Memory Maps: 'Mud Language' by Michèle Roberts
Every morning I walked in to work from the nearby village of Wivenhoe where I rented a room from a sad widow. I was a widow myself, in a manner of speaking (a divorce is a kind of death), but you wouldn't have known it to look at me unless you thought all women of thirty-five were in mourning. Black clothes were fashionable at that time. I strode in my long black mackintosh along the muddy roads, edged by fields, into the great park, and thence, following a footpath, to my place of work. Every morning I laced up my shoes; flat black suede brogues, with a thick dimpled rubber sole, a pointed triangular toe, just two eyelets, and a black lace thin as a string of liquorice I tied into a sharp bow.
My mother frequently scolded me for my childishness: you see everything in terms of food and eating. Those black suede shoes, when I spotted them, furry and glistening in the shop, had indeed seemed good enough to eat. At night, when I walked back to my lodgings, to my small front bedroom in the widow's house, my shoes sat quietly waiting by the side of my single bed while I ate my bowl of spaghetti and drank my wine, and then I'd lift them up, one after the other, wipe and brush them tenderly, scrape and fiddle off, with the tip of a knife, the caked mud that clotted them. Crusts clunked down, pale and dried. I liked knowing that earlier I'd left my traces along the road, imprinted the muddy ruts, the scars of water-glinting gravel, with my footsteps. In them I could have cast reliefs of springy spongy rubber. I always liked seeing others' footprints, the tracks of their journeys. I liked taking a bit of the road surface home with me.
It's true I was childish. I wanted too much of everything; too much pleasure; my mouth opened to the world to kiss it and take it in. Children want to eat the world. It's a way of knowing. Touch the world. Stroke it, grasp it, pick it up, cram it into your mouth. Children who can't talk don't understand metaphor; they want mud; the real thing. As a child I made mud pies, sitting outside Dad's shed on his allotment. I watched Dad dig his vegetable plot; turning over the earth with his spade. Don't dig too deep, he said to me years later when he realised I could talk: a spit's just right. One spit at a time, going from left to right; row after row; like writing. Worms like commas wriggled up and I gave them lifts in Dad's barrow. Sometimes I chopped the worms in half with Dad's spade to see if both halves still wriggled. I know it was cruel, but I like to know what things are made of and how they work. I prodded at my husband as I prodded earth and earthworms: let me love you; and he complained: don't dig too deep. Mud on my father's allotment held china and tin shards of memory, an agricultural past, and it held the repeated imprint of my thumb, the press of our Wellingtons. Now churchyard mud holds Dad and Mum too. They're baked in a holy mud pie; beaks sticking up out of the mud crust, mud blackbirds still warbling hymns at me. They've rotted to good compost inside me. I fork them up from time to time. I turn them over gently. Like leaf mould. Like the leaves of a book.
I flicked over the leaves of my story so far, felt at a loss, determined to begin my story again, took the job in Essex. Most mornings, all through that autumn and winter when I lived with the widow, I left her house to walk in to work, rather than hitching a lift, and it rained. Fine drizzle wetted my face. The ploughed fields formed long ripples of mud, as though they were a beach abandoned by the retreating tide. The sky gleamed opal and pearl, and a thick white mist like mohair threaded the thorny black hedgerows. I marched along the muddy side of the gravelled road, its surface broken and roughed up, following the length of the field; one field after another; a soft strobe of mud; my eyes levelling with the deep furrows, the turned, buttery earth. When the fog dispersed the sun burst out: each clod sparkled, cast a tiny precise shadow, the field glittered, shapes of pale brown and purple and coffee and black broken up, gleaming like chocolate; tilted blocks that stretched far away; and a fringe of hairy elms on the horizon. I passed a pink-washed farm, a clump of cottages with kitchen gardens neat as Dad's, ruled with dotted lines of leeks. I studied the tall knobbed twists of turquoise Brussels sprouts; the pure pale green of cabbages, tight-waisted and frilly; about to bolt. (I'd bolted; donned my black suede shoes and run away to get divorced.) Yes I could have eaten a handful of earth, dry-damp-delicious in my mouth, and I could have eaten the long woven hedges and the bright grass and the black thorns glossy as silver. I wanted to lick all of it, taste it and swallow it and be one with it. And then, dissolving, I wasn't myself, I wasn't myself any more. I'd gone. I was just part of the mud fresh in the rain and the sun and I was fed by the world, mouth open, full, churning with joy.
At work, in the white university building beyond the great park, in the office attached to the campus gallery, I turned over words. I dug into language, I moulded lumps of it between my hands, it formed half moons under my fingernails. I picked at these earthy crescents until they broke into crumbs which I swept together until they formed sentences I could edit; the introduction to an exhibition catalogue. Outside, students and lecturers tapped from one concrete tower to the next. I studied the artist given the job of curating the show: his blue eyes, his big hands. He walked me round the gallery. I could look, I could touch, I could talk, as much as I wanted to. On some canvases, the work of a woman painter who cherished the texture of flesh, the oil paint creased so heavy and thick that when the paintings were first hung the paint began to slide off, down towards the floor, and the artist had to catch the loose body of the paintings in his hands; cradle it. Shrugs and ripples of paint like the ripples of mud in the field, the ripples of mud in the estuary when the tide slumped out.
Springtime inched and shivered in, pigeons and gulls twirling above the estuary in a grey metal sky. With the artist I went for a walk along the river. A bottle of red wine in his coat pocket and camembert sandwiches in mine. We lay on the muddy river bank, kissing, at three in the afternoon. We rolled each other over and over, cylindrical seals, we rolled our trousers down, we pressed each other into the mud, we imprinted our names our bodies, we stamped ourselves into each other into the mud then heard cries and laughter, a boat going past, two men leaning on their oars and shouting to the artist good on yer matey.
Before coming to Essex I'd been in a sad, a sorry state, like a mould split in two, broken open, and no precious casting inside. A mussel-shell with no mussel. An oyster lacking a pearl. Renting a room in Wivenhoe I knocked, clumsy and speechless, between four plasterboard walls. My arms flailed empty, shaped to a body that had gone. My hands kept trying to hang up an apron on invisible hooks. Now on that chilly picnic on the riverbank I had earth in my mouth and that meant I was alive and I could taste mud and I mouthed to the artist and nibbled and licked him and we were each other's camembert red wine mud feast and we waved to the men gawping from their boat and blew them on their way with gales of laughter.
Hurricanes of laughter. We both remembered the hurricane the previous autumn, the night when the great wind got up and blew very hard. I'd just arrived in Essex. I slept through it all; dreamed of the darkness cut up and bloody; heard just the tinkling of broken glass. In the morning, waking up in my room in the village, looking out of my window, I saw polluted sludge from the estuary silting up my windowsill, the beech tree smashed into the church porch opposite, Scotch firs toppled and fallen, crushing nearby houses in the street. Roofs had leaped up and whirled off leaving houses agape. Walking out, I saw the sky fallen onto the flooded fields, pewter blue. The big park was choked by corpses, reclining. The wind had wrung their necks, dangling and snapped, wrenched ancient horse-chestnut roots up out of great pits, bristling into the air, laid them out, naked and dead. Then the funerals began, with fire, the whine of chainsaws. I walked about in the park, inspecting the damage. A heap of lopped trees, thrusting their maimed limbs forward. Traumatic. The chopped trunks of the fallen pines were blue; bracts of blue; black; pearl. People crept around the tree pyres, wondering; sorry. We bunched together and peered down into the caverns of mud left by the uplifted roots. The hurricane had twisted through, stood the park on its head and then sped off. An honest, delinquent wind, enacting its rage, creating havoc, accepting no responsibility.
In March the scarred landscape furred with green, as soft and tender to touch as the suede of my shoes. I rode around Essex on the back of the artist's motor-bike, exploring. He showed me his rented room, at the other end of the village from mine, and his temporary studio in the lean-to shed next door. At the moment he was making pots. I remembered Dad on his allotment, and the clay shells I'd made and given to him which he broke with one stomp of his Wellington boot. There was an old dada who lived in a shoe he had so many children he didn't know what to do. Easy: the artist was making pots like little mud babies. Experiments. Some, the successes, he painted with slip and fired in a kiln and others, the failures, the bad ones, he took down to the estuary. He laid them flat on the sheeny mud and abandoned them to the tide; mud to mud.
I parked my black suede shoes at one side of the low double bed in his attic bedroom. I lifted them up, tapped them on the floor, knocked them until flakes of brown mud fell off. I picked up the curls of mud and balanced them on my palms. Loops and half-circles of mud. Mud words. Mud commas and full stops. Bits of writing, broken apart, like the pieces of an old pot you dig up when going over your allotment. Now my job was to stick them together into a shape that felt right; narrative my glue; make something up I liked; show it to you
© Michèle Roberts