Reconnecting

The fountain pen feels heavy in my hand.  I haven't written for a long time.  I mean written – not typed.  That I do every day, all day.  Click, click.  Irregular, hollow.  I tap the plastic keys, one letter at a time, and words appear on my computer screen.  Words someone else has written, thought, felt.  Words I mutate into another language.  Making myself think them, feel them.  Click, click.  

No words flow out.  My nib is like a dried-up fountain.  The pathway between my brain and my hand is overgrown with brambles, and my thoughts are caught up somewhere in that darkness.

I suddenly realise that even writing these few lines has been stressful and tiring.  An effort.

I pause.  Shall I put the pen down? What if I can't pick it up again? A flush of anxiety  rushes into my face.  Cold.  I begin to write again.  Slowly, gingerly.  Piano piano.

I think of a cartoon in The New Yorker that hangs framed in my study, my bottega.  A little boy watches as a cute little girl is scribbling on the sidewalk. I try to write a little every day, the caption says.

Baby steps.  One foot, then another.  The black ink briefly glistens on the paper before turning matt.  I take my time to form the letters, join them, taking care to place the dots above the is and not let them float randomly.  Making sure I round my letters so my as and es are legible.

My rosewood and chrome Faber Castell seems like a close friend you haven't seen for a long time.  You used to talk over each other and now you can't think of anything to say.  The intimacy's gone.  You look at each other with trepidation and fear of disappointment, hoping to detect the gold thread that connected you in the past, so you can pick it up again.  You search for the bridge that used to join you.  You know it can't have crumbled – nothing that can't be repaired with a few stones and a little mortar – you just can't remember the way to it.  Any minute now you're going to turn a corner and see it right in front of you.

And so I keep writing, slowly, gingerly, trusting in the brilliant black ink flowing steadily through the nib, taking root on the cream page.  Forming every letter carefully, lengthening the stems, evening out the loops, connecting them into words.  Almost any words.

Trusting that my thoughts will start to light up the overgrown pathway and seep into my nib.  Soon.

One word at a time.  Slowly.  Piano piano.

 

Scribe Doll  

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The Hour of the Book

The day is drawing in and I'm rushing to finish translating a page.  I need to look up a word and that slows me down.  I don't like to stop mid-page but if I don't leave now I'll be late.  Do I really want to go there tonight with all the work I have to do? And it's so cold out there.  I dither out loud.

"Go," H. says. "You know you always enjoy it once you're there."

I quickly tap cmd + s to save my work, pull on my boots, grab coat, scarf, gloves.  Where did I put my notepad? H. is standing by the door, waiting to lock it behind me.

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As usual, I'm cutting it fine, but after a brisk walk I push open the glass door and walk into the bookshop.  The Book Hive is a local institution.  "Eclectic, thoughtful, and tempting - a must for book lovers visiting Norwich", Margaret Atwood said.  A quirky-looking, three-storey building on a street corner that holds a wide range of hand-picked, quality titles on just about every topic you can imagine, many translated from other languages. A setting with so much personality, it's crying out to feature in a short story or a play, with its three levels, getting narrower the higher you go.  A place I sometimes walk into just for the pleasure of a chat with Joe, Megan, Henry, or whoever happens to be behind the counter that day, although it's hard to then walk back out without succumbing to the temptation of a book you never knew existed but then decide you simply have to have.

But I am not going to buy a book this evening, or chat with the bookseller.  This evening, just like all the other people there, I am going to spend an hour being quiet.

It's the weekly Page Against the Machine hour, when you can bring your book and round up the day by just sitting and reading.  Behind the counter, Joe has already lined up the glasses and offers you red wine.  He's put on some music, just loud enough to create a confidently relaxed atmosphere, and soft enough not to butt in between you and your page.  Often piano music, always wordless.

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There are already people scattered on all three floors of the shop, sitting wherever they've found a seat, sipping wine, absorbed in their book.  This time, I head for the wicker armchair in the corner by the small sash window.  There is a stuffed duck on the sill.  I call it the nature corner.  The low table and shelves carry books about seasons, the elements, birds, animals, trees, travel logs, landscapes.  I pull out my notepad.  I have an hour to do nothing but write.  Write.  Not translate other people's writing but actually scribble my own.  Luxury.  When I first discovered the Wednesday Page Against the Machine, I asked Joe if he'd mind my coming to write instead of read.  "Absolutely," he said.  "I can even clear you some space at one of the tables, if you like."  I don't go as often as I would like to; more often that not, work takes the upper hand.  But on those Wednesdays when I do manage to slam the laptop lid down on it in time to get to The Book Hive by 5.30 p.m., that hour feels like a capsule of therapeutic release.  A whole hour when I am free to write my own stuff, uninterrupted.  Luxury.

I lean down to pick up my glass of water on the low table and catch sight of a small 

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hardback.  Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick. Gosh, somebody thought of writing a book about snow.  What does he say about it? Does he talk about its softness as it muffles the city sounds or describe the unique, geometrical pattern of its flakes? I reach out to pick it up but resist the temptation.  No, I'm here to write. My eyes drift back to the black ink curls and swirls in my lined notebook, like untidy notes forming a daisy chain on a stave.  I turn my head to the side to stretch my stiff shoulder muscle and see How to Read Water in plain capital letters down a lilac-white spine.  I take off my long-sight glasses to focus on the author's name.  Tristan Gooley.  What an intriguing title.  How do you read water? What kind of water? River water? Tap water? The water content of our bodies? 

Enough with distraction.  I uncross my legs and cross them the other way, and take the chrome cap off my fountain pen again.  I manage to scribble two more sides of A4 without looking up.  More swirls and curls that make words.  I am writing a story about languages, about when two or three or even four words mean the same thing – and yet not quite.  About when two or three or even four individuals have the same concept in their language, but not the same feeling.

I take another sip of water.  My attention is drawn to a highly atmospheric picture of a tree, its wind-chiselled branches reaching out to a lead-grey sky charged with thunder.  Hawthorn, by Bill Vaughan.  I think of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Of reading The Scarlet Letterin my teens, The House of the Seven Gablesmany years later.  The old film adaptation with Vincent Price playing a goodie.  I look again at the picture of the tree.  At its branches, gnarled and twisted by the wind, and yet still standing in defiance of the elements.  It's just after 6.  I can probably fill a couple more sides of A4.  I am writing about a family that has been equally wrought by the gales that make up human life on earth.  I wonder if anyone will ever want to read it.  If one day, it will be bound into a hardback book, with a quote from another writer on the front cover.  What would the illustration on the dust jacket be? If it's the picture of a tree, then I hope it's an oak.  Tall, sturdy and wise.  An oak with centuries of stories to tell.

"It's 6.30," Joe says softly. patm_poster_A4 (1)

The shop stirs, as people lazily close their books, drink the last sip of wine from their glasses and slowly leave their seats.  It's time to leave the oasis.  Time, which paused for an hour, has resumed its course.

I put my empty glass on the counter on my way out.  "I hope I can come again next week," I say, the temporarily suspended awareness of my overwhelming workload rushing back into my relaxed brain.

I hope I can come again next week, I think as I pull open the glass door and step out into the street.  I wonder if I can organise my work so I can come every week.  Luxury.

Scribe Doll

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A Shapeshifter at Play

All the windows are locked.  Curtains closed.  Blinds pulled down all the way to the sills.  Even so, its chilly breath hisses through the tiny gaps and reaches my knees.  There is an occasional tremor in the candle flames on the coffee table.  The nervous awareness of the force outside.  The normally vocal pigeons on our roof are silent.  The shapeshifting dragon is letting rip, giving a spectacle of its histrionic power.  Now it soars into the skies, its tail lashing the dark clouds, sending crackling rain to slam against the window panes.  Now it's a tiger roaring in the night, sending a rumble rippling through the air.  Now a witch slaloming between chimneys on her broomstick, her impish giggle tickling the stars.  Then a gigantic owl, screeching in the roof, its wings whooshing in the air.  Then it swells into a tempestuous sea, foaming lips gnawing at the cliffs, then ebbing away before gathering into waves rising tall, fearless, tossing ships like juggling balls.  All of a sudden it retreats, quietens down, vanishes, like a memory you doubt.  Odd phrases of a tune that haunts you but which you cannot quite remember.  But, just two minutes later, it's a dragon again, spewing flames like a Venetian glassmaker's furnace, the bewitching fire of an Andalusian gypsy – spinning, swirling, lunging, turning raindrops into needles of ice, the supersonic speed of its flight making the windows quiver.  I am king, the dragon says. I am emperorAnd you've seen nothing yet. 

 

"It sounds like everything's about to come crashing down," H. says, looking up at the high ceiling of our living room.

I feel electrified, a thrill stroking my skin, like fingertips running up and down my spine, a sense of excitement and joy swelling inside me.  That and the unwavering sense that the power outside is choosing to keep me safe.

"I love – I've always loved the wind," I say.

 

Scribe Doll

 

 

 

 

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Paris to Rome by Train

"Why can't we take the train?"

"What – all the way?" H. gives me his your-quirkiness-is-turning-into-madness look.  "It's – it's –"

"The longest leg would be just twelve hours," I filled in, smiling sweetly.  "If you went to Australia, you'd have to sit on a plane for over twelve hours."

"Y–yes, but–but, you're actually proposing to take a train from Norwich to London, London to Paris, Paris to Rome, then Rome to Milan, Milan to Paris, then –"

"Yes, I know."

"But you even want to go from Paris to Rome by train? That's, like –"

"Yes, twelve hours." My smile loses some of its brilliance.

 

I truly hate flying.  I do it when I have to but I find the whole experience increasingly stressful.  The wait at the airport, the luggage restrictions, sitting cramped in that tiny space, with the constant noise of the engine, and that unpleasant aircraft smell.  

 

And so here we are, in a taxi driving us across a barely awake Paris to the Gare de Lyon, to catch a 6.30 a.m. train to Milan, where we will change for a train to Rome.  I wonder for a moment if I am putting our marriage to an unnecessary test.  I've come prepared to tackle any protestation of boredom on H.'s part.  There's music uploaded on my iPad, a velveteen-covered neck pillow and a copy of The Society of Authors' Author magazine in my holdall.  

 

As the TGV leaves the station, my heart feels light.  Twelve hours to myself.  Twelve hours with no work, no e-mails, no mother phoning, no household chores to be done.  When was the last time I had twelve hours in a row to myself? When was the last time I had even half that to myself? 

 

The early-morning grey is gradually dispelled by sunlight.  The sky is brightening.  We whizz past country churches with steeples, fields, small towns.  I fall asleep, my neck pillow wedged behind me, supporting my low back.  

 

I wake up to luscious, dark green hills against a turquoise sky.  The guard announces Aix-les-Bains as our next stop.  The hills reach up to become mountains and the train plunges in and out of their bellies.  Suddenly, a large expanse of water a slightly greener tone than the sky.  A lake.  "Let's go to the buffet car," I suggest to H. and we make our way down from one carriage to the other, swaying between the seats, trying not to step on protruding feet and canine tails.  By the time we reach the buffet, we're in the middle of this magnificent lake.  There's a small island, with a fairy-tale-like château sprouting out of it.  "What's this beautiful lake called?" I ask the lady behind the counter.

"Lac du Bourget," she replies, smiling. 

We stand by the window and watch the sunlight glinting on the smooth, green-blue surface.  There are children bathing by the shore, and people having a picnic.  Any moment now, I expect to see water sprites leap out of the water.

"Well, isn't this sight alone worth the train journey?" I ask tentatively.

"Hmm..." H. replies.  But he is smiling, entranced by the view.

 

The mountains grow taller, their peaks sharper.  We're passing the Alps.  I now cannot see them without thinking of the many books and extracts H. and I have recently been translating, all set there.  The Alps seem to have become a favourite backdrop to many Italian novels.  A place between countries, languages and cultures.  Where Austro-Hungarians turned Austrians, then became Italians, then Germans, then Italians again, each time switching language.  Summits veiled in shreds of cloud like gossamer, with streaks of snow on their sides.  Patches of brown showing through subtly different shades of green.  I wish I had the vocabulary to name all these vibrant, deep greens.  Gorges with jagged sides, as though hacked with the sword of a pre-human giant.  Rock formations like camouflaged faces watching the train as it runs past them.  Observing humans, unseen.  Sprawling masses of rock carved by the wind and smoothed by the rain.  A view that commands awe.  I can't help feeling that there is something un-judging and yet unforgiving about mountains. A force not to be challenged and never to be disrespected.  On one summit, a solitary cross. 

 

My ears imagine the wind howling through these narrow gorges, sweeping across the green valleys.  I picture Alpine witches riding on broomsticks, carried by this wind, laughing uproariously on their way to a sabbath, circling the peaks, snowflakes blowing in their faces.  Perhaps they gather to stir polenta in a large cauldron, on cold winter nights.  Trilingual witches who compose rhymes in Italian, German and French.  

 

In Milan, we jump into a taxi to change stations, to catch the train for Rome.  After the rather slow, tattered TGV, the Italo train is a luxurious experience of speed, ample leg room, comfortable seats and just the right potency of air conditioning.  

 

Between Milan and Turin, the flat land of the Po Valley, with rice paddies, grey skies, and a pastel landscape.  H. falls asleep, my velveteen pillow framing his neck.  The countryside becomes more chiselled and colourful as we approach Tuscany.  When the train pulls into Florence – blink and you miss it – I catch a glimpse of  Brunelleschi's dome.  I am as excited as a child.  I think Dante, Guelphs and Ghibellines, and my old friend Gianni Schicchi.

 

Deep in Tuscany, there are faded, terracotta-red casolari atop hills, with rows of cypresses straight as arrows, silent sentinels of olive groves and vineyards.  Mediaeval cities perched on cliff tops, as though carved from the rock itself, with churches I imagine covered in frescoes.  H. is also looking out of the window, while listening to Turandot on my iPad.

 

The woman sitting behind us pulls down the blind.  I could weep and protest as politely as I can.  I want to see every tree, every rock, every stone castle and olive grove.  The direct sun is uncomfortable for her eyes.  We compromise and keep the blind halfway down, which means that I have to curve my body to see outside.  After a while my back is aching and the poor woman's eyes are stinging as the sun is now lower down in the sky and she asks to pull the blind down lower.  I wish I could explain to her that where I come from, the sun is an unpredictable luxury not to be wasted but worshipped wholeheartedly whenever it honours you with its presence.  That I have spent the last couple of years feeling cold and am so sun-starved I could almost hold the sun's glare, afraid to look away in case it hides behind the clouds again.

 

As we approach Lazio, maritime pines begin to appear, their tall trunks slightly twisted and bent by the winds from the Mediterranean.

 

The sun has set by the time we reach Rome.  H. is exhausted.  So am I.  We take our luggage and step out of the cool train into an embrace of intense July heat.  

 

"Next time we'll take a plane, right?" H. says as we walk to the taxi rank.

"Next time, perhaps you can fly, I can take the train, and we can meet in Rome?" I suggest.

"Well, we'll see," he replies.

I peer into his face out of the corner of my eye.  I think he has forgiven me my quirkiness-turned-madness, but I guess I shouldn't push my luck.

 

Scribe Doll   

 

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