Julia walked along the street determined to take in the things around her and not be distracted by her own glum reflections. She wandered past little museums, clusters of shops and corner pubs and little fenced in patches of green. After a while – and more walking than she’d done in a long time without Cal to keep her company – she saw a little bookshop and went inside, if only to be still for a few minutes.
The shop was small with rows of high shelves and the smell of musty attics and lost memories. Julia made her way along the narrow corridor between two bookcases and obscured herself from the scrutiny of the serious looking gentleman behind the counter. As her eyes scanned the spines lined up before her, Julia realised that she was in the Poetry aisle. W. H. Auden, Rupert Brooke … names she had come to know through school texts that she knew should inspire deeper passion that they did when allocated as homework. Julia sighed. School had had its way of flattening things and suppressing their richness. Whether it was the enforced nature of the encounter or the clinical interpretation by the sour-faced spinster who had been her English teacher, Julia felt a clear detachment from the intimacy that might have otherwise come to life in spontaneous discovery or private moments.
She ran her fingers along the row and stopped to rest on a book with Dylan Thomas’ name embossed in clear letters along the spine. She remembered her mother reading his poems, though Julia herself couldn’t recall even the title of one. But as she scanned her mind for a line or a theme, her distracted index finger caught on another book and instead of a Dylan Thomas anthology, she found herself holding a thin, pale yellow volume with a simple red illustration on the cover. It was a sketch of a woman – or a girl – with both arms raised, holding something in one hand. A dagger. Or a letter opener. At first Julia thought that the character had a tail but then she saw that there was something like a cape blanketing the girl’s shoulders. And what could have been a paper flower or a bow on her head might have been a crown. Julia studied the face to see if fear or anger or surprise had been drawn there to give more clues about the person. And the situation. But no distinct emotion was clearly evident. The mouth’s hints at roundness could have been singing or perhaps shouting an exclamation to scare someone else. Or the lips might have been simply pursed.
Julia’s mind went to the time that she had put on her painted tiger mask and jumped out at her father. She had been four or five. He had looked frightened and called out for her – as if it wasn’t her standing in front of him – to protect him against the wild creatures that had invaded their house. Until Julia had revealed herself and calmed his worried nerves.
More sweet indulgence.
As she reflected vaguely on the efforts of men who sought to appease her, her fingers opened the book towards the middle. And there on the page was the shortest poem Julia had ever seen.
It Filled my Heart with Love
When I hold in my hand a soft and crushable animal, and feel the fur beat for fear and the soft feather, I cannot feel unhappy.
In his fur the animal rode, and in his fur he strove,
And oh it filled my heart my heart, it filled my heart with love.
And Julia was in the moment when she had first held Cal – when he had looked up at her face with a strange, knowing look in his eyes. It has been an instant, just a few seconds in her life, but it had struck her like a revelation. They were just eyes. Dogs’ eyes. But there had been something in them that had reached her in a way that the indulgent gestures never could.
As the present began to re-enter her consciousness, Julia found herself wondering why she didn’t think more about those times – the ones where she was happy, grateful, lucky – instead of letting herself be clouded by emptiness. Because her whole life wasn’t empty. There were good things to be treasured. And she had been ignoring them.
A soft beam of light suddenly swept across the shelves in front of her as the winter sun pushed its way from behind the clouds. Julia turned towards the window. A tiny scrap of sky was visible above the clutter of the city outside. And another dog found its way into Julia’s thoughts again. A dog that seemed forever to be part of the sky.
She briskly turned back to the book to examine it more carefully. She turned to the opening pages. “Stevie Smith, ‘Not Waving But Drowning’, Poems”. And then to the title poem.
Not Waving but Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Any warmth remaining from her good intentions to hold fast to the positive elements of her life drained rapidly away. Even thoughts of Russian dogs in remote spacecraft disappeared as Julia was overtaken by a loneliness she had almost forgotten. One that had been with her in that lost childhood summer. When she had been set free by well-meaning relatives to roam the emptiness of her mother’s absence. And her father’s distant pain.
And here she was now in her life floating away from everything real. Barely brushing people’s lives as she drifted out to sea.
Julia leafed through the book distractedly – in clumps, without discerning more than the occasional word from the pages that spread open beneath her random fingers. Until suddenly there was another picture that jolted her back to the volume as it struck her more than the image on the cover ever could. Because this picture was of her. Of Julia. The same sparse juvenile style as the binding artwork but starkly recognisable. She shook herself and blinked at the face of a woman with the aquiline nose and heavy eyelids and, though she told herself that it could be so many people, it was herself there in the simple pencil sketch. The slightly wavy tousled hair had framed her mirrored face each time she’d tried to match the unattainable style and sophistication that seemed to smooth the passage of so many women through their lives. And the sidelong glance that seemed to almost blink up from the creamy page had been reflected in shop windows and soapy saucepans enough times for Julia to identify its likeness.
She read the lines above the drawing.
I see the pretty fields and streams, I hear
Beasts calling and birds singing, oh not clear
But as a prisoner
Who in a train doth pass
And through the glass
Ah me, so far away is joy, so near.
Julia closed the book and slid it back onto the shelf.
She didn’t want to be a prisoner staring at life through the glass.
She didn’t want to be drowning, to feel ‘much too far out all her life’.
She swallowed carefully and stood for a moment, waiting for her breath to come slowly and easily.
But when she let her own life fade, Laika came back into her mind. A prisoner. Drifting out in space. So far away. With no one seeing what the little dog had needed. No one knowing if she had been afraid. If she had wanted help …
The door of the shop jangled. Sure feet padded purposefully inside. Julia stood motionless in her narrow hideaway and waited for the footsteps to move past and come to a stop. When they did, she took a deep breath. She didn’t want to leave the shop feeling as she did. She waited for a few moments but her mind was still caught. Then with no decision, no conscious intent, she lifted her hand and pulled the poetry book from the shelf again.
The page that opened before her this time was laced with short lines and pleasant words – poems about a cat’s tiny feet, an adventurous pet …. Julia let herself relax and think of uncomplicated times … innocence. Of contentment and simplicity. Her fingers hooked at the pages again and she turned a few, this time feeling the crispness of the fresh new paper. There was a refreshing purity about the sharp corners, the slightly textured weave as she ran her fingertips across the pale expanse peppered with black-inked words, flat and patterned like dark lace. For a few moments, she enjoyed the texture. The plainness of the feel of the pages, turning methodically beneath her hands. And when her eyes finally glanced down, she saw two words. And her fingers slid beneath the cover to let the page lie open in her cradling hands.
Whatever the words that followed, it was that poem’s title that Julia suddenly resolved to carry with her.
She didn’t believe in fate and she had never relied on ‘signs’ to guide her through decisions but she knew that those words were for her.
There had been too much rumination and inaction. Too much pointless thought. ‘Away with it’. Too much self doubt. ‘Let it go.’
Julia closed the book and carried it to the counter where she paid for her purchase with the certainty of a customer who had found the one book that had led her to enter the shop.
“Ah, a lover of modern verse,” the man nodded as he slid the slim volume into a paper bag and rung the amount into the till. “It’s not long out, this one.” He smiled benevolently at Julia. “But I’m sure you know that – I can see you’re quite the follower of Miss Smith.” He raised his eyebrows. “Or perhaps it’s just that you’re about to be.”
Julia smiled vaguely and took her package, her mind still on the words she had read. … so far away is joy, so near … away, melancholy …
And as she walked out into the afternoon, she looked up at the sky and all its clouds and Julia decided that she had to finally do something. For herself. For Laika.
* * *