Shalimar, an extract, by Davina Quinlivan

In this new occasional series for The Clearing, Davina Quinlivan explores some of the themes in her memoir, Shalimar. We begin the series with this extract from the book.


Barbara Hepworth’s Infant, a sculpture of her son Paul, carved from Burmese wood, seems to haunt me. When I first saw Hepworth’s sculpture, I said aloud, again and again, ‘I have a Burmese baby. I, too, have a Burmese baby.’ He lives in St Ives, in the land of my husband’s ancestors. He lived there long before my babies came.


We go through seizure after seizure, near-misses, slightly raised temperatures, me growing ever more watchful as these fits take hold. Would I rather Orlando was this baby’s twin, momentarily caught in the shape of a wooden statue?


He sleeps. His soft cheeks are touching the folds of the blue bedsheet.


His mouth opens. A half syllable escapes his lips. A hum. A breath. A breath. A foot bends and an arm taps against the sides of his white wooden cot. Hollow, pinewood notes in the night. A breath. A breath. A fingernail buried in a knot of hair. Curls gathered behind his ears. Like this, he falls fast into the furnace. White coals at his cheeks.


A breath. A breath. A breath.


Electric pulse through his arms and another at his neck. I carry him into our bed and still, he jolts. A silent spell.


He is claimed, again, by the night, as I watch my baby disappear behind his own eyelids, falling into the cracks of heat and snaking waves of lightning. ‘Wake up’, I say, softly, but he is still being pulled through the wires, through the tunnels of movement. My fast, flat palm on his forehead. My heart in my mouth. We check for signs as we pick up the phone from the bed and make the call. My husband opens the gate outside and looks for the blue lights across the fields.


He is a note of music caught jangling sideways, stuttering. A piano key which won’t come loose. D-d-dddd-dddd. D-d- d-d-d. Then, I am left with this changeling on the bed; an enchanted thing which I cannot interrupt, nor quieten. Little breaths, I am searching, listening in the black for the little breaths. I hold my own breath, for I cannot hear him. I hold my own breath, but the changeling is now passing silently into the fold.


A febrile seizure is a thousand alarm bells after midnight. I am not even a witness, nor guard. I am exiled from my baby’s world, and he from mine.


Hepworth carved a Burmese Baby from the blackest wood, silent and shining. She conjured him with her own hands. Oval-faced and oval-bodied. Sleeping. His head is fixed in a perpetual shifting towards an invisible pillow, nested in his upheld arms above. No longer swaddled deep within the grain of the mother tree. He is ever more rounded in the light which enters from her Cornish garden.


While my baby shakes in the night, her baby is ever so still, still, still, like the Burmese tree he was born from. His heartbeat can never stop. His breaths were never taken. He holds the spirit of the element which shaped him, the current of the wind and the moonlight. He is caught in time. No, he understands only the cadence of light and shadow, curve and form. Time, for him, is irrelevant because he will always be her wooden baby. Such tenderness in that gesture. His cheek a perfect reflection of her love. But he is not mine.


My baby is on the bed and I am waiting in the dark. I do not want my baby to be a copy, though they are twins. I hold my right hand against his chest while my other hand brushes his curls away from his wet face.


‘I do not want your Burmese baby,’ I seem to say out loud. ‘I do not want him to turn into the teak tree, though this spell is breaking us. I want my baby. I want my baby. I will give you my hand, my cheek, for your forest, if you return my child. I will come away with you. I will accept the binding. Please pass him back through the fold.’


Then the deal is struck.


He travels through the clouds behind his eyelids and opens his large green eyes, whose pools of light I inspect for signs of a muted forest, another gathering fever. His movements are now ordinary, earth-bound, human. Blinking. Sniffing. Yawning. A slow unfurling of a pointed finger or a wrinkling of his nose. A smile. A grimace. A hundred different emotions which speak only of a child’s restless nature. His head against my chest. His hand in my hand. He drinks water and we sit up on the bed, on the damp sheets, on the pillows. Sleep arrives quickly for him. But I am awake, staring out at the stars.


Elsewhere, incense burns the colour of Burmese wood. A flame is dampened. Maggie, my half-Shan grandmother, is fanning smoke at the foot of the twelfth-century Temples of Indein on the West Bank of Inle Lake. Spinning clusters of crumbling orange brick ascend from a veil of green leaves. The foliage spreads and burrows deep beneath Maggie’s feet.





Davina Quinlivan is the author of several books on cinema. She has taught at Kingston School of Art for over a decade. She is an affiliate of The New School of the Anthropecene, and is a guest lecturer in Film at the Freud Museum. She lives in Devon with her family.


Shalimar, a story of place and migration is out now.


The photograph at the head of this piece is by the author.

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