‘Start Living Free’ by Maria Sledmere

The wind shrills through the pores of my face. I am too young to start with cleansers and creams and all the potions I see my mother fussing with nightly. I feel translucent; the coldness snaps inside my lungs at night. I am young enough to be on a beach somewhere—wild and rugged, north and west. Young enough to convince my wee brother that black is the best colour because it represents the negative space upon which the possibilities of all colours flourish. Young enough to not feel pretentious about this statement. I’m monochrome, white of skin and goth of clothes. My hair is long, blessed with waves made by ravelling plaits. We’ve travelled so long to reach this place, and I’m ready to let loose on the world.

It’s summer, the first week of July and it never gets dark. Not this far north. We’re allowed out past ten, past sunset, because there’s still so much light and none of us have mobiles or watches to notice the time. We’ll go to bed when it gets pitch dark. The beach is a scramble, wet sand streaked out for miles where the tide cuts its undulating braille of curved surges, places I’ll kick to make breaks in the lines. It’s like each kick is a break in time.

The next day the same, only it’s heavily raining. It rains all day. Proper impenetrable island rain. I like the smell of it; I like how fresh I feel when I give up the waterproofs and just embrace it. I have no sense of what lacks: the promise of a hot bath afterwards, clean towels and a soft bed. At this stage in my life, I prefer the animal comfort of a sleeping bag—the sense of burrowing into a cocoon and the familiar nylon smell, the complete darkness and the warmth of my breath filling it.

We’re on the beach for hours it seems. My brother and I, circling like gulls, playing a game. I invent this imaginary universe. We’re travelling between planets, swooping with our arms outstretched, pilots of starships. There’s no limit to where we can go. Brushing the water with our jelly-sandalled toes. Mine are studded with glitter, my brother’s are blue. I let him be Neptune, always poised and serene. The waves start shuddering with a possible storm. The rain keeps coming. I won’t stop talking, my voice at battle with the gathering wind. There’s a whole set of rules to lay out, a history of alliances and fights, an encyclopaedia of aliens and provincial monsters we identify in the shallows of water and the depths beyond.

Once, I got permission to tow a dingy boat out to the edge of a lagoon. My legs got stung by the swirls of jellyfish but I was so determined to reach the margins of safety. I clung to the outcrop of rock, caught my breath. My friends in the boat laughing amongst themselves, oblivious to the proximate danger. The ocean beyond was this churning morass of darkness, of inflected cobalt. Something fell out of me then, that inner glow of childhood security. I lost my sense of celestials, the precise alignment of my planets and stars and the complex links between them. Everything from then on was uncertain movement, transience.

My mother was shouting our names, beeping her car horn in terror. She thought she had lost us, lost her babies to the west coast like some fisherman’s wife from long ago. We went back to the tent where she tried to make beans on toast but the tin-opener broke and so did her soul. She cried for hours. My brother and I traipsed to the shop; half a mile to the village and back we travelled and bestowed upon her a new one. Shiny and clean, £1.49. We knew this wouldn’t banish whatever was trembling beneath her skin, this dark and restless creature, but the tin-opener was a gesture of security. Here, use this. Things can be fixed. Life has its comforts.

~

Later, I would understand the creature myself. Its melancholic flesh would settle into my own, drag me from sunlight, surface. I started to see only in shadows and feared the thing would burst out of me, snap its jaws on the bright skin of the world.

At some point, the entropy exhausts me. I dream of flying alone in a plane to some destination where I might see someone I love. Nobody knows me. There is a vague threat of death, as if this trip were absolutely imperative. The air conditioning contracts in my throat and I can’t find my voice for the hostesses’ smiles. When we dip through another horizon, I’m a child again, sitting at the kitchen table with a ginger root in my hand. I’m supposed to be sniffing it to cure my lingering travel sickness. This massive specimen with its sprawling shoots. Rhizome.

In the car, we listen to country and folk. CDs splintered with lightning-like scratches, jumping between tracks. The M6 spreads its dusk before us, the endless amber street-lamps, car lights blurred in the coming fog. Gillian Welch’s voice lends a rusty romanticism to everything. When lorries slip out of the crawler lane, toggles flapping with full momentum, I close my eyes and dream of a plaintive desert highway, of clouds passing over a harvest moon. None of this fills the hunger within me. Every journey is three service stations; a can of Lilt, a packet of Salt & Vinegar crisps, a coffee for my mother. Strong flavours set upon the fingerpicked melodies of these Southern laments. I was too young to understand what Welch was singing about—who was I to mourn my first lover or Elvis Presley or care about starving artists—but something in the tone struck me. Listening to that album took me somewhere else. Every trip from Scotland to England, straight through the Lakes, the Midlands and down to the South, embittered with some sort of sorrow. Every time we went down to see family, then drove northwards and home a week or so later, something was lost. When you travel, you lose little pieces of your heart. Lose them in places you’ll probably forget about.

We’d stop somewhere in the borders where a river rushed past and summer ferns flourished in a copse of trees. Sun mottled gold on the water. We took off our sweaty, car-stunk feet and dipped them in the coolness. Every time we touch water, move across land, there’s another metamorphosis.

~

I haven’t left Glasgow for weeks and weeks and weeks. Still I dwell between two points. Staring at the flickering city from the top floor of the library, my mind reels across these distant hills; how easily it loses me! I’m among gold gorse, green grass. There’s a relay of details that race through my body—the smell of lilacs, sting of nettles, blood of the bittersweet blackberry lush on my tongue. I have grazed my skin in many places, with a lacework of scars to prove it. Places I have been to, scarlet depths where the creature presses close to reality, threatens to tear through the stitching. I have tried to sew tight each memory. Sometimes the fabric thins and the wounded sutures shiver with a sadness that takes flight from inside. In the light of the screen I close my eyes, stop talking, blow time away online.

Gillian is singing. I’m a pretender; I’m not what I’m supposed to be. The imagined commuting, every day. Bus journeys bloated with the weight of human misery. We pass these streets so often it’s like looking in the mirror, back at the tattered patchwork of your own body. Buildings cracking, crumbling, scabbing. The same school kids sharing curses, gossip, milk and cookies. Somehow, I love them. I love the streets, the broken buildings. The lonesome way Gillian picks those strings, voice like quicksilver. She could be anyone, and so could we. I lay my head on your shoulder, which is strange because normally I’m the strong one.

Once I was translucent. Once the wind whistled right through me. How did I become this solid thing, this body in motion whose limbs still ache with the weight of yesterday?

Here we are: the concrete unfurl of the motorway. A vertigo of cat’s eyes, behind and ahead; marking in red each interval of time beyond our notice. I let you take out the pins from my hair. Already it feels we’ve been travelling forever. You could be my shadow, a stranger. When darkness sinks around us, I’m still searching in its plains for the colours, the starry possibility. The greener grass, the future. For now though, I just have to leave this city.


Maria Sledmere is studying for an MLitt in Modernities at the University of Glasgow. She is co-editor of SPAMzine, founder of Gilded Dirt, and has work published in GUM, Quotidian Mag, Thistle Magazine, DATABLEED, From Glasgow to Saturn and other places. She writes features and reviews on new music for RaveChild and GoldFlakePaint, and is working away on lots of object-orientated projects which are slowly tilting her perception of reality. She blogs on everything from Lana Del Rey to The Archers. You can visit Maria’s blog here.


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