Posted on December 19, 2018
The slick sharp shapes of the city are blurred out of focus. The pale bright sky darkens. And then the rain comes. Sudden. Violent. An eviction. There is thunder. Lightning. I sit up. Turn my eyes to the sky, press my nose to the glass. There’s something thrilling about a storm which makes me feel like a child.
I listen to the rain pelt out tinny drum beats on the coloured metal roof tops. I wait. For it to wash everything away: dirt, sin, hope. I wait for it to end. I don’t want it to end. My eyes are bleary with colour block walls and mischievious gods with kohl lined eyes, scorpions which light up in the dark. Wary children with shy smiles and women who turn their backs to me, flashing brightly coloured teeth which nibble at proud whipped crowns. And banana leaves and teak trees, lush highland greens. Limestone mountains jutting into the sky. The electric blue of a birdwing butterfly. And smells I want to jumble up and strike onto hot night time pavements like firecrackers, inhale like anodyne: ripe melon, chrysanthemum tea, steamed yellow corn. Petrol and incense and ginger flowers. Fried banana doused in vinegar.
And the rain. I want to feel the warm rain on me. Sliding down my cheeks and the back of my neck, bouncing off my toes. I want the force of it to perforate me, punch me out onto an unknown landscape. I want to lean into it, let it prop me up, a cut out doll. I want it to drench my clothes to the outline of my flimsy body, dissolve me into a sugary puddle and suck my flip flops off my feet. I remember once, dancing in the rain. There was music. I was laughing, turning, my face and hands reaching to the sky, feeling the happiest I might have ever been. The rain can be a shelter for your loneliness. It can be freeing that way.
Outisde is all colour. Strange and rattling. But inside is quiet. Black and white. And it feels like I’ve slipped back into some watchful heart space, tender and fragrant as a kiss from a frangipane baby. I slouch against the cushioned seats. Soon, the roads are slushy canals. Sharp needles drill out dents in the pocked concrete. The downpour is exhausting. It slants across my vision, sends me into a cross-eyed daze.
We stop outside a restaurant. I see a group of men sitting and eating with their hands, bare foot, cross-legged. Flexing their toes like lizards.
It’s a slow crawl to the hotel, just 5o yards away. But no-one seems to mind about the hold up very much. No-one seems angry, or in a hurry. After all, they know. They’re no match for the sky around here. They wear patience on their sun-beaten faces like masks. A couple of horns beep pathetically and the rain drums on.
We shrug forwards and it calms, picks out a slower, more accidental rhythm. It builds again to the chorus, another unexpected rush of sound. A rising fury. Crescendo. This happens once, twice, three times.
A verse, a chorus, a song, of the rain.
© Emily Hughes, 2018, image and words.
Posted on October 10, 2018
It’s World Mental Health Day today.
Here’s a poem I wrote, for anyone who has unraveled at the seams. For anyone who has had to sop up the mess of themselves and squish it back inside and stitch themselves back up and, well, carry on.
If you are struggling right now then please, go to the doctors. Please reach out to people. Please seek help where you can. Because these battles of the mind are the loneliest and the darkest types of battles, and it takes an army to fight them.
© Emily Hughes, 2018
Posted on April 9, 2018
After a week on a writing retreat at the Hurst with Arvon I am feeling tired and exhilarated. So many thoughts and ideas spinning in my head. So many inspirational moments. So many wonderful, generous people.
There are countless benefits to a residential writing course and for each and every person the journey will be different; tailor made, if you like. But here is what I found: the freedom to retreat into myself and explore those spaces, the gaps, where the slices of light shine through. I found my voice, with gentle and insistent encouragement. I found that I had things to say with it. Things which are important. I found new friendships. And I laughed and sang and laughed some more, until tears rolled down my cheeks. Sometimes they were tears of happiness and sometimes it felt like there was something else being wrung out of me. Sometimes, I didn’t know the difference.
If you are thinking about doing a writing retreat I would highly recommend Arvon. Actually scrap that — don’t think, just book it! I promise you won’t regret it.
Posted on March 1, 2018
‘But it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.’
— Ursula Le Guin
The Girl and the Seven Dragons of the Deep
Once upon a time there was a girl. A girl whose heart was weighed down with a heavy cargo of sadness. One day, she found herself on a cliff edge with her heart screaming in her throat.
The water was still. A jewelled sheet of glass. The sun teased out diamonds on its surface which blinded her momentarily. She blinked and peered into it hopefully, thumbing the pebbles in her blue jean pockets. She had picked the smoothest ones she could find. Eventually, she reached her arms over her head and bent her legs slowly, purposefully, feeling the muscles tauten and engage. Then all of a sudden she sprung into the air with a neat cursive flourish. A small crown of ripples formed around her as her lithe body sliced through the cool icy water. A murmur.
Then it was still again.
With a dissonant heartbeat she had unlocked the secrets to the horizon; the place where the sky meets the surface of the sea. She swam, tugging herself down through the fickle currents which taunted her and tried to push her away. Finally she reached the abyss, where all around her was thick and velvet with profundity. There was no more after this — she had found the end — and she gasped, clamouring for air as her lungs filled up with water. But there was none.
As she drifted, one sly little current came across her and carried her to a place where seven dragons breathed the fire of eternal life. They had lived for thousands of years these dragons, undisturbed and peaceful, nestled in an underwater cave. The current left her at the entrance to the cave where her body settled on the sandy surface and then the jittery little thing swam off, restless to be away.
When the dragons awoke and saw her they were afraid, for they knew she was a sign.
Still, they could not reject a gift from the sea, so they took her in and tended to her, breathing life into her lungs with their fiery breath. Though they knew that this life would be their end and the knowledge of this made them weep with anguish. When the girl awoke and found herself tightly coiled in the tail of a dragon she was afraid, but they were so overjoyed to see her alive that they fussed around her, bringing trinkets of emerald sea glass to match her eyes and cockle shells to lace around her pretty neck. Her fears left her and she rejoiced with them in the life that they had breathed into her.
She lived with the dragons for many contented years. She grew to love them and they grew to love her. More than anything though she longed to be like them; she thought her own stumpy limbs awkward and cumbersome. She especially admired their supple tails which could propel them across the sea bed with one flick. She would spend many lazy hours polishing their smooth glistening scales which shimmered like opals and combing their long golden whiskers with her fingers, all the while singing to them a haunting song of the sea which told the story they knew so well.
One day the time came that the current returned to reclaim its gift (they knew it would come), but the dragons couldn’t relinquish her into its arms though it begged and solicited, using all of its powers of persuasion to beseech them to give her up. In the end they said their sad farewells and hugged her and went with the current in the place of the girl. The current wasn’t choosy and it didn’t hang around, scooping up its hefty prize and somersaulting away in one deft sinewed movement (for it had grown strong over the years).
The girl stood alone watching the magnificent creatures disappear into the abyss, one by one, until the very smallest dragon tussled and tugged and managed to struggle free for a brief moment, twisting its head around towards her for one last farewell. She reached her arms up, holding its muzzle in her hands, and gazed into its blazing auric eyes as they both wept for the life they had sacrificed. The dragon’s hot tears mingled with her own and she bathed in their warm salty solace.
At last, the little dragon was dragged back by the querulous current and the girl found herself alone again. But in its last moments it was able to bequeath one last gift to her. The dragon knew how much the girl admired its strong muscular tail and glimmering scales; as it disappeared into the surface it give an almighty shudder which rocked the sea, causing all who lived there to roll and reel about wildly. Then it whipped its tail into a spin, gathering up two passing currents and smacking them off course. Each was convinced the other had provoked them and they lurched towards one another furiously, ready to attack (for currents are burly and fearsome). As they chased each other, full of rancour, they span around snapping at each others’ heels faster and faster, creating a maelstrom which bore down into the centre of the ocean, towards the girl.
The girl was sucked into the vortex and as she too span — a giddy dervish — a cluster of shimmering dragon scales spiralled down through the water towards her like a blossom flurry caught on the wind. She saw them and laughed through her tears, reaching out her hands to touch them as they fell. Each one gleamed and shimmied with a luminescence which lit up the entire sea. The scales pressed against the whorl of her as she span, and span.
‘Goodby fair maiden of the sea!’ the little dragon rumbled out its last breath. And all the dragons roared in agreement, filling up the sea with their thunder.
At last the whirlpool released her, spitting her out onto the seabed where she lay, spent and exhausted. She remained there for several days, a shipwreck adorned with sea shells and silt until a slender crab, disguised as a rock, came across her and pinched her nose, mistaking it for some tasty morsel.
‘Ouch!’ she shouted loudly, annoyed. She had been exploring the watery depths of her dreams where she had found that she had access to things she had not known before: other worlds, new truths, ancient falsehoods. A rich, colourful scene like an underwater reef. She had explored the beauty of drowning. The seduction. The thick, opaque, shimmering allure of it. It all came back to her then, in the blurry gaps of consciousness: the rousing, the falling. She had felt a pleasant fog of sweetness blooming at the very edges of her skull. And in those shifting moments it was hard to tell what was real and what was fantasy.
It didn’t matter; she was not to remain there (after all, she had been there before). She was awake and once more had to teach her heart to beat out a new rhythm.
She tried to bend her legs to propel herself upright but found that she could not; instead she slipped and skidded uselessly on the sand. When she looked down she discovered that her legs had fused into a tail: a glittering dragon’s tail covered in thousands upon thousands of shining scales. She stared in awe, mesmerised by its scintillating brilliance. At first, she was scared. She could not believe the truth her eyes told her. Gradually though she grew braver and began tentatively to caress her new tail, exploring the thrill of its power with her fingers.
She marvelled at it: the way it twisted and turned and glistened; the way it tapered elegantly into a delicate quivering fin. She whipped it this way and that, testing its strength; writhing and tumbling; playfully batting the currents to and fro. Delighted, they responded to her teasing games, jostling with her and falling in love with her instantly (who wouldn’t?). Then, on her request, they carried her back to the dragons’ cave.
But when she arrived there and looked around the empty cave which had once been full of seven splendid, snorting dragons, she felt a shard of loneliness wedge in her heart. Try as she might, she couldn’t shake it free. She found she could no longer bear to remain inside the cave so she swam out and up, up, up, through the sea, her new tail pulsating swiftly through the water. Up towards the horizon. The currents willed her along, gently buoying her upwards with chiffon-light fingers. When she broke the surface she gasped, struggling for breath. She thought for a moment that she might be suffocating, but then her rasping accordion lungs snapped and wheezed into life, squeezing out a small jet of water as they slowly found their familiar ebb and flow.
The cave narrowed out into a rock which pierced the sky like a jagged knife. The girl grabbed the rock face with her hands and yanked herself up with all of her force, pulling and heaving, until finally she reached the very tip of it. The soft flesh on her palms and belly was shredded into tattered red ribbons by its craggy hull; her glossy scales, fine as fingernails, snagged on its jutting knuckles and scattered confetti showers, spiralling a serpentine trail of stray sea treasures which illuminated the twisting distance — like smiling splinters of the moon — up to her rugged throne.
And to this day she reclines there still, queen of the horizon world, keeping watch for her friends. They call her the fair maiden of the sea with the dragon’s tail and the currents are her willing servants. She sits, polishing her scales, combing her long golden hair with her fingers, singing her sad haunting song for the dragons, and for all who care to listen.
© story by Emily Hughes, 2018
I’m afraid I don’t know where the image is from although I have searched for it. It was borrowed from another friend’s page out there in the vast, deep ocean of the internet. I am happy that it found its way to me.
Posted on December 24, 2017
Hua Mulan (386-557) Chinese warrior during the Wei Dynasty, practitioner of martial arts
I slept soundly that night and woke up feeling glowing and refreshed: time to try out the new sword! I was excited, but also a little nervous, so I watched a few videos on YouTube first to pick up some tips. Once I felt I was well enough versed in fades and lunges, with a little fancy sword spinning thrown in for good measure, I decided to give it a go. The videos recommended starting off with a wooden or foam sword, but I didn’t have time for all that. I headed out into my tiny garden with my sword and unsheathed it dramatically, pausing to watch the polished steel gleam impressively in the early morning sunlight. I felt like Mulan! And I was on the cusp of an exciting new adventure.
I swiped the metal blade through the air and grinned at the satisfying swishing sound it made. Unfortunately, I hadn’t accounted for the weight of the thing, which I wasn’t yet quite used to, and I dropped the blade. It stuck fast in the earth. Undeterred, I yanked it out with some force, only to topple over backwards, sword still in hand. I narrowly missed slicing my entire face in half.
OK. So this might be a little harder than I thought.
I remained sanguine: I can do this!
I pulled myself back up to my feet only to discover that I had an audience: next door’s cat, Suki, was perched on the fence watching with impassive interest and flicking its tail impatiently, as cats do (it should be noted that I hate cats, especially ones that pee in my garden and mercilessly maul all the poor birds that visit, but let it be known that this is not an attempt to excuse or in any way justify what happened next). I tried to shoo her away, but she would not budge, which was strange, since we both hated each other with equal measures of antipathy and usually she stayed well out of my way, or scarpered as soon as she saw me come running at her wielding a spray bottle. She didn’t seem threatened by the sword in the least though, even when I made a mock attempt at an advance, making jabbing motions with the sword towards her. Nothing. Maybe she could sense my ineptitude with the weapon. Or maybe she was just stupid as well as evil.
‘Oh well, it’s your funeral!’ I joked.
She twitched an ear.
I ignored her and decided to practice a few more lunges, but more carefully this time. I managed not to drop the sword, or fall over, and I expertly deadheaded a rose bush. I was pleased with my progress and I bowed ceremoniously to my singular audience, who showed her appreciation by circling around on her post fastidiously and shuddering her back into an careful arch. I then decided to attempt a sword spinning finale (which to be fair had looked easier on YouTube) before heading back in for a cup of tea. The spin itself went well enough, but I fumbled at the end and lost control of the sword, missing the hand placement on the hilt. I screamed and jumped back, not wanting to lose a limb. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed that in that short time the cat had relinquished its lookout post and chosen to jump down into my garden and take a nap on my geraniums, which were now well past their best, but it was a prize spot of sunlight and obviously Suki had decided it was favourable to a cold, hard fence post. The sword spiralled manically in the direction of the cat (of course), which, at the last moment opened a lazy eye, and seeing it corkscrewing towards her, yelped in fright, springing back up with lightning speed towards the safety of the fence.
I was impressed by her agility. Perhaps she was not so stupid after all.
‘Phew!’ I wiped my sweaty brow. ‘That was too bloody close! Thank goodness cats have such quick reactions. And nine lives. Sorry Suki, I didn’t mean to scare you!’ I called out sheepishly.
But the cat was still yowling. She also had blood dripping from her tail, which was now at least six inches shorter than it had been before the sword spinning incident. Obviously she had not quite been quick enough to save her tail from the spinning sword of death.
It’s OK! I can fix this!
I quickly scooped up the howling cat and fumbled in the geranium bush for the rest of the tail, and then I ran inside and attempted a botch first aid job of bandaging the two parts back together.
It didn’t go well.
The cat was (understandably) very angry; she bit and scratched me with desperate shrieks of abandon. I dropped her several times and had to coax her out from underneath the kitchen dresser. When I eventually managed to catch her she recommenced with the biting and scratching. The kitchen looked like the aftermath of a deadly skirmish: there was blood sprayed all over, across the walls and kitchen cupboards. Suki was wrestling noisily in my arms, stumpy tail flailing wildly and I (covered in scratches and blood) was desperately trying to affix a tail appendage to the end of it with bandages and plasters. Every time I managed to grab hold of it and tried to apply the bandage she would yank it away again and more blood would splatter across the room. It appeared losing the end of her tail hadn’t made it any less mobile; it was surprisingly strong.
In the end, I gave up with the re-attachment efforts and put the end of the tail into a tupperware box. I took a deep breath and carried squirming, screeching Suki, and the tail, round to my neighbour’s house.
Time to face the music.
My neighbour is a very nice seventy-three-year-old lady called Maureen who loves her cat dearly.
She lives alone.
I rang the doorbell and listened to it chime neatly.
‘Oh hello dear, what a nice surpri— Oh… goodness… oh my… oh golly! What has happened to you? Are you OK dear?’ And then, she noticed the cat. ‘Is that my Suki? My dear Suki? Suki? Why is she making that awful whining noise and is that— is that… blood?’ Maureen drew a sharp intake of breath and went suddenly pale; she had to hold on to the door frame to steady her weight. I was a bit worried she might pass out.
It’s alright! She’s fine!’ I sung brightly. Too brightly. I realised this was not reassuring, so I tried again: ‘Well, OK she’s not fine, but what I mean is… well it’s not life-threatening anyway. Just a, um, small – I mean very minor really – accident in the garden. I promise I tried to shoo her away…’ At this, Maureen put her hands to her face and actually turned ashen. Of course I had said entirely the wrong thing. Again. ’No-no-no-no-no… NO… look … sorry… I meant before. Before. Before all of this (I gestured to poor Suki’s bandaged tail) happened I tried to shoo her away so she wouldn’t get hurt. But she refused to go – she just stayed there! You see I’ve been seeing this guy and he— oh no not like that Maureen! I mean he’s been helping me. He gave me a sword – to help me – because, well I’ve been very low and depressed and today I feel better than I have done in years! Or at least I did before… before… this… ’ I looked down poor wretched Suki whose yelping had now subsided into a low and constant mewling, ‘… it’s wonderful really, (this was still not helping, I was aware of that, but somehow I couldn’t stop the words from tumbling from my tongue like mini hand grenades, each one sending tiny explosions of shock through poor Maureen, who had now grabbed the fated kitty out of my pernicious clutches and was smothering her with kisses and making tiny little declarations of ‘oh goodness’ and ’oh my’ and clutching her closer and closer to her breast with every terrible word I uttered) I mean not for poor Suki, obviously; although I really think she will be ok, Maureen, don’t fret, it’s just her tail after all – hardly a vital organ or anything? But you see I had to try the sword out and that’s when… well that’s when this, erm, unfortunate incident… that’s when it all happened,’ I finally stuttered to a full stop, bracing myself for the onslaught.
‘Unfortunate! You call slicing my Suki’s tail in half unfortunate!’ she screamed as tears ran down her face. You ought to be jailed for cruelty to animals you— you horrible woman! Please leave us be! At once!’
I remained standing there, dumbly, because I still had the wretched tail in the tupperware box. I offered it up to her meekly, attempting a kindly-but-remorseful smile. But she refused to look me in the eye as she grabbed it from me. The inexpertly applied bandage had come loose and there was blood dripping all the way down her cream skirt and onto her cream hallway carpets as Suki mewed mournfully. I didn’t think she had noticed and decided it was probably best not to point it out.
‘I’m really so so sorry, Marueen. I hope Suki gets better soon! Oh and please don’t feel you need to return the tupperware, you can keep—‘
The door slammed in my face.
I sighed heavily, suddenly feeling the dull weight of my armour pressing down on me.
I knew it was what I deserved though.
So much for living the questions. So much for finding the light. I had found only enemies and I had hurt a poor defenceless creature in the process! This was not a satisfactory resolution to my new adventure.
I decided I needed to find an alternative ending, so I went to visit Ben.
Dex was there waiting for me by the ladder. He was friendly enough, but a little more subdued than normal. As he led me through the darkness I attempted to make conversation, but he either responded to my idle chatter with one word answers, or ‘yes, miss; no miss,’ so I gave up in the end.
When we arrived at the shop I felt my stomach pitch. I could see immediately that Ben wasn’t happy with me. He had a stern look on his face. I guessed he must have heard on the grapevine what had happened with Maureen and Suki. I hoped I looked suitably contrite as I sat down. There was no tea waiting, and his eyes were dull black coals. I knew I was in for a talking to.
‘You do know you are not Hua Mulan, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I replied sulkily, staring at my shoes, ‘look, I’m sorry, OK? I was stupid.’
‘You brought discredit not only to yourself, but to me and the armoury profession. You must learn self-control. Restraint. And you must learn that this is a journey you are on. You must have patience.’
I looked up at him. I was hurt and confused. ‘Then why did you give me the sword if not to use it?’
Ben sighed. ‘I gave it to you to protect you.’
‘But you didn’t teach me how to use it properly? You just gave it to me and sent me on my way! No instructions. Nothing. What did you think would happen?’ My voice had risen to a high-pitched whine. Tears smarted at my eyes. I didn’t want to cry in front of him, but I couldn’t stop the tears from sliding down my face.
‘I— I thought I could trust you to be sensible… I guess I should have spent more time with you. You are right – this is my fault,’ he admitted as he took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. I noticed how tired he looked. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Look. It’s OK.’ I wiped my face and smiled weakly at him, blinking away more tears. He looked alarmed. Embarrassed. Perhaps he wasn’t used to emotional women in his shop. ‘Really.’
He was silent for a while.
‘Would you like some tea?’ he offered eventually.
I managed a grin. ‘Id love that, thank you.’
He left the room for a short while and returned with two cups of tea. We sat and drank, enjoying the silence.
‘It’s not all lost,’ he said after some time.
‘No! Of course not.’
‘I can teach you how to use the sword. How to use it to protect yourself. With a calm body and calm mind. It takes patience though. And practice. Some people learn quicker than others.’
‘I promise I will listen, and be a good student,’ I said earnestly.
‘After all, a diamond with a flaw is better than a common stone that is perfect.’
I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but then I saw the twinkle return to his eyes and we both laughed.
Later, he told me the secrets of the sword, which were really so simple that I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t realised them by myself. It turned out it wasn’t a weapon after all, but it had the ability to reach those spaces; the ones in-between, which let the light in. That was its power: strong, yet supple; powerful yet subtle.
When it was time to go, I paid him (I had come prepared this time) and he led me outside.
‘Oh, he’s busy.’
My heart bolted. ‘How will I get back? I can’t find the way alone!’
‘You can, you have the sword! And light.’ He handed me a paraffin lamp. ‘Take it with you: better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.’
‘OK, I hesitated, but why is it always like this when I visit, Ben? A permanent state of twilight?’
‘Don’t you like it?’
‘Well it’s a bit obscure and sort of curious. I get the sense there’s something going on I don’t know about… something hidden… something biblical and terrifying and dramatic; a bit like living a Byron poem, or Dante’s purgatory.’
Ben looked confused, so I plucked a quote from my memory: ‘The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air, and the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need of aid from them – She was the Universe…. that sort of thing.’
He looked thoughtful.
‘I mean, you don’t live entirely in darkness, do you?’
‘Oh no. No we don’t,’ he stretched out his arms, gesturing around him, ‘but this, all this is yours. It’s entirely your state of mind. Everyone who visits is different. The scene changes.’
‘Wow, I expect that must be exhausting for you.’
Ben shrugged his shoulders. ‘One adapts,’ he said simply. Besides, I suspect it won’t always be dark.’
‘I look forward to that day.’
‘Me too… well goodbye now! Go safely.’
I found my way through the shadows easily enough with the lamp and the sword hugging my back. I was surprised how much I had remembered when I thought I hadn’t been paying attention to the route at all.
After that, I kept the sword in its cotton bag so it remained inconspicuous. I was much more cautious. But I still carried it with me everywhere because it made me feel so powerful, much more so than my armour (which I hardly noticed at all any more). I didn’t try any more swashbuckling antics; it was enough just to have it with me, to feel its weighty presence. At first it felt heavy, but over time I got used to it and found it comforting. I also noticed how other people treated me differently when I carried it. They smiled at me, stopped to chat even. I had a conversation with the check-out lady at Waitrose. She told a funny, sweet story about buying onesie for her granddaughter at Marks and Spencer’s. The whole time I listened and smiled and didn’t get bored or anxious at all.
As winter marched on and Christmas approached, I went back to visit Ben several more times; each time he gifted me his wisdom and taught me something new about the sword. We chatted and laughed and drank tea, sometimes for longer than an hour. I always felt lighter when I left.
One time, he asked me again about my armour:
‘Why don’t you take it off?’
‘I tried a while ago, but it was impossible. I still have the scars on my hands to prove it,’ I held them out to him, as proof. ‘I’m afraid I’m stuck with it,’ I said, shrugging my shoulders. I had hoped that Ben would tell me how to take it off, so I was still a little bit cross about that.
He seemed to sense this.
‘Hmm. You do realise don’t you that you now have the power to get rid of it?
‘Really?’ I exclaimed with mock incredulity, ‘Alright then, tell me how!’ I challenged.
He chuckled at my testiness. ‘I can’t do that. As I said only you can remove it. You must find your way to the answer.’
I was irritated by his enigmatic sagacities. Couldn’t he just tell me straight, just for once?
I glowered at him, and thought for a while.
Swords. Armour. Questions. Answers. Light. Darkness. Weight. Lightness. Power. Strength. Weakness. Sharp. Pierce. Cracks. Gaps. Spaces…
All the words jumbled frantically in my head.
Then they stopped, suddenly, and seemed to shift into place, like solving a rubik’s cube or slotting in the final piece of a tricky puzzle.
Spaces. The spaces in between. That’s what the sword does: strong yet flexible; powerful yet vulnerable. It finds the point of weakness; the chink; the wound and opens it up; it’s where the light seeps in… so weakness can be a strength, after all…
‘The sword can help me!’ I shouted, suddenly realising, ’It can break the armour. But— but not with force or violence. I need to do it gently. I need to find the place of weakness, the gaps, I think?’ I was excited but still unsure, so I looked to Ben for answers, for reassurance.
He said nothing, but he was smiling encouragingly.
I took the sword and, trembling, slid it out of its scabbard, excited to feel its naked weight in my hands once more.
But I couldn’t do it. My hands were trembling. I was scared.
‘I can’t!’ I wailed, shaking my head. ‘I’m too nervous – I’ll stab myself!’ I handed Ben the sword. ‘Will you do it for me? Please?’
He took the sword from me. ‘Do you trust me?’
‘Yes. Yes I do.’ And I did, completely and utterly. ‘Please. Help me.’
Then he asked me to stand and he felt along my armour for the joins, along the sides of my torso, and carefully, he slid the sword underneath my armour. It yielded instantly and was surprisingly malleable. I felt its strength as it searched for the points of weakness. It did not hurt, or even scratch me. Then suddenly there was a hot stinging sensation and I was flooded with a gentle warmth which radiated throughout my body; then a clunking sound, like a latch coming loose. And that was it. The armour fell to the ground where its brittle form – a mummified version of me – shattered into a thousand pieces.
I was free.
I felt so relieved to be rid of it. And suddenly exhausted. And cold, despite the heat from the fire. I shivered, feeling instantly naked, though I was fully clothed. Ben carefully returned the sword to its mount on the wall.
After that, I hugged him and thanked him for everything he had done and then I left.
Outside, I pulled my coat around my frail body; it felt warm and cosy against the chill of the winter air. I was worried the pieces might come apart again, but they didn’t. My heart was beating slowly and steadily. It would be OK. The darkness had also lost its battle with the light and the sun shone brightly for the first time. I saw the busy bustling Curzon Street before me as I had never seen it before: I saw the flower seller at her stall selling pretty nosegays of violets and primroses and sweet peas; I saw the chemist, Mr Lyle of Lyle and sons, busy chatting with a customer on the doorstep and shaking his head at the pedlar across the street trying his luck with a new wonder tonic to cure all ailments; he had gathered a small enthusiastic crowd around him. Further down the street a group of carol singers were singing ‘O Come all Ye Faithful’, collecting alms for the work houses. The shops were decorated simply but gaily with garlands and wreaths of holly and ribbons in red and green. I saw Dex on his bike, whistling, running errands; he waved at me and I waved back. I saw all the glorious detail of life down here which I had missed before. It was wonderful. I could have stayed for hours to explore, but I knew I had to get back to my own life up there. I knew I had to start to learn to live again, as me, without my armour, and without my sword.
And so that concludes my tale, although of course it is not the end, but only the beginning; for every ending is the start of something new. You may be wondering what happened to me and if I managed to survive on my own. Rest assured, I am doing well these days. I even managed to strike up a friendship with Maureen from next door, although Suki the cat still eyes me with fierce suspicion (I don’t really blame her). I sustained the icy glares and the cold glances for days until I decided enough was enough and I had to do something. I knew she was lonely and I was lonely too, so I went round there with a casserole and a bottle of wine and we ate and drank and passed a pleasant evening together. Suki is doing well; her tail has quite healed and she now spends more time curled up on her doting owner’s lap rather than prowling the neighbours’ gardens chasing birds, so for that Maureen is grateful. And so am I. We even spent Christmas day together. Whilst we were eating our turkey, I asked Maureen whatever happened to the end of the tail in the tupperware box.
‘Oh!’ she made a little yelp of excitement, ‘Yes! I forgot to tell you. I had it made into a little keyring, so now I will always have a little piece of my Suki wherever I go.’ And she pulled said keyring out of her pocket to show me, stroking it proudly.
I tried to hide the alarm on my face and inched my plate away slowly from the mangy piece of tail, thinking about all the germs and diseases it was probably infested with. I hoped I had managed to cover up my horror. ‘How… um… wonderful, Maureen! What a special keepsake.’
‘Isn’t it? You see it all turned out for the best in the end. Now I have my Suki back, and this memento, and I have a new friend.’ She beamed at me with her grey rheumy eyes. I couldn’t tell if she was welling up or if it was a blocked tear duct; but either way it didn’t really matter: we both felt the warm glow in our hearts.
‘Well I’ll certainly drink to that,’ I enthused, raising my glass of champagne with a flourish.
Maureen raised hers too and we toasted.
‘To friendship… and to cats!’ she added resolutely.
‘To friendship. And cats. And new beginnings!
Wishing you all a joyful Christmas!
© Emily Hughes, 2017
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 17, 2017
interrupted by a daydream, 2014
She tugged at her apron and bit hard at her bottom lip, watching as three drops of blood fell, staining the perfect blanket of starched white cotton.
The memory shifted into place: a bolt unlocking. She didn’t want it – not now – it was all too painful. Exhausting. But there it was, tugging at her. It seemed insolent to try to ignore it, or chase it away. The ‘kerchiefs, the pillowcases, always white, they were. White as those sweet little snowdrops. Ada had scrubbed them daily but the blood still came; first drops (just a few) and then they were sodden. She had tried to hide them, her ma, stuff them away under the bed sheets, in pockets, but Ada had found them. In the end it came in a torrent bubbling and spilling out of her; through her mouth, teeth and lips sticky and stained black-pitch, even her nostrils. There was so much of it. Later, she had looked at her waxen skin streaked with red and the halo of crimson which bloomed around her head and thought that they were like the tears her mother had never cried, which had built up inside of her. Tears of pain. She had kept it hidden for so long from everyone. All those months of coughing and wheezing and secrecy. She had nurtured her suffering jealously, an unborn child, hers to bear and hers alone. When the dam broke, Ada had been surprised and shocked by the force of it, this wellspring inside of her mother, tiny and fragile as a porcelain doll.
She shook her head, as if to try and scramble the memory. Knock it out of her.
Not now. Please.
This is a short extract from a longer story which I am currently writing.
© words and images by Emily Hughes