The clocks had already circled backwards when I took shelter in the passageway beside the second hand book shop. The windows were not lit against the early night and the heavy, black door was locked by the stillness of the recently emptied, untenanted rooms it now kept. I had intended to purchase a new old copy of the most terrifying book I’d ever read. To share a small part of it, aloud, in the end room of the library, after normal browsing and borrowing hours, on the eve of All Hallow’s Eve. But the book seller had moved on. To a more touristy town in the Peak District, with heavier footfall.
I can’t recall what happened to my original copy of Orwell’s 1984, not that it ever really was mine. The spine was broken and the jacket torn long before it eventually found its way to me. It lingered about the place at first, cautiously, knowingly. I’ve always been wary of the smell and feel of used books. They seem to understand my unease and rarely outstay their welcome. I grieved its last line and it was gone.
I returned to the safety and familiarity of my own books. Books I’ve owned from new with pages and covers that smell and feel the way I expect them to. The way they should.
I collected together a triptych of poems by three poets, each a modern retelling of the same old rustic fairy tale which, in it’s earliest manifestations, hundreds of years past, was never intended for children.
Of the three twentieth century poems I took from the mantlepiece Carol Ann Duffy’s Little Red Cap most closely resembles, by title and theme, Charles Perrault’s late 17th century incarnation of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge which he composed to be heard in the literary salons of the French Aristocracy. In his version the little girl cloaked in red does not survive long enough to realise her happy ever after. That ominous tale issued a candid warning to young girls, coming of age, to beware of the charming, deceptively-gentlemanly suitor with its cautionary conclusion,
“Watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves are the most dangerous of all.”
Unheedingly, Duffy’s sixteen year old is seduced by the cultured and charismatic spoken word of the libidinous poet but in a post-feminist transgression of the original, Red delivers her bloody retribution. Her first-person account of Canis lupicide deviates from Anne Sexton’s Brother’s Grimm-inspired account in that she does not require the services of a Huntsman or Woodcutter to execute it.
Sexton’s early 1970’s vision of the huntsman, freeing Red Riding Hood and her grandmother from the belly of the beast, is that of a transvestite having a caesarian section.
And if Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhyme can be construed as issuing any kind of moral warning it is probably to wolves, to be shrewdly suspicious of precocious trick or treaters, lest they get shot and turned into fur coats.
Had I not had 17 inches of my hair cut off and posted to a wig maker earlier in the month of October I could have attended the library’s ‘Little Book of Horrors’ evening soiree looking like a very convincing witch. Though the chop was less drastic than it might have been – I still have a solid 19 inches, root to tip, hanging from my head – it was by no means insignificant.
This hair cut was not the external signifier of internal confusion, rebelliousness, or self-detachedness that previous attacks on my hair have been. Like the time I crudely bleached it yellow and orange or when I dyed it goth black with a blue streak at the front, Like the time I had the chemically-damaged lengths twisted tightly into ropes and held hostage in their unnatural coils by synthetic, fibrous twines which were flame-burnt into them. Or the unhappy hours I then spent tearing them all out again. Or the time I inadvertently dyed my scalp purple. Or when I very purposely shaved my shoulder length locks down to the skin – a la Sinéad O’Connor qualming a nervous breakdown with a portentous lullaby. At my most unapproachable a kind-faced stranger stopped me in a club to tell me I had a nice-shaped head.
This cut carries none of that weight. If anything, it has considerably lightened the load. And has been a long time coming. Before I gave away half my armour, to an undisclosed someone else to share in its safety, it shielded me all the way down to my wrists. Except it was practically impossible to wear that long. So instead, it was teased back, both day and night, into an unruly plait from which stragglers were endlessly absconding.
This particular haircut, from my point of view, has elicited a singularly peculiar reaction. Or rather, hasn’t, Excepting my husband and son, no one has even noticed. I’ve heard and read other women describe how – at some indeterminate point, after the wolf whistles have died down – a woman of a certain age simply becomes invisible. I don’t know when it happened to me. I didn’t think I was old enough. Or menopausal enough. And certainly not compliant enough. But there it is. Invisibility. Looking askance at me in the mirror. Looking rightly pleased with itself at its strange and unexpected liberation.
The ‘prompt’ word for readers at the library was “Unease.” The ‘trigger’ word for writers was “Scar,”
“Heavenly hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are…”
Those four lines form the second stanza of Emily Dickinson’s There’s a certain Slant of light and they are each scarred into the skin of my left, upper arm. Upside down and back to front from where I view them in the shower. Munch’s lithographic Scream unfurls like smoke out of my right wrist and the inks of yellow. orange, purple and green that block-colour my simple nouveau-botanic abstracts have faded only lightly over the years, protected from the bleaching effects of the sun by the clothes on my back.
The geometric sunflower on my shoulder, the largest distinct piece I have, cloaks beneath its charred seed head the first tattoo I ever lied about my age and sobriety to get. Not that the back-street ‘friend-of-a-friend’ showed any concern as to whether our transaction was strictly legal or not. He cared even less for his ‘art’ than I did for me.
The old-school tattooist I recently presented weeping willow sketches to spent the earliest years of his apprenticeship in the trailers of travelling fairs, a historical fact which speaks to generational working class culture and lack of opportunity rather than to artistic aptitude and expression.
Lived experience leaves indelible marks. Where hair reveals feelings, tattoos disclose thoughts. And piercings, straightforwardly, manifest more holes to be filled. Subversive impressionism and hermeneutical aesthetics speak the same gobbledygook language and curiosity raises an uncertain eyebrow at the figure whose limited but asserted freedom passes by, uncomfortably close to its own. If it notices at all, that is.
The grandmothers in the local pool, with their unwetted hair, keen to bob and chat so as to preserve their swimming energy, were perplexed not by the imagery inked into my skin, emboldened as it was by the warm, blue-green chlorinated water, but by what they imagined must have been the acute physical pain which accompanied their creation.
It surprises me when mothers wince at the thought of the pain of being tattooed. Women who have given birth. Women whose first experience of childbirth did not scar them, physically or psychologically, so deeply or for so long, that they could not even contemplate enduring it again. I understand, philosophically at least, that we each experience and respond to pain somewhat idiosyncratically, so any experiential comparisons are erroneous. But my own empirical percipience is that I have never gone into shock, slipped into unconsciousness or felt precariously close to death under the pulse of the tattooist’s needle.
My naturally brown hair is streaked naturally grey at the temples. And elsewhere along the skewed line of my parting, wherever I try to comb it. Silvery strands of mistakes made and lessons learned. Glimmers of wisdom hard won. And I am very consciously just letting them be. In middle-aged passive defiance. I have resolved not to dye out the encroaching grey but to wear it up and down and swirling around in the blustery Octobers and Novembers still to come. November –
“The month of the drowned dog.”
A first line by Ted Hughes which, once read, cannot be unseen or forgotten. Drowned by the weight of a bellyful of rocks is just one of the myriad ways the deceitful wolf has met his overly-sated demise.
For unease or amity, poets’ words stay with us. Emily Dickinson’s sentient and familiar first line is etched, with dandelion seeds, across my chest. And, though I do not have them inked into my skin, Jenny Joseph’s opening Warning lines are easily and eccentrically soliloquised:
“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go…”