GEOFF STEVENS MEMORIAL POETRY PRIZE 2018 IS NOW OPEN
IMAGO - extract
It didn’t start as a love story. It started with an ending.
In the chasm between waking and sleeping, life and death, she relives it over and over, unable to pull herself free.
There’s the still May evening, fat-bellied moon sliding inauspiciously across Pluto’s trajectory, and in the distance the murmur of the Torridge; or maybe it’s the light wind rising in the birches. An east wind, its skirts full of unease and conflict, billowing up from nowhere suddenly, setting the horses in the neighbouring field skittering, the hares leaping through tight bronze fiddleheads of bracken.
The air suddenly green with fear, then pricking with hate, ready to combust.
Anger. Her words, each one poison-tipped, aimed at the heart. Greg’s eyes, glittering under the moon, pale as frogspawn. His fingers yanking at the sleeves of her silk summer dress, tearing.
The car accelerating out of the drive in second gear, spitting gravel, away from the little white town, away from the party, roaring up the hill back towards Exeter.
The dress gaping like a wound and Annie’s hip aching from half stumbling half being pushed into the car, banged against the jamb. His cheek swelling and a sour odour coming off him. Her hand stinging. She can’t believe this is happening, this conflict; can’t believe it. Once there was love. Once she loved him; they loved each other. How long ago?
There’s the briefest comfort of horse sweat through the open window, then the saltmud tang of estuary; then only diesel and burning rubber. The engine shrieking.
Truck lights around a right hand bend and Greg swerving.
In its moment of unfolding the present becomes the past and, as history, is always fiction. So later she questions, over and over, did she imagine it? What is real? Because here, in this present moment, terribly, terrifyingly, Greg seems to throw the car to the right, straight at the offside corner of the lorry’s bonnet.
The instant before the impact stretching on and on, dreadful, soundless, tunnel-dark, empty, eternal.
The moment exploding around them.
She thinks she hears his neck snap, a sound like distant gunshot, chilling; then his face fading away as she slides beneath dark waters; but his mouth pursuing her, open, in shock, in agony, in triumph even.
The car spinning.
Noise; and then only the silence of blackness.
In the hospital bed her broken body convulses and she cries out; and again, as she will later in the camper van in her lover’s arms; then alone on a frozen March mountainside, suspended between centuries; and as she will, again and again, in the lonely ebb of l’Estang des Sangliers, where the square stone house fills up night after night with voices, trapping her in its unending darkness like one of the haunted boggy bottomless pools high on the Dartmoor of her childhood, in which she fears she may drown.
She visits other places in her pain.
There’s a rocky scrubby mountainside, crisscrossed on its snowy flanks with tracks of hare and wolf and wild boar; sometimes the clawed spoor of brown bear.
There’s a low stone building, amongst small fields of rye and barley, hardly bigger than its attached goose-pen. In the dark smoky interior one wall is taken up with wooden hooks and rough shelving carrying bundles of all the herbs of the mountains: centaury, absinthe, thyme, oregano, rosemary, wild marigold, juniper, agrimony, jostling with pig bladders and clay jars of oils and unguents, cloth bundles of root and bark.
There’s a tall stone building, candlelit in the citadel’s midnight.
There are hands, soothing hands in the dark blue night; laying-on near the heart, on the body’s subtle pulses, on the temples. Her hands; sometimes others’.
There’s a lavender field, and summer sun, and a lover’s arms, and a murmur that might be wind, or the sea, or traffic noise; the scent of pine and juniper; blue mountains. She dreams white horses and black foals.
There’s the fire that swallows them all. Flames. She dreams flames. She doesn’t know if it’s the past or the future or if it’s someone else’s life.
When she opens her eyes for the first time, the sunlight striping the white ceiling through the hospital blinds both puzzles and dazzles her. Her field of vision is limited by the fact that she cannot move her neck. Then she becomes aware that there is a face close to hers, a face that she recognizes. She stares at the face. Somewhere the other side of the clouds stuffing her brain a name for the face hovers, just out of reach.
Her friend Rosa stretches out a hand, and gently strokes back a strand of Annie’s hair.
The red fabric of Rosa’s sleeve leaves shock-waves on Annie’s field of vision. Annie can see that her friend’s dark eyes are swimming but is unable to respond.
‘Welcome back, stranger. I’m enormously glad to see you. We thought we’d lost you. It’s been months.’ Her voice shakes. ‘You–’ She starts a sentence then stops. ‘You know how black and shiny your hair still is, even though you’ve been so ill? Well, nearly—it’s—it’s—uncanny, somehow. Strange, I mean. I mean—’
Annie drifts. It costs too much to concentrate. She has no sense of where she is, no recollection of why she is there. Dimly she feels that there is something pushing at the edge of her mind for entry; a perception of overwhelming pain. In her peripheral vision are tubes, wires, apparatus; the form lying on the bed, which she realises after a delay must be hers, is encased in a huge framework. She has an impulse to put out a hand and touch the structure, but nothing happens, nothing connects anywhere. Annie closes her eyes again and gives in to the grey clouds.
Rosa comes in most days. She asks no questions, and for the most part simply sits quietly holding Annie’s limp hand. Sometimes she’ll come in just for a few minutes on her way home from shopping or picking up children, or she might bring a book and share Annie’s silence and solitude for an hour. Her presence soothes and strengthens Annie enormously, especially as fragments of memory start to impose themselves.
Unasked questions are finally beginning to form in her head, and a fear, a dread that lingers, accompanying waking consciousness but as yet without a shape or a name. This, combined with the continual physical pain, conspires to make staying awake unbearable after a certain length of time. Rosa’s affectionate presence and her small snippets of information from the world outside, of faculty news, of friends and colleagues, of Rosa’s family, all make, for a little while each day, an alternative to sleep, a place of refuge for Annie. Briefly she can almost forget the insistent clanging intrusion of the enormous thing which she knows has happened but of which as yet she has remembered no details, except the perception of flames; flames and unbelievable pain.
Rosa never refers to what’s happened other than oblique allusions to events from ‘before your accident’, and Annie cannot bring herself to ask. In the weeks following the accident she is more concerned about surviving the continual ache in her body from moment-to-moment, identifying where the pain is locating itself so that she knows when it has passed. Getting through each day without whimpering, suffering the indignities of regular monitoring, bedpans and bedbaths and drug-administration, the changing of sheets and tubes and drips and the minute steps forward in movement feel like major achievements in themselves.
Annie’s returning memory is selective. After a while she has fewer problems following parts of Rosa’s stories and news, beginning to recognise the names of colleagues and friends. She knows that she herself worked at the University where, Rosa has told her, her post is held for her still. Her close friends and family, all of whom visit as often as she can bear it, serve to anchor her where otherwise she might find herself alarmingly adrift. But in almost all of them she’s conscious of a kind of worried guardedness, as if they are either deliberately withholding something from her, or resisting asking something of her. Her mother’s eyes particularly hold a kind of troubled unhappiness.
Her memory totally fails her concerning the small elderly woman who comes in several times near the start of her convalescence, though somehow she connects her with storms, and a place that isn’t England. Annie, during her stronger more lucid moments, is aware that there is something familiar about her, and is bewildered that the old lady does nothing more than sit and rock and cry, grasping Annie’s hand. She comes to think of her—once she has started to recover enough for her mental processes to begin to judder into some sort of order—as The Frog. Her slightly mottled, loose, creased skin draped over fine bird-like bones fascinates Annie, whose visual faculty has become, if anything, sharper, if only in contrast to her other abilities.
As she is not sure who the elderly woman is, and therefore quite who or what she is crying for, Annie retains a certain detachment from the woman’s pain. Nonetheless she misses her when she stops visiting. It is many weeks before Annie’s memory, with a shock, places the old lady as Greg’s mother.
It falls to her father finally to bring up the subject of Greg, several weeks into her recuperation. As soon as her father comes in that day, Annie is aware from something about his bearing and the expression on his face—a mixture of unease and determination—that he has something important to say. Though a kind, supportive man, like many of his male contemporaries he is not comfortable with the world of emotion, which he sees as a peculiarly feminine weakness.
Her father sits down, folding his angular frame rather stiffly into the economical hospital bedside chair to Annie’s left, between Annie and the window. Annie can’t now read his face as it’s against the light, but knows that hers would be all too clearly visible if, as she suspects, something awful is to be called up. There’s a slight pause in which she can almost hear her father shepherding his thoughts into the right shape for his injured daughter’s ears.
Annie breathes in one two three pause out one two three pause to try and relax a sudden tension which shoots through her damaged neck and ribcage in spasms of pain. She looks at the ceiling and, waiting for her father to speak, tries to calm herself by picturing the flowers which would by now be out in her garden. In a vase on the windowsill are huge floppy giant sprays of carmine and white roses from her parents’ home, extravagant and voluptuous against the neat white bland impersonality of the room, and Annie searches for their scent against the sterile hospital air.
Her father clears his throat and puts his hand up to readjust his glasses, then awkwardly leans over to pat her arm. Perhaps he has a sudden concern that his action might have hurt Annie, for he lifts his hand abruptly and removes his glasses, passing his hand across his eyes.
‘Sorry, my dear, didn’t think. How’s the pain today?’ Then, uncharacteristically, without waiting for an answer he rushes on. ‘Your mother is concerned that you might not know about Greg. You do know, don’t you my dear, that Greg died in the accident?’ He peers at her myopically, unhappily.
Even against the light Annie can see the anguish in his face. Greg?—Greg. Her husband Greg. Greg whom she had loved, Greg whom she had hated. Greg whom she could not leave, and who had tried to kill them both.
Greg’s mouth. A blistering impact.
Everything stops abruptly; even the flickering of tree-filtered sunlight across the walls and ceiling seems to freeze. A perception of enormous grief, a tidal wave. She can’t catch her breath, or open her mouth to speak; and in any case no words are there for her. Something stirs and heaves in her head, and an avalanche slides across her mind, blacking out the patterns on her ceiling.
Annie has just been wheeled back from physio one day and is lying on her bed, experimentally tensing and relaxing the muscles in different parts of her body. Much of her is still encased in plaster or bandages, and her neck is in a collar. Physiotherapy consists mainly of some breathing exercises and a few minutes’ sitting, lightly stretching any part of her body that can bear the mobility.
There’s a tap on her door, and a huge hibiscus plant appears, accompanied by an armful of books and an avocado clutched in a familiar long-fingered hand. Beneath it all is a pair of old jeans and some serious walking boots. Above a crimson flower Alex grins his wide, teasing grin, and Annie fleetingly notices a few more wrinkles around his eyes than she remembers. He’s younger than Annie, but his face looks much more inhabited, lived-in; rumpled even. He raises his eyebrows at her, eyes dark with concern, pleasure and his usual mix of liveliness and teasing humour. Annie smiles back, carefully, because of the stitches, delighted and surprised to see him, a little shy. His hair, shoulder-length and wildly curly, has lightened with the sun to a red-gold, and there’s a sprinkling of grey hairs at the temples that she doesn’t recall seeing before.
‘Hey, lady, just look at you lying there with nothing to do! Even while we talk your poor departmental Head is tearing her hair out about you. You know you’re indispensable? Yep. Apparently it’s impossible to find any kind of Annie-substitute to strike fire into the hearts of all those fresh-faced eager young undergraduates. Must be easier ways to get a sabbatical?’
Alex looks around for somewhere to deposit his armful, and carefully piles the books and avocado onto the chair while he stands the hibiscus on the floor beneath the window. ‘Would you like the blinds drawn? It’s a stunner of a day outside.’
Annie blinks and nods, unsure what to say.
Alex draws up the blinds and is back at Annie’s bedside in two strides of his long legs. He bends and lightly kisses her forehead, then hands her the avocado and sweeps the books off the chair onto the floor. ’I’ve come to bring you up to date with 13th century French romance!’ He grins, self-mocking. ‘Betty Chadwick’s course is continuing in September—I don’t know whether you’ll be out by then?—looks unlikely, from all the apparatus—but I thought you might like me to fill you in on the last few sessions. I’ve brought some books, and also I taped a couple of seminars; they didn’t mind when I told them it was for you. Why are hospital chairs always so bloody uncomfortable?’
Annie’s clutching the avocado still. His words tumble over her. She can’t speak, even if he’d been leaving a space for her to do so.
Alex looks at the avocado in her hand. ‘Didn’t think. Guess you can’t do much with it like that, can you? Sorry. Shall I find you a plate and spoon? Or shall I ask them to feed it to you for supper?’
Annie’s breathless with emotion at Alex’s arrival, his comfortable manner, his casual thoughtfulness. She’s especially grateful that he didn’t gasp, or compose his face into steadied carefulness on seeing her and the residue of her injuries, as most first-time visitors do.
‘Supper would be lovely,’ she manages. ‘Thank you.’
‘Hey, careful now—that was almost a smile!’
She’d met Alex the year before. He was doing a year’s poetry residency in the English department, so they had coincided several times within the faculty calendar, and also at departmental social events. As Alex’s own poetry tended towards the modern, experimental and anarchic, Annie had been surprised when he had signed up, as she had, for a series of lectures and seminars on mediaeval France. Annie’s interest had been purely literary; she was wanting to learn more about the rise of the Romance as a literary genre, and its roots in the Courts of Love and troubadour verse, with a view to broadening her own lecturing facility.
Alex’s interest, it had turned out, was more historical, political and philosophical. Though the troubadour cult interested him, he was more interested in the emergence and persecution of minority groups, especially with regard to religious persecution. His own BA thesis in Comparative Religion, fifteen years before, he’d told Annie, had centred on the political and social underpinnings and impacts of the eternal conflict between heresy and orthodoxy, and as a political activist he was motivated by minority issues and human rights.
Annie had always thought of him as a twentieth-century visionary. He was fascinated by ideas, ideals and others’ visions, and the lengths they might go to defend them. His natural world was that of campaigns and causes; his passion expressed itself through his words and music, through the possibility of positive change, righting wrongs. His fierce interest of the moment lay in the Dominican persecution of the adherents of the Cathar faith in the south of France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
He and Annie had found a meeting point, over the duration of Betty Chadwick’s course, in a shared and growing interest in the body of Grail stories that arose at this time, and of what they might express beneath the Christian overlay.
Alex calls in at the hospital once a fortnight or so after that first visit, sometimes more often. Their friendship is easy, casual, warm. Alex’s visits become increasingly important in the long slow weeks that follow, as she teaches her body once more to obey the still all-too-laboured instructions of her brain. The process of learning to think again and of physical retraining is arduous, and the returning flood of memories and the accompanying feelings utterly exhausting. Much of the time Annie succumbs to cycles of hopelessness and depression, followed by numbness.
Throughout this time Alex’s inexhaustible cheerfulness and enthusiasm buoys her up. He does much of the talking and seems to gauge accurately just how much intellectual input Annie can deal with at any one time.
He talks a lot about work, and literature, sometimes about a musical project, and also about his children; rarely about either his home life or his wife, Kate. Annie had met Kate a couple of times. She was pretty, quiet and rather timid-seeming, and, it seemed to Annie who was guiltily aware that she was being faintly patronising, probably a wonderful mother and devoted wife.
He doesn’t ask her about the accident; like most of her visitors, he probably doesn’t know how to broach the subject of Greg’s death. Like everyone else, he knows nothing about Greg’s occasional infidelities and his later and frequent drinking bouts and the abuse that increasingly went with them. Alex probably assumes, along with everybody else, Annie thinks, that she is totally grief-stricken and probably desperate to avoid thinking or talking about it.
They are only partially right. She is indeed grief-stricken, and finds thinking about what happened almost unbearable. But quite clearly, alongside her grief, is a corroding mixture of guilt and rage. Greg’s death was not a ‘clean’ death; the creeping horror of her sense that the crash was a final act of violence directed against both himself and her has left his anger hanging, unresolved and accusing, wherever she turns. The natural guilt involved in her confusion about their turbulent relationship, and especially the final row, has left Annie with a burdened sense that she could have done more to prevent it. In addition to that, she’s left with the equally natural but illogical guilt that she has survived and Greg hasn’t. Then there’s the black rage.
Annie and Greg had no children. It was unclear which of them had ‘failed’—for failure it seemed to Annie. The first time Alex speaks of his children on a hospital visit she listens a little sadly, as well as with vicarious pleasure, to the obvious joy he finds in them. Before, earlier in her marriage and when she was still very much enjoying her work, Annie had been aware only of a slight wistfulness when other people spoke of their children; no big deal. Now, with the present and immediate past full of pain, and the future a long way away and totally uncertain—for the hospital has still not committed itself to a guarantee that Annie will walk unaided again—a sharp sense of desolation at her childlessness occasionally visits her. When Alex has gone that first day, she adds the particular emptiness of the would-be parent to the list of torments that fill her lonelier hours; and for the first time in many years cries herself to sleep.
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Roselle Angwin is a Cornish author, poet, painter and environmentalist whose work has won a number of awards.
Under the Fire in the Head banner she leads an international holistic creative writing programme ranging from the ecobardic ‘Ground of Being’ outdoor workshops, through intensive poetry, to novel-writing based on the psychology of myth.
As a poet, she frequently collaborates with artists, musicians, dancers and sculptors, often on the land. Her poetry has been displayed on buses and cathedral websites, has appeared in numerous anthologies, been etched into glass, hung from trees, printed on T-shirts, carved into stone, metal and wood, painted, sung, composed to, choreographed, danced, performed—and eaten by sheep.
Imago is her first novel, and will be followed by a collection of prose poems, Bardo, then her second poetry collection, and a second novel, The Burning Season, again to be published by IDP.
Roselle has written a number of books on creative writing, and edited an anthology of the work produced by members of her ongoing Two Rivers poetry group, Confluence.
She lives in Devon with her partner, and has one daughter.
When Annie, a beautiful, inhibited and emotionally remote academic, loses her husband, and very nearly her own life, in a car crash in 20th century Devon, she has no idea that this will be the catalyst for a dramatic journey in search of some kind of healing.
Not least of the issues she has to face, while recovering, is her sense that the ‘accident’ was actually not one. In addition, the crash precipitates the onset of turbulent and violent psychic activity.
A year later she is attempting to make sense of her life. In the company of a colleague, Alex, poet, songwriter, musician, environmental activist, she arrives in the Pyrenees at a conference on the troubadours, the Cathars and the Grail legends. The time that follows is one of upheaval and catharsis.
In the warmth of Alex’s easy and inspiring nature Annie feels herself gradually beginning to thaw. For the first time, she can imagine herself living the life she needs to live.
But simultaneously a darker drama starts to unfold and then predominate. Without warning other than her own nightmares and, increasingly, hallucinations, she becomes caught up in the political and religious turmoil and persecution of 13th century France.
Alex, originally supportive but now increasingly alienated by Annie’s strange behaviour, and with guilt and grief of his own, leaves France abruptly.
Annie lapses further into despair and disorientation. She finds herself living out the last two incarcerated weeks of Isarn, a young Cathar priestess, or Perfecta, who was burnt in the siege of Montségur. This drama brings her, Annie, to the very edge of sanity and, once again, the borderlands between life and death…
NB: Montségur is a real place, and in the book I have been as faithful as possible to its sad and bloody history