Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Dancing Eyes

Trembling, Grace Eye took up her opening stance and waited for the heavy burgundy velvet curtains to lift.
She always got like this when she had to start an act and had to hold a near-impossible position. Her belly flip-flopped as she desperately tried to maintain her peculiar, twisted ballet-like curtsey centre-stage. Her head was anchored to her left, chin dropped to her chest, and her legs were criss-crossed with one foot on bent tip-toe a step behind the other; both knees were splayed and her arms held out the corners of her can-can-style ruffled black skirt in a Cheshire cat smile. The coloured nets peeped from underneath and looked like sweet-stained teeth after too many lollipops. Her partner and elder sister, Angela Eye, who was dressed similarly, but in a mottled brown and without the hoop of scratchy, rustling rainbow-coloured petticoats, watched from the wings.
Grace was always the male: the one who preened and puffed up in a riot of colour in a bid to impress a duller potential mate. Sometimes she tired of giving chase across the hall, gym floor, school stage, or wherever they played and would have liked to have played the hen, but Angela flatly refused to be the primping, more self-assured male. The hen had more appeal because although she appeared docile, she was actually in charge, and that's how it was with them.
Angela took the bookings, organised everything and controlled the purse strings, which meant Grace extended her stage role into hen-pecked husband: she did as she was told by her elder sister. And now, thanks to Angela, here they were at the Polka Dot Theatre, on the last leg of their educational tour.
The music struck up, and as the curtains pushed back, the spotlight hit her. Grace twitched her foot to a subtle point, sweeping the floor in a backwards-forwards motion in time to the beat, and began to swish her layers of skirt as the music built. She moved her neck and head in a jutting motion and proudly thrust her chest out as she strutted with pointed feet across the floor. The music turned gentler so that Angela could enter and begin her elegant solo. She pecked the ground here, scratched the ground there, and deliberately shown disinterest. Grace watched from the cover of stage props, poking her head out from behind MDF rocks and foliage, shaking her midnight-blue sheathed shoulders and swaying the plume on her head. This part always made the children laugh because of her absurd behaviour, and there were stifled giggles as she made flirting 'notice me' gestures and advanced towards her elder sister, the hen.
Angela cocked her head and with her natural beady eyes studied her younger sister in the guise of mate. She wasn't being precise enough with the positioning of her arms or feet; she'd have to have a firm word with her after, but for now the performance must continue. She retreated, then was pulled towards her pursuer, now in the final stages of the mating ritual.
Grace's face was flushed from countless pirouettes around her cornered sister, which to the attentive audience had made her seem like a spinning top of hungry flames. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, then began to slow as she regained a steadier pace; one last twirl and then a flourishing forward bend to pin Angela down. Got her now! And that boys and girls is how some male birds woo a female mate.
A quick double bow to the chorus of claps, followed by a short question and answer, and then thankfully the teachers would take over. At this point Angela and Grace would look at each other with a mixture of triumph and horror plastered on their expressions. Here they were, the Eye sisters, a rousing, educational success, whose performances were applauded only as dancing birds!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Turbulent Seas, Safe Passage

On my list of things to do before I die is stay in a light-keeper’s cottage. I don't know exactly why that immense, single eye belonging to a lighthouse draws me. Its blinding light reassuringly roaming throughout the night, lighting a pathway from land over sea. An luminous beam in the oily black guiding lost ships on a roiling sea.
That one beacon of light is said to be visible for 20-30 nautical miles, which means even a pinpoint of winking yellow saved many a sailor's life or led to certain death if that point of light was instead a wrecker's lantern. An unimpeded gleam brought ships too close to the shore, smashing them into the edges of cliffs. Then the wreckers, amidst the groans and dying wails, could claim their bounty.
Some of my ancestors, it is said, were involved in smuggling; triumphant with the spoils from crafty deals and possibly led astray ships. Relatives, I imagine, who were blessed with the-gift-of-the-gab and an unquenchable thirst for rum. The thrill of getting their hands on contraband charged through their dilated veins, but one had the misfortune of this blood forming a visible red wine stain. He wasn't wounded by a dagger or a pistol shot, but became discoloured through presumingly spilling the blood of others, and marked men then were punished accordingly: hung at the magistrate's pleasure.
The great-great-aunt, whom discovered this, felt herself to be tainted and so immediately halted her previous intrepid dig into that murky past. Those criminal skeletons, if indeed they did exist, should remain unspoken of, not let out again to roam the Dorset coastline. And nobody else has ever dare verify if there's any truth behind this myth; it's just continued to be handed down through the generations.
Was the hanged innocent? Was it a miscarriage of justice? Innocent, but still proved guilty. Innocent of manslaughter or murder possibly, but definitely not of smuggling. That branch of my family were, (and still are), born charmers, entertainers, and salesmen, and I very much doubt they would have wanted to miss out on the intrigue, the skulduggery in those heady times of coastal thieving.
And actually I kind of like it. For me, now years ahead, this history has been romanticised; its sinister and shameful hint has softened and made it positively desirable, like the thought of being kidnapped by a highwayman or tied to a ship's mast by pirates. If you travel your ancestors' roads backwards, eventually it becomes mere fantasy, until the consequences of their actions possess dream-like qualities. It's hard to put myself in their real world without injecting my own illusions: rugged landscapes, stormy seas, and untrodden hamlets; moonless nights, moist air, the clip-clop of hoofs and loaded wagons. I imagine voices whispering plans and breaking out in peals of drunken laughter.
The lighthouse then, for me more appropriately, symbolises a watchtower: a beacon of parenting, abetting men on land and sea. A majestic tower metering out its own unusual form of justice, like a parent who sees too late the blind spots, the obstacles, the pitfalls in their offspring, since they chose instead to cut themselves off from the mainland or left the tower completely unmanned. They can't right or understand the wrongs of their children, but that presiding sweeping beam, that throwaway ray of light is somehow atoning. It unsettles those on dry land, but for all those adrift on turbulent seas illuminates a safe passage.

Thursday, 16 October 2014


There's a painting on my bedroom wall, which I can often be found staring at, because although it's not of a place I've been to, it reminds me of a view I stood before in 2008. I have no photographs of that poignant place or that vulnerable time. Now I think back, I may have destroyed them....Deleted some, if not most, of them; critical of my photographic efforts, (or obvious lack of them), to capture my present scenery.
The irony is I'm a photographer's daughter. My father is a master of documenting history and those otherwise forgettable moments, (he never goes anywhere without a camera or a dog, or both), whereas I prefer to keep my images preserved in memory. Bottled tadpoles, swimming in gin and lined up in rows on musty shelves. The camera has always been an extension of him, but it pulls me away from experiencing the here and now; catapults my self-awareness back, even if I'm not in the shot, and more so if I have to take it.
In those instances when I want to remember, when I want to make a memorable mental picture, I use my sensory receptors like a butterfly net to catch it and screw it tight in a jam jar. Imprisoned, it, at first, flutters horribly, beating its wings against the glassed walls, until exhausted it sinks to the floor and settles, so that by the time it's doused in watered-down gin, it's quite tranquil.
Images, unlike butterflies, captured and contained in this way don't die or drown. They regress to a chrysalis and await their developing moment: their repeated re-release, where they project their flickering shadows around the brain's chambers and generate, in their person, reminiscence or nostalgia. Their repetitive finger puppet shows fills in the interludes, the fragments of inactive time.
This form of recall, for me, can often be overwhelming; saturated in a sensation that no photograph can return me to. I can walk the inside of a house from memory, smell and taste food, transport myself instantly to that beach or garden. There doesn't have to be a trigger, it's just there.
The camera, on the other hand, has not always been kind to this photographer's daughter, and neither sometimes has the photographer. “Stand there!...Smile!...Turn this way!...One more!...Move over!” Stiffened poses, forced smiles...until a very human, hunched and grimacing splodge, particularly during those awkward teenage years, imprints itself in front of a glorious background. But despite my own botched attempts to be in or take a picture, I do see the artistry in photography. I marvel at what that precious eye in a single blink can capture. What must it feel like to possess that! I curse my short-sight; blame it for my blurred focus and grainy vision.
No, I do not possess that kind of skill, despite my admiration. Words are my pictures, yet often it's pictures that inspire them. Go figure! And yes, memories, as with photographs, can be deceiving. There's a touch of fabrication. Memories can be made idyllic and photos can be airbrushed. Yet when I stand before the Shore with Red House, the floodgates open, even though I know it's of the artist's summer house in Aasgaardstrand, Norway, and not of Sausalito in California, that's where it takes me.
I'm standing on the harbour side-walk looking towards the jetty; in front of me the sea meets sky and my feet meet pastel-tinted rock formations. The late afternoon's colouring is still relatively light and warm. I dawdle, taking time on my own, away from my other day-coach-trippers, and consider how this setting is too perfect. The hillside combines so neatly with the shoreline, while the air is refreshing, and yet placid. A single, white, lone female records a potent memory of this picturesque San Francisco Bay Area city.
But what does this prove? That my memory is both infallible and very guilty of association.