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Phoebe Blatton
Phoebe Blatton

Phoebe Blatton grew up in South East London. She studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, and has worked for a number of years in the art book trade. In 2008 she co-founded The Coelacanth Journal, and publishes this alongside a number of related projects, publications and collaborations. She is currently a student at Birkbeck on the MA in Creative Writing.


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The Bells Around Their Necks


‘Mum?’

          My daughter is here.

          ‘You slipped on the ice.’

          She’s trying to help me and I’m trying myself but there’s the ten-ton weight of this beaver-lamb coat keeping me down. I borrowed the coat from my neighbour who’d had it in her attic from God knows when. It’ll keep you warm, she said, as I heaved it on and stood there, neck to knee in naphthalene. Now I’m stuck lying here until someone can figure out what to do. I try and move inside the rigid beaver-lamb. I’m like a mummy stirring inside its sarcophagus. I want to say something, but my jaw’s gone slack. I’m frightened of choking on my tongue as it drops back into my throat. A gargle comes out of my mouth. It’s like the sound this coat would’ve made when it was still alive.

          I try again:

          ‘Am I hurt?’

          I’m looking straight ahead at the sky. Its whiteness is so comprehensive and sharp I want to close my eyes, but if I do they’ll think I’m passing out. As I blink and stare I see a kind of calligraphy appearing. The more I look, the more it scrawls, but it’s like disappearing ink, gone when I try and read it.  

          I think about how I got here, flipped on my back along this path, in the foothills of these Polish mountains. Horses drew us in sleighs through the forest. The forest seemed exactly as the brochure described it. Snow rustled and collapsed through the branches, and the ice creaked beneath us. I listened to the growls of the drivers, the snorting horses and the bells around their necks, the snap of whips against their steaming haunches.

          I kept watching how the whip would rise and flail in the air as though possessed by a kind of madness, before the hand snatched it back, the lash descending in taut precision. I had come to think that is all of what real power is: madness, harnessed.

          I know this since the age of twelve, when I walked out of Church one morning looking skyward and stuck two fingers up and said bugger you, God.

          I know this from the thrill I got as a policeman grabbed for me as I ran from the entrance of Aldgate East tube station, and I looked back, and saw his hands biting at my coat, the communist pamphlets I’d been distributing strewn behind me like the train of a wedding dress, and the attaché case I’d kept them in, burst open like an oyster on the pavement.

          I know this from the electricity that clenched my brain when I was briefly hospitalised in the 1960s.

          My daughter has put her scarf under my head. Maybe she shouldn’t have done that, but I’m glad she has. She’s rubbing my hands to keep them warm, and has to lean right over to alternate between the two. I can’t move my arms, but only because the arms on this coat don’t bend. They’re like two cannons either side of my body. She’s looking at me, her chin doubled by gravity and concern, and I meet her eyes. She asks me if I want to get up, and I let her know I do.

          As I lie here, I think of the blow she dealt me this morning, straight across the face.

          The trigger had been my refusal to come down to breakfast at the hotel. I’d refused because I don’t like the food. I hadn’t even wanted to come here in the first place. I didn’t have to speak, I just sat by the window in my nightdress and stared out at the snow.

          Of course she was the one who’d boiled over, the ring on her finger making the blow all the worse. But after it came I was in control, holding my cheek like an ingénue in a silent movie, proving her dramatic worth.

          When I was recovering from my breakdown and my daughter still lived at home, I decided to move into the caravan in our garden. I went four days without coming out or talking to anyone. She’d been making a complicated dress out of green silk, and one day I was standing at the window of the caravan and she came out with the finished dress and held it up for me to see. I suppose she meant it as some kind of offering, and when I showed no interest she tore it apart and stamped on it, grinding it into the ground.

          It’s as though until I slipped on the ice, the slap had not even quite left her hand. In that moment it ricocheted through my flesh and travelled with a gathering momentum through my skull and the cavities in between, eventually coming to pass in a juddering exit, taking me down with it.

          When she saw me hit the ground, I think maybe that had shocked the last of it out of her. The slap had finally transferred. I can feel that now, that inside her woollen glove there is a different kind of strength as she smoothes my forehead.

          As they start to hoist me up, I feel the pain throb in the back of my head. There’s a man with a great frosted moustache, and he’s got me under the armpit. My daughter’s got the other side. They get me to my feet.

Somebody says the snow is stuck to the back of my coat. I feel them trying to dust it off. It’s not unlike the sensation of beating a rug, but I am inside the dull thud of each stroke. I am the carpet.

          They walk me over to a wooden hut. A man in a Gorale folk costume comes out and beckons me over to a seat he’s covering with furs. I take hold of his arm and feel the thickness of his felt jacket, the texture of the embroidery round the cuffs, and the cold shock of a metal button. They settle me down on this throne-like seat and the man produces a hip-flask. I drink some of the alcohol, and it makes me cough. He says something in Polish and laughs, and I understand that he’s saying it’ll make me feel better. My daughter has her hand on my shoulder. In front of us is a clearing surrounded by more of the wooden huts, where a group of tourists are dancing with the people that live here. I say they live here, perhaps they don’t. Perhaps they just drive up here from the nearest town, and pretend to live like peasants, with their horses and violins.

          Nevertheless, it’s all very attractive under this sky that’s sagging with snow. The huts puff and glow like stoves, and the men’s feet in winter spats slide and pad against the compacted ground as they lead female tourists in embarrassed, tight revolutions. They’re chivalrous in their manoeuvres, smiling at the women whose husbands take photos from the side.

          My mother thrived on ‘old-fashioned chivalry’, as she called it. Once, after I was married but still just shy of twenty, I’d arranged to meet her on the Strand. Along she came, waving her gloved hands in the air, flanked by a peculiar guard of honour. Some American sailors had mistaken her for the Queen Mother. They were still feigning their mistake, tripping and bowing in fits of laughter. They think I’m the Queen Mum, she trilled. A true actress, her accent could oscillate between the crudest Cockney and a crystal la-dee-da. I took in her outfit; a mangy fox that was eating its own tail, and three of Uncle Vin’s medals safety-pinned to the lapel of her coat. I looked down at the hemline of her frock, a stretch of which hung loose where she’d neglected to notice. Conor, here, is taking us to the bar, she announced, and Conor bounced between us, hooking our arms, leading us towards a hotel lobby. I excused myself as soon as we got through the door, and she wrenched me back by the wrist, and put her face, so troublingly similar to my own, up close to me, and asked if I had a problem with men.

          As the mazurka comes to an end, the men bow deeply, and the women, corpulent with ski wear and attention, recede, nodding, fumbling their attempts to say thank you in a foreign language.

          The husbands are now plucked forth by the Gorale womenfolk. One man is taken by the hand and led into the circle. He wears a camera round his neck, and some way down his stomach protrudes an enormous lens. A young girl watches her father being taken off to dance, and begins to cry. She remonstrates with her mother, who gently laughs, and holds her into the folds of her coat. The girl quietens, but as she looks back towards the dancing, she under-bites with indignation, her face furrowed like a British bulldog.

          When I moved away from London, my mother would occasionally call if she needed something, or had grown temporarily lonely. I’d always get Ted to answer the phone if I suspected it was her. Don’t ask me how I knew; it was so infrequent, and yet I just knew. Even from the other room I’d hear her voice shucking down the line, sharp and loud as it crowded into the plastic bowl of the receiver. Hallo, she’d croon with a doddery, questioning tone, dropping the ‘h’, before falling into a mawkish, obsequious banter with Ted until I could be summoned to the telephone. She’d posh up for me, like there was business that needed attending to. Clear enunciation so as not to be misconstrued. Then I would hear Mother, in all her regal splendour, informing me of her latest, most triumphant misfortune.

          The tourists have been granted a reprieve, and stand back as the Gorale men dance their own women across the snow. Photographs are taken, and I’m suddenly aware of just how dark it has become as flashes strobe from the sidelines, and the dancers’ fluid movement is fixed in a series of lapsing stills. The sleigh drivers have appeared, and they hover behind, reminding us that we must soon return to our hotel in the valley.

          After my breakdown I decided that I didn’t really ever need to see my mother again, although my daughter once visited her down in Canvey Island. My mother was then living in semi-squalor with an old publican she’d hooked up with and his wife. I suppose it was some kind of ménage à trois. I think my daughter was fascinated by it, but even she, with all her youthful, feminist resilience got a shock. When she arrived, they gave her tinned peaches with bread and butter, and after a few drinks, got her round the piano for a sing-song. Even though it had just gone lunchtime, it was completely dark inside. Just one bare light-bulb hung from the ceiling, and the dog, Nig, so named as he was black all over, took to the centre of the room as though craving the limelight, and howled along with the music. And then my mother had taken my fine, modern daughter aside, and asked her if she had a boyfriend, and said really, did she not have a boyfriend, and what was wrong with boyfriends, and growing greasy with anger, her beautiful singer’s voice cracking under a baritone of bile, what, might she ask, the little prude had against a bit of cunt and dick.

          How is your head, my daughter asks me. Sore, I say. The music and dancing has stopped, and people are turning away from the clearing, satisfied that the excursion has reached its end. We clamber into the sleighs, and when the man whose throne I’ve sat in all this while has finished assisting me, he bends into a deep bow and kisses my hand.

          As we descend through the forest, I start to wonder how seriously I’ve hurt myself. My sight is blurring. I reason with myself that it’s just the dark, the motion, the wind that’s so fast and cold. My eyes close as a panic pierces through the fog in my head. You’re falling asleep, I tell myself. Don’t fall asleep. There’s a bulb of noise to my right. I must’ve spoken aloud. My daughter is responding. I can’t move my arms to find her beside me. I can’t even move them inside my sleeves. Her body is there, I can feel it against mine, but it’s as though my right side and left side are crossing over, that they’ll meet in the middle and subsume each other. I hear my daughter’s voice again. She’s talking to me. I think I’m crying.

          We had arrived too late you see, in La Ciotat, on the French Riviera. We thought we’d get a room easily enough, but they were all taken. It was August and the height of the season. We ended up sitting on our suitcases, looking out across the beach where figures were already sleeping. They were mainly hippies, or beaten-up men who’d travelled to the port for work. They lay there in the darkness, tense and vulnerable, like sinews of seaweed. I looked at my daughter in profile, the way her white top strained across the curve of her back as she leant over, her chin in her hand. What little light there was glistened on the surface of her hot, tired face. There’s only one thing for it, I said, we’ll have to turn ourselves in.

          So we find the police station, and I try to explain the situation to the man on duty. He has his feet up on the desk. He stares at me, shifts his gaze to my daughter, and shifts it back to me with the steadiness of a pendulum. He holds some keys aloft.

          She said don’t take it, Mum, I think you shouldn’t take it tonight, but I’m so scared to lose my sleep. The doctors warned me, sleep is vital. Sleep will make you well. As we follow the policeman I reach inside my handbag and my fingers find the packet and slide against the foil and pop the blister. I don’t even need water anymore.

          The policeman leads us through to the back yard of the station, and he points to a car that’s parked there. He opens it up, and I get in the back, and my daughter gets in the front. He locks the door from the outside, and walks back towards the station. He leans in the doorway, and lights a cigarette.

          We sit for a moment in the silence of the car.

          ‘Well,’ I say.

          I want to lean over and stroke her hair, but I’m weak with tiredness.

          ‘Don’t let him in if he tries,’ I tell her.

          ‘I can’t very well stop him,’ she says, ‘it’s his car.’

          The backseat cups my body and my eyelids start to droop.

          ‘Don’t let him in,’ I say, as she turns her head to look out the window. Anything to avoid looking at the policeman who’s now moved into the shadows of the back wall, holding the cigarette between his lips with the tip pointed straight at us.

          ‘You’re going under, aren’t you?’ I hear her say, ‘those fucking tablets,’ something along those lines.

          I’m wondering how I got here, on an August night in La Ciotat, passing out in this police car. Now all my senses are leaving me, but I can still hear something outside, something like the creak of ice, the rustle of snow collapsing through branches. I can hear horses, their gross exhalations mocked by the tinkling bells around their necks, and as the car moves with the weight of another body, I catch the last sound I have time to describe, the rapid whine of the driver’s whip.         

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