They call it the valley creep. A mire of mist slithers down the river bottom then seeps its way through the narrow terraced streets, climbing as far up the hillsides as it can travel before gravity calls time. Those who live at the top keep their distance. Their view of the valley is always from on high. Any problems up there are easily resolved. Those at the bottom bought in when they were in search of something that the cities could no longer offer. Some came to find themselves in this old mill town, industry given way to dreams of creativity and reinvention. Some fall between the gaps, others slide into the canal after a drunken night out. In the little bunting bound park the bewildered born and bred meet those who’ve blown in to tighten their arms and pierce their veins. Once a film-maker raised in the valley came back with his camera to meet them. He called out all the suicides, the blame getting put on the steep valley sides that hide the sun for months of the year. When it snows the roads in and out become impassable. The sun shines too though, and when it does the place comes alive with trippers from the nearby towns. People sit on the low old bridge and eat ice cream. Today it’s neither sunny nor cold, just a grey valley day.
Fiona and Claire made a home half way up the hillside, on a terraced street of three-storey houses once home to mill workers. The street is narrow and cobbled. The house opposite has a Bob Marley poster in the window. Another is filled with spider plants, forever reproducing themselves never being expelled. An attic window in a shared house plays ambient house in the early hours. In the summer months the sound of electronic birds compete with the sound of the real ones in the high trees that bank the valley side.
They’ve been together nearly two decades now. University in Manchester was the cause of their coupling. Fiona was out and obvious, Claire condemned by some as a posturing straight girl trying to appear interesting. The boyfriend in her home town became history along with the girl her parents always hoped she would be.
It felt funny to still be in bed as Fiona locked the door behind her and began her walk down the hill to the train station where she’d squeeze herself onto the commuter train to Manchester. Once Claire would have left the house by now, loading up her little car with her bags and folders for the commute over the hills to the post-industrial town where she taught. Teaching history to children who think the 1980s are ancient isn’t easy. Although she was respected and well liked the pressures of life pushed down on her, growing insipidly year after year until one day her mind went blank. She was stood before a class of new Year 7s. They were nervous and wide-eyed, one or two started to giggle. She reached around for words, picked up her notes trying to hook back onto a familiar chain of thought. But the words were meaningless, a jumble of letters she couldn’t understand. Her heart rate accelerated, cold sweat grew on the back of her blouse. Claire had to leave the room, running down the corridor and out of the building, as her body craved fresh air. She sat on a bench in the playground before realising she was being watched by a group of children in a nearby classroom. She calmly stood up and walked out of the playground, through the school gates and into town. Her class dispersed as the buzzer sounded, the next one waiting in the hallway for her arrival. Members of staff scoured the building, her bag left on the back of the chair, her car in the car park.
She was finally found sitting by the duck pond in the park staring blankly at the brown water as toddlers threw lumps of stale white crust at the birds.
“Do you think they get sick of bread ?” she asked the deputy head when he sat down next to her. “I think I’m having a breakdown” was her next line.
Others were soon in agreement, not least her doctor. “We don’t tend to talk about breakdowns these days as such,” he said. “More a complicated knot of physical, psychological and life circumstances which make coping difficult.”
“I prefer a breakdown,” she said. “Because I’m historically minded.” In truth she’d like to tell people that she was “having difficulties with her nerves,” like a delicate Bohemian flower from the 1920s, but she was too hefty to be delicate and people would laugh.
Fiona worked with the mentally ill so knew what she was doing. It was hard coming home to someone who increasingly appeared like a refugee from a different part of her day but she bore it stoically. The town felt dark, the clouds rolled in. Trapped between the valley floor and the skies their days were marked in the small things that could be achieved. Some days Claire got up, moving from the bed to the reading nook where she sat in her chair and looked vaguely at a well read Bronte novel. Some days she managed to shower, Fiona relieved that the faint savoury whiff of enclosed sadness had been removed from the house for a day at least. She would open the windows, air the bed, light incense and pray for a storm to clear the valley air. In time Claire would rise at a regular hour, later than before but at least it was something. She would dress unimaginatively and stand in the backyard, looking at the withered Hebe and the pot-bound rose fluttering beneath the frayed and faded prayer flags. Fiona took it as an encouraging sign so felt able to go back to work.
So here we are. Sitting with Claire as she ponders where she finds herself. Their friend Tony called from Manchester. He told her not to think of it as a breakdown but a breakthrough, and together they walked slowly arm in arm down the steep hill to the Aztec café in the old mill. They ate carrot cake and hot chocolate and Claire saw faces she knew.
“Oooh look at this,” said Tony picking up a leaflet. “Poetry Open Mic Night. You should pop down.”
Claire took the leaflet and looked at it. She’d never given much thought to poetry but it was hard to escape. The hungry ghosts of Plath and Hughes hung over the valley. They made countless trippers and triers attempt a few lines before mercifully giving up.
It’s a sign of recovery that rows are given room to return. Fiona can’t hide her frustration, it’s work and bills and her partner’s endless sadness. It blew up. It wasn’t unexpected but its ferocity took them both by surprise, Fiona reeling off her complaints, the unwashed crockery in the dirty sink, the empty loo roll in the upstairs bathroom, the call not made to the man who’d fix the attic window, this and that and nothing in particular. Claire, knowing that she was the problem had skulked off into a corner of the attic room to cry.
The door closed with a slam as Fiona sped down the hill into the warm embrace of The Waggon. It wasn’t bustling but it wasn’t far off. People she knew asked her how she was. Why on your own ? You’re never on your own?
Shane the busker was sitting in the corner rolling a trio of cigarettes. She knew from previous conversations that he’d learnt to resist the nicotine urges while he was drinking but on his walk home he’d furiously chain smoke to make amends. You could see the light of his roll-up climb the hill to the house he shared with his current girlfriend.
Fiona’s fury and sadness is hard to hide and Shane calls her out before licking the cigarette paper sealing in its future promise. Fiona said there’d ‘been a domestic’ as if she were a policewoman. Shane had told her not to worry, that a good ding-dong was the mark of a good marriage, even if she and Claire were not yet married. They should make honest women of each other he said even if he didn’t really believe in the institution.
“It’s different for you though. If I were to marry Hannah it would be like, really conformist, if you were to marry Claire it would be like, revolutionary.”
She’d never thought of it like that and she wasn’t sure she shared his logic.
The pressure was building. The barometer in her head was heating up, the mercury rising well past where it should be for comfort. People in the town looked sluggish, walking around in sandals and shorts, heavy footed, tired limbs being dragged between shops weighed down with Hessian bags. Having good intentions was sometimes hard work.
The days drifted. Claire made lists of achievable goals; clean the kitchen, walk to the Co-Op, read two chapters of a novel, talk to a friend. Fiona would pick the list up off the coffee table when she got in. There was too much deliberation in their life. Perhaps it was wrong to expect spontaneity after so many years together.
It came out of the blue. Claire suggested they go to the Open Mic Poetry evening at the Aztec Café.
“Poetry ? I didn’t know you were into poetry.”
“I’m not but it would be good to get out. Do something different.”
“We could go to the pub.”
“I’m not drinking. You know that.”
The café was full of poets. You could tell they were poets because they had interesting hair, or no hair at all, and beards, and a certain type of dress, others were angular and challenging from the off with uncompromising stares. Fiona wondered what they’d come to and just how excruciating it might be. First up was a woman with short hair and a denim jacket who talked about her houseboat and how ducks drilling at the algae on the side of the boat were perfect inspiration for free verse. Fiona wrinkled her nose and leaned back in her chair. She didn’t get the arty crowd. It was one of the downsides of this place. There were always radical theatre groups and freestyle drummers in the town square expecting you to be impressed. It wasn’t her scene. She was conventional in her tastes. Sometimes she thought it might be nice to live a suburb where everyone was regular or at least they made an attempt to appear so. Claire wouldn’t hear of it though. She still bought into the idea that this little island in the valley was some kind of Mecca.
“I’d go stir crazy in a place full of norms,” she said which was funny because that’s exactly what had happened here.
Next up was a large bearded man, difficult to age due to the beer pull on his leathery features. He had a small hand drum with him, proceeding to launch into something rhythmical about taxi drivers, tapping on the drum with his fingers at critical moments. Before the final line he looked up to the ceiling and spat out the words “serious tail-backs.” Before doing a little bow, the café exploding into rapturous applause.
A stream of people followed, some shy, most not. Fiona looked at Claire, she was sitting forward, pushing a teaspoon around her latte. She seemed to be enjoying herself. You could buy alcohol but Fiona decided to abstain in solidarity with her partner. It wasn’t proving easy. People on the tables nearby had bottles of wine, it clearly helped to numb the pain.
Up stepped a young woman. She was slight, maybe early twenties with a heavy fringe and deep brown eyes. The room went momentarily silent as she stood there looking a little anxious. Fiona felt her mouth going a little dry. She was lovely, there were no two ways about it. The café was entranced, the woman clearly having no comprehension of the effect she was having. She hadn’t even opened her mouth yet. Then she started reading her poem. It was beautiful. Precise and modest, words hanging in the air before going straight for your heart. When it was finished there was a momentary silence and a collective intake of breath. Then came the applause. Fiona looked at Claire and mouthed a silent ‘wow’. So that was the point of it all.
The evening got better, Fiona sensing Claire’s growing tiredness suggested they walked home. It was starting to get dark, a low sun hung over the valley, the light was soft and honeyed as they crossed the old packhorse bridge, arms wrapped around one another.
“Is that you in there,” asked Fiona as they paused for a moment.
“I think so.” They kissed at the end of the street, ambient techno dolphins serenading the night from the attic window opposite. They made love for the first time in months. It had been gentle and tender and unremarkable but imbued with significance that reduced Claire to tears.
Claire wondered about poetry. She walked up the hill to the high moorland village where the famous suicide was buried. Someone had been chipping at her marital name again, the grave cluttered with pens in case there was a shortage in the literary afterlife. Claire imagined the conversation she had when her former husband finally showed up. He’d probably still be banging on about the crows and the foxes, she still comparing her psyche to an eggshell. An eternity of cross-purposes.
Claire opened her notebook and started a poem. “At the grave of the poet”, she called it. A small group of people shuffled in looking around the graveyard in search of the famous resident. Poetry hadn’t helped her.
After struggling to write three lines she closed her notebook, took herself off to a quiet corner of the graveyard and closed her eyes. The sun was gentle and warm. There were real birds chatting to each other. The voices of the people at the grave had slipped into reverential.
There was some sort of healing taking place. It was slow and temperamental. But it wasn’t found in pills and doctors’ surgeries or in the words of therapists. It began simply in places and moments like this. Closing your eyes. Shutting out the ebb and flow of life, all that you’ve been all the worries about what you might become if the world lasts that long. Just this. This dark place deep within you that is always calm and kind. She sometimes got the idea of god, sometimes felt that there was something you couldn’t put your finger on that was looking out for you. It was startling to feel like that again.
Her thinking was in the shallows most of the time. Sometimes she thought of her classes, running through their day with their new teacher. Maybe she was more competent than Claire, perhaps she made them laugh more. Perhaps she won them over much more quickly, perhaps they liked and admired her and wanted to work for her.
Fiona still sometimes spoke as if Claire would go back to teaching one day. It was hard to get through to her that those days were over, a particular chapter had now firmly closed.
“But you enjoyed it. You were good at it,” she’d say as if that were ever reason enough to carry on with anything. This was her now. Sitting in the silence and the sunshine, not so much waiting for inspiration as biding her time. Something would come along and carry her forward. She thought about Fiona and her dutiful routine. She never faltered or complained, neither did she talk about the events of the day. Dependable was her middle name.
Maybe you could make poetry without actually writing it? This was her thought as she went back down the hill and then up another returning to her home half way between the sky and the valley bottom. It could be done through how you live.
The house was empty without her partner. She looked at her shirts hanging on the back of the spare bedroom door, all neat and ready for the next day. It struck her that this was all their life would ever be now. An ordered piece of domesticity, days lined up one after the other until the very end. She knew in the silence that she was reaching a sad but necessary conclusion. The breakdown at school had been a symptom of something else. Perhaps it wasn’t teaching that was the problem.
She picked up the photo from the piano of both of them sitting on top of Pen-Y-Gent smiling in the winter sunshine, almost matching Nepalese hats on their head. It was a selfie from before the days anyone called them selfies. They looked happy there giggling in each other’s company, Claire’s head leaning instinctively towards the comfort of her partner’s shoulder. The view had been glorious and both of them had enjoyed the achievement.
Where had those people gone? Perhaps they hadn’t gone anywhere. Perhaps this was them and what they were always destined to become. She sat down at the dining table and looked at the sweet peas in the yard outside. It was Claire who normally filled it with flowers in containers, this year Fiona had remembered to plant Claire’s favourites but nothing else. It was touching but half-hearted.
She knew the future looked improbable. That was why she broke down. It was time to do something about it. She pulled out a sheet of paper and began penning a letter. Dear Fiona it began, I think it might be time for us to admit defeat.
Header photograph: Betty Longbottom [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons