notes on a head injury (1)

I sit on my sofa-bed trying to read. I’m bathed in radiation, nestled between the soft light of the bulb hanging above me and the warm breath of the fan heater in front, but the comfort doesn’t console me. I’m trying to read the book which is in my hands, trying to catch hold of the words on the pages and find their connected meaning, but it’s difficult. It’s as if I can’t get in. My brain slips on the surfaces, lapsing instead of latching, and I find myself stumbling repeatedly over mysterious unseen obstacles.

“I begin with haard’dloq, extremely thin new ice that cannot be stepped on without danger, and then hikuliaq, new ice which is still slippery and yet can be travelled across.” *

Perhaps the subject matter isn’t helping and I wonder if it’s strange that I’m choosing to read about ice just now. It’s the season for it, I suppose, but it’s been a mild winter here so far. The temperature has rarely dropped towards zero and nothing has frozen yet. There hasn’t even been frost this week, the air being too wet and wild to permit any kind of stasis. I don’t think there’s much in our freezer either: the congealed mass of peas which I held to my head after bouncing it off a rock has long since been cooked and eaten. Nonetheless, I find it hard to get a grip. Words slide from the pages as I read, their crystallisations of meaning melting out of memory almost as soon as they’ve assembled, or sometimes before. It’s not that there are gaps – I’m not aware of any specific absences or elisions – but the greater order of things eludes me. On the rare occasions when I do manage to gather some sentences together, the reason for their proximity remains opaque.

Maybe I’m trying too hard. My consciousness is so clumsy at the moment, skiting across the veneer of the world ungracefully – and ungraciously. Yet, because or in spite of this, other things are drawing my attention. Maybe they’re always there and it’s only now I notice but lately I’ve been encountering all these little consonances; things echoing and repeating in different places. Photographs of snowflakes I see online recrystallise unexpectedly on the pages of a book, floods seep out of pages and into the fields around me, a phrase uttered by a character in an old Northern Exposure DVD is repeated by my boyfriend in the kitchen half an hour later. It’s as if different fields of existence are resonating, as if life itself is rhyming a bit.

I’m not sure what’s going on – if I am picking up on some subtle patterning or am simply confused. I’m certainly disorientated. Indeed, in some ways it seems that the world is inverted; as if I’m trapped on underside of ice and observing life from there. The most familiar things appear strange and at times I barely recognise myself.

It’s not just the brain injury, though that’s a big part of it. It’s also the lockdowns, the endless reiterating train of them: closing down, shutting up, holding in, keeping apart. Their effects are not just superficial. Like everything living, we’re not so much entities as processes – doings, motions, living veins running through the world. And when our activities are frozen and our moving stopped, we ice over, we ossify, we lose hold, not only of our livelihoods and of the human animals that we love but of our very companionship with ourselves.

It’s a discouraging time, all in all, but the consonances give me heart. Each time I meet one it’s like a warm touch, reassuring me that I’m still in favour with the world, still alive among its undercurrents even as I struggle at the surface. Indeed, during these moments I begin to feel a sense of belonging again; a sense that I’m inhabiting a deeper part of my brain and a deeper part of my body – a place beneath the stalled outer layers where my movement is more fluid, my contact more true. It’s a confirmation, a reminder, and a relief: that there’s life beneath; there’s always life beneath.

*Nancy Campbell, The Library of Ice (London: Scribner, 2018, pp. 112-3)

Pontycymer, Glamorgan, South Wales
12th January 2021

freeze

I wake to unusual calmness. The boat is perfectly still. Droplets of condensed water hang in neat lines along the edges of the cabin ceiling. Only my breath moves, creating dense swirling clouds each time I exhale. I open the hatch, stick my head out, and slowly gaze around. The decks and docks are all covered in a thick frost, as if a white fur has grown over everything during the night, and on the sheltered waters between the breakwater and the pier rests a fine layer of ice.

I go below to make a cup of tea then come back to the hatch to take it all in. It’s not often I see the sea freeze. The ice initially appears transparent and blank. However, when I look more closely I can see patches of patterning embedded within it: fine leaves, intricately veined and toothed, jostle with curved fronds and short stalks, spread about unevenly as if haphazardly strewn. I wonder how long they’ll last. The sun is riding higher in the sky, creeping above the wooded hill behind the harbour, its wan warmth slowly strengthening. Meanwhile, the tide is going out, causing the harbour waters to slide down over the rocks and shrink in surface area. Pretty wavy fracture lines are forming as the ice sheet becomes horizontally compressed and, along the breakages, little shards of ice lean up against each other, catching the pale morning sunlight.

I wrap up, and step – gingerly – onto the docks, then carefully make my way ashore and into the woods. The shrubbery in the shadows is heavily frosted and my footsteps crunch satisfyingly upon the frozen grass, but the sunlit glades are green and the tree trunks shine, warm and brown and welcoming. I wind along various narrow paths, vaguely following the sun, until I come out at the back of the pebble beach of White Shore. At its far end, I come upon a small brown burn. I stop and stare. I thought the sea ice was stunning but this peaty water holds an equal beauty. The burn flows out of the woods over tumbled stone into a deep channel in the shingle, levelling out and producing white foam which bends into a series of perfectly curved ripples. The ripples drift along calmly, some in parallel, some gathered together at their bases and fanning out like bouquets of white plumes. The water surface isn’t frozen but moves only slowly over the rotating current beneath, its caught feathers pooling in my gaze as my thoughts burble on. If only these movements of the world were intelligible… But then they are, in a way. In a way, I understand.

curled plumes of flat foam on brown water over pebbles

Lochinver harbour and Culag Wood, Assynt, Sutherland, Scotland
19th January 2019

December blueberries

Green stems wriggle into crimson-tipped tongues –
a strange flame on the withering hillside.
The blue balls hang in suspended disbelief.

three fat blueberries on a stem with crimson-tipped leaves behind

Cwm Garw, Glamorgan, South Wales
16th December 2018

roses

The Beast from the East is washing up roses; yellow roses, long-stemmed and fresh. They lie in front of me on the shingle shore, a bit battered but still intact, their damp petals closely furled and gently tinged with pink like cheeks flushed from the cold.

Where have they come from? I look around to the snow-covered hills behind and then back to the growing wildness of the sea ahead. It seems so improbably, to be standing here beneath all these white-capped waves and hills and find damp yellow petals at my feet, but here they are. I stare at them more closely. Their tender colour is vivid against the dark wet stones and, in this monochrome world, their presence makes everything else look even more black or white.

And I can’t decide which is whitest: the froth on the waves as they spill over, scalloping the shore, or the fresh snow lying in crystallised lines among the pebbles, or the smoothed fragments of quartz, or the plump breasts of the eiders paddling out into the wind, or the lean bellies of the herring gulls soaring up sideways in the stiff air, or the blanketing cloud pushing in briskly overhead, or the pure white disc of the sun within the cloud, sometimes dropping a cold platinum glint on the grey water, other times bestowing a soft sheen which rises on the slow westering swell before casting itself graciously on the shore.

I can’t decide and it doesn’t matter as I stand here before this shone water, before this powerful sea turning itself over with a glancing tenderness at my feet, softly smashing on the shingle like crumpled petals, like flung roses washed clean.

rosy-tinged yellow rose on wet pebbles with white surf receding behind

West Bay, Dunoon, Argyll, Scotland
28th February 2018