I can hear his voice in my veins. He calls me his, ‘Porcelain-darling’. Sometimes in my flat here in London I would move from one room to the next astonished at this ‘love-experiment’ I was delving into. I was now once again ‘a work in progress’ as I had been as a child in Dominica. The first man I ever loved made me feel more of an exile on these London streets. Far away call girls in islamabad from home, the only home I had ever known. It was the known. Love is like plasma, floating mitochondria, atomic particles, the accurate building up of ignorance into life experience, the harsh, neon underground bricks of illness.
Love for me was always an unlikely dilemma. Do I or don’t I? Sometimes I think we live with ghosts. Love is a ghost. It is ancient as illness but it makes me bleed at the starting line. Curtains at the open window of the hotel room are moving in sync with my little bleeding scarlet heart. Why do I write? I want to find myself in eternity when I’m in heaven. Everything has returned to normal. I am on my own again. I don’t want to strike it rich or land me a guy to marry me (both at the same time would be a dream).
There will be no reunions with family, with lovers, with ‘him’, that kind, sincere wealthy man I first met when I was such an ingénue. He taught me the difference between the words, ‘authentic’, ‘squalor’, ‘but these are terrible living conditions’, and ‘you can even find human nature in a symphony if you listen close enough’. He taught me the meaning of words like, ‘the brittle movements and accurate moments of solitude’, ‘how to be astonished at how ignorant people were, how vain women and men were’, ‘all pictures always carried powerful observations of life in the details’.
I would hear his voice everywhere I went in the beginning stages of our relationship (I called our little affair). His voice healed some parts of me especially when the dark air of night was advancing.
‘God is mostly in your head but most people do what their hearts tell them to do.’ ‘Life is boring and we need activities like love to get us through the day. We’re a match. People think life owes them something if they’re not born rich but even rich people are lonely and ignorant. They can go to the best schools in the world, but are they educated, no, cultured, no. Have you ever felt abandoned, neglected, ill at the thought of being rejected (I felt like that my whole childhood) I wanted to ask but was too afraid to, too afraid he would think I was a mouse, weak. There was clarity in that.
You need to think more of yourself, Jean love. You need to express yourself. If you feel indignant, feel indignant. If you feel confident, feel confident. Don’t be so afraid of the world around. What is the worst thing that could happen (I already knew, that someone could laugh in my face, stare me down until I looked away but I never confided this in him because there was no reason to). Sometimes I think you feel terribly lost. I see a terror in your eyes as we leave one another. You remind me of a lotus flower and for me it is the most beautiful flower in the world.
He could articulate it (love), show it, examples of it (I could only describe it, make plans for it for the most part in my head, connecting threads of the purest thoughts of it in black notebooks). I was his pretty doll whom he spoke of in whispers to in the dark.
Jean, sometimes I think you are hiding something away from me. I think an entire wonderland must exist inside your head for your own pleasure. What sweetness that must come with. It must taste refreshing. It must taste like pink happiness, a deposit of charm in a room that has not felt it for days, for my Jean, my bird without wings.
And so his champagne voice would carry me through the day and for most of the night for this insomniac. Sometimes I could feel the stress on my heart, its thudding, hammering away pressure and there was nothing in the world I could do about it. All I had to do was to live. I would watch children sometimes and think to myself what their gifts to the world would be when they grew up. Sometimes my heart would turn to paste as I watched them and I would think that now, finally everything had been taken away from me. I could never be free and then I would walk down back streets.
There would always be an undeniable lightness in the road’s blackness as evening began to settle all around me. Its magic fingers in my hair, the wind rearranging my hat, massaging thoughts of rope and poison, putting stones into the pockets of my coat and walking into a lake filled with ice and trees at the bottom into my mind’s eye.
I would think of the dilemma that faced Romeo and Juliet and how sometimes when I was feeling very low how that same dilemma faced me. I wanted to be myself but not on my own like this. I knew I had failed. I did not know how to get back to life.
I did not know how to dance to modern society’s beat. I did not know what modern meant anyway but I knew I was a most modern woman attached to absolutely nobody and nothing. And then the tears would come streaming down my face. I could not stop them and why I. Life would had not been fair to me. I did not know anything about modern acrobatics and the flying trapeze artist was a comic to me and sometimes my mind’s eye was a width of a thread and it was simply connected to nothing. Some days I would feel brave as I if I had a destination in my step but I knew that was a lie.
Soon everywhere I went I would hear his voice in my head, as if he was with me in the room. ‘You can survive anything, Jean as long as you put your heart and mind to it. You look beautiful tonight, simply divine, and come here let me hold you. It feels as if it’s been forever since I’ve last seen you.’ By that time he was already a ghost. It didn’t feel real to me. His voice had no substance but it kept me company, the illusion was so strong. I didn’t know how to distance myself away from that habitat of his beautiful house filled with fireplaces, flowers and pictures hanging on the walls of landscapes, a wine cellar. I just wanted to dissolve.
Sometimes you live poverty. I’ve lived in poverty. And at first I didn’t want people to see me like that. You know, drab, pathetic, old clothes, out of fashion. Funny, but it made a difference to them, made their hearts and their diplomatic hearts and heads softer towards me. They exhibited empathy to what I always thought was my unlikely demise. They gave me money and I would use it to live as best I could. There was an understanding. Out of sight, out of mind. It was fine if I was going out of my mine with loneliness so long as it was on their terms.
And when a guy (I really don’t really his name, how we met), he finally he broke off the affair a few months later he was very diplomatic and suave about it. Although I couldn’t understand how he could be so composed about the whole deal. To them money meant success. I had no money. I wished sometimes that I could distance myself away from it, my love for it but I needed to live like other people did, don’t you see. Whatever that word ‘normal’ meant it gave me Goosebumps just thinking about it. And then in the end I thought it was normal to distance myself from society.
From London to Paris, Europe what a pilgrimage, what a privilege. Whoever gets the chance to travel these days? And then I was soon back in London again. Whatever happened in Paris had been an adventure but now it was over. Sometimes I felt vertigo as I was walking on those London streets. I felt blessed with the knowledge that somehow I was perhaps writing for a generation that would come years after me in a golden age. It was a generation who was now experiencing life as children while I was a grown woman. Sometimes I thought to myself I was not meant for this world.
In the evenings London would become a ghost nation but I did not want to be stuck in a room. It was too depressing. I became too aware of my current situation. It would make me feel sad. I would feel like having a drink and then my whole outlook on life would change after I had the drink within me. The man who lived below me would knock a broom into his ceiling and ask me to ‘keep it down in there’ (whatever the hell that meant). I didn’t know what on earth I got up to in the early hours of the morning. Sometimes I thought I would just be writing, scribbling away, staring at the walls. I would think about love, how much I really liked the idea of it.
There are a lot of things in this world that are rotten, unpleasant things to deal with. In the evening or usually when I am alone something always seems to loose itself violently from me. Sadness, a wounded feeling as if I almost don’t belong in this world and in a way I know I don’t fit. Perhaps I am too reckless in the choices that I make. Perhaps I am not a safe person to be around. Too much of a thinker, brooder, reader always keeping love and the attraction of it in the dark until I can feel pin points of lights trying to break through the cracks. I am no good. I am bad at love.
I am bad at affairs and matters of the heart and bad at relationships. I must rest now. Tomorrow is another day. So I wait until the room is filled with darkness and I listen to the noises in the street outside, downstairs, in my own room. And I know I’ve walked that street today like a ghost as if I was not aware of my surroundings. Soup is always good for the soul, as are confessions. Here is one for one. I don’t believe in the death of things anymore. I believe in life as much as that is hard to believe. If only someone knew me well. If only I had a companion.
If only I didn’t have to suffer for my art. All of my life I watched women in their relationships with men. How they would smile, turn their head, their eyes watchful and waiting, how they would smooth their hair down, arrange the food, the salad on the plate or cast their eyes over a menu and how the men were pensive, eager to please in this sunny environment. How could I have known then as a child that I was not one of them? And that I was never going to grow up and be one of them? I would watch these women always smiling; listening (but were they really listening).
And I wondered why these women with their fine clothes, elaborate hats, and brooches why never spoke back. They were always nodding their heads like puppets. I knew from an early age I was not too pretty so I would have to work hard, but also I would have to discipline myself not to be too smart. I reckoned that people’s lives are meant to be celebrated when they’re alive not dead. There was always something pure about the day as I set about my walk and there is something to be celebrated in that. The union of life mixed with the elixir of what I drank (and I always thought of it as an elixir).
I was not built like that, to be tough I mean. I was never meant to be a bully or a tyrant. I just did not have that warmth in my voice, that kind of spirit flowing in my blood. If poetry is an elixir then prose is food for thought. I’ve walked past people and they’ve stared at me. I’ve looked away but sometimes when I really think of getting to grips with the situation I want them to try and understand me so I stare back. What do they see, a casualty disconnected from the rest of the world? I live so simply. My life is easy and cheap. My supper is usually bread and cheese.
It is always bread and cheese. No change there and my hands smell like soap and this room’s bare bones creak under my stockinged feet at night. Writing has become my ritual. It has become my escape from grief and raw anguish and frustration.
Sometimes the process of writing torments me but I also feel much anchored by it. It’s therapeutic, it minimises the stress that I feel thudding inside my head and it gives me a sense of purpose. All the words seduces me, gets under my skin. It is so intense, this pleasure that unravels and seems to release the chill out of me on cold nights.
But I can no longer feel the weight of the world resting on my shoulders so acutely. The words seem to paint that blue pearl into a rainbow of magic colour. Into childlike stuff of fairies, dust, a water wonderland, into soul and life, everything of beauty and not a disturbing sense of things. I always wished as a child to make contact with things like that, magical things. I’m thirsty so I get up for some water. I can still taste the salt in the air coming in from the sea in Dominica. Why would I go back? Sometimes I remember why and sometimes I don’t.
Fast forward to a flat in London and I go by the name now of Jean Rhys. A name I have changed so many times. I have no money, no skills, and no form of employment. The cheques come regularly. He called me a ‘porcelain darling’, ‘daring good girl’, ‘special’ and that I was ‘loveliness personified’. He had kind eyes. He was so authentic and a real gentleman. I mean authentic in the terms of he was a man who was made of substance and everything around him, his home, his household, and his wealth felt real to me as I entered the foyer and stared at the flowers in the vase that seemed to welcome even me.
I believed nothing was wrong and even when the affair ended I still thought perhaps there would be contact again and even a friendship but years have passed (the poet in me I guess came up with these foolish notions). Realising that the past is past even the temporary frightened me to death. But there had to have been some reward, something golden that I could get out of the equation of knowing this man and coming into his world even for a short period of time. I could not solely have duped myself into thinking, into believing that it was just a lark on his part.
You know that whole easy situation. I could think about these things for hours on end, fill my entire day on the he said she said transmission of our conversations. Sometimes I would get stuck on a sentence, just the tone, how he would express himself and it would drive me crazy, up the wall and I would will my brain to dissolve it. It would feel brutal but brutality in the end also serves its own purpose. It will make you realise that you need to rest. I don’t know quite when I’ve finished with something. When I have to quit it but I do know when I have to rest. When I’m kaput.
It is not going to work out Jean.
You know how these things are between a man and woman.
You’re not too blame.
It’s just what happens in the world, its called human nature.
One day you’ll be a grown woman, a lady and you will understand all of this.
It’s not easy for me to say this.
You’re still young and believe me; you will fall in love again.
I’m too young to know about those sorts of things, that’s what I wanted to say at the time. I was thinking it all the time watching the creases in the corners of his mouth. How the fleshy part of the skin in the middle of his forehead was crinkling up as he watched my reaction. I know he was just testing me to see if I would fly out of control, would she make a scene? How would the past few months come to an end?
I felt like an orphan. I shouldn’t say things like that but that is what I felt like. Lost, terribly afraid of the world, neglected, abandoned, no home, no name and family.
There was no hope in damned hell to resurrect my lone self. There were parts of me that were wolfish, that was the part of me that could fight, battle (I have the scars to prove it) if I had to. No, if I was challenged. But I also withdrew easily and that was the weakest part of me. It didn’t matter what kind of climate I found myself sheltered by. I embraced skating on illness and when I did I yearned the most for my art and all my little rituals. Now I am tired of the years of cold I have lived through and this incessant hunger that I feel for attention and most of all my neediness.
Violets were my favourite flowers in the world. Maybe because they’re so pretty and cheerful they make me feel that way. They don’t make me feel like death, volcano dust or blue warmed up. Sometimes I dream of my mother’s fingers knitting, not braiding my hair. In the middle of the night I come upon a sleeping world, a dream world. I journey there for a while pacing back and forth, sometimes crying, sometimes in a sombre mood before I fall asleep myself. The stars are like birds in my eyes on the nights you can see stars in London.
They are like birds with their wings outstretched. Ready to meet the oncoming edge of the sky or a sword of air. All ‘Ella’ had was imagination and she kept that close to her. ‘Ella’ was always secretive and I have kept that because if I didn’t I would have come undone a long time ago. I am what I am because I have wanted people to believe it, especially other women. In life there are always choices, pleasure, desires. I always kept waiting for love to change everything. A Prince charming and as dark as an Arabian knight in shining armour to rescue me.
But life never goes according to plan although I am an open door. Sometimes it feels as if I come alive in the dark. The sun is like a mirror. If it’s there I never see it. I am not conscious of its light, and my reflection in it. I can feel (I’ve always been aware of this for what feels like forever) the dark side of life more intensely than the lighter side of life of it.
My hair was not spun gold. It was dark. I did not believe in fairies and their wings or that Dominica was an island but I did like the trees. They were my favourite and the open fields and when a spell of tiredness came upon me, when I couldn’t breathe because of the heat I would imagine. My goal became to fall in love with warriors in suits who had wonder guts in their blood. I’ve loved many and I’ve lost some along the way. Splendid confidantes that I held in high esteem as if royalty. I’ve learned to go on loving although it is the hard way.
You go on paying the price one too many times. There’s a flaw in passion, a conspiracy in love, that hate that always cornered me on the playing fields of childhood that seemed to flow my way as a gauche chorus girl. You know once upon a time there was a man who wanted to adopt me. I think he wanted to take care of me and be a fatherly figure. Some kind of mentor, a friendly man who would keep me out of the firing line of the inquiring gazes of others who would exchange company for money. One last time I am more in love with being in love than anything else.
The air is crisp (a tattoo on the green landscape). It feels as if I am living in an ancient world collapsing under meteors. What does progress mean to a writer? Write more books but they have to have a market and they have to sell well but the writer must always be morose and depressed. Very difficult when it comes to giving interviews.
I do not know what impact my books have on the rest of the world and I would like it to stay that way. I know that human behaviour is predictable. It is also a precious cargo. But I am made of glass.
Why call off the splendid search (such an adventure) for the adventurous spirit at heart, that instinct. I am the feminine lark, the songbird. In my line of work there is such a thing as clarity but no such things as clocks. What is the meaning of that four-letter word l-o-v-e? And when it is nailed to my heart why do I stammer when I speak, why does my heart beat to another rhythm, cadence (I can hear it as if it has gone underground somewhere). I have to mine it like a mineral deposit. In love when I have fallen, fallen hard all my thoughts are hushed up, meshed together mystically.
It is hard for me to understand men sometimes, to have a concept of them as an object, to understand their failure to communicate and the world they inhabit, their domain. The sense of their beliefs and mine differs profoundly. They can be monsters made of winter, coldly inspiring all kinds of aches and pains of the mental kind, cerebral but they can also incredibly vulnerable. I ask myself, do I want to write. I can’t remember when I wanted or started to write. When I received that inclination from the universe. I only knew that I had to write to save myself.
I don’t remember when I remedied the thought of not dreaming with drinking. Alcoholism and crazy seemed inseparable and here is when the writing comes in, rescues me. The writing was always a useful exercise. I never learned to smile those early years in London, never believed I was a rose among the thorns. Perhaps all young women are supposed to think like that (that is what drives them, for the better part of my adult life it haunted me) and feel insecure in the bloom of their first love affair. I was not a flower, could not wrap my words around the tones of crisp English.
But I remember the tears. As a child the back of my throat is a land of thirst. I knew that there was something else out there for me. Something besides the loneliness, the sadness and despair that I sometimes fell into, that became my child’s mind-sanctuary. Dampness seeps into the lining of my coat. There are flecks of cloud in the blue sky. But is it enough to want desire? The faded grass under the leaves under my shoes. The faded grass under autumn leaves, Whitman’s leaves of grass and the sacred contract that existed between human nature and nature.
The woman in the park she will not appear the same in a photograph as she will in memory. This Eve taken from Adam’s rib who was a daughter doing what her mother did. Woman, the ethereal girl figure turning on a pedestal with her eye on the prize of love. I have my observations of them, these others, glorified futuristic poster girls for motherhood (who would in a few years’ time settle down for life). They will live as they dream in their sleep and dream to live. And all my life I have wondered what do children communicate when they laugh?
Turkish slippers small enough for small frail bird feet, a gift from a friend. A draft of sunlight in the air burns bright. I am held, caught up in its grasp. Illness has touched the glinting, sharp parts of me. It is not the bag of bones why have you forsaken me, my skull, my frame, celestial nimble fingers, and patella. You centre of my being, nerve, every fibre of my being, brain, heart of mine, platelet, aorta, and corpuscle. Why this unfinished prophecy? And then it grew cold. It is as if cosmic force was holding all those clouds up together.
The world around me, its people, and the rich became wealthier, girls on the chorus line retired from the theatre life when they got married and everything around me moved forward. It got its talons in me and I never became that selfless kind of person I wanted to be. Darkness falls. At my core lies gravity. All my life I have wanted to be beautiful. I have everything else. I will never get married. It is all becoming a bit too much for me. A bit of losing my mind, my heavy head giving way. I can’t keep lying. Keeping on and on with it. I must be honest. I must be truthful.
The unopened bottle of gin is there on the table. I must stop wasting my time. I must be brave and throw my head back and love, laugh in the face of adversity. I must stop wasting time. If I don’t eat something I will disappear, that superimposed elusive part of me, the soul, the frightened part, and the physical and private body of the subconscious. I am becoming a non-entity. I can become used to the idea that I do not exist in the material world where the others meet. Men and woman of similar interests and backgrounds and who have common goals, that connects them to each other.