Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice. It ought not to be too ripe - in fact there should be a definite remainder of green along the stalk, and if there isn’t, forget about it. Though admittedly that is easier said than done. Apples can be forgotten about, but not bananas, not really. They don’t in fact take at all well to being forgotten about. They wizen and stink of putrid and go almost black.
Oatcakes along with it can be nice, the rough sort. The rough sort of oatcake goes especially well with a banana by the way - by the way, the banana might be chilled slightly. This can occur in the fridge overnight of course, depending on how prescient and steadfast one is about one’s morning victuals, or, it might be, and this in fact is much more preferable, there’s a nice cool windowsill where a bowl especially for fruit can always be placed.
A splendid deep wide sill with no wooden overlay, just the plastered stone, nice and chilly: the perfect place for a bowl. Even a few actually, a few bowls in fact. The sill’s that big it can accommodate three sizeable bowls very well without appearing the least bit encumbered. It’s quite pleasant, then, to unpack the pannier bags and arrange everything intently in the bowls upon the sill. Aubergine, squash, asparagus and small vine tomatoes look terribly swish together and it’s no surprise at all that anyone would experience a sudden urge at any time during the day to sit down at once and attempt with a palette and brush to convey the exotic patina of such an irrepressible gathering of illustrious vegetables, there on the nice cool windowsill.
Pears don’t mix well. Pears should always be small and organised nose to tail in a bowl of their very own and perhaps very occasionally introduced to a stem of the freshest redcurrants, which ought not to be hoisted like a mantle across the freckled belly of the topmost pear, but strewn a little further down so that some of the scarlet berries loll and bask between the slowly shifting gaps.
Bananas and oatcakes are by the way a very satisfactory substitute for those mornings when the time for porridge has quite suddenly passed. If a neighbour has been overheard or the towels folded the day’s too far in and porridge, at this point, will feel vertical and oppressive, like a gloomy repast from the underworld. As such, in all likelihood, a submerged stump of resentment will begin to perk up right at the first mouthful and will very likely preside dumbly over the entire day. Until, finally, at around four o’clock, it becomes unfairly but inevitably linked to someone close by, to a particular facet of their behaviour in fact, a perpetually irksome facet that can be readily isolated and enlarged and thereupon pinpointed as the prime cause of this most foreboding sense of resentment, which has been on the rise, inexplicably, all day, since that first mouthful of porridge.
Some sort of black jam in the middle of porridge is very nice, very striking in fact. And then a few flaked almonds. Be careful though, be very careful with flaked almonds; they are not at all suitable for morose or fainthearted types and shouldn’t be flung about like confetti because almonds are not in the least like confetti. On the contrary, flaked almonds ought not to touch one another and should be organised in simple patterns, as on the side of a pavlova, and then they are quite pretty and perfectly innocuous. But shake out a palmful of flaked almonds and you’ll see they closely resemble fingernails that have come away from a hand which has just seen the light of day.
Black jam and blanched fingernails, slowly sinking into the oozing burgoo! Lately, in the mornings, Ravel, played several times over, has been a very nice accompaniment indeed. And this, for now, is how, with minor variations, the day begins.
My own nails are doing very well as a matter of fact, indeed, I’m not sure they have ever done better. If you must know I painted them in the kitchen last Wednesday after lunch, and the shade I painted them right there in the kitchen is called Highland Mist. Which is a very good name, a very apt name, as it turns out. Because, you see, the natural colour of my nail, both the white part and the pink part, is still just about visible beneath the polish, it hasn’t been completely obscured. And as time passes the polish doesn’t chip away as such, it just sort of thins out around the edges, so now, as well as being able to see the white part and the pink part, the soot beneath the tips is also clearly visible. There, through the mist, which is of course the colour of heather, I can see coal dust beneath my fingernails. When the nails aren’t painted at all this dirt has no other effect besides looking grubby and unkempt, but under the thinning sheen of Highland Mist something further occurs to me when I consider my hands. They look like the hands of someone very charming and refined who has had to dig themselves up out of some dank and wretched spot they really shouldn’t have fallen into. And that amuses me, that really amuses me.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be entirely unwarranted to suggest that I might, overall, have the appearance and occasionally emanate the demeanour of someone who grows things. That’s to say, I might, from time to time, be considered earthy in its most narrow application. However, truth is, I have propagated very little and possess only a polite curiosity for horticultural endeavours. It’s quite true that bright green parsley grows out of a pot near my door but I did not grow it from seed, not at all - I simply bought it already sprouted from a nearby supermarket, turned the plant out its plastic carton and shoved its compacted network of roots and soil here, into the pot next to my door.
Prior to that, some years ago, when I lived near the canal, I could plainly see from my bedroom window a most idyllic piece of land, encircled by the gardens of houses in back-to-back streets which thereby rendered it landlocked and enticing. It seemed impossible to get to the garden yet when I tore after a cat early one day he led me directly to it, whereupon he skedaddled sharpish and left me a tortured wren to cradle and fold. The wren had sung above my head for many weeks in the sunshine while I wrote letters in the morning and so it was only natural for me to cry out when I found it maimed and silent on the moss beneath the privet hedge. I was so upset I wanted to take that cat to a hot pan and sear its foul backside in an explosion of oil. I’ll make you hiss you little shit. Never mind. I was in the garden that nobody owned or imposed upon and now that I had come here once I could come here again, surely. That’s how it worked when I was a child anyhow, and I don’t suppose these matters change a great deal.
I made sly enquiries just as a child does but unfortunately in contrast to a child I was listened to rather too attentively and so I quickly devised a wholesome reason for wishing to know who owned the land and whether I might visit it from time to time. It would be a very excellent place to grow things I’m sure I said and despite having never demonstrated any enthusiasm for gardening before and despite my statement of interest being really rather vague my proposition was taken seriously and since it turned out the land was in fact owned by the Catholic Church I was directed to the large house on the corner where the parish priest himself resided. This development was not something I had foreseen, truth be told I’d had no purposeful intentions. I think I just fancied the idea of having a secluded place to stand about in now and then, a secret garden if you like. And I should never have said a word about it because as usual the minute I did it all became quite misshapen and not what I had in mind at all, and yet there was something so alien and absurd about how it was all progressing that I couldn’t help but go right along with it.
He was pleasantly perfunctory and did not mention anything at all about God, though he did enunciate the word bounty rather pointedly, but I didn’t flinch. Where do you live, he said. Over in that house there, I said, and pointed through the window at a house across the road. He didn’t look in the direction of my finger, it was quite sufficient for him that I could stand where I was and at the same time point to my house, and so it was settled. I do not remember the interior of the priest’s house. I think the wallpaper in the hallway might have been sage green. It could be the case that I went in no further than the hallway. Perhaps I just stood at the door on the street looking in at the hallway. And then down at the plastic step. Yes, I believe he was wearing trainers in fact.
Clearing a decent area of ground and making it ready for planting potatoes was hard and monotonous work added to which early spring tends to be rather humid here and indeed it was so that particular year. I do not know fully what drove me to deracinate thick and fuzzy weeds like that every day in the premature heat. I often stopped and stood quite still, wondering what hopes my mind had just then been taken up with, but I could seldom recall. However, in spite of my own bemusement, for the first time in my adult life other people knew exactly what I was doing. It was as plain as day to them. I’d come back with the tools and lean them against the house wall and go inside to wash my hands and it would be quite clear to anyone who saw me what I had been doing that day. I believe during that period people were, notwithstanding two or three specific incidents, conspicuously more agreeable towards me.
As with most mensurable areas of life I demonstrated no ambition whatsoever as a grower and selected to cultivate low-maintenance crops only. Potatoes, spinach, and broad beans. That was it. That was enough. People told me what a cinch it was to grow courgettes, squash, marrow, carrots, but nothing had changed really - I hadn’t suddenly become a gardener, and I resented being spoken to as though I had. The plants were coming on quite nicely when I received an invitation to speak at a very eminent university across the water upon a subject I was very interested in indeed - though not necessarily in a meritorious way. That’s to say my interest was far too personal and not strictly academic and so my methodology came across as nostalgic and my perspective rather naive since I ignored the usual critical frameworks which were anyhow quite incomprehensible to me and instead pilfered haphazardly from the entire history of Western literature in order to strengthen my argument, which I cannot now recall. It had something to do with love. About the essential brutality of love. About those adventitious souls who deliberately seek out love as a prime agent of total self-immolation. Yes, that’s right. It attempted to show that in the whole history of literature love is quite routinely depicted as an engulfing process of ecstatic suffering which finally, mercifully, obliterates us and delivers us to oblivion. Dismembered and packed off. Something like that. Something along those lines. I am mad about you. I am going out of my mind. My soul burns for you. I am inflamed. There is nothing now, nothing except you. Gone, quite gone. That kind of thing. I don’t think it went down very well.
In fact I think it was considered rather unsophisticated and I remember feeling, despite my new floral chemise, suddenly sullen and practically Gothic. Actually, now that I come to think of it, I think the gist of my argument was simply that love is indeed a vicious and divine disintegration of selfhood and that artistic representations of it as such aren’t at all uncommon or outlandish and have nothing whatsoever to do with endeavouring to shock an audience. There was an awful lot of violence you see in the work of the playwright the conference was reputedly reassessing and by and large that violence had hitherto been widely interpreted as nothing more than a dramatic strategy designed to shock, which I could never quite accept because how on earth is there anything shocking about violence? Anyway, I must confess, in order to establish a perennial language of love that testified to the abominable emancipation that is brought on by want of another I did in fact reference not only Sappho, Seneca, Novalis, Roland Barthes, Denis de Rougemont and Dutch historian Johan Huizinga I also included lyrics by PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, with the somewhat misplaced intention of demonstrating that it just never stops. That the desire to come apart irrevocably will always be as strong, if not stronger, than the drive to establish oneself. As deep as ink and black, black as the deepest sea.
Afterwards, when people were milling about and nodding in little groups, and I wasn’t sure which of the several exits to make immediate use of, one of the academic big guns approached me and commented upon my paper. This all happened several years ago by the way - and I’m not absolutely sure why I’m recounting it here since it hardly situates me in a very flattering light - anyway, I don’t recall exactly what he said to me, but it was exceedingly condescending and I very very clearly remember thinking why don’t you fall over. Why don’t you become tangled in some cables near the screen at the front on your way out and fall over and why don’t you smack your head off a very sharp corner of the desk where earlier I sat and delivered my oh so charming missive and cut your head open ever so slightly so that a little bit of blood drops out. Just a little trickle of blood so that you don’t look injured, only stupid and a bit iffy. Thank you very much, I said. And suddenly my back went cold so I deduced that the outside must after all be right there behind me; I turned around and walked towards it and very soon the ground did in fact change. It was wet and the car park was almost empty and smelt exclusively of dishcloths.
I may as well mention that I was staying with a girl I’d met in London the previous year. She was a very gifted academic and her ability to formulate a rousing opinion in response to something that had just happened or had just been said never ceased to impress and baffle me. How anyone could sally forth thoughts that were unfailingly well-formed and de rigueur, so soon and in any situation, was quite beyond me. She lived in a terrace house with several other postgraduate students, one of whom was a bloke as a matter of fact, and later, when my friend had gone to bed, he came into the sitting room where I sat with a large book flopped in my lap and put a hot water bottle underneath my toes. We didn’t kiss then; we kissed later, a few weeks later. I flew home first and then we wrote to each other and then we really needed to see each other. So I went back, and then we kissed.
None of that has anything to do with now by the way. Despite how promising I seem to have made the encounter with the man and the hot water bottle sound it was in fact an ill-starred liaison and, perhaps less surprisingly, the inviability of my academic career eventually acquired a palpability of such insidious force that one day I came out of a shop unwrapping a pack of cigarettes and went nowhere for approximately half an hour. My wherewithal had quite dried up you see, I’d snubbed it for so long it had completely dried up and so I had come to a standstill, not knowing at all whether to turn left or go right. And the chief reason why I moved after approximately half an hour is because people continually approached me to enquire if the bus had already come and gone. I don’t know, I said. I don’t know, I said again. I don’t know. And then it was as though they backed away and vanished completely and I was left standing absolutely and purposelessly alone - I don’t think I’ve experienced a sense of fundamental redundancy to that extent since. The hopelessness of everything I was trying to occupy myself with was at last glaringly crystal clear.
But the potato plants were still growing! I went over to see my upbeat boyfriend many times and the potatoes and spinach and broad beans didn’t mind one bit and sometimes while I was away I would lie in bed next to him unable to sleep and think of the potatoes and spinach and broad beans out there in the dark and I’d splay my fingers towards the ceiling and feel such yearning! I could recall the soil very well, how dark it was and the smell of it - as if it had never before been opened up, and the canal was nearby, and the moon was always overhead, and spiders would get off their webs for a bit and tentatively come into contact with the still edges of things. We didn’t get along very well but this had no bearing whatsoever on our sexual rapport which was impervious and persuasive and made every other dwindling aspect of our relationship quite irrelevant for some time. We wrote each other hundreds of lustful emails, and by that I mean graphic and obscene. It was wonderful. I’d never done that before, I’d never written anything salacious before, it was completely new to me and I must say I got the hang of it really very quickly. I wish I’d kept them, I wish I hadn’t become quite so unhinged when finally we acknowledged that eighteen months was pretty well as much as we could expect from a relationship based almost entirely upon avid fornication, and thereupon rashly expunged our complete correspondence, which, by then, amounted to almost two thousand emails. I won’t be able to write emails like that again you see - that’s to say I won’t be able to write emails like that for the first time again. And that really was what made them so exciting - using language in a way I’d not used it before, to transcribe such an intimate area of my being that I’d never before attempted to linguistically lay bare. It was very nice I must say to every now and then take a break from cobbling together yet another overwrought academic abstract on more or less the same theme in order to set down, so precisely, how and where I’d like my brains to be fucked right out.
It wasn’t all one way of course. He came to see me, and in fact he ate some of the vegetables I’d grown and he said they were lovely, which they were. We ate oranges too, quite often - in fact eating Spanish oranges became a bit of a thing. They are very nice to eat, oranges, when you’ve been having sex for ages. They cut through the fug and smell very organised, and so a sort of structure resumes and then it is perfectly possible to make a plan, such as going out somewhere nice for dinner.
Still, as I’ve said, none of this has anything to do with now whatsoever. I don’t know what it has to do with and as a matter of fact I’m not sure what now is about either. I can say that I’m waiting for the delivery of two Japanese tapestries I bought in France earlier this year, but even that is off-the-mark and could very well proffer a misleading impression of me, a rather grand impression perhaps, as if I were supremely but subtly well-off and presided over quite the sequestered emporium of exotic whatnots and recherché objets d’art. Castles in the clouds I’m afraid, truth is, they can hardly be thought of as tapestries at all - they aren’t much more than two pieces of old black cloth in two separate frames with some rose-gold flecks here and there, amounting, in one, to a pair of hands, and to a rather forlorn profile in the other. From what I remember of them it seems there had originally been many more stitches and thus a more complete and detailed image but for a reason I cannot at all decipher most of the stitches have been removed. Yet the trace of where they once were is discernible with some effort, as of course are the very small holes, where silken thread, presumably, moved deftly in and out of the cloth. I should think that in here especially they will only ever look like two framed fragments of black cloth. That’s if they ever arrive of course - the man bringing them over was due at seven o’clock and it is now gone half past.
After that I lived in a shared house with my very own bathroom. Not an en suite by the way. I don’t see what all the fuss is about where en suites are concerned. In my opinion they’re nearly always rather dreary, and as a rule I think it’s much nicer to leave a room entirely before entering another. Added to which I couldn’t stand being naked in my bedroom, even the thought of being naked in sight of my bedroom was quite awful, yet at the same time I couldn’t stand being dressed either - dressing myself made me cringe, it felt pathetic and irrelevant, and of course I never stopped knowing that the fingers pushing the buttons up through the holes would be the same fingers that would later push them back out again. Increasingly, very long baths down the hall became my only respite - I’m really not sure what would have happened at all had the two rooms been adjoined. In the end I spent too long in there. Hours and hours in fact. I didn’t know where else to go you see. I’d sit at my desk from time to time, but that was all over with. That’s right, I’d thrown in the towel at last. It hadn’t worked out. I stopped doing what I wasn’t really doing and got a job in a bicycle repair shop which turned out to be quite fortuitous because very soon after I began working there I urgently needed a new bike. I had a bike but I needed a new one, a different one, one with gears, one that could go up hills, one that could go up hills and carry shopping, one that felt sturdy and safe at night along roads where there is no light, one that could go up hills.
I saw it first through the hedgerow. It was summer and the hedgerow was very thick and actually almost impossible to see through but if you parted the leaves carefully, just a little bit, you could see all the way through - but you had to be careful, because of the bright flowers that extended, like dancers on tiptoes, everywhere among the hedgerow’s branches. That can’t be it, I said to my friend. Do you think that’s it? I stepped back and stood in the road and looked downhill then uphill. It must be it, I said. There’s nothing else. It’s perfect, she said. I can’t believe it, I said. Then we both peered through the hedge silently and I knew that of course this was it.
Placemats aren’t really my thing to be perfectly honest but it looks as if I’m going to have to buy some to put beneath the bowls on the windowsill. Evidently the stone there has become rather too cold and possibly a bit damp because the other day an orange went off very quickly and I see today that the aubergine has developed some moist fluff in the shape and hue of an oyster. I ought to go down to the compost bin, it seems I have been putting it off. I think I’ve lost interest in it actually, it’s got very boring. Someone told me the other day that they had worms escaping from theirs, which I thought sounded quite momentous. I like worms and have no problem picking them up, which is unusual and thus gives me a clear advantage in certain situations because it means I can fling them at people if I feel like it and that never fails to cheer me up. There’s a blue plastic bowl in the kitchen on the worktop where I collect scraps and skins and teabags and rinds and stalks and weeping leaves and shells etc for the compost bin and the idea was to use a smallish bowl so that I would empty it often, daily in fact, but I don’t do that. I don’t do that and it piles up, it all piles up and sometimes, though this happens rarely, I tip it all into a bigger bowl and just carry on.
Carry on with what? Well, for your information, there are always things that must be done - this, for one thing, after the fire has been lit of course. The birds need feeding at least once a day this time of year. And after a while I make the bed. I go up the steps and take a look in the post box. I like a coffee first thing. Sometimes I have a banana along with it. Sometimes that’s all I need. And the blue bowl gets emptied, or not, into the compost bin. And the enamel bucket taken without fail to the side of the cottage and filled up with coal again and again. And because there is no step everything gets in here so there is never a time when the floor couldn’t do with a good sweep. And of course there is always something to fold.
I texted the man, whose estranged wife is a very dear friend of mine, and asked him if he’d fallen asleep - I really couldn’t think what else might have happened to him. He texted back right away to say he was en route. He brought a bag of wood with him that had come from trees in his own garden and a bottle of wine that came from the country where his estranged wife - my dear friend - now lives. It was a wine I was familiar with and it was jarring, sort of, to drink it here, at this time, without her. The Japanese frames and their pared back interiors were in a large cotton bag which he leant against the ottoman beneath the mirror. I did not go near the bag and perhaps he supposed I had no real interest in the contents but I didn’t want to look at the pieces in front of him, I wanted to be alone, because in that way I wouldn’t have to come up with something to say about them. Quite often, in circumstances such as these, when an impression is proffered for the benefit of the person looming nearby, whatever is said is rarely anything at all evocative and the moment it is said something intrinsic is circumvented and cannot be recaptured later on. Anyhow, I didn’t mind waiting - waiting was a pleasure in fact. Anticipation, when it occurs, often makes me animated and expansive, as if I am perhaps reviving and honing my senses in preparation for the awaited object: yes indeed, the world is a scintillant and fascinating place when a half-remembered mystery leans within reach. He stayed for an hour and we talked about the three sons and renting apartments abroad and the recent success of a mutual friend and now and then he expressed deliberately autocratic views in order to rile me but in fact he was wasting his time because I could not be offended - on the contrary, I found a great deal to be amused by, and it might be that my irreverent attitude threw him; some people would much rather make you cross it seems. We may have mentioned Christmas, I do not recall. Even after he left I did not go to the bag directly - I took his emptied glass and the wine cooler out to the kitchen, I arranged the wood he’d kindly given me, I hung up a coat - the wine you see had gone gallivanting through my blood and I didn’t want to come at the pictures with a giddy head full of fanciful expectation. So I waited a while longer, until a more subdued atmosphere was restored, and then I went to the bag and lifted out the heavy frames; focused and unfazed - like a connoisseur.
There are six and a half small flowers. Their petals are small and heart-shaped. Scattered about them are individual petals, these are not heart-shaped and they are slightly darker, as if falling further away. A pair of hands reaches up to the flowers, just the outline of a pair of hands and the edge of one sleeve of a kimono. There is a face, turned, not looking up towards the hands, not at all concerned with the hands’ activity: the forehead, the heavy eyelids, the pursed lips, and an earring. All of this occurs in just one small diagonal area of the cloth, the rest is in blackness. And it is the same face in the second frame, where there are even fewer stitches. And while I look at this downcast profile and the few vertical lines which denote, again, the fabric of a heavy kimono, I realise I was quite wrong. Nothing had been undone; there hasn’t ever been more than this. What I saw, what I can still see when I stand close enough, was the idea - the plan - of course! Whoever created these did not remove stitches with the intention, as I had initially suspected, of beginning again; they’d simply stopped what they were doing. They did not feel obliged to complete the plan and so they did not complete the plan. Just this, just these few details showed enough. And they must have really felt that and been quite satisfied with it, because why else would they have put these two dark fragments into such beautiful frames?
I’ve put them on the mantelpiece - you could say they’ve been given pride of place. They are close to one another but not exactly side by side: they are related, but they aren’t a pair. Some people don’t notice them at all and other people are instantly intrigued by them, in which case I go into the kitchen so they have every opportunity to become utterly absorbed without feeling obliged to talk about it, which would spoil everything. Yes, I could stand in the kitchen maybe and keep an eye on things from there and perhaps one day my heart by then will be right up in the roof of my mouth as I feel someone becoming more and more taken in until finally they call out to me, excited and amazed, and say, ‘Look at that - she’s been holding a parasol all along!’
There were so many flowers already in bloom when I moved in: wisteria, fuchsia, roses, golden chain, and many other kinds of flowering trees and shrubs I do not know the names of - many of them wild - and all in great abundance. The sun shone most days so naturally I spent most days out the front there, padding in and out all day long, and the air was absolutely buzzing with so many different species of bee and wasp, butterfly, dragonfly, and birds, so many birds, and all of them so busy. Everything: every plant, every flower, every bird, every insect, just getting on with it. In the mornings I flitted about my cottage, taking crockery out of the plate rack and organising it into jaunty stacks along the window ledge, slicing peaches and chopping hazelnuts, folding back the quilt and smoothing down the sheet, watering plants, cleaning mirrors, sweeping floors, polishing glasses, folding clothes, wiping casements, slicing tomatoes, chopping spring onions. And then, after lunch, I’d take a blanket up to the top garden and I’d lie down under the trees in the top garden and listen to things.
I would listen to a small beetle skirting the hairline across my forehead. I would listen to a spider coming through the grass towards the blanket. I’d listen to a squabbling pair of blue tits see-sawing behind me. I’d listen to the woodpigeon’s wings whack through the middle branches of an ivy-clad beech tree and the starlings on the wires overhead, and the seagulls and swifts much higher still. And each sound was a rung that took me further upwards, and in this way it was possible for me to get up really high, to climb up past the clouds, towards a bird-like exuberance, where there is nothing at all but continuous light and acres of blue. Later on, towards evening, as it got cooler, I would snuggle into myself a little more and listen less and less so that, very slowly, I returned to dusk and earth. And then I’d soon begin to feel very hungry indeed so I’d sling the blanket across one shoulder and head back up to the cottage to start dinner. Which would frequently involve broad beans, lemons, perhaps some spinach, and plenty of chopped walnuts and white cheese.
Morning, noon and night, it seems.
How I love to chop.
Within these deep stone walls the sound of a large knife pounding against the chopping board is often mellow and euphonious; like a lulling chant it charms and placates me. Other times, late evening especially, the blade’s keen reverberation is more rugged and insistent and I have to make a concerted effort to keep my eyes down and my hands steady. I go on with my guillotining and methodically pare down this robust gathering of swanky solanums until they lose colour. Chopping, taking it all to pieces, in a kind of contracted stupor, morning, noon and night; trying not to pay any heed to my reflection in the mirror as I do so. I can’t stand that - above all I can’t stand to see the reflection of my waist, winding back and forth, there in the mirror just to my right - looking as if it might take flight when I know very well it can’t.
The BBC National Short Story Award 2016 anthology, which also featutes Lavinia Greenlaw, Hilary Mantel, Tahmima Anam and KJ Orr, is published by Comma Press, at £7.99. The winner will be announced on October 4th