New Welsh Review
Chips and Cherry Blossom
This post is free to all website visitors
For access to the full New Welsh Review archive, become a subscriber today.
Soaked in sunshine thick with a wilder scent of salt and spring flowers that lined the path along the cliffs….
It was mid-April, and nothing had decided quite what it wanted to be. Awake or stay sleeping? Bloom or bud? There was an ambivalence in the air more suited to an autumnal equinox, to the shortening of days and hunkering down. Someone, it seemed, had turned the calendar the wrong way around to put those of us in search of spring and summer off the scent. Temporarily, I lost my bearings.
And, mortality loomed. A dear old friend came a long way across country to see me, with her partner and their two young daughters. It was a spontaneous trip following the death of one of their close family friends, prompting them to visit all the people whom, my friend explained to me over the phone, mattered to her. I was touched to be included. They arrived on the train together with another of their friends I hadn’t met before and her son. A bit flustered by the occasion and the unexpected guests, I suggested a brief stroll along the beach beneath the promenade, before we piled awkwardly into my tiny flat in a block overlooking the sea at the north end of town. It was only then I fully realised that there was room for just two other people to sit comfortably in there. I leant casually against the wall by the fireplace, embarrassed by the lack of space, my own lack of preparation for this event, and the condensation creeping up the windows from our collective breath. There weren’t even enough biscuits to go round.
Fortunately, the sun lent a silent helping hand and shone sympathetically on us through the steamy bay windows, inviting us outdoors and up the hill topped by a café with wooden picnic benches and tables. ‘Let’s go and eat chips!’ I grinned, an idea which seemed to go down well for a swift exit out of the coop. Up there, looking out over the pale blue undulations of the bay, the tide out and oystercatchers in, we bought four portions of hot tangy salt and vinegar chips between us. We sat and ate in silence, the company easier in the open air and the chips comforting and more delicious for being shared. And yet, looking round at their faces, they seemed a little strained at times and I wondered if I’d failed them somehow by offering something as plain as fried potatoes in a polystyrene box, if I should have done or said something more meaningful, more profound – but there was nothing to be said that day about their grief.
When the boxes were empty, my friend’s youngest daughter offered to do a washable tattoo for me from her selection pack of various designs. I pondered her request for a moment or two, while she showed me the options. It was a bit tricky as personally, I’m just not that keen and our current obsession with tattoos bewilders me.
‘Which one?’ She was getting impatient now, hopping about in front of me from one foot to the other. The girl was only seven, she wanted me to join in, the tattoo was dissolvable and maybe, I could just learn to lighten up sometimes? I went for the butterfly in loud shades of pink and blue. If I was going to have one, it might as well be flashy. ‘Psyche,’ I thought, suddenly remembering the silver butterfly pendant a different friend had bought for me as a gift after my mother died. That butterfly, with its timeless connection to psyche or soul, I wore about my neck every day.
By early evening they were on the train home again – gone, it felt, just as soon as they’d arrived. I forgot about the tattoo until I got undressed for bed, curious for a moment about the strange black line of dots tracing an irregular pattern around my upper arm – all that remained of those flamboyant wings.
The next day I was back at work proofreading and struggled to find the significance of punctuation and grammar after my friend’s sad news and the visit. During the course of the morning’s work, I came across a quote from Roselle Angwin’s novel The Burning Ground that made me pause: ‘I’ve accepted that to live life fully means accepting that loss and pain are inevitable.’ It continued, ‘Life isn’t safe, and it’s not possible to love safely, either. Saying yes to love, or to life, means saying yes to loss and death too. The only way we can insulate ourselves at all is to live smaller lives.’ The question of scale puzzled me. Who decides what ‘fully’ might be?
I had spent the last three hours engrossed in semi-colons, full stops and commas, noting in particular, how unpopular the comma appears to be these days. Such, I thought, is the smallness of my existence. For a break, I walked up the wooded lane behind the flats leading onto the coast path heading north. Coming out of the shadow of the trees, I was soaked in sunshine thick with a wilder scent of salt and spring flowers that lined the path along the cliffs – purple violets, a mass of delicate white sea campion and tight clusters of pink thrift. I took a circular route back into town past some neatly planted cherry trees opposite the public library, dripping with cerise blossom. Beneath the canopy of one of these, a woman crouched behind a long-lens camera, photographing the petals from the inside out, snapping at their colour and texture before they drifted off on the afternoon breeze. Each soft pocket of air teased the blossom out from the branches in an exuberance of spring. I thought back to the quote I’d read earlier; there was nothing small about the life of the blossom, magnificent in its brief, brilliant trajectory. There it was in the broad light of day, casting off all caution, throwing itself into the endless, uninsulated, dance of the wild. Some petals flew off in bold solo flight, others fanned out together in puffs of pink incognita, rising in plumes flickering up the sides of the library building. Up, up and away they went, higher and higher, above the roof and far far away, beyond reach and the narrow frame of lens or language. A group of us had assembled below to watch the spectacle, rooted to the spot, speechless.
The following morning after a night of heavy rain, I returned to the library clutching my copy of the Oxford Style Manual ready for another day’s work. The pavement was wet, stained in a delicate sheet of creased and crumpled pink, fallen petals trodden unnoticed underfoot as people went about their daily business up and down, this way and that.
‘When death comes,’ wrote the late Mary Oliver in a poem with that title, ‘I want to step through the door full of curiosity,’ and then, ‘When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/I was a bride to amazement.’ Looking back, I can’t help thinking she would have noticed the petals on the pavement that day. She would have stopped and paid attention. She shared what it was to be amazed, to appreciate the joy and grace of the world and the fullness of life in the smallest, seemingly insignificant of things: a grasshopper leaping out to eat sugar from her hand, the ‘crisp bodies’ of a row of green beans on the vine in the garden, thinking ‘of each life as a flower, as common/as a field daisy, and as singular.’ It was life, both as ordinary and singular, that I observed in the young couple sitting on a bench outside the library later that afternoon, feeding each other the chips they had bought from the takeaway around the corner – lost to the world, lost in each other’s delight. Laughing in the sunshine with cherry blossom at their feet, they offered me, unwittingly, the precious and immeasurable gift of renewal after rain.
Jane MacNamee is working on her debut book, a collection of essays.
With deep respect and gratitude for the life and work of poet Mary Oliver 1935–2019.
Reference: Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems Volumes 1 and 2, Beacon Press (1992 and 2005).
Image by Onemu/Shutterstock.