Thursday, 26 June 2014

Man of the Sea

There was once a merman who came on solid land; became stranded on the sand until his tail turned into two strong legs. Then he rose unsteadily like a newborn calf or foal and hesitantly took his first human steps. The tide tickled his toes and the sun shone on his pearly-white skin as he weaved a trail of silver scales along the shore, pausing occasionally to gaze out to sea instead of gazing in.
Nobody knows how this merman got from a stretch of sand to a house in South-West London, but once there he learned to breathe the smoggy air; he filled his lungs shallowly with its tarry blackness and forced his eyes, although still full of sea, to adjust to study people. He copied their pattern of speech, good and bad habits and table manners until the shadow of his former self merged with his new form.
He lost his blushes and unobtrusiveness and became John F. Peters: a gregarious laid back youth whose only goal was to live as fully as possibly. He studied the Bible and went to church, he discovered the theatre, opera, classical music and comedy, and befriended everybody. He read the daily papers, joined social clubs, and drank in pubs. He flirted with girls and talked with women. His rich resonant voice attracting many, including his future wife.
Before long, he had engaged himself to a girl two years older. A girl who was defiantly high-spirited having been brought up by her elder sisters. A girl who knew loss and so loved voraciously. A girl who made him want to inhale London's smog and forget the briny sea. Where would he be if he hadn't met Francesca? Oh, he would have sacrificed his life like a dying fish for men of the sea need an human anchor.
Francesca steadied him when the storm clouds he held inside threatened to break and rock his calm surface. Like a boat, she kept him afloat; helped him to ignore the call of his kin and prevented him from being dragged back under. Yet even a merman who has chosen land cannot silence the shush-shush of the sea entirely.
An ever-present tide tormented John. He heard its sure rhythm inside his head and felt its waves vibrate within his body. Francesca claimed that if she laid with an ear to his chest she could hear the whoosh of the sea, feel the spray on her face and almost taste the salty air. John, like a shell, transported her right there. It was this strangeness that set him apart that captured her heart, that held her like an oyster holds a pearl.
In all their years as man and wife she never demanded to know his story. She gave herself up to her John, fastened herself to him like a barnacle. They supported each other when the tides came crashing, during times of war, grieving for a child and in sickness. The sea was never far away, placid or enraged. You could hear the storms brewing in John's chest and make haste to brace yourself against the ferocious winds, or hear the sea grow suddenly still and listless. The turmoil died, the danger passed.
And so time was spent with all the usual cares of wife and young family until they came a stage when John, in his old age, felt compelled to leave the streets of London to live beside the tide and walk on water. Wise now to the ways of the human world, he didn't hope to regain his merman's tail nor his capacity to breathe underwater, but knew he had to join his two separate lives together. John would end his days as a man of land and sea.

*For my late grandfather

Thursday, 19 June 2014


In every fairy tale, there are always three sisters; three sisters alike in looks and close in age, but with no shared traits or interests. Three defined by their order of birth, appearance or demeanour:
Eldest, middle, youngest.
Beautiful, good, plain.
Brave, trustworthy, kind-hearted.
But once upon a time there was a girl who was all three. A single girl who formed her own trinity. A trinity that people envied for this girl led a treble life. Envied because people always want what they haven't got and compare themselves to others unfavourably. A clever student wants a fellow student's beauty; a woman wants her friend's married life; a man wants his brother's charm; a boss wants to be just an employee, and an employee wants to be the boss. These same people don't realise that a life lived like this doesn't make a person whole, it makes them incomplete. Like autumn leaves torn from one tree, this girl was scattered in three different directions. Unsettled because the three disagreed and wouldn't unite as one person.
Sisters from the same flesh always fight, but this was to the death. It was cat and dog, tooth and nail. A bitter rivalry of control: one would win, two would fall. A conflict that in time people would call The Warring Trio. But when uncovered like a wooden Russian doll, these three independent personalities were actually quite striking. Erica, the eldest, was argumentative; Heather, in the middle, was a martyr; and Ling, the youngest, tried to give wise counsel. All had fair Irish skin but perceived the world through different eyes. Erica's were a startling green, Heather's were a watery grey, and Ling's were a speckled blue, which when combined with chestnut hair possessed an air of unusual beauty. A beauty that men declared was quite bewitching, but none of these three could see it, nor were they sure they wanted to.
Beauty like this can exist in one body, but a threefold persona cannot. Erica was impulsive and analytical, Heather seemed aloof, but was actually intensely shy, and Ling instilled calm just like a soothing balm massaged on your temples. Each responded to the same situation differently: Erica fought, Heather froze, then fled, and Ling created a tangled web as she tried to veer between the two.
The lives they craved were too diverse. Erica had a robust hunger for life which Heather denied her and Ling just wanted refuge from these two. To outsiders this one girl was a massive contradiction and they were never sure who they would end up talking to. In the mornings, they might meet sensitive, evasive Heather, in the afternoons impetuous Erica, and in the evenings a resigned exhausted Ling. But if the situation was out of control all three would appear during the course of a conversation; a voice with altering pitches and a pair of eyes shifting hue from grey to green to sea blue. Her responses too quick, vague or silent as her manner erratically swerved from Erica's dramatics to Heather's reserved to Ling's placid nature.
How could those three be one? Two would either have to die so one could survive or they would have to split into three forever. The in-fighting drained too much energy, yet complacency made for an unbalanced state. Erica wanted to win, but Heather wanted Ling to be the victor, when all Ling wanted to do was cement the two together.
It was a bloody war where there would be no winners, no losers, no ultimate victor. They wouldn't divide and they couldn't be killed, so a treaty was drawn where the heads of three had, no choice but to agree, to rule the heart of one.

*Inspired by my late grandfather and by Alice Hoffman's The Story Sisters.

Thursday, 12 June 2014


Can you live with secrets held deep inside? Ones you can't possibly speak about?
Carrie did.
She was like a ship filled with stolen treasure, except this treasure had never been gold, it had always been black. As her name implies, she carried these dark truths across the seas, she carried them home.
Home was the pit of her stomach, but even swallowed these secrets didn't go away, they stayed, sat there or rose as a lump in her throat. Some days she was unable to speak or had to call sick into work: she had a migraine, a virus, a fever, there was no way she'd be in this week. She told white lies because she could never bring herself to express or digest these truths.
Carrie had tried not to hide, but with secrets buried inside it was a life half-lived. And it hurt to contain herself for unspoken truths erode like acid. An acid that turned to rain or fire, but each time she tried to confide her clumsy attempts were swept aside or she was treated like a fragile vessel. A ship painted black with tattered sails; a patched-up wreck considered unseaworthy. 
She refused to play the victim here. She was strong for hadn't she carried these truths deep inside and not let on. Shouldered this burden alone so others wouldn't feel they were to blame and hid the shame she felt. It was nobody's fault. Things happen which change you and make you lose a part of you that can never again be found.
At first, Carrie had searched for the part she'd lost on a warm, spring day, but it had been taken away and that was that. It made her who she was and yet when she felt compelled to explain, the light always disappeared out of the chosen one's eyes and was replaced by fear or pity. In those instants Carrie knew she was on her own in this big city.
Exiled from leading a whole life because half of her was alive and half was as good as dead. Half of her was desperate to set sail on China seas, but the controlling half kept her anchored. She appeared safely moored, but inside was all at sea.
Would she ever break free from her blackened half? Escape the past she had carefully hid?
In telling it, could it affect somebody else's future? Would she lose more people she'd mistakenly chosen to open up to and had wanted to trust?
In choosing not to tell, was she hurting not only herself, but others? Shutting them out and keeping her distance. Using her body to say stay away from me. I'll let you know the white half, but not the half stained black.
Carrie knew just how to live to protect herself. She was fully aware of her own limits. But people, without knowing her reasons why, tried to step over these lines too quickly. Assumed what they knew was all of her and missed the distress signals. Failed to give her adequate time to prepare myself, to decide if she could cope or if this was what she wanted. From those kind of people she drifted away, or pushed them if she had to.
On the rare times she'd let someone into the darker side it was worse. Almost the exact opposite. And she would wish she hadn't told them. Her shell hadn't been smashed, she wasn't looking for their sympathy or, after so many years, their protection, but someone who she could trust and would know her completely.
Nobody came; instead her pains had made her vessel a bit more weathered and battered. She concluded that to be truly at peace she had to sail these black seas on her own.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

A Woman's Act - A Common Tragedy

I've known men and women who could have changed the course of my life, saved me if I'd let them. But I always turned my back before relations got too deep or they grew tired of me, before they realised that what they're seen of me was just an act. An act of conformity, to not be myself but to be what was expected. An act which confused myself and fooled these people.
This act I could sustain until the inner turmoil I felt transmitted its fear to the outside and dilated my opaque eyes, forcing my dull grey eyes like an overcast sky to widen. Even in fear my eyes never blaze or sparkle, although in my dreams they're glassy bluish opals; iridescent with light and good humour as if they were waves reflecting the sun or the flickering flames from a winter's fire.
I never set out to be a performer, to convincingly prove I was like everyone else, but I found once I was on stage it was too uncomfortable being my honest self. Why be me when I could be, for short stints, a conjurer? Easily create the illusions people projected onto me. Be polite, studious and a good time gal. Please parents, teachers, employers, lovers and peers, and deliberately hide the key to the real me, to this person who I didn't dare be. A person who didn't choose to flee, but to be concealed within this same female body.
A quiet and gentle soul trapped inside will not stay passive forever. Frustrated, it will attempt to find any way out. Repeatedly flutter its wings and bump into windows and glass doors like a shut-in moth or sparrow.
Is that what being a woman is about? Is that what being human amounts to?
Does a part of you always observe when you are supposedly the principle player?
As a woman, and essentially a human, I've found this to be true. My soul has remained unmoved by the scenes which involve me; it has consciously unattached its strings from the puppet. The acted scenes are portrayed by this female that looks a little like me but she feels too deeply. She wrings her hands in the depths of despair or if stressed has murderous thoughts. In times of joy, she beams kind thoughts, but when depressed she wallows in self-pity. The glass which was a minute ago full is suddenly empty.
In these moments her caged soul is stirred. Willed into action. “You stupid fool!” It hisses, “This is no way to conduct your life. Let go, give it up, drop out.” Unlike what you're told, trapped souls do not have a soothing voice. Their gentleness gets stripped away with each passing month, in the accumulation of years. And when you see a soul who's just been released, it's not pretty.
Mine, when it's on parole, is an untamed force. With the multiple costumes ripped off, it's as wild as a Tasmanian Devil. Filled with rage that the 'I' almost lost itself completely so it speaks in short, sharp barks, “Why did you not listen? Live authentically! But no, you kept me locked away and wasted precious time! Time! Time!” Sometimes it's incomprehensible, especially when there's been yet more detours.
By all means act, but don't act so good that it's not you anymore!” “Wake up!” It screams, “Before I snuff out my own candle!”
When a soul screams, as it does in many tragedies, what should you do? Placate it, then wind the bindings tighter? Resume the life you don't like or want? Try to re-attract the job offers you turned down and the men and women who perhaps would have made life sweeter?
Or should you continue to submit to imposed conditions only to be feel defeated? Wrestle with failure because despite your best efforts you can't be like other people?
Each time I've tried to fall in with the world-mob, my tired soul cries out in protest, and its cries are getting distressingly louder.
A soul profoundly lost is not just this woman's act, it's a common tragedy.