stories

A temporary bed

Photo:  Kirsty Lee

Photo: Kirsty Lee

In our early spring issue, four writers each tell us a story of a bed. Here, Kirsty Lee, who works in conservation, managing habitats for wildlife, tells us about her bed in the wild, where she lays her head down each night.

My bed takes my last sigh in the evening, one that mounts the memory foam in my mattress, which keeps my hips off a damp floor that, I am told, will soak into my bones if I lay on it. This bed I sleep on is only temporary, at a place where I stay in woodland where I work. I purchased it, with its mod cons. Memory foam air pockets, in hope it would give me better rest, a more comfortable sleep; the comfort a deterrent from the long night of listening ahead of me.

This job is a simple trade. We work with sustainably felled wood that contributes to the management of woodland in Kent. We cut it, peel it and cleave it, into somewhat small, neat individual stakes that will be bundled and wired together, shipped across the country, into Europe. There it is plunged back into the ground as a fence – isolating a pocket of land, a herd of sheep or a small shelter. It is hard work but it feels like good work, particularly, as the days grow longer and the sprite snowdrops emerge. Nightjars arrive and purr between the single tree standards and fritillaries float between glades in the hot thin air. I have learnt that this is a job of craft, of nurture and of tire. So much so, that it leaves my arms an inch longer each day and my body too tired to run away from itself. You might think after such a day, that sleep would come easy, but as night falls the woodland is invigorated and the world changes, the noise of our clatter taken by the sound of the dark. This darkness is one I don’t recognise, or at least didn’t at first, no longer muted by streetlights, or the sound of cars. It is dark with an urge, a deepness full of sounds that I am starved of in my brick house.

This theatre of the night starts at around 7.30pm, by which time we have stoked up the fire and lay on our beds, listening to the wood smouldering as it keeps us warm. It is then that I realise what I hear is my own. The boundaries between reality and dream dissolve and I slip into the steady current of the wind. It conjures up a speed I feel I should keep up with, a rhythm assembled at the fringes of my imagination. It draws me into a fight or flight scenario, not simply because of the pendulous branches of the diseased ash hanging overhead, but the wind that jabs me with gusto. This same wind sparks the barking, wild dogs I imagine, terrifically fierce and hungry for blood. The moles beneath scratch at the ceiling of their world, drawing me into the dank soils webbed in mycelium, their noiselessness an itching discomfort. It is not long before the owls catch wind of it all, their lavish screech echoes in the hollow air. I try to quiet my thoughts, shove my head in my sleeping bag, into the creeping thatched grasses that hide amphibious creatures, slimy and subdued under the glow of the moon.

My supernatural hearing is at once stopped, when my pragmatic mind tells me it is muntjac, toads and newts, and not wild dogs, footsteps, or cursed creatures that lurk beneath. But these experiments with imagination are merely self-absorbed musings and I realise that dark is just a colour. When I lay here alone in my bed, surrounded by the world, laid upon the earth, I feel I can finally guide my own darkness.

Kirsty Lee has been working in conservation, managing habitats for wildlife alongside working in rural communities for the past five years. She's particularly interested in how we engage with nature, how it can improve our wellbeing whilst reducing isolation and loneliness. She writes about her experiences at www.hellokirsty.tumblr.com


Read four more stories of a bed in our early spring issue, out now.

Time travel: a visit to the Bauhaus

Photos:  Frances Ambler

In our late summer issue, we share four different stories of time travel. Frances Ambler wrote about what it was like to spend a night at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany.

"I was standing in front of the then ultra-modern building… Its architecture represented to me the beginning of a new era.” So wrote student Hannes Beckmann on arriving at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Walter Gropius designed the building to match this ambitious art school, a vision of soaring glass, proclaiming its own name in huge letters down its side. Its photograph was circulated around the world – at first a symbol of German creativity and forward thinking; later, after its closure by the Nazis, a symbol of a lost era.

As I stood there, in grey drizzle, it wasn’t quite living up to this promise. I was staying overnight in one of the 28 studio rooms where students had worked and slept, part of my research for my book, The Study of the Bauhaus. The room had the single bed, fitted cupboards and sink familiar from student halls – here, however, the furnishings revealed the creativity of its former inhabitants: the tubular metal furniture devised by Marcel Breuer seen in a set of nesting tables; the modernist patterns promoted by the weaving workshop present in a bedspread devised by Gunta Stölzl. Echoing the pattern of my own student life, I crawled into bed with my phone, distracting myself with the hum of contemporary online life.

If I went to bed in a 21st-century fug, I woke up in the optimism of the 1920s. Bright blue sky had taken the place of the grey. The huge desk by the window suddenly looked inviting. I stepped onto the balcony, and looked over the surrounding town in a new light.

The day opened up a Bauhaus experience bigger than the room: what had been the student canteen, auditorium and gym, the spaces where workshops once whirred with activity. On a tour, we stopped in one of the studio rooms, made up as it would have been then. It had belonged to Marianne Brandt, who had found her calling in the metal workshops, inventing lamps, ashtrays and her now-famous tea set, which today sell for thousands of pounds. It was right next door to the room where I’d spent the night.

Looking at Brandt’s record player, I understood my earlier disconnect. The many snapshots taken by the students themselves show them in and out of each others' rooms, leaning across their balconies and throwing impromptu parties – rows of cakes spread across the nesting tables, grinning attendees squished onto the single bed. They experimented and learnt together; they also gave friendship.

Right wing opponents forced the Bauhaus to close in Dessau in 1932, and it moved, temporarily, to Berlin before finally closing the following year. Its students spread out around the world. We tend to hear the names of the lucky ones, such as Josef Albers or Marcel Breuer, who forged new lives in America. Others struggled in Germany, their careers never reaching such dizzy heights. Some suffered in concentration camps. The building itself was damaged in bombing, only fully opening for visitors four years ago.

But the Bauhaus was always more than its building. It was about the people and their desire and determination to build a better world – a spirit that blazed as brightly as that day’s blue sky.

The Story of the Bauhaus is published on 11 October (Ilex Publishing). You can pre-order a copy here. And enjoy three other stories of time travel in our late summer issue.

Fear and pigeons

illustration:  ester garcia

illustration: ester garcia

Be afraid, be very afraid. To mark Halloween, we asked our writers to confess what scares them the most. For Alice Snape it's pigeons that are her biggest fear...

The one fear that has remained constant throughout my life is my fear of pigeons. In fact, all birds really, but pigeons are the ones that are always there, lurking in front of my every step, unwilling to move out of my way – why don’t they creep and coo near someone else? Why aren’t they scared of me?

Pigeons constantly reinforce my terror on a daily basis, so it can’t possibly be irrational. Even back when I was revising for my GCSEs, one flew into the conservatory through an open window. I had my revision desk all set up and was convinced the bird was out to get me. It flapped around all over my notes, until my dad had to come home from work, and let it out. All I could do was close the sliding doors and cry in a ball on the floor.

And now, I see them everywhere. I don’t understand how other people can brazenly walk through a group of the flappy, grey rodents as if there is nothing in front of them. When I see one, I scuttle around, cross over the road, stamp my feet loudly – avoidance tactics. Occasionally, I scream out loud. Over the course of my life so far, four pigeons – yes four – have even flown into my head. My head! Flapping around with their grubby little claws tangling into my hair. I have been pooed on more times than I can count, and I don’t care that it might be lucky. I don’t feel lucky. 

I guess the fear is born out of anxiety, I am an anxious person. I was an apprehensive child, always fretting and worried about the unknown. And in this changeable, unrecognisable world that we currently reside, those worried concerns flood back to me, all embodied in the physicality of that horrid pigeon form. Who will deny climate change next? Who’s responsible for Irma? How will I meet by next work deadline withouthaving a panic attack?

It doesn’t matter if they are the flying, dirty rats with one foot that seem to outnumber humans in London, or the big fat wood pigeons that live a life of luxury in the countryside or the pigeon fancier’s variety. Because I hate them all. I hate them, because I don’t know what a pigeon is about to do, it can’t communicate with me in a way that I understand. I can’t control where it steps. The pigeon has no regard for my personal space. It just coos that horrid  that horrid sound, flapping with no direction. One could sneak up on me at any moment with its flailing wings, beady eyes and sharp beak. And I would never be ready for it, even though I am forever dreading its appearance. 

See what our other Oh Comely writers are afraid of in issue 39

Women with tattoos

Jay Rose.jpg

portrait eleni stefanou, Women with Tattoos

People are drawn to tattoos for different reasons – because they find them beautiful, empowering, therapeutic or a tangible way of holding on to important memories. Eleni Stefanou is taking photos of women and their ink, and sharing their stories on a blog as a visual love letter to tattooed women everywhere

 

Jay Rose, 23, tattoo artist, Glasgow

“Some people think of tattoos a ‘second skin’, but I find that concept quite strange. The minute a tattoo is on my skin it becomes a part of me and I often find it hard to remember what it was like to not have it. Looking back at old photos is becoming increasingly weird, especially since I’ve become more heavily covered. For me, getting tattooed isn’t simply about decoration – every tattoo I have means something. That’s not to say tattoos without meaning are anything less, but for me each tattoo is marking a journey and allowing me to become more secure within myself. I have tattoos with friends, for family and inside jokes.

“It was getting my stomach, hand and back tattooed that were the biggest steps in really bringing my vision to life, they were turning points for me. Those were the big tattoos that started to really frame my body and connect the dots if you will. I felt myself become so more comfortable in my own body after that.

“With every tattoo you collect, you also step into a journey with your chosen artist. You put your trust in them. For example, I chose tattoo artist Hannah Pixie Snowdon to tattoo my entire back. I am a rather small human being and it was important for my back piece to be worn – and not for it to wear me. Its evolution has been both a representation of my growth as an individual and Hannah’s growth as an artist – it was the first back piece she ever created. As for physically getting it done, I squirmed, cried, winced and in parts it has become my worst nightmare come to life.

“I am a tattoo artist myself, and I’ve had a lot of emotional experiences on my artistic journey. The other week, for example, a lovely woman had emailed me wanting a tattoo with a little nod to her mother who had recently passed away. Her mother had been diagnosed with bowel cancer and doctors had discovered a brain tumour within the same week. My mother was diagnosed with cancer in September last year and it’s been a hard journey, so this is something that struck home. She was a really lovely girl who had been through something that I could empathise with.

“And that, for me, is what makes tattoos so powerful and healing. They can unite people through shared experience and allow someone to mark a tragedy in their life and then recover from it.”

 

Read four more stories of women and their tattoos in issue 39 of Oh Comely

Sunday Reading: What I tasted

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words: olivia potts

photo: deborah dewbury-langley

When my mother died, I lost a recipe.

Her death was sudden and unexpected. The day before, we talked normally, knowing nothing of what lay ahead. We talked about her library books, my job, Emmerdale

If I’d known she was going to die, I might have asked the important questions: what do I need to know about childbirth? How do you get curry stains out of a white shirt? How do you make your chilli con carne?

But I never asked those questions. I found myself – 25, motherless, heartbroken – not knowing things I never knew I wanted to know. Amongst those were her dishes. Losing her meant losing her food; I had never once asked for a recipe, and now it was too late.

Until it ended, I hadn’t realised how important food was to our relationship. Now, I can see it was her main way of conveying sympathy and care. She was not obsessive about food, like I am; she didn’t derive any joy from standing over a stove, or hosting a dinner party. The food she made was just for her family, for us. But every mouthful was carefully and meticulously prepared.

Whenever I was poorly – I was a sickly child, and an even sicklier teenager – my mother made minestrone soup. She would sit opposite me at the kitchen table, watching quietly as slowly, spoonful by spoonful, I ate it, and then she would walk me slowly, quietly around the garden. All soups are nourishing, but this soup was special. It was made with care in both senses. It was full of love, patience and effort. But it was also careful; everything chopped meticulously, placed in neat piles, and then one by one, dropped in a big pot in a preordained order. I needed to recreate this soup. The entirety of my mother’s cooking and love seemed bound up in minestrone. So I began trying to make it from memory. I knew it involved tiny pasta, and bacon and a lot of vegetables. 

I knew that those vegetables were diced precisely. I bought pasta and bacon, and I diced vegetables precisely. I threw them in a pot and thought good thoughts.

My first attempt was wrong. So was my hundredth. I drowned in soups, unable to replicate the taste. I could get close, but it was never quite right. It was never my mother’s soup. I turned to the internet, and spent nights gazing at search results for soup recipes, eliminating possibilities: no, no, no. Of all dishes, minestrone must be one of the hardest to recreate. There is no such thing as an authentic recipe; it has as many variations as it has cooks. 

Years passed, measured in failed soups. The grief eased, or at least changed: it became quieter. A looming adversary became a stolid, bitter companion. I could see past it, but it was always there.

A few months ago, when my father decided to move out of our old house, he offloaded most of my mother’s books on me. Among them were her cookbooks. In truth, I could never remember her actually using a cookbook. But here they were.

I flicked idly through them. I almost didn’t spot the minestrone soup. But as soon as I began reading, I realised: this was the recipe. This was my mother’s minestrone soup. I studied the method, line by line, and pictured my mum dicing, frying, stirring, the intricate ballet of her perfect soup. I closed the book and looked at the front cover. 

It was Delia’s Complete Cookery Course. My mother’s minestrone soup was Delia’s minestrone soup. I had been searching for this recipe, experimenting, testing this recipe for three years only for it to be in one of the most famous cookery books ever published.

But now I have it. I make this soup in the pot that my mother used – and finally, I make it as she did. And it tastes like home.

 

This story originally appeared as one of our 'stories of the senses' in issue 33 of Oh Comely. We were delighted to hear that Olivia won the category of Fresh Voices in Food Writing at this year's The YBFs with an edited version of this piece. You can see read more of Olivia's writing on her blog and follow her on Twitter

Falling cat problem

words: polly dickson

illustration: maggie chiang

 

A black cat traces the passage from balcony to ground. We hear her yowls before we see her. A cat, in German, is always she, die Katze. The word for a tomcat, Kater, is also the word for a hangover — a lexical coincidence, an accidental collision, but one that sticks. Her yowls throb. A cat falling from a height of greater than six stories is less likely to sustain serious injuries than a cat falling from a height of less than six stories. At the greater height, the cat, having righted herself by virtue of her lack of collarbone and flexible spine, reaches terminal velocity, after which she stops accelerating, spreads and relaxes her body. This means that there is an optimal height range from which a cat can fall and survive. A brief passage of time and air, bookended by balcony and ground.

The black cat in front of us lopes to a low window ledge, keeling, and curls herself onto it like a comma.

When I run, no matter what else I think about, I think, too, about the passing of time. Bookending the exertion with a start and finish — knowing how far or how long I have to go — can make the difference between finishing and turning back. Once, when running up a hill with C, feeling my legs giving out, he started counting down from ten and as he counted, in brief, half-conscious thoughts, I counted with him and felt the passage of time shorten, felt its horizon curve and dip to slowly let me over. I think of races, fasts, other travails of the mind and body made bearable by the knowledge of their limited duration, the knowledge of their ending. I think of books, too, the piquancy of the short story, the slow engulfment of the novel — narratives that make sense only when they’re over, and how any pleasure I feel in reading is tied together with my feeling that it will come, inevitably, to an end. I mark my way through books, leaving a path of folded corners, examining how many volumes, chapters, pages I have left. I note the bakery at one kilometre, smelling of butter, the bridge at the third, the water fountain at the sixth, then the turning point, then the fountain, the bridge, and the rich smell of butter again, on the home stretch.

A woman emerges flushed from the ground-floor apartment door and scoops a pile of black cat into her arms. Landing on her feet, of course, doesn’t mean she goes uninjured, and with her guttural yowls circling through my head, I can’t help but think she might be dying.

Something that never fails to astound me is the range of wild and lucid thoughts I can have when reading a paper aloud to an audience. Reading aloud, for a limited portion of time, things feel unendurable. My voice, unsteady, sounds like it could be someone else’s, my face flushes, my eyes barely register the blank faces in the audience as I dutifully read one word after another. But that’s the thing: one word inevitably folds into the next, and then into a stream of others, one paragraph into another paragraph as the writing propels itself forward into an inevitable conclusion. I’ll move on, in any case. Pick myself up. From passage to passage, thinking of falling cats and hangovers and running, I read, and wait for the ending, the conclusion, the final sentence, final clause, final words, and the unknown white space that comes afterward.

 

Polly Dickson is a writer and researcher based in Berlin. She tweets at @pollyletitia.

Falling cat problem was inspired by the theme of the latest issue – Passages. Order your copy here

Contribute your personal stories to issue 39

illustration: Jisun Lee for issue 37

illustration: Jisun Lee for issue 37

We're looking for your contributions for issue 39, out in October.  

Writers, we have a challenge for you this issue. We're looking for original first person stories that take place within one room. 

We're intrigued by the possibilities and hope that you will be too. 

To be considered, email a 100-word outline of your idea to ohcomely@icebergpress.co.uk, along with two samples of your work by Friday 14 July. Please state 'Issue 39 contributions' in the subject header. 

Unfortunately we don't accept fiction or poetry samples. We do try and get back to everyone but we're a really small team so it might take us a while. 

We look forward to hearing your ideas! 

We're always interested in your personal writing. If you have a story that you'd like to share with us, regardless of theme, email us at the address above with your outline and samples. 

What life models think about

Portrait: Liz Seabrook

Portrait: Liz Seabrook

Throughout art history, the figure of the model has been a consistent but anonymous presence – both a visual reference and an inspiration for the artist. For our latest issue, we photographed four women who work as life models in their favourite poses and spoke to them about their career, motivations and what they’re really thinking when they’re nude. This is Sophie Cleaver, 27, from Glasgow: 

"I walk into a room with strangers and take my clothes off, but I’m not body confident at all. People aren’t drawing me, they’re drawing some shapes. It’s performative, like dancing or acting. I’d slouch on a couch but when I’m posing, I sit up straight. There are thousands of images of me out there but I don’t see them as me.

My mum was a life model. When I turned 16 and needed to get a job, it seemed a good option. I’d grown up around it – when mum couldn’t get childcare, I’d sit in the corner with my crayons – so I wasn’t nervous. I joke that I’ve had 11 years of art classes – I find myself repeating bits back to people. I used to do it around lots of other things, but now I can’t. I have MS and it’s completely draining. Modelling is good for that – you can recline and have a rest! But I couldn’t do it every day.

One advantage is the thinking time. In other jobs, you wouldn’t get to sit and think for 45 minutes. When I was doing my A levels, I would do my coursework in my head while I was posing and write it all down when I got home – now it’s shopping lists or knitting.

If I’m posing for shorter periods of time, like a few seconds, I do things I couldn’t hold for longer, like going right onto the tips of my toes. I always try new poses. Even if it’s similar to one you’ve done 50 times, every pose is always slightly different.

Every situation is different too. When you’re modelling for A level students, there’s always one who’s nudging his mates. I’ll make eye contact with him for the entire class – it’s a sure-fire way of dealing with it. Quite often you’re in spaces that aren’t set up for modelling. There’s a lot of changing in toilets. I had this weird situation recently with a drone with a camera hovering outside the studio where I’d been posing. That was unique, but I sometimes swap notes with my mum – you know, like, “oh, I had one of those…”

Life modelling comes and goes with fashion. At the Glasgow School of Art, where I model, only 20 years ago they had about 18 full-time models with their own staff room. We’re all part-time now. But there are groups like All the Young Nudes in Scotland, putting on evenings set to music in clubs, making it cool again.

I’ve recently become much more proud of what I do. I’ve made it work as a viable job. I couldn’t support a house on it, but it’s enough for me, with the help of my boyfriend. I want to keep on doing it for as long as I can – to become Britain’s longest serving life model."

Pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 37 to see our other three life models and to read about their experiences. 

Sunday Reading: Poached peaches with cold cream

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Words: Bre Graham
Photo: Femme Run

Every great romance in our lives is not just left in our memories, but in the physical things that remain long after that love has left. What we own, where we live and who we are, linger longer than the people that we hope might stay. Because sometimes when relationships end, they don’t just break, they completely shatter.

It’s the first stage of losing love, when even the thought of a thing can bring them back. Something as small as a scent jolts us straight back into that scene, and our pasts can open up again in an instant. It’s why for some, the summer stings of flings, outfits once loved collect dust and hide beneath beds and favourite restaurants are no longer frequented.

Recently, at the end of a relationship, one that was delicate and maybe doomed, I felt the best way to move on was to find a new way to walk to work. We had first met on a night out where we poured our whiskey like wine, swapped sweet nothings for hours and finally first kissed in a busy bar beside my apartment; the same bar I still pass every day going to my office. From our first meeting, to when goodbyes were said, I had built a guide in my mind to things that would remind me of this time; things that I knew, even when they were happening, would hurt hard to remember when it was over. Maybe just one of the downsides of being a writer is that I don’t want to forget a single thing, and most of the time, I don’t. The list was long, from bars to books, to songs and what Sunday mornings felt like, from the toast to the type of soap.

On our last good night together before things finally broke, I grilled steaks and we ate poached peaches with cold cream in an August heatwave, in a room full of unpacked, smoke-stained clothes from his week away. But I know, that for now, while I might try and block out these memories, at the time they were beautiful. Soon enough though, a peach will just be a peach and the end of August just a time when leaves change. When we least expect it, things we think we lost return renewed.

In the end, the stories that we build upon others dissipate. We can forget why once something as superfluous as a bathtub made us weak with regret, and the memories stop shocking us. Because what time reveals, is that the things we attach to others really just represent us at a moment in our lives. Maybe they’re just memories of being young and foolish, or maybe something more serious. No matter what they hold, they are stories as much of you, as they are of what you lost. Because everything we lose when we love, ultimately will return.



Bre Graham is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently living in London working on her first novel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34 for more stories of return.