The year becomes indented, single-spaced, and winter edged with summer grammar. Every stamped boot is a syntax-wish for warmth, a yearning, for once upon a time, happy ever after, when things were and always will be, somehow, golden, likely better, bountiful, without end. Each shudder this morning is modified by such expectations. This is an English season to be endured.
As another Christmas coils about her senses, she knows too much has happened. Too many twists full of instructions. Not that being told how to feel, or what to think, is unfamiliar. Far from it. Supposes this serves her right for being too often caught saying how nothing much happens. ‘Think brightly,’ her mother suggested. Well then. The flat is wholly hers, though it feels less home-free more home-caught. From her own threshold she steps.
Sarah H takes in a breath of winter. Torn by diagnosis, mocked by good fortune. Her family were one moment busy thanking their lucky stars for Sarah H’s lottery win, the next week cursing her terminal diagnosis. God who had so recently gone up soon plummeted in her mother’s estimation. It’s an ironic death sentence is what it is; she warned her mother, ‘Now, none of that “The Lord giveth shit–”’ but before another word her mother’s howls sealed the sentence. Turns out even good souls might prove themselves a burden.
At the street she shouts, ‘Roar at winter, girl, at the whole up and down of it,’ as she stomps toward a Margate promenade; the woman will grind decisions into frosted sand. Sarah H wants an explanation with the same fervour she rejects conventional assessments of Down Syndrome, the pull to left and right and wrong. She’d rather live her own life, no matter how small, than have others preach and screech at her until the weight of them changes her course.
She’s Sarah H, she informs the tingled cold; she’s the woman with the face that launched a thousand apologies. Sarah H, the ever affronted, reaches into coat pockets deep as wombs, there discovers cash, and several cards, and a phone, as well as lemon sherbets, which are essential, filed letters also. Notices of hospital appointments, investment reports. All that can wait she buries there. She’s off to gain perspective.
Any view of her confused life is better appreciated when eating fresh croissants baked by a man with flour in his hair and who wears green glasses as if they were an aphrodisiac. He boasts glorious – there is no other word, Sarah H has checked the dictionary – handlebar moustaches. The sort of facial hair Sarah H fancies taking for a ride. Without brakes or puncture repair kit. This is because, a) he’s never once asked her anything but normal stuff, b) he’s gorgeous, c) kind, and d) Sarah H loves a good list, though her thoughts are not so easily ordered as your translator might suggest.
When she slips a tad on the first frost-puddle of the year, and her heart’s timpani guides her steps to calm consideration, when there’s only staying upright on her mind, when she won’t be distracted by the prospect of a fall, given she’s on a mission to walk to a baker who sells perspective along with plump almond tart and tumescent challah loaf, who invites a thousand questions such as: ‘What’s so Persian about your Love Cakes?’ and ‘Don’t you risk being accused of cultural appropriation?’ Also: ‘When is your girlfriend out of town?’
Sarah H stops to nab her bearings. Counts to ten. Steadies her breathing.
‘No rushing,’ she says, watching her breath balloon. Only to then surmise there is, indeed, a rush. Three blessed months. An awful lot of cake to fit in.
Along the promenade of shops Christmas lights icicle frost, and winter’s neon handiwork marks windowpane and paint, as beasts snarl and steam at traffic lights. Her soles glide and the souls of others hunker from the cold, their hats the order of the day, boots, scarfs, gloves, tentative steps on pavements. She heads toward the shore where in a few frozen days the stones won’t care it’s advent; from now ‘til then all forecasts herald snow, each road ordained for gritting via spade or yellow truck. Three months, and not even spring to reach. Whereupon she might dare doing rash things boldly.
This Margate morning’s numbing air is pregnant with strange poetry. Sarah H feels minutes prick her skin, tastes time’s lancing mist as it tenderly compresses the land. Homes mundane and carefully attended sit bride white, their paths lined by arms-up slipping minstrel grooms beneath a wastrel orange sun hung in blue clarity. Tumbling from singing bare branch odes to the brushed upturned faces of rushing children late for school, songs fall into Sarah H’s eyes. A mother and a toddler, gift-wrapped with warm laughter, have simply stopped in the middle of the pavement to wonder at birds complaining in the trees. The mother’s winter breathing scarf sonnet-carves the sky. Frost cobweb doggerels spin tendrils of morning poetry.
Sarah H joins them in their staring. Smiles are swapped like mobile numbers in a nightclub. This is belonging. This passes for normal.
And then what to do with awkward moments? Balance them on an upturned nose? What rules relate to wonder shared by strangers?
Netting a view of coast beyond the street cold crammed with off-comers, Sarah H claps hands and ploughs on. What if every day is crammed with ordinary miracles?
What might that mean for the how and the why and the expectation of expansion as we live our compressed lives? They say, they, the professionals, even her devastated mother, ‘Sarah H be careful,’ as if no-one is able to fully pronounce her name, ‘What if you hurt yourself?’
They say, ‘This is in your best interests. We’ll sort everything.’
Sort this sorry mess, she told her mother, who proved herself unable.
They, they, gather all the beauty for themselves. All colours are theirs. It is as if being fully-made, qualified, themselves approved of, normal, beauty and colour are reserved occupations. Sarah H has her colour and beauty drained as if she were a fen.
The parade of the world appears as she escapes the peopled space. Reaching the shore unencumbered by humanity, she is, finally, herself. She might as well be the only person on the shore. Here, in winter’s silence, creatures wait. The shore’s a frigid ballad to be sung. Unnoticed, wonder plays a succulent waiting game for her alone, all along, time coming. Euphony is searching for warm lungs to call its home, to be nurtured snugly in her human chest. Here hides a pother ditty pausing to be heard, for throats to swallow it down deep, waiting on a stomach to harbour its melody in a pocketful of skin. Gullet down the verse now, churn it well, and transform the morning canto into feast.
She has tried to tell her mother of the marvel of the beach. But being caught up in caring, she failed to care to hear. It’s protocols not people that matter most to most people. She has studied many faces, oval Sarah H, observing lifelines. She knows any mystic worth her salt will say the same, that no person is immune to wonder. Even her mother, given a push, might one day see. The world. Its colours. Its spaces. Sarah H as she is, a woman, in her own rights, with her own wants. Often though people seem mundanely occupied by facets of themselves. They search for wonder in synagogue and gutter, church and restaurant, in a child’s perfect eye, in the kiss of lips, in the abandoned haze of air-mile bright narcotics, and yet they fail to stop to see. At special school, which wasn’t special, barely educational, she read a poem by Maya Angelou. To the surprise of everyone save herself, Sarah H learned Human Family. And screamed, ‘We are more alike!’ at assembly, and for her poetic efforts gained detention. Rules, being rules, this being England, which once it has awarded you a part, typecasts you for life.
Wonder. That’s the thing.
The aching to be rescued from a book of hours appears to Sarah H as ubiquitous, given no human seems excluded from the hope of finding purpose or belonging. Others hanker for coherence as they heckle gnostic tropes. Whatever otherworldly word they suck, Sarah H thinks, ‘Folk search too intensely. God knows this ache can cause their fingers to squeeze too keenly. And out hope pops like a bindweed trumpet flower.’ Surely wonder won’t be captured like a rabbit in a snare?
But this is not a clipped-word morning with easy answers, not a to the point narrative, rather a hint of a building seen through fog. Even at mist-cold realist dawn odd miracles persists. Today’s a golden lozenge of longing, an invitation for the mundane to taste the sublime, being the same as any other hour.
She swallows garlic butter verbs, borage nouns; she celebrates the larder of the day. Here’s an English morning bearing at its heart a splinter-hint of a wider place, a cracked opening, just a smidge, a bit, perhaps there to check if anyone is peeking, whether anyone is ready to detect a bit of astonishing stuff. In short, this morning, full to the brim, is a peek at an unfamiliar domain bathed in a petrol blue film and edged by silver.
You can put one foot in front of the other, she believes, or you can leap.
The fumes arising from such longing are well lit, and she thinks clunk click, first gear, lock the doors, the world and all its children leave me breathless. How sour to be leaving life with a pocket full of dough. Just as people take me seriously, I’m summoned by the bench for a misdemeanour.
Sarah H stumps her way along a promenade mirroring the dizzying contours of the shore. Harbour Seals swim the green clear waters besides her, herring gulls in grey waistcoats compete with yellow-legged brethren to call Sarah H from her concentration march, her counting of white concrete slabs upon which she strides with frowning limbs, as in-disguise dull-winter black-head gulls hover in the frost-edged air eyeing salty sandwich turns below, delicious on a lemon slice of beach. Beside thin ringed plovers, vibrant turnstones chastise ozone-addicted oyster catchers for stealing crustaceans, interrupting their Icarian act featuring seabeans and starfish, rare shells and the bones of extinct fish. Life might indeed be revealing brocaded realities, fine stitched and intricate, but Sarah H’s wonder can wait right now, a little is as good as a feast; she wants a bite of standpoint, keep the change. She’ll parley later with the sea. When all is said and done, the body’s hunger trumps the mystic pulse.
The creatures of the coast surrender their efforts with the woman. She slips a little, again, is brought up short. ‘No rushing,’ she laughs.
So begins one more performance. Creatures demonstrate carnival tricks of ever-greater splendour and risk. Had they invented fire they’d use it. Serrated wrack, oarweed and sugar kelp seaweeds glisten in air. The tossing of shells is performed, shells rare as opals, damp emerald, ambers freshly pulled from longshore drift. Beach circus clowns, the works. If a soft-shelled crab and his Dungeness cousin could sigh, they would, and heave aside into the tide a mermaid purse. The woman seems in need of more. Mosaic life reconsiders its strategy, summons an opulent bloom of slumbering jellyfish, which are sure to catch her attention. Tan and yellow compass jellyfish shiver December waters, rising from warmer depths. Temporary visitors mingle with comb jellies, long barrel jellyfish white and rose, heaving through clouds of blues, cyan monsters always eating, mauve stingers floating besides moon jellies. The sea roils. The weaving life of the mutating coast musters its resources, recruits shimmering sand eels, nursehounds, dogfish, rays. It calls on gurnards, pearlsides and weever fish to repel human indifference. On the beach a parliament of birds, and the senate of the shore, heave a sigh up high and wave wonder at the tumble-turning human.
‘I haven’t time for this,’ she says, ‘but thanks.’
Given she’s been given three months, given her calculation, given, taken away, see-saw given, see-saw token taken, given Sarah H aches for the coming of summer, to be a miracle surviving, wants the sitting on a wooden bench by the railings of the shore, given she needs summer now, right now, not tomorrow, summer is the place to sit within, beneath, to watch as a citrus sun rise and a tangerine star fall, given come summer there will be no need of mother-approved coat, given she aches to feel the warmth of the bittersweet world, to forgive tourists staring at her features, them saying, some, usually old people, ‘Don’t you have a carer? Have you a home? Is there anything you need?’ given she will answer, ‘The time of day,’ given Sarah H’s need to spend every single penny clogging the arteries of life, given forthcoming chemotherapy, given she is not stupid, despite how people act, given her need to spend her time unwisely, her fortune freely, on new clothes, on new shoes, on new men, on principle, on pointless luxuries of no real value, on anything she wishes, given, then taken, given it is said all shall work out, given Sarah H has established, here, on the calculator in her pocket, that she must spend £75,867.14p every single day for three months.
‘I’m here to help,’ her mother said, bright as a new penny, but Sarah H is determined she will offer her mother no succour, no inheritance, given mother is seldom meek. To be independent now, at the end, just takes the biscuit. Expensive biscuit, exclusive, but biscuit none the less.
Sarah H is near the bakery, and most of Margate is behind her, and soon she will be with the baker, who sells perspective, and eggs and milk and local cheese, and can make any sandwich Sarah H cares to imagine, and goodness knows she’s sought to scupper his promise, with, ‘Avocado and marmite, please,’ and there it was, so she tried, ‘Ham, marmalade, watercress, apple, and haloumi,’ and bosh, not even a flicker of his eye behind green spectacles, until, today, when he smiles as she enters, not as pantomime dame on steroids, but as–
‘Sarah! How are you?’
She pronounces every word save cancer, and he parcels chocolate brownies. He is sugar and spice, he says, and damn the gender stereotypes. ‘I should tell you. I quite like puppy dog tails,’ then her eyes widen with tears, so he sits her down, fetches tea.
‘Can I buy a kiss?’
‘Apologies, madam, I’m spoken for.’
‘Want to learn a new language?’
She sniffs, hands him £100. Says he is to pay it forward, to anyone who takes his fancy. She asks for sourdough, Persian Love Cakes, pistachio and strawberry tart, an almond croissant to go, any cake a girl who only ever wanted to be a woman might require.
‘Being twenty-eight is really hard,’ she says.
‘It will get better,’ he promises, and she doesn’t have the heart to make his moustaches wilt. Sitting there, being huffed at by the queue, Sarah H feels real wealth is minute and moment, hour and knowing you will awake. This touch here is worth a pretty penny, and that kiss there, from a baker with flour in his hair. Time, and a kind word, and a belief in things getting better, these are gems. The bakery is worth the time of day given, taken, then given, given that seven million pounds cannot buy two ticks.
Which is why as the day warms, and children finished with school and joyful for the end of term and mince pie holidays, encounter a woman with Down Syndrome being cautioned by Police on suspicion of causing a cheerful riot.
Singing on the High Street.
And for throwing pastries into the air.
For handing out baked treats.
For filling the pockets of the homeless with notes.
For assaulting Salvation Army members with wads of cash in exchange for every copy of Watchtower.
For sending into the air a confetti storm of coins from atop a bench.
For kissing a baker with flour in his hair, and for him not minding, after all.
For calling her mother to say she is sorry for always letting her down. For never being quite good enough. And how her feet hurt. Could she be collected? She has blisters. Oh, and her heart aches, too, just like a real girl, from all the joy and fear, every wonder.
This is why Sarah H cries when the Police speak to her, because her mother told her, ‘Don’t you understand? It really does not matter.’ Told her, ‘What matters is now,’ and said to her daughter to go be, bold, as brass, herself, her full name, no initials, nothing less, nothing more given it has all been taken, which is when Sarah H thinks it has all been given.
‘This is the end of my story,’ Sarah H says to the Policewoman, who replies, ‘I must take down your particulars, madam,’ and is told, ‘Is this where I say “knickers”?’ and so says, ‘I hope so. Then I can arrest you for public decency, and we can fetch a cup of tea.’
‘We’re all indecent. I saw you in the paper. I am so, so sorry, miss.’
The woman thinks how nice it is to be touched, even by a Policewoman. After several minutes of being hugged she pulls away, confesses, ‘I saw myself, too. I did not recognise me.’
‘Your mum. She sounds– assertive. You have ten minutes to escape before she comes, miss.’
‘Have a bun,’ says Sarah Hope, as she takes off, with flour on her face, and spring in her step.
5 thoughts on “Christmas Lights Icicle Frost by Antony Osgood”
Utterly engaging and poignant. “How sour to be leaving life with a pocket full of dough.” Truly a wonderful piece, that, honestly, I messed up the first time I read it. Got to read this carefully to gain the full beauty; not for a straying mind.
I read this story first thing this morning while speed-munching toast before work, but found it so beautiful and engaging that I forgot about food and then ran out of time! (The toast was sub-par, no loss there. I can survive on coffee).
There are many lines in this story I wish I had the skill and intelligence to write. Really well done.
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Was almost late for work caught up reading this, too lol!! The mystical descriptions of nature, Hope’s reflection on her mother’s versus her own concept of herself, and characters like the endearing baker whose flour-dusted mustache you can almost reach out and touch, as well as the wry lady cop, all make it as optimistic as it is sad. How you can pull that off is a mystery–beautiful story!
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The three ladies comments are more articulate than I could ever be.
All I can add is that this is one of the most lyrical stories on the whole site and you are up there with Tom Sheehan.
This is a stunning piece of work!!
All the very best my fine friend.
A beautiful and poignant short, I could never hope to equal. I’ve been privileged to read more of Tony’s work and I can only assure you it is all of this quality. It can only be a matter of time before his novels are picked up and he is recognised as a literary genius. Search him out.