The things I have seen. What went missing; what was lost, sometimes unaccountably. And once upon a time, I was not able to give sorrow words. Therefore, it held; I couldn’t cradle it, talk to it and say, ‘Hello thing, what can you teach me?’
But, you see, I learned.
In my younger years, if I’d had the vocabulary, I’d have called the losses aphotic, Stygian in their darkness. But from the corner of my eye, and as the new world of words brewed alongside, I began instead to see them as navy; like a late twilight in indigo, with a little cyan, if you screwed up your eyes. Knew that from my paintbox. Soon, if I looked with the whole of my eye, I began to see wisps of lavender light in there. In desolate places and with people who should have cared, but no, I got big on ombre and subtle shifts in hue or pigment. I learned to observe. Just little things, like the turn of a face or a fold in a cushion, but the trappings of a world. In mourning for those who left with explanation, and those whose end was whispered or belied, I grew to usher forth more words as well as that colour and thus I limned my world. Do you know that the hour of death is a mossy green, sliding into turtle’s back? And it was cold, but not arctic, exactly. As for the folds in the cushion, well now if you gathered the fabric just a little deeper around them, you had the ravines for a miniature me; crevasse for a tiny arthropod. And I found that when I looked at Dead Mammy and Daddy in their coffins, it helped to see the prickly box-fabric as ecru or greige. Bit like them, at that point, if I don’t offend.
As a child, the worlds of dead and living collided; the worlds of truth and the imagination, too. But, in their way these losses were a fair prospect because by the time I was all grown up, I felt sort of brave in a way way that made me some sort of social oddity if I strayed into the wrong company or away from the Welsh plangency that loved the gob, or tang of death and what it yakked.
I learned when to live in an imagination and when to venture out.
And there were the colour and the growing word hoard, treasure box, I told you of.
In darkness, your eyes adjust, don’t they? And you see a star, however faint and think, ‘Aha, I am a sailor on my bark and from here I can navigate’ and you imagine yourself aeons back, confronting end times without the day-long tidy terrifying of our news; our always awake technology, screaming, ‘Apocalypse!’ Still, I might look at that word, even now, and wonder at it like new. Apocalypse: it’s from the ancient Greek, meaning uncovering. A word that once had much more celebratory nuances. Word hoard; colour; etymology and don’t worry there about some fellow thinking you’re a weirdy swot. Yes, loss; all the horrid redaction of my growing: its strange way of being gain. Me on my bark. In the dark. Ha! Or, as good Welsh poet, Henry Vaughn had it, I live again in dying, /And rich am I, now, amid ruins lying.
I was a kid, with the lady I loved best; Rachel Cariad, my godmother. She went, all puffed up from illness, playing the piano (true story) and at her funeral, her husband threw in a picture of their nasty dog with scoops of earth and wedding ring. My mother, the late sainted woman scowling now (watch out, sinners!) said, ‘He can be married to his mammy now’ and husband scuttled off with Mammy and ignored the other mourners and that was how it went. But I loved her, see? Rachel Cariad. He was a monster, kept chinchillas out back and he was a tower of wobbling flesh, coddled by Mammy at forty five and on burial day, it was time for spotted dick, Friday pudding, so home he went as Rachel Cariad lay in her pit and I wept and thought, ‘Yesterday I was a child, but today I am fully grown and I am fourteen and whatever happens now, I will never have to marry him and I will get away from my own mammy and I will do it for Rachel Cariad who was beautiful, divinely clever and all snuffed out young. And it wasn’t fair and where were you, Oh God, or you, Duw, I was praying to you by your cathedral, but what were you doing, you sudd drwg?’ And that means something like naughty fucker in the salt tongue and I can’t apologise for blasphemy because Jesus likes the ones with spirit who tangle and rage and mean it.
But it wasn’t enough, the rage, to stop him in his tracks, my Mr God. There were Grandma and Grandma again; one toes up in damp quiet hospital, Bristol way. Bristol granny was full of spite and when I was a tiny thing, she terrified me with winding sheets of tripe. In her unloving house were pickled eggs and nasty, wrinkling corpse-toe pickled onions and I felt, as a child, my childhood left at door and I had to be big and not scared. She burned things she didn’t like. Books; pictures; harridans from the village. At school, the grandmas were kindly old things, with sweets and soft stuff. Not in my line. Those were big and hard knuckled, but at least they taught me how to wrestle, good and hard. I won pounds, with the lads, though I never got off with them, like my pretty delicate friends with their weird, alive families. I was lost; I felt it like grief you see. But, my God now I see what it gifted me. The loss. I could stand staring into the future and there was nothing you could do to frighten me. Not a thing.
And second Grandma, whiz-pop in bed. I’d hoped she die seeing visions of the Virgin Mary, little white lady in the corner of a Pembrokeshire room, like my nanny did, but she just slipped back and sighed, off Cardiff Bay, so to speak, and it was a bit sad and lacked colour. And afterwards I went down Penarth beach, wading too deeply into the mud and roaring so the kids said, ‘Look there’s that weird’ and I said, to the wind off the sea, ‘But I’m not scared. There’s nothing you can take. I’m as old as the hills now I’m fifteen.’
I forgot Grandpa, under the damson tree, bottom of the ladder. Died doing what he loved, isn’t it? Well no, he died falling from a ladder and I wouldn’t choose that, boyo. I raged again, and Mr God he said, I heard him in a shoo-in off Cardigan Bay with the devil, he said, ‘There’s Catrin now’ (which was me) ‘and I’m proud of her, isn’t it, with that blasphemy and all because I like the ones who tangle and rage’ and we all know God is Welsh, of course.
You might think I was finished, but no. I’d been raised on terrible deaths on both sides. Falls from horses; at least two who never got out of bed and I heard whispering of overwork because they didn’t want to say insane and one disappeared, but I’m sure I saw shuffling out back; then another grandpa sloughed off quietly, quietly; oh and Daddy in my arms and that was the worst because he was spitting curses and saying, ‘Not you, not you. Why are you here?’ and I eighteen then, but old enough to be my own mother, and Mammy in hospital and keening ‘Where’s my boy, my special boy?’ when I rocked up at twenty, undergraduate and all, then I prayed by her grave and thought, ‘Oh why, she wouldn’t want me here’ and that was that. Give me my word hoard. Chasm. Sepulchre. Bag of liquorice allsorts to condole in an aniseed way.
Off the headland, St David’s way, there’s a field, bloody big, that’s all our own and it’s stuffed with my Llewhellins, poker straight and missing coracle shells, while the primroses push up around them and, time up, the blackberries come up all about, and that it’s the time for my aunt Muffled Myfanwy to visit her shot son, for his birthday. Her word hoard is in her head and she says, ‘My darling, my baby, why no. In carmine and ermine and beautiful days in the sod, my cliff child’—or something.
I startled you? I knew it. I grew up in the strangeness and in the death. But it wasn’t meant, my startling. I swear it’s the Cymraeg in me, or something. What I write about, I suppose I always knew, well it’s plangent, cruel dysfunction, is it not?
Ha! No, of course it isn’t. It’s survival and hoisting above your head this beautiful word hoard, like your standard and going, ‘Raaar!’ Merrily in two languages or more, with midnight blue and gunmetal garlands in the dark. I learned to give sorrow words. Not only words, but colour. Or imaginary friends. Literary creations. Beckett was excellent, but then so were the dead dears of Dylan Thomas. We had many chats when I was growing up. My nanny on the Cleddau, my great grandmother who smoked a pipe, spat and terrified the gentry, saw a little white woman in the corner for years and prayed with great aplomb to the Virgin Mary and death was actually scared of her. Everyone and everything was scared of Nanny. She taught me to see things. When she died, it was a scarring pain, but it was triumphant and that was a fine thing. Though I am not saying it can always be so.
People lie about what scares them. One friend has a theory that all in the women in Lycra on our school run are beset by an existential crisis. That they sweat off their no-faith with running and cappuccino afterwards at the gastro pub; if they run hard enough, they will outwit death. But then. My great Uncle Harry was the best wrestler this side of Tregarron; hard as nails, irresistible to women; oiled his chest just so. There were those who thought our Harry was immortal. But still he fell off the platform at Bristol Temple Meads and got crushed between buffers and it didn’t matter then about his washboard or how fast he could get to Llansteffan with the wind against him.
So yes loss: seen it so many times. It will happen again. In a quiet moment or on a balmy day when you’re going to a yellow beach. And I’ve seen those who didn’t care buff up the plate on a coffin and watched those who hoped for cash hoist a coffin: funerals are useful in that way, for me: a sorting device. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he behaves around an open casket. In my head, there are people I’ve banned from my own service already. But if I can’t control that, they’re at least off my Christmas card list: that’s a few seconds gained when I can, instead. write a card to crying eyes down the road who watches and wants company and love.There is a moment gained to help undo a folded lie. Now the reaper’s set you straight, that is. Yes, look: the bad man who corpse gloats and thinks he impresses; the cad who prays big and only in public; whose eyes are kind at the wake and whose flowers are devotion, not show? You go and think you’re mired in loss: in a terrible deficit. Of course; but there is benefit to accrue to you if only you are attentive. Scythe. Do some losing.
That title, at top. It’s from Macbeth, bard boy. It runs, ‘Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.’
Name, shape, hue: care for your own heart and devise a vocabulary for your loss, unique to you. It comes to us all, but with a word hoard you won’t be alone. Remember too, that in darkness, as I have seen, there are navy and lavender lights and a star which laughs.
About the Contributor
Anna is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mum to a large litter. She runs the Fabian Bursary, offering one to one teaching for disadvantaged young people interested in the arts and, as a great champion of the small presses, she reviews their books and writes for them: novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), novella, The Life of Almost (2018) and poems and essays with Patrician Press and Emma Press. Books three and four out on submission at the moment. Anna is working on her fifth novel and is writing features and reviews for Litro, Review31, Contemporary Small Press and Writers and Artists, among others.
A Grief Observed - CS Lewis
This is an extraordinary book on grief and I've read it - I've had a lot of bereavement, some in my arms - a few times. In it, Lewis chronicles his feelings and beliefs - his crisis of faith; his detailing of theodicy - after the terrible loss of his wife, the poet Joy Davidman. It's a series of reflections on bereavement and was composed from the notebooks which he used to give vent to and explore his grief. I think that he explores, in simple, plangent text, the everyday experiences and trials of loss and keeps a lookout throughout on the fact that his grief is just one individual's perspective amongst a multitude. It's brave, spare and haunting. If you;re interested, I refer you to Hilary Mantel's essay for The Guardian - on A Grief Observed and on other texts which explore grief and loss in their myriad and shifting forms.
More from Issue Ten:
- Tracks of Life and Death by Liz Kohn
- A short course of treatment by Tim Love
- Heating disorder by Myriam Frey
- Heirlooms by Rosie Garland
- Mourning by Katherine McMahon
- The Ghost of my Mother is waiting for me in Arrivals by Claire Collison
- Pakistan Zindabad, from Abroad by Hana Riaz
- Adopt a vortex by Han Smith
- Sea Sickness by Eloise Unerman
- British Street Music by Tamim Sadikali
- Pomegranate by Caroline Gonda