The North Sea

The pier to the lighthouse is closed for the day
I am neck deep in spindrift
and frozen at the gate of a crescent moon

That has been eclipsed by the wanting of a volcanic sea
that cannot be disturbed, there is only
waiting
and warning blasts that surely the Danes must hear.

They lambaste, quieten
then reappear
The tide wants it back.
The crescent, the stripes
that encircle the monolith, red and white
the wrought iron railings and granite bricks
the lantern room and the lantern light.

And I, too, want it back.
This is a memorial
to the airborne sand that hurts the eyes
But no less alive, for that
Soothed by the snug embrace of an amnesiac

‘Have you got any jacks?’ she’d say
at the card table,
after the scones (dropped)
and after the tea, she’d say,
‘Can I give you a penny for that?’
I, too, cannot remember how to play.

In 1942 a bomb had fallen
Just as the cards fell from the hand, and scattered
Under the table they braced, shielding from shrapnel of a neighbouring house
Only the boy survived,
Having left the Anderson shelter to retrieve his coat.

A year later my father was born
Into the tremors and ceaseless grasping of aftershocks
A difficult baby, my grandmother said
‘He did not like to be held’

The lighthouse does not wish to be held
Captive, on its crescent moon.
Not by grasping waves
Not by surges, crests, nor billowing spume
(It does not care for lace)
It does not care for aggression
Nor conditional embrace.

I was exactly where I should not be
Where I could not be,
Where gates were clamped shut
Where high tides pranced with its dusk that threatened
to squeeze me until I could not breathe

Until I could not leave.

And yet, I am exactly where I cannot be
where I cannot breathe.

I turned my back on the North Sea.

Murmers

You come to me
(Why do you come to me?)
Your hand is closed, my eyes are open
Then snap shut, tightly

Still you come to me
(Why do you come to me?)
In a forest or along the blasted, jagged shores
By Rococo drawers, pounding keys.
I tried to find you among the trees
I heard the branches crack, the birds crow,
their echos bouncing from your dictaphone.

I called back, I said, ‘I can’t see you, come to me;
Leaf through these pages!
Come out from under the leaves
Highlight, underline, annotate
Dictate to me the second third’
Or I will erase you.

Of course, you didn’t come.
I retraced my steps
I trudged through the leaves of sycamore trees
Over the bones that the soil had turned
and excavated

I returned to the sands of your youth
And balanced on the cannonballs, where you said you would be
I walked three promenades
Descended a crumbling slide, it was
A Kodak moment,
Under the arches I looked so small
So slight. Emaciated.

I went back to every lighthouse
Every mine
Every bridge that crossed that water, bottle green
I inspected your footsteps like a wolverine
But neither the lion nor the Bluebird
could inform me…

(In case they have forgotten, I am still waiting)

I drove home, then. Some
nine hours of aching, placating
Hesitating
But there was nothing to do except bury the dead.
I blotted out your cursive ink
and cut off your silver hair
I swept the sand from your moustache
But left your teeth intact,
your eyes wired in
and gave them to myself.

Perhaps you gave them to somebody else
Half of a woman here, half of a man there
I do not know where.
Ontario? Niagara Falls?
Or familiar, treaded, skated streets (onto which the bombs would fall)?
I know only what the doctor told me.

In any case, I am only half a woman
Or a third, depending on whom you ask
Your sister, for example, said to me
‘His wife has lost not just a husband,
but a sad excuse
for a human being’
You did not get your birth – or death –
day wish. The wife and I, we seldom speak –
I have no desire to comb her hair.

What I did not know
Is that she had held you all along.
She stood, on a pleasure boat somewhere.
Far from the cannonballs, and far from me,
and opened her fingers
Displaced your matter
and launched a murmuration into the sea.

And in an instant, just like that
You skipped off across the water
Then sank a very long way down.
I erased your number
gouged it out so that I could forget.
I carried out the rituals of my youth
to escape your voice, that northern lull.
That distant, scorched (and somehow buoyant) dust, it still, somehow,
calls to me

and blankets everything.

Childhood attachment styles: ‘motherlessness’ and insecure-avoidant attachment

‘You follow your mother around like a puppy dog’, Dad used to say, and it’s true. I trailed after her all day long, like a duckling imprints its mother. Mum mum mum mum mum, I quacked, getting under her feet while she did the housework. She was the centre of my young universe and I so desperately wanted to be the centre of hers.

Attachment theory originates from the work of British psychiatrist, psychologist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who described attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’ During the 1930s, Bowlby treated ‘emotionally disturbed’ children in a Child Guidance Clinic in London where he began to consider the mother-child relationship and its effect on development, as well as maladjustment in later life. In 1958 Bowlby published The Nature of the Child’s Tie to his Mother, which, put simplistically, suggests that the absence of a secure relationship with sensitive and responsive caregivers can have severe consequences for a child, compromising normal social and emotional development and negatively impacting future relationships. The more insecure the attachment is, the more likely it is to cause dysfunction, leading to diagnoses such as ‘ADHD’, ‘Asperger’s syndrome’, ‘conduct disorder’ and ‘OCD’ as a person may struggle to regulate their emotions, understand body signals and effectively process trauma and loss.[1]

Attachment researchers describe three general relationship styles which are believed to arise from early life ‘secure’ or ‘insecure’ attachment with caregivers, broadly corresponding to these infant attachment styles. Hazan and Shaver (1990) introduced one of the earliest attachment questionnaires:

Secure attachment

I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.

Insecure-anxious/ambivalent attachment

I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.

Insecure-avoidant attachment

I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.

It is possible for attachment styles to change over time, however. I believe that I shifted from insecure-anxious attachment to an insecure-avoidant attachment sometime during early adolescence, perhaps as the foundations of my personality became more concrete. In fact, I have come to realise that the attachment I formed with my mother was severed completely as I came to the painful realisation of her inability to parent me, to tend to my needs or to respond to me in any kind of sensitive manner. My attempts to secure her attention were futile and I simply gave up trying. Around the age of 13 I recall a strong sense of detachment from her, and by the age of 15 – residing in a home for children with ‘psychiatric problems’ following a period in foster care  – I had no feelings for her whatsoever. This sense of detachment persisted into my adult life and, by all extents and purposes, I feel motherless. A therapist told me that this early absence of attachment to a primary caregiver can have ‘devastating consequences’, although sadly this was something of which I was already well aware. I spent my teenage years desperately scratching around for love and attention, but within an institution where touch and emotional bonds were prohibited, these basic human needs were unable to be met. I rapidly learned that I could not depend on anybody and that emotional and physical closeness were alien and ultimately unbearable. I internalised the notion that I was unlovable and was deeply suspicious of anybody who expressed care towards me, in part because I was afraid of allowing myself to participate in a bond that could be broken. I became hard and closed, and adopted mantras such as ‘I don’t need anybody’ and ‘I don’t care anyway’. If I never allowed myself to feel anything for anyone then there would be no risk of disappointment.

The legacy of this has left me often emotionally unavailable, closed off from romantic partners who find me hard to ‘read’ and, interestingly, were sometimes caused to feel insecure themselves as a result. It became an on-running joke among friends that I was unhuggable, and to this day I still tense during these exchanges that take place under a cloud of ‘inappropriateness’. Bowlby’s theory of attachment has been criticised, with some believing that it is a person’s peers rather than their parent or caregiver that shape their personality. Undoubtably this can be true for some, but I am in no doubt of the catastrophic effects an insecure attachment style has had on me personally. It was only through understanding my difficulties in such terms that I have been able to make efforts to address the dysfunction in my life. This process has been slow, arduous and remains ongoing, but my third decade is beginning to find space for the small doses of trust, love and affection my ‘puppy dog’ self once fought so hard to cling to.

  1. Rees, 2007. ‘Childhood attachment’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2169321/

38 Weeks

After just 38 weeks here I’m beginning to feel restless. This place is stifling and smells like Silk Cut cigarettes. I don’t know how I came to end up in a place without a window. The woman next door – Slim Fast, I call her, because this is what she likes to drink – is on the move again. Thump, thump, thump. The vacuum cleaner is starting up again. It’s the second – no, third – time today.

            My neighbours are peculiar people. Admittedly I live a sheltered life and have little experience in these matters, but all the same I feel something isn’t Quite Right. The husband, for instance. I call him Lava Man as he seems to live his life in a perpetual state of impending eruption, like a highly-strung volcano. His lava flowed again last night. I heard him shouting – something to do with a badly-peeled potato, I think – and I had one of my Turns. For a few moments I could have sworn the wall between us shook. Everything went black and I couldn’t catch my breath. I know it sounds strange but sometimes I’m overcome with the emotion of it all, as if something is taking my breath away and squeezing my soul.

            I don’t mean to eavesdrop but it’s hard not to overhear these things through the thin walls. They have a young boy. He’s around six I reckon, very lively. I hear him calling for Lava Man but more often than not there is no reply. He calls over and over until, finally, there is shouting and sometimes even a bang. He cries and I cry with him through eyes squeezed shut. Just like my soul.

            As for the landlady, well, I haven’t figured her out yet. For reasons I can’t explain, I get A Sense about her. I know it’s none of my business but I can’t help but feel that she isn’t taking care of herself, like her diet consists of Chardonnay and Slim Fast and of cigarettes that form a bridge between the two. This concerns me, not least because I think this odd couple might be having another baby. 

            I know, I know, I shouldn’t eavesdrop on private matters, but perhaps such things shouldn’t be Private Matters. About six months ago, not long after I moved into this little place, I heard Lava Man in one of his eruption phases. Something about not wanting the baby, something about how he should have got something called The Snip. And then there was the screaming. Perhaps it’s was a coincidence (as these things often turn out to be) but I can’t deny it was around this time that my Turns started. I remember feeling a great pressure that made my heart thump in my head, and I swear my skin was turning blue. It’s quite terrifying.

            Anyway, the vacuum cleaner has been switched off now and Slim Fast has begun to howl. The boy is shrieking for Lava Man but, as is the custom, there is no reply. I think I feel one of my Turns coming on.

I have to get out of here.