May 2004 I found myself alone and bedbound in a motel in Dorset. I’d been struggling with a traumatic, debilitating illness for two years, feeling a bit stronger, I’d hoped to manage a camping holiday with my family. Shortly after setting up our tent I collapsed.
For three days I slept, stared at the wall and cried.
I thought, not for the first time, of ending my life. Instead, not for the first time, I took up my pen.
I started a novel which has just been longlisted for the 2017 Mslexia novel award. For years I was so ill I only wrote for twenty minutes a day. I showed no one my writing for ten years.
Every day I shooed away voices in my head – You can’t even put enough money on the gas metre, some days you can’t walk to the end of the garden, how the hell can you write a book!
The finished novel was handwritten in fifteen giant, kid’s sketchbooks from the pound shop. I got hold of a laptop and began again, one finger typing till I had 756 pages of mildly promising chaos. Then I began again. Writing for longer and longer periods, I took breaks by writing poetry – on days when nothing could help my pain – poems got me through.
I’m working class, I expect slog and boredom with flashes of joy or wonder.
I learned that stories are wonderful, great, whopping lies with seeds of truth at their core. I fell in love with this realisation pretty young. Now I can only shake out my naked-truth-back-story if I sort of jig it, clapping and stamping as I go – it’s a survival thing, a need to turn pain and ugliness into beauty – or at least something new. ‘Make your worst art,’ someone said – so please, if you fancy it – see below.
First of five. Suburbs London. Big sister. Weird one.
Teach him read. Teach her dance. Teach her run.
Father 60’S Mod. Slog stress shout.
Jobs long shifts left school fifteen.
Telegram boy butcher house removals airplane cleaner mini cab driver.
Mother 60’s Beehive Girl.
Angry grieving mad times bad times chase-hit-scream.
Telephonist cleaner pub cook. Nineteen pregnant baby me.
Nan bought me blue pocket dictionary.
Taught me to write
flow-loop-deep-blue in this spell book.
Kind-worn-hot-butter-toasty sunflower in a Socialist badge.
Nan showed me Ladybird Books on the paper shop twirling rack.
including me –
when she died suddenly.
Early school crayons-books-smells-colours. Teachers are Posh-
still, a tall kind one teaches me to read on her lap. And.
Wait a Minute! No one can bash this new sense out of me!
Even if. People in books are posh, like doctors and people in posh houses and people with posh voices. Even if posh is better. Even if only common is not better. Even if Mother says I am common if I say Aint. Even if I get my head smashed against the sink for bringing Aint home from infant school cos Aint is one of her only rules.
Even if we are a house in chaos and we don’t have friends round.
We play war in the streets, on the heath. Mum says she could have got an exam but she wanted to leave… She likes some books like Valley of the Dolls. Later time I discover she loves Laurie Lee.
Dad reads the Daily Mirror and The Sun – I hate big bosoms. Women are for tits not for words. I hate some words, tits is my hatest. Dad buys us Kit Kats or Curly Wurlies when he comes off night shift.
Mum says Don’t Tell Tales about what you see, hear (one day I will). She whacks me with a carving knife, chases me with a rolling pin – I’m fast but you can never be fast enough (remember that) – I get used to getting knocked down, who cares, I get used to getting up.
Mum says I’m No personality Not funny Not a looker, and if I was any of these I might have a chance of Friends and a Rich man.
I watch her and I listen and I hurt deep to my toes through the earth to its core.
I do quiet-sad, quiet-angry, quiet-scared; school calls these Shy, Cat Got Your Tongue, Learn To Contribute, Moody. But I learn like I drink. Thirsty-quick-quick.
Posh kids have books, bookmarks, happy-slept-faces. Parents want to them do homework, learn piano which costs Youmustbekiddin.
Grandad did house removal, tea chest of old plays – a foreign language – angry – no one to explain them to me.
But Library in town is beautiful. Oh wooden twirly stairs! Oh shelves polish and deep! Oh paper is important.Oh Thank You to the trees!
Dad takes us from under her feet – he’s late returning things – down bear-brown stairs, away we troop, dad shouting about fines he Can’t Won’t Pay. Looks so shamey I ache for him. Tear up our tickets. Who cares, no one from our street goes libraryin anyway.
And soon I have a school library – safe – ah – space and back and back, stretching soft light and quiet ticktick time. Only a librarian, brush of her rough tights, squeak of her stamp; only children – mouse ones, tired ones, frumpy-handkerchief-up-sleeve-teased ones, brain boxes, ironed-grey, slim-flick-page-fingers. We put down bags, sigh, sigh, eyes flick over each other like light. No Oi Tramp, Oi Lesbo, Oi Frigid, Oi Wierdo in the library.
Always secret scribblin. I hide my dear diary. New place each day. Mother finds it, tears out pages about her, puts it back. Tore at my skin, now she’s goin at the paper me.
I give up this thing I love. Remind myself of Jesus from junior’s assembly. Inside my head is a holy sanctuary. Flush away diaries, she Will Not take my words from me.
Watch listen remember create. Watch listen dream create.
But. It’s a killer, I hate big school. I must write my worst in English, I put A for effort and creativity into stoopid-dimbo-mistakes and dull-idiotness. Can’t afford to be a Swot as well as a Freak.
Fifteen, dad says Work. No. Had jobs since I was 12 gotta save for pads, bras deodorant, magazines. Pennies don’t go far when you turn woman.
Teacher says A levels.
Dad says Thinkyou’rebetterUselesspieceof
Air Stewardess is better – but you have to be…And languages, and taller, says mum.
Still. I turn A* Girl in my ripped tights and eyeliner. Hardy, Orwell, Shakespeare
blow my weirdo mindo! I’m waking up – this might be happiness.
I dream one night of daffodils opening. Dreams of a future, I have, but no not hope.
Hope is for Luckies with hope already. Dreams are wild horses, beautiful-unrealistic.
No more waste of time school. Dad wants me out from his roof, not a kid anymore.
Mother going to court for shop lifting. I’m a tear-face every morning. Teacher says
University. I want oh I want. But mum is never home, baby brother’s depressed alone.
How can I stay? But how can I soddin go?
Exam. Freeze. Hand writes name. Then only sweat streaming.
Only ticktock End of University. Nice teacher spits
Thinks a Teenage Rebel’s let her down.
Can’t explain. She won’t talk to me.
Soothed by Katherine Mansfield kept from the school library. I run.
Paris. Useless au pair. Sleeper on floors, lover of a boy, keeper of a notepad God.
An acher of pain in London. Homeless. Bin bag of clothes. Two books – K M’s short stories, Great Gatsby. Sleeping in a phone box, and a doorway. Squats. Penniless. Waitress. Shops. Airport. Evening classes. Fashion biz. Magazines, shoots. Can’t speak to the PR girls, that skin those teeth, they’re posh gloss. I am nothing.
Maya Angelou. Oh my god, Maya Angelou.
Emily Dickinson. Oh, and The Beat Poets. The bloody Beat poets!
And Woolf! And so many! I chant their names. I love my angels and my angels love me.
Partner. Babies. Happy. Play. Parks. Ducks. Stories. Childminding while home educating my kids. Partner long shifts. Running, always running. Writing till 2 in morning. Want to be everything my mum wasn’t – till everything stops with sudden illness.
Bedbound, housebound, can’t hold a toothbrush. Can’t sit up, walk, write or read…
Till a bursary. A Creative Writing class.
Where this tutor man tells me
The difficulty is you write from your imagination.
You have a willful disregard for convention.
Is he venting cos I don’t write from the right class and learning?
You must think of your reader, he says.
I wrote to survive – I was my reader.
Now I think of my reader. Hah! My reader will probably not be him…
I’m not middle class, no degree, rarely go to the theatre, not been skiing…
Still, one day some women and one man listening; all tremble-sweat,
I dare to share a story. They say Love, they say Good, and Wow.
And so before self-doubt can stop me
I must run free with all my wild horses.
Astra Bloom has won and, or, been shortlisted in short story and poetry competitions, including Bare Fiction, Bridport, Live Canon and The Brighton Prize. She has poems forthcoming in Magma and Under the Radar, stories forthcoming in A Wild and Precious Life (an anthology about recovery of all sorts) and two novels sitting on the Mslexia novel award longlist.
She loves this poem.
Late Fragment BY RAYMOND CARVER
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.