I had an inkling that this would be the last thing I ever wrote, which is what made it the hardest. Be casual, I told myself. Pick up the pen like it’s a spoon to eat porridge. Open the laptop like you are just checking its hinges. Don’t make such a big deal of it. Nobody cares. It didn’t work. I cared. Ideas jostled like marbles stuck in the neck of a bottle. Just say bottleneck like a normal person, I told myself. Why the laboured simile? You are spooking yourself now. There’s nothing more choking than stage fright. Just look at the fictional marbles and pick one.
So I picked one and it rattled briskly into my palm. It was a jolly little thing, a blue and breezy tale of boats and adventure, cool as the sea on a sunny day. There were children in it, and a witch’s cat that had stowed away below deck, tired of spells and willing to earn its keep by catching rats. The boat was too small for rats, however, being just large enough for three children to navigate between islands in the Summer holidays, so the cat was placed on lookout duty and then fired, but cheerfully, when they ran aground during its afternoon nap. I paused. Was this really worth the commitment? Perhaps not. I placed the marble carefully on the windowsill. I could come back to it another day. The bottle tipped again, rattling and rumbling, bright with colour, and out slid an orange and red one, all glassy swirls.
Oh but I wanted this one. It vibrated in my palm and I bent close to listen. Two voices, one of them mine. What does it feel like? she asks, her fingers brushing lightly over my skin. What does it feel like; the lover’s question. To someone else I would say it feels good. Good is good enough for some but not for her. It feels like a cool breeze, I say. It would be irritating if I wasn’t so warm. And this? An ember glowing under my skin, just here. Now here. You? The line of phosphorescence drawn by the wake of a boat sailing by moonlight. I feel that too. The rhythm of her heart is a Bach prelude, mine a toccata. It feels like anxiety I say. And now, a quickening. Like a storm cloud before it rains. And you? An unfurling. Like a blossom. Or a sail in the wind. Now? Like your words have melted on my skin and mine on yours. Yes, they have. They feel like sunburn, like fever. Yes, they do. And we are close as a breath. And our breath is closer now – I stopped, flushed and fretful, and placed the marble in my pocket. I would wait until I was alone in the house before I picked it up again.
A green one next, calm and cool as a myrtle forest. The trees were mossy and gnarled, the ground thick with tiny yellow leaves. Ahead was a slow brown stream, winding and shallow, with thin sandy beaches at the edge. A man sat on the bank dangling his feet in the water, heavy backpack upended behind him. He was reading a letter to which he intended to reply, just as soon as he got back from this walk. The letter was an email, printed on paper that had been folded and refolded. It was already three months old. He was getting his head together, deciding what he was going to do. He refolded it and placed it back in his pack. He’d decide when he got back to town. Nothing to see here. The green marble dropped reluctantly to the floor.
I really needed to focus now. I promised myself that I would pick the very next one and see it through to the end. It was pale and clear, matter of fact in the way it rolled out, taking its rightful place. Good. Something stately and dignified. A white-haired queen sits, upright, on a carved wooden throne. Her blue eyes are surrounded by delicate creases like a river system, or the roots of a tree. She is very pale. In front of her, her husband’s coffin. Beside her, her daughter’s husband. She grips the arms of the throne and takes careful, shallow, breaths. Her son in law can barely mask his excitement. He has worked so hard to get to this day. He and his men battled a forest of thorns. He climbed to the highest tower. He married the cursed princess. He waited and waited and patiently waited for his time and now his time has come. The queen, Agnes, is silent, regal, controlled. The day he arrived was day she woke to find the world she knew had disappeared, and the king and their daughter were the only family she had left. Their daughter had been young, and supple as a new stem. She had married the prince and learned the new way of speaking and grafted herself to the future. But Agnes and her husband had clung to one another, bound by grief for the world they had lost. And now he, too, was gone. I am out of time, she murmurs to herself. I am out of time.
I sat, looking out at the garden. She was gone and there were still so many marbles left. What about the odd ones, with the single thoughts? Like the way the inside of a tomato feels like the inside of a mouth. Or how Mozart would have loved the electric guitar. Or the bizarre logic of plastic wrapped bananas. Or the larger stories; people who lived their whole lives on one small island, the ancient architects who first built, not to provide shelter, but to inspire awe. The imaginary, the real, the shadowy borders between.
So here is a story. Because you couldn’t imagine the words, you thought you had nothing to say, so you thought and overthought and prepared for writing like it was an exam in a subject for which you’d attended no classes. Perhaps you even attended classes. You were not ready, and you were sure to fail. A sense of doom hung around you like a cloud of mosquitoes, but you pushed on. You forced out a few constipated sentences and then criticised them for weeks. You were astonishingly talented at making things difficult. You determined to work harder despite all the evidence that pointed away from that very approach. But then one day, purely by chance, you found yourself with a pen in your hand and not a thought in your head. Maybe you were exhausted or tipsy or doodling or perhaps you had given up. Anyway, for some reason you turned your brain off, and finally there it was; the wellspring, the torrent, the rushing stream pouring through you onto the page. All you had to do was keep up.
I put down the pen, closed the laptop, walked out into the sunshine. There is no such thing as the end, or at least, if there is, you will never know it.