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What I Saw by Steven Williams

When she was here everything seemed full of charm and inner life. Now that I am alone the world is again a chaos of meaningless objects, and signs that point nowhere.

A little bird has been haunting the garden today. I know him, and since the knowledge comes with a name (like a soul encumbered by a body), I will call him blackcap, or atricapilla, which means nearly the same thing. Earlier he was flitting in the bare lilac bush below the window. Later he went away, but I heard him singing further off. His song is woody and tangled, like the shrubs he likes to hide in. Now he must have gone away entirely, and the windless garden is especially still. It looks as though the wind had never been here. The garden is suspended in glass, like a paperweight. When clouds pass over, creating dialects of cold light, that is the breath of the sorcerer as he looks at the glass world in his palm.

I have been trying to write all morning, but nothing has come of it. The page lies open in front of me, on the damp windowsill with its futile wadding of old newspapers. The noise from the washing machine has stopped, so I go downstairs in her slippers to hang the wet clothes. The kitchen is very cold, and I can see my breath. The wooden door is warped, and the bolt does not lie true.  I need to put my shoulder against the wood before jerking the metal across. The rough movement dislodges a wet sock from the pile on my other arm, and I need to bend my knees to retrieve it, at the risk of dislodging the other clothes. Another shove and  the door bangs outwards into the silence.

There should at least be a wind. If there were a wind, it would rattle these dead heads of poppy, teasel and cardoon. I imagine the seeds being shaken about like dice inside the clenched fist of a gambler. I think about the white-green shoots that must be creeping within the black soil, and of the twigs that will soon be pregnant with buds, and suddenly I feel so queasy that I have to look away. How uncanny life is! A blind choreography of processes. It is only death that is not uncanny.

There are droplets of dew on the line, and each clothes peg that I squeeze releases a tiny abseiling spider. They must live in the pegs. The pegs are different shades of pink, purple and blue, like the beach-huts at Southwold. One spider ends up on my hand, and labours through the hairs on my wrist like a swimmer through terrible waves.

It is not until I am back in the bedroom that I notice the broken trail of moist black soil behind me. The slippers. I look down at the white page with its its bare, tangled script, and try to  forget about the soil. I stare at what I have written, but can’t make any sense of it, so I go back down. I take a timid, balding and pitiable little wooden-handled brush, and jostle the mud from the carpet fibres. Fush fush fush. The lip of the plastic dustpan is too thick; the soil grains rebound from it and scatter again to nestle between the carpet fibres. The brush handle has grown slightly warm in my palm, but the kitchen is cold and very still. Above me,  the suspended saucepans, colanders and graters in the house do not sway on their little, olive-painted hooks. The pearly winter half-light stands at the window, and the pans hold their breath. In half an hour it will be dark.

I go upstairs again and, not in anger, cross out everything I have written. My arm picks up an old encyclopaedia from the 1940s, called The Book of Knowledge, and opens it at random.

‘Wonderful is the fascination of the lighthouse!

‘Where Canada grows the finest wheat.’

‘How “John Chinaman” fights the plague.’

‘Turbaned warriors of the Camel Corps!’

I was turning the pages almost in a daydream. It was not quite dark. I don’t know what made me look up.

It was standing erect on the fence, glowing in the half light like a drawn scimitar. It gripped the wood lightly with bunched claws. All of the stillness of the garden was centred in it. Not a shadow moved in that glass grave. Then there was the slightest adjustment of bones in its neck. Its head tilted upwards. As I stared, its eyes’ yellow abysses met mine.

 

STEVEN WILLIAMS is a teacher and writer from the West Midlands. He now lives in Swansea with his partner and three children.

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