The Accidental Sufi Haiku by Polly Malone

The ivy that has grown over my foot and up around my ankle starts pulling, so I sit down. I am in the hall of the house, between the inner door and the door to the street. I don’t know what it is called, this bit. If it was tacked on to the front of the house, it would be a porch, but it’s not, so it isn’t. It’s where we put coats, boots, the barometer. I got this far and could go no further. I stood, with one hand closing the door behind me and the other ready to open the front door and then remembered I needed to set the alarm, in the hall, by the kitchen. My landlord is very particular about it. But I couldn’t turn back. I am on my way to the sea, and I couldn’t turn back.

For a while I stand still with my hand on the handle of the inner door. The warmth from my hand passes into the metal of the handle. The warmth from my heart, to my hand, to the door. Sunlight smatters in through the glass panel at the top of the front door and I can feel it hot on my head, from my hairline up. The letterbox is just below this panel, at eye level, unusual. My landlord says he had it moved, something about security. There is a faint smell of kelp.

In Jo’s house this bit is called the decompression chamber. The mud stops here. She has an umbrella stand, as she is the kind of person who doesn’t lose umbrellas. She has a row of pegs for coats and hats and scarves and shelves for boots and a cupboard for other things. The pegs and the shelves and the cupboard are painted blue. This is in Stroud, by the way. Here we have two brass coat hooks, the barometer and a small brown and white mat. On that are my boots, still wet. Under the mat is lino. Brown lino. And that’s it.

When the temperature of my hand and the door handle achieves equilibrium, I feel safe to let go. I reach up for the knob to turn to release the lock to open the front door and repeat the process. This is good.

I think it was words that first slipped past me. I typed thing there first of all, instead of think. Elsewhere I wrote mine instead of mind. And one time it came out ming, which was fun. I wrote scientish instead of scientist. No wonder I didn’t get that job. Here between the doors I can’t help noticing that sometimes words are slippery, sometimes static. Sometimes words are traps. Sometimes words are the animals caught in the traps. Sometimes words are the howls of the animals caught in the traps. Blah blah blah. You get the idea. Remembering things needed more than remembering the names for things; hearing their names called, words ran away and hid. But it doesn’t matter. I can still write a bowl of cherry stones if you need irony, a tree root cracking a pavement if you need progress. I can parse you a hissy fit should you require it, or be the scribe for a good old-fashioned sulk. The incredible sulk. I can rip and rend clothing just by thinking about it and when I actually write it, put it on paper, I become unstitched and naked. This is good.

I sing too, I sing with my mouth open. I sing hymns, nursery rhymes, football chants, but I never think to sing a lullaby and now I find this hard to believe. I sing rivers, I sing the moon. I sing tides and the telling of lies. I sing in old money, I sing metric, I sing refrains, exchanges, I sing the body electric. I sing what I know of the scriptures, I sing total bollocks. I can’t sing. And then I start again at the beginning.

The sun is higher in the sky and less light comes in but it’s not gloomy, not at all. I see all the shoes and boots lined up. Height order; my landlord sorts in height order, and I begin to think he’s slightly mad. Wellies, two pairs, one green, one black, then baseball boots, ankle boots with heels – probably his girlfriend’s – fucking ugly crocs, trainers times four, work shoes, mules, slippers and slipper socks, all balled up and flung in a corner. Rebels. Where have my boots gone, all wet from the beach? I can’t find them although I search thoroughly. I become convinced the tide has taken them. I am tidal. I am a windfall apple. The ivy pulls me and I sit down. This mat is futile. A weave of something man-made, made by a machine. Opposite me and up a bit are the coats, these are sorted by colour. A black leather jacket, a dark grey great coat, a blue anorak, a duffle-coat-coloured duffle coat, an off-white straight jacket and pure white wings, angel wings.

On the Metro I become convinced I could make a perfectly good living making and selling pinstripe hats. This is not such a bad idea. I draw out the design in the mud from my boots. On the Metro I take it personally when they say ‘Doors Closing’. Going up the escalator I notice that the handrail goes faster than the stairs. I watch as my hand moves away from me, feeling my arm stretched gently. I climb up a step to catch up with myself.

The day’s post falls down on my head. I call out ‘thank you’. I tuck the letters safe in my boots. I don’t go out much. I sit with my neighbours in their kitchen, smoking and laughing. I don’t smoke.

At the beach, I walk up to the promontory. I sit on the bench with the plaque that says: 1948 – 2004 Mrs Chand Jairath – Always in our heart. To the left is Miss Sarita Jairath 1973 – 2005. You are always with us. She must be Mrs Jairath’s daughter. I can never decide if it is good her mother didn’t live to see her die, or not. And to the right, past the bin, are Rhoda and Bobby Dyer – Sunny Memories. They loved this view. There’s nothing to see but the sea and the sky. That’s it. I think: that’s all you need. I want my plaque on the bin between them. Then I can be filled with … the things other people no longer need, I want. I can be filled and emptied, filled and emptied forever.

I become the Netherlands. Flat earth held up by my own compacted past. My own personal landfill. I become convinced that time, especially the past and the future, has a force as strong as gravity or magnetism. It pulls us backwards and pushes us forwards. It is this that makes us hungry, this that gives us the certainty of death, of reaching the full stop. I think I think that the reason we don’t time travel is that we never stay still long enough for time to get a beam on us. Until we’re dead. So we fear death because we don’t know where it will take us. We’ll be snatched up by time and thrown about, temporally. Eternity, we talk about that. But we don’t get it.

I am hungry. I heard somewhere that ravelled and unravelled mean the same thing and I’d go and check this on the Internet but I need to stay here, between the doors, waiting for time. My coat pockets are weighed down with the pieces of worn glass I pick up from the beach. Sand, glass, sand.

A spider has spun a web over my foot, like something out of Lilliput. I believe gravity is personal and will decide to keep me here, tethered on the ground, safe from spinning off, if only I am good enough. I watch the spider make more webs. I watch the birds build nests, I watch a city rise, thrive and fall within seven days and nights.

I call in well to work and they say don’t you mean ill and I try to explain and then halfway through I realise I have put the phone down like you would a half dead cat. It is a mercy killing.

I go to lectures I go to workshops I go to the pub to meet Ira. I am bombarded by synchronicity, by serendipity. He says it is serendipity do dah. There’s some hoo hah about memoir. Before I can form the question, I’m told the answer. I take to the streets, I take to the beach. I take to getting up when it’s dark to watch the sun rise. I stay there all day so I can see it again. I stay where I am.

My hands are crossed over my shoulders. My palms flat against the wall on either side of my head. It was hard to take my hands from the doors but now I’ve done it, I rejoice. I think of geckos and how now they think that the pads on their feet are not sticky. No. They form a light covalent bond with the wall, animal and mineral. In Zanzibar the geckos came to my room when I invited them in. There was a mesh over the window but they still came in. I called to the bush babies and they came too, but remained at a polite distance, outside, in the trees. Here the best I can muster is a spider. In the Spring I will try for moths.

It is dark. My lover comes. We take the glass pebbles from my pockets and spread them under us. White, blue, green. We tell each other stories. I tell him about my special powers. When I go to poetry readings, the poets always read my favourite pieces. You can check this. Recent examples? Carol Ann Duffy read Syntax and I nearly fainted. Seamus Heaney read the one about St Kevin and the Blackbird. Sharon Olds (this was in a big cold church in Bath, by the way) read the one about seeing her bum in a full-length mirror. Desmond Graham (who doesn’t believe in punctuation) read the one about a comma being a random squashed insect. I am beginning to believe it works for prose too – Sean O’Brien read the trippy party part of his novel. I wanted him to and he did. I knew he would. But then again, he is a poet, so that doesn’t prove anything. My lover tells me the story behind the song. He tells me he is as constant as the northern star and if I need him he’ll be in the bar. I say he’s cheating, that’s Joni, if memory serves me. I say I am constantly in the dark and if he needs me I’ll be in the park. I’m lying though and he knows it. The estuary pulls me. Silt builds up between us. I tell him grief is silt and he knows it’s true. We name the seven dwarves, the seven deadly sins, the seven muses, the seven cities of the apocalypse. We agree that nothing clinical can ever be beautiful, that truth is a mess and religion an excuse.

Then I am his bed and he is mine. Our close kiss press, our body meld and mesh, our skin, our beginnings and endings, carry us through the night. We leave no moan unheard. Try as we might, we can’t resist the buoyancy of morning. Will you stay here? he asks me.

Tomorrow I go back to the beach. On the way I will go to the bakery. There are two loaves that look so beautiful I can’t decide between them. The lady in the shop says; Make your mind up. Come on, love, I haven’t got all day. Make up your mind.

I think: I will. This is good work to do at the seaside. I either need a tether for my boat, or a string for my kite. Unravel, ravel. Either/both. Some tactile connection between heaven and earth. I make it from the parts of my sisters I miss; sturdy love and a happy knack with leftovers. I throw in camaraderie and bravery from my imaginary brother. I weave in the part of Welcome that isn’t the mat, the purr from a happy cat, the shadow that contains the bat. I put in the bit of the net that isn’t the thread, the point of no return, the thought that counts. I put in empty. I put in plenty. And Mind The Gap since I’ve taken that to stitch in alongside deep space and that Atlantis place. I put in the in-breath before the words begin when Julian sings and the pause before the applause when his song is sung. I put in the beat of love that’s given freely. I put in the heart of the night, the heat of the moment.
I test its tensile strength. There will be repairs necessary. There will be times the kite will crash to the ground/be lost in the clouds or the boat will disappear over the horizon/be lost in the clouds. There will be perfect flying days and a good catch. I take out my notebook and I write

I write kite strings
Reaching up
Striving to link
Heaven and earth with ink
I don’t have a pen.
I see a priest and go to him and together we praise the pioneers, the pyromaniacs and the prison warders. We bless the meddlers, the peddlers and the administrators. I give thanks for the spider that kept me on the ground all that time. I don’t think about the ivy.

With the last of my strength I go to the city. I go to the bookshops and shake all the words out of all the books. I pay special attention to the self-help section. I buy all the pens and hand them out, one by one, to everyone at the counter. I give them with love. This is good.

I stand at the edge of the sea again. I don’t go in. What, do you think I’m mad? It would be certain death with all these glass songs in my pockets. What, do you think I should? You’re probably right. I name the seven waves for the seven stories. On the way home I look at the two loaves again. I buy sunflowers. The kite is an illustrated, illuminated manuscript. The boat is a coracle.

Once inside, once upon a time, I sit down and, slipshod, I shed the sea. If you need me again look for me under your boot-soles.

Artwork by Faye Spencer

About this piece: ‘It was inspired by the Creative Writing and Psycology course in Newcastle University – and by the benches along the sea front in Whitley Bay. I wanted to explore a mental breakdown – and a mental re-build.’ Polly Malone.

About Polly: She was born in a corridor and now lives next to a graveyard. She’s had a few proper jobs but is no good at being told what to do. She writes because is something she can do – without having to iron any clothes. She’s a cracking good editor (highly recommended by this mag’s editor herself), should anyone need one…

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