Floretta of the dungarees steps down into the lane into the late afternoon when the birds have not yet settled, when the stream is at its lowest, when the sun is gathering up his rays and folding them into the trees.
She hasn’t got much to carry in apart from the philodendron– an old suitcase of clothes, a box of crockery, garden tools, and seeds, lots of seeds, the frog and the cat. She has no qualms about the cat. She does not lock it in, or butter its paws, but turns it loose, to wander. The frog she carries in his travelling bucket, up the stairs into the garden where the overgrown and the run-wild bend to watch her, suggestions in their breath and leaves, here, here, he’ll be fine right here. Here is his new palace – a muddy pool of water in a circle of misaligned stones, a left-behind of the sullen stream, flailing fronds of lilies bogged down in water weeds.
The air is filled with silence.
Across the lane stands a mill; not the mill of dreams – not beautiful , with a rustic waterwheel etched as precise as a mandala – no: a squat, ugly toad sitting by a stream, made up of stones embedded in the surrounding landscape . She crosses the lane and peers in the dust-blown windows, the ones above covered by black tarpaulin. She rubs her palm against the window and sees its insides, one silent, ugly machine solidly still.
The tanks had rolled in suddenly, silently. No-one had expected it would come to that. The demonstration had already ended, the crowds diminished by water-cannon and police with horses. Only a few of the gang had stood up to the jets of stinging water, their placards long since drummed to dust beneath the onslaught of determined feet.
None of the houses in the lane look lived-in. There were no cars on the top road, only a dilapidated VW campervan, settled in the quarry like it was home. Once off the motorway most of the fleeing traffic had thinned out, Merthyr Tydfil, Llanfairbach, Llandovery, Bethlehem. Like her they were heading for the smallest roads, roads that disappeared into tracks, misaligned signposts, remembered idylls. They were amongst the last who had managed to cross the Severn before the bridge was requisitioned.
Supper is a tin of soup, by the thin light of the small window, by a hearth which had struggled to light. She had lifted the dead jackdaw by its stiff leg and tossed it out where the garden ran into wild woodland. The cat had appeared then, rubbing its body covered in burrs against her leg, and following her back into the cottage. Just you and me, Cat, she says, opening a tin of tuna.
Stockpiling? The woman at the till in Asda had joked with her all those months ago as she emptied her trolley of its tins. Tins of soups and beans and tomatoes, tins she would never have dreamed of purchasing – potatoes, carrots, asparagus, and those that had been around since the seventies – steak pies, Ye Olde Ham, spam.
She falls into a bed that looks just like the photo of a bed in a room of a cottage that she has never seen.
Falls into a bed with stone walls that lean into her as she drifts into sleep, falls into a bed the likes of which she has only dreamed, a bed in which she was the only inhabitant, a bed which would not see or hear, or be shaken by the unspeakable.
The bed has cotton sheets and a duvet decorated with birds, tropical birds: macaws and parrots and kiskadees, rufous-backed kingfishers, paradise tanagers, red cardinals, hummingbirds. They are not still. She pummels the disobedient sheets and pillows into submission, the furious blend of hummingbirds’ beaks and orange-feathered kingfishers, the red slash of the cardinal, the hooked beak of a macaw. She has no idea why she had chosen this duvet, looted from Dunhelm Mill during the riots, only that she had been deluded by the idea of tropical. They have her in their grasp. Her restlessness gives them life, the rise and fall of the bed-cover un-creasing the tanager’s eye, releasing the hummingbird from its folds to rise its micro self and hover as it does above the agave and the sugar-water, the blood oranges and the grapefruit.
In the mill they are now waking up. They carry on their conversations quietly.
Another one come among us.
Not to know not to know stinking pile of wool wash away wash away lice and worms and maggots piss shit and blood.
Wash away grit and muck bending backs breaking backs fingers caught in the machines carding thread.
Fleecing husbands dreaming of ale and sex, lusty sex. Young Agnes bent over wool her slippery sex wet as a new-born lamb pounding her to the clutter of the machines hand clasped over her mouth to stop her screaming and not a word not a fucking word mind now you want to keep this job
to send this fine threaded wool this even woven high-class wool to clothe the backs of our fine young men keep them warm in the sewers of the Somme.
Floretta falls into an uneven sleep. The tanks seem so far away now. Their nudging rollercoaster wheels retreating into the streets, slick-wet with the water from cannons.
The mill- women are away into the world now.
This is the time, whether East, West, North or South, Lucifer is at his most active. Assassins are dealing their strikes. In the Caribbean it is foreday mawning. Jumbies are on the move. Dawn will be breaking soon and all those who fear the light will be revealed. Those who fear the light will be quickening their quickstep of night crawling. They will jouvray their idleness into lightning. They will be working their razors and knives against the throats of the unwilling. They will be spooning their last spoon of liquid cocaine into the veins of the believers, turning rough keys into the vehicles of their choice, Lamborghinis or 4 x 4s, a pick-up truck with no insurance, whatever. If the fanciful is to be believed, the undead, in their cloth of Bela Lugosi, will be hastening to their enclosures of wood and stone, pull the slabs over eyelids of whom night is day and day is night. Here all is equal, the pretty boys scuttling their vampiric selves into cabins and city apartments way way down into the basements.
There is a rush to preclude the dawn. A highway of mass movement. A Formula One racecourse. For those who have the sight, and fearlessly lean on half-open windowsills, there’s a sight to be seen, all the selves and half-selves scattering to the four corners, racing against the paint-smudged fingers of dawn. The synchronicity of bats is not without foundation. For light gives the dark wings, there is no myth to it.
In other beds too, there is commotion. The insomniacs have been on all the journeys of each assassin, each nightcrawler, each voudoun, each surgeon bent over a child, each school bus crash; disaster movies where all are welcome. The over-worked minds wracked with unsleep. Their failed medications litter the bedside cabinets. Pills and unctions, camomile teas, lavender bags. Dawn’s edging beneath the thin filter of eyelids becomes an adversary, like a child teasing an old man out to play.
The pacified, the healthy-with-sleep, the ones with the big houses with guards at their door, merely turn over. Praise be to the un-tormented. Praise be to the heavy heads and light of heart who fall into their beds and do not move till morning. Praise be to the arm of the man across his wife who herself goes to sleep with a smile. Praise be the successful businessman.
The priest walks out in Lucifer’s wake .Yes there is still work for such as these. He is still useful, still on call. With the masts down the landlines are back. He still has work, for darkness highlights the fear of daytimes. Oh there is still a modicum of order, giddy ambulances speed through city streets bad–mouthing their American-accented sat-navs cheerily steering them into No-Access roads and country lanes which fizzle out into cabbage fields. Their orange lights whirr in darkened lanes like subterranean moons.
Extreme unction. Extreme unction, I say. Those are the words the priest will use to his older parishioners, those who remember the Latin mass, the chanting in another tongue, the whole-body relationship with the spirits. Old Daisy Mae, 89, just up the road there by the pines, refusing to leave her prefab cottage, refusing to get into the ambulance, refusing to leave those boarded walls and their steel-framed windows, clutching her flanellette sheets with her bird-leg fingers, lifting her bald-eagle wispy white head. ‘Father’, she says, ’Father, I am not ready to go yet, anoint me all you like.’
In the woods the cat spies dawn through the leaves and drops the mole he’d captured on the lawn. Its small limbs still twitch slightly. He puts out a paw and stills it, bored now. He stares into its round button not-eyes and watches the light go out.
Floretta turns over in her sleep. Within the weave of cotton a silent song, another tune, as restless as the birds trapped within their weave, a way down in the land of cotton here beneath the weave beneath the waves beneath the twisted fingers and bent back of pickers from Louisiana to India. Black-backed men and women with names as rippled as the corrugated fields – Abraham and Lincoln George, Phyliss and Mama Lou, Raja Singh and Surenja. But oh, don’t you know, yesterday Raja Singh killed himself, his life in debt to the sellers of seeds, the sellers of cotton seeds and pesticides. Oh, you don’t know his name? Or the name of the 600 others saving their lives by taking them, swinging from a dry-limbed tree, or slashing their wiry wrists above the drain whilst their wife sleeps, unaware her life too, is running down the polluted drain of blood, water and piss running between her husband’s wrists and the slave-tied wrist of Lincoln George an ocean and a generation away in the fields of Louisiana. Mary Bernadette now, and Charlie and Sophia, their faces right there on the magazine, London Fashion Week, celebrating cotton, cotton photographed in an urban city, all mirrored skyscraper and glass, young faces turned up to a sky of mirrors, they don’t know nothing neither, their ears holding on to a different tune.
When the bats flee the birds wake, they break the morning like an egg, a crackle that becomes a clarion call for sparrows and finches, tits and collared doves, pigeons and woodpeckers, wrens, robins and crows. Their proclamations and warnings, border disputes and broadcasts, shiver out of the woods and the back gardens, the rhodendrons and ivies, the clematis and oaks. Like a shower of manna they descend into Florella’s garden, a flock on the lawn, search out the upturned coils of earth the moles have drilled overnight, cluster beneath the umbrella of ferns, flit flit flit from fencepost to trellis busy busy. Busy busy.
Come now girl, come now.
Even in the land of evil there is rhythm. Even in the land of good. The land of plenty. The land of loss. The land of no-name. The land of sleep. The land of toss and turn. The land of no-sleep. So the seeds through the act of ginning fall from the cotton. So the black in the form of grinning fall from the cotton. Sow the seeds in the land of righteousness tumble into fertile lands. Sow the deed, sow the seed, O Mammy –O. Fall from the cotton and fluff. Fall from the cotton and fluff. Fall from the oak tree yonder when the clan think it’s enuff. So Benjamin get the rhythm right in his body, bend and scythe. Bend and scythe. Hit the plant low, the scythe high. O Daddy-O.
Floretta turns her face away from the dawn. She is not ready. Deep sleep has claimed her. Deep sleep has rescued her from Phyllis and Lincoln George whose stories tumble deep within her bones, deep within the earth that she will dig, she will fork, she will scoop, she will disturb, she will rake, she will cast stones out, she will peel slugs and caterpillars and worms – no not the worms dear – and toss them in a bucket of cheap cider. Deep sleep brings the forbidden into her bed. She dare not open her eyes and find that it’s not real. She dares not open her eyes and find it’s real. Someone else is turning down the sheets and is palming her flesh in a wave of heat and oil. Her breasts blossom, she can feel them warm as a papaya in the sun, and sense their smoothness like the inside of a hibiscus.
The cat is coming home. He smells of earth and moss, burrs decorate his tail, a feather glued to his bum-hole. He pads across the lawn, pad pad pad pad. The grass is wet. Dew grass. Beneath the turf all kinda commotion is going on. All kinda manifestation. The mole mother can’t find her son. Last seen under the hygrangeas, his little nose twitching twitching. She told him, watch out for Cat! but you know children. Go their own way all the time. Either backchat or pretend they don’t hear you. Her tunnel is a tunnel of worms. Sometimes she noses them up as offerings to the earlybirds, not intentionally of course. She always has complications to deal with. Wiry roots of wild flowers dangle down the soil. There’s a crack in the earth where next door dug their own tunnel to carry through the wire for their Sky TV. Mr Mole the husband still sleeping in tunnel number 9. No care in the world. No surprise he never hear the woman talking to the turf say, is make or break time garden, jes you and me. No-one here to fret my soul case now. Not answerable no mo, umm umm. Mrs Mole is a light sleeper. In the daytime of course, everybody know that. When every creature sleeping she can hear the hedgecutter slice through a universe minding its business, spidersweb gone in a whizz, bluetit nest, the wren and all her brood. Larvae falling from the underside of leaves, caterpillars a-munching spun into the sky.
Cat walks his proud self tail nubile like a submarine periscope into the still-sleeping house. He has his own window. Springs up slick like an apostrophe into the living room, heads to the place he knows he must not pee. That philodendron she brought here too, an umbrella-leaved monstrosity that spreads himself over a quarter of the room. Its roots hang menacingly, tubers alive and alien in what now looks like a subterranean space, in the deep blue dark of the room with the light fixing to pour its ET fingers through the blinds.
Cat jumps into his pot and shits.
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.