Vindstille

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By Ian C Smith:

I have my memories, some award winners
even if they lack the charm of a Doisneau
also, mementos of trepid exploration.
One, an example of good composition
always a comfort, I keep near my bed.
A woman stands on a jetty of rocks
holding an infant, her back to camera
motionless, facing a lake, or sea.
Clouds bank behind a distant boat.
The silence is a perfect example of art
in this early Scandinavian monochrome.
Mother and child.  Journey’s end or beginning.

I bought it in Denmark, driving from Norway.
Later, just off a ferry, near Lübeck
I captured heavy holidaying Germans
in a vast caravan park where it rained.
My tent humid, gear now locked in the car
I plodded around puddles to the laundry
where I tried to translate instructions.
I ended up screaming at a machine.
Watching hausfraus, obese twins, sniggered.
Ja, ja, I muttered, thinking of Arbus
as I bundled up my pathetic smalls.

My decrepit car tracked history’s map crabwise
amusing Europe’s posing border guards
their sneers echoing those lumpen twins’.
I cut myself opening a can of beans
bad news buzzing me again in the fast lane.
When I was no longer the slowest driver
East German police tailed me over potholes
past Leipzig’s cindering orange haze
after I shot their helicopter in a car park
my thoughts by then U-turning for home.
Was it Auden who said photography
brought a new sadness to the world?

With my precious lenses in leather pouches
and the knowledge that when the eye blinks
it sucks part of someone else inside it
as well as part of himself at that moment
I carried that woman and child in my pack
wrapped like my equipment and damaged hand
a talisman during those Sturm und Drang days.
It encourages me when opportunity lurches
as I round a corner of the human map.
I concentrate on the miracle of light.
Yes, that, and timing and silver emulsion.  

***

Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Australian Poetry Journal, Critical Survey, Live Encounters, Poetry New Zealand, Southerly, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

In the Back Seat

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By Anna Evans:

In the back seat you observe the journey from a different angle and your eyes are free to wander from the road ahead. The space of the back seat is exactly the right size so that you can lie across it if you want to, and pretend to sleep.

In the back seat, the time is not now; it is unending horizons, the space of a snowflake. The map isn’t an accurate one, but a blend of the real and imaginary, where different journeys can merge together and become one. In the back seat you are always travelling home, the sky darkening around you.

In the back seat you are transported. It is the perfect mode of non-navigational travel. Protected and vulnerable, the fuzzy blanket of childhood, the one which lets you dream in peace, the window framing images of the world passing by.

The back seat is the site of stories and of daydreams, the ones which come without being summoned, like a ritual to trace over the back of your hand. The speed and the motion allowing glimpses, partial and unformed, always passing and never fully realized. From the back seat I am always looking for places that will tell me stories.

From the back seat you watch the road in a different way, through the side window. Counting the boundaries along the road as they flash by swallowed up, each the same as the next, never to be seen again. The road signs going past so quickly, but looking back means being left behind, means missing the next one… The names of places take on a mythical aspect. The Devil’s Elbow…

My favourite journeys. The ascent to the moors, that gradual climb, the winding roads, the fields, the dry stone walls, the lost villages, the farmhouses which become more and more spaced out. It is breath taking to look around, to see below, laid out like a memory, the valleys, and to feel transported from it all.

The ascent to the moors. And when you’re up there it’s like a plateau where time feels different. Slowing down for the sheep walking along the road. Always wanting to stop and give them a hug. Looking through the window at those hills which always seem out of bounds somehow, they are boundless.

With my eyes I follow the trails, the trodden paths fading away to nothing. A place to be on the run, a fugitive landscape. Bleak, high and unyielding, this landscape without shelter, where only sheep could live, boulders next to the sky. A place where people seem out of place, those tiny walkers and climbers, a place to get lost in. The sheep, already prepared with their solid feet, their warm and waterproof coats. Even the footpaths look out of place somehow, as if you would drift away from them, bidden by some siren song, away into a parallel landscape far from anywhere.

- Tell us about the time when mum got stuck in a bog!

In the back seat, I listen to stories of walking up here and straying from the footpath. Imagining my mum stepping in the bog, her foot sinking, my dad trying to pull her out….

- Oh no, please don’t tell that story…

No, don’t tell it, but do… because it fills me with trepidation and excitement all at once. Imagining what it must be like, the foot caught, being pulled downwards into the bog, sinking into the earth. Like a trap laid by the hills themselves, to warn us away and keep us from venturing too far. Imagining the bog a living entity. How would you know it was there? How would you stop yourself from sinking?

In the back seat we make up stories about the passers-by, the lone runners and cyclists become fugitive too. Where are they going? They are criminals for sure, escaping the scene of the crime.

The forlorn houses on the edge of the hills seem like the last outposts, just below the clouds, or at the edge of an ocean. Waking each day to their desolate spectre, misty ocean, stretching as far as the eye can see. Full fathom; acres of rolling seas.

The part of the road where it feels like you’re flying - long and straight through a ravine cut into the hills. Scammonden Dam on a school trip. The sun shines and we draw sketches of pond skaters, and they tell us about the village sunk underneath the reservoir. This takes on mythical proportions for me, as the story of Pompeii.

- Look there’s Damian’s house.

- Who’s Damian?

- A friend of mine. He lives in that little house by the water. Hello Damian!

- Does Damian really live here? But doesn’t he get lonely?

- There he is, look he’s waving. Hello Damian!

- Can we meet him?

- Well, he is very shy.

Sometimes getting out of the car and knocking on the door of the wooden shack next to the water, and peering through the tiny windows calling out ‘Damian, Damian’… sometimes driving past and waving.

- Can we visit Damian?

- Damian isn’t in today.

The reservoir, high up and dramatic like a coal black furnace, the clouds dark grey with fury, or sad and open, the land of twilight blue. The cast of the hills above Meltham dark and alone, rain clouds the view towards them.

The backseat on the way home at night. The lights of the towns and the strange psychedelic lights of the motorway, sometimes well lit, high up, laying out the wasteland below them in empty, white, measured light. Sometimes the roads have barely any visibility, and it is then that you follow the red taillights in front, and the lights of the oncoming cars, creeping stealthily through the shadows. What can and can’t be seen conjures up a thousand travelling possibilities, the countryside spread out in darkness, the cat’s eyes in the road reflecting back our own intrepid lights. Let me tell you about cat’s eyes, you say…

The darkening sky marks the inside space of the car out as mysterious, and the driver into further reaches away. Silence is the place where the flickering miles creep by. I must remain awake, alert. My job is to monitor the surrounding landscape and I keep a vigil, keeping my dad company on our journeys together. While the inside of the car is shrouded in mystery, the seats, the objects; I can form a silent communion with the outside, familiar but cast anew. I am reflected in the window, my own features becoming one with the scenery outside, the recognisable call of the forehead, nose and lips, the eyes. Blinking lights fall into them and are swallowed up. Following the road of my own thoughts as you would trace the line of a headland. Like existing with your own ghost beside you; the self which ends and is endless.

In the back seat it is always the journey home at night and looking outwards becomes looking inwards. Crossing the high dark moors, the scattered lights of the houses seem fragile, the road seeming to melt once more into the hills as it is engulfed by the descending blackness all around.

About the author:
Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia in 2017. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction.

Letter to a Stranger

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By Shawna Bethell:

The thing I didn’t tell you was that I met your brother on the ferry. He was looking for you. Your father wanted you home. To this moment, I’ve never told anyone that I met either of you. I felt it would be a betrayal of sorts, though I didn’t even know your names. But I knew your stories, two parts of a whole, none of us expecting I would cross both your paths. Yet I did, within a half-dozen hours or so. Harris is a small island, after all.

I was sitting alone on deck watching grey waters when your brother approached and asked to sit. Together we watched sleek arch-backed porpoises rise and fall as they swam alongside the ferry. We watched a low sweep of rock appear in the distance, growing until it became an island large enough for a port, a village and a road up the coast that would cross a narrow isthmus to another stretch of gneiss known as the Isle of Lewis.

Eventually, he started talking. Told me more than he probably should have about your family, but he spoke with earnestness, and I couldn’t help but listen. He had tracked you to that slab of stone sprawling in the distance and hoped you were still there. In time, we disembarked and as I walked away, he asked me to dinner. I declined and wound my way up the hill, unknowingly, to you.

It was later that evening, in a hostel full of travelers, when our paths crossed. I was rummaging in the kitchen when you came in and I asked you where to find a knife for my vegetables. You were a large man, with long blonde hair bound back by a leather cord and gold wire-rimmed glasses that framed blue eyes. From the leather sheath on your hip you pulled that gracefully thin filet blade with a round wooden handle and passed it to me. I still remember how caught I was by its elegance. Casually, you also opened the cupboard and offered spices from your cache saying I’d likely not find anything but salt and pepper in the communal kitchen. Then you quietly paced the cramped space, crowded with washer and dryer and Formica table, while I sliced in silence. When I returned the knife, you left.

That night, as a woman from Skye cranked open the window above our bunk and slept comforted by familiar cold air blowing in from the sea, I was left sleepless by the same damp chill, so I took my laundry back to the warm kitchen, made a cup of tea and sat down with my journal.

I hadn’t realized any one else was around when you walked in from the TV room and spoke. As before, you paced the perimeter of the room past the washer and dryer, along the counter and back before pulling out the chair across from me to sit.

You said you were from Finland and had worked a lucrative desk job as expected by your father until a few months before. Then, with no word to anyone, you left. You landed on the island and hired on at a fish cannery off the rocky shore. You said you liked the physical labor, liked the men you worked with. You said you weren’t planning to stay on the island, but had no plans to go back either. 

We talked a lot about family and expectations. I told you about the Midwestern United States, where people were rooted by generations of family loyalty, a pull so strong that I felt my choices in life were abdicated before I was old enough to know I had choices to make. I loved my family, but when I finally left the Midwest, it was with a sense of escape. I landed in a mountain town in the western U.S. populated with out-of-work miners, scientists, artists and travelers. It was a place where people accepted you as the person you presented yourself to be, and it was where I gained the freedom to be the writer I wanted to become.

In the dark early hours of morning, you put on your jacket and went outside, cigarette in hand, and through the window I watched the orange tip burn as you paced the walk out front. Shortly you returned, explaining you had to catch the ferry for work in only a few hours and needed to get some sleep. I don’t remember that we even shared a ‘good-bye.’ You just walked away through the drafty, concrete-block hallway, and I was left to pull my clothes from the dryer and stuff them into my pack. Then I followed the hallway to my own side of the dorm where I fell easily and unexpectedly to sleep.

By daylight you were gone and I caught a ride north, jotting a quick ‘thank you’ and tucking it into your spice cache before I left. We never did exchange names. It didn’t seem necessary, I guess. But I still think of you, and I wonder if your brother ever found you. I wonder if you ever went home. I did, eventually. For better or for worse. Sometimes, I’m still not certain. But that strange triumvirate of love, loyalty and obligation will call even the most wayward of us back.

Wherever you ended up, I hope you went there by choice and without regret. I hope you found the life you wanted. I wonder, though, if you ever knew, if either of you ever knew, if you ever talked about that woman you both happened upon, who carried two men’s stories back out to sea.

Shawna Bethell lives in the central Midwest of the US. Her work has appeared in the Denver Post, The Mountain Gazette, High Desert Journal, and This Land Magazine among other publications.

Should've Gone

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By Sibyl Kalid:

We’re standing at the top of Carlton Hill and there’s a fire burning at the oil rig across the water. It doesn’t look like a fire; it is too whole, like someone has trimmed its edges. It’s almost Christmas. M is leaving tomorrow, and I’m going back to London next week. Neither of us is sure when we’ll be back. The city is indifferent.  It winks obstinately, as it has done for four years, cars beating down tracks through the long stems of buildings, pace unflustered by M’s stifled tears. In the time we’ve been here Scotland hasn’t left the UK, the UK has decided to leave Europe, and the Starman has left the earth. We’ve been living on the endless rumble of national events, registering them with the stable acceptance of a barometer. It’s unnerving to discover that now we’re the thing moving, and it was this tumbling collapsing city that was the constant all along.

Last night I had that strange feeling of sleeping in a different room to the one I’m used to – my flatmate’s, mine having been taken over by its new tenant and her green bed-sheets. Most disorienting were hearing footsteps to the bathroom and not being able to place them. I had the realisation that, through the past year, night-steps have been like little sonic messages, bouncing back from a friend to my half-asleep consciousness, orienting them in an identity and route through the mumble of slipper on carpet. Eternally scornful of those with a domestic inclination, I’ve discovered nesting instincts I never knew I had.

In October we started receiving packages from Specsavers addressed to someone called Hannah Steeds. We knew nothing about Hannah Steeds, other than that she was, presumably, either long or short sighted, and had at some point lived in our flat. The Specsavers boxes piled up next to the front door, as poor Hannah must have found everyday tasks increasingly difficult, and our shared apathy halted us from either contacting our landlord or returning the boxes to sender.

The mystery then spooled when a postcard arrived from someone self-determining as ‘Mumsykins’. We assessed from this moniker, and from the quaint stone-walled house featuring on the front of the postcard, that this wasn’t just a gaffe from a friend who had fallen out of touch. The writer of the card indicated that she was looking forward to seeing Hannah at home, that she had recently visited a small rural town in the West Country that she thought Hannah would have liked. The baffling thing was how a mother cosy enough with her daughter to call herself ‘Mumsykins’ could have not kept abreast of her daughter’s address. Using the digitised Yellow Pages we tracked a Hannah Steeds to a family address in Bristol.  It’s not an uncommon name, but we were worried about Hannah’s eyesight and didn’t have anything else to go on, so we were prepared to take the punt and send Hannah’s accoutrements on to that address.

One day Hannah Steeds herself turned up at our door. I wasn’t in when she arrived, so it was my flatmate who passed over the postcard and contact lenses. He reported her as ’25-30, tall, but quiet and shy with the body language to match. Glasses. No Bristol accent’. And, apparently, absent-minded; she lived at 26/4, the flat below ours. She had just given out the wrong address, both to her mother and to Specsavers.

As with the solution to most mysteries, big and small, I found this disappointing. Hannah’s post wasn’t the imprint of collateral scattered in transition. Simply a casual mistake of the misplaced mind, as it unwittingly misplaces the body. There was no great conspiracy of illness, or amnesia, or filial alienation. My bank statements and reminders to renew my National Galleries of Scotland membership still roll into my flat in Edinburgh. But I don’t get the same wistful satisfaction from these forlorn reminders of my past inhabitancy as I did at the prospect that Hannah Steeds once lived in that flat, and that in the lost universe of some long-delayed postcard, or long-neglected mother, still did.

That endless pouring in of ancillary admin also seems like a taunting wink from whatever household god has observed the wearying tugging up of physical anchorage. The sentimentality of moving is always quashed by the picking up of detritus, as we concern ourselves with box sizes and bubble wrap and the turbulent ownership history of a frying pan. Every time I shift I am bewildered by my astonishing ability to explode myself over all available surfaces. My handwriting scrawled over paper pinned to the wall. My broken dvd player, rejected from my family home. Flour I bought for a cake I didn’t make. The fruit bowl with my name carefully painted on it above a picture of kiwis. Four mugs. Three cacti. A duvet. One pillow with case. A soup bowl. Matching coloured spoon. Shampoo. Half empty gin bottle. My desire to become a monk alternates with an impulse to gather everything up and attach it to me in a memorialising shroud, as I assess the ghostly inventory of the things I did do, and the things I could have but didn’t. That’s always the real sting of leaving anywhere. That gnawing concern that you didn’t live a place well enough. The minute you start walking away time horse-shoes and you remember your initial expectations of a place, before you first arrived. What you thought you’d do there. Who you thought you’d meet. Who you thought you’d be. I also start to mourn every grumble, and remember the sense of guilt I felt when my uncle came up for my graduation and commented on how beautiful the city was, how many levels there were to it, as if there were two cities sloping on top of each other. My vision of the city had plateaued into my daily grudge across the meadows, and now I felt like I needed to touch every corner, to make sure I’d appreciated it properly.

On the way home from Carlton Hill M and I climbed up into the alcoves in the wall that faces a graveyard. We felt like statues, whose only duty was to watch, that if anyone walked by we’d be offered the privilege of being an invisible onlooker, eternal and impassive. But no-one did.

Sibyl Kalid’s website

Breath

IMAGE: Louise Kenward

IMAGE: Louise Kenward

By Louise Kenward:

I sick up the last of my breakfast. Spittle drips on my arm and over the side of the boat. Diesel fumes mingle with sea and sweat. Anxiety has purged my stomach and pumps adrenaline in an attempt to stop me. I am compelled.

It is the second time I have reached this point, I cannot stay on the boat again, I cannot return to the shore without seeing for myself what lies beneath the surface.

Watched over by Mount Agung, I tip backwards over board and into the Indian Ocean. Weight and discomfort of my dive kit on land disappears with the horizon.

I suck at air, teeth gripping the mouth piece. It sits awkwardly, jaw aches, I'm holding too tightly. I adjust weight belt, tighten straps loosened by the water. The pressure gauge registers a full tank, clean tasteless air. I have already checked these things twice.

I am last to dip beneath the waves. Air released from buoyancy jacket, I am weighted down with equipment and 6 kilos around my waist. Despite this, I struggle to sink. Instinctively I take a deep breath before putting my head back under water. I bob up to the surface again. Looking down I watch others as they drop through the door to an other world. I continue to pull, to knock, it is jammed. Resistance of water against my body is too great. The blue beneath me tantalises and terrifies.

I'm being pulled down. My right leg is being tugged below me, dragging me under. I realise the need to push at this door, not pull. I let go of the breath I've been holding and slowly, slowly sink.

My first breath beneath the waves. Colour scattered blue, movement of fish, glitter and gold. Constant motion and total stillness. Swollen bubbles escape my mouth joyously as I descend further. Three, four, five metres deep. Submerged in water, a return to the womb, to the source of life, a time before evolution brought legs and lungs. A sanctuary. Yet life is taken as easily as it is given, stolen by cruel and unsentimental seas. A careful balance of body, air, water. It is easy to perish, to dissolve into saline. I try to swallow, for airways to adjust and regulate pressure in air cavities. I shift my jaw, willing ears to pop. Swallowing with the mouth piece is difficult. I bite down hard, swallow, ears release. I drop further.

Ten metres. I realise my buoyancy and its control is the biofeedback of my breath - my body acts as a balloon. I inhale, lungs swell, I rise up. I exhale, lungs deflate, I fall deeper. Having risen and fallen with initial breaths, I am now learning to pace inhalations, exhalations, slow, deep, breath. Steady, calm breath. An exercise in stillness, a meditation. The whole of my body is needed to focus on this one thing. Body connects breath, breath connects body.

Fifteen metres deep and I have never been so aware of my own breath. Never before have I had to attend so carefully or so completely to inhaling and exhaling. Rib cage expanding and contracting. It is more than concentration - to think about what I am doing I may lose control - I am a whole, mind and body acting as one.

Elusive, delicate, fragile breath. Mouth open, organ of life, pulls in air. Lungs, heart, connected, pumping blood, sustaining body. Twenty metres. Slow, full breaths. Senses alert. Mind quiet. Air swells from regulators as I exhale. Steady, measured, breath. All I can hear is the escape of bubbles to the surface and the crunching of parrot fish on coral beneath me.

I sink further. I look more closely, orange and white clown fish dodge the caress of pink tipped anemones. Wide flat laced table corals shelter blue and purple nudibranchs - tiny molluscs the size of a finger nail wearing their lungs on the outside of their highly decorated bodies. Delicate red sea fans sway gently as yellow tipped black and white striped angel fish glide past. There is an abundance of life quite oblivious to my presence. I watch, I drift, all feels at peace, all feels just as it should be.

Slipping through depths the gentle grip the ocean has taken does not let go. I do not ask it to. The further I descend, the tighter grasp the sea takes of me. Temperature drops, light weakens, I surrender to it. All consumed, it holds me. Immersion of body and mind. My pulse gently beats in my ears.

Sense of time is lost. I check the pressure gauge, I am running out of precious air. The spell broken, I have to surface. Again, gradually, slowly, I readjust my body to changing pressure. Rising too quickly is as risky as not rising at all. Emerging upwards warmth returns and sunlight dusts my face.

I return again and again. A calling of the sea sings more loudly than before. A sense of arrival, of coming home when I stand on the shore. A restful calm descends and envelops me, a sense of other, of completeness. Shoulders fall, breath quietens, thoughts calm. I am now embedded in molecules of ocean and they in me.

Louise Kenward is an artist engaging with place and person, past and present. Making journeys, writing, connecting. At times accompanied with 19th Century Victorian traveller, Annie Brassey.