Snatched phrases: sun & sea

‘The sun glinted on the dimpled pelt of water.’

From ‘Skylarking’
by Kate Mildenhall



Of peonies and perception

Other people’s words about … memory

That was the beginning of that summer, which merged in many of their minds with other summers, but was remembered chiefly as the summer that young William was born, and there was that sad matter of the other baby; but remembered by Polly as the summer that [her cat] Pompey died and his splendid funeral; remembered by old William Cazalet as the summer he clinched the deal over buying the Mill Farm down the road; remembered by Edward as the summer when, offering to stand in for Hugh at the office, he met Diana for the first time; remembered by Louise as the summer she got the Curse; remembered by Teddy as the summer when he shot his first rabbit and his voice started going funny; remembered by Lydia as the summer she got locked in the fruit cage by the boys who forgot her, went off to play bicycle hockey and then to lunch and nobody found her until half-way through lunch (it was Nan’s day off) and she’d worked out that when the gooseberries were over, she’d die of nothing to eat; remembered by Sid as the summer when she finally understood that Rachel would never leave her parents, but that she, Sid, could never leave Rachel; remembered by Neville as the time his loose tooth came out when he was on his fairy cycle which he could only dismount by running into something so he swallowed the tooth and didn’t dare tell anyone, but waited in terror for it to bite him inside; remembered by Rupert as the summer when he realised that in marrying Zoe he had lost the chance of being a serious painter, would have to stick to school-mastering to provide her even with what she thought of as the bare necessities; remembered by [Edwards’s wife] Villy as the summer when she got so bored that she started to teach herself to play the violin and made a scale model of the Cutty Sark which was too large to put into a bottle, something she had done with a smaller ship the previous summer; remembered by Simon as the holidays Dad taught him to drive, up and down the drive in the Buick; remembered by Zoe as the frightful summer when she was three weeks late and thought that she was pregnant; remembered by the Duchy as the summer that the tree paeony first flowered; remembered by Clary as the summer she broke her arm falling off [her horse] Joey when Louise was giving her a riding lesson and when she sleepwalked into the dining room when they were all having dinner and she thought it was a dream and Dad picked her up and carried her to bed; remembered by Rachel as the summer she actually saw a baby being born, but also the summer when her back really started to go wrong, was only intermittently right for the rest of her life. And remembered by Will, whose first summer it was, not at all.

From ‘The Light Years
by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Today’s quote is a long one, so I’ll keep my own words short. Howard in this passage describes, poignantly, two things — first (and most obviously), the way our experiences are filtered by our own perceptions and then, further, by our own memories, so that the way one person remembers something can be entirely different from the way another remembers it; and second, she describes the summer of 1938, which was the year before World War II began, though Howard — deliberately, I think — does not say so in this passage, and does not have her characters remember it that way.

Every time I read this passage I find myself sympathising with a different character, or nodding in recognition at a different character’s thoughts or feelings. And then, in turn, I find myself thinking about my own memories, and re-examining them, and wondering how someone else, going through the same things, would perceive and remember them …

Snatched phrases: stolen

‘[I] saw a squawking flash of cockatoos
go reeling and wheeling into the sky.
The soft secret underside of their wings,
so close, so tender.’

From ‘Skylarking’
by Kate Mildenhall


I was standing at the bus-stop the other day on my way to work when an odd commotion across the road caught my eye. A car had driven past, fast, and something had got caught up in the passage of its passing: something grey and small and warm and moving, something that gave the impression of flight, of flurrying. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, although subconsciously I registered feathers, but after the car had sped past, I saw that it was a small bird. In my memory I replayed what had just happened and this time, in my mind, I saw it: the bird had swooped down from the branch of a tree overlooking the street, but somehow it had mistimed its dive, and so it had got caught up in the passage of the car. Got hit, is what I mean.

The dove — that’s what it was, I saw: one of those spotted turtle doves with the iridescent sheen on their neck and the rash of white spots over a patch of purest black — had landed, after its collision with the car, on the ground in the middle of the far lane. Now the wind was playing with its feathers a little, and I saw the dove try get up on its legs but then fall back down again. It was young, not quite fully grown. I glanced around me, at my fellow commuters waiting at the bus-stop, but though I saw people looking, though I saw them seeing what I was seeing, no-one moved.

And so I ran out onto the road before the next car came past and crouched down beside the dove. I looked down at it, hesitating, and then I whispered to it, because I felt I should, I’m just going to pick you up and get you out of the way of all these cars; and then I reached for it and clasped it between my hands. I could feel its heart beating inside my two hands, and the warmth beneath its feathers, and I could feel it trying to gather itself and flap its wings to free itself from me; it didn’t want me to hold it, not at all. But it was too small or injured to shrug itself free and so I held it gently and lifted it and crossed to the far side of the road, opposite the bus-stop, and then I set it down on the footpath, there out of reach of the traffic.

Once I had put the dove down I crouched down beside it a moment on the footpath, watching it. I said to the bird, You’re safe now, and then it blinked — only it wasn’t a blink, not really. Its eyelid came down far too slowly, like a shutter, in a kind of world-weary exhaustion; and then its eyelid opened again, also too slowly. I could swear it had let out a little sigh as it blinked, although birds don’t sigh, do they? After that, it went utterly still. When I glanced across the road at the bus-stop, no-one was looking my way anymore; everyone was busy with their phones and their handbags and their earbuds. After a moment I stood up and walked back across the road and waited with them at the bus-stop. Five minutes later the bus arrived, and still no-one had spoken, and still the bird hadn’t moved from the place where I had set it to rest on the footpath.

I thought as I sat on the bus that the dove had died: that perhaps the shock of me lifting it up had added a final trauma to its day and its heart had stopped right then, as I crouched by it on the footpath and whispered to it, trying to comfort it. I thought about that all the way to work, and then I tried not to think about it anymore.

Doves are a dime a dozen, and there was nothing more I could have done, I guess, but still I felt sad. It was the intimacy of that moment, I think: feeling the secret beat of the dove’s heart between my hands, the warmth of its soft chest against my palm. I felt, perhaps, the way the narrator does in the passage above, as she observes the cockatoos in the sky, seeing the soft secret underside of their wings. It was the stolen, fleeting nature of the moment between the dove and me, tinged further with the thought that I hadn’t helped, and maybe — just maybe — I had made the dove’s last moments worse, not better.

When I got off at the bus-stop that evening, on my way home from work, I saw to my surprise and my slow delight that the body of the bird wasn’t there as I had expected it to be, cold and long dead. There were no feathers there, either, no signs of blood or injury or scuffle.

And I think now — I truly think — that when I set down the bird on the footpath and it let out that terrible not-sigh, it was in shock, but it was essentially uninjured; and so afterwards — after it had recovered from its shock — it got up and it flew away to safety.

That’s what I think.

Out and about: dragons & damsels

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau


I wasn’t expecting anything special on my most recent walk in the Scrub. It was mid-February, a warm Sunday at the end of a warm week, after a very warm January. I figured everything in the Scrub — bushes, birds, animals — would be going through what I always think of as mid-summer somnolence.

But things in the Scrub were thriving. Passing sea box bushes resplendent with red berries (above) and sheoak trees whose branches were clustered with woody fruit (below), I walked south, towards the little lagoon just behind the boundary fence that runs along Acacia Terrace.

Damselflies skimmed the (somewhat scummy) surface of the water, and a pair of ducks paddled amongst the reeds in the lagoon. As I followed the curve of the bank around to the other side of the pond, I saw a family of kangaroos lazing in the shade of the nearby bushes, one of them poised upright, ears pricked, standing sentry.

There was a bush in flower that I’d never seen before, too — I think it was a hakea, though I’m not entirely sure. Its white flowers reflected the bright summer sun so that the petals seemed to glow.

And just outside the Scrub, perched on an upright stump by the side of the road, a little dragon caught my eye.

He (or she, I’m not sure) was very still, so still that I thought at first he was an oddly shaped twig sticking out at the top of the stump. We regarded each other silently for quite some time — I, fascinated, he, less so — before I turned to go.

I swear I could feel that dragon’s eyes on me all the way home …

Snatched phrases: on cake

‘This is bread in the way that banana bread is bread.
It’s not really. It’s cake.’

From ‘The Little Library Cookbook’
by Kate Young


I loved the recipe notes I’ve quoted above, which accompany a recipe for a ‘fruity nutbread’, in Kate Young‘s literature-inspired cookbook. That’s my kind of bread! (Cake?)

(So of course I had to make the recipe … )

Time and tide

Other people’s words about … sea pools

Where the rock sloped into the water, it created a deep green pool. On a good day, when there was enough cloud so that there was no reflection and no wind to rumple the skin of the water, you could see all the way to the sandy bottom. Arrowed fish in triangles darted across the pool, and swathes of kelp swayed in and out with the current.

From ‘Skylarking
by Kate Mildenhall

The last time we camped at Yorke Peninsula, we spent a couple of days camped on the top of a cliff overlooking a headland that reached out into a sheltered bay. In the evenings, as the sun lowered, I would go to sit right on the edge of that cliff, my legs crossed beneath me, ankles beneath my knees, knees resting on the sand. While I sat there, I watched the sea wash over the shore down below and then recede, over and over again. Each time the tide rolled in, the fronds of seaweed beneath the surface waved in one direction; each time the tide dropped back, the fronds of seaweed swirled and waved back in the other direction, just as Kate Mildenhall describes it in the passage above.

I’ve always loved the sea: always loved to look at it and admire it. But I’d never watched the dance of seaweed beneath the water like that before. It felt like a form of meditation, almost, the kind of meditation I could consider taking up regularly, the kind of meditation I would miss when we left.

I do miss that meditation. And I miss the view …

Another world

Other people’s words about … Cairo

Sunlight was streaming through the shutters. I peered down into the street where a cat was sunbathing on a parked car. Friday morning was always the most peaceful time of the week in Istanbul Street. The doorman’s wife sat on the kerb watching her ragged child play in the clouds of pollen and dust. [My weekend away from Cairo] seemed a world away, a movie I watched last year. Cairo is so encompassing that when you are there all other realities seem to fade away. I thought of Hatton Garden and it seemed surreal that at that very moment crowds of London commuters were heading to work in the rain. It felt impossible that the two places could exist at the same time.

From ‘Playing Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City
by Hugh Miles

Many years ago, in another life, I spent about six months living in Cairo. I had happened there by chance, at the suggestion of my boyfriend at the time, who spoke a smattering of Arabic. We lived in the centre of the city, away from the ex-pat community, in a dusty fourth-floor apartment with faded red velvet sofas that gave off great puffs of dust whenever one of us sat down on them. At night, when we switched on the lights in the darkened bedroom, there was the sound of a thousand cockroaches scuttling out of view. The view from the rickety balcony was of life on the street below: the storekeeper of the small general store where we bought bottled water, washing down his front doorstep with water and a broom; the ta’ameya man at his food stand, stirring his big metal spoon through a great dented tin bowl of smoking hot oil.

I left Cairo as I came to it — by chance, at someone else’s bidding. I knew even then that I would never go back. For those few months in Cairo, I had not lived as a tourist, as most Westerner visitors do. Not exactly. Not quite. Cairo was in me, and on me, in a very physical, a very literal, sense: its grime lay in thick strips of black beneath my fingernails; its dust coated my skin. The city had, for those few months, as Hugh Miles so succinctly puts it, encompassed me.

And so I left, and I did not go back.

I found some old photos from that time recently, ones I took with an old camera, in those pre-digital years. I don’t have a scanner and so in order to reproduce them here, I actually used my camera to rephotograph those photographs. This accounts for their odd, slightly removed, unreal aspect — for, as well as Cairo in these pictures, you can see the glare from my window right here in Australia, the bend in the photographic paper.

I was going to apologise for this, originally. And then it occurred to me that in fact, this aspect of distance and remove is exactly right. In this context, it is right.

And so, no apologies today — just a glimpse into another world, a very long way away from here and from now.