JULY ISSUE: Skill

Tanya Shadrick Mile of Writing Credit Steve Creffield
One Foot from A Mile of Writing by Tanya Shadrick (Photo Credit: Steve Creffield)

Welcome to the fifth issue in Season Two of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book. This month’s theme over on Substack concerns skill: subscribers were invited to respond to the following prompt: Celebrate something you are able to do that gives you quiet pride – or even exaltation. OR: Describe a skill you admire in someone else.

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.

Steve Harrison

July extract

To write a mile, I’d need to do thirty-five of what I’d call my laps of longhand. Too many horizontal lines to fit on a single scroll, so long yet so narrow. And so I’d use five rolls: one for each of the blue-edged swimming lanes, and with seven lengths of writing on every one. With the small and neat way I formed my letters, I calculated that I’d need to do a hundred thousand words: a novel-sized undertaking, all done by pen on paper in full view of swimmers.

I conducted all this odd planning with as much, or more, focus than I’d ever expended on paid work, conscientious though I’d always been. It came from a part of me never used before, operating without reference to anything except my own curiosity and will to make something that satisfied my sense of beauty. As birds are when working at their nests: nearest I can find to describe it.

/…/

And of course the first day was awkward, and awful.

And the next. And the third when it rained, and I was the only person there, working under the bike shelter while wind blew my books off their stepladder library. It was as if I’d fitted out a fancy new shop at great cost for the notice of no one…

But I kept going back, whatever the weather, affecting not to mind the unreadable looks of those who only watched from a distance. Like the mirror I placed on the floor as a child, trying to make contact with God and my father. All the hours lying in fields pretending sleep and hoping to be found. As I held out grass to cows on the far side of the field from the bungalow. My long nights of learning quotes by heart for a few undergraduate exams. Resolving to turn early motherhood into an expedition. All these earlier exercises in persistence – even the hopeless ones, especially those – kept me knelt there, under the tree.

Then one morning the sculptor came to visit. Sitting on the grass across from me, he asked a few questions then understood everything. My reason for kneeling (a posture that recalled both prayer and the pillory: the stakes to which women are so often tied – purity, disgrace). The power of my being headscarved at work on a long piece of paper that was in the lineage of tapestries made by so many anonymous women going back through time. Yes, yes. And the scale of it, the absurd patience required. Yes.

Telling me then, before he went back to his own art, not to judge my success by how many people drew close. It was a tempting measure, but not the most important. It would be worth all my risk and effort, this huge and true display of . . . vulnerability, if it brought just one decisive person into my life (as my essay on the railings had connected him and me). He told me then how – as a still emerging artist in the seventies – he’d had a solo show in an obscure alternative London gallery. Nothing very likely to change his fortunes. But on a day of heavy rain, a curator from an American museum stumbled in on it by chance and a few years later included him in a show at the Guggenheim that lifted him to international prominence thereafter.

Once he was gone again, the paper no longer seemed so silly or resistant. I forgot my audience, or lack of it, and went down deep into my own stories, discovering there a powerful new dimension to what I was doing.

How had I not seen it till now? My mother’s days had come alive for a while by marks made on paper: that rapid shorthand which caught every word from the mouth of her male boss. And through her rare skill, she gained entry for a while to the worlds of regional banking and local politics – little ponds, perhaps, but she felt herself a big fish at swim in them: all that was best in her being fully used and recognised. And now there I was, a half-century later, also using pen and paper to break open a larger life. What a heady, hardy feeling: to be reclaiming the stories of my female line and laying them out like brickwork – word by word, inch by inch. Building foundations for a legacy that just might last.

Shadrick, Tanya. The Cure for Sleep (pp. 186-189). Orion. Kindle Edition.

Reader responses

I am truly excellent at planning and organising.

Other people might be extraordinary artists or writers or athletes, but in my humble opinion my small unspoken skills are under recognised. If you need jobs done, tasks completed, I will get it done; if I start something then I finish it. I will find the extra time and squeeze and wring out the minutes and seconds of a day to Get It All Done.

jenni

‘Tell me about a skill you possess.’

My heart sinks heavy and I want to hide. Please don’t ask me this. I don’t have any skills. Not now, age 50. Not anything that would mark me out as special, different, unique, worthy of the telling.

My first instinct: to tell you about the skills of others. My friends, my family, the little boy who lives next door and pretends to be a dragon. Or to say that I did, once, have skills, but so distant in time it’s barely memory. Talents and abilities I possessed as a little girl. I could do backflips! Turn endless perfectly dizzying cartwheels until I collapsed in a giggling heap, the world still spinning around me.

Suse

Clever Clogs?

Julie Benham

Oh….Skill.

Elena

Sheila Knell

After his eyes, it was his hands that I fell for.

sheila de courcy

Think of a world without any birds.

When I first met the world my senses were pummelled and stretched by a chaos of sights and sounds. An immediate, instinctive sucking in of my environment took over and so I hoovered up the wonders around me. Every breath I took filled me with curiosity. A mystery of sounds came for me, gathered me up in it’s score and Pied-Pipered me to where I danced to the brightness of my imagination. I soaked up the creaks; sighs, groans and whispers of the wild.

Black coated sentinels kept watch over me from their treetop fortresses, chastising me with a harsh, unmelodic caw and caah. The cackling chorus of rooks cricked my neck with reverence. From the splendour of a sharp-tongued, scolding jay floating gracefully through its wooded by-ways; to the stylish red curved beak of a probing chough, the corvids lie deep in our folklore and folk horror. Straight talking; no nonsense, heralds of doom and devastation; goths of folklore fancies who piqued my inquisitive nature and fuelled my appetite to share spaces with these intelligent, worldly birds.

Isis, the youthful Thames seduced me; lured me to her clear, running waters and conjured up a cobalt blue, halcyon performer that unzipped the flesh of the world as it skimmed fast and low above the water leaving a shrill, tangy, chee chikee in its wake. My hungry head drew in the music of the birds. Scrolls of memory filled with songs; now always there. A musical library of trills; warbles, flutes, chuckles and whistles. I close my eyes and listen to the calls of the wild in this harsh land of humans.

Steve Harrison
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