WAR’S ORPHAN AND THE SOUND OF SILENCE There is a stillness, even now, a silence of a night stretched too long over and above a world stretched too thin, too black – liquorice. All sorts of silence, the sweetness of it left at a train station between hanging baskets of primroses and daisies, to the belch and hiss of the underground, where damp, never dandelions, spread and, now, she walks with the silence as the sun rises, brown laced boots in long spring grass, damp and yellowing the closer she walks, matted, yellow, brown, stringy, mud that sucks and belches through grey flint teeth at thinning soles, and she stands, hat pulled down too far over greying hair and blue eyes shielded against the flat round white shape of the sun behind the straw brim, behind the rust-brown and moss-green of the great arcing Ferris Wheel that once, festooned with flags and lights she kissed a girl with toffee apple lips and yellow ribbons in her hair in a rattling wooden Ferris Wheel car that bought them over this rust wheel of a rainbow to heaven, if only for a moment –- before the air-raid shelters were built, before the name tags were tied to the lapels of their coats. Before the trains heaved out of the city, great smoking snakes rickety-clacking to fields of goats and sheep, cattle and horses, houses that smelled, not of the damp, rancid stench of the Thames and the mouths of smoke in London Town where men tipped their hats and women walked arm in arm, but of Surrey, where the apple and cherry blossom bloomed and the air smelled of honeysuckle and the sweet rotting pears from the year before. She hadn’t returned. Not in fifty years. Only now, she returns, for reasons she won’t say, before the cars of everyone else, before the breakfast bowls that clink in sinks and the reeling in of workers to the fat cat’s gray belly of London. London. Who has lost her stillness, her silence, her story. Now, history is the broken English and the bastardised Cockney rhyming slang, not the quiet after the bombs, when the scream of nazi planes and the screams of those beneath were all there was. And the sound of a plane hitting the ground, the bombs, the thud and muffled boom, a town, a neighbour, gone, and then –- (closer still) the electric sky, a sky full of wires that hummed and buzzed and roared, the crack of brick, and stone the fall of the church spire that crushed the vicar dead in his everlasting sleep and then, she remembers, touches the old fairground sign that remains, an old fading stump wrapped about the wooden neck with ivy and the white of snowdrops. She has, now, her London, if only for a single Moment quiet, before the curtains open, the wait, the breath held, perhaps the most fragile of all of the silences. Most unlike the silence of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak or the silence after the air raid sirens, Or the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you have been asked or the hush of a country road that leads to here, here, the outskirts of a city reincarnated and never again the same, where only the rats give the eye of recognition. But for now, however, there is the silence before dawn, an expectant silence, similar to, though in no way the same, as the silence before a storm, when the birds quieten, and a breath is held, waiting, bristling, waiting, gasping, heart beating, like that afternoon, mid-March, before the bombs dropped and the daffodils turned from sunshine to acid yellow against a flat gray sky, and the birds, still, waiting, the air too close to bear, and even a breath is too loud. She sees all of this, now, in moments, standing here, just outside (for she could never go back in) the first time at London’s very edge since the war for she grew with the Surrey Downs. She is not the gouche figure in the splintered mirror glass of an old maze punctured and shattered by glorious oak trees, she is far-flung from the smoke in the lanes from Gypsy caravans and flat-capped men with brown-nosed-mutts pickpockets all very Dickensian she’d heard someone say on the wireless a day, a week, a month ago All too old fashioned. She touched the fine splintered paint of the Ferris Wheel carriage Bombs turned lives to rubble and rubble to dust and now Chain shops link in the underbellies of what were homes but now are houses with blank-eyed stares of bricked-up windows and the flat blank eyes of a city that never sees farther than the end of its nose. The silence of these memories slots into unfamiliar (yet the same) surroundings like a black and white photograph held up, out of place but a part of one, just as she is, standing here, She who belongs now not to the isolation of London but to the solitude of the South Downs, to a house between hills where cattle graze in the warn away dips where the doodlebugs and V2’s dropped their bombs. She stands for a moment, then turns, puts it away, this memory, tucks it away in a pocket, with the leaf of the old oak tree, where perhaps, she glimpses the flutter of the flag-end of a yellow ribbon in the nest of a robin, and the autumn leaf crunches in the pocket of this old coat with elbows worn thin, and, With arms folded, head bowed she returns, back to the rickety clack of the trains, new now, blue now, away from the forgotten but remembered to perhaps the most beautiful silence of all, the moment after the door closes and once again you are home. MERIVALE On the 28th March 1941, Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse. The following is an Ekphrastic poem inspired by the painting of her sister, Vanessa Bell, by fellow Bloomsbury Group member, Duncan Grant. This poem is a moment wherein Vanessa is writing to her sister, only a week or two after her death, where life continues to break back in, with all of its sharp edges. Have you ever been to Merivale? She writes. While Angelica, (six), fist full of flowers, arranges them in a pattern similar to that of the painted tile of the hearth. Violet stalks with purple faces for the V and daisies for the W while she sits, cross-legged, in the milk-dish of sunlight coming in through the half-open door. Have you ever been to Merivale? She begins again. Blots the end of the pen, nib down for too long on the fold of cloth. Watches the ink bleed out blue, blue, blue…Perhaps- She falters, Perhaps we shall go, you, me- A song thrush in the wisteria just outside of the window calls from her nest, Leonard whistles back from where he stands between the tulips Vita perhaps, Angelica hums a tune half-forgotten and half-remembered, and the children, of course, they do so love to see you. She smiles, watches her daughter weave her own initials with petals from the Forsythia. And, upon our last visit, Angelica fell rather in love with a cow which she gave your name to- Out in the garden again, just by the door, Angelica picks weeds, plucked with the hollow sound of the milk thistle or dandelion stalk A brown cow, all doe-eyes, soft-muzzle. Standing on legs with knees like pollarded trees. She smiles. Gains momentum. Shifts in her chair that creaks and scrapes against the flag-stone floor. Netty’s here, folding your stockings, rolling them into yellow balls like eggs - like eggs, in a basket. As soon as she is gone, I’ll unravel them, fitting perhaps, for I seem myself unravelled. She hears Netty on the stairs. Knows the satisfaction she will gain from this rolled nest of previously unravelled and unkempt stockings. Did I tell you I see Vita now? She comes to dinner in your place, sits in your chair with its back to the fire, with some hesitation, of course. She looks at me. And I in her see you, and you in me she sees, though neither of us has spoken of this of course. Instead, darling Tom slaps cards down upon the table, Queen of Hearts upturned, only fleetingly, between her and I, And then, of course, Duncan slaps his card down too the King, perhaps, of Spades, as suits him, and the moment passes, without whistle or trace- The song thrush sings again, greets her mate with a beak of soft sheep’s wool scraps. - only the echo for which I have spent these last few weeks digging for beneath the roots of speculation, only to find dust and grit, the shrivelled bulb of a daffodil dug up too often and the skull of a blackbird buried by Angelica, I am sure, though at your behest. Now, the ticking of the clock, the whirr, the readying, readying, then the chime. Too loud. Always, too loud. She closes her eyes, waits, waits, for stillness, and then- Have you ever been to Merivale? She has digressed for too long. I ask not because of the (now) literary bovine, but because, in passing a cottage I noticed a young woman, a girl, perhaps, sat, elbows on the windowsill, Mrs Dalloway between her hands - and it was such a shock to see you there, so suddenly, so starkly, in this house painted the colour of our Cornish sea, because you see (as only you do, you did) I look for traces of you, without knowing it at all, and I find I cannot speak, cannot say, as you would have done, so eloquently, but I cannot, neither with voice nor with pen the pain it is to glimpse you so suddenly, and so sharply within your absence. The house is quiet, the bird has flown, Angelica has gone, the garden too tempting. Such is death. The stillness stretches. But one of these days we may contrive to speak again. Who knows? Again, the stillness My darling Virginia, I miss you. And this letter is nothing, without you to receive it. The hesitancy of pen held above paper. Yours, always, V. SHE’S CALLED GILLIAN She’s got brown hair and eyes the colour of a bleached winter sky. She’s about 5’5, but she’s tough. I met her just after I met my girlfriend. My girlfriend was a narcissist. She didn’t like me having friends, or seeing family. So, I didn’t really. Gillian stuck around, though. In fact, that’s when I first met her A few months in She was standing in a driveway nudging gravel with the toe of her Converse. I asked her if she’d lost something. Her wedding ring, she said. Not that it mattered. He was a cheating bastard. We walked to school together. She wore dark jeans and a plaid shirt over a long-sleeved top with four buttons at the neckline. She was self-destructive. I liked that about her. She’d help me put the shopping away when the Tesco delivery arrived. It wasn’t my house, but I did everything in it. She expected that of me. My girlfriend, The narcissist. Once when my girlfriend went away, we used her land to have a bonfire in the old metal drum that was full of weeds and earth and crap. Gillian joked we should get all of her clothes and stick them on the fire, but burning her clothes wouldn’t do any good, we decided. She had enough trouble keeping her clothes on, having less of them would only add to the problem. We cooked our lunch on the bonfire. Potatoes baked in tin foil. Their skins were black but we ate them anyway, and inside they were smoky and white and good. Gillian would be there in the evenings, too. I’d make my excuses and slip to the garage for another bottle of wine, and Gillian was there, back against the wall, picking at the fraying edge of her sleeve. She’d tell me about her day, the sheep, the farm. She’d hug me, properly, hold me until I’d stopped shaking, or near enough. Once, on fireworks night, She had a party. My girlfriend, the narcissist. Everyone was there. All of her friends, family, neighbours. Her dad made the bonfire bigger than was safe. She poured everyone drinks and looked for me to give me something to do. I stood in the shadows with Gillian. She was all nervy, jittery, bristling with energy, possibility, magic.... She was wearing Wellington boots. Green ones, but they weren’t Hunter boots, and I was glad of that. They were bog-standard boots from a garden centre. She had one hand in her pocket, I could hear the clink of the keys to her Land Rover. You need to get shot of her. She said, looking at the bonfire, into the flames. Her face was warm, golden, fire-lit and beautiful. She’s going to kill you if you don’t. She looked at me then, Gillian did. One way or another you’ll end up dead. She was right. I knew she was right. But Gillian only existed in my head. I AM WINTER She is everything I am not. She is supple as a snake. I am frozen. She is the whisper of holidays and beach trips, BBQs and laughter. I am eerie stillness, the last bloom of white from dying blue lips. I am winter. I am cold. I am in darkness, flirting with madness, wires in my veins, pulsing, vibrating, killing me. I am the splinters of skeleton trees in the pockets where my eyes used to be, my mind the fleeting glimpse of a wolf. She is a peacock, I am a wild hare, running, but never finding home in a wood full of eyes. She watches me. Hiding. Breathing. I am the uncertainty of black ice, I am strong as the North Wind.
About the Author:
Raised simultaneously by David Bowie and Virginia Woolf, Natascha Graham is a writer of stage, screen, fiction and poetry. She lives with her wife in a house full of sunshine on the east coast of England. Her short films have been selected by Pinewood Studios & Lift-Off Sessions, Cannes Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Her plays and other stage work have been performed at The Mercury Theatre, Colchester, Thornhill Theatre, London and Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York where her monologue, Confessions: The Hours won the award for Best Monologue. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction essays have been previously published by Acumen, Rattle, Litro, Every Day Fiction, The Sheepshead Review, Yahoo News and The Mighty among others, as well as being aired on BBC Radio and various podcasts. Natascha also writes the continuing BBC Radio Drama, Everland, and has an upcoming theatre show at The Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London.