in the desert they ________ craving; in the wasteland they put _________ to the test
Her parents called her Grace. When she was eleven someone tried to explain to her what it meant and, although she did not fully understand, she felt the weight of the word. When she was thirty-one she knew it was a cliché she couldn’t do justice to. She had struggled to live beneath it. On her fifty-first birthday she went alone to see Handel’s Messiah in a church that was charmingly too small to contain it, and a man even older than herself leaned over to whisper in her ear – ‘Here comes the Final Trumpet’ – and she knew he had been looking forward to it since the beginning. She could never weep at music like others said they could, but there on the hard oak of a parish bench, as the trumpeter stood to give his clarion call, sounding nothing like Heaven, she felt a note move within her, like eels in the scud.
She left the house in order to punish her mother and to frighten herself. She wanted to test limits in the way that the evening tested the rank edges of the woods as the days went down. She knew the fields and the forest intimately when she walked alongside someone else, but travelling alone they had to be mapped all over again.
Two decades later she would associate being exposed to the elements with being exposed to sin. Such associations seemed crass to her but she could not escape them. She revelled in them when there was no one else to turn to.
Back then, in the fields, the broadening Suffolk sky, dire and stretched, made her aware only of her youth and a nasty, burgeoning maturity.
The moment she knew she could isolate herself by choice was the first moment of her life, she would tell a boyfriend many years later. She doubted this as soon as she said it.
In the Sinai desert, Grace wondered if anyone in the history of man had trod the exact same path as her, crossing the same dunes at the same angles, the dunes looking like they would bury civilizations with the help of the hot air, mountains of sand that moved with the months, creating new journeys for people.
She asked her guide if he was thinking the same thing and he said that they always took ‘guests’ this way – ‘Many have walked the path already.’ He thought she was afraid of the unknown or the uncharted and was trying to put her mind at ease.
She would recognise later that her journey through Sinai was part of her second breakdown – there were two more to come – but at the time she chose to ignore the symptoms, or to think of them as part of a fizzing need to experience more things more quickly.
In the fields, approaching the gloom at the woodland’s edge, Grace imagined herself as one of the nameless, faceless wild animals she was afraid of, imagined herself leading a pack of hungry dogs that would protect her as they would a king, and she knew that she wanted people of the world to follow in her footsteps even though she hated it when other children in her class stared at her, and when her parents looked at her for too long it made her want to break them apart until they were as small as she.
As a child, Grace thought of trees in terms of their height. She gave no thought to their roots. Climbing was a way of seeing more of the world and of touching boundaries.
In Sinai, Grace climbed the tallest dune she could find whilst her Bedouin porters waited for her at the bottom, confused and growing bored with her mania. From the top she thought she could see cities on the horizon being built from the pink rays of sunset. She didn’t think mirages worked that way.
When they shouted at her to come down off the edge Grace jumped to test the angels. Waking in the Royal Free Hospital four days later, one of the first things she thought was – ‘Three storeys up and I didn’t even focus on the sights around me. I bet the view was something to behold.’ A nurse said she was going to be moved to a secure unit once she’d recovered but, by the time the fractures were healed, sufficient months had passed for her to be certified sane, and she wasn’t going to be jumping out of another building for some time because she couldn’t climb stairs, wouldn’t manage them comfortably for years. They sent her home with boxes of risperidone and a walking frame, as if she were too old and too mad to be a danger any more.
‘The wilderness was in me from the start’ – something she told another boyfriend at some point, and she had less trouble believing this to be true.
But even with her pack of imaginary hounds she found it difficult to get close to the woods. She tried to position herself as the hunter rather than the hunted, a technique she adopted for much of her life, with varying success. There was always that fear of things being behind her. When she was young, physical things with bodies and eyes; when she was old, things that had come to pass and couldn’t be changed.
Grace loved and feared the desert. Beneath a sky of true nothing in a land of true sand, she felt abandoned by God and in the centre of his glory. The sun out there was capable of feeding and of stripping life away like foam.
She hated being subject to her parent’s control. That is why she chose the outdoors and the fear that went with it.
When Grace walked home after hearing Messiah, she wanted only to submit to the will of someone else.
Grace stared at the edge of the woods, willing them to part or to become luminescent or to vanish entirely, leaving her with eternal fields. Instead, the tree line remained stubborn, black as oil underground, and Grace thought she saw a hooded figure on the edge of the copse, sinister and wiry, but still with the night sky.
There were always dark figures on Grace’s peripheries. Many years later, she would struggle remembering whether the man on the edge of the woods had actually been there or whether her child’s mind had conjured him with such ferocity that he remained lodged in the memory. Imagined or not, she knew she had refused to approach him.
Her favourite question had always been – ‘How long until people come looking for me?’ In later life this became – ‘Will people look for me?’ She would wonder this intermittently until her death, often when taking solitary walks which lasted too long, or when living in shared houses with no one that she knew, which could feel like wild spaces in their own way until someone finally knocked on her bedroom door to introduce themselves.
On the wood’s edge she thought of all her family vanishing, then her town, then all the people in the world, and that was the first time she questioned whether she could be counted as lost if she was the only one left. A volley of birds tore from the canopy and for a second it looked like the woods were collapsing. If she could remember that moment clearly she would probably have said it was her first taste of adulthood.
She returned to this walk many years later, when her mother had fallen sick but refused to give up either the ghost or the house. Grace and the living room were stiff with the remnants of a burnt Sunday roast and too much tawny port, so she retraced her eleven-year-old steps, trying to remember what wanting to runaway had felt like back then. The borders still carried the taint of the old, devilish figure that she could never be sure was real. Someone had put up fence panels in the intervening years, so that children brave enough to cross the edge had to be good climbers too.
The suffering of her youth came to her like a second-hand memory, like a family holiday she’d been told about enough times for her to feel like she could taste the sea and the ice cream and the unfamiliarity of a place and the fun they’d perhaps had together. She knew there had been unhappiness. She could remember it, but not the shape it took. A doomed procession of years had to have its genesis somewhere, somewhere on the line between the trees and the open field where she had wandered, lonely in childish rebellion, picking up seeds that would give rise to all the rest.
Walking that border now, with a dying mother in the house and the mid-afternoon more isolating than the evening, she could not piece together her girlhood. She thought that memory might be more trouble than it was worth. What had she been running away from when she left home and what had she been running towards?
She had wanted to hear some sort of voice calling to her and to her alone, but with age the dream of this voice diminished. Hearing voices was not the same when you were old. She wondered if the call would be there at the close. What would it look like? A trio of pigeons dropped sleepily from an oak tree and vanished further in. She turned back towards her childhood home. Middle-age looked like a broad yawn between two fraught trumpets, the blessing of the beginning and the end.
In hospital she received letters from people she had forgotten existed. They constituted some of the most touching moments of her life. She wept for days, silently, in the ward. A nurse would come every two hours to replenish her tissues. On the second weekend they wheeled some of the patients out into the garden to feel air on their bodies. One man’s heart gave out in the noonday sun and Grace, with her broken lower torso, felt helpless and guilty. She did not know if the staff managed to save him and if death was a wonderful thing then why would anyone want saving? Her medication had not yet kicked in and she still found herself thinking out loud. Before they slept that night, she turned to a young man in the bed next to her and said – ‘What is more worrying than the fear that things have not been done right?’
On the seventh day a lone cloud followed them like spent breath trying to save something, offering thin cover from the sun, and Grace wanted it to disappear so she could be abandoned in the desert again, and sometimes she wanted the Bedouins to vanish as well, would sometimes walk far enough ahead or far enough behind for her to trick herself into thinking she had found her own way.
White haze settled on the Sinai’s dangerous horizon. Sun spots and white flashes would spring up like mirrors or twisting spirits. Occasionally, in the distance, her guide would point out wrecked attempts at farming or settlement, skeletal roads or empty irrigation ditches forming their own, weird galaxies. Grace was growing upset and dehydrated. She refused to ride a camel and told the people around her that you could only know a landscape if you felt it with your feet.
They filed out into the hushed cold when the concert finished. Grace didn’t hear the question the man put to her. She was still thinking of the trumpet, sounding slightly flat in that pinched church, more a weak, hopeful start than a strident finish.
When she came home, frozen and hungry, having only been gone for an hour which felt like months, her mother had not left her room, did not even realise her daughter had vanished.
Grace woke in the morning with a new sun coming through. Her guide led her outside their camp, to a small ridge overlooking a stretch of sandstone pinnacles and threaded dunes. Everything was growing bright, nearly vanishing. The man handed her a metal beaker of steam and tea. He said – ‘It is the time of day, in my land, when you must decide whether to live or to die.’
Rob Yates is a young writer frequently based in London. He has released a small collection of poetry entitled ‘The Distance Between Things’. He has also had work appear via Agenda, Envoi, Bodega, and other literary magazines. More recently, he has started trying to record words and music. Some of his writing and recordings can be found through www.rob-yates.co.uk.