I wish that men had never walked upon the moon

moon & forest

I turn off the Pacific Highway onto the seventeen kilometres of road that runs through forest and coastal heath, and takes me to my home between the mouth of the wide river and the ocean. When the moon is full I drive down this leafy tunnel as if the mystical sphere is my destination, suspended in the night sky, reminding me of big things, another level of life for whose existence I have no proof other than poetry and the imagination.

Have men really walked this moon’s cratered surface? I wish that they had not.

In the dark humid hours of the last two mornings our family’s three-year-old has appeared at my side at four and hoarsely whispered can I get into your bed Giddy, and I’ve scooped him up in my arms and discovered him to be naked, having shed his clothes on his way from his bed to mine for reasons I’ll never know. I won’t pee in your bed Giddy, he promises, and takes the silk folds of my nightgown between his thumb and forefinger like a talisman he’s rubbing for good luck, and drifts back to sleep.

These are the things that comfort me. The moon at the end of my leafy tunnel. The child who loves me. The sounds of the sea on a still night. An infant in my arms. The words of a poem sent new to me each day.

I clutch all my poems to my chest and count them again and again. I am kneeling like a small dog…There was so much I couldn’t contain.†


Today I took my book of dreams to the man I talk to, not because I thought I would forget the one I wanted to tell him, but because I feared I might at the last-minute lose courage and stay silent and then castigate myself all the way home for not having faced what I knew needed facing. I sat in his room, my dream book on my lap, then I put on my glasses and opened it and read.

I am taking my life. I’ve used a drug and I’m sitting on my bed looking out of the window and a light snow is falling and I am waiting to die. Then I am walking down the hill on the beachfront where my husband had an apartment when we first met. I turn to look back at his window. It is empty of him. Empty of everything. I whisper his name. I wake up, feeling sick and filled with apprehension. I don’t want to see the man I talk to. I am afraid of what I will feel. I do not want to feel. I am exhausted with feeling.


When it was his, the window had a white paper shade with a blue fish painted on it. The apartment was strewn with boxes of books. He had recently moved there to live alone. We made love amidst the turmoil of the beginning of a new way of life, and the first time so overwhelmed me I cried. He said, I don’t usually make women cry, and that made me laugh. Sitting in the disorder of his bed, wrapped in sheets, we ate pasta with olive oil and garlic from large white bowls, and drank wine. I had no inkling that I would marry him.

Are you angry that he died?

I think about this.

No. His suffering was intolerable. I wanted him to die.

Are you angry that he had the stroke?

I think again.

I wish he hadn’t, I finally say.


I don’t want drugs that dull my senses. I don’t want my grief masked. Why shouldn’t I grieve him as long and as hard as I need to, as he deserves, and who else can do this for him now but me? The man I talk to reminds me that last week I refused drugs normally offered to people in the state I’m in. Is that your dream, he wonders? You took the drugs to kill not you, but your grief? They didn’t work. You wouldn’t let them. Instead you went back to the place where you began your life with him. You faced your grief.

Now he’s gone, no one knows how afraid I am of the world.


I don’t trust people, I tell the man. Not deeply. Nobody knows how I feel. Why would I tell them? How would I explain? Why would they care?

Did you trust your husband? Did he know you?

Yes. Now there is nobody who knows me. I don’t know if this matters. Does it matter? He told me once, I love you but sometimes I don’t like you very much and I said, well that’s mutual, and we laughed and kissed each other.

This was our wedding vow: Throughout all eternity I will forgive you and you will forgive me…††

I had never before heard anything so complete, I told the man. Yes, he said, and nodded his head as he pondered the words.

I thought, I said, weeping, that I would be much better at losing him than I am. But I’m adrift. I don’t see anyway out of this.


When I emerge from his room the air is thickly damp. I put on dark glasses so no one can see I’ve been crying. The traffic is heavy and I must thread my way through it to reach the car. I think, as I dodge a delivery truck, how easy it would be to walk right into it, fall under its wheels but even as I’m thinking this I’m taking care to avoid mortal collisions. That is no legacy to leave the babies.

You’re a nice girl, Giddy, the three-year-old told me before he went home. He arranged the cushions and pillows on my bed to give him safe landing, then he collapsed himself full length and sideways into them, over and over again. As I watched I felt love trembling, the love that means you risk your very life if you lose it, the love that makes you helpless, the love that says I will forgive you for all eternity, please forgive me too.

My husband said, I want to die before you and I almost certainly will because I’m so much older. So I will never have to live in the world without you.

This is my gift to you. That I live in the world without you.


Each time I turn off the Pacific Highway into the leafy tunnel that brings me home, I feel the sweet relief of escape from danger into safety.  Since I was a small child I’ve felt the natural world as well as seen it, tenderly, through my skin, as if I have life in common with the forest, with lichen-covered boulders, with tufts of grass surviving on the dunes, with a pool in the marshlands where the animals drink. This is why eventually I could no longer live in cities. I craved the mangroves, wild flowers, mountains and their snowmelt streams, treeless yellow plains under wide skies streaked with high white cloud. I know this natural world is a law unto itself and cares nothing for me or any other human, and that the sea will as soon drown me as offer its healing properties on calm days. I know my place in this world. I know nothing will be given but that I may take what I need and in return, refrain from inflicting every kind of damage.


I settle the three-year-old on my left hip and take him outside into the night. The moon is full. Look, I tell him. Look at that moon. He gazes, silently, while his small fingers play in my hair. I lub you to the moon and back, he says after a bit, quoting from the book I bought for him when he was born. I can smell the sea. I can hear the geckos. I can feel the soft breath of night on my skin. I don’t know how I am doing this, loving this child, showing him the moon, lugging him about on my left hip, all the while grief a dissonant counterpoint demanding my attention.


I wish that you would read to me again as you did so many years of nights and I would fall with delicious abandon into sleep to the rhythms of your voice.

I wish that you would stand with me on the station platform your arm around my shoulder my black and white dress, murmuring your recollections of our early morning.

I wish that you would sit again at our kitchen table and watch me as I make us tea and tell me as you did so often, even making tea you move like a dancer do you know that? 

I wish upon the star that fell that men had never walked upon the cratered surface of my beloved moon.

And I wish you would come back to me, singing.

woman alone

†The Forms of Resistance. Emily Berry

††Broken Love. William Blake

The Book of Longing 5.



5. I thought I could keep it separate, he said of our love. But I can’t. You are always here. I’m singing happy birthday to a grandchild, and there you are. I’m trying to talk to my wife about plants for the garden, a new kitchen, chickens, and there you are.

Perhaps you should tell her. Perhaps you shouldn’t keep on struggling to keep it separate.

I will lose everything. I will lose you. It’s impossible. We are in such a fucking pickle, it’s impossible.


It occurs to me that keeping things in compartments was something I used to be very good at. A childhood during which so much had to be hidden from public view taught me how.

We live in a culture in which we are expected to keep at least binary compartments of public and private, in the form of work and home. The personal is political, the feminists said, but that wasn’t hammer enough to smash patriarchal disdain for life outside the requirements of capitalism.


His struggle to keep our love in a separate compartment provoked anxiety. The dissonance of maintaining his view of himself as a good man who always told the truth and treated people equally, while simultaneously concealing the unforeseen changes that continued to occur in him because he was illicitly in love, caused him at times to panic so wildly he had to flee the house with the dog in case his wife noticed, and walk until he could bring his breathing under control and his heart back to normal rhythms.

Talk to me, he wrote on these occasions. Tell me you love me still. Let me suckle at your breast.


I can’t do this anymore, I told him one day. I’m no good at it. I can’t be a mistress, I hate it, not you my darling, but the circumstances, I hate them.

I can’t bear the secrets. I’ve spent half my life learning to live without secrets and now here I am going backwards, hiding what is going on in my life from my family, my friends. It’s destroying me, love, it’s destroying my life, I don’t even know who I am anymore. I can’t, please understand. I can’t.

I sat in the car on the edge of the cliff,  writing these things on my laptop. I was crying so hard I couldn’t properly see the ocean through the windscreen.

Scattered in the dank soil of misery were seeds of relief. No more compartments. I could, after a while, be open again with the people who mattered.

He wrote: After reading your emails I think I do finally fully understand. I want to see you, in the flesh, in private. And we must talk, in private. Can you fly to………?  And how about 19/20 June as a starting point for working out dates? Love. Love.

And I knew he hadn’t taken in a word I’d written.


It would take a long time to list the secrets I had to keep, and I don’t know how to order them. As they occur to me, I think, and because I am considering societal order as well as the order of my personal grief, what occurs to me now is the secret of my origins.

As a child I was not allowed to reveal to anyone that my grandfather was a coal miner and my grandmother had been in service. They raised me with love for the first seven years of my life, but I could make no reference to them, except to say they lived in another country. Such was my mother’s shame.

She made, my mother, an upwardly mobile marriage. We left behind our humble beginnings and travelled to the other side of the world where we had status, money, and a big white house with a blue front door, an orchard with cherry and apple trees, and a garden outside my bedroom window filled with roses.

I remember the sound of my stepfather’s key in that blue front door. I remember the sound of his heavy footsteps as he strode down the hall, home from his surgery, or the hospital where he operated.

I hid in my bedroom. Hands over ears. Eyes squeezed shut. Come and get me I whispered to the grandmother and grandfather of whom I was not allowed to speak.


There was the compartment where my mother and stepfather lived. There was the compartment where my grandparents lived. There was the school compartment, and the compartment that was home. I thought of them as different coloured boxes. That made it easier to remember who and what belonged where.

After a while sorting became as normal as breathing. I didn’t have to think about the colours anymore.

There are three white baskets on the top of my wardrobe that I can see from my bed where I’m propped on pillows, laptop balanced on my knees. They contain things I don’t immediately need. They are reminding me of my childhood boxes but unlike them they have no lids, and I can easily peer into them and take stock of their contents.


After many years I learned to open my coloured boxes. I remember to this day the liberation when in my thirties I spoke for the first time of my beginnings. From then on I spoke of everything, and my spirit soared and my mind expanded and I knew freedom.

I can’t go back, I’m trying to tell him. I love you, but I can’t go back.

I don’t think he had any sense of the destruction in store for me. He only saw the potential of his own.

I love you and I want to see you. And we must talk. Can you fly to…..? Love. Love. 

I should have ended it then. But I could not tell him, no.

Wicker baskets

Birthing Buck Naked

Mother and Child. G. Klimt

We have turned away from our bodies. Shamefully we have been taught to be unaware of them, to lash them with stupid modesty… woman, writing herself, will go back to this body that has been worse than confiscated…  Hélène Cixous

I’m having a phone conversation with my son in Montreal. He’s complaining that I wrote a poem about his brother and not him. Which I didn’t but anyway.

“Well,” I say, “I’ve written a story about you being born.”
“Cool,” he says, “send it to me.”
“OK. I’ve changed your name to protect your privacy.”
“Hmmmmm. What did you call me?”
“Harry,” I reply.
“Harry! You can’t call me Harry! That sucks!”
“OK. What would you like me to call you?”
There is a long and expensive silence. Then:
“Buck Naked!” he crows triumphantly. “Call me Buck Naked!”

So I have. The title of this story is not ‘Birthing Harry’ as I intended, but ‘Birthing Buck Naked.’

I understand that as a title it is somewhat ambiguous but what can I do? I’m a mother.


I prepared a corner in the room downstairs where I’d decided to give birth. I arranged cushions, pillows and blankets. I made a nest as warm and welcoming as that of any Arctic bird making a shelter for its young from spring rains and driving gales. I placed a pile of thick towels close by and on my feet I wore winter socks of cream wool. Then I rang Stephen.

“I’m starting,” I said. There was silence at his end. Starting what? I could hear him thinking.

“Oh God, I’m sorry. God, I’m on my way right now, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“It’s all right,” I told him. “I feel fine and I’ve rung the midwife.”

It wasn’t cold, though I’d prepared as if it was. April in Sydney, an unusually hot April but I knew I would feel cold in labour, and I thought outside of me could never be as warm as inside for the new child.

For the last couple of weeks I’d laid dreaming on the couch near the glass doors that led into the garden, rousing myself only to care for my four-year-old, Samuel, and attend to what was essential to maintain our daily lives. I gathered my focus and guided it inwards. A deep certainty filled my days and nights. I moved, languidly, to other rhythms. I became an ancient being, rooted in timelessness. I smiled when spoken to. I was engulfed by a great calm.

I knew plenty about the child. I was familiar with his restless stirrings on humid nights. I knew the energy in his limbs as he turned in my uterus. I knew his hiccoughs. His hands that seemed to be reaching out to me through the layers of flesh that kept us apart. The impatient, arrogant thrusts of his feet as he sought more freedom of movement than could ever be offered in my confined spaces.He was me, and he was not me. He was inside me, but I could not know him. Through me he lived, but the life outside would be his to choose.

Nobody can tell you how hard it is to love another so completely, and know as well that your task is to let him go. Nobody can tell you that from his birth it will be his task to learn to live without you.

Nobody tells you how it will feel to whisper: “Go, my darling, into the world, into your life, and may everything good watch over you and bless your every moment.”

I determined quite early in the piece that I’d have this child at home. This decision surprised everyone, not least of all me. I’d never thought of myself as interestingly alternative in my life practices. Indeed, quite the opposite: a traumatic and marginalised childhood had left me with a deep yearning for all things ordinary.

Everyone I knew gave birth in hospital, as had I the first time. But something about the indignity of that experience, its clinical nature, the smells, the brisk and efficient manners; something about the instruments, the pipes in the wall, the lights, all conspired to convince me that I wanted to try another way.

Stephen went white when I announced my decision. He wasn’t a fearful man and usually faced demanding situations with courage and confidence. But this decision propelled him miles away from his zone of comfort. He attempted to dissuade me. The possibilities of error. Sudden dysfunction in the birth process.

He called in our mothers, friends, the doctor who lived down the street. But I would not yield to argument or reason. I didn’t care to understand, at the time, the burden I’d placed on him. I was in the grip of a most profound determination, and nobody could change my mind.

We’d made the child in France, on a camping holiday in Provence. At the end of the trip, driving endlessly around the Boulevarde Périphérique trying to find our way into Paris, I threw up and realised I was growing a baby. That holiday, and living in the UK gave me the idea. Babies were born at home as a matter of course. It was no big deal. I’d read my Margaret Drabble: the birthing of the baby of a snowy night, the sleepy midwife, the snug bed. At that point we had no idea which country the child would be born in. It would be cosmopolitan. It would be born the European way.

Years later, grown up, he is a restless young man, nomadic. He takes leave of us for long periods during which he hitchhikes across the vast Canadian plains, offering his services as a ranch hand, barman and dogsbody. He takes jobs on fabulous yachts owned by French casino bosses, moored in Spain and the South of France. He swabs the decks, and serves cocktails to the wives, mistresses and daughters of the international mafia.

He sends postcards from a market in Marrakesh. He rides the ferry from Sweden to Estonia, the Greyhound from New York to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. He sends emails: I love you Mum and I always miss you. I send emails: I love you, my darling and I always miss you. Please remember to brush your teeth.

There is a point in labour where a woman may decide she’s not going through with it. It can happen in the best of labours. I arrived at that pivotal moment. I told them, that’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m stopping now.

They laughed, kindly, and gave me chips of ice on which to suck. Damn you, I cried. You have no idea what this is like. Then I heaved myself up from the birthing couch and lumbered into the laundry, where I threw up in the sink.

Gazing out the window at the peach tree in the back yard, it occurred to me that seeing a project through to the end was not something I was renowned for. This urge to escape had been masked, in my first labour, by gas and drugs. Now I was feeling the full brunt of it. I looked at my hopelessly swollen stomach, and understood there was no way out. I cried. I’d tried to avoid positions of such singular responsibility all my life.

The others could help me. Rub my back. Remind me to breathe. But bottom line, I was on my own. I turned from the window and propelled my massive self back to the nest. All right, I told them. I’m ready now. Let’s do it.

I want a new name for that valley between the contours of my thighs. Swollen with birthing, a bursting chakra radiant with heat. If I could see the colours of those energies, what would they be? Gold, rose-pink, ruby-red, lilac and lavender, and burgundy streaked with the rays of the rising sun.

Sensation radiated from my centre and down the inside of my legs. The waves of birth pain overwhelmed me and as I’d learned, I gave myself up to them. If I cannot control this, if I cannot escape, I will yield to this pure sensation, unmediated by thought or explanation.

Between my thighs the midwife spied the first tentative appearance of the child’s head. As the contraction subsided he slipped back, as if overcome by a sudden change of plan. The wily little character taunted us: Would he do this or not? But like me, he had no choice in the matter, we were in the grip of another force altogether and for him, like me, there was no going back. Another huge wave of sensation propelled him, regardless of his wishes, further down the birth canal towards his new life on earth.

They wiped my brow. I swatted at them as if they were flies. Everything was now an aggravation. I hated them. They distracted me with their advice. Fuck off! I roared at them, at the same time clutching their hands to keep them with me.

Then something unrecognised and thrilling surged through me. Its force brooked no argument or interference. In its wake the infant’s poor squashed face, a study in fierce concentration, slid into the waiting hands of his father who crouched, white-lipped and weeping, between my naked thighs.

There are photographs of this event taken by my sister, who set up her tripod between my legs and captured it all.

Until he was twenty, Buck Naked steadfastly refused to acknowledge this newborn as himself, claiming it had to be his brother. At twenty he came home for the first time with a girlfriend he cared enough about to introduce to us, and after dinner one night he said:  “Mum can we show Alice the pictures of me being born?”

I was astonished. Not only was he owning the event as his, he wanted to share it. I dug out the photos and we all gazed at them. They are curiously compelling. Nobody said much. We all sighed a lot. They are imbued with magical powers, those photos, though to what purpose I remain unsure.

After the birth they offered me Champagne we brought home from France just for this occasion, but all I wanted was tea, gallons of it, milky, sweet and hot. Neighbours dropped by with food and flowers. This was the first home birth in our street and everyone was interested. I found myself something of a folk hero. Even the disapproving congratulated us. The following year two more women in our street gave birth at home. It was a small yet powerful movement.

The child latched immediately onto my breast. I had made it known beforehand that I wanted the placenta buried in the back yard and a tree planted to mark Harry’s arrival. Now I heard discussions about stray dogs digging it up, and hygiene and illegality. Stephen’s face was close to mine and our newborn child. “Please do what I want with it,” I whispered. “Don’t listen to them. It will be OK.” He nodded and kissed me.

In retrospect I see I lacked appreciation for his courage. After all, I seemed to be possessed of some esoteric knowledge about this birth that reassured me. All he had was my word for it. This man, whose life so far had prepared him for nothing that even came close to this experience, trusted the intuitions of his obsessed wife, and fulfilled her wishes. It was an act of faith on his part. It wasn’t as if I’d ever proved my reliability.

I remember those days in terms of the body. Of bodily fluids: waking in the morning in pools of milk from overflowing breasts. The infant’s liquids. The eroticism. The strange delight I took in bodily messes. I was real. I was flesh and blood and milk and desire and lust and sensation. It was good. I was good. I was embodied. I was, finally, earthed.

I received an indignant email from Canada concerning the flirtations of Alice. Echoing Freud, Buck Naked demanded: “What do women want, Mum? Just what the hell do women want?”

I’m not sure he wanted me to answer this question. It had the ring of a complaint rather than a general inquiry, as perhaps did Freud’s original query. I never took to Alice, I must confess. In private moments I referred to her as “Miss Canada” owing to her uppity nature and her air of knowing everything. She ran rings around him, I could tell.

I wanted to take Buck Naked on my knee as I did in the days when he wore a soft yellow sleep suit with built-in feet. I wanted to take him back against my heart so he could feel its beating, and know that he is loved. Instead I sent another email. I addressed his pain as comfortingly as possible, and then I wrote: I love you my darling and I always miss you. Please remember to brush your teeth.

There is always at least a little good mother milk left in her. She writes with white ink. Hélène Cixous

In labour

The Book of Longing 4.



I knew, his wife told me. I knew from the beginning.

Why didn’t you say something to him? Why did you let it go on for so long?

Because, she said, I didn’t want to deal with it.


By now I’d learned he’d had affairs for much of his marriage. But he’d never, she told me, done anything like he’d done with me. Fallen in love. Increasingly neglected her. Become obsessed, and withdrawn from his daily life.

He’s an honourable man, she protested. I know you don’t think so but he is.

I think, but don’t say, I know there are ways in which he is an honourable man. But if he were my husband, I wouldn’t be interested in those ways if he wasn’t honourable in his dealings with me. I would feel worse, that he took the trouble to be honourable in other areas of his life, but not with me. That hurt would make my soul ache for the rest of my life.

He is a man who cannot not watch a fly drown, without feeling compelled to save its wretched life. While saving the lives of flies he lies and dissembles and promises, and betrays her yet again.

Better to let a billion flies drown than that.


I imagine a woman so exhausted by her husband’s infidelities she can’t deal with one more, even as it unfolds before her eyes. Even as it matures into deep love, and equally deep obsession. Even as he increasingly neglects her, and in her heart she knows the reason.

Why, I want to ask her, do you think so little of yourself that you admire him for his honourable stand towards others, while he dishonours you, and the marriage you’ve made with him?

There is power to be had in knowing things about another, things the other believes he is keeping from you. There is a grim satisfaction to be found in watching another believe he is deceiving you, and knowing all the while he is really deceiving himself. The art of deception finds many and complex expressions, between people who profess intimacy.

You have no secrets, though I will allow you to believe you do. Until I won’t allow it anymore.

What a hard and dead-end road she chose, if it ran in that grim direction.

More than anything, I wish I’d known his history.


Towards the end of our affair he spoke to me of years of drunken fumblings, of awkward breakfasts with women he’d fucked the night before while his wife kept to their home and the children it then sheltered. Did you feel guilty, I asked him. Yes, he replied. Always.

You aren’t very grown up in some ways, are you?

I’ve always been wrapped in cotton wool, he replied with calm satisfaction, as if it was his due.

I gazed at him, taking in this revelation of male entitlement, the like of which I hadn’t in my personal life yet encountered. Women give him what he wants. It just is.


I’ve never seen the purpose of guilt. It doesn’t stop a person doing something, as far as I can tell. It’s a useless emotion that careens around inside a head and stays there. There’s an idea that the capacity to feel guilt is a sign a person is, at heart, good, but surely the feeling is worse than nothing without an action, or the cessation of an action.

I watched him as with sideways looks he told me those things. For the first time I saw his mask slip. He was testing me, I knew, but he wasn’t my husband and never would be, so I didn’t care what he’d done. I laughed at him.  I laughed at his admission to drunken fumblings and awkward breakfasts. What fun was there in that, I asked him. He shrugged.

I understood it was his rebellion. It was the act itself that temporarily liberated from whatever he felt imprisoned him, and not the quality of the experience that mattered. It was the freedom of unilateral action, a brief respite from the relentless mutuality of marriage.

He asked me if I, when an academic, had attended conferences and fucked like he did. I gave him two names he recognised who’d put the proposition, but I wasn’t interested in either of them that way, and politely declined. It wasn’t a moral thing, I told him. I had no need of liberation in that way. I only wanted my husband. Nobody could hold a candle to him, I said, singing the line from the country and western song because I knew he disliked country music and I knew too, that he loved me to tease him.

Would you have fucked me if we’d met like that? he asked, putting his hand gently over my mouth to stop my singing.

We’d never have met at a conference, I told him, my words thickened with desire as I spoke them through his fingers, now tracing the outline of my lips. Our disciplines are worlds apart.


My husband was unfaithful once or twice, so I knew a little of how it could be. He never fell in love, and I know if he had that would be more than I could tolerate.

I felt many things. But I see now that one of the worst was how I came to regard the other woman as less than me. As someone unimportant he fucked and discarded, regardless of her feelings. I became complicit in the exploitation of another, relieved that she meant nothing to him.

The way that is said of another human being. She meant nothing to me.

She was an aberration we wanted gone, the better for us to “move on,” “move forward,” “repair our marriage,” and the rest of the bubblegum clichés infidelity experts on morning television prescribe, rapidly, in order to get as many in as possible before their allotted time runs out.

This is what in reality might be in store for a woman when her husband introduces betrayal into their union: it is impossible to live closely with a liar and exploiter, without in part becoming both.

My lover’s wife observed him as he lied, for going on two years. What did she feel as she watched through eyes jaundiced by decades of betrayal? Contempt? Superiority? Power? Exasperation? Rage? Grief? Exhaustion? Despair?

Why didn’t she say anything, I asked him when it all fell to pieces.

I don’t know. She probably thought it would pass.

All that time? She thought it would pass?

I’m cynical about men, she later told me.


You made a choice, I hissed at her, my anger rising in reaction to her threat to prevent me writing what she described as intimate things all over the Internet. Nothing provokes me as much as a threat to silence me.

Every time he fucked another woman you had a decision to make, I snarled. Your decision was always to stay, move past it, put it behind you, focus on your marriage, whatever banal phrases you thought fitted the occasion and lent you the illusion of control. You decided to live a life of uncertainty with a man you knew betrayed you.  He wasn’t holding you in place with violence and fear for your fucking life.

I knew I should never have let him meet you alone! she shouted.

A startling revelation of the depth of mistrust in which they lived their daily lives.

Later, I thought long on how a woman must be in relation to a man about whom she uses the words, I knew I should never have let him meet you alone. She should have policed his first meeting with a fellow writer in order to thwart his nascent stirrings of desire?

It was her failure that she hadn’t, and now all this had come to pass?

I should have stopped it sooner, she railed.

You speak as if he’s fifteen, I cruelly observed. The odds were he’d fall in love sooner or later. Inspired by snark I added, no amount of mummy-wife control can prevent people falling in love. He broke the rules, didn’t he? He could no longer tell you, she meant nothing to me.

Take responsibility for your decision to live as the owner/manager of another adult being, I finally shouted. For what that decision has done to your life. For how it has brought you to this, yelling at me, telling me you are waiting for me to die, threatening me you’ll devise some silencing punishment.You think you can stop me writing whatever I want? You do? You just fucking well try.

And don’t blame me for your unfortunate life choices. Sister.


He told me if he lost me he would never write again. You will, he said, but I never will.

No, I protested, no, why would you think that, no!

He sadly shook his head.

And then he kissed the inside of my wrist.

Your skin, he said. Your softness. Your soft, beautiful skin.


Do you love me still? he asked after a bruising argument. In spite of everything?

I love you still, I told him. In spite of everything.

Dead Flowers Two




A poem for women


Autobiography of Eve

Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake—
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt
to freedom.

Ansel Elkins

The Book of Longing 3.

Quint Buccholz Ten

Some thoughts about how we are formed

When I was a child my life divided itself into two seven-year cycles, during which events occurred that could not have been predicted.

The first seven years  I spent with grandparents who loved and nurtured me. Those were the golden years.

The second cycle of seven I spent with my mother and stepfather who neither loved nor nurtured me, and during those years I came to believe I had no autonomy, but that I existed only to be what they wanted me to be.

The third cycle, after escape from that dyad, was chaotic and filled with fear but it was the first two cycles that formed me, and influenced every aspect of my life.

There are schools of thought that insist our present is determined by our past and until we recognise this we are doomed to repeat it. The repetition compulsion, Freud named it, in which we are unconsciously compelled to re-stage our traumas in a desperate effort to this time, overcome them.

This thinking makes some sense to me. The past can hold us in place when the organism’s instinct is to progress. Why, then, would it be so surprising that we would set ourselves the task of re-enacting what imprisons us, with the goal of bending the past’s steel bars sufficient enough for us to crawl through them, to freedom?


He writes, because I am uncertain: I will NEVER be “rejecting” you. NEVER. NEVER – do you understand?  NEVER.

Thank you, my love, for this reassurance. 

He asks me, when he is facing some unpleasant medical procedure, if I will give him an image he can think of to distract him from the experience. His favourite is of me suckling him, holding his head against my breast as he lies across my lap, stroking his forehead, his cheek, as he feeds.

I am at times his secret mother in our secret coupling.

This is surprising to me as I’ve never thought of myself as especially maternal.

But thinking myself un-maternal is  inaccurate. What I wasn’t drawn to, and still resist, are the managerial expectations the word maternal implies. That I will “mother” in the sense of finding socks and knowing where everyone should be and when. All the mind-cluttering tasks people should, after a certain age, learn to do for themselves. There is little so crippling for either party than when one person unnecessarily takes entire responsibility for things another can do perfectly well.

I have always needed time to think. A woman’s need to think ought not to be routinely displaced by the imagined obligation to service the wants of others. This is not what is expected to happen when men need to think. This is not how men are expected to daily demonstrate their love.

I am anxious tonight, love. Give me an image I can go to sleep with.

Remember our tongues? 

Oh yes, how fierce they were!  

And how sweetly they loved one another?

Aaaah! Yes, I remember. Oh Lordy, how I remember!  And how you trace the ridge between my balls with the tip of your tongue. So gentle. So loving. 

I will sleep now, lovely lady. And you must too. Night night my love. And thank you.


I only began to learn how to consciously comfort with my body when my husband became ill. Although I hoped his hardship was eased by my new skill I couldn’t be sure, as he had few ways of telling me.

I knew though, that he wanted my presence and assistance. When nurses brought his food he waved them away with his good hand, pointed at me and gabbled in his alien tongue. He would not accept feeding from anyone else. So I thought, he knows me, and he feels my love.

I spooned the infant nourishment into his mouth, opened like a baby bird for its parent’s beak. Gently, I wiped his beloved face. I remembered as I did so the times when he wept for some sorrow and I would lick up his tears, an animal mother cleaning up an offspring, and then we would laugh, and likely make love.

He was sometimes tender-hearted, and at that those times wept easily. Say Wednesday, he would laugh at himself, and a Jewish man will cry.

I didn’t fully realise the power of the body to comfort until my lover told me. Feeling my skin against his, remembering our bodies together, conjuring me up at his most testing moments. How my love, his love, our love soothed him as he struggled with procedures and their aftermath.

The moment he asked or wrote that he needed my body I responded as if it was the most natural thing, and my mind followed quickly with the few words required.

This is what human beings can do for one another, even when a thousand miles apart. With our bodies. With our minds. I never knew.


In winter, my grandmother scrubbed me in the kitchen sink, while I looked out of the window at our snowy garden in the early evening light. Later I was tucked into a bed already warmed by a heated brick wrapped in flannel.

My aunt painted my small toenails a pearly pink, as she sat beside the kitchen stove attending to her own manicure.

My uncle carried me on his shoulders through the house, and my head almost touched the ceiling, so tall was he.

My grandfather took me in my pram to his working men’s club where he parked me in a corner and his friends fed me lemonade and crisps. More than once he drank too much and forgot me when the time came for him to walk home. Eventually, my grandmother would tolerate his forgetfulness no longer, and he was forbidden to take me on his outings with his friends. Instead, he wheeled me soberly around the park.

My father was unknown to me.

And I have no memories of my mother at this time.


 My lover’s wife (this is how she introduced herself to me when first we spoke, this is …’s wife) told me that after seeing an image of my husband she thought he looked a lot like hers.

I don’t know how to name this woman. I’m discomfited by referring to her as his wife, or the wife, or my lover’s wife, or Wife, as a universal. Neither can I bring myself to create a name for her, because then I will be creating a character who is in keeping with that name, and she will not be her.

I apologise for describing a woman as “his wife.”

I don’t know what his wife meant by remarking how physically alike our husbands seem to her to be. For to me, intimately knowing both men, there is no resemblance at all. Was she implying that it wasn’t really her husband I loved, but what I saw in him that reminded me of my own lost spouse?

I have careful compared the two men in every way. Except in the matter of their physical frailty and need for loving comfort, they couldn’t be more different.

If I was removed from the equation they probably would have liked each other.

A brilliant edginess (in the sense of the avant-garde) was my husband’s defining characteristic, the unique sensibility he brought to every thought, always unexpected, sometimes offensive, usually poetic.

Old girlfriends would visit, and tell me, I just want to have a bit of his mind, and I knew exactly what they meant and we would sit around our kitchen table drinking tea while he riffed, making great imaginative lunges between apparently disparate topics, for that was his interest, the connections between things, finding them, inventing them, describing them.

I think, when considering intelligence, it is more a matter of imaginative courage combined with learning. The intelligent and courageous imagination is a wondrous thing, especially when it is lived through the body as well as the mind and heart.

I know that had my husband loved another woman as my lover loved me he would not have kept it secret from me. I have no idea what the outcome of such revelation would have been, but I know he could not have loved another so deeply, and tried to live as if there was nothing different in his life and, necessarily, mine.

That is, perhaps, the biggest difference between the two.

Maragaret Olley. Poppies and checked cloth image_web

The Book of Longing 2.


These stories can be read consecutively in the page, The Book of Longing, at the top of the site.


Him to Her

I can’t imagine my life without you

Nor mine without you

But what if something goes wrong? 

I don’t ask him, what kind of something.

Our second meeting is in a cafe in a shopping centre. Our conversation is more personal, yet still I do not notice from him a word or gesture that signals any interest in me, other than that of a fellow-sufferer and geographically distant friend. I’m not looking and I’m not giving off any signals I’m aware of. The coup de foudre remains unacknowledged.

So when he puts his hand across the table, palm upward, inviting mine, and I without a second’s hesitation place mine, palm downward, in his, it is as if there has been an entire other conversation in progress of which I have been completely unaware, and during which it has been agreed that he will put out his hand for mine and I will respond to his offer as if it is the most natural thing for us to do. Which it isn’t, on  the level on which we’ve been conversing, on that level it could be read as predatory, or presumptuous, or harassing, or just plain mistaken.

From that moment on we communicate almost entirely on the previously unacknowledged level, and when either of us deviates the other is distressed at the betrayal. He has never known this type of communication with a woman before, he tells me frequently, but for me it’s a language I’ve spoken most of my life. It’s the other one, the superficial, that is a foreign tongue to me, that I struggle to speak like a second language I never properly learned.

I want our thoughts to touch.

You are my last thought before I sleep, and my first thought when I wake. 

And you mine. I fall asleep imaging the weight of your breast in the palm of my hand. In the night when I wake, you are there, and I am holding you, your back to me, my cock nestled between your thighs.

Our most banal communications come unmediated from this mysterious place, and when he writes or says, Listen, today I will be and you will be and the time will be so I will let you know and then you can… his tone, and mine, are so infused with the inexplicable power of a language that has no words, that even ordinary exchanges make his cock stir, and cause me without thought to spread my thighs as if to receive him.

This “psychic” sex is so real, today when we were interrupted my balls ached as if we had been physically together, and prevented from fucking. I want to be with you so badly it hurts. It hurts. 

When first I see him he is naked everywhere, chemotherapy having robbed him of all adult concealment. I am astonished at his beauty, naked as a little boy yet grown, his vulnerability more stark than any I have ever seen. There is no other way to put it: I adore his nakedness. I kneel before his nakedness and take him gently in hands that love, without my interference, fills with tender strength. It is not too much to say I worship him.

I love how you look at my cock. I love how gently you touch him. Kiss him. Do you know how much I love how you do these things? 

The loss of this form of communication when it comes, feels like death.


I write tentatively about my adoration of my lover’s body. I don’t know if it is acceptable (to whom?) for me to confess to worshipping him. What I felt was not unlike the awe that overtook me when I gave birth to my babies and first saw their perfect bodies, but of another order: we came together as man and woman, not mother and child.

Although, and nothing is unambiguous nothing is straightforward in these matters, my lover asked to suckle from my breasts, asked if they were full for him, if I would feed him, nourish him, and when he asked this of me I felt them swell, and tingle with sensations I recall from when I heard my babies cry.

And he writes to me

I want to feed you also. I want you to take from me all the nourishment you need, from my cock. If I could I would feed you from my nipples, sometimes I imagine that I can. Remember, take everything you need. I will feed you.


Throughout our affair I imagine myself in his situation. I imagine myself living with my husband while simultaneously being in thrall to somebody else. I imagine loving this other person and loving them loving me, all the while knowing I will leave them the moment I am caught in my duplicity.

I could not create with another what my lover creates with me, knowing I would leave him with what could only be anguish, to save the life I already have in place. We all have things for which we would not forgive ourselves. Mine, or one of them, would be to awaken such love in another, to beg for such love from another, all the while knowing I would leave at any moment, to save myself.

Even though I recognise in some dark corner of myself that I am horrified at my lover doing this at all, and worse, doing this to me, I stay.

What would you do if you were me?

I would never do what you have done. I would rather be alone forever than live as you are living. 

So why do you love me then?

I don’t know.

And then I remember it was my husband I loved like this, adored, worshipped, longed for, reached for in the night, nourished from my breasts. There was no room for another lover in my mind and heart and body. And if illness and death had not robbed me of him, in my heart I would be there still.

I visited my husband. He reached for my breasts. I unbuttoned my shirt and leaned over him so he could touch them with his good hand. Then I lowered my nipple into his mouth and he suckled and wept and spoke to me in his incomprehensible language and then I laid down beside him and held him in my arms, his head against my naked breasts, until he fell asleep.

If you’d met me when your husband was well would you still have loved me?

No. I would have liked you. Been interested in you. But loved you like this? No.  

Quint Buccholz. Dancing on a River
Quint Buccholz. Dancing on a River