Tag Archives: death

Absolute Beginners

It’s been emotional.

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Fly on, little wing. Image: sjohart Artist unknown

The past week and a bit has seen my baby spend several days in hospital. The care we received – all if us, not just Junior – was impeccable, and a full recovery is imminent,  but still. If I never have to call an ambulance for my tiny child again, it will be too soon.

The picture above is one I took in Baby’s hospital room. The tiny bird reminded me of the child in the cot beneath it in better, healthier days – all wide, sparkling eyes, the mouth barely open in wonder and curiosity – and I found it hugely comforting. As kind as the nurses and doctors were, however, it was exhausting, both practically and emotionally, to maintain a bedside vigil and I was glad to be allowed home again last weekend.

I listened to ‘Lazarus’, a track from David Bowie’s latest album, on one of our trips to or from hospital. How incredible, I thought. Bowie is still a relevant, creative genius.  I loved the track. I resolved to buy the album.

And then news broke of his death.

I haven’t been so broken at a celebrity death before. Not even the loss of Terry Pratchett, who I adored, hurt as much as this. I can’t process the idea that Bowie, the chameleon, the otherworldly, the unspeakably beautiful, is dead. I prefer to think he has returned home. He will never be gone. He is part of the air now, and the night sky.

I don’t have a favourite Bowie track. I love pretty much all of them equally. (The video for ‘Let’s Dance’, however, is dearest to my heart). I wanted to share the video for ‘Absolute Beginners’, though, not only because I think it’s a fabulous song, but mostly because it was in my head a lot as I looked after my sick child.

I absolutely love you, but I’m an absolute beginner.

I am an inexperienced mother, but I hope I’m doing an OK job. ‘Absolute Beginners’ lets me know I probably am. I wish David Bowie knew how much his music and image have meant to me, and how much he has helped me just by existing and creating and showing us all how to turn our lives into art.

I loved him. I will never forget him. And my child will know all about him, in time.

Like I said. It’s been emotional.

 

In Extremis, De Profundis

I wanted to blog yesterday, but to be honest I spent the day feeling scraped out, hollow, raw. There was nothing in me worth sharing. Anything I might have written which didn’t express this reality would have been a lie, and it would have been a waste of the time of anyone who took the time to read it.

So I didn’t write anything. But today the hollowness has been replaced by a deep, gnawing anger. And that I can write about.

I am Caucasian. European. Irish all the way down. I don’t have any other ethnicities in my genetic makeup. This means I am freckly, pale, prone to sunburn, likely to be Vitamin D deficient, prone to depression and alcoholism, and a whole host of other drawbacks that come with being ‘pure-bred’. I can’t help this; I didn’t choose to be born to my parents, in my country, at the time I came into being.

Just like everyone else in history.

I have no right to claim any sort of kinship with any of the men and women who died on Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina. I have no intention of doing so. Their struggle, and the struggle of Black people in America on a daily basis, is not mine. But I am still a human being, and just because I have no part to play in their efforts doesn’t mean I am not allowed to feel compassion for those efforts, and to feel devastated and sick at what happened in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And I do feel devastated and sick. I also feel hopeless. I feel afraid, though I know my fear must be of a different calibre to that felt by people of colour who face discrimination every day. My fear is more for the future of the human species as a whole, not for my personal survival. I’m aware there are people for whom fear about their personal survival is a daily challenge, and I wish so much that this wasn’t true.

That this atrocity happened in the same week as the tragic accident in Berkeley, California, which claimed the lives of six Irish students, is overwhelming. Such loss, and such destruction, and such sorrow, and it’s hard to see a way through.

Sometimes I wish there was a way to not feel things. Just sometimes, you know? A switch you could flick or a button you could push to cut yourself off for a while, like Data’s emotion chip in ‘Star Trek’. But if we could do that, would we have the courage to turn it back on again, and let the tide of emotion flood through us once more? Or would we take refuge in the coldness of disconnected self-interest, caring about nothing but what impacts us directly?

Well. I’m glad, in many ways, that I’ll never have the answer to that question, and I’m scared to think of all the people who seem to have that chip enabled all the time, the ‘I’m all right, Jack’ types who refuse to see or experience the interconnectedness of all humanity, and who have no compassion for anyone who isn’t exactly like them.

Why aren’t there easy answers to the questions of how we are supposed to interact with one another? Why do our basest instincts always come to the fore? Why do we allow greed and small-mindedness and bigotry to win out over simple, generous compassion? Why do we always live down to our lowest expectations of ourselves? Will we ever change – can we?

Jon Stewart says it better than I can. He says it better than most people can, I guess.

Wednesday Writing

There didn’t seem to be a Wednesday Write-In today, so I decided to improvise. One random word generator later, and the following words were mine:

Guarantee :: oar :: napkin :: silo :: slippers

Keep reading to find out what I made of ’em.

Image: dreamstime.com

Image: dreamstime.com

The Bearers

It all kicked off the mornin’ Daddy found an intruder in the silo. I knew somethin’ was wrong by the way he came walkin’ out of the barn – he looked like someone had glued his teeth shut, and he was in desperate need to yell.

‘Margaret,’ he said, comin’ up to the kitchen door, and leanin’ in. ‘Get my gun.’ His voice was quiet, which is how I knew he was real mad.

‘Now, Gus,’ said Mama, shufflin’ over to him. Her slippers whispered across the linoleum, and her arms went out like a statue of Ol’ Mary, except her robe wasn’t blue. ‘There ain’t no guarantee -‘

‘I asked for my gun, Margaret,’ said Daddy. ‘If you don’t fetch it for me this minute, I’m gon’ be forced to track through the house with my yard boots on, and there won’t be nothin’ you can say about it.’

‘Daddy, what’s goin’ on?’ I asked, wipin’ my mouth with my fingers as Mama left the room. I always got myself in a buttery mess when Mama made pancakes for a breakfast treat.

‘God’s sake, Lily! Use a paper napkin, or a washcloth, or somethin’,’ snapped Daddy, wrinklin’ his nose at me. ‘You’re raised better’n that.’ I hid my face as Mama came back, carryin’ Daddy’s shotgun. It was open, lyin’ broken over her arm like a freshly killed deer.

‘You can get your own cartridges, Gus Lamping,’ she said, handin’ him the gun. ‘I ain’t goin’ to have nothin’ more to do with this.’ Daddy grunted as he took the weapon from her, which would have to do for ‘thank you,’ I guessed.

‘Daddy! I’ll get your cartridges,’ I said, slidin’ down off my chair. ‘Please?’

‘Lily-Ella Lamping,’ he snapped, not lookin’ at me. ‘This ain’t no thing for a girl to be gettin’ mixed up in.’

‘Aw, please?‘ My heart was slitherin’ down inside me like it was losin’ its grip. ‘Daddy, I wanna see! Is it – is it one of them?‘ Sometimes, I wondered if the disease, and The Bearers who spread it, were nothin’ more than a fairytale Mama and Daddy’d made up, just for me.

‘Whatever’s in that barn is not for your eyes, child,’ said Mama, gatherin’ up her collar and holdin’ herself close. ‘You stay in here, with me.’

‘Yes, Mama,’ I said, watchin’ as Daddy slipped out through the screen door, trudgin’ around to the lean-to. I wasn’t supposed to know where his cartridges were kept, but I did. I imagined him findin’ the box, and rustlin’ around in it while keepin’ one eye trained on outside, and loadin’ the gun without even havin’ to look.

I watched, real careful, as he slammed the door to the lean-to shut. He raised the gun to his eye – judgin’ the distance, I guessed, between the house and the barn, just in case one of them things decided to spring out through the barn door – and then he shook himself, just a little, like a person does when they get cold, suddenly.

‘Jesus Almighty,’ gasped Mama. ‘Lily-Ella, you get away from that window. Right now!’ I blinked, and kept my eyes on Daddy.

He turned to face me, smooth-like and strange, just as a boat that’s lost an oar is likely to. He looked in through the window, and his eyes met mine. The whites of them had turned to red. He settled his grip around the rifle, and poised to aim.

Lily!‘ screamed Mama, runnin’ to me. ‘Get down!

The blast of Daddy’s shotgun and the impact of Mama’s arms came so close together that they were all mixed up in my head. She dragged me down off the chair and we hit the floor in a tangle of limbs.

‘Lily,’ I heard Mama gasp. ‘You gotta run, baby. You gotta run!’

‘Mama, what’s happenin’?’ I could feel her blood, hot and everywhere, spreadin’ across the floor beneath us. Her breath smelled strange. Her eyes were wide, and blue as the dawn.

‘I am your Mama, Lily-Ella,’ she gasped, pink bubbles foamin’. ‘Nobody else. You gotta remember that, baby.’ As her eyes slid closed, Daddy’s shotgun spat one more time, and then there was silence.

Feelin’ like a badly-made doll, all sewn up wrong, I inched my way back to the window. Beyond the broken shards of it, my Daddy’s broken body lay, his own shotgun lyin’ inches from his pale fingers.

The barn door creaked, and my eyes skipped up before I could think better of it.

I saw a man, as like my Daddy as his twin would be, and a woman like my Mama on a good day, wearin’ a dress so pretty that it shone. Her hair was neatly styled, and she was clean – so clean. She smiled with a bright ruby mouth, and opened her arms like they were made for runnin’ into.

‘Come on, Lily-Ella,’ she called, and it was my Mama’s voice only better, shinier, more happy. ‘Come on over here. Mama’s waitin’.’

It was an effort to close my eyes, but I did it.

Mama’s in the kitchen, Daddy’s in the yard, I sang to myself as I slid to my knees and out of sight. I knew that they didn’t need eyes to see me, though – I knew, even through the wall, that they could hear my heart. Feel my blood pumpin’. Hear my breaths, fast and cracklin’. They were comin’.

But they can’t hear my thoughts, I realised. If Mama and Daddy taught me right, and I know they did.

I looked, and saw that Mama’d left the gas stove on, keepin’ warm for the pancakes she’d planned to make for Daddy. I knew, too, that she kept her lighter in the pocket of her housecoat, even though she hadn’t been able to get cigarettes for years – not since the Bearer Invasion, when the world had gone to hell.

I wiped my eyes.

‘Mama!’ I called, getting back to my feet and starin’ out at the creature wearin’ her beloved face. ‘Hey, Mama! I’m here! Come get me!’

It smiled, and I smiled right back, my Mama’s blood still warm upon my skin.

 

 

 

 

Storm in the Heart

The wind is high, and cold rain is being driven against the glass. The streets are awash with water. It is angry weather, pained weather. Sorrowful weather. It is also powerful weather, renewing the earth.

Today, I will be accompanying someone I love very much as she says her final farewell to someone she loves very much. In that sense, today’s blustery storm is entirely appropriate weather.

Love, once shared, can never die. Nothing severs it; nothing ends it. It is not tied to the physical presence of a loved one, but it is a presence of its own, a presence which envelops and protects, and a presence which endures. Remembering someone after they have died is a remembrance of love, both the love they offered you in life and the love you had, and have, for them; in that moment of shared love, they are with you.

In that love, they will never leave you.

And love does not come to an end.

Image: comesitbythehearth.blogspot.com

Image: comesitbythehearth.blogspot.com

 

 

Never Forget

I’m not sure why I get so emotional around this time of year. The closer it gets to Armistice Day, the more my heartstrings swell at images and footage of people all over the world paying their respects to their war dead, and remembering their own experiences of war. Clearly (although I’m old) I wasn’t around during the war and Ireland was (notionally) neutral during WWII, so I shouldn’t have a huge connection to any sort of commemoration service.

And yet…

Image: telegraph.co.uk

Image: telegraph.co.uk

I watched a special programme aired by the BBC over the weekend in which a man who is now eighty-eight years old returned to the beaches of Normandy where, as an eighteen-year-old, he had landed with his compatriots in an attempt to liberate German-occupied France. He described his journey toward the beach, and how the fear of what awaited them was almost outweighed by the seasickness caused by the rough waters; he relived the feeling of the flat-bottomed vessel making landfall and the knowledge that nothing but his own speed and agility would save him as he raced up the beach toward the German lines, with bullets zipping – like ‘a load of birds singing’ – past his head.

He recalled picking up the bodies of his fallen comrades once the battle was over, boys of seventeen and eighteen years of age. ‘They never had a life,’ he said, gazing around the beach, and he wept, remembering his friends, boys he had trained and fought and laughed with, all of whom gave their lives in order that future generations might be free. I wept too, because there was something so deeply moving about a man of such age and experience demonstrating how the pain of war never truly leaves you, and how the memories of what you experience during a time like that are always there, just beneath the surface.

It also made me think about the terrible loss of life, and the unimaginable sacrifice offered up by so many hundreds of thousands, without which none of us would be living the life we have.

It’s such an easy thing to forget, the suffering of generations gone before us. I often wonder whether the world we have created is something that a fallen soldier from the Great War or the Second World War would be proud of. ‘Yes – this was worth dying for. This world is the perfect Utopia we dreamt of as we crawled through the muck of the trenches or fought hand to hand in the villages of France.’ Is this what a soldier would say if it was possible to bring him back for long enough to take a look around? I’m not so sure.

I wish there was no need for war, and I certainly wish humanity would stop fighting and killing one another over things like natural resources and money. Fighting for freedom and liberty, the right to live without the burden of tyranny, fighting to save your country from the oppression of an aggressor – that, I can do my best to understand. Without wishing to malign any country’s serving military, I nevertheless have to say that I think some of the wars being fought in our modern world are a lot harder to comprehend. Then, the average soldier has very little to do with the causes behind a war – he or she simply does their duty, and to the best of their ability.

Having said that, any man or woman who gives their all in the service of their country deserves to be respected and remembered, and perhaps it’s my innate pacifism that makes me so upset and sorrowful each Remembrance Day.

My thoughts are also with all those thousands of people killed, injured and left destitute by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. It makes me very sad, and angry, that it’s almost always the people who have the least who suffer the most during natural disasters, and I can’t help but think that climate change – which is, almost always, nothing to do with the people who suffer as a result of it – has a role to play in the terrible weather events of the last few years.

All in all, it’s a time for reflection and togetherness, and an opportunity to honour the memory of the war dead – who fought for what we now have – by helping one another, and doing our best to create a world they would be proud of.

Try to spread a little kindness today, in whatever way you can.

Image: monastery.com

Image: monastery.com

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Shining Girls’

I can’t quite believe, after so many months of wanting to get my hands on ‘The Shining Girls’, that I’ve finally read it. It’s been experienced. I can never experience it again. Time’s sort of funny like that, isn’t it? It only goes one way.

Unless you’re Harper Curtis, that is.

Image: forbiddenplanet.co.uk

Image: forbiddenplanet.co.uk

‘The Shining Girls’ has one of the best central ideas I’ve ever heard of – a serial killer who can travel through time, meaning that his crimes are pretty much impossible to connect to one another. In other words, he is untraceable, unstoppable and terrifying. Harper Curtis is this serial killer, a man who has been psychopathic from childhood (a chapter detailing his role in an accident involving his older brother, a truck and an unpulled handbrake was, to me, one of the most chilling episodes in the entire novel – and Harper was only eleven at that time.)

Early in the book, we see him gain access to a mysterious House, one with eerie capability; he comes across the key to this House through committing an act of violence, and that same violence powers the House. At various junctures in the book, when characters peer in the windows, the House looks like a rundown flophouse, ransacked and ramshackle and unfit for human habitation. But when Curtis enters (along with several other characters, who seem to be able to ‘see’ the House properly), it becomes a well-appointed, attractive place with fixtures and fittings from Chicago in the 1930s. When he opens the front door again, Curtis steps out into an entirely different reality, years in the future. The time-travel has sensible limits on it; Curtis is always in Chicago, and he cannot seem to travel to any point earlier than 1929 or later than 1993, but he always has one thing on his mind – the destruction of the Shining Girls.

And who are the Shining Girls? They are young women who burn and sparkle with potential. They are dancers, performers, scientists, journalists, architects, welders, wives, widows, maidens, mothers… all manner of womanhood is here. For reasons we are never truly privy to, these girls must die, and their potential – their shine – must be quenched.

Curtis has been murdering women since the 1930s, taking a token from each woman and leaving it on the body of another victim. When he first arrived in the House, he saw a list of names scrawled on a wall, in his own handwriting, and he knew what he was going to do – in a way, because he had already done it. His actions were inevitable. We encounter him first in 1974, when he meets the six-year-old Kirby Mazrachi, who we know is one of the Shining Girls. The darkness within Curtis as he interacts with the innocent Kirby is like a miasma around him, like a stench emanating from him. I’ve never been so repulsed by a character, and I mean that as a compliment to Lauren Beukes’ writing. We see him give Kirby a plastic horse, a toy which becomes vital to her story at the end of the book, and we know he will be back at some point in her future.

Kirby meets Curtis again in 1989, when he attempts to murder her. Out of all his victims, she is the only one to survive – and, at that, only by pure chance. For a long time Curtis thinks he has been successful in killing her, but when he realises that she survived, he becomes determined to finish what he started.

I wanted to love this novel. It’s exactly the kind of thing I enjoy – time travel, compelling characters (particularly compelling female characters), an excellent core concept, a bit of mystery, psychological intrigue, crime – but I can’t say that I did. I really, really liked it, and I would recommend it, but… I’m not sure. There was something missing, for me, at the end, perhaps as a consequence of having spent so many months looking forward to reading it. Some readers were disappointed by the fact that a lot of the mystery at the core of Curtis’ time travelling ability is left unexplained, but that didn’t bother me at all. I was perfectly willing to accept that this House (it deserves the initial capital, believe me) was able to transport its occupants to any point in its own timeline, and I was perfectly willing to accept that it would draw a man like Harper Curtis to itself in order to carry out the murders it felt were necessary. I loved the concept of the ‘shine’, the potential for greatness that existed within each of the victims, even though they were divided by time, race, sexuality, ability and age; I loved every character (from the point of view of how well they were created, that is, not an actual ‘love’ of their personalities.) I can see why some readers would find it hard to suspend their disbelief, but it didn’t cause any issues for me. I loved how Beukes handled her time-travel. Still, having said all that, something about the ending felt flat.

I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving away pertinent details, because this is the sort of book you really don’t want to spoil for other readers. I will say this much: I read it all in one sitting, I found it hard to put to one side, and Lauren Beukes is a massively talented writer. The story is gripping, though a little hard to keep straight in your head due to the shifting, hopping timelines, and the crime sections are gruesome but extremely compelling. The investigation Kirby launches against the man who almost murdered her is a bit so-so, but the reader has to remember that this part of the book is set in the early 1990s when investigation techniques were not what they are now (I’ve read several reviews of this book which slam her weak investigation into her attacker – but it was a pre-internet age, we can’t forget), and I really enjoyed reading about the lives of the Shining Girls, each of them interesting enough for a novel in their own right.

The book is gory, with scenes of extreme and misogynistic violence, and I do think readers need to be aware of that. It’s not an easy book to read, but it’s a powerful and important book, and as such I would recommend it. The statement Beukes is making – that the world itself conspires, at times, to snuff out the light of its Shining Girls – is one that needs to be heard and heeded.

Happy weekend, y’all. Happy reading!

Wednesday Write-In #60

This week’s words for CAKE.shortandsweet‘s Wednesday Write-In were:

storm warning  ::  performance  ::  insomnia  ::  turn  ::  stop

I didn’t use the words themselves, but instead let the images they created in my mind lead the direction of my story. This one comes with a warning to anyone who has suffered from serious illness or who has been bereaved through serious illness.

 

Image: book530.com

Image: book530.com

 

Storm Warning

 

It had started with a strange feeling in her jaw, just at the top of her neck. It was a soft, tender spot, not really sore to the touch but almost, like it was testing the water and seeing how far it could go. She’d lie awake at night, sleep teasing her from around the next corner, never letting herself believe it was such a tiny thing, barely there at all, which kept her eyes from closing.

At work, the students noticed a new and greater emphasis on colour. She began to wear more purple and red, and everything sparkled; when it was remarked upon, she loved it. Her lipstick shade had stayed the same since 1973, but now she went out of her way to buy tube after tube of gaudiness, and she had a generous hand. She started focusing their classes on Surrealism, Fauvism, Pop Art – all bright, all vibrant, all fleeting.

‘You look great!’ they’d tell her, meaning every word. ‘Who’s your new man?’ She’d just purse her lips and raise her eyebrows, and sashay away with a panache she’d never felt in her youth.

But her new man came to her in the night, sitting by her bedside with a twinkling eye.

‘Are you ready yet?’ he’d ask.

‘Not yet,’ she’d answer. ‘One more day.’ He’d leave her with a smile, but she knew he’d be there when she needed him.

When it became obvious, the laughing eyes around her turned horrified.

‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ ‘Why didn’t you see a doctor?’ ‘Are you crazy?

She tried to tell them she had no regrets, but they took that as further proof of her incapability. She pleaded for peace and quiet, but they wouldn’t hear of it. They started to insist that she get help, and did not listen when she told them of her happiness.

So she took her lipsticks and her Gombrich and she walked into the whirlwind. Her new man followed shortly after. With a smile on her face and her best dress on, she finally took his hand.