Legend has it that the success of Led Zepplin’s Stairway To Heaven was an accident. It proved the perfect length of time to enjoy a cigarette, and DJs apparently took full advantage; the song became part of late night sacraments. Twists of life are perpetual; spinning us like blindfolded ballerinas into the next moment of serendipity. Today I met a man on a staircase who, four years ago, graduated in a subject which I now read. I reminisced to a time of waiting on tables when he told me he wished to be in my shoes. As I pushed on past him, the sound of my pendulum scuffed the concrete making my loneliness audible, sending the weight of my climb into the elements. The breath stabs in my side dissolved, each of my falls were forgotten and inconvenience was swallowed by the air. When I reached the summit and I saw the view, the quivers the tumbles the shivers the turns, melted like mercury and silvered the stairs.
The decades lined her face like a rock. But her eyes were like a baby’s, all glassy and deep. Black holes reaching back to the beginning of time, surrounded by swirls of green mist and constellations of yellow. She was beautiful, with her high cheekbones and pale haloed hair. I used to watch her from behind my computer screen; between cigarettes and toilet breaks and typing sentences. She drove the library staff crazy, always asking them to pull the blinds over when the sunlight bounced off her screen, making her squint and hunch forwards. Always asking for help. Telling them how they could do things more efficiently. Her Canadian tones ricocheted around the building and I’d smirk down behind my computer as she told the library assistants that their desks would be better positioned facing the window rather than away from it, or that they should organise a collection to have a coffee machine installed, like the ones in good cafes. The eye rolls and finger drums of the library staff were some sort of code between them, as if they were a sisterhood of nursery nurses obliging a misbehaving child. Elan didn’t ever take notice, she’d persist with her demands until she either got what she needed or made a coherent point, meanwhile making the library staff madder and madder. Their forced sighs and terse replies made my insides feel like dark crimson. Elan interrupted their whispered gossips and clanking tea spoons and I could tell that they despised her. Sometimes I would find myself spending hours just listening and watching. The work on my computer screen would fade into space while Elan’s voice would command the room with the dignity of a judge. Looking at her was like looking at one of Klimt’s portraits of his beautiful women. All of the colours in the library, all of the neatly printed gold on the spines of the library books would run to the floor like wet paint, leaving Elan’s face as the only clear subject in the room. She was everything I could ever hope to become. It took me around two months to pluck up the courage to talk to her and had it not been for an unplanned fire drill intervening and disrupting the whole afternoon, it may have taken me even longer. We were decanted from the building and we huddled around the front gate of the library like school children; shuffling our feet, hugging ourselves. My throat dried up as I walked over to her. When she spoke, all of her words swam past me as I watched her face rise and fall through the contrails. Her energy ran over me like warm water and I bathed in the sounds of her soothing tones as she asked me questions about who I was and what I did. When I told her I was a singer her face lit up like a child’s. She told me that in her youth she had been a folk singer on a Canadian TV show and that she later starred in TV commercials. I wanted her in my life. We chatted until the rest of the group were ushered back inside and we were the only two people left out on the steps. Giggling and swaying and laughing into the heavens; two toddlers on a swing.
Apparently as the crow flies is an expression that came from British sailors; knowing that crows are fearful of large expanses of water, seamen would keep a cage of crows onboard to release, one at a time, as and when they became lost at sea. The sailors would then direct their ships to follow the crows on the assumption that they would be brought to nearest land, hence why lookout perches became known as crow’s nests. But if the crows themselves could not see through clouds or thick fog or darkness, how was it possible for them to discover the most logical path?
When I was wakened as a child, startled and eaten by the dark, I’d find my mother’s warmth across rooms within seconds, negotiating cupboards, doors and stairs impeccably.
Of course, sailors didn’t always rely purely on birds. They historically navigated using the night sky; discovering landmarks by chains of fairy lights. There is an invisible string connecting sacred landmarks on earth such as temples, standing stones, pyramids, wayside crosses. The alignment is straight, just as the crow allegedly flies. It is believed that the points of these places line up with the earth’s energy chakras; places where bees and people and animals gravitate towards. Last year, with friends I visited the Callanish Stones on the west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland; a point on the Sacred Pentagram of Scotland. We stood in a circle and pointed our bodies towards the sky. I closed my eyes and searched through my mind. In my sways and pauses and spins and colours, I was steadied by the group; roots spreading and entwining under our feet. Our souls, from then on, bound by the vines of the experience.
We stood between the sycamore and the beech
pressing circles of time like those
found in trees
falling from us all
realising we are merely
dolls cut from unchangeable
I shall come closer for this. To the bell weight of its coldness and the mirk of its planet. To the soft scalloped clouds, the creases of skies and its marble thick walls. I see dust from galloping horses with light balanced on top. Then smoke from high school experiments billowing from small fingers and faces disappeared. Even closer to the veins of the parchment, the beryl of its skin.
I used to own one. A friend turned up with it one day, something about a customer paying for spectacles with gold crested canes and oils, and he hoisted it into my cupped hands. It stood proud on its balustrades in my living room. The eye of the wizard. My boiler broke that year, then my shower, then my washing machine. In the darkness doors slammed shut, radiators swallowed their hesitations, tears dripped from the taps with no comforting hands.
I didn’t take any money for it. In front of a yawned open boot and its mouthful of treasures. Caution-filled eyes in exchange for stroking hands and the mouth of a child.
But what is it about them that enchants so many of us? Is the now not enough? Time without illusion? Perhaps not, when today we spend so much of our time peering into glass screens. I think back in time, to when Celtic Druids consulted with clues and messages morphing from the marbles of the throats made of glass. The very essence of prayer.
In the music fantasy film Labyrinth, David Bowie twists orbs through his fingers like a magician rolling coins. What the viewer does not see are the arms of juggler Michael Moschen, who is standing behind Bowie, manipulating the objects. Camera trickery provides the deception.
When I was a child I used to lie on the old brown carpet in the living room, bathing in a warm parallelogram of the sun. Hair brushes becoming centipedes, chairs becoming ladders.
And sometimes now, I feel as though I am a multi-souled person living in one being; turned down pages, my keys become hidden, fresh cups of tea. It sends me spinning, returning to moments I thought were understood to find deeper truths. Continuing to learn that my life is not one straight line, but a serendipitous curve back to memory and people: an eternal return.
When I was younger I visited a fortune-teller. I waited patiently to be told if I would be pretty or if I would be rich as her head hovered above my hands, eyes peering into my palms and creases. The grey roots on her head became a forest clearing. I wondered if she saw a phantasmagoria of trails of wanderlust footsteps or bestselling records or gigs packed by the hundreds or tent-skinned villages of ancestors waiting to meet me at a ruby-red sundown. Instead she told me: You will be married…You will mother…You will make your own destiny, while my money piled up in fast smoke.
As I look into my reflection during a bedtime now ritualised, a blurred body of post-it notes floats in my peripheral vision, each furled up like ruffled feathers carrying messages from my younger self. I can see the moon in my window veiled by ribboned skies. I come a little closer to the mirror and sweep the cotton over the skin, around my right eye, tightening my face. When I take my hand away, the skin falls and a hairline mountain stream is captured, glistening silently in the dimly lit room.
© Nicola Madill