Life Size by Jess Richards

Jess Richards
Category: Writing

Jess Richards was awarded the 2014 Ardtornish Retreat. Life Size was written by Jess at Ardtornish inspired by her experience there. You can now read her follow up story Undrowned on our blog

People who genuinely feel love hang on to the people they feel it for. It's easier now than it's ever been. Text, letter, phone call, email. Everyone's instant as long as there's a phone signal and wifi, though I prefer red letterboxes. It's easy not to hang on, as well.

At the moment, the only thing I care about is love. I can't write about anything else.

Last summer my relationship ended after fifteen years. It was concluded during a phone call while I was in Argyll and Bute. I was in a metal accommodation cube with doors and windows wide open. Mobile phone clutched to ear, held away from ear, clutched to ear again. I was getting colder as the sun was beating in bright and brighter. After the call was over, 'we' were separated. 'I' was separate. And five hundred miles from our home in the city. I was shaking so went down to the shore and looked at pebbles, rocks, waves. Steady and unsteady things.

I went back to the city and gave my possessions to a charity which helps hearts. It seemed like the most appropriate one. It took around a week to disentangle myself from the urban life I'd carefully built for years. I cancelled the two jobs I was due to start in September. I knew a lot of friendly people who were late to arrive and joyful at parties, but not that many people who seemed to notice who was coming or going unless it was posted online. I didn't know if it really was goodbye or see you later. So I didn't say much. Thoughts of past and future were too overwhelming so I avoided them. My ex had already posted her profile on dating websites so I was pretty sure she'd be fine.

I've known recently separated people to gather support around them, call on others to help them through what can only be described as a bereavement. But I didn't think I needed any help. How would I know if I did? Who would I ask, and what on earth for?

As I ran away from a lost love and a lost home, I wondered about placing a few personal ads of my own.

Desperately seeking: solitude.

I looked at house-sitting websites and found a way to be remote and alone for a while. A return to Scotland. North. Coldness.

I spent the winter caretaking some holiday lets at Kintyre. I didn't care enough, or take enough care. But apart from the occasional glances from crows and ewes, tups and a few cows, no one was watching.

There were storms. Tiles came down so I called in the roofers. Rain brought floods so I used sealant to fix the doorsteps. I planed the doors when they got stuck. Oiled the locks and the keys. A mains pipe burst so I dug a trench to get the water away from the cottages. Burnt my knuckles on the steam press again and again till I got the hang of it. I hemmed net curtains with webbing, and smeared off the mildew with vinegar. After mending so much, it seemed impossible to no longer care about these empty cottages. Broken things are inherently loveable.

There were bones scattered around the fields. Part of a spine, broken antlers, a hip. Skulls and beaks. Up a hill, I found a view of mosses and rushes and sky. No more or less than that. It felt like the edge of the world.

I froze through winter, I was made of ice, but didn't crack. I painted fragments of clocks on slate in white acrylic and burnt umber watercolour. Broken bits of time. On larger slates, windfall from a dovecot, I painted clock faces - showing pictures, symbols, numbers which made no sense. I bought a hand-drill and drilled through the pictures. I bought clock parts online, set the hands, made them tick.

I wrote about a girl falling in love with an invisible horse called Time. He ran away.

These were clocks which couldn't tell anything at all, certainly not the time.

I wrote about a girl falling in love with an invisible horse called Time. He ran away.

Twice during the winter, I was visited by a lovely man from the city I'd left. I fell for him. Tried not to. Much confusion on my part. But love is still there whether it's arrived too late or too soon, whether it's love for a man or woman, whether he's beside me or not. I've tried arguing with love because I don't trust it. That doesn't work either. Perhaps love just isn't a trustworthy thing. He's more patient than I deserve, and more honest. Honesty can sting but stings settle. These are valuable things.

He wasn't there with me for long. But he was there for long enough.

I spent most of those months alone. I felt myself toughening up and softening up at the same time. This was a place for learning survival, not reeling with emotion or seeking any kind of comfort. If there is no one there to ask for help, then there's no point in wanting any. Along with everything else, communication was pared down to the minimum. If I wanted a pint of milk or more groceries, I had to walk seven miles to get them, often through extreme weather. I had to be pretty certain of anything I considered wanting. It wasn't very much, in the end.

But even without hours in it, my time there was over too soon.

By the end of the winter I'd written a blog about isolation which included fifteen new words and definitions for loneliness. So I had the vocabulary I needed to move on.

I flitted for the next few months. Devon, Brighton, Glasgow, Cheshire, Cumbria, Hampshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Edinburgh. Not knowing where to land. How to live. How to love. When to stop running.

The year turned around because though time had become nonsensical, hands still moved on other clocks.

Desperately seeking: space to write.

Now it's midsummer.

I'm on a writing retreat in the west highlands. Somewhere I don't have anything else to do but write and look at the world around me. No raking to do, light bulbs to replace, damp walls to keep an eye on. This is a rare and precious time. A gift to be unwrapped slowly.

Rose Cottage, Ardtornish Estate, the Morvern Peninsula, Argyll, Scottish Highlands. No postcode.

An address I can't provide in full feels like perhaps I'm far enough away again. What I'm still running from, I'm not sure. The wifi isn't working and my phone is basic, which means I don't have the email addresses of anyone who's not been in touch very recently. So I can't email the people I haven't heard from for some time to ask them why they've turned bad in my head.

I'm not phoning many people either. I really need to see people's faces when we're talking. Speaking on the phone has become almost impossible apart from with the few people I can be sure won't find unintentional subplots. Honesty. It's now too important. It's not that I'm hiding anything - it's the opposite - I seem to have become unable to lie. This leaves me quite unprotected when others have questions they'd like to hear the answers to. I'm even less protected from those who think they already know the answers.

This cottage is as big as a house. The table is too large for one person. I feel guilty about having so much space to myself so I write in every single room and at any time of day or night. There's no one to stop me. No one to get angry about the amount of time I'm not spending with them.

For now, there's a welcome pause.

Writing a novel demands uncapped hours. Like working in medicine but nowhere near as useful: even while writing a love story, I won't ever find a cure for love.

Time to write whatever I like. Time to think. My travel clock stopped at 12.15 the day after I arrived here. I've decided not to replace the battery. For now, time can be in bits and pieces all over again. Writing a novel demands uncapped hours. Like working in medicine but nowhere near as useful: even while writing a love story, I won't ever find a cure for love.

What else could I possibly write about here, with all this natural beauty, all this uncounted time and space to expand and contract into? What else can I choose but this troublesome theme? I'll let the characters figure love out because I can't. And they're trying to, but they're all getting into trouble.

One of them has just gagged herself with a silk scarf.

Sometimes I have to look away.

Desperately seeking: lost and found.

When I'm not writing, I've got a lost and found office inside my head or heart or wherever imagination really lives in the body. I'm trying to compile a room which contains some kind of understanding about love. In this room, I'm filing. All love's parts are here somewhere in this jumble. I find, lose, rearrange, misfile them. Alphabetise unwritten love letters. Put letters which haven't yet been sent or received in future date order. I've stored the sweet nothings in a glass jar.

I'm trying to work out what it is that people mean when they say I love you.

A call: ring ring.

My phone rarely rings. Don't recognise the number. I want to answer it. I can't answer it. I watch it ringing and think it must be someone who doesn't know me because most people who do know me aren't phoning.

I imagine some words I might say to a cold caller:

Who's speaking? When you say, 'We're calling you', do you mean there's more than one of you but with a solo-sounding collective voice? Are you Sirens? Can you sing me a love song, or try Wailing? Is it you who isn't listening to me, or me who's not listening to you? Don't hold the line, I'm too sharp, I'm cutting you off.

But before I'm ready to answer the phone, it stops ringing. Right now I'm lonely and only want to hear from warm callers. I switch it off and go outside for a while.

Desperately seeking: absent friends.

This landscape is intoxicating. I think I'm in love with it.

But there is too much light here for one pair of eyes. I hanker for the man I still love (yes, it's too soon, too new, too much change and I love him anyway. He's remaining un-filed). He'd get himself lost here, writing about this landscape of rock, tree, river. He'd explore it and write it inside out and outside in.

So I ask him to visit, understanding I might not see him much if he does.

He can't travel the distance and anyway there's not enough time.

But I did offer.

I write him a poem:


Standing on a bridge overlong,
almost hearing tales of ancient rivers
and their tragic drownings
inside these songs of water-meets-rock.

The music of these notes are in rhythm
with the light of lengthening evenings,
with rose and bee, thin stems of yellow iris,
and the persistent whispers of birch.

Silver sky reflects on river
and the bright edges of the sea loch
pang like melancholia,
too much light for one pair of eyes.

I miss you like dreams have swum away.

If I were a fish instead of a woman
and you were the river instead of my lover
I'd swim you and shed shining scales,
fill your waters with minuscule mirrors
I'd flood you with pieces of sky.

Desperately seeking: floods.

Ridiculous amounts of brightness, flooding from the sky like honesty, stinging as hard. In midsummer it doesn't get dark here.

I can't bear to have all this light. My eyes consume it. My body is filled.

The way I love is like a flood, sending out wave after wave. I don't care enough what returns on its tides.

This no longer feels like a safe thing to do.

I stay indoors for shade but the light comes in anyway. It's falling across the laptop screen. I glance up at thick cotton curtains. I can't bring myself to close them.

This much light needs to be shared.

So I get a message through to a woman I know from over twenty years ago. Before I got into any kind of relationship with anyone. She lives in New Zealand now, where it will be winter, where storms thrash the shores. She lives in a tsunami zone. She tells me that the storms there throw great rocks and fish into gardens.

I ask her to get a sky-net ready.

I tell her it's too light here, that the light needs to be stolen. The woman is an artist. She sends a message back to me in which she describes darkness. She tells me about the thickness of the greys in the clouds, the thickening colours of the sea, the blackness of telegraph wires on the other side of the world. Charcoal sand. Coal cliffs. We're making it up now.

She understands the need to prepare well for any kind of theft.

She tells me about drowning without dying.

She tells me that some people use what they call love as a weapon, but it's not really love.

Cupid's darts sting.

I've offered to share this landscape with the man who'd most love to write about it.

I've offered the light to an artist who has darkness and she's prepared to steal it.

Behaving like some god of a human, as if these things are mine to give.

Desperately seeking: something to hold on to.

I'm still running. This place is a beautiful pause. I can't call anything mine, but mine for now. All this is part of heartache, I think. Or just a headache. There's a file for Heartache in the lost and found office. Another for Headaches. Another for Loss and Lost Things. There are at least three lever arch files for: Finding loveable people and not Trusting them. Two more for: Hankerings and Hungers.

The lost and found office is useful because I only have one bag. I need somewhere to keep what I think as well as what I carry. Travel, by train, foot, bike or the pull of improbable dreams, can misplace many thoughts as well as objects. Without this filing system, I'd pick up new thoughts en route and lose them again. It's the same with tangible objects. I seem to be constantly borrowing things. Wearing other people's clothes. Finding all kinds of interesting things but feeling unable to possess them.

I used to have a flat which was filled with furniture and possessions. Far more clothes than are in this one bag. Other people all around me. I did value my friends. I'd have done anything they'd asked of me if it would have helped them. But when I needed something from them, I left. If I'd known how to ask for help, I might not have removed myself. I should have at least tried. Now it feels too late, though sometimes I'm desperate for someone to just tell me to stop running, because I don't think I can stop myself. But if they did, they'd have to shout, and I still wouldn't listen. Is this new ache the sting of honesty, or freedom?

There is so much silence that emotions boom too loud.

I've been collecting small impossible things while running. A cat's claw. A moth's wing. A broken screw. Tiny pieces of slate, pebbles with shell fossils inside them, and a small jar of fools gold.

Nothing which can't fit in my pockets.

Desperately seeking: protection.

I've been told that if enough of the deer aren't shot each year, they eat through the trees, the flora and fauna, and leave destruction in their wake. The deer's advantage is their hearing and the strength and speed of their legs. The stalker's advantage is the bullet and the precision of modern guns. In other countries, hunters sit at the edges of forests on high seats and take aim from there. Deer don't look upwards.

I've always thought of nature as a delicate, sensitive thing which humans abuse. That we'll murder this planet sooner or later and live with scorching holocaust gales, befriending giant cockroaches before we realise we shouldn't have. Then we'd spend the rest of our limited years hiding from them in tunnels under blackened heaths.

But at the same time, nature has a private life of its own which I don't fully understand. Fragilities and strengths. There has always been doubt in my mind about how much protection it needs. Volcanoes and tsunamis, earthquakes, snowstorms and flooding all speak of power, control, and vicious moodswings.

Anything humans dropped or misplaced here would rapidly disappear. The grey stones of walls are being coated by yellow-green moss. Tall yellow iris populate the sides of all the single-track roads. Tangled piles of twigs are covered in lichen. Even minuscule ecosystems teem with life and death.

This landscape is formed from rock hills, expansive trees, rivers and burns, sea lochs. It feels strong and honest enough to take control if it ever decided to claim ownership and sting off any pestilence. Farms, mines, hunting and fishing areas are dots, lines and tracks on the ordinance survey map which hangs in a pale wooden frame on the wall of this cottage. If humans were drawn on as well, we'd be smaller than mites. Why are the love lives of mites written into so many stories, plays, songs?

Desperately seeking: the in between places.

From a bridge, there's a view of the river as it transforms into Loch Aline - a silvery sea loch with small seaweed-covered rocks as islands which emerge from the waters as the tide goes out. I go and stand on this bridge every night. It's neither here nor there. That's the best thing about bridges, they're good for in-between thoughts.

I decide to write all day and take my in-between thoughts to the bridge at night.

I decide to write all day and take my in-between thoughts to the bridge at night.

On the first night I think of the river beneath as a muscular, twisting, living organism.

On the next night I think about being confused about my own identity because I've only ever had relationships with women till now. My thoughts are dark. I'm an in-between creature who should live underneath this bridge. Some monsters do nothing but bite at themselves.

On the following nights I think about who is missing from the place on the bridge beside me.

Another couple of nights, and I realise how easy it's been to disappear. Relationship ends, dispose of possessions, leave town, have minimal contact with friends for a couple of months, have no particular home and after nearly a year... Well, apart from my parents and distant love life, everyone else is now pretty much silent.

I'm gone.

For the next few nights, I think there is more love in the world than we know what to do with.

A few nights later, I think about literary women and rivers: mad Ophelia, Virginia Woolf, the Lady of Shalott. There's something heartsore about moving waters. There's also something dangerous about unrestrained light, when viewed constantly, or perhaps when viewed this constantly alone.

After a while I realise that standing on bridges overlong on midsummer evenings might be making me too melancholic.

Abandoning the bridge, I write about a river, about Cupid disguised as a fisherwoman, looking each fish in the eye before she kills it.

Desperately seeking: the bigger picture.

I walk the length of one side of Loch Aline. The night afterwards I walk the other. On one side is a sea farm, and on the other, a sand mine. A mirror reflection of dragging and digging. Grey fishing nets are bundled up on one side of the loch. Conveyer belts shift fine stones, pebbles and salt-pale sand on the other.

This idea of farming the sea and mining for sand makes me wonder what else humans can farm: the forests, mountains, lochs, rivers? And mining: soil from soil, rock from rock, stone from stone, bone from bodies, teeth from jaws. I could mine my feelings of love, but I don't trust myself enough. I've seen a lot of fools gold glittering through grey rocks around here. I'm still dazzled by its shine.

It's impossible to dig too deep when there is this much light. It pulls the eyes upwards, away, seeking details and horizons rather than burrowed holes. Thin winds come down from the mountains further north. They look blue and the air from the north has a bite of ice. I could believe that winter lives in those mountains, breathing slowly, just out of reach.

Coldness disappears in a second. The sun reclaims control of the temperature, and just to prove it's in charge, drags one hundred shades of green from the ferns. It's farming for colour.

Desperately seeking: great and small.

Along the edge of the public gardens is a strange mix of land and water. Grey herons stalk, pause hunched and watchful on mounds of grass and in the shallow water. Their legs may appear as breakable as twigs, but the muscles of their vast wings have great strength. Their flight is clumsy, but their aim while fishing is lethal. I can imagine them as cygnet ballerinas who've eaten enough to allow their bodies to reach their fullest potential. And then decided to become ninjas rather than swans.

The water and land mingle together before fully deciding to be either liquid or solid. Soft grass with pools of salt water, paths of silver through miniature hills. When the tide is out, bladder wrack and fine white seaweed tangle together. The water tracks twist and wind. It's a labyrinth for seabirds. At dusk, red deer eat ochre-coloured seaweed from rocks.

The trees are giants, there's a constant sense of being looked down on, watched. Birch and oak whisper the stories of some other world as the wind sweeps their leaves in circles. The fir trees remain completely still.

Forest birds shriek and seabirds wail; there is fear in this landscape. Bats flit between trees, clouds of gnats spell unidentifiable letters with their individual bodies. Foxes hide so well that lamps are lit at night in attempts to find them. The foxes get shot because they kill lambs. The wail of a lamb crying for a ewe is the most pitiful sound I have heard here. Two fishermen wearing hearing aids tell me that the fish aren't biting, but the midges are. The deer aren't allowed to be shot outside the cottages in which the hunters sleep. At certain times of year, stags stand outside and bellow at the hunters through the night. They keep them awake and are gone by the morning.

Everything eats everything else.

I write the man I love yet another of my letters which are really essays about love. This time I have asked a horrible question.

I have asked him what he wants from me.
He phones me and says he will write a reply. I don't yet believe him. I no longer trust any kind of promise. When people make me promises, hope follows me around like a dog I don't want.

Desperately seeking: the size of life.

A wind, colder than winter comes out of a fenced-off mine shaft. As if the ghosts of ice and snow live underground till it's dark enough to re-emerge. I'm wondering where I'll be when they do. If I should seek out another lonely winter to freeze through.

But on the Ardtornish Estate around midsummer, at 3am the sky is as bright as a crisp winter's day. There is pile of fog near Loch Arienas. The fog creeps down the river Aline, turning to mist. All along the river, the water is steaming.

As the noon sun bakes mud into sand along the riverbank, I watch the insects and can almost imagine them as characters in a Shakespearean play. Lost love, found love, love triangles and couplings can all be observed in mere moments. The wings of dragonflies whirr like feathers as they dip along riverbanks. They're the colours of lapis lazuli, bronze, peridot. The small insects they consume are muted phantoms. There are no marriages, divorces, poems, unwritten letters, concern about distance or travelling or identity or time. No metal rings to decide what to do with once they can no longer be worn without the sensation of burning. Between small winged creatures, any drama is temporary.

When I love someone and they're not beside me, I often dream of them. Last night my lover was centre stage under spotlights. I was in the audience with my hands over my ears. The people in the audience beside me were three wise monkeys: a friend I've lost, a friend I've found, a friend I was missing. They were talking too loudly, growing bigger and bigger as they offered me advice. They became larger as they spoke about the love I hold on to, the love I give away. The love I run from, the love I want to follow me. In unison: 'Who what why, we have questions... firstly, where the hell are you, what are you doing, it's not possible to be this persistently alone - what are you running from?'

On the stage my lover was illuminated but speaking monologues I couldn't hear.

And then I did hear a voice. I didn't know who it belonged to:

'I don't want to trap or change you. I love you for exactly who you are.'

'I don't want to trap or change you. I love you for exactly who you are.'

Exit, stage right. I'm awake.

Under the duvet it's dark. I feel life-sized, flooding with love and afraid.

Desperately seeking: the end in sight.

I've been counting the seconds at dusk since midsummer. My last count was tonight. The artist on the other side of the world is stealing the light with her sky net. Three minutes at a time.

I'm leaving tomorrow. I've been back to the bridge, walked both sides of the loch again, paused beneath giant trees, searching, searching, as if there's someone at my side but just out of reach. I've listened to the languages of the river, heard opera after opera from the throats of blackbirds and thrushes. Stared directly into blue, white, grey shining clouds, made my eyes moist for good reason. Though I've searched for something ugly, I can't find one single thing.

Not even a monster under the bridge.

Next week I'll be tutoring a writing course in Shropshire. I don't quite know what's going to happen to me after that. So I tell myself this: when I know where to live, when I know what the words I love you really mean, when there is a clock which tells me that every hour that passes is significant, that's when I'll be able to stop running.

I would like all these ripples of thoughts, of emotion, of confusion to have settled while I was here. But in a landscape such as this, where midsummer light magnifies the intensity of every colour which has a name, and illuminates colours which don't, it is impossible not to feel that my eyes can only see a small part of anything they look on. Light has poured into them, and I can't cry it out.

This year midsummer has been a time of dreams, love, loneliness, melancholia. Now everything I look at seems dangerously loveable, as if I'm under some spell. Like Titania, I could wake in the arms of a donkey, or perhaps I'll be the one wearing the ass's mask. There are still skins I need to shed. A mask to remove. Metamorphosis to complete.

Love can be comic or tragic, whether the main character is a drowned heroine or a misguided ass. So I will continue to write the love story I've been working on while I've been here. I have to love the characters, to write them, I have to let them get hurt. Otherwise, there's no story at all.

Bag packed. Bed stripped. Cottage clean. It's hard to breathe, leaving. I'm filled with midsummer's dreams.

Still desperately seeking.


Jess Richards

Jess Richards was awarded the 2014 Ardtornish Retreat. Jess was born in Wales but grew up in Dumfries and Galloway with her three brothers. She lived in England from the age of 17 but has recently returned to Stranraer. She is the author of Snake Ropes, which was longlisted for the Green Carnation Prize and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2012 and the Scottish Book Awards 2013. Her second novel, Cooking with Bones, was published in April 2013. Both novels are published in the UK by Sceptre.