk wife Martha’s perfume. […] Fingering still the letter in his pocket he drew the pin out of it. […] Out of her clothes somewhere: pinned together. Queer the number of pins they always have. No roses without thorns.
So many compound words, clustering in the mouth like so many attaché petals peeled off from a dress. He plucks them away, fingers the soft excitement of words: ‘naughty nightstalk wife’ with the luridly alliterative twist of fantasy. Libido vs. loss of life. What slips away with the pin? What does the pin pin together? Folds and creases, sleepless. Spike of cactus, nasty, phallic. Prick. Tulip. Coiled anemone: wild flower or tentacular sea creature? Connotations of slip. In her slip. Slippery. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, waxing lyrical about female genitalia:
I thought of what seemed to me a venturesome explanation of the hidden meaning of the apparently quite asexual word violets by an unconscious relation to the French viol. But to my surprise the dreamer’s association was the English word violate. The accidental phonetic similarity of the two words violet and violate is utilised by the dream to express in ‘the language of flowers’ the idea of the violence of defloration (another word which makes use of flowersymbolism), and perhaps also to give expression to a masochistic tendency on the part of the girl. — An excellent example of the word bridges across which run the paths to the unconscious.
Dear roses dear romance; violets are pale taste of childhood’s sweet naivety. Violets are blue and so are you. Things you can take away. Lines of flight, tangled stems and botanical echoes. Semantics. Lingering taste. The burgeoning rhizomes of the greedy unconscious. Lana Del Rey: “there are roses in between my thighs / and a fire that surrounds you”. The Metro calls it a ‘shocking new track’, but I’ve never heard anything so languid and dreamy and in love. Hungry. Sugar is sweet and…
Angela Carter’s roses bite, don’t you? In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, the self-starving somnambulist—the ‘beautiful queen of the vampires’—is a figure for desire’s recursive, self-destructive appetite. Manifest as addiction, or withdrawal; the flesh-shedding lust of anorexia, its resistance to growth and fuel. ‘She herself is a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit’. Her dialogue billows round and round into absence. Like Stein’s rose, she is bound to the noun and the grammar of herself—the flickering inward structures of mind, matter.The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants. Clustering rootlets, trapped yearnings for impossible perfection. No rose can be the perfect rose; except perhaps Stein’s rose: the virtual rose at the end of the looping rainbow. Loopy, lupin, lupine, luminal. Devouring, emanating, alluring. The virtual rose, perfect by its very impossibility, like Mallarmé’s Book. So many leaves and words. The stain of ink and rain, imprinted teeth. Carter again: ‘I leave you as a souvenir the dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave’. Those intoxicating roses, like Carter’s baroque, coruscating prose, cascade across the page, the white snow, the grave. La petit mort. In every petal the promise of a word, a breath.
Roseability. Faith in the unknowingness that is adulthood’s full blooming. Desire’s maturity bound in nostalgia, that noxious plague of your twenties; the ‘sense sublime’ of Wordsworth, five years later, experiencing ‘something far more deeply interfused’. Like the rose’s corolla, time rolls both round and onwards. It’s nauseating, an almost vortex. You’re always chasing that inward spirit, the thing that burns regardless: “They won’t teach you / what you don’t already know”—don’t Idlewild know it?
“There is no roseability.” Enduring, complicated, hungry and sweet, it’s no surprise that roses are symbols for romantic love. Oh hallowed, protected cliché. Expensive hotels strew red roses on white bedsheets, a look that is oddly funereal. Share the ephemeral with melting chocolates. Reminiscent of menses, the blot of a clot in time. He got shot. She bled freely. Blood is like iron, a sharp metallic taste. What do roses taste of? What kinds of symbolic immersion might get at the essence? A bathtub of roses, a bedspread, a bouquet exploding for wedding celebration. Petals of confetti; a blossoming, artificial effect. White roses can be purity, lightness and marriage; or maybe undying love in death, restoration of innocence. I love you as the snowfall that closes Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. Sitting on the languid banks of a river in June, desecrating a rose with your sorrow: one petal, he likes me, two petals, he likes me not. Enough petals to fill a river, all the world’s worth of unrequited love. Red upon red upon blue. Flowing, felt in the blood. But no river is ever twice the same, no rose identical, no inflorescence—despite the algorithmic genius of plants—symmetrical. The beauty of roses comprises their subtly unique detail. ‘Lesser’ flowers, mere ornaments to weeds, clutter up close in mutual similarity. Maybe’s Gatsby’s Daisy could be anybody—she just had to be sweet and blonde, smelling of the damp rich old world, ersatz fresh, ready to decorate. The colourful shirts were mere petals for the true dark rose of his longing. Did Gatsby have blue eyes? I can’t remember.
I did a hard-drive search for the phrase ‘blue rose’ and found an old flash fiction piece I wrote years ago, called ‘Watercolours’. An extract:
The garden fills with new light; conscious light, collecting a clarity not quite recognised. The roses have left their earthly bodies, and the worms burrow up through the untilled soil. The roses’ spirits lift the leaves from the trees and scatter them like sloughing flakes of a giant’s skin. A sigh escapes the sultry violets, the ones he captured once by mixing blue and red. The red poppy is a pretty thing, but she is unborn yet. A mulch of memory overturns as day decides to end.
Isn’t it strange, the seduction of fairy tale ecomimesis? Nature’s ekphrasis surrendering effortlessly to the same saccharine motifs; the kitsch aesthetic containing within its insistence a certain artifice, then the theatrical mists of deliberate illusion. I think of watercolours and I think of everything blurring. Colours decay in the rain, or do they saturate? And again, the roses and violets, whores and madonnas? What of the feminising of botany’s blushing ornaments, ‘captured’ by a (male) artistic vision? But time is ever more flowing, desire afloat, liquid and trembling as rain. What would it mean to anthropomorphise roses, to imbue them with certain abilities? Roseability. These would be the most precious roses, the memorialising and future-making symbols. The blue ones.
I also found a piece from 2013 titled ‘Blue Roses’ It’s about a botanical garden famous for its sky-coloured flowers. The narrator’s lover, Richard, laments the death of his mother and talks about what it would be like to be a carnivore plant. The narrator says: ‘“Those long, slow deaths would suck out your soul.”’ Was I reading Carter at the time? Nature (always capitalise to denaturalise) in this story is narcissistic, strange, devouring: stars are ‘aware of themselves’, the twilight forms deliberate ‘geometric patterns’, the rain ‘spilled out in oozing puddles that clogged the scum of the pavement’. Security patrol the blue roses in the glasshouses. It isn’t entirely clear what they mean in the story. Symbols for what? Eliding natural selection, these monstrous flowers blur into nothing but blueness—the exotic quantity, intangible mystery, possible infinitude. Despite the wholesomeness of the tale, I couldn’t help but think of the weird erotic undertones of its spooky botany. Blue rose, blue movie.
So yes, the very phrase ‘blue rose’ denotes something exceptional in Nature (in Twin Peaks, a ‘blue rose’ case is one which involves supernatural elements). In Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie, Laura (a character based on Williams’ mentally ill sister, the aptly named Rose) is nicknamed ‘Blue Roses’ on account of her fragility, her spiritual affinity with that which transcends the ordinary (and a childhoood attack of pleurosis). Laura dwells in a surreal version of reality; her very nickname harks back to André Breton’s ‘First Surrealist Manifesto’: ‘Cet été les roses sont bleues’ (this summer the roses are blue). Things have reversed and in their delirium remain quite beautiful. Roses, blue or not, are associated with a certain precious wavering between worlds both spiritual and physical; worlds crossed only by rare occurrences of romance, imagination, memory. He loves me, he loves me not…Laura is obsessed with a little glass unicorn, symbol of mythology, virginity. Preservations of the body for another world, or from another world? I go into the woods and find fairy rings made from small white flowers (I think of the inverse fable of extreme depression, the harp-sparkling Manics’ track, ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky’). While there is a lovely joy to the common daisy or meadow flower—an ethereal quality that recalls our initiating buttercup crushes—the deep lust of Romance must be associated with the scarlet plumage of the rose. Love is calculated on decadence, exception.
Is a rose as shatterable as glass, as a heart?
I used to live in a house called ‘Daisybank’, but my friends always teased because there were roses painted onto the window, not daisies. What weird reverse supplement? The fat white dog daisies would spring up on the front lawn in summer, but they were always overlooked by those glassy roses. There’s a certain authority, majesty even, to the rose. You associate it with tragedy and great beauty: Lana Del Rey with her lips stuffed full with a rose, playing the calamitous heroine. Snow-White and Rose-Red. Shakespeare’s ‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’ is taken from Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet convinces Romeo that it matters not that his name, Montague, is her family’s rival house. A rose is a rose; regardless of name it will always come up smelling of roses. Having graduated from Daisybank, I now find myself living on Montague Street…
‘Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?’ This is W. B. Yeats, probably writing to a woman he loved, Maud Gonne. He seems to set up beauty as life’s eternal opposite; where human existence is fleeting, beauty remains archetypal, enduring. Think of Keats’ ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’. There’s a universality, a mythological underpinning to this beauty. In Yeats’ poem, the loved one embodies wistful figures of glory: Helen of Troy and Usna of ancient Irish history. Surely she slips between the shadows of comparison? Whether Yeats scorns the idea that beauty ‘passes like a dream’, or whether he ultimately reveals its truth, is unclear.
For Immanuel Kant (see, Critique of Judgement), the experience of beauty hinges on a paradox: since it seems that beauty is a property of the object—indeed, emanates from it—you’d think beauty itself was universal. Everyone should fall in love with that painting, that colour, that song. But not everyone does find the same things beautiful. It feels like a betrayal of reality when I play Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’ (where roses are swapped for “lollipops and crisps”) to a friend and their reaction is a casual ‘meh’ and a shrug, while all sorts of biochemical reactions of wonder and euphoria are swirling around inside me. Beauty, for Kant, is largely nonconceptual: that is, there’s an unspeakable quality to it, a thing you can’t put your finger on. In Realist Magic, Timothy Morton describes it as beauty’s ‘je ne sais quoi’. Being unable to pin down what it is that makes a thing beautiful is part of its beauty. You take a rose. You could describe its petals, its inward swirling whorls, its scarlet colour, the slenderness of its stem; but in doing so, you lose the rose itself. As ever in synecdochically applauding a woman you lose the woman. The love object. The love? Recall Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’? ‘Love is not love’; it’s what it is and it isn’t, and what’s left over as forever. 4Eva/4Real. Personally, I prefer Cate Le Bon’s take: “Love is not love / When it’s a coat hanger / A borrowed line or passenger”. But isn’t everything stolen and temporary, in transit? How do you claw back the rose when the rose, maybe, is just this epic symbol for love? What moves in the static eternity?
I used to draw roses all the time; I’d always start in the centre, finding my way outwards with liquid ink. You see I had no conception of the rose’s shape, I was just following the shaky trajectories of layering lines. Important not to excise too sharply the arrangement of beauty, to impart onto nonhuman forms a reified taste. Eroticism preserved by ellipsis, meditation contained in the mysterious code of the senses. What was it Wordsworth said so long ago, in his famous tract against book knowledge: ‘Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; / Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect’. Wordsworth would prefer you to go out and encounter the objects themselves rather than try to ‘dissect’ them through rapturous, scrutinising poesy. Being one of the great Romantic poets, distracted by words even when in Nature, Wordsworth is of course a filthy, (forgivable) hypocrite—up to his knees in Kant’s paradoxical beauty as much as the rest of us.
Making words of roses involves cutting their heads off, losing the essence, letting the adjectival rose oil leak into language’s dripping pores. Binding the immortal to time. That seepage is ink, is tense’s durational flow, is poetry’s cruelty. This is perhaps what Mallarmé means when he says: ‘Je dis un fleur, et le fleur est parti’—‘I say a flower, and the flower is cut/split/gone’ (translation: Tom McCarthy). To break the object of beauty down in writing is to incur a violence; as McCarthy glosses, ‘Things must disappear as things in order to appear symbolically’. What is perhaps most seductive is the remaining qualities, the deconstructionist’s milk and honey, the semiotic residue that clings between things. Spiderwebs, woven by first light, acquire a serene and gossamer gleam; but what is most seductive perhaps is the spaces between the lines, the way up close the lacing makes new frames for the real, the scenery behind and through.
Then we have Derrida’s ‘maddening’ supplement. For all roses refer to other roses, to every iteration of the word ‘rose’ throughout literary history. What a rose means can only lie in the space between these occurrences, and even then the meaning is temporary, contextual—there is no outside text, no place in which to hurl your roses to semantic abyss. We might hope for Love as some manifestation of the Lacanial Real, a pre-symbolic realm of pure emotion; but love too (as Roland Barthes reminds us) is discourse, perennial and yet bound to the fluctuations within language. ‘Rose’ is a noun, but it is also qualia: the subjective quality of something that cannot be objectively measured. Her cheeks were rosy, the rose-coloured sand (of the dream sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Red Desert), a rosiness to the air that spoke of July. By scaling tone, we might get a general sense of what ‘rose’ is (a quality defined by difference rather than identity), but we’d never get to see rose through someone else’s experience. What is ‘rose’ to one poet might be ‘pale and bloody’ to another. Rimbaud writes, ‘The star has wept rose-colour in the heart of your ears’. Abstraction meets the concrete which itself is a spill through synecdoche. What music seeps, weeping, into the beloved’s ‘ears’? ‘Rose-colour’ becomes that synaesthetic property, the oozing, effulgent thing that cannot be pinned. For colour, like music, is perceptively subjective. What prompts a sudden spasm of imagining in you might send me to sleep; could we call both actions reactions to beauty?
‘It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world’. So goes the line in American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ 1999 suburban modern classic—a film about midlife crisis, inappropriate lust, neurotic materialism and the nuclear family under late capitalism. Where Ricky, the visionary, weed-smoking teenager, sees a sort of sublimity in waste, videoing a plastic bag’s leaf-like billows in the wind, Lester falls for his daughter’s cheerleader friend, Angela. The particular Gen X fatigue over cultural trash and consumer excess is recycled as a pared-back appreciation for symbolic indications of the world’s decay—little quotidian details which offer momentary redemption as beauty in tragedy. The old Kantian adage of beauty’s je ne sais quoi. Lester’s misplaced infatuation for Angela is represented by motifs of lurid red roses, flowering outwards like bloody snowstorms of feminine intensity. The chase falls cold when they kiss IRL, and he realises she is just an insecure teenage girl. Tell me I’m beautiful. Interpreting the film is as tricky as trying to clasp onto any one of those whirling petals, to kiss a single tear on an eyelash, a dew-drop clung to the flesh of a rose. Joni Mitchell, in ‘Roses Blue’: “I think of tears, I think of rain on shingles / I think of rain, I think of roses blue”. A lyricist’s ability to make pearls of emotion. Superhydrophonic. Is this another symbol, listless, transient, glistening?
The Symbolists were mostly French poets of the fin-de-siècle, the likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire (whose flowers were assuredly evil), who probably drank quantities of absinthe and wrote symbols that emblematised reality itself, rather than merely inward feeling. All that absinthe had to come out somewhere, idly wilding in the streets of Paris (pronounce it the French way). Where abstraction reigns often in the world of emotion, meaning accumulates through the repetition, modulation and pattering of these symbols. While Mallarmé’s poetry indulged in dreams and visions, it’s a certain patterning of associative power that provides the stitching behind his fashion for aleatory. The poetics of chance may still have a structure of sorts, something you can trace like the veiny trellises within a leaf. W. B. Yeats, the Irish Symbolist, loved a good rose: just see ‘The Rose of the World’ and ‘The Rose of Battle’. In his essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’, Yeats makes frequent comparisons between symbols and music, describing the ‘musical relation’ of sound, colour and form as constitutive of symbol.
At a workshop I’ve been running with homeless people, a girl who shares her name with Stein’s favourite flower reads out a piece she’s written in ten minutes flat. It’s a typically tragic tale of abuse, of a family torn apart by pain, drugs, death and violence—written from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl, perhaps her daughter. She reads it with a stilted west coast accent that picks up its confidence and lilt as the sentences run on. Somehow in those sad and wilting lines, strewn with the accidental detritus of truth, there’s hope. It blooms so unexpectedly in all the despair. A ten-year-old girl sees the world very clearly and pure. I can only paraphrase, of course. I’m sad that I don’t get to see my mother, but she says that it’s okay because if I look at the moon I know that she’s looking at it too. This part struck me harder than any other—it seemed an echo from elsewhere. The whole piece became suddenly a buildup to that single, simple, irresistible image. When Yeats presents Burns’ ‘perfectly symbolical’ song of the moon and time, he misquotes him. Translation falters to glitch, like with lossy compression. The moon as a symbol, as something to be shared, a white chocolate button broken in two. Except you can’t split the moon. You can only imagine what the other person is seeing. I wonder what they were looking up to.
Where metaphors ‘are not profound enough to be moving’, symbols move in both senses of the word: they act through motion, the accumulative or associative arrangement of sound and meaning (as opposed to metaphor, which acquires meaning through more static, straightforward comparison), and they prompt affect in the reader. Such affect is not just the temporary indulgence of an artwork’s emotional value, but can indeed alter how the world is discursively understood. The rosy words thrown upon some poetic zephyr recalibrate reality as we know it. As Yeats puts it:
Because an emotion does not exist, or does not become perceptible and active among us, till it has found its expression, in colour or in sound or in form, or in all of these, and because no two modulations or arrangements of these evoke the same emotion, poets and painters and musicians, and in a less degree because their effects are momentary, day and night and cloud and shadow, are continually making and unmaking mankind.
The construction of feeling through symbols, then, institutes the substance and gaps that structure how we relate to ourselves, others and nonhuman objects. A very delicate, precise, imagist poem like William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ has effectively changed how we relate to both the colour red and wheelbarrows more generally (never mind the ‘white / chickens’). Symbols can charge our perception with fresh emotional channels. Music relates a bit differently, of course, but only because it literalises Yeats’ musical relation metaphor—there’s a more physical intensity, maybe. Like a river (you can never dip your finger twice in the same river), a piece of music cannot be played the exact same way again—a truism owing to the arbitrary dynamics of individual players, environments, acoustics or subtle interruptions of duration. A breath or a sneeze, a chance sigh in the background, a trumpeter who can never quite pace her crescendo. You experience the opera differently from me, even though we watch the same one (I have never been to the opera). My hearing is slightly muted, along with my interest in self-congratulatory coloratura; while you have perfect pitch, ears that ring with pleasure as the high notes hit. Though the same in one sense, comprising a shared duration, our encounters are completely different. Music’s durational function is made explicit with the likes of John Cage’s music concrète, composed of sounds rather than notes and thus retaining elements of chance within a certain duration. The process becomes more about selection, sampling and curation, rather than composition according to tones, melody, chords.
If anyone idled wildly, it was the notoriously languorous aesthete, Oscar Wilde. The decadence of roses is also associated with a certain concretisation of language, a making material of words, a honing of time and world. Consider the opening line of The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses’. The way assonance works, subtly wafting its chiming vowels through ‘filled’/‘rich’ and ‘odour’/‘roses’, creates that musical relation that Yeats so fetishised. Poetic techniques such as alliteration and assonance abound in Wilde’s novel, where prose becomes musical, lilting, exactly honed upon sensory detail, the vivid relation of objects. Roses that fill a studio, that pungently glow with lavish scent. There is a heady, ambient quality to much of Wilde’s descriptions, giving off the impression that we are perhaps perceiving how objects seem to one another, filtered through the opium vapours that so penetrated Dorian’s accelerating decadence: ‘In the slanting beams that streamed through the open doorway the dust danced and was golden. The heavy scent of the roses seemed to brood over everything.’ Objects are at once anthropomorphised and ornamental; that play between movement and stasis, however, cuts across binaries between human and nonhuman. The world of Dorian Gray is sprawling, random, a chase through meshes of entangled desire. A straightforward death drive is diverted by all sorts of sensory encounters, plastic morality, visionary beauty. And words? Words in Wilde are the petals that swell and unfurl into Yeatsian symbols:
Music had stirred him like that. Music had troubled him many times. But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos, that it created in us. Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?
Words have (re)active potential. Each one shivers with the weight of its every use, alive with subtle magic. Be careful what you write.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough (I know that that’s not enough now)”. Gertrude Stein said a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. She said it first in ‘Sacred Emily’ (1913), and later wrote, in ‘Poetry and Grammar’:
When I said.
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.
What do we swap for tautologies? Love is tautological; love justifies itself. It means everything and nothing. There’s isn’t any escaping the reifying loop, the ring with its symbolism of marriage. That which encapsulates and closes. The hermeneutic circle. Stein makes us linger, ponder the grammar of each rose. Ring-a-ring-‘o-roses. What does it mean to ‘caress’ a noun? To render the erotic potential of language by gesture of touch, extend into physical… Idlewild: a word whose internal rhymes fold together, whose l sounds caress the roof of the mouth.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough.”
Lana Del Rey: “You always buy me roses like a creep.”
Also Lana Del Rey: “And then you buy me roses and it’s fine.”
There’s a surfeit of petals and sex, a gluttonous economy of symbols which Stein stamps out with the simple carousel of her musical roses. Sing it slowly. Tell me what you mean.
Luce Irigaray, from This Sex Which Is Not One:
Your body expresses yesterday in what it wants today. If you think: yesterday I was, tomorrow I shall be, you are thinking: I have died a little. Be what you are becoming, without clinging to what you might have been, what you might yet be. Never settle. Leave definitiveness to the undecided; we don’t need it.
Lana Del Rey, reading from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
I pass between worlds and names and symbols. Every lipstick stain is another iteration, each kiss the palimpsest of the first, and even photographs fade in the sun, faces dissolving like planes behind clouds. Of ‘cappuccino pink ranunculus’—not roses—Colin Herd writes: ‘They’re at their most ravishing and / ethereal the day before they expire’. I imagine a white corridor imprinted with all your flickering dreams. Between realms, the soft wilt allures more even than it does in bloom. Images become sentences: long thorny stems of sentences, stretching and snarling a confusion of brambles and briars. The more you write, the more you grow your beautiful garden. I tear my wrists and fingers, trying to get to it: ‘There is a forcible affect of language which courses like blood through its speakers. Language is impersonal; its working through and across us is indifferent to us, yet in the same blow it constitutes the fibre of the personal’ (Denise Riley). This garden I make is not really mine and daily it grows stranger. The roses offer their pretty heads, then droop in winter. I hear their beautiful words in arterial melodies, sprawling among shadow, platitude, the skeins of a letter letting loose through my pores.
Roseability: the quality of forever chasing roseability. File under qualia, noun/rock, the poetics of etcetera.
The organising team for Dundrennan’s Wickerman Festival announced on the 18th November 2016 that they will no longer be continuing the festival. It ran for fourteen years and held its last event in July 2015 (2016’s festival was cancelled). It’s difficult to even know where to start with this one; the festival has such a big place in my heart and I’ll never forget all the weird and wonderful memories I made there. I first attended Wickerman when I was in primary seven. Now I’m 23 and trawling through old photographs of my friends and I dressed as hippies and standing around colourful tents and prayer flags and feeling very sappy about life, the way good things always have to end.
There’s something special about Wickerman, a unique sort of magic you don’t quite get at the bigger commercial festivals. Yes, it’s a cliche to say that now, especially as ‘non-commercial’ and ‘family-friendly’ are terms flung around constantly by startup festivals cashing in on the middle-class nostalgia for folk music and rural picnics, homemade gin and artisan cheese. Wickerman came before all that. It started as a passion project with a commitment to putting on a variety of musical genres and activities ranging from go-karting to circus skills to drum workshops. It never sacrificed its particular brand of pagan carnival for the enticement of getting in bigger bands and hiking up ticket prices. Sure, there was a fairground, but it hardly took up half the arena, and there was something mildly thrilling about seeing all those fluorescent colours flash in the purplish midsummer dusk, alien ships landing tacky mid-noughties style merry-go-rounds and carousels in the middle of ancient farmland.
I’ve been to Wickerman about eleven times. I can’t quite believe I’ll never go again; never get to sit in the car, heart thumping with excitement as we pull up the hill and into the field, directed by cheerful stewards with flowers painted on their faces and wellies splashed with mud. That silent, uncanny thrill when you look up and see the Wickerman itself: giant effigy woven of wicker and mysterious history, standing tall at the top of a mound. We always arrived on Thursday morning, and there was never that mad dash or endless queue or epic quest to drag your stuff across field after field to get set up. Wickerman was big enough to showcase a load of acts across an array of tents, but small enough that you always felt safe, you could always (more or less) stumble through the dark, tripping over guy ropes, to find your way back to the tent.
I’ve made friends for life at Wickerman; I’ve seen bands that I’ve stuck with ever since I first saw them play in the rain; I’ve discovered the wonders of power drinking for warmth; the value of dry shampoo; the importance of custard creams and caffeine pills; the absolute magic of seeing a giant wicker effigy go up in flames while fireworks sparkle around it, a strange sensation rising in my blood as if we truly were channelling the ancient spirits that lay still in the earth and now leap to the sky in torrents of fire.
I think the best way to properly recount all my favourite festival memories is with a list, since there’s so many to go through! These are mostly my own highlights but if anyone has any they’d like to share it would be lovely if you left a comment. I’m hoping this will be a wee bit cathartic, as I’m currently going through a sort of what-will-I-do-with-my-summers-now crisis, as well as the problem of no other festival quite living up to my experiences at Wickerman, and what’s more where else can I properly embrace my witchy identity?
These memories are in absolutely no order and most likely I will have forgotten the actual year in which they occurred, but anyway, hope you enjoy!
GLOWSTICKS – Especially when we were kids, glowsticks were absolutely essential. We’d stockpile them from trips to Poundland and crack them open as soon as the first shadows of darkness fell over the sky, waiting for the strange gooey liquid to start glowing like plutonium. Sometimes we’d bite the plastic tubes to make the stuff come out and spray them all over each other, waking up with luminous neon bleeding all over our skin. Sometimes a stranger would gift you with a bracelet and it felt truly celestial, running around all night with that circle of light sliding up and down your wrist.
MEETING THE SOUTERS – I was maybe eleven years old and my brother eight. We were sitting in the tent waiting for the rain to stop while my Mum hunched over the camping stove, stirring a pot of pasta, when the Souter family arrived at our tent. “Are you Debs?” they asked my Mum, who promptly answered in the affirmative. A mutual friend, Lynn, had generously brought our two wee families together and ever since then we’ve been a bit like cousins to each other, going to the festival year after year (in various combinations, with various extra friends, boy/girlfriends and family members tagging along). The first meeting became a bit of a mythological encounter. I remember sharing some fizzy laces and talking about school and maybe playing football on the grass before everyone came the next day to pitch their tents. Anyway, if it wasn’t for Wickerman, we wouldn’t have met, so I’m very grateful.
MAKESHIFT CEILIDHS – If eight years of Scottish P.E lessons doesn’t drill the rules of ceilidh dancing into you, I don’t know what will (especially as both my P.E teachers across my six years of secondary school were positively militant in their approach to dance demonstration). Mind you, I don’t think my muscle memory stood the test of time. I remember we started some very ad hoc makeshift ceilidhs in the Acoustic Village at one in the morning, jostling into one another and spinning round and round till we fell over, got covered in mud and decided to do it again. Earl Grey & the Loose Leaves and the Trongate Rum Riots were firm ceilidh(ish) favourites.
WEIRD STORYTELLING/SPOKEN WORD – When it rains in the middle of the day, often you end up in the spoken word/poetry tent. There’ll be some guy walking around with a drum, incanting a bizarre story about a bear, or maybe someone giving a both tenderly beautiful and utterly absurd ode to his body fat. Either way, as soon as you’re in, often the warm cosy atmosphere stops you from leaving and it’s nice to just chill.
EMBARRASSING BODIES – I’m not sure what the tv show hoped to find in a field of drunken Scots but they must’ve picked up a few choice samples for broadcast. One of my pals nearly got on telly by showing them his rather delicately-located skin tag, but because he was underage at the time, they had to phone his mum first to check. Bet she appreciated that call!
OUTDOOR CINEMA – Watching the original Wickerman film being projected onto a giant dome in the middle of a field in Dumfries & Galloway is just dreamy. Also very spooky. Watching naked witches dancing round gravestones – well it was enough to curdle my childish blood but it felt like something genuinely horrific, an actual evil that made me very curious…
THE TAMPON APPLICATOR – A weird one this. When we were much younger, we used to jump the fence and play up in the woods up by the quiet campsite. One time, we found what I now know to be a tampon applicator, though back then we were convinced it was a needle. Cue various kinds of recounted horror stories (as the second eldest, with a stupidly wild imagination, I was probably not the best influence). Eventually, one of the adults in our party thought it was about time the needle was checked out, and she informed us with much gusto that it was in fact a tampon applicator and not a syringe. Our wee hearts sunk with disappointment. I don’t know why we liked the idea of junkies hanging around in the woods so much; maybe we’d watched too many Skins episodes. Still, the thought of actual tampon applicators still gives me the creeps; I can’t shake the association with dirty injections, with worms crawling over a plastic shell still resonant with the mysterious vapours of its narcotic contents.
THE TIME LYNN BURST THE WATER PIPE – This was one of the first, if not the first, festivals we attended together as a big group. We were camping near the wall to keep away from the river midges and to shelter from the wind. On the first night, we decided it was fine weather for a bbq, and we’d all brought disposable ones. Lynn got hers lit first and all was going swimmingly as we began fishing out the packs of veggie sausages when all of a sudden a thin spout of water burst extravagantly from the ground, scattering the bbq aside and continuing to spray upwards like a sort of avant-garde fountain. It took us a good five minutes to realise that the bbq had burnt through a water pipe which (Lynn had neglected to notice) lay directly under where she placed the bbq like an alluring blue snake…Cue various comic attempts to tape up the hole while Lynn ran around manically looking for a steward to help.
TOO KEEN – That time my maw made us turn up for Roddy Hart’s acoustic village gig about two hours early so she could get a view from the front, only for it to be announced last minute that he wasn’t gonna play due to a sore throat. Och well, we’ve seen him plenty of times since to make up for it!
SIBLING PROTECTION – That time my pal Jack, aged thirteen at the time, squared up to this creepy stocky middle-aged guy who kept trying to convince Jack’s sister to go on his shoulders.
THE MARGARET THATCHER/TEXAS ENCOUNTER – The year that Texas played, my Mum dragged me along to see them. I stood at the top of the hill and ended up getting stuck in an endless conversation with a guy from Dumfries about Margaret Thatcher. It was quite interesting at first and good to let off some political steam, but pretty soon I realised he was more or less gurning crazily on Mandy and talking a load of pish. Still, it added some flavour to the Texas set.
THURSDAY NIGHT PIMMS – A proper tradition. Get your tents all set up, help each other unload the cars, meet the stragglers off their buses. Eat some crisps, a cereal bar (you’re gonna need your energy). Then crack out the Pimms. We graduated eventually to buying proper plastic wine glasses and loading them with actual strawberries and lemon slices. If I was pouring, the ratio to Pimms and lemonade weighed rather heavily on the former. Afterwards, we’d explore the main arena and probably go up to see the Wickerman itself at dusk, the purplish light falling on the pines and casting the perfect feeling of eeriness over the site. Then maybe we’d get a chippy on the way back to the tent, drink more Pimms and talk until it got too cold.
BROKEN CAMPING CHAIRS – Let’s face it, there’s always a few. I mean, a grown man really shouldn’t try and perch himself on a three-legged stool. Have you seen someone fly backwards on a camping chair, straight into their own tent? It’s rather amusing.
THE BUILDUP – We’d meet at a lay-by near Dalmellington where there was a river and picnic benches and we’d rub our sleepy eyes, drink from flasks of coffee and set out on the road for the Co-op in Castle Douglas. It was the last point of call in the real world before entering the shimmering membrane of the festival site.
LOUISE GETTING KICKED BY A MAD BREAKDANCER – My friend Louise and I were in the dance tents one year and it was all going well until I heard her cry out in wincing pain. Some dude getting a bit overzealous with his crazy dancing had accidentally side-kicked her right behind the knee. Poor Louise went to calm down outside while the entire entourage of this guy’s mates came to apologise to my group, the dancer in question sleeking back into the shadows. It left a bruise as dark as mouldy fruit.
THE SHISHA BAR – There was a guy with dreads who constantly got up and played Pendulum’s ‘Tarantula’ on the mini stage, so much so that the song was stuck in my heads for weeks afterwards. There were shisha pipes which you could rent cheaply and enough pretty tea flavours to cure any hangover. There was also Scrabble, for when you really needed an intellectual lift.
STARTING A CROWD CHANT – I’ll probably never get to say this again but once upon a time I started an actual crowd chant. The whole weekend, we were mocking the fact that The Feeling were headlining (I think on the Saturday as well!) and I encouraged my pals to start chanting ‘Steamin for the Feelin’ when they came on. I don’t remember much (alcohol was involved, yes), but for about five minutes half the crowd were chanting Steamin for the Feelin and yes it was sort of bizarre and wonderful and I was thoroughly, pleasantly ashamed of myself. They weren’t even that bad in the end, and played a nice wee Blur cover which sounded very good in a drunken messy sort of way.
THE FUDGE STALL – Every year, especially when we were younger, we’d visit this poor man who made Galloway fudge and ask to try every free sample before buying a paltry wedge of straight-up fudge worth maybe a £1, our teeth already dissolving under the taste of rum and raisin, hazelnut nougat and caramel. W’d keep little paper bags of the stuff with us all day and dole it out carefully to our closest friends when the blood sugar hit low after hours of dancing.
FALLING FLAT ON MY FACE – One time I really did drink probably a little too much gin and I was on my pal William’s shoulders and we were going to be late for a band (can’t remember who, maybe it was Twin Atlantic?!) so he started running in crazy zig zags down the hill and I was totally fine, held on tight, until he stopped at the edge of the crowd and I went flying over his head to land flat in the mud. I don’t think anyone noticed…
THE PROCLAIMERS – I’m pretty sure they played at least twice. The first time, I was very young, maybe twelve, and high on two cans of Irn Bru, having a rare moment of pure patriotism next to my very ginger very Scottish friend Holly. The second, my brother and Mum got to go backstage to meet them, while I was probably too busy lolling around the reggae tent. Which brings me to…
THE REGGAE TENT – Where else do you go on a Thursday night? You were sorely missed in 2015 and will be sorely missed forever…The sweet smell of a certain magic psychotropic plant, of incense; the trippy bass which vibrated right in your chest, all the people dancing languidly and the warm weightless feeling of being inside. One year I bumped into two boys from school in there, which was weird. Another year, I watched my pal make very awful and awkward attempts (I think they actually succeeded in the end?!) to chat up girls. You could go in there in the afternoons and lie down and smooth out a hangover, no problem. The damp grass just smells so nice, even with all the sweat and bodies, there’s something comforting about light glowing through tarpaulin, the earth right beneath your skin, a heavy bass shaking right through you.
HOME VIDEOS – There’s one of me sticking my finger into a tub of coffee granules and licking them off, and proceeding to do so despite constant yowls of protest. I think I was quite fleein’ indeed after that. There’s another of two friends doing an excellent impression of one of our old teachers which teeters towards complete Beckettian absurdism. Go trawl YouTube for them, I dare you.
OFFICIAL VIDEOS – Every year, the festival organisers assemble a video with footage taken during the weekend. When it came out, you’d always keep an eye out to see if you were in it. Somehow, my friends and I ended up in the 2015 one, and also they used a Little Comets song in the soundtrack, which I’m still pleased about.
LOSING YOUR FRIENDAT NIGHT – Splitting into search groups, talking to the police and forming an elaborate investigative operation…only to find they had stumbled back to the tent to pass out in their clothes, the zip of the porch still half open.
AD HOC GUITAR PLAYING – Yes, there are only so many times you can play ‘Wonderwall’ without driving everyone in your vicinity to thoughts of murder…Still, it’s fun to push it. Again a cliche but nothing beats a wee singalong outside with a group of friends (it helps when you can download Ultimate Guitar for your phone and extent the repertoire beyond Oasis).
PLANNING THE MUSIC – In the run up to the festival, I’d always make an effort to research some of the bands on the lineup. It’s always exciting getting to see bands live, especially when you’re not quite sure what to expect. It would be impossible to list all the great bands I’ve discovered/gone to see over the years at Wickerman, but here’s a few: Frightened Rabbit, The Noisettes, There Will Be Fireworks, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Martha Ffion, C Duncan, Sonic Boom Six, Alabama 3, The Xcerts, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Model Aeroplanes, Little Comets, The Futureheads, The Dykeenies, Fenech Soler, Fridge Magnets, Amphetameenies, Kobi Onyame, 808 State, Utah Saints, Unicorn Kid, Rachel Sermanni, Emma’s Imagination, Fatherson, Admiral Fallow, Withered Hand, Hector Bizerk.
HEADLINERS – Ranging from the Buzzcocks to Arthur Brown to Gary Numan to Echo and the Bunnymen, The Human League, The Charlatans, Scissor Sisters, Goldie Lookin’ Chain, Dizzee Rascal, Example & DJ Wire, the one thing you could count on was that you could never predict who would be next year’s headliner, and that probably you’d enjoy it regardless of who the hell it actually was (providing you had enough glowsticks, caffeine pills & tequila).
GOLDIE LOOKIN’ TRAIN – I’d arranged to meet my Mum to watch them on the main stage but my pal Courtney and I got a bit merry and completely forgot, so my Mum had to watch their entire set alone. I’m sure she really appreciated that sensational track, ‘Your Mother’s Got a Penis’. Don’t think she’s forgiven me yet.
SURPRISE BANDS – Discovering bands who were announced last minute, or stepped in to fill an empty slot. I refuse to be ashamed about my Twin Atlantic excitement, but maybe all that jumping around was a bad idea as early as six in the evening.
HAIR WASHING – Specifically, the lack of for me. Letting your hair billow out, just a bit greasy and free. For my male friends, hair washing meant standing underneath the drinking tap or the giant ‘Peeing Cow’ which spouted river water out of its tail, then shaking your head like a dog and spraying everything in your vicinity with water.
THE WICKER FORUM – Nothing like deconstructing portaloo conditions and the effectiveness of security and stage placement with strangers online as a way of quelling your post-festival blues.
WHEN AMY WINEHOUSE DIED – We’d literally just been over at the Summerisle Stage listening to Emma’s Imagination do a lovely cover of ‘You Know I’m No Good’ just as the sun was finally coming out in a shower of faint rainbows. We were back at the tent having some dinner and my pal William checks his phone and says, Amy Winehouse is Dead. It was one of those flashbulb moments.
ELABORATE DRINKING GAMES – Often played in Carol’s big tent when it started to rain. We came up with lots of creative rules, and it did the trick.
VENDORS – Selling everything from cheap Nag Champa incense to pretty silver rings, prayer flags, tarot cards, deliriously tacky 90s rave wear, goth trousers, dubious legal highs, healing crystals, handmade felt bumblebee brooches, sew-on band patches, circus paraphernalia and all the body glitter you could ever need (my wee brother once being scared to death by a lovely couple of Rastafarian men who were offering us pots of body glitter – Joe was convinced it was drugs bless him…Wait, can you snort glitter?).
MAKING FRIENDS WITH STRANGERS – Including strangers who want to sexy dance with your underage pal (and his mother) at two in the afternoon. Aye, go for it love, but please, put some knickers on under those short shorts.
THE DODGEMS – Getting whiplash off aggressive six year olds isn’t generally how I’d like to spend my Friday nights, but somehow it was always fun.
REUNIONS – There were certain people I’d only really see once a year, at the festival. That gave a bit of magic to our friendship; it felt almost religious, that sense of returning for a yearly carnival. Having the time to just walk around and chat and soak up the atmosphere and feel super relaxed and forget that you have a dissertation due or whatever. I’m going to miss that sense of structure to the year, the promise of freedom offered by a single weekend in July. I’ll have to start properly celebrating the summer solstice or something.
GETTING TOO DRUNK AND FALLING ASLEEP AT FOUR IN THE AFTERNOON – Enough said. I’d have to crack out the ProPlus after that.
FAMILY FRIENDLY – You’re constantly surrounded by kids having fun at the festival, and never in a way that seems dangerous or intrusive/annoying. It merely adds to that sort of magic freeing atmosphere. Once, a ten-year-old ginger kid who looked a bit like Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother kept tormenting us and tried to steal our tent pegs, but the wafting smell of fag smoke coming from our wee site kept his ~unadulterated youthful self~ away.
PLAYING STEAMING RED ROVER UNTIL WE ALL FELL OVER – Into a stranger’s tent…
PLAYING TENNIS WITH SAUCEPANS AND APPLES – You smashed it!
STOPPING AT THE CAFE ON THE WAY HOME – My Mum used to always pull into a wee cafe in a nearby village, where you could sit at outside by a gently trickling river under parasols and order a proper lunch (sandwiches with salad and fresh bread!), a pint of water and use a very nice clean toilet. It was part of the ritual of slowly readjusting to society.
NOT WANTING TO READJUST – When I was younger I used to hate having to readjust to social norms. What do you mean I have to have a bath everyday again? 😦 I would hang around town wearing my inappropriate festival clothes for as long as possible until the whole of Maybole genuinely just thought I was a witch.
DANCE TENTS – Enjoying the whole sweaty pulsing maddening sea of bodies thing until you’re forty minutes in, sobering up and realising everyone is over forty, on pills and reliving their glory (rave) days and suddenly you feel like an intruder and have to leave, maybe to hang around the oxygen bar and feel like even more of a twat.
GETTING (ACCIDENTALLY) HOT BOXED AGED ELEVEN – There used to be these really cool Eden tents which I believe were the origin of the actual Eden Festival. They were full of mad tall zanily-coloured mushrooms, sandpits, palm trees and pulsing trippy psytrance. Once, I sat in there a bit too long letting the bass flood through me, sucking in whatever that bittersweet smell was, and when we went back outside I looked around and promptly turned to my Mum: “Gosh, the sun’s bright tonight isn’t it!” It was midnight, and I was looking at a hanging lantern.
TEQUILA MAGIC – Running down hills in pursuit of the mainstage summons of Utah Saints, red hair flowing freely and the drunken wind in my ears, neds somewhere in the distance shouting – “LOOK, IT’S FLORENCE! ! ! !”
HEATWAVE – That freak streak of nature when summer 2014 was so hot at the festival that we had to dip our heads in washing up bowls full of cold water and actually apply suncream every five minutes because there was no shelter from the heat except in the Pimm’s bar and everyone was just mad with it (the sun, that is).
ROSIE LOCKING HER MAW’S KEYS IN THE BOOT – It took a while for the AA to arrive, but we had fun sitting in an empty field eating dry Weetos and playing guitar till then.
MOMENTS OF BEING – I remember last year’s Wickerman I was walking up to the caravan field on the Thursday evening to meet my school friend Connor who was staying in his auntie’s caravan for the weekend. I was excited to see him, it being so long since we’d caught up. The sun was just setting in the distance, a big juicy orange orb spreading its light over the pines and the hillsides speckled with sheep. I could smell the trees in the air and the vague cool coming of nightfall. I don’t think I’ve felt so serene ever since. Connor’s mum ploughed me with several glasses of Prosecco and his whole family were there, steaming and brilliant and buzzing with good craic. We caught up on small town gossip and got very drunk and it was a wonderful and very unique moment (seconded only by the time Connor took me to a Hogmanay party and folk were playing a game throwing tatties at each other to see who could catch them in their mouth?).
MAKING FRIENDSHIP BRACELETS AND TALKING POLITICS FOR HOURS – When else in life do you have the time / inclination to indulge in such activities, simultaneously?
FLOWER GARLANDS – Once, I thought you could only wear them at festivals, but then I gave up caring. Embrace the Pre-Raphaelite vibes!
THAT YEAR YOU FINALLY GET YOUR OVER-18s WRISTBAND – And then promptly realise that the beer tent is like, the worst place to hangout. Plus, beer drinking from cups with bad chart music is lame. Still, the novelty was cool for a while.
WHEN THE MIST COMES DOWN – At quarter to midnight and a bagpipe drone seeps eerily into every particle of air, filling the surrounding valleys and hillsides with its resonant, primordial echoes. A strange glow appears in the distance and fire dancers sweep their maddening patterns round a giant effigy, which already is starting to burn as flames lick hungrily up its legs and stomach and arms, while in the background the neds are chanting BURN THE BASTARD and you’re dying for a falafel and a piss but still none of that kills the original magic.
MY 2003 WICKERMAN HOODIE – It has the smiley rave face, Northern Soul and Ska symbols on it and I still wear it to bed, and fancy that buried somewhere deep in the material is the smell of stale beer, incense, smoke, cut grass and sparkling midnight dreams.
THAT FEELING ON SUNDAY MORNING – Sometimes, when the majority of hungover tent packing is complete, I like to take a lonesome wander over the main arena, where already the Wickerpickers are busy clearing up the weekend rubble, where stall vendors are packing away their goods and folding away tables. There’s that peaceful sense of a good weekend done, of things slipping away and back to normality. The field will be green again and the cows will return. It’s sad but also calming; it brings a nice sort of closure to the festival. Sometimes, picking through the trash left behind by other people, you’d find whole crates of Tennents or packs of cigarettes, a harmonica, unopened bags of crisps, ripe for the taking. Once, a whole teepee. This process is obviously more fun when the weather isn’t awful, which invariably it is – just when you need the wind to let up so you can unpeg your tent.
Wickerman, you were so bloody beautiful. You’ve given me a lot of fun experiences which I’ll never forget, even though most of them were thoroughly soaked in gin. There was something so special about those three days which were spent utterly in the present, in the company of friends and good music and lots of equally crazy and lovely people. It’s not just the breathtaking landscape or the amazing people or the sweet sweet music – you’ve got some mysterious brilliance that I can’t quite pin down. I’ve got a drawer full of wristbands and old programmes at home and even though the fabric is wearing away, my sense of all that mad atmosphere and the enchanting farmland and the fresh Galloway air won’t! I hope one day another festival will come close to what you were, but I don’t think it ever will. Keep the faith! ❤
The glow of the oil lamp
melts through the misting dust
that coats the light in the kitchen,
all airy, greyish, mossy and ochre
as the painted walls
(…In the evenings and mornings there are the same
slants of sun or moon, geometries of the cosmic
playing games upon the carpet).
Two weeks ago, the gloom was cut
with a bunch of sunflowers, hacked clean with a knife;
their extravagant heads all smiles and brightness.
They lifted the mood when you entered the room,
skin acquiring that olivine hue
from the plants and the shadows;
reflection of the radio, whose channels
remain static, always, in lieu
of music, or a television crackling,
or a body that would clutch
you so tight in its sadness
as to suck away your own.
Crumbs from the dead hours
grow a fur of mould; the pages curl
on a stack of magazines,
whose gloss lacks immunity to dust,
which scuttles and settles
between the pages, closely closing
leaf after leaf, an army of tiny hermit creatures—
Frankenstein splices of insect shells, fragments of lashes,
fibre and skin.
To sweep it would be merely
to cast a new dance of twirling particles.
It is exhausting, keeping things clean;
to warm the stove, to watch the hours
through the clock on the wall.
The sunflowers fade now; it is properly autumn,
bronze and darkening green.
Their time has been
and I collect the topaz petals, shrivelled slightly
as they catch on the carpet, the stacks of magazines.
September spreads its beautiful disease through the streets
as the leaves begin to fall, oozing soft fire,
the sweep sap of decay.
In the window, the sunflowers have lost their vigour.
They drop; their heads slump down,
defeated, as if shy at their deaths.
Their filaments wither, every yellow floret
sinks, crisp; a victim of gravity.
Every entrance to the room augments their sorrow.
We have forgotten the day we bought them,
or even where they were from.
There is just the slant of light, the green and ochre
smell of cooking, the smoke across the road,
and the knowing that probably
I will throw those flowers away tomorrow.
April, the sweetest candy of a pink-tinged sky blessing the late afternoon. Rebecca has sat in the garden for hours, watching the birds nibble from the feeder and splash around by the pond. This is her Grandpa’s garden, though he no longer enjoys it. They have him cooped upstairs on a dialysis machine, in a bedroom that smells of sweat and death. Rebecca is not allowed up there: the air, her mother says, is not fit for a young and blooming girl.
She misses her Grandpa. She remembers him mowing the lawn on Sunday afternoons, stooping with his bad back. She remembers him commending the shapes of his moon-faced daffodils. She remembers him singing Frank Sinatra in velvet baritone while pruning the roses.
The roses are now out of control. They cluster all over the flowerbeds along the path, dangling out with their swollen, sumptuous heads. They have grown so tall that they bend over, crippled with the excess weight, the stems stretching to breaking point. Grandpa would be so disappointed if he witnessed the state of his roses.
Sometimes, Rebecca liked to peel off a petal or two. It was hard to resist; once she took the first few, the others came off so easily and they just slid softly into her fingers. Vivid trails of pink and red petals are now strewn along the gravel path, where Rebecca has walked like a bridesmaid.
At the back of the garden is the apple orchard. In winter the trees are gnarled and bare silhouettes, and not a soul would dare enter the darkness between them. Now that spring has arrived they boast their pretty bows of white, flaky blossom. Every year, Grandpa used to send glossy photographs of the apple blossoms to Rebecca and her parents, who lived far away down in London and rarely made it up to visit. The sight of those lovely trees was always a dream to the young girl who yearned for the country.
“When can we go and see them for real?” Rebecca would sigh.
“Oh, sometime in summer. Maybe Christmas.” They were so often dismissive like this. They had waited too long to see him and now he was dying. Even Rebecca knew it.
She was growing quite bored now, in the garden with no-one to play with. She knew there would be supper soon: hot buttered crumpets with a dark smudge of Marmite melting inside them. Real Earl Grey (loose leaf) because that was the only tea Grandpa had in the cupboard. Rebecca thought it smelt a bit fusty, but you could read the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup afterwards. She thought she saw a bird in hers that morning.
Yes, she was quite bored. The hula hoop which she had brought up from London lay abandoned on the lawn. She had tossed away her tennis racket somewhere into a dense clump of shrubs, because it was no fun to play by yourself, hitting a ball against the shed wall. A bag of marbles had burst open on the patio, the little glass balls having long rolled away, to settle amongst their brethren of grass and gravel. Rebecca had no toys left and besides, she was so tired of them all.
Even the insects had bored her, with their slimy indifference to her existence, their urgent desire to escape her clasping girlish fingers. She couldn’t give a toss about snails and slugs, or even butterflies anymore.
It was in this moment of tedium that she spotted the boy through the hedge. She couldn’t believe she had never seen him before. It was a difficult thing not to be spotted, not to make a peep, but Rebecca crawled expertly into a gap and tried not to breathe as she watched him. He was lying on his front, kicking his long legs back and forth. From this angle, he looked about fourteen. His hair was sort of ginger but also sun-bleached, as if he had spent a long time outside in a streak of good weather that Rebecca must have missed. He looked like something the sun had offered as a blessing. She could see his freckles, the concentrated curl of his lips. He was drawing in a big sketchbook which was flipped open, so that sometimes the breeze rippled the pages. Rebecca felt her heart hum and flutter in the cage of her chest, like some swarm of insects had trapped itself deep within her. He was so beautiful.
She wanted to crawl right out of the hedge into the next-door garden, step into the other world where he existed. She wanted to talk to him, ask for his name. See what it was that he was drawing. She felt like the secrets of the world would unlock themselves once she had learned his name. The sapling of herself would unfurl and a bounty of happiness would overflow from her body like the golden leaves in autumn.
“Rebecca!” she froze. It was her mother calling. She had been searching all over the garden for her daughter and now here she was, discovered in the hawthorne with white blossoms caught in her hair and a strange smile on her lips. She saw there were tears in her mother’s eyes, clinging and spilling like rain from the knots of tree trunks. How could there be tears at a moment so pure, so lovely?
“It’s Gramps,” she gushed, “he’s, he’s gone!” And so her mother pulled her out of the hedge and clutched her in her arms, held her so tight Rebecca thought she would burst. It didn’t make sense: he’s gone, he’s gone. As her mother sobbed into her hair, she watched the apple blossoms being blown away by the gathering night wind. Next-door, the boy stretched out his long limbs, packed up his things and disappeared.
You used to worry about the palms: there was something wrong,
if the palms weren’t sighing.
You relished the soft peel of the wind through those palms,
the ones by the hotel garden.
We’ve been here every year
since Dad died.
The white beach sand is a mouthful of moonlight.
We sit up late drinking crushed fruit
and you say strange things, as you always do—
have you ever eaten a mango in the bath?
You would live your life like that,
all the time you said, eating mangoes in the bath.
All that pulp and mess, all that flesh.
Dad died in the spring, when blossoms
of soft pink cherry gathered on my lawn.
The baby lolled around in it like April snow
and we watched her giggle, ribbon
flying out from her hair. He would’ve loved that,
seeing her there.
The cancer took the green out his eyes,
ate the skin of his face.
Even when they pumped him full of fat and creamy vitamins,
the bones kept poking, pointing.
His face was a mask of something;
I couldn’t let the baby near it.
I imagine you prefer it here
to back home. You like the ooze
of the days, the way the maids make the beds;
the emerald green of the parakeet,
early mornings where the tide sparkles. Still,
you saw signs in everything.
Dad used to come visit during monsoon season.
He wrote reams of prose,
lapping up slushfuls of rain. He wrote
in the small hours, when he wasn’t working.
We lost the notes.
We’ve only the stuff on his business trips,
lost code on his laptop.
We haven’t a sense
of what to him was sharp or clear, what it was
that brought him over.
Just the whispering palms, the sleepy tense—
one day I’ll take the baby here.