Things That Happened On The Way To Somewhere Else

(some good and bad things that happened sometimes by accident)

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

I read Neil Gaiman’s new book on the tube home from the restaurant. And then I got home, and John went to sleep, and I kept reading. Somewhere about page 100 I started to cry, and I kept crying until I got to the end, and then I kept crying: big, ugly sobs, and if you had asked me why I was crying I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, not really.

Then I read it again. It was about one in the morning, and the street outside seemed very alien. I wanted to go home.

There is an essay by Laurie Lee called The Obstinate Exile, in which he is an adult in London longing for Slad, the village in which he grew up. It is a good essay; there is no copy of it online, but you can find it in the book I Can’t Stay Long. I first came across it when I was very young- maybe seven or eight- and like so many things I read then, there was so much I didn’t understand about it.

I was allowed to read anything from any bookshelf, or rather, nobody ever said I shouldn’t, which I took to be the same thing: there were lots of things I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, although I loved it. I didn’t get all the jokes in Wodehouse, or Chaucer.  I read a lot of Ian McEwan -Black Dogs, and A Child In Time, and (oh god) The Cement Garden- and didn’t understand any of it.

All sex and death and grown-up things, but I was not used to not understanding Laurie Lee. The sex and the dying in Laurie Lee were the sex and dying that is integral to childhood; the understanding of the passages and seasons of the earth that comes easily to the child, and that most adults forget. Children know so many things. Gaiman takes for his epigraph a Maurice Sendak quotation: “I knew terrible things, but I knew I mustn’t let adults know that I knew. It would scare them.”

I knew the earth more intimately then than I have known ever since: ever since has been a getting back, a going back, but it is like going back with a map.

I didn’t understand, then, that it would be this way. I thought I would always know what it was like to exist this way. I thought I could not forget. I thought that I would never leave, or sometimes I knew I would leave, but it didn’t seem real. I could not understand why Laurie Lee left. I could not understand why Laurie Lee did not go home, if he wanted to so badly. His reasons for not going home were not reasons I could understand, and as I write this I realise that perhaps it was because his reasons were not reasons but excuses, or post-facto justifications, of the kind that grown-ups make all the time, of the kind that the grown-up world demands all the time. Nothing ever just is, in the world; nothing ever just is, in the city. Everything is bluster- the cars on the Mile End Road are bluster- everything is excuses, and nothing is. I would not have wanted to understand this, then, perhaps. I was a story-child, and everything was: the stories were, they were, they were. That was enough; I would not have wanted to understand that in the world it is not enough just to be.

Neil Gaiman’s new book is. And it is enough.

Neil Gaiman’s new book is, the way potatoes are, and cow parsley is, and the way oceans are, or duck-ponds.

Neil Gaiman’s new book made me want to go home, and going home is a thing that’s gone, and I was crying in a dark room at one in the morning, reading and reading and reading. I had not owned a book, or been owned by a book, so completely since I was very small, it made me feel like reading used to, when I was little: it made me not want to understand, and understanding, I wanted to go home. The sex, and the dying, in this book is not the sex, and the dying of childhood: the understanding of it is the end of childhood, the end of going home to that house that isn’t, any more.

I have not told you very much about Neil Gaiman’s new book- I have not told you about the people, or the stories, or the magic, or the darkness- I have not told you about anything very much, except, maybe, why I was crying at one in the morning listening to the traffic on the Mile End Road, and I think that’s for the best.

This morning I am reading it again, and it is different this time round: it is different in daylight. I can see it, almost, as a novel, instead of a myth as much mine as Gaiman’s. I can read it, almost, like an adult. I can see, almost, what is real and what is not real in it, and I can see, almost, that I am forgetting already what it was like to read it in the night, and what it was like to remember. I am forgetting already what it was really like to understand the passages and seasons of the dark earth, to understand  what came, what comes beneath.



New Year’s Resolutions

I want to eat better; eat five-a-day and more raw and drink more water. I want to drink eight cups of water a day and some more at night. I want to cook delicious things and I want to eat only delicious things and not mind when I only really want a horrible cheap pizza because sometimes that’s fine too. I want to walk more. I want to cycle more. I’ve a beautiful bike and it’s a shame not to use it: I want to cycle to the park. We’ve a beautiful park and it’s a shame not to use it. I want to find the way to cycle to college. I want to cycle to college and to the station and to Sainsbury’s. I want to be outside more.I want to be inside less. I want inside to be more like outside.

I want to put herbs on my windowsill and grow tomatoes and chilli. I want to always have flowers in the house. I want the flat to be beautiful. I want to be more organised with the laundry and the washing-up and I want to paint the bedroom and change the kitchen lights and paper the back wall of the sitting-room with maps.

I want to clear the desk and make it mine; I want a space to write in. I want to write more. I want to be more disciplined with what I write and how I write and how I learn to write. I want to learn to write better poems and I want to learn to write better stories and I want to learn how to write better essays. I want to be able to write properly again. I want to work hard. I want to work at things for college and things for me and things for other places, too. I want to show other people things. I want to learn. I want to be able to learn. I want to be able to know. I want to never be tired of looking for new things and new ideas and new ways. I want not to be tired without cause; I want only the good kind of good-work-done tired. I want to be able to look for new things and new thoughts. I want to be well again. I want to do all these things so I can be well again.

I want to be well again and I want be happy. I want to be happy. I want to take stock of my good things. I want to number my fortunes and hold them up to the new kitchen lights to see them shine. I want to take those shining fortunes, shining people and tell them you made this better; I want to love them better and be kinder and wiser.

I want to do more good things for people I love and I want to do more good things for people I don’t love and I want to do good things for strangers; I want to help, because I am helped; I want to love, because I am loved.

I want to love lots. I want to love more. I want to be better at loving and better at giving and better at taking. I want to take help and not mind that I’m taking it. I want to take love and not question it. I want to take time and think I’m worthy of both my own and other people’s. I want love and help and time and I want adventures.

I want small adventures in the kitchen and big adventures on planes and strange adventures in graveyards. I want beautiful adventures with my typewriter and my favourite people and finding out good new things and doing good walking and good eating and good exploring and I want to look up, somewhere in those adventures, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point

if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is. 

I want to notice when I am happy and I want that to be often. I want to be happy in my body and in my mind and both at once, and even more than that I want it to be okay also when, sometimes, I am not. I want to be able to recognise that sometimes people are sad and sometimes people are tired and sometimes people are ill and in that also recognise that sometimes, also, people are brilliant. 

I want to try all these things and not mind if I fail. I want to learn to lose gracefully. I want to learn how to know when I am beaten.  I want to know when to lose a battle to win the war, and I want to learn not minding losing the war so long as I have the people I love and the words that I write and the little things I love so much. I want to remember that laundry in a heap by the washing machine and the whooshing sound of deadlines don’t mean that everything is over; I want to learn proportion. I want to find a balance.

I want to find balance.

And also, I want to be the sort of person who can eat a croissant without getting crumbs in her scarf.

Are those possible? I think those are possible. They might not be, but I can bloody well try.

Grateful 19/11/12

Here are the things for which I am most grateful:

-First the light, in three parts (and the parts are these:

the gold light in our bedroom in the morning,

next, the clear grey light over Topps Tiles and the tenements and the tree,

and last, headlights coming through the Mile End fog.)

-Second, the silver tea-pot. All shiny upside-down we are within it, and good strong Earl Grey.

-Good books.

-Good cheese.

-Good bread.

-Good wine.

-The garden on the window-sill. My parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, but rosemary would want more space, and parsley is bitter. Four for use, and one for love: basil for scent, and chilli for spice, and a rose for my birthday. I am not green-thumbed: my sunflower never grew so tall as the others’ did, but we do alright, my plants and I.  Sainsbury’s sold them off cheap (I am grateful for that, too.)

-Monday morning cut flowers, in all sun-colours.

-Next, the way the chimney stacks stand out against the storm, and the way the wisteria is creeping red round the bricks.

-The chimney stacks belong to the haunted house: I am grateful for that. For their dachshunds and dragons and tall gates. For their paintings that move. For their lamps in the dark.

-The paint has peeled away from a sign at the side of that house: it says PLAY BALL, BY ORDER. We will play ball.

-Next, jumpers.

-Next, scarves and my blackberry gloves, and my sage green coat.

-Blackberry bruises.

-Lipstick in Deep Pink.

-The red peg-bag. I am pleased with the peg-bag.

-The purple quilt.

– My floral knickers, and my floral frock.

-Custard creams.

-Creamed leeks.



-Stories. (The old ones, and the older ones, and the new ones, and the way walking makes them all tumble together at a footfall)

-The sun.

-The clouds.

-The rain.


-Light at the end of the tunnel: as you come into Whitechapel, you come out of the dark. You will come out of the dark; I will come out of the dark; we will all come smiling out of the dark together.

-Coming home.


(And this is home, this small flat opposite a haunted house, with its tiny window garden and its flowers on the table, and the light dancing shadows on the ceilings. And this is home. And this is home, for home is where the heart is, and I am grateful to have my heart where I am. I am grateful to be home:

I am grateful for my boy; I am grateful for that love and this light and Monday breakfast

with flowers, and tea from our silver tea-pot.)

Making Parsnip Soup

He came home with a bag of parsnips, and he stood at the door with his bag of parsnips and announced he was making me parsnip soup. I’m going off-piste, he said. Abandoning the recipe and making soup from scratch.


Alright, I said. I lay on the sofa and did a Sherlock Holmes quiz from a book of quizzes I found on the shelf. I put the orange blanket over my feet.


Where did Conan Doyle go to school?


Edinburgh, I think.


How are the parsnips?


I’m putting more wine in.


I looked at the wine bottle. White wine, and we were drinking red, and the white was half-empty. How much did you put in already?


A bit, he said, and shrugged.


Who narrated the Giant Rat of Sumatra?


Nobody, I think.


Correct, I said. Ten points to Gryffindor. How’s the soup?


He shrugged again.


It’s. Well. It’s sort of soup. It’s sort of…thick. Thick soup. We can dip bread in it.


Cool, I said.


I got up and went to have a look at the parsnips.


Ah, I said.


I know, he said.


That is thick,  I said.




Very thick.




More like mashed parsnips, really.


Mashed parsnips with wine. And spice. And chillies.




We looked at the parsnips together. I reached for his hand.


Have we got any more stock?


No more stock.


No more stock?




We looked at each other.


More wine? he said


For me or the parsnips?




I sniffed it.


Mulled wine, I said. It’s bloody mulled wine.


It’s parsnips, he said.


Parsnip wine?


Is that a thing?


I had grapefruit wine once, I said.


I think Dad made parsnip wine once. He said it was delicious.


Is this delicious?


Is this parsnip wine?


We looked at each other again.


Taste it,  he said. I recoiled.


You first.


Ladies first.


You first.


He took a teaspoon from the draining rack and prodded the parsnips experimentally. A bubble rose where he had poked it, and fell again, a primeval, gelatinous, gloop of a bubble.


I feel like Frankenstein, I said.


You feel like Frankenstein?


Well, no. You’re Frankenstein. You’re Frankenstein and it’s- it’s- alive! I pretended to fall back in horror, hands to my mouth. He lifted the spoon to his.


Delicious,  he said.


Are you lying?




I thought so.




I opened my mouth like a baby bird and put out my tongue like a cat.


 Tiny bit, I said, through my stuck-out tongue.


Tiny bit like medicine, he promised.


He stuck the spoon into the pan again, and I heard it gurgle.


I’ve changed my mind, I said.


Don’t be a wimp, he said. I dare you.


And so I took the spoon from him, and took a heaped teaspoon from the pan, and ate it.


That’s revolting, I said.


That’s parsnip soup, he said.


Perhaps it will be better if we let it stand a while. Absorb the wine. Cook it off.


We left the parsnip soup on the hob and sat on the sofa. Sherlock’s arch enemy? Conan Doyle’s mentor? Conan Doyle’s driving passion? Place of death?


We finished the quiz.


Do you think we should taste the soup again?


We tasted the soup.


What about sausages for supper instead, he said.


Sounds good, I said.


He did the sausages and I scraped the soup into the bin.




What are you thinking about, I said to him, later, in bed. He was lying across from me with his eyes shut, but I knew he wasn’t asleep. The light from the cars and the lamps came through the curtains.


I’m thinking about soup, he said. Soup’s tricky. 

Avengers Assemble. Or something.

I have never seen a superhero film. I think we ought to make that clear from the outset. I have never seen a superhero film. I have never read a superhero comic. I once got a spoon with the Incredible Hulk on out of a packet of Frosties, but that’s as far as it goes.

It was not even a very good spoon. It was green see-through plastic with a Hulk-y sort of handle, and I think it broke within about a week and I had to go back to eating with the nice silverware like everybody else.

It’s fair to say, then, that not only was my only association with the genre a long-held, spoon-related bitterness, but that if, say, you had been looking for me on Thursday at 10.20 AM, and you had wondered to yourself where might Ella be this morning, your first thought would perhaps have not have been <em>why, in the Xtreme* screen of a cinema in Islington</em>, and thus you would not perhaps have been able to find me ’til I returned to my more usual habitats. By which I mean the pub.

*We can talk about why they leave the “e” off “Xtreme”, but I don’t have any answers.**

**Oh, my god. I have just googled it and noticed that it is, in fact, the VueXtreme, and that the “e” from “Vue” is meant to do the job for both and now I am SO IRRATIONALLY ANGRY.

But that, in fact, was exactly (Xactly?) where I was. Watching The Avengers, and being, largely, baffled. My companion (henceforth known as Z) says it was brilliant. And I trust his opinion absolutely, and his five-star review is here. I am reading that review now, and I do, I DO remember all of those things happening. I remember the bit with the punch-bags and Captain America (hindered by the fact that I didn’t know he was Captain America). I remember the bit where Tony Stark/ Iron Man was in a tower with a lady in denim hot pants. I even remember bits that AREN’T IN HIS REVIEW, like that Russian chick (maybe Scarlett Johansson? maybe not?) beating people up with a chair in loud three dimensions.

“I have a dress almost EXACTLY like that, but with better sleeves,” I whispered to Z, as Russian Chick swung her chair over her head and into the eyes of someone unsuspecting. He looked at me. I looked at him. We both looked at the Russian Chick.

I like to think it was at that point that he began to see what he was in for. Which is to say, two and a half hours of “Who’s that one? What’s he doing now? Why is he in an ice-box? Why is he green? I like her haircut, do you think it would suit me? WHY ARE THEY DOING THAT? WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? WHO AM I?”.

It’s to his total credit that he didn’t simply strangle me and have done with it. I would have done. Probably everyone else in the movies would have done.

So, the plot of the film as I understood it:

The one with black hair (Z’s review reliably informs me that he is Loki, and played by Tom Hiddleston) did a Bad Thing. I don’t know exactly what the Bad Thing was, because I missed the first two minutes. I think it was probably something to do with the little blue box (TESSERACT) that they (some people?) were (possibly?) going to use for Clean Energy (this film is TOPICAL, also). Let us assume that the Black Haired Dude was stealing the Tesseract, and assume that he was doing it for to take over the world. They usually are, these bad boys. Everyone else (ish?) was trying to stop him.

Everyone else being Thor (Chris Hemsworth, lots of gold, looks quite Scandinavian) and That Russian Chick  (Scarlett Johansson, token female, tits) and Captain America (Big shiny star. Can’t remember who he was played by.) and The Incredible Hulk (I swallowed down my spoon-related sorrows to admit that actually, I quite liked him. I quite like Mark Ruffalo. Is that allowed? Anyway, he is the doctor one who turns green.) and some other people who I have forgotten and also maybe the really pretty one (the one who is Sherlock Holmes in the Dreadful Film of Sherlock Holmes? and he is quite Sherlocky in this?) and they are all under the command of Samuel L Jackson. Who is not called Samuel L Jackson in this and is instead called Nick Fury. I think. He has an eyepatch.

“Those ones are the Avengers,” Z said, one critical eye on the Important Explosions happening on-screen.

I looked at the Avengers.

“But what are they avenging?”

Z looked at me.

When I was about 14 I had a Physics teacher called Dr Carr who believed that I was the Devil incarnate, and who told my mum at Parents’ Evening that I should learn to accept the laws of the universe as a given*. And although Dr Carr was little and unpleasant (Z’s polar opposite, naturally), the way Z looked at me then was exactly the look of Dr Carr when I would derail an entire GCSE Physics class by asking but why is gravity? 

* This is not a thing I am planning to do ever, by the way.

I apologised. Z went back to watching the film. I went back to being quietly baffled.

Anyway, yes. They were all very angry. There was lots of shouting, and hitting things. There were also Some Aliens, who turned up at a party thing and were all in gold and made everybody kneel. I missed the bit that happened after this because I fell asleep. In my defence, I had probably only slept about five hours out of the last 36. Hooray, international travel.

According to Z’s review there was also a subplot, which I missed entirely. Apparently, it was something to do with a man with a bow (?). I thought maybe it also had to do with some Captain America trading cards, which were (significantly) not in some other chap’s locker or his pocket or his locket or something, but this is almost certainly wrong, since when I mentioned this to Z he did the same deeply-baffled expression I imagine I had been making for the whole of the film. But it did happen. It totally happened. There were some cards or something that were important. Go and see the film and you will totally see that I am right.

Also in the subplot maybe: the chap (possibly the same one with the bow, possibly not) had TESSERACT blue eyes. Which I think (read: was told by Z, because all to any major plot points such as these totally eluded me) means that he was also being hypnotised by the Black Haired Dude and I don’t know if that is a spoiler. But you could guess that if you looked at his eyes because they were TESSERACT BLUE. TESSERACT BLUE is, pretty much, shiny shiny chipped-ice blue. Which on Boyce from Green Wing is super attractive, but I suspect on That Guy With The Bow is not meant to be. Or maybe it is. I forget. He is, after all, a Good Man Turned Bad*.

 *Sneaky Smiths reference. I don’t think this film would have been better with the Smiths in. ALTHOUGH, That Black Haired Dude was definitely rocking the hair of somebody who might conceivably sometimes lock himself in his bedroom and play Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, over and over and over again until his mum told him to turn it down. AND, and That Black Haired Dude was adopted and he didn’t find out for ages and HE IS TROUBLED! THIS IS AN ACTUAL BIT OF FILM THAT HAPPENED (thanks Z for handy back story) and THEREFORE Loki (Black Haired Dude) definitely, definitely plays the Smiths when he is having a break from all the communing with the Gold Aliens.

“I’m going to write a review of Avengers Assemble,” I tell Z, later.

He gives me that look again.

“I know I don’t know what happened,” I say, superhurriedly, because I don’t want Z to think I am pretending that I didn’t sleep through most of the film. “but I think I have some Valid Points to make.”

In writing this review, mornings later, I have discovered that I have no Valid Points to make. I have only some lingering spoon-related bitterness (if I told you that I hadn’t actually thought about that Hulk spoon in ten years, would you believe me?)and a very weak grasp of the plot, the characters, and the laws of the superhero universe.

I did, however, have a very nice time, and the film had some very good explosions. And Scarlett Johansson has nice tits. And I quite fancy Mark Ruffalo and that chap from Sherlock. And  I still don’t know what the aliens were doing.

This film, then.

Z says it’s a good’un. I say it’s baffling, but I still quite enjoyed it. I am now returning to my more usual habitat of the pub.

Postscript: “It’s quite a funny review,” says Z, begrudgingly. “Wouldn’t publish it in a million fucking years, mind. And you got that bit with the aliens completely wrong.” 

An Afternoon At The Doll Museum

The doll’s museum is full of mirrors, and first you see yourself, distorted, as you stoop to the woman behind the desk and pay your dues. It seems odd, somehow, to see yourself in here- it is odd that you are in here, no seeming about it. It is an odd place, and you are so much the odder for being in it. But here you are, and you pay your dues[1], and in you go, and there you are.


I hand over a ten euro note, and wait for my change. The woman behind the desk eyes me with something approaching suspicion, and I eye myself in the mirror behind her head with the same look. Why are you here this afternoon?


I’m not sure why I’m here, other than that my room-mate, my best and only friend in Paris, is away; other than that I have the afternoon off from work; other than that, as a little girl, I had a dolls’ house I loved more than almost anything; other than that I saw the sign behind the Centre Pompidou, and having nothing else to do, I came.


It’s a Saturday afternoon at the beginning of March, and it’s kind of grey outside, not hot, not cold, and I have nowhere to go, except, maybe, the doll’s museum. I have never even seen the sign before- part of me, well versed in stories, thinks maybe it never existed before.


It wouldn’t be out of keeping, really, with the way this museum feels.


There are, as I’ve said, mirrors everywhere; mirrors, yes, and eyes. Most of the eyes are set in heads of various porcelain sizes, but not all of them. An elderly lady in a hat is kneeling by a drawer full of glass spheres, some blue, some brown, fingering them reverentially. It feels a little bit like a church, and the people here speak in whispers. It bears no resemblance to the light and space of the Centre Pompidou, across the road; this museum is a warren of little rooms, lit from inside the cases with that fluorescent strip lighting they use in roadside bathrooms.


You don’t matter, here; this museum is not about you, and how you feel about it. This museum is about the dolls. There are- and this is going to sound obvious- thousands of them. Thousands of them in glass cases, and teetering suicidally above the cases, hooked to the walls, from smaller than my thumbnail to child-size, human-size. Life-size dolls, staring under their yellow lights. It’s uncannily easy to catch their eye and end up in some ungodly staring contest. You know that you’ll lose, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant when you have to blink. There is a Doctor Who episode[2] where blinking gives the monsters the chance to attack. The monsters in that were statues; these dolls (and the occasional stuffed animal) are even worse.


It’s the vaguely humanoid features that does it, I think, the way they are almost, but not quite, like us. It’s the parenthical noses, the lower lashes spidering across the cheeks, the hands held stiff and out in front as if either waiting, or reaching, and it’s hard to tell which would be worse.


In the first room there are dolls having a lesson. The teacher doll is no bigger than the student dolls, and they are all made of flawless porcelain, except one boy doll with a jagged crack down one cheek. The little label glued underneath tells me that he is the “cheeky boy in this class”. It is, maybe, possible to discern a hint of painted betisme in his smile, and anyway, they have positioned him as if he is dropping a pile of little books.


The little books are in English and in French, and they are dictionaries. Joie de vivre, I read.


Next, there is a case full of dolls singing to a little piano, their rosebud lips parted, their hands frozen in appreciation of the music. One of them has a xylophone, and I couldn’t tell you what it is about the little xylophone that sends shivers down my spine.


I hurry out of that room, avoiding the gaze of the life-sized bear riding a tricycle, and find myself mid-beach-scene.


Along one wall, behind glass, are piles of sand, and shells. I think, suddenly, that the shells are the realest thing in the whole museum, and half a second after I wonder what is real, anyway, and I feel like I’m reading the Velveteen Rabbit all over again, only far, far less comforting.


The shells are bigger than the hands of the dolls.


Above the beach scene, in what is I suppose meant to be the sky, are green boards, and on them, are strung up a good thirty naked baby dolls, lashed at the neck and ankles with twine. It looks like a butcher’s shop. They are in order of skin tone, which means, effectively, two and a half boards of yellow, and half a board of dull mahogany. You could move the entire display to the Centre Pompidou and call it a discussion on race, and I doubt anyone would notice.


Once you start thinking about race, at the doll’s museum, it is difficult to stop. There is an entire case labelled “ethnics and exotics”, with one astonishingly beautiful Asian-eyed big doll in Japanese dress. Surrounding her, though, are smaller, stranger things; the kind of caricature that could easily emerge mid-nightmare. The noses are disproportionate, the mouths carved as one with the over-sized flutes, and the eyes cut into the pin-prick heads, like lines; this case is the living[3] embodiment of ‘the Other’. The terror it creates is almost palpable, and the children in the museum[4] hurry past it without looking even at the beautiful Japanese girl-doll.


In another room a black baby and a white baby, thumb sized, are stripped to the waist and glued to skateboards. The caption says that when wound up, they fight, but declines to say why; this, at least, explains the boxing gloves, but leaves me none the wiser as to its origins.


By the room that is late fifties, the “ethnic and exotic” dolls are allowed into the cases with the other dolls, which is nice for them. They are only allowed in if they have the exact same face-moulds as the white dolls, but, you know, progress is progress.


The rest of the black dolls in the museum are golliwogs and harlequins, and one papier-mâché folie, beharlequinned and losing facial features to the ravages of time.  There is a board game called Les Negres Virtuouses, and the aim of the game appears to be to separate the good, musical Negres  from the bad, thieving Negres.


I wonder if the little girl next to me, all beaded braids and hot pink raincoat, has noticed. Her mother has. I feel the creeping shame of privilege on the back of my neck, and turn my attention to another case.


Some of the dolls in here are ragged with love- half-naked, bald patches, blind in one eye- and some are pristine. I can’t decide which is better, or which is worse. ‘Lulu’, from Germany, is in her original trunk, and her outfit changes are pinned up to the lid; ‘Colin’ and ‘his sister Colinette’ have obviously never been taken out of the box.


That said, I wouldn’t touch Colin or Colinette if you paid me, despite the fact that they “walk all by themselves!”. Colinette, sporting a flowered house-dress, looks for all the world like a blowsy, gin-soaked house-wife, in the last vestiges of middle-aged-spread, bitter and malicious. Colinette would tell your mum if you accidentally trod on her flowerbed and Colinette would tell your mum if she thought she saw you hanging out with the bad girls on the street corner, even if it wasn’t you at all she saw. Colin might even be worse: all belted blue pyjamas and downcast smirk, like some parody of a gay Hugh Hefner. Frankly, the thought of either of them “walking all by themselves” fills me with dread. I’m glad they are behind glass.


I’m glad the clowns are behind glass, too. They are from Germany, and hang suspiciously from wires, grimacing over a toy theatre ominously titled MASSACRE, which, yes, doesn’t mean what you think it means but is quite enough to give my English eyes a touch of what DFW called the ‘howling fantods’, DLS called the ‘screaming ab-dabs’ and what we at home call the H-J’s, the heebie-jeebies.


The museum itself, actually, seems to be predicated on giving one the heebie-jeebies, and I sit in the little ante-room[5], trying to work out exactly why. It’s not just the stacks of heads on springs, or the teddy bears slit unerringly accurately straight from ear to thigh, or the dolls with rhinoceros-heads. It’s not just the uncut paper dolls of Polichinelle, or the endless parade of half-dressed and faded Arlequins. It’s not just Colin and Colinette, or the uneasy racial caricatures. It’s not just the mirrors-not just the eyes- not just the coils of what appears to be coarse black hair in the corners of some of the cases. It’s not just the dark, or the whispers.


It’s all those things, and the fact that you’re here. The fact that you paid to come in here, and the fact that, when it comes down to it, you’re not sure why. It’s the fact that you’re not sure how to explain your afternoon to your room-mate, or your employers. It’s the fact that you’re sure you’ll try, because you’re sure that you’re not going to forget easily the way you felt staring into the giant glass eyes of the stuffed bear.


It’s the fact that you’re here, and in the mirrors, and the eyes, you can see yourself, watching, and the dolls, watching, and you’re not sure who, really, is watching who.


After all- and there, there’s the rub- the dolls never blink.




[1]  (€6 for students, two less for children and two more for grown-ups)

[2] – strangely enough, titled Blink

[3] Ha ha ha.

[4] Not as many as you might think, actually; the target audience for the doll’s museum appears to be strange elderly people in shabby but expensive coats, and raggy headscarves. Nobody seems to be here on purpose.

[5] Which, by the way, has a temporary exhibition about paper dolls, which boasts some fairly exciting English-translated labels. I don’t remember the last time I heard “divulgated” in a sentence.

A Christmas Story

Happy Christmas, Twitter.

Here is a story I wrote on the train about some people I saw on the train.

The guard’s name really was Melkior.

A Christmas Story

Hyacinths (for J)

The hyacinths called me, and I came. The softness of
their dying hurt my hands, and the garden was
all new, at midnight,
the dragons with their stone teeth
watched me through the kitchen window,
folding shrouds for flowers
in sleep-fat fingers. All quiet on the Western Front, three
flights of stairs and still they didn’t wake,
a man on the road, time, gentlemen, time,
time. The kitchen clock sings the hours till the end.

Child, lay your ghosts to rest: the phone at midnight need not
mean a death, and no bats will make their nests in your long hair.
The man in the moon will stay his hand, his crater-eyes and silver knives
sky high, and the voices of the spiders are quiet in the night,
and this above all: that leaving need not
mean the end.

Dry your eyes, child: ignore your nightmares, the temple is
long fallen, the idols long destroyed, the world you made
is fading. Listen here:
listen to the whiskey voices down the line, and dream
good dreams.

Go back to bed.

Time, child, time.

Downstairs, the moon on the kitchen bin makes
a mausoleum, the bread crumbs,
apple peel,
the sweetness lingers.

Love, Like or Hate

Love Like or Hate
For Lucy and William, a long time ago.

How heavy cardigans are when they lie in the rain,

and how boys stay on their half of the playground,

and how to love with all the desperation of six,

and how to be loved, and how to tell the time, and how to stain

with berries the bitten bits of your fingertips,

and gold stars, and how to hear the sound

of fairy flowers, and how to drink from nettles,

and how to make a house, and boil a proper kettle,

and how freckles fade, and nothing lasts,

and how all at once to make yourself an outcast.

Some of these lessons I have forgot, now,

and some I kept; today’s

a day for daisies, and

for counting, and for old signs;

a bet with God, or with myself,

or with the birds.

There is a little box upon the shelf

of the bookcase in my room, and full of lines

that were important, once, when I was six. All words and chains.

The dandelions blew away in three. Afternoon play.

These odd little games that nobody outside could ever guess the rules of.

We used to use to them to make fools of

strangers; Mother may I? yes you may.

And this one: blindfolded, and guessing at the faces, to tell if you love them

or you like them

or you hate them.

It all hangs on your answer.

Simpler really to play Truth or Dare. At least it’s faster.

Standing on the chalk line, between us and them,

and the cardigan around my eyes, blind and guessing, and

what they said

about that most innocent of kisses. My hands on his face,

and her hands on my shoulders.

I swear I felt his freckles.

and I wished to be anywhere, wished I were dead,

so as not to choose.

Love like or hate, they said,

waiting for me to hate him, and my rival’s bunches brushed my neck,

Lucy waiting for me to lose,

and I knew who she’d picked for me to love

or like

or hate.

Say hate, she whispered, say hate, say hate

Love, like, or hate, and they were waiting

for me to hate him. I kissed his cheek and fled;

The cardigan in a puddle on the tarmac, and I sat at the top of

the field, picking daisies, dry-eyed, heavy rainy summer-skied.

Girls who wear a daisy chain

grow up pretty never plain; we picked

thousands, loves me, loves me not, he loves me, loves me, loves me loves me not,

l-l-l-l-l-l-l-loves you, loves me not

(but keep the petals, in your pocket past the post office and the pub

and the place where the hot

tarmac turns to tar

and the bit of grubby wasteland, for the vans and cars

and the lavender

and past the church where the dead people are

and to your own front gate.)

and if

the little grey bird stays, he loves me, and if

the door stays open before I count to three

he loves me, he likes me, he hates me,

love, like or hate?

A papercut; the sharp edge of the conditional tense.

If X then Y.

Along the fence

The weeds grow through the concrete.

Daisies don’t grow here, and the clock flowers are out of season,

and berries come in bags, numbered and neat,

and no-one knows

the old games, and so

how am I

to count the ways, or count the hours?

to count my loves, and love-me-nots?

All bets are off; the bright bead of blood

on my finger and the page, and I have forgotten

the difference between being Bad and being Good

and how

to sleep with the petals under my pillow, and I think I left that boldness

in the playground where the fairy flowers and the nettles and the daisies are,

but in my head (oh please oh please)

the little grey bird,

on the open door.