Sunday, 1 December 2013

[Northspell 5] the princess goes outside

The kitchens were vast. Irena wandered through a cavernous room at least as large as the grand reception hall upstairs, with a high curved ceiling, and yet more rooms leading off it. There were so many people hurrying from one place to another that she often had to duck out of the way to avoid being jostled. She wasn't used to having to make way for other people. The noise, too, was almost more than she could stand - such a din of doors slamming, and people shouting, that she longed for the still quiet of her own rooms.

And it was hot. Fiercely hot. A great fire filled the whole of the far wall, and there were even more fires on the other walls, behind thick metal doors. She made her way to the end of the room, where there was only a small boy crouching by the fire, turning a handle over and over again, causing...something...on the fire to rotate, releasing a smell that made her mouth water. It made her think of the dinners she was sometimes given, as a special treat if there had been a state banquet. Nurse always said such food was too rich for children, and although she could not forbid the food being sent to the nursery, she made the princess take horrible, bitter-tasting powders afterwards, 'to settle her stomach'. But all the medicine in the world couldn't take away the remembered mix of flavours that teased the princess through the weeks of plain food and cold porridge.

The boy let out a screech and threw himself on the floor in front of the princess. She stepped back quickly. A man in a stained apron peeled off from the crowd, picked the boy up, and flung him roughly back to the side of the fire.

"It's just a spark, boy - you'll soon get used to it. Now stop that squalling."

With a sniff, the boy began turning the handle again. He rubbed a tattered sleeve over his eyes and shifted his position so his back was to the room. When he thought no one was looking he slipped one red and blistered thumb into his mouth. Irena edged past him towards the doorway in the corner. No one was there, and she half ran, half stumbled into a short passageway, lit only by the grey light filtering through a dusty pane of glass above the door.

The temperature was cooler here. She could feel the cold of the stone through her thin silk slippers, and a draught crept along the floor. Unconsciously echoing the movement of the boy, she raised an arm to her forehead. She felt hot, and then cold, and then hot again - too hot. A wave of sickness came over her, and she crouched to the floor, trying to soak up the cold through the skin of her hands. She breathed slowly, in and out, in and out, until the sick feeling left her, huddled on the floor in her nightgown and torn coat, shivering in the draught from the door.

She raised herself up on shaky legs, and shuffled along to the end of the passage, using the wall as support until her feet felt more sure of themselves. The latch lifted easily, and the door swung inwards, letting sunlight spill into the murky half-light of the passage. Irena stepped out into the courtyard, leaving the door moving gently back and forth in the cool breeze. It was warm in the sun, and she raised her arm again, this time to shade her eyes from the bright light.

The white walls of the palace rose all around her. A tree grew out of a big pot in one corner, the trunk twisted in on itself like when the Bath-Mistress wrung out the face-cloth at wash time. Creamy flowers that looked like handkerchiefs were poised delicately on the end of branches, or lay scattered on the ground beneath the tree. Bits of green pushed up from between the cobbles around the water basin. Irena dipped her hands into the water and, after a moment of hesitation, rubbed them on her face. She had a feeling this wasn't the right thing to do - washing her face all by herself, and with no cloth, or towel... but nurse wasn't here, and Etta wasn't here, and the Bath-Mistress certainly wasn't here. She rubbed her hands dry on her coat, and turned her face to the sun. The steady drip...drip...drip of the water from the spout filled the courtyard, and her eyes felt heavy.

She ducked into the shade of the arches that ran along one side of the courtyard, and slid her feet gloriously along the tiles in a way that was strictly forbidden. Most things were forbidden. She yawned, stretching her mouth as wide as it would go, and didn't even raise a hand to cover it. Close by the inner wall there was a muddle of thin-slatted wooden boxes, and a pile of dried grasses spilling out of a sack. She sank down onto the sweet-smelling grass and pillowed her head on her arms. Drifting in and out of sleep, she heard small noises next to her head: soft chirrups and rustlings and a tap tap scratch that seemed to be coming from the boxes. Propping herself up on one elbow, she pushed the lid off the nearest box.

There was a bright eye, and a black curve of a beak. Irena pulled her head back sharply. She sat back, and gave the box a quick shove with her foot. This resulted in a squawk, and a renewed fit of rustling. Cautiously, she drew close again, and peered over the side. The bird, fluffed up and indignant, was chit-chittering away to itself. She reached a hand in to stroke the glossy black feathers, and found them as silky to the touch as the ones that covered her winter caps. The bird grew quiet as she continued stroking, and she risked slipping her other hand in to lift it out. It didn't like this, and became a wild, scratching thing that seemed to be all feathers and claw. She pushed it from her, and watched as it crossed the courtyard in a strange hopping run, and took refuge under the shade of the tree.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

[Northspell 4] the princess makes a decision

Gagging, she took the foul-tasting cloth from her mouth, and dropped it to the floor. Her fumbling hands told her there was no way to open the door from the inside. She stamped her foot and called out in a shrill little voice that the woman would be sorry for daring to lay hands on her in such a manner, but no one replied. She hammered on the rough inside of the door with her hands until her wrists ached, and she slumped to the stone floor, angry at herself for the sobs that she was choking back. Princesses did not cry. Nurse had been very strict about that. Excess emotion was unbecoming in young ladies, and unforgivable in royalty. What nurse would think about her behaviour this morning didn't bear thinking about. She gave a whimper. Her stomach hurt and her head felt funny. She wished she had some food. She'd give anything to have her breakfast in front of her right now. Even cold porridge seemed appealing, although given the way she was feeling now, her manners might not be all that nurse would wish of a princess.

'I am Princess Irena Marie Imaldi...' That horrible woman had laughed at her. Said she told lies. Books-Mistress had told her that lies were untruths used by bad people -saying something WAS when it was NOT. But she was the princess, everyone told her so, from the minute she got up to when she put her head on her pillow at night. And Books-Mistress had shown her the long scroll with the name of Imaldi being passed down from years past, her name last of all. She WAS an Imaldi, even more than she was Irena or Marie. After her last birthday, Books-Mistress had made her memorise the order for the naming ceremony, and she knew that before anything else, she had been named for the Imaldi family, and only then for her father's mother, and her mother's mother. She couldn't imagine being anything but Princess Irena Marie Imaldi. It was only people like Etta that had just one name. Irena. She whispered it to herself, hearing her own name as if for the first time. Could she imagine herself as Irena? The thought scared her.

There was a scraping sound, and the door opened. While she was blinking in the sudden light, a man stepped in, reached over her head to take something off a high-up shelf, and went out. He left the door open. The Princess slowly pulled herself to her feet using the shelves for support. She moved her legs gingerly, stiff and sore from sitting so long on the cold stone floor. When she cried out, no one came running to see what the matter was. She hobbled out into the room.

There was no sign of the woman, and the princess was glad of this. A tray of rolls sat on the table, but something about them looked strange. They were paler than normal rolls, and did not shine stickily as normal rolls should. She bent her head over them. They smelt funny too, almost sour. She wrinkled her nose, but her stomach rumbled again and she tried to pick one up. The roll gave way under her prying fingers and she pulled her hand back in disappointment.

As she raised her head, she saw that the man had not left, but was standing at the other side of the room, mixing something that she could not see. She drew back to a space in-between the wall and a free-standing cupboard, and slid to a crouching position on the floor. He had his back to her, but turned around and walked towards the table, holding a small bowl in his hands. At first the princess tried to breath as quietly as she could, but soon became aware that the man could neither see nor hear her. He was using a small, flat brush to transfer the contents of the bowl to the tops of the pale rolls. The princess noticed the dimpled, dirty marks where she had tried to pick one up. She brought her hands forward and looked at them as she had that morning, lying in bed. They looked just the same as ever - much dirtier than normal, but they were there, they could bang on doors and pick things up, and she could see them...so why couldn't this man?

The room seemed to swim around her, and she took a few deep breaths to stop the sick feeling rising from her stomach. The woman had seen her too, but not at first. Or had she? The princess thought back. What had the woman called her? 'Little thief'... but before that she had said something else. Pot-boy.

She didn't know what a pot-boy was, but she was sure she didn't look like one. She was a girl for a start. Perhaps...perhaps the woman hadn't seen her before she ducked under the table. The woman had...grabbed hold of her...and then didn't let go until she had pushed her into the cupboard. What if...people could only see and hear her if they had hold of her at the same time? Or, she supposed, if she had hold of them.

She looked at the man, and carefully pushed herself to her feet, grabbing hold of the cupboard to steady herself as a ringing sound filled her ears. Once it had gone away, she walked around the table until she stood next to the man. She hesitated - this time, the funny feeling in her stomach had nothing to do with hunger. If she was wrong, then the man wouldn't see her, and she'd be in just the same situation as she was now; if she was right, then everything could go back to normal. She reached out to touch his arm. Half-way there, she stopped, and drew her hand back, thinking. The woman hadn't believed her, so why should this man be any different? She needed to find someone who would believe her. She needed to find Etta.


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

childhood redraft


Once summers stretched long and hot
beaches
became deserts.
Woods were wild
dangerous places.

We sat barefoot
on branches.
Trees were there for climbing,
caves to be explored.
Our dens were everywhere
hidden.

Time hung
high and distant
above our heads.
Our imaginary spaces
faded
leaving only echoes
in the trees and empty caves.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Hester Bliss

At first they said I was in shock, and made much of me, and our honoured benefactress pinched my cheek and gave me sugared almonds. After a while they thought I was simply shy, and ceased to teaze me with questions that I could not answer. But after a month had passed and still I had not spoken, they called me Simple, and left me alone.

I liked that best of all, better even than the sugared almonds, which Mrs Grimble took away anyway, saying it was not good to favour one child so much over the others. The others were not like me. They had lived all their lives in the Foundling Hospital, growing from wriggling babies to sturdy-legged toddling things, and thence to ruddy-cheeked scholars frowning over their horn-books (although not for long - the Hospital guardians prided themselves on turning out Able Bodied Young Persons of Neat and Clean Habits...not over-burdened with knowledge.)

Thursday, 13 June 2013

glory brats: the girl

[This is just a snippet I wrote trying to get a feel for the world that the Glory Brats came from. It won't occur in the actual story, but something like it might.]

The girl held her satchel upside down and shook it. Pencil stubs and coloured beads added to the mess on the rug. A penny rolled away in a slow curve on the uneven floor. Her last reading book, caught by the shoulder strap, landed open, pages flapping in the breeze from the broken window. The girl thought of birds taking off from a rooftop at the end of summer. She had never been so aware of noise before.

Holding her breath, she tiptoed past the room where her parents lay. The door was half open, and she could just see her little sister's hand peeking out from under the covers. Mim slept on a mattress on the floor of their parents' room, beneath the window, so she could see the stars at night; the stars that were brighter than ever since the street lamps stopped working.

But Mim didn't move, and the girl went into the kitchen. She took the last three apples from the bowl on the table, the tin of apricots from the shelf, and found a bag of rice that pulled her shoulder down with the weight of it in the satchel. She took the rice out and sat it on the table.

'Where's a knife...'

A knife was found at the back of a drawer. She slit the bag open, and a few grains spilled out through the sides. Cupping her hand, she scooped the contents out and into the satchel. She did this until half the bag was gone, enjoying the feel of her fingers against the silky-slippery rice.

An alarm clock made her jump, and the last handful scattered across the table and the tiles. She looked over her shoulder into the hall. Still ringing. A few grains of rice were stuck to her hand but she brushed them away against her jumper.

The ringing was louder in the hall. She put all her weight against the bedroom door to push it open, and caught her foot on Mim's mattress.

'Sorry...'

She could barely hear her own voice over the noise of the alarm clock. It was coming from the corner of the room. Picking her way through the mess, she clambered awkwardly onto the edge of the bed and swung her legs over to the other side.

'Sorry...' she whispered to her parents, 'So sorry...'

She shuffled over to the corner and picked the alarm clock up, knocking the lever with her finger. It stopped. Her breathing was the loudest thing in the house. She dropped the clock. It whirred briefly and then stopped with a metallic clunk. The girl stood in the middle of it all, listening to the sound of her breath going in and out and in. The birds outside began to sing as the light crept slowly over the sky.

On her way out through the kitchen she paused. The knife lay on the table where she'd left it. She picked it up, feeling the weight of it as if for the first time. It felt odd. She gripped the handle, and her wrist shook.

She put it in the bag and shut the door behind her.






Saturday, 4 May 2013

the birdscarer

Like David
I found my weapons on the battlefield,
repelling the invaders of our golden hoard.
They swarmed, and clamouring,
massed for the attack.

Out of nowhere appeared a single form:
swift and true my lonely stone did fly
and fall to the golden field
where the vanquished lay.

And in that instant
I felt feathers brush my fingers
and the beat of a tiny heart in my hands,
 the wind against my face
and my spirit soared,

but then I was just standing in a field of corn,
black with crows
and in my hands
a bundle of black feathers and a broken heart.

This is an old one. We had a school reading book about lives of Victorian children, and one of the stories was about a boy who was a sort of human scarecrow. The idea stuck with me for a long time, and eventually resulted in this.

Friday, 12 April 2013

[Northspell 3] the princess visits the kitchen

The princess stood in the corridor outside her room and waited. The door opened.

'I'll be back just as soon as I've fetched your midday meal, princess.'

This was her chance, the princess thought. If she followed Etta to wherever she fetched the food from, then maybe there would be more. She followed Etta down some stairs at the other end of the corridor - not somewhere she'd ever been before. The stairs were lit by small windows at regular intervals, but the glass was so cloudy that the princess couldn't see out of them. Besides, she had to hurry to keep up with Etta.

At the bottom of the steps was a small, plain room. Etta went over to what looked like a cupboard set into the wall and pulled a chain hanging nearby. The princess stepped forward to see what would happen. A bell jangled. Etta opened the cupboard to reveal a wooden tray covered in a selection of dishes that were much less fine than those the princess used every day. Etta took the tray and sat it on a small table, next to a silver tray and dinner service that the princess recognised. She watched as Etta transferred the contents of the dishes on the wooden tray to the ones on the silver tray. It all took some time, and the princess got bored of watching. No wonder it's always cold, she thought.

She looked at the food cupboard. It was quite large, and the back was further than she could reach into the space. It must be pushed through from the other side, she thought. Bracing her hands against the sides, she scrambled up into the space and crawled right to the back. She pushed at the wood with her hands, but it didn't budge. Meanwhile Etta, having finished transferring the food, shut the door and pulled the chain.

The princess sat in the dark and felt the cupboard shudder downwards. She bumped her head on the roof of the box, and her arms and legs felt cramped. She shut her eyes tightly. After several jolting minutes, the cupboard came to a stop. She opened her eyes.

All she could hear was noise - not one single voice, or sound, just a roar of people - more people than she'd ever seen in one room. She crawled to the edge of the cupboard. A man broke away from the centre of the room with a large tray in his hands. She scrambled out of the hole in the wall just in time. The man was so close that her nose was almost touching his sleeve, but she pressed herself against the cabinet until he had gone. She let out her breath.

There was an open door just past the cabinet. She darted into the room and took a deep breath. On the table just in front of her was a plate piled high with little bread rolls, shiny with glaze. She could smell them - warm and sugary. She reached out a hand to take the top one. As she lifted it off, a figure emerged from an alcove in the corner. Startled, the princess dropped the roll, causing half the pile to tumble off the plate and onto the floor.

'What the...'

The princess ducked underneath the table. Footsteps came nearer.

'Pot boy, if that's you, I'll have your hide...'

One searching arm stretched underneath the table. The princess shuffled back, but the hand, clutching, caught hold of her dancing-slipper clad foot, now dirty and covered in dust. She was dragged from her hiding place and given a good shaking.

'Little thief!'

'You...you can see me?' asked the princess, blinking her eyes and trying to stop her head from spinning.

'See you? Of course I can see you - you and your dirty thieving hand sneaking out for my good rolls.'

The princess tried to pull away, but the woman held her tightly, 'What have you got to say for yourself then, eh?'

'I am Princess Irena Marie Imaldi, and I demand that you release me immediately.'

The woman burst out laughing. She slapped the princess, hard. 'That's for your cheek.' With her free hand, she grabbed a dish-rag and stuffed it into the princess's mouth, '...and that's for telling such lies.'

While the princess gagged at the foul taste in her mouth, and tears smarted in her eyes, the woman marched her to the alcove and pushed her in. The door slammed shut. Through the wood, the princess heard the jangle of keys.

'You can sit in the dark until I've made a new batch of rolls. Then I'll deal with you, my girl, make no mistake about that.'

Monday, 18 March 2013

cwic/alive

Fierlen aesces forbyrnath
bremels byrst
bearn blithe

Distant ash trees burn
brambles bristle
glad child

Horrendous anglo-saxon grammar here, but I thought any writing was better than nothing, and this idea appealed to me. I've been trying to teach myself anglo-saxon in my spare time, and the words have a fierceness that makes them come alive. Basically I took the words from my vocab list and shuffled them about until things clicked. I tried to nod to anglo-saxon verse conventions by having alliteration.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

winter


It was winter. 
Your eyes were closed each time I came.
I'd sit and talk 
not knowing if you heard.
It felt like the same things
over and over again.
I stepped out in the rain with relief 
and guilt and sadness 
scrunched up tight inside me. 
Later, new black dress, new tights, 
new shoes that didn't fit. 
You looked out at me from photos: 
black and white, growing older 
as I cut and pasted. 
You went to war, got married,
had kids. Colour slipped in 
somewhere in the 60s, orange tinted.
You held a smaller, younger me 
as I graduated from frilly bonnets
 to dungarees. 
Sitting by your chair, 
we practiced Morse code by torchlight: 
dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot, 
over and over again.
After the funeral, traditional 
tea and sandwiches, talking.
I looked past the chrysanthemums, 
gold and orange
to see snow, softly falling just outside the window.

outsider

Sea-bound, land-locked,
ringed by high cathedral wall.
Journey's end and pilgrims' rest:
Saint Andrew's bones make travellers of us all.
I am a tourist in its streets,
no longer a participant in its daily rites.
That book is closed;
I cannot read its pages.

I have no more substance than the ghosts,
lingering layers of past and present.
A photograph that fades: soft-edged shadows
with a keener sense of loss.
I am a whisper
of conversations, laughter, tears;
essays unwritten, blank pages and troubled sighs.

Other people walk the same lanes home,
drink tea where once I sat and whiled away the hours
with a pile of books.

Its joys and cares do not concern me now:
I don't belong here.

From harbour-head to river-mouth,
I am a stranger to the place I knew so well,
and know it still, but others now, they know it too,
and it is theirs, not mine. For now.

the archaeological rag

(with apologies to Cole Porter)

Times have changed
and we've often rewound the clock
since historians got a shock
when Belzoni smashed some old Egyptian rock.
If today,
any regulations he should try to trim,
'stead of digging up old rocks,
we'd all be digging up him.
In olden days there was more funding,
archaeology was a fun thing,
but now: application denied, case closed-
anything goes!
Good authors who once knew their history,
to them - the past? It's just a mystery.
When money flows...
anything goes!
When gap-year student, age of twenty
wants to dig, there's places plenty
-anything goes!
Those academics with books in hand,
mess up your plans and step on toes
-anything goes!
When the site director is getting richer
-get in the picture!
It doesn't matter if your budget's low
-anything goes!
If sleeping in tents you like
with no gents you like
if cheap food you like
and bad moods you like
if getting sued you like
for taking some goods you liked
-why nobody will oppose!
And though it may sound awful cynical,
as though archaeologists have no principles,
when that deadline's getting close
-anything goes!

(Written at uni for a friend in Classics who was rather sniffy about archaeologists)

childhood


Once summers stretched
long and hot. Beaches
became deserts. Woods
were wild,
dangerous places.

We sat barefoot
on branches.
Trees were to be climbed,
caves explored. Our dens
were everywhere.
Hidden.

Time hung
high and distant
above our heads.
Our imaginary spaces
faded,
leaving only echoes
in the trees and hollow caves.

firstborn

You always were the first: born before me
(three years, seven months and sixteen days).
You got a head start
and kept on running.
It wasn't fair that I could never catch
this stolen march.
You were the first in every game,
the leader of our pack of two.
Early morning expeditions:
out our bedroom window, down the drainpipe to the grass
(our feet trailed silver in the damp)
A beech hedge framed our little world;
the woods beyond were dark and deep.
You'd wait until I cleared the trees
so we could run together
-splendid in our isolation.
Sea at our feet, wind at our backs,
it felt like we were flying,
crying with the gulls.
It felt like we could live forever
but that was long ago
and where you have gone 
I can no longer follow.

smugglers


Quiet is the town and the town clock-tower,
And quiet rock the boats on the sea.
The trees on the hill are standing as still
And as straight as Cathy and me.

‘Keep warm in your beds, don’t worry your heads,
always let sleeping dogs lie.
Cover your eyes and don’t say a word
While the Gentlemen go by.’

But Cathy and me
Are fearless and brave
And we followed the smugglers
Right down to their cave.

Stacked high were the boxes and casks
Of fine lace, French wine and Spanish gold.
The smuggler band they are wonderful grand:
Oh, I wish to be one when I’m old!

‘The smuggler’s life is one full of strife
whatever the songs that they sing.
Shot at and hounded by Preventive men,
And surely, my boy, you shall swing.’

But Cathy and me
Are bold and strong.
Surely the smugglers
Will take us along?

Quiet is the boat with the blue light burning
And quiet are the waves on the sand.
The Revenue men they are hid in the glen
To catch them when the boat comes in to land.

‘Cathy stay put with the smuggler loot,
and here is a candle for light.
I’ll warn the smugglers of the Revenue men:
They’ll not be taken tonight!’

Quick and quiet
And nimble am I.
And tell the smugglers
Where the Posse lie.

Quiet is the town and the town clock-tower,
And quiet rock the boats on the sea.
The gentlemen have gone home again
And so have Cathy and me!

seagull weather


Today
is a good day
for the seagulls.
Hat, coat, gloves, scarf;
rough fingers snag on wool.
Cold, smooth buttons.

The sky is fractured:
twelve panes of fragile, milky glass.
Etched fingertips that fade,
reappear,
developing slowly, as I breathe.

Today is a good day for the seagulls.
Unconfined
by frames and panes of glass,
they fall,
and soar: now hovering motionless;
now spiralling
high.

The wind: a whisper,
then a roar, tugs at my skirt and coat,
whirling me along the cobbled streets
and leaving me breathless.
Sunlight splinters on the waves;
the sky dances.
Today
is a good day.

sunday


Sleepy
Sunday morning
sun.
Blue-rimmed bowl.
Cold milk.
Ten o clock call
from home:
weather and the week that's past.
Sleepy Sunday morning
silence. Breathing in
fingers of life-giving, frosty air.
Blue sky.
Sunday. Church bells, steady
beat, and patter, clatter:
children's feet running for the goal.
Leaves on the hedge rustle and chatter.
Snowdrops; white and green.
Flat blades piercing soil
by warm grey stones. Glass
kaleidoscoped against the light. Blue sky
Sunday.

journey

Bags at my feet, scarf loose around my neck,
I lean against the railing,
waiting for the bus.
Darkness grows; the streets are slick with rain.
People stop, form straggly queues
then turn to talk or say goodbye.

Some perch on benches with no backs

legs hanging or feet planted on the floor.
Some stand or shift from spot to spot
look at their watch or station clock,
waiting for the bus. Then,

'After you'

'No, you were first'
'Your bag will need to go below'
'One return,' and 'here's your change' - find a seat and off we go.

The sweet, stale smell of crisps, dry air, damp clothes.

Raindrops on the windowpane leave shadows on my book.
People are hair and coats, cuffs and collars.
A rustle of crisp packets, flick of pages. 
A hum of half-heard conversations; the muffled drone of music.

Some travellers do the crossword on their journey home,

solve puzzles with a pen and furrowed brow.
Kids play games or text their mates,
listen to music with a syncopated beat.
The long-haul travellers take a book, but mine lies idle in my lap.
I watch the cars, their lights and shadows,
put my forehead to the windowpane, and think.

Towns are lights and noise and people shuffling past.

Time passes swiftly: that house pulled down, 
a shopping centre built.
Scaffolding that ebbs and flows and disappears,
leaving new buildings in its wake.

The fields are fallow, dark and ribbed with tractor scars.

But I, who travel this way often, know them in every season:
patched with scatterings of snow, the soil churned rich brown,
green with crops, 
cracked and barren beneath an East Coast sky.

Towns are smaller now, cobbled streets beneath the tarmac,

Old stone houses, twisting wynds. 
A boy who waits by the chippy door for a hand of warmth:
vinegar and salt in a squeaky polystyrene box.

More dark fields, with stubbled corn.

Houses, single-storey, a patch of garden by the road.
Distant lights flick in and out of darkness,
we are little bits of light in a sea of dark.

september


The year gave another shake, a shrug
that slipped into September's sharp-edged sun,
ripened plums to drunken mouthfuls
and fattened brambles on the bush.
Each year we'd take a basket, woven wicker
(darkened twists of long dead trees),
pick with greedy fingers berries
that would stain our hands with their heart's blood.
(Later, this would leach through sugar
in a copper crucible like alchemists of old) but for now,
summer's distillation left a sweetness on our lips, and this bitter pall:
the berries that are best are always out of reach.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

[Northspell 2] the princess dresses herself

For the next hour, the princess sat curled up on the seat in the window alcove and watched. At first she would jump up every time a new person entered the room, but she soon discovered that it was not just her double and Etta that were ignoring her, but her entire retinue. None of them seemed to notice any difference in the princess either: the impostor's face and hands were washed by the Bath-Mistress, and she was dressed in the princess's clothes by the Wardrobe-Mistress.

The princess looked down at her summer nightdress. The fine cotton had twisted itself around her legs, and a sudden draught from the door made her shiver and tug the material down over her bare feet. She wished for her robe, or even her wrap, but she didn't know where they were kept. Besides, it was not done for princesses to dress themselves, and how could anyone dress her if they could not see her?

The door closed, and she looked up to an empty room. Of course, she thought, by now the Books-Mistress would be waiting in the big empty schoolroom downstairs. The princess realised that she was pleased at this. She looked out the window to the courtyard below and her face fell. The grey stone was flecked with darker patches where raindrops were spotting the ground. On such a day the princess would be kept inside, listening to the Books-Mistress reading aloud from deportment manuals.

A small smile crept onto her face as she remembered that the other princess would have to endure the endless lists of Court procedures and correct ways  to address the Hereditary Holder of the Queen's Wardrobe ('Aunt Grizel' would have been simpler, the princess thought to herself, but then, Court procedure was anything but simple).

The princess sat on the window seat for a while longer, as she slowly realised that no one was going to come back for her, or dress her, or do anything for her. She tossed her head, and stared out of the window at the raindrops rolling down the glass. Blurred by the rain, she could see tiny figures hurrying from the other side of the courtyard across the darkened stone slabs. Then, with a final gust of wind, the clouds blew away over the turrets and a weak sun blinked down on the rain-soaked city. The princess watched the raindrops as they slid down the glass, leaving watery trails behind them.

The one on the right is going to get to the bottom first, she thought. (It didn't.) Water dripped steadily off the roof and pooled on windowsills. The shallow puddles in the courtyard shrunk until at last they disappeared altogether, leaving only damp patches in the shade.

 The bells of the clock-tower opposite clanged twelve times. The princess looked towards the door. In precisely 20 minutes time, the other princess would be returning to change for the midday meal. The only people present at the midday meal would be Etta and the princess, but it was supposed to be good training for when she joined full Court life.

The princess knew how the rest of the day would go. It would be the same as all the other days. Suddenly she didn't want to see any more of her life from the outside looking in. Before, that was just the way things were, and the way they had always been done, but now...thinking of the day ahead left a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. And she STILL hadn't had breakfast and now it was time for Etta to fetch the tray for the midday meal.

Where did Etta fetch the tray from? The princess supposed it must come from somewhere in the palace. Probably quite far away as it was nearly always cool when it arrived. What if...what if she followed Etta as she went to fetch the tray? Perhaps there would be more food there, and she could take some. Perhaps...there might even be people there who could see her.

This decided on, the princess unfolded her legs from beneath her and surveyed her bare feet. She could not leave her rooms in just her nightdress, even if no one could see her. The thought of what Nurse and the Wardrobe-Mistress and the Books-Mistress would have to say on the subject did not bear thinking about. She looked around the room. In the corner by the bed there was a large wooden chest, taller than the princess - taller even than the Bath-Mistress who had to duck her head every time she entered the small bath-chamber off the princess's rooms. The princess vaguely recalled being early awake once, and seeing Etta taking the breakfast robe out of the chest to warm it at the fire.

The doors of the chest swung open easily. A bewildering row of garments hung at eye-level, with a shelf for boots and shoes below. There was a soft, warm scent like lavender and honey, mixed with a sharper scent that the princess did not recognise. She grabbed at the first pair of boots and the sharp scent grew stronger. Wrinkling her nose, she sniffed the shiny leather, leaving a tiny smudge, which she tried to rub off with her finger.

Sitting on the floor, she held one boot in both hands and tried to put it on. After several tries, she threw the stupid boot under the stupid bed, and threw the other one after it for good measure. When Etta put her boots on for her she made it look easy.

 Reaching into the chest again, her hands found the soft little slippers she wore for her dancing lessons. They slipped onto her feet easily, and she felt a sudden rush of accomplishment. Etta had always fitted them on for her before. Perhaps next time she would say, No Etta, I shall put my slippers on myself. And Etta would stare because the princess never did anything for herself, and the Dancing-Master would stare, and she would dance right out of the ballroom and she would make them all stare...

The tiny clock on the mantlepiece chimed the quarter hour. The princess dug her arms into the row of clothes and pulled at the first thing that her hands grasped. It stubbornly remained caught at the top until she gave it a sharp tug, and tumbled backwards onto the floor. Scrambling up, she held the coat out in front of her with a determined expression on her face. After all, she was a princess that had conquered shoes.

The wretched thing seemed to be all arms and trapped collars but somehow she ended up inside the coat and the coat the right way out. The sides of the coat hung limply from her shoulders, and one pocket was torn right through to the lining but the princess held her head high and performed a curtsey that would have made the Dancing-Master proud.

'The princess is ready to go out...' she mumbled in the absence of the Wardrobe-Mistress, feeling that, despite the triumph over Shoes and Coat, her appearance in the looking-glass would be somewhat less than what the Wardrobe-Mistress would like.

'Well, I did it myself, anyway.' she said to the wardrobe, sticking her chin in the air.