Dispatched from a Bristol riverbank by Michael Malay.
A few years before you died, a friend visited you in the mountains to make a film about your life. Do you recall? You were sitting at your table, surrounded by books and papers and paintbrushes, while your friend was peeling an apple. And as you summoned a memory of your father, of how he used to quarter his apples, peel them, and then remove the pips, time in the room seemed to slow down to the rhythm of your breathing, which was perhaps the same time your father inhabited when he learned to peel apples from your grandfather. The light on your face was warm, and as you sat there you looked like a figure from a painting — a Rembrandt, say, or even a Caravaggio. In the room, the only sound was the blade’s gentle scrape.
I am thinking of that gentle scrape now as I sit by a river in Bristol. I have been trying to draw the river in my notebook, but have been struggling with scale. My flowers are too big, the trees too small, and then there is the question of water. How does one draw water? On the radio last night a newsreader announced the death of a young man who tried to cross the Channel from Calais to Dover. His name was Abdulfatah Hamdallah, and he had been using an inflatable dingy for a boat. He was twenty-eight years old.
I look at my drawing again, comparing it to the river. By drawing a false line, I know that I will discover a better line, and that a series of these more faithful lines will help me find my subject. But the lines won’t fall into place today. I cannot draw the river, cannot connect my hand with what I am seeing.
Abdulfatah — his friends knew him as Wajdi — made his way from Sudan to Libya in 2014. He lived in Tripoli for two years, washing cars alongside his brother, before travelling to Italy and then crossing the border into France. After his asylum was rejected in France, he looked towards England. He tried crossing two times, and it was on his third attempt, in the summer of 2020, that he died. ‘This is an upsetting and tragic loss of a young life’, Home Secretary Priti Patel wrote after Abdulfatah’s death. (This after her department had dismantled dozens of safe and legal routes into the UK.)
Look again. The trees growing along the banks. The river muddy and slow. This could be a scene from a Constable — or, under a moodier sky, something from Gainsborough. But this is an unquiet place. A few months ago, a mile upriver, a friend came across some graffiti on the retaining wall of a bridge: a St George flag surrounded by the numbers ‘88’ and the letters ‘WLM’. (‘88’, my friend told me, was code for Heil Hitler.) The graffiti appeared a few weeks after the death of George Floyd, and not long after Bristol’s statue for Edward Colston was toppled into the harbourside.
And much longer ago, though not that long ago, this river was full of barges carrying copper and zinc ore from Devon and Cornwall. In east Bristol, the ore was transformed into copper, and the copper was then used to produce brass. Later, the brass goods were traded for enslaved peoples in West Africa. During the smelting, the sky above the river would have been darkened by smoke, the water covered with ash.
I look up, disturbed by a movement. A man appears on a kayak, drawing smooth stokes with his oars, and as he rows past the ripples from his boat advance across the water. I watch as the ripples dissolve against the banks, where they catch the sun and illuminate the sycamore tree beside me, whose undersides now stir with golden bands of light. I can feel my breathing slowing down, my thoughts coming together again, and soon another boat appears, this time rowed by four men wearing visors and sunglasses. One of the rowers is shouting encouragement, helping the men keep time.
I put my notebook away and follow the boat into the city. All along the river, the wake from the rowers continues to light up the world from below, so that the trees radiate with wavering lines, each line the transformed reflection of a dissolving ripple; and for a moment, as I walk along the banks, it seems as though the ordinary had been inverted, as though light were falling upwards and the river had lifted into sky.
A pocket is a shelter, you write, something that forms ‘when two or more people come together in agreement’. You saw these pockets everywhere: a painting, a joke, a spontaneous gesture. Also a bawdy story, a wink, a jar of wildflowers. The pockets appeared in everyday places — a kitchen, a bedroom, a train carriage — and were the small sanctuaries we created for each other: a phone call from a friend at midnight, or the hand — it is a mother’s hand — ruffling her child’s hair, so that they might sleep.
Increasingly, these sanctuaries are harder to find. There is a new hardness in the world and a loss of tenderness. And the pockets appear to be shrinking. And yet, late in the evenings, when I meet you along the road of one of your books — by a market in Kraków, say, or a field in Quincy — life becomes spacious again. I am back at a wooden table, in a room where friends are peeling apples.
‘Has the world not always been pitiless?’, you ask. And haven’t we seen this hardness before? No: ‘Today’s pitilessness is perhaps more unremitting, pervasive and continuous’ than ever before. A new and strange thing seems to be taking its course, a terrible story that ‘spares neither the planet itself, nor anyone living on it anywhere.’
Yet so much persists: humour, friendship, warmth. Meals are shared, stories are told, letters passed from hand to hand. ‘I write in the night’, you say elsewhere, ‘but I see not only the tyranny’. And ‘I know that, despite the pain, the ingenuity of the survivors is undiminished, an ingenuity which scavenges and collects energy, and in the ceaseless cunning of this ingenuity, there is a spiritual value, something like the Holy Ghost. I am convinced of this in the night, although I don’t know why.’
John, I would like to tell you something: it is summer in England, the days are warm and roomy, and the world seems very beautiful. The evenings go on and on, and it’s possible to walk outdoors in the light until 10 pm, along the path by the river. The path is lit by yellow and white and purple flowers, and during these long summer evenings it feels as if the day’s blueness has been suspended in the sky, unable to go where the light usually goes.
Would that it would stay like this. Would that we could live forever inside these summer evenings, night after night, always on this side of blueness, a few paces ahead of dusk.
Last night, I could hear crickets from the open window. Two crickets singing under the moon!
John, I have been gathering blackberries along the banks this morning. I shall send some to you. By way of thanks.
At his funeral, Wajdi’s coffin was carried by the friends he had made in the camps of Calais. One of them was Rahma Hamid, a seventeen-year old from Sudan. ‘He used to be our friend,’ Rahma said to a journalist, ‘and we only did our duty to take him to the cemetery.’
A month before he died, Wajdi wrote the following words on Facebook: ‘On the palm of fate we walk, and we don’t know what’s written.’
A jar of wildflowers on the kitchen table: poppies, speedwell and red campion. Picked by the river this morning.
I take out a piece of paper and draw my first lines, long gentle curves that are a pleasure to draw. The campion stems are slender and graceful and the flowers of the poppy seem to glow from within, as if warmed by an invisible light.
After the lines are in place, I will take out some watercolours – cobalt blue and cadmium red – but for now I am simply drawing, placing line after line.
Michael Malay is a teacher and writer based in Bristol. His first book, ‘Late Light’, will be appearing in 2023.