The first book Mya’s grandfather Nicholas had ever written, East, lay closed on top of the open pages of a huge road atlas like a little boat afloat on a deep lagoon. Once Mya opened it and stepped inside, the little boat would rock, for Nicholas had words that helped her rearrange the tenuous link with light we forge at the beginning of each day by glimpsing back, looking down and steering forward.
As a boy Nicholas had lived in Varanasi with his father, the builder of roads. It hadn’t been the fairy lights of the Kali festival looping between branches under his window that bore fire into the cosmos, but the stars behind them, deeper than custom and more intense. So though East mixed western with eastern theology it opened with the words of St. Augustine, Thou has made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until we find rest in thee.
Perusing the lie of the land that lay before her on the map, then narrowing her gaze to that protruding piece called Kent on England’s south eastern ‘tail’, Mya’s purpose was to consider the distinction, as had Nicholas, between the relative and fixed. First by seeing East as relative, that is existing in relation to North, South or West – and second as fixed like East India, East Scotland, East London, East Kent.
Calling a place that was able to combine the relative and the fixed or the psychological and the physical, a setting, Mya would play and extend her grandfather’s word-game and harnessing these settings move east in the little boat, now a car, on a journey with her father Dicken, Nicholas’ son. They’d drive through Queenborough, Reculver, Deal and St.Margaret’s Bay, ending in a village just west of Folkestone.
It was a journey Nicholas himself had made, sometimes with Julia, his wife, and Dicken who’d picnicked on the beach of Tamarisk Villa while he worked in its private library. Once when Julia had asked why theology must be so complicated Nicholas had answered that theologians like cartographers couldn’t be held responsible for the irregular surface of the earth. Today at a ceremonial opening of a room in the Tamarisk Villa where Nicholas, scholar of Platonism, had researched, Dicken was to bequeath his father’s many theological works, as undulating as the earth, and create a new section for the library.
The deep wide gulley of the Thames where Mya would begin to trace something of the outline of the East Coast, cut through higher ground to enter London. She’d extend the river’s thread from the horseshoe bend that looped under the Isle of Dogs to follow the estuary beyond its end: beyond the point at which the water of the Thames mingled with the ocean and dispersed inconclusively into it. Going East along with the Medway and Swale she’d see it sprawl the flats, intertwining and mingling with them and creeks before slicing into our land like levitators descending from the East: the yawning expanse you can see going either way if you take a plane to or from Europe using the City airport.
Then she’d ‘skid’, if such a word could be used to describe the difficulty she had in connecting with the road as it rushed under her car tyres, from Gravesend to Queenborough on the western side of a small island-shaped piece of land, the Isle of Sheppey, protruding north out of Kent. It was a difficulty linked with the dizzy condition she’d felt ever since she’d found out Julia wasn’t really her grandmother but Kalyani, who Nicholas had left behind.
As Mya slowed down on Queenborough’s outskirts a type of reality rushed uninvited towards her from pavements at the side of her vision as if blinkers had been taken off though she’d rather they hadn’t: a woman in a stained beige raincoat pushing a ripped pram. An old man clutching a dog. An ancient lady in a girl’s polka dotted red and white summer frock tottering in red high-heeled shoes. Sad oddballs tumble-weeded towards her like shockwaves still emanating from the facts behind Julia’s bizarre arrival from India.
That Julia had been called Chuyia. That Kalyani, Julia’s younger sister, was her real grandmother. That Dicken perhaps through shame had only just told her. The sisters’ mother had died when they were very young, so their father betrothed Kalyani, his youngest and wildest daughter, at the age of twelve, to a man who was old enough to be her grandfather. When he died before she met him Kalyani was sent to a widow’s ashram while Chuyia looked after their father.
Now Mya stopped beside the muddy estuary where a tern rooted. The tide today was as silent as a passing bicyclist, quieter than the rustle of a wind-swept crisp packet that got borne upwards from the road on a sudden wind hailing from a balmy nowhere, then mixed and confused with a motley array of dandelion seeds, cabbage whites, flotsam-dust and litter that all rose together in a single cluster. Ladybirds crawled above and upon the seawall where the Medway met the Swale and dragonflies rose off lavataria as if no harm had ever come to Kalyani.
But it had. Only last week had Dicken told Mya what had happened. Kalyani had met Nicholas when he was working on the last pages of East sitting under a banyan tree. She’d been walking with her sister and picked up a page that he dropped. One thing led to another and when Kalyani got pregnant Nicholas planned to take her from the ashram. But her baby was born prematurely and Kalyani almost bled to death. Chuyia took the infant while Kalyani recovered, but when she did she’d changed. She didn’t seek Nicholas, her sister, nor even her baby, Dicken. While she floundered the ashram leader moved in for the kill. Her great beauty she persuaded her could fund the ashram, so as ‘courtesan’ she was moved from the common courtyard to a room with velvet-walls. Nicholas, distraught, pleaded with Kalyani, but she wouldn’t look at him, and when at last she wanted him to look at her it was too late. He never would.
Her sister’s chill response made Chuyia think Kalyani had turned into a monster, and had no qualms about becoming Nicholas’ lover. When he returned to England he took Chuyia not Kalyani, and his child, with him.
When Mya came to a halt for a second time she was outside the elegant primrose Georgian house in Queenborough where they’d come to live with Nicholas’ aunt, its porticos and black wrought iron balconies still overlooking waters far bigger than the Ganges. Julia had found solace in this house, The Rising Sun, fixed as it was on the West of the Isle of Sheppey but the East of the British Isles. She cherished Dicken as if he were her own and often thought of her sister, full with passion, who’d cut herself off from them all. Kent had felt a long way away from the Ganges with its slashed with orange sunsets, its ochre and cadmium yellow spices, but dragonflies and muddy tides, black and orange striped butterflies made up for it in small ways, and wind chimes echoed memories of tinkling rickshaw bells.
The aunt had taught Julia and Dicken to read and write and encouraged Julia to tell her about Kali, the black all-consuming-absorber-of-every-colour, Indian goddess. Both gentle and fierce Julia had told her she destroyed ignorance and decay in order to create. Her avenging wrath was karmic, balancing out wrongs by making something else right. In return the aunt told Julia and Dicken about the old English Norse goddess, Wyrd, who’d been ousted by the male god Woden, when once long ago, God and Wyrd, God and Goddess had lived side by side.
Now Dicken was waiting for his daughter under the porticos of The Rising Sun bright with anticipation for their journey to the opening of the library-room. He creaked into the passenger seat beside her, and uncreaked again at Reculver. Father and daughter stood, upright bastions on a treeless horizon, gazing out over waters rerouted, submerged and land reclaimed, and wondered not of his parents but the old, reluctant Italian monk from Rome landing at Ebbsfleet. He might have sailed up the now silted-up Wantsum Channel which separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland on his way to Canterbury then a harbour town. They pictured his sails, serene and graceful passing before their eyes - and Christianity spreading like fire.
Sails in the wind. Wind in the fire. Wyrd woven so tightly into the fabric of divinity shot through with threads of silk that she couldn’t be taken from it without the whole cloth fraying, the aunt had said. But Augustine’s omnipotent god had burnt out the goddess because one had had to go. Wyrd - Saxon for becoming, transforming or turning around - had been separated from the God, swallowed up by His enormous divinity, calling as she went, “I am your providence. A price must be paid. A reflex is a reflex”.
Yes it was. Dicken recalled a reprisal. After Nicholas had taken him aged ten, to meet his real mother in India – but avoided seeing Kalyani by waiting outside the ashram – Kalyani’s brother had come into some money and taken Kalyani to another ashram dedicated to Kali. Then he would visit England. Kalyani had told him where he could find Nicholas.
That week walking along the estuary in Queenborough where terns rooted, no crisp packet then rising beside it, Nicholas had turned at the approach of someone behind him - and received a blow to his face. Coming too he found himself lying face tilted sideways in the sludge with a throbbing broken nose. Going back under again as into a dream he heard the voice of Kalyani wailing, “You didn’t understand. Though I couldn’t look at you I did want you to look at me again. Full in the face”.
She would fix Wyrd, give Ancient England a look in, Mya said interrupting Dicken’s recollection as he sat in a Reculver café consuming an egg ‘sandwich’ consisting in a half-cooked, runny fried egg on white bread. Yes a reflex is a reflex he agreed, grunting, bringing up his egg a little as they got into the car, and was happier in Deal where the castle though built like a rose with soft curvaceous near-feminine petals, was at least a castle. Whether castle, fort or tower, defence along our shores he maintained, was the thing that mattered most.
Inside the castle they paced the dark corridors inside walls within walls within six petalled curves that formed a mandala-base leading to a smaller higher rose topped with an observatory looking like a bubble on a platform, and Mya ahead of Dicken traced the route of lines as if she were tracing limits. Then - as if East wasn’t always to the side of West, below North or above South or that it wasn’t West of something else – and as if there were no restraint, exclusion or cruelty, she crossed those lines in her mind with a quantum leap that defeated Newton. And bumped into a storm brewing outside the petalled castle that took her breath away and clouded the bright sky. In the car the chill winds still found them, rushing savagely over widening furrows of curling waves, tugging, shoving and lifting the car from underneath, threatening to hurl it to the beach.
“Weird or what?” cried Mya to no-one in particular as she jumped out of the car colliding with Thomas who had come to meet her. He took her by the shoulders, spun her round and left her to twirl like a ballerina, then looked at her with a look – could it have been full in the face - that said let’s be part of this storm, and they ran to the wave-pounded beach, Wyrd and Kali defiant, refusing to go away.
Not wanting to pander to another of his daughter’s man-friend whims - so many had come and gone he feared she was becoming like his estranged mother - Dicken wouldn’t say hello to Thomas when they returned. But the car still rocked in the wind and the solid looking building across the way didn’t offer much more protection. Green nets flapped and billowed on scaffolding round rattling sash windows. A woman reached out to retrieve a marigold and fuscia-filled flower-pot smashed on her sill. Dicken jumped. Since this ‘Thomas’ he had to admit, Mya had changed from her ‘dissolute’ ways.
Grey waves still tossed furiously hitting the concrete legs of the pier at a diagonal. Narrow white horses streaked from the horizon raked by scudding beams of sunlight alternating with giant shadows racing across the sea’s choppy surface. Other pools of sunlight danced behind the pier’s pillars turning them into gigantic silhouettes of legs, human or divine, Kali walking out of fire. Tiny prawn-like creatures hopped on the concrete seafront while stationary ferries marooned by the storm looked tiny too looming far out at sea becalmed in the mist over Goodwin Sands.
Thomas had taken the wheel now with Mya in the passenger seat and Dicken at the back. As their journey was so tempestuous they decided to make many stops. At St. Margaret’s Bay Dicken stayed away from the beach. He wasn’t stupid he said. If man-made structures on the pebbly beach, like the ones caught now in sudden flashes of sunlight, stood little chance against falling cliffs from the less white whiteness that rose behind them, what they?
“The salt on my face from the gale force winds gets into my eyes and makes me cry salted, salt tears”, Mya cried to Thomas over the wind on the beach, and he’d shouted in reply they’d tame the chaos and isolation, put the storm in a teacup, knowing that as they couldn’t their cup would runneth over. Not just because the storm was part of them but because to harness an outlet for Kali’s wrath, a continuous two-way traffic that moved from the rupture of fixed broken to broken harnessed, was to concentrate rather than subsume a beauty immovable from the mind.
Now in the howling storm Mya tied her grandmother’s benares’ silk – a pink and lilac scarf Kalyani had dropped on the day she’d handed Nicholas his paper, that Nicholas picked up after she’d gone - evoking Kali, revoking the lovelessness bigger than skies, more violent than the storms, the token of Nicholas’ betrayal now her ticket.
Here at St. Margarets Bay, where the rising sun first touched England, Nicolas too had stopped on his way to the library. Here he’d thought of Kalyani who he’d wanted to look at full in the face, and later at Shakespeare Cliff, where a blind and suicidal Gloucester had been saved by his son, only Kalyani had occupied his mind.
Now years later Mya and Thomas sat in a chalk cave nearby swinging their feet over a rockpool. Remembering the closed book that she had opened as it sat upon the pages of the atlas like a boat afloat on a deep lagoon that rocked between thoughts of fixed, thoughts of relative Mya asked Thomas what fixed meant to him.
If he could he said he would fix London so the Thames didn’t go west some two hundred miles out of it but became a harbour city, trade going out and coming in from Tilbury. And if he fixed it like a feeling then Mya would be his harbour place too needing the heart of him thrust up inside her. An estuary with creeks rounded like the petals of a rose full with reeds and marshland lying flat and open to the endless sky. Fixed was the cave Plato rejected. Beside it grass trembled and trees whispered content to be creek-bound by waters with a single opening. Fixed was where man penetrated and Kali and Wyrd, as a result, were appeased.
In the courtyard of Tamarisk House the literary group waited beside a burbling fountain, gently berating storms, before leading the trio up some rickety stairs to a wooden-panelled room with a round table at its centre. Sun from the sweeping bay streamed past tamarisks, in through a green-shuttered window and across a tiger-skin lifting gently in the salty breeze. A framed portrait of the author, Nicholas, sat at the centre of the round table, the regularity of his handsome features offset by a broken nose.
Dicken made a speech about his father the wind-blown scholar critic of Plato, of deities and philosophies, trials and blessings, wildernesses and radiances, dry lands and wadis. Theologies from east and west fixed in the gold-edged pages of books to be housed here. In East Nicholas had linked Kali’s avenging-hubris that blew, buffeted and broke down, to St Augustine’s heart - restless until it had found rest in its creator. Then making a cryptic reference to the sins of the father he excused himself and retreated to the room with books on castles, forts and sea-defences.
That evening the very full round moon whose cycles couldn’t be deterred shone over the waves that tumbled into Folkestone’s Sunny Sands. Every second, every hour of the night and day Thomas and Mya would be fixing in each other that mysterious quality of touch that makes or breaks, the invisible quality that turned them around. Fixing and fixing and fixing that which couldn’t always be fixed, looking into each other’s full faces as fully as the full moon would allow.