Posted on December 21, 2017
Detail of the Nine Dragons scroll painting by Chen Rong, 1244, Song Dynasty.
I looked up and saw a man standing there. He was holding an old-fashioned paraffin lamp which cast a dim glow around us. His hair was snow-white and he wore thin wire-rimmed glasses; even so he squinted at me as he spoke. He seemed old and young at the same time, which was odd in itself; his hunched demeanour suggested he was elderly, though his eyes sparkled like polished jet stones and his voice was soft and gentle. He was wearing a tatty suit made of tweed and a jaunty, bright red bow tie. He was holding out his hand to me.
I took it without speaking, mute with shock, and he helped me up to my feet. He seemed to understand.
‘Come. Come with me,’ he said simply and led me into the darkness. He didn’t let go of my hand.
I stumbled a few times as we walked, but he was sure-footed and I felt safe with him. He had a faint smell of sweet woody tobacco about him.
After some time walking (maybe half an hour? It was hard to tell) we came to a halt outside a shop front. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realised we were on a street and there was a whole row of narrow shops before me along a terraced facade. I looked up at the sign on the wall and could just about make out the letters: ‘Curzon Street’. Underneath my feet were cobble stones and the hushed gleam of the gas street lamps burrowed through the gloom like a row of gently glowing coals. A thick mist obscured most of my vision; I could just make out vague shapes of people going about their business, walking in and out of shops, stopping to chat. Out of nowhere, a young lad on a bicycle shot past, almost sending me flying. The man, who still had hold of my hand, swiftly pulled me out of the way and onto the safety of the pavement.
‘Scuse me miss!’ the boy called after him, waving his cap by way of apology. I narrowed my eyes, trying to remember where I had seen him before. He seemed familiar somehow.
All in all, I felt like I had just walked into a Dickens novel.
So many questions raced through my head, but still no words came to me.
He gave my hand a reassuring squeeze and led me into the nearest shop. The sign read:
Chinese Armoury, Dr. B. Sharp
It was painted in simple, bookman lettering.
A little bell tinkled brightly as we entered, announcing our arrival. The room was small and welcoming. I shivered, realising how cold I had been. I was glad of the sprightly fire dancing in the hearth, cheering the air to a genial, fusty warmth. I checked out the cosy space before me: a large oak sales desk dominated the room. There was no cash register, but the desk was heaped with tall piles of papers, somewhat in disarray. The wall opposite was decorated with a stunning display of shining swords and daggers, all mounted rather precariously on the wall. The window was crammed with antique-looking Chinese suits of armour, like the ones I had seen on the internet. I would have liked to take a closer look, but the man had let go of my hand and was gesturing to me to sit, so I did.
He disappeared for a few moments and returned with a steaming hot cup of fragrant jasmine tea, which I accepted gratefully. Neither of us had said a word.
He took a stool from behind the desk and sat opposite me, letting me sip the tea and warm up. He waited.
‘Mr Sharp?’ I began, after an uncomfortable pause.
‘Call me Ben.’
‘Ben. Ok. Um. Ben, I—’
I stumbled and shifted uncomfortably on my chair.
‘Perhaps I could ask a few questions, if it’s ok with you?’
I nodded, relieved.
‘I notice you are wearing a suit of armour.’ I looked down at my armour, embarrassed about its ordinariness. No-one else had ever commented on it before so I had always assumed it was invisible. ‘May I ask how long ago you acquired it?’
I thought for a while. ‘It’s hard to say… I can’t remember exactly… but it was a long time ago. I was very young…’
‘And do you know why you are here?’
‘Well, um…’ I felt awkward. ‘I–I fell through the gap–’
‘–Yes. Yes. But you see, that sort of thing doesn’t just happen to anyone. I think you understand?’
‘Yeah, I think so…’ I replied weakly, ‘well, actually, maybe you could explain a bit more?’ I looked at him hopefully.
‘Of course. Of course. Well. Let me see. It’s customary for people to seek me out for my specialist services, but in your case it was necessary for me to send someone to look for you.’
‘You mean the boy?’
‘Yes. The boy. He is my assistant. I’m sorry he nearly ran you over back there by the way. He can be a little reckless on his bicycle.’
‘Oh. I see. So you thought I needed help?’
‘You were sending out the right signals.’
‘Was it that obvious?’
He smiled by way of response. It was a friendly smile.
‘I expect you’re tired. This has all been a bit of an adventure.’
‘Well that’s one way of putting it!’ I felt suddenly agitated. ‘Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but what are you going to do with me now that you have me here?’
‘Shall I tell you about what I do? Maybe that would help.’
I folded my arms across my armour defensively and a scowl settled on my face. This had better be good.
He got up off his chair and went over to the sword collection, carefully selecting a most stunning example. The scabbard was carved from ebony and gilded with bronze filigree. He unsheathed it and carried it carefully and reverently, palms outstretched, as if it were a gift, and presented it to me.
I looked at him quizzically.
‘Go on. Take it,’ he urged.
Hesitantly, fearfully, I took it from him. The polished ebony hilt was gently curved and decorated with intricate bronze patterns, like the scabbard. Surprisingly, it was wrapped in rather prosaic brown cord, which coiled downwards into a loose tassel, but I supposed it made it easier to handle in battle. I gripped it firmly. The blade, long and sleek, flared out into a gentle curve in the opposite direction of the hilt. It felt strong and cool and thrilling in my hands. A shiver of excitement tingled up my spine. A flash of dragon’s fire in my belly. I turned it around and around in my hands and marvelled at how powerful I felt, watching the steel blade glint by the flickering fire light.
‘It is a Chinese Dao sword; a traditional sword used since the times of the Shang dynasty. This one is special though: it is forged by hand using ancient traditional methods, combining both hard and soft steels which are layered for the perfect marriage of strength and flexibility.’ He stopped and admired the sword for a moment. ‘So, it is both durable and resilient. It will absorb shock without breaking.’ He gave a small nod, as if convincing himself that he was satisfied with his choice. ‘It will protect you well enough.’
‘It’s beautiful…’ I admitted. Then a sudden sadness gripped me: ‘But I don’t need a sword; I have my armour!’
He shook his head soberly. ‘Your armour doesn’t protect you.’
‘Yes it does!’ I protested, even though I knew it wasn’t true.
‘No. It weighs you down. Suffocates you. With this, you will be free.’
‘Maybe I just need a different kind of armour’ I said, casting a longing glance at the window full of fanciful costumes.
Ben waved a hand dismissively. ‘Oh, I think you’ll find that one type of armour is very similar to another, in the end.’ He took the sword from me, put it back into its scabbard and placed it into a cotton drawstring bag. ‘Try it, please.’ He was quite insistent.
I shrugged my shoulders and took it from him, slinging it across my shoulder. Great. I thought. So I still have my armour to deal with and now I have a bloody sword too. More baggage!
But when I felt the poised weight of the sword on my back, I felt instantly calmer.
Ben was standing now as if waiting for me to go. He looked at his watch impatiently.
‘I’m so sorry, I have another appointment. My assistant will see that you get back safely.’
He didn’t move. He stood looking at me as if waiting for something else. I wasn’t sure if I should say something. Oh god, what have I forgotten? I racked my brains.
He gave a small cough, ‘ahem… there—there is just the small matter of, um, payment?’ He asked it like a question.
‘Payment?’ I hadn’t even considered that and I felt suddenly deeply ashamed. ‘Oh right, yes of course please forgive me,’ I rambled as I dug my hands into my coat pockets and fished around for some money. I managed to produce a few crumpled notes and some coins and stuffed them into his hands. It didn’t seem enough to me for such a rare, beautiful thing, but if he was disappointed he didn’t show it.
I turned to go and the boy was there waiting for me with his hand outstretched.
‘Pleased to meet you, miss. My name is Dexter – mos’ people call me Dex.’
I took his hand and shook it. ‘Hi Dexter—Dex. Can you take me back to the pavement?’
‘Sure,’ he grinned and he didn’t let go of my hand as he turned to lead me out of the shop. I was glad, because it was pretty dark out there and I would have been utterly lost on my own.
‘Bye!’ I called to Ben, glancing over my shoulder. He smiled a quiet smile and waved at me. In that moment an avalanche of questions I had forgotten to ask tumbled through my head: When would I see him again? How would I find him? How should I get rid of the armour? How should I use the sword – I had never used a sword before! I felt the panic swell.
Then he put his hand out to still me and brought his forefinger to his lips. It was as if he had heard every question I had thought, or read them in my face; I didn’t need to say them out loud.
‘Remember: live the questions and the answer will find you. And as for me; rest assured that I will always be here for you if you need me.’
Relief flooded me and I felt calm again. It will be ok. He won’t abandon me.
‘Thank you.’ I smiled a smile of genuine gratitude and then Dex dragged me away, keen to be off.
It seemed like only moments and we arrived back at the pavement. I concluded that maybe time worked differently down here, or maybe he knew a shortcut. I saw the daylight seeping through the crack above me.
‘How do I get back up?’
‘Use the ladder of course!’
And then I noticed the metal rungs of the ladder reaching up towards the crack in the pavement, which had opened up again. I felt a little foolish for not having seen it before: no need for the bruised bum next time, then. I climbed up and when I got to the top turned around to wave goodbye to the boy.
‘How do I get back here if I need to?’
‘You know the answer to that, silly!’
‘Oh I see,’ I laughed ‘ask a question, right?’
‘Yep – you got it! Gotta go. See yer miss!’
‘Goodbye!’ I shouted after him as he scampered back off into the blackness.
I slid back through the me-sized gap and squinted as my eyes re-adjusted to the brilliant daylight. I wondered how long I had been away, and checking my phone, discovered it was 11am. I had been gone for an hour. An hour? How can that be?
But, I was learning not to look for the answers, so I let the questions wander and stood and watched the sweeping tufts of the cirrus clouds drift lazily through the bright blue sky, and decided it was ok that I didn’t know why or how. Feeling suddenly energised, I practically flew the short distance back home, agile as a swift, my new sword clunking on my back against my armour.
I felt different somehow.
I felt as though I had lived a whole lifetime in that hour.
To read part one of this story, please see here.
© Emily Hughes, 2017
Posted on December 15, 2017
When I started this blog five years ago, the intention had always been to make it about photography: this was my passion and my way of sharing my ideas and my images and engaging with others who had similar interests.
But things change, and I have come to realise recently that the reason I have lost enthusiasm for blogging in recent months, years even, is because I lost my connection.
Just over two years ago I embarked on a journey to become a teacher. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And it was, for the most part; now that I am nearly out the other end I can see that it was good for me. But the problem was that it nearly submerged me completely: it was a dark, long, lonely tunnel which I inhabited for a very long time. Too long. I lost my connection to the things I love: nature, art, photography, even my friends and family. So I couldn’t blog, even though I did try sometimes; it didn’t come from the heart anymore.
But, there was one connection that I did manage to re-establish in that time. As a fledgling English teacher I found myself re-engaging in books, reading and writing; in words. I had forgotten how much I loved words and how much I loved writing. I revelled in words with my students as I taught them to write: vocabulary, punctuation, syntax, grammar, reading analysis. I loved it all! (That was the easy part!). When I was a child all I ever wanted to be was a writer; I wrote stories and poems and I read voraciously. I look back on my early childhood now as a kind of extended daydream: I was happy in my own way, in my shell. But I had to grow up, and growing up was hard and it brought challenges and conflicts which I wasn’t prepared to deal with. Along the way somehow I forgot about the writing; or maybe it just seemed like another one of my silly daydreams: childish and indulgent.
So whilst I have dealt with the challenges of teaching and life over the past two years and the dark road it took me down, I have started to read again, and I have started to write. It has kept me going and it kept me from going under completely.
And here I am. I find myself needing to blog again. To re-connect. But with words and not with pictures. (Although, there will still be pictures I promise!)
I don’t even know if any one of those 962 followers is still out there? But maybe it doesn’t matter, for now.
Here is a story I have written this week. I will publish it in three parts because it is too long for one post. It was written quickly. It pretty much wrote itself. Actually I didn’t set out to write it at all, it just happened. It is based on my experiences with depression and anxiety and learning, with help, to find a way through the mire. To find hope. The person who has helped me will probably never know how much he has helped me but I have tried to express my experiences and my emotions going through all of this in a way which makes sense to me. It is immensely personal but also entirely allegorical so I hope that makes it more readable and relatable. It’s also a bit silly. Ultimately it is an uplifting story of gratitude, written by someone who has found strength, courage and above all lightness.
And if you take the time to read it and comment, or even just read it, then thank you.
I have never posted a blog without a picture of mine before. It feels somehow naked. I feel nervous. I hope the words will stand up on their own.
(Edited to add: I have included this lovely Chinese night painting for context. It feels mystical and mysterious and full of symbolism).
Ong Schan Tchow, Pine In Moonlight
An example of a Chinese Night Painting
The Chinese Armoury Shop: Part 1
… have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
– Rainer Maria Rilke
The wound is where the light enters you. – Rumi
I was broken.
‘I need to fix myself,’ I decided: ‘I can do this!’
I put in an order for a suit of armour; the kind that warriors or super-heroes might wear. I selected my armour carefully, although I didn’t have much money so it wasn’t all fancy with leather buckles and rivets; nor was it shiny high-polished steel. It wasn’t lightweight, or futuristic, and there was no cape or emblem emblazoned across my chest. It was simple. The most basic model I could afford. I made sure it was good and strong and heavy so that it would hold all the broken pieces in tight and protect my limping heart. I tried it on. It was awkward: a bit stiff and wobbly, but it felt like a kind of wholeness. Its snug weight was comforting, like a blanket.
It defended me well. I found I could walk around where I pleased and I was fully protected from harm.
I was invincible!
I was pleased, and so I kept it.
I was quite young when I put it on, this armour. I discovered though, with some delight, that it grew with me as I grew, so I didn’t have to keep on ordering new suits. It was always there for me, like a warm hug from an old friend.
In time though, it became heavy and cumbersome (it started to weigh like an anvil on my shoulders); it was also chunky and unwieldy (it restricted me and blocked out the light); it was even too strong at times (it deflected everything in its path); and because I couldn’t feel in the same way, because I was weighed down, in a place of darkness, surrounded by this lumbering husk, I didn’t know that sometimes it was so strong it wounded other people too. (It was invisible as well as invincible, you see, but I think maybe you guessed that already).
But it was warm and cosy; a place of refuge. It made me feel safe. And so I kept it.
Some people tried to penetrate the armour or make me take it off. I became angry with them and they saw my anger and my pain and my sadness written in my face and they were scared, so they ran away. They didn’t ask again.
Others didn’t know any differently. They shrugged their shoulders and just accepted the brittle casement as a part of me: a little dash of eccentricity, perhaps.
So, over time, the armour became quite useless, because the war I had waged was over. It had been over for the longest time.
I was alone.
But by then it was too late. I couldn’t remember how to take it off even if I wanted to. It was stuck fast, moulded to my body.
I tried everything I could think of: I tugged at it and tried to rip it off; I chipped away with a chisel; I beat it with my bare hands until they were bruised and bloody. Nothing worked. Eventually, I learned to ignore it and I became quite skilled at pretending it wasn’t there. I thought that if I told myself that it had gone enough times then it would be so. Just like that.
But it didn’t go.
Then one day someone told me that, in the end, you are always on your own. You are born alone; you die alone. And you deal with the pain life deals you alone. When I heard this I felt my armour clench my rib cage like an iron fist, squeezing me tightly.
‘No!’ I said, struggling to breathe as I felt my heart contract, “it can’t be so.”
After that I fought harder against my armour because I could feel it weakening me. My heart was fading. I missed the light. My joints and muscles were constantly aching from the burden of it.
I was tired of being invincible.
One ordinary day, as the rain fell in a curtain of drizzle from a grey sky onto a grey landscape below, I was walking down the street, wearily dragging one foot in front of the other when a small boy approached me, halting me in my path. He appeared so unexpectedly – almost as though he had stepped out of another world – that I stopped immediately. He had wide knowing eyes and a solemn look and looked like an extra from Oliver, with a jaunty flat cap and old-fashioned breeches. He appeared to be lost: he was standing, quite still, on a rather extensive crack which seemed to have just appeared in the grey pavement beneath him. Or at least, I had never noticed it before.
‘Hello. Um, are you lost?’ I said, looking around to see if his parents were nearby.
‘No. But I think you are, miss. ‘ere you go.’ And he held out a small, dog-eared business card to me. ‘Remember: don’t mind the gap.’ he added decisively, with a small curt nod.
Puzzled, I took the card and read the details:
Specialist in Traditional Chinese Armoury
No. 3 Curzon Street
‘Curzon Street,’ I wondered aloud and looked up, ‘but I don’t know—’
But the boy had disappeared mysteriously into the sheet of drizzle and I was quite alone again. I put the card in my pocket and shuffled on through the persistent rain.
When I got home, I pinned the card to the noticeboard in the kitchen and continued to puzzle over it. There was no website address, or telephone number.
I knew there wasn’t any Curzon street in this town. Even so, I googled it on my phone just to check and found the nearest one was some miles away. Then, I googled ‘Mr Sharp’ and ‘Traditional Chinese Armoury’. Nothing. Just some pictures of samurai swords and costumes which looked like they were straight out of Red Cliff. Nothing to link the three things together. Nothing that made any sense, anyway. I took myself off to bed, feeling suddenly weary.
The next day I came down to breakfast and looked at the card again, giving it a hard stare. I was tired, not having slept well; I’d had strange and vivid dreams about samurai warriors and epic battles all night.
And then I realised.
The crack in the pavement!
‘Don’t mind the gap,’ he had said. It seemed so obvious now!
And I smiled a broad smile, and laughed. Then I grabbed my coat and rushed outside, feeling suddenly lighter.
Outside the brilliant sun was shining in a bright blue cloudless sky. There was a nip in the air and the mellow must of autumn had begun to make way for the crisp chill of winter. It was the kind of day that pinched your cheeks and made you feel alive. The kind of day I hadn’t noticed in a long time.
I ran down the road to find the spot where I had encountered the small boy and discovered it straight away. The crack was still there.
At this point, I wasn’t really sure what to do. How do these things work? I wondered to myself. Are there magic words I need to whisper? An incantation perhaps? I decided that was a silly idea, so I tried just jumping up and down on the crack, but that did nothing. Then I tried sitting on it and screwing my eyes shut tight and wishing into oblivion. Still nothing. I was starting to get odd stares from passers-by so I stood up and leant against a nearby wall, feeling a bit dejected. I felt for the card in my pocket and pulled it out and looked at it, begging it for answers. Come on! Tell me how to do this! How do I get through the gap?
My frustration whipped up like a sandstorm inside me and I became angry.
‘How can you be so stupid!’ I scolded myself. ‘As if a piece of card is going to talk to me! As if it could give me the answers! As if a crack in the pavement could show me the way!’ And I threw the card down in a fit of rage.
But as it fluttered to the ground, I noticed that there was something written on the back of the card that I hadn’t noticed before. I picked it up and read it:
Live the questions and the answer will find you.
‘Live the questions? But what does that mean?’ At this point, I was getting more and more exasperated. My armour was starting to hurt, like a faint bruising sensation. I thought a bit more, even though it was making my brain and my body ache.
Maybe I could still work this one out.
So, if I live the questions to get to the answer, then by that logic in order to find the answer to all these questions I have to start asking some questions in the first place.
‘But what is the question?’
I asked it out loud. Simply. Bewildered. Confused. Staring at the crack in the pavement. I couldn’t quite believe I was talking to a pavement, and a broken one at that.
Then I waited.
And then, something started to shift.
I felt a low rumbling sensation beneath my feet and a groaning noise as if the earth was yawning; then there was a loud clunking which sounded like large hammer hitting the pavement. I looked around, but no-one else seemed to have noticed a thing. I looked down to see that the crack had indeed opened up. There was a dazzling white light radiating out from it and it was now wide enough to fit a slim adult-sized body (luckily I was fairly slim, even with my armour on).
I didn’t hesitate: I jumped in.
I felt like Alice and I wanted my Adventure in Wonderland to start right at that moment.
I slid through the gap (it was perfect – made to measure) and landed with a bump on a fairly unforgiving ground.
Ok, so no floating daintily down a winsome tunnel of curiosities and landing on a soft bed of leaves for me I guess, I thought as I rubbed my bruised bum.
I looked around, trying to find a point of reference, but it was like midnight down there. The brilliant light had disappeared. Just as I was wondering what to do next, a quiet, gentle voice nuzzled through the void:
‘Are you ok?’
© Emily Hughes, 2017
Category: creative writing Tagged: acupuncture, allegory, anxiety, blogging, chinese night painting, community, creative writing, dark humour, depression, fiction, letters to a young poet, lifewriting, photography, rainer maria rilke, Rilke, rumi, short story, symbolism, teaching, writing