Sweetness and Light, chapter one


This book is documentation. It is evidence. It is proof.

When I was young we’d go on holiday to the same house in Wales every year, one of those small, stone cottages. It had a red door and white windows with curved, pale-painted stone surrounds. It looked as though it was smiling, eyes crinkled up against the sun.

You walked straight into the living room, where a heavy log burner squeezed, shoulders tight, into the stone fireplace and a couple of tatty, brown velour sofas warmed their arms. Most of the furniture and every kitchen unit was that orangey pine. The kitchen units had gingham gathered curtains instead of doors. A mouse lived by the back door.

The two eaves bedrooms were so pressed into the roof space that the windows were at floor height. You had to crouch down to look through them onto the street outside. My bedroom barely fitted a single bed. I’d lie on it, perfectly still, talking to the people in my head.

If you went to the end of the back garden, you could crawl under the fence and find yourself in a small orchard of overgrown grass and gnarled apple trees. It hummed with bees, wasps and flies, its branches crackling with hidden electricity. I’d spend all day curled up in one of its warm branches, racing through a book and eating sun-poached apples. Sometimes the electric hiss and whisper would find its way into my bones and I’d spring off the branch and race through the trees, arms wide open, eyes closed. I was tiny enough to be a single, fizzing cell. I was huge enough to be a roaring sun.

Mum would have macaroni cheese or potato pie waiting and we’d sit together quietly as the sun got thinner, leaving its warm dust on my arms. The orchard was my secret. A place that said that I was bigger than my skin.

Most places other than that orchard and our home made me feel sordid, unseemly and grotesque. My skin crawled with horror and fear a fair amount of the time.

I didn’t speak until I was ten. I could whisper or gesticulate to Mum if we were alone, but I froze, blank-faced and terrified if there was anyone else around. The first word I said properly out loud was ‘sorry’, in a strong Brummie accent. I didn’t talk to anyone outside the family until I was eleven. At fifteen I discovered that litre bottles of cider helped loosen my tongue, but also brought their own, quite different problems.

A lot has happened since then.

Today at the picture library as I re-filed the entire ‘AX-1000’ section, I flicked through some images – DNA sequencing, the subject was – and began to have the beginning of an idea of a photographic project to do with nature, pattern and mathematics.

It’s autumn outside my attic window this evening. I sit here typing, a cup of tea at next to the keyboard, my soup warming on the gas ring.

Three nights ago on my way home I passed a small white dog tied to the railings outside the train station. I stroked his head and rubbed the back of his ear, and he looked up at me with pebble eyes – wariness a thin sheen in front of hope. Don’t worry, I told him, your owner will be back soon. But in the morning he was still there, and again in the evening. He was straining to get closer to a puddle to have a drink. His eyes looked more distant and he was thin as a whip. I went to the supermarket and bought two bowls, a bottle of water and a tin of dog food. As he drank, I wondered if I could come back every day and do the same, save his life quietly, without fuss. I thought of calling the RSPCA, but I hate speaking on the phone. I gave his ear a rub and turned to go, but his eyes weighed heavily on me. I sighed and took my phone out of my pocket, practising the words in my head and blushing with anxiety.

They said he was likely to have been abandoned and said that he should be taken to the vets to check for a chip. What if no-one wants him, I said? He’d go to a dog rescue centre, the man said. People shouldn’t be allowed to have dogs, he said, not unless they could prove they were responsible. He didn’t look angry or sad; it wouldn’t be the right job for me. I’d not be able to cope with seeing the cruelty. If he’s not claimed, I’ll give him a home, I said. I could already see the spot for his bed in the living room, in the alcove next to the fire. The man smiled. Lucky dog, he said.

He gave me the number of the vet where Herb’s been taken. That will be his name if he’s mine.

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