Here is the middle section of the novel I am currently writing. The novel consists of three separate stories, each dealing with the ascension of a confused memory from early childhood; its recognition and eventual acceptance.
Between White Horses and Fallen Leaves
By Benjamin Jiva Dasa Norris
I have a memory which is not a memory.
“When I was eight, I lived in a pink house in Plymouth, between the sea and a forest…”
Now I am twenty-two.
I am tearing at a woman’s clothes; kicking up filth and dead matter, fungal strands and countless dry leaves, trying not to make a sound and yet not caring if the whole world hears me attacking her. My hands grapple at her wrists, and our hips clash hard. Bone knocks bone, and nails graze pale and filthy flesh. I long to feel myself inside her, push into the heat between her thighs that are at once resistant, and yet willing. My tall frame is convulsing against her, and yet something is stopping me, some flicker of conscience or tangible force pulling me back over and over again, only to be overcome briefly to add to the frustration. As we tumble over roots and feel sharp stones digging into our bare flesh, I realise I want to see her face, to stop this savage, animalistic behaviour and apologise, kiss away the tears that are surely pouring from her eyes. I lift her head and see a collection of features; a nose, a mouth and two eyes, features I know should combine to make some recognisable identity. But they do not. All I see are individual characteristics of a face, something which does not add up to the sum of its parts. I do not know her.
Confused and knotted with anxiety, I bend my mouth to kiss hers, to love her, to let her know I never meant to cause her pain or to frighten her. I lamely try to explain my actions, whispering that it was all a game, someone else’s violent sexual fantasy that I was briefly trying on, like a hat or an item of used clothing in the dressing up box, much in the same way that as a child I would wear my father’s medals and run around the garden, pretending that I too was on a sinking ship, desperately wanting to experience real terror, bombs and fire and death. My father just used to sit shaking in front of the television. For a fraction of a second, I am there, seven years old in the pink house between the woods and the sea, before being thrust back into the earthy bed which is not a bed. This girl begins shaking in the same way as my father would; furious by my words and ignorance, and she spits leaves, all sorts of leaves and seeds, nutshells and catkins into my face. (I recognise each one instantly, the tree from which it came, and which time of year they fall from the branches. I could probably tell you their Latin names if I wanted to). But she is in pain, and although I am trying desperately now to be gentle, to caress her, I see that my fingertips have left blisters and welts all over her body; as sores weep and erode her struggling form, she whispers “…time to talk”, and then whimpers until there is nothing left, a dark stain. I am lying on the muddy earth, frightened and cold and alone, once again a child, not knowing anything at all.
I wake up about twice a month from this assault, shaking and soaked in my bed, terrified of ignoring what flashed behind my flickering eyelids in sleep, and yet possibly more frightened of thinking about what it means, where it comes from.
It has been four months since my twenty-second birthday, and now I find myself here; out in the city, trying to become a writer. The world seems full of endless opportunity coupled with infinite disappointment, every idea and feature and article I churn out feels to me like plagiarism, nothing more than a collection of ideas stolen from somewhere else. How long would it be before I get that phone call, with the voice on the other end saying sombrely:
“…Sorry James, but they’ve caught up with you…”? Some chance; I’d be lucky to get that much attention from anybody, let alone the ‘powers that be’ picking me up on my unconscious references to Hesse and Orwell, Lorca and Larkin and all the rest. Somebody once told me that the road to hell is paved with polite letters of rejection, and I’ve got to tell you, it definitely feels like I am slipping downwards to some sort of punishment, especially here and now; London, in November. It may sound as though I am being indulgent in my self-deprecation, but I have grown genuinely afraid of ideas and originality, afraid to write of my own experiences, afraid of my own dreams and afraid to face up to the futility of my attempts at being what I wanted to be. I don’t have writer’s block: I just struggle to scale the walls my mind has placed in my imagination.
The streets seem forever slick with grey, sooty rain, and the cars and buses kick you in the face (even a face as high off the ground as mine; tall, oversized child that I am) with a small tidal wave of grit and filth each time they drive past. You look up at the sky, and you see more shades of grey than you ever imagined possible, a low blanket of cloud impregnated with diesel and carbon emissions, mixed up with water from the Channel and the Thames Estuary, aching to wash this filthy city away. The colour is sucked out of the architecture by the monochrome machine it sits in, and all attempts at exoticism, from the Thai restaurants to the steel-drum buskers, the pavement artists and the Hare Krishna’s chanting; all seem puny and pointless. I am not the man I want to be, or even once was, not on a day like this. Today, my memories and dreams clamber under my tongue and push, depressed and impatient, at my lips. Today I ache to connect, to join the dots. Today, I suspect that I yearn to restructure the web behind my nightmares which grow worse each night, the humid entanglement of sex and violence.
I have always been frightened of sex. Frightened of involving myself in something far bigger and older and more powerful than I am, frightened of being judged on the smallest movement that does not deliver, and particularly frightened of hurting the person I am penetrating. It is one of the problems with being six foot six; you get endless unwanted attention, you become known purely because of your genetic proportions, and your limbs flail and knock and crush and bruise. I don’t know my own strength – it is impossible to calculate. When I was bursting through puberty, glasses shattered in my oversized, clumsy hands; plates smashed in the sink; curtains were torn from rails unintentionally. A girl I knew as a child gave me her pet gerbil to hold awhile, and I tried, I really did try to hold it still and gently, to stop it running in terror, to stop its pin-like claws tearing my skin. I watched it die in my oversized convulsing palm, and I cursed my frame for betraying me as it always did, for killing something so small. I suppose the same reasons, the same outcome makes sex, for me, terrifying. I am convinced that one day I will choke a girl, or crush her, break some bones or kill her as I did that small creature years ago. So, I move gently, slowly, tentatively. And they patiently wait for the ordeal to be over and invariably make their excuses and leave. And every time I sit down, flaccid and confused and furious with myself for not being able to exert some aggression, promising myself I will be more violent or active in the future, but knowing that the very thought of roughly taking somebody, even if begged to, makes me feel sick and weak and broken, bringing the nightmares and half-memories to the forefront of my mind. I’ll never forget the look that crossed my last girlfriend’s face (pitiful ghost of a relationship that it was) when she pleaded with me to grab her and pound into her, and I responded by trembling; cold sweats breaking on my upper back as a nausea gripped me and forced me out of the room. I simply avoid physical contact whenever possible nowadays, and all those people I once believed held the answers; the playground friends, the university housemates, all those I swore never to lose contact with drifted away out of reach, grew up, settled down. It is not my fault that sexuality and predatory sexual behaviour forms the basis for most communication in this country, whether in passing conversation with friends or in our day to day habits of grooming and searching for prospective conquests. And this fear of sex, along with fear of my own adulthood, masculinity and imagination are linked. Linked by dreams, by memories, by childhood.
I am lonely, and I walk.
There is a second-hand bookshop I go into regularly, to buy or browse or just grab some quiet moments and enjoy the musty smell of dry old pages. There is never anybody in there, rarely even staff, which always confuses most customers into either walking straight back out the door or leaving money on the counter to be picked up by the man who owned the shop (who I have witnessed once or twice skulking in a shadowy corner between the D.H. Lawrence’s and the Dickens’) or an opportunist thief who happens to be in the right place at the right time.
So, I sit down in a seat far too small for my figure, and pull out my soggy notebook and leaf through what I had written on the bus. A few half-formed ideas, all pointing towards the direction of my early years; an inescapable impulse in almost all that I write. I remember my father, nerves shattered from his own memories of burning ships and dying friends. My mother, steadfast figure, forever bottling up years of difficulty and frustration, trying so hard, too hard not to repeat the mistakes of her own parents.
I haven’t spoken out loud for ages, not to anybody but myself. Such silence, stillness, here in books and dust, and dust and corners while outside the wheels of the city creak and grind. Such silence…
“What are you writing?”
I look up. A girl sits opposite me, smiling openly. She is about my age, and holding a book adorned with an illustration of a Victorian children’s fantasy scene, all fairies and leaves and Art Nouveau curlicues. I shudder somewhere in my subconscious at the sight of it, whilst my nerves pick up at the interruption of my memories. I babble something incomprehensible back. She looks again.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you… I’m Lucy. I hardly ever see anyone else in here to be honest, and it’s always interesting to meet people in places like this… um, I saw you were writing, I do some writing myself…”
A conversation begins, my unpractised social skills are clearly evident and between awkward silences I speak some basic truths and introductions; my name and age, that the weather is awful, my trousers are dripping and filthy, and some elaborations on my situation; that I am a writer (failing to mention I am unpublished and stuck in a horrendous creative rut), that I enjoy sharing stories, that I love the back-alleys of London. Which I don’t. I notice that Lucy is not unattractive, and that she is confident to a degree I would normally find irritating. She stands up, and thrusts her forearm in front of my face.
“Do you like my jewellery? It sort of looks like the doodles on your notebook. Sorry, I couldn’t help noticing…” She has a ring and matching bracelet, a delicate silver band of interwoven ginkgo leaves, with a toadstool hanging from it; a slightly childish addition to an otherwise sophisticated item. It looks like a classic fairytale fungus, either Aminata Muscara or Aminata Pantera, it was impossible to tell in plain silver. Such ridiculous details make up my day.
Impulsive actions are rare, almost unknown to me, and yet here I am being talked into going for a drink with this excitable, enthusiastic girl. To a pub just down the street, to meet what she calls her ‘bookish crowd’. A thousand excuses rush through my head, that I should be on my way, that I am unwell… and yet I agree, undeniably relieved of the break in my self-imposed monotony and boredom, and yet nervous, so very nervous of talking further. And so, out we go.
It’s seriously raining now, grey heavy drops bombard my face and momentarily blind me as I lurch down the crowded street (my head must smack into at least four umbrellas in the first few seconds), swearing and weaving between some really disappointed looking tourists, soaked as I am, leafing through those hideous postcards in the shape of Princess Diana’s head. I stop too abruptly, and one of the disillusioned mutters at me to move out of his way. I’ve lost this girl, Lucy, and I stand there surveying a sea of heads, hair plastered down with gritty water.
“James! James! In here!” An arm, with that same small hand on the end of it, grabs my brown sleeve and yanks it through a door, above which is a sign announcing that the proprietor of ‘The Book and Candle’ was licensed to serve alcoholic beverages between this hour and that one, and I was inside, dripping and breathless, as Lucy laughs at the raindrops running down my face.
Sitting down next to the open fire, I warm my shivering self whilst adjusting the table in front of me to fit my legs under, I start to take in my surroundings. A large mug of coffee is placed in front of me, and this girl I hardly know, sits opposite me and looks hard in my direction. My eyes are wandering, I see a small gaggle of suited media types, all plastic folders and wire-rimmed spectacles talking animatedly, I see a family avoiding each others eyes. I see an old man sitting to my left, and I see him look straight back at me.
“So, what do you write about?” Lucy’s voice breaks my daze and disorientation.
“You said you were a writer. What are you writing about?” I fluster and think about making something up, when my hand in my pocket closes on my notebook, full of memories and stories I had overheard in pubs such as this one; the story about the man who saw a puma on Dartmoor, and the story of the woman whose son was miraculously healed by a man who claimed he was possessed by a seventeenth century German physicist, the tale I heard of dreams coming true, and the one about the dog that slept on the beds of those about to die.
“Oh, I don’t know. I… I’m sort of collecting stories I overhear, memories and dreams and things like that. How these stories shape us, make us who we are whether they are true or not. But, to be honest… to be honest I’m struggling to come up with ideas.”
I want to say that I’ve always struggled to come up with ideas, and I really want to tell her this, tell her the truth that I’m neurotic and paranoid and lonely. That she’s chosen the wrong man to randomly strike up conversation with and pull into a pub. But I’m sitting drinking coffee with a girl, and I find that I am warm, even comfortable. I normally hate being confronted with confidence, spontaneity, and yet she is smiling, and it feels good to be smiled at. She seems pleased with my response, and I ask a similar question back to her.
“I write about dreams, and I write about love.” Seeing my face drop and my body language contort to uncomfortable syllables, she grins and adds “No, not like that. I don’t mean in a Mills and Boone sense. I just like hearing people’s first impressions of love, or sex, about how they slip into the subconscious. All sorts of stuff like that, really. Do you have interesting dreams? So many men I speak to can’t remember theirs, or won’t talk about them, and its a real shame.” I shake my head and shudder again at the mention of dreams, remembering the painful, violent, erotic pleas my brain conjures up at night-time, and I am about to make some pitiful excuse to escape the conversation, when a new voice fills the gap, cracked with age and slurred somewhat from drink.
“You write of love?” There is a West Country burr in there somewhere, mingled with cockney arrogance and old English regret. “I’ll tell you about love, and dreams. Dreams, and love. At my age, there ain’t much difference between the two, ‘cept one might be real, and one might not be.” The old man shuffles nearer, pushing his ancient face into the space between Lucy and me. She grins at him, and a knowing nod is exchanged, along with words I do not hear. It becomes immediately apparent that these two have met here before. The elderly man is of an almost indeterminable age; somewhere between seventy and two hundred years old, lines set so deep into his liver-spotted face they look like they were chiselled there by an over zealous Michaelangelo attempting to depict David’s great-grandfather. A mouth like a knife wound opens slowly and purposefully, takes a deep swig of ale, and his pale blue eyes look to Lucy for approval. Nodding enthusiastically, and taking a notebook and pen out of a cloth bag, she allows him to begin his tale. A lengthy cough and wheeze, and the old man begins to speak in that inimitable accent. He tells me of his childhood, beaten and battered by a wicked parent like the youngest son in a Grimm’s tale. He tells me of long hours sweeping his father’s subterranean cellar store, and he tells me of a girl he fell desperately in love with when he was fifteen, a girl who would occasionally walk past a window at the top right-hand corner of the shop, looking out onto street level.
“…My father weren’t happy, catching me takin every second I could to lean out the window when I should’ve been working, tryin’ to catch a glimpse of her. She were a pretty thing though, and made me smile every damn time she walked past that miserable pane of dirt-dashed glass.”
“What did she look like?” I ask, while Lucy is still all smiles; doodling and writing random words down, like ‘window’ and ‘glimpse’.
“I’ll never forget, boy. Chestnut ringlets, pale, pale skin and she always wore this, this green coat that I thought was the most beautiful piece of cloth I ever saw. I tell you now, I knew nothin’ of the flesh back then. Them’s were innocent times, I was not yet a man, and I knew not manly things. But I was in love, madly, stupidly in love, and I took many a thrashin’ for the distraction she provided. I was supposed to be sweepin’ the shop floor, see, or servin’ customers. Or just lookin’ busy. Reputation was everthing, it was, to my old man. And I’ll never forget the only words I ever said to her, ever in my whole entire life.”
Lucy looks up.
“What did you say?”
The old man grins a toothless grin, then; “I said, ‘Good mornin’ miss, what can I get for you?”
I am decidedly underwhelmed. “And did she say anything back?”
“No, she did not. But she gave me a smile, and it was a smile just for me. And my heart damn well near burst in my chest, it did. Shortly after that, I signed up and was sent away to the East. I never saw her again, but never stopped seein’ that smile at night times, asleep next to my poor old wife, for whom I have never felt a love comparable. She died a good few years back now, and I felt guilty of those dreams all my adult days. So there you go, that’s my story, brief and pointless though it was. I’ll tell you this, though. I’ll always say that your first taste of love, your first knowledge of the ways of the flesh will haunt you forever, and either make or ruin your whole life if you don’t think about them in the right way. I’m an old man now, and I’ve had since I were fifteen to think on that.”
He takes another drink, and we make small conversation about how it was an interesting story, and how I am drying off (although my clothes were still sodden around my ankles) when the old man produces another painful sounding cough and purses his wrinkled lips. “You boy, big lad, what your name?”
“James”, I reply. “James Stanton”.
“You owe me a story, your story. And you owe the girl somethin’ for the drink. I’ve not heard you utter a word of thanks yet. So, tell me yours. Now.”
I want to protest, to tell him that his story was nothing more than something that happened in his hormonal teenage head, a pretty memory distorted by nostalgia, fantasy, and eventually, guilt. There was no love there, just an infatuation, albeit one which changed his whole life, the way he saw all women since. I decide to hold my tongue and speak the usual verbal detritus that one mentions in these circumstances, where I came from, my degree and all the little lies I tell to cover up the fact that I am terrified of the situation I’m in; this city, this age. That I don’t know where I am going and I’m as scared of success in the normal sense (money, job, wife, kids ) as I am of failure. Lucy interrupts my stammering stream of excuses.
“We don’t want to hear all that! Do you really think that is worth this drink? Our company? Arthur’s story?” They look at each other, smiling playfully at my discomfort. Lucy taps me on the hand, and mimicking Arthur, says; “Tell us about the moment you realised what life was, when you first saw love, and lost magic. When you first knew of the flesh! Repay me well for bringing you in from the rain.”
Arthur cackles beside me, and a trio of dark pints are placed onto the oak table we’re sitting round. I begin to panic, to breathe quickly, and yet a part of my mind wants to speak out, to tell my story. Initially, I pout childishly and refuse, then attempt to laugh off their insistence. But I know I have a story to tell, and one that needs telling. More so now than ever before. And so I begin, tentatively at first, trying to prepare myself for the images I know I am about to conjure up. It is time to talk.
“When I was eight, I lived in a pink house in Plymouth, between the sea and a forest.”
“Its not the worst beginning to a story I have heard…” Lucy grins at me, one eyebrow raised. A deep breath, then;
“When I was eight, I lived in a pink house in Plymouth, between the sea and a forest, and my parents had decided to go their separate ways. I was an only child, and I was a believer in magic. I believed in good, and I believed in evil. I believed that I lived at the edge of the world, and I watched the ships sail off the horizon every morning, and wanted one day to join them. I had… I had such beautiful dreams back then, all kites and colours and flying cats, cardboard boxes that would transport me to the clouds, or dive me deep below the sea to talk with whales and, I don’t know, Mermen, or something.”
Lucy stifles a giggle, but urges me to continue, seeing my discomfort. She lays down her notepad and pen momentarily, and leaning back, gestures that I should resume my story.
“I guess I lived in fantasies to stop thinking about my family, to keep out the suspicion that I was the reason they didn’t love each other any more; that it was the time I spilt my drink on the new carpet, or trod mud all up the stairs. I was left alone a great deal of the time, and I would read books, scientific books about trees and fungi and birds. I could name all of them, and recognise the birds by their songs. This felt to me like secret knowledge, something I was immensely proud of, and that would possibly save my life one day if I was captured and taken away… I’ve since forgotten it all, one tree looks just like another in London.”
“You’ve not forgotten any of it”, Arthur slurs, a smile on his face. “You just can’t remember it at the moment.” He is right of course, I realise, as my eyes dart towards the jewellery on Lucy’s arm.
“Anyway, one morning I had been alone for a few hours, and, convinced that perhaps my mother had left for good as well as my father, I walked out of the house, across our tiny lawn, and up the dirt track that led to the forest….”
In my mind I can see it all so clearly, the rocks scattered across the path, and the smells…the smells of seawater, mown grass, pine cones. I was there. The pub, Lucy, London, adulthood…as I continue to talk, to tell my story, they all become part of a shrinking image, a distant future-memory to a child walking between trees on an afternoon filled with trepidation and possibility.
It is midsummer, and I am marching up the hill, singing a stupid song about a worm measuring marigolds, keeping my eyes peeled for anything that might suggest the start of an adventure; a silver flower, or a snake, or a rainbow. Noises gathered around me on the warm breeze, and I become aware of people moving in the same direction as I am, up the hill and into the deepest part of the woods. Dozens of them, colourful tree-people in long robes, huge beards and what look like millions of beads and bracelets on the men, and long hair, bangles and gold face-paint on the women. They are beautiful, magical creatures, walking barefoot on the earth, talking excitedly and singing, holding hands and waving ribbons. So many people, so many colours. I hear a whirring noise overhead, and see fireflies, bright lights, small winged people buzzing around above us, the congregation I was now moving with under the canopy of branches. Heavy feet crashed in the distance as giant men, as large as the trees themselves, moved at the front of the crowd, clearing space and singing in their deep, deep voices. My eyes are wide as I take in the dancing, chanting, writhing throngs of people. Robes whirl in the air, glass beads catch the light and throw it around my head which spins in excitement, fear, joy, confusion.
I look up. Lucy is smiling, a bemused look on her face. I am pulled back into the Book and Candle pub harshly, too soon. “So… you saw hippies and fairies when you were a child? We asked for a true story…remember?”
My face reddens, but a determination has taken hold of me. This is my memory, and it needs to be told.
“I’m telling you what I saw. It is a memory, or a dream…or…”
“Or both, entwined together…” Arthur interjects, a serious look on his face. ” I have the most vivid memories of my sister and I, only three or four years old, flying through the house and down the stairs… Anyway boy, continue. Tell us what happened.”
I lean back, and speak some more. I close my eyes, and feel grass beneath my feet. I have taken off my shoes, and see my small feet, bare and young on the ground, trying to dance in time to the repetitive rhythms of what sounds like a hundred drums beaten by two hundred hands. There are jugglers, men throwing spinning tops high into the air and catching them on strings. I feel a flash of terror as I see a young woman spit out a metre long burst of fire, and sit down knowing that I may never be able to return home, the notion growing in my head that the real world I had just walked away from was a lie, and that here was real life, for better or for worse.
A vast man sits down beside me, and asks me my name. “Magpie” I reply. Silly really, but I still don’t want to reveal my real name to a stranger. He just chuckles and pulls a huge wooden necklace from around his neck, through the mass of his beard, and puts it over my small, wiry neck. He tells me that I am free in the woods, free to dance and sing and explore; but I must, and really, truly must stay away from a man in a dark blue robe, who he points to at the other side of the fire. I am not to accept any gifts off of him, or talk to him, or even catch his eye. That man, he says, is a bad man. I look across the smouldering logs and the see this tall, thin figure. He is staring straight back at me, his bony hands on his hips and long black hair creeping down over his shoulders. I cannot help but notice that he looks a lot like a photo of my father I saw, of him before he joined the navy, carefree and young. It is not until I gain the courage to look at his eyes that I realise I am wrong, for they are black as his hair, and deep and endless, dancing with flames and hate. In the second before I pull my child’s gaze from his I realise that this man, twenty-something and thin as the poplar trees behind him, is evil itself. A monster, a dark mirror to the joy surrounding him. I childishly hide my face in my hands, wishing away the coldness, the dark. When I next look up, he is gone, and I hold back tears of unexplainable horror as I get up and start walking back the way I came. I am leaving this place.
My eight-year old self is aware of atmospheres shifting; a darkening of the skies, a thickening of ozone as the incense and pipe smoke grows thicker. There is another change too; a pub, also thick with pipe smoke, somewhere off the Charing Cross road, a lifetime away. A girl named Lucy has stopped smiling, an old man sits gravely beside her whilst a boy continues to speak with a growing fervour.
Dandelion seeds dance on a breeze. A woman, beautiful in white but with a feral, strained look on her face grabs my arm too hard and pulls me into the tent I was just passing. She spins me round; once, twice, three times, before smiling too wide and gesturing for me to sit down in front of a screen amongst several other people. Upon the sheet acting as a huge screen in the dark, images are being projected, patterns and swirls and zig-zags, over and over again, and a droning sound shakes my insides. I see endless spirals that twist in on themselves, and then pan out to reveal that they’re just the tiniest detail in a much larger pattern, which repeats again, then again, getting bigger and smaller at the same time all in lurid purples and greens. The inside of the tent is pitch black, and it stinks of sweat and mown, dead grass and heavy, sickly fragrances I’ve never smelt before. With a growing feeling of unease and nausea, I discover I can’t tear my eyes from the screen, even though I’m really beginning to feel dizzy and sick. I begin to see figures in the patterns, disjointed dancing marionettes, and the face of the man with flames in his eyes leers out of the screen, bursting into my retinas with flashing colours. Laughter echoes around my ears, nasty, mocking laughter of adults amused at something I suspect I wouldn’t understand. I heave, I sweat and scream at the sight of this devil, here, in front of me. I’m remembering nights in bed after ‘flu injections, feverish convulsive sleepless nights full of visions not dissimilar to this, cold sweats and waking nightmares. The tall thin man, the man in the dark blue robe is somewhere nearby, both inside my head and outside the tent. I know it. I need to leave this place.
Looking up, I am almost suprised to see Lucy and Arthur staring at me. I slowly sip at my pint, hands trembling slightly. I am back in my over-sized twenty-two year old body, and I know there is more to tell. I know I need to get that child home, complete the memory. And yet I also know the worst is yet to come. Arthur gives some words of encouragement, and mutters some more to Lucy about his sister’s flight through his childhood home. This story of mine is bringing up other memories, unprovoked and unwelcome. I can hear my mother’s voice telling me about how my father had changed. I can remember how it felt to move to London to study, away from my home. Fear of change, and the absence of comfort and familiarity; that particular feeling it provokes sits at the bottom of my stomach. Lucy and Arthur are finishing their pints, and I suspect that maybe they’re feeling the same thing, recounting their own memories of transition, early fear and disorientation. Lucy continues to write, but I cannot see which words she has selected as significant in my lengthy recital. A few more sips to slow my breath before she urges me to continue.
I fall over, hard. Either I lost my footing, or the tree looming over me whipped out a vicious root and made my foot turn over on itself, I cannot tell. The sky above my head has bruised to a vitriolic purple, and the forest has become nightmarish, a place of wolves and witches, the sort that don’t turn you into frogs but take off your skin and wear it to dance for the devil. And the devil is not far away, incarnate in the body of a tall young man. A scream, a guttural cry pierces through the bushes, and I begin to run fast, manically and without direction. Falling again, my hand reaches out to steady itself on a branch, upon which hangs a robe, midnight blue and swinging like a lynched monk. I feel my own scream rising through my sobbing throat as I recognise the item, icy cold and wet beneath my shaking hand. Another scream, a growl and a fervent rustling makes my tear-rimmed eyes look around to see where I am. I see bodies. Naked, filthy forms litter the forest floor, dead, unmoving, comatose… I can’t tell. All are caked in reddish mud, scabbed, sore and still. Again, a shrill screaming hits me, not my own, and I see movement beneath a tree, not six metres from where I am crouching, stiff with fear. A naked man, bones jutting sharply from his shoulders and spine, leaves spinning around him and dirt covering his otherwise pale body. He is holding a woman down by the throat, beneath him, also naked and cut with thorns, and over and over again he falls on her, devouring and scratching her body, biting her neck with hungry teeth, his long fingers leaving bruises wherever they fall. I stare, terrified, hypnotised, transfixed. This monstrous figure has killed all these people around me, and I cannot pull my line of vision away from the cannibalistic scene before. Please don’t see me. Please don’t see me. I whisper over and over again, too scared to move, sickened to the stomach.
I feel bile rise in my throat, and I cough painfully, involuntarily, trying not to vomit. Silence follows, and six metres from my hiding place the black haired, filthy head turns in my direction, and the black eyes with flames dancing in them fix on my own, wide and weeping. He grins, a humourless smile, baring teeth, and mouths words at me, words I do not understand. The woman beneath him is still, apart from a leg that spasms and twitches. The tall thin man blinks once, purposefully, and the spell is broken. I can move, and I can run. And I do not stop running.
Legs shaking, moving as fast as I can I head towards the main road. Everything has changed. There are no more fairies, no more moving trees or whispers on the wind. The moon is no longer enchanted or mystical, just a vast cold rock in space. The night-birds are not singing secret messages to me, but are just communicating inanely to one another; “Danger here, food there…” I no longer believe in magic, and I promise myself to never tell what I saw.
* * *
The drinks are all finished, the pub is warm and I am dry. My audience of two sit back, breathe out as if they had been holding their breath for the entirity of my tale and look at each other puzzled, thoughtful. I am shaking, exhausted and emotional, and yet also sated in a way I have not felt for as long as I can remember.
“You…. you saw a man rape somebody?” Lucy asks, putting down her notebook.
“I…don’t know. I can’t tell what happened, and what didn’t. My memories are so confused, my imagination was practically limitless until that day. Then I started putting up these walls, blocking out the unreal, the impossible.”
We talk awhile about the loss of innocence, about storytelling, and storytellers. We question again and again what I saw in the woods…whether rape or sex or love or murder, or nothing at all, to my eight year old eyes it was everything I could not understand about life and adulthood frozen in one scene. The relief washing over me is immense, a warm wave of satisfaction purging what has been on the periphery of my memories and dreams for a lifetime. Arthur is falling asleep in his chair, muttering still about chestnut locks and green dresses, with a smile holding no traces of guilt. We talk further for a long time, delving behind meaning, cause and effect, repercussion. Lucy tells me of the time she saw her father shoot a gun in her bedroom, and how it never really happened yet she’d never forgotten it. She stands up, to hold me tightly, as friends do. I hold her back, and as my arms encircle her small frame I do not fear hurting her, I do not fear murder, and I do not fear love.
I dream of trees, and of leaves, and of fungi. I see the brightly spotted Aminata Muscara, scattered around the base of a giant Sequoia, and huge white bracket fungi sprouting from the trunks of new Silver Birches.
I am in London, and yet I am not in London. A fluttering, gentle earthquake had breathed over the city at some point and pulled down buildings; office blocks and garages, factories and flats. I saw a pink house, its walls stained permanently with the smell of brine and crab sandwiches slip into a kindly crevasse as the earth yawned, bored and disgusted with centuries of scarring progress and lost innocence. Great trees had sprung up everywhere, fruit hung heavily from branches and rocks cracked to reveal fountains of clean, pure water. I walked along The Strand, in my dream; now unrecognisable in its lushness and greenery, and see a girl soaked in warm rainwater and laughing. Around her arm is wrapped a gingko branch, which grows and stretches until it wraps around my limbs, my memories and my former lives.
I wake up with warm hands on my back, a tight embrace and no traces of nausea. The scent of leaves still fills my mind, along with ideas and light, and a comfort in change. I reach for a pen and then write, and write, and write.