Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Cabbages heavy as bones

Summer's hit me with one of its drive-by colds. I was thinning out lettuces on Monday, parched and wondering about the craving for so much water. Then yesterday, a day of cleaning the house and I thought it might have been the dust. But no, by 5 pm I was well and truly ill.

Typically, the sun was out. I used to go down with tonsillitis twice a year - in spring and autumn when the weather changed. My immune system must be a lot better now - I was young then and burning the candle at both ends.

There is nothing worse than staring out of the window at the sun and feeling like you can hardly drag yourself off the sofa. But sitting up in bed this morning with breakfast, I went back to a collection of The best British short stories 2013 I found in a charity shop, edited by Nicholas Royle and was struck by Jackie Kay's Mrs Vadnie Marlene Sevlon, a subtle story about fantasy and its role in our lives.

What I admire about Jackie Kay's style is how natural it is, how vernacular. There's no barrier between the reader and writer, no sense of the writer trying too hard, playing tricks, being self-consciously literary.

Liz Lochhead once said to me how much she rated Kay's short stories and as I read more of them, I agree. I feel the same about her poems and in fact, she's the same when she reads her work. There is no artificial distance, no pushing away. It's the opposite, in fact, with Kay. She invites you into her world by being so natural, so reassuringly like an old friend.

Kay can do anything she sets her mind to, and this is the encouragement I need to finish the first draft of Venda Sun, the South African diaries. I'm on the last journey - 2012 - and a shopping trip to Louis Trichart when we fail miserably to find decaffeinated coffee but etched forever on my mind is the size of the cabbages in the back of a van on the road.

I look at the little heads on my plot, eaten by slugs and woodlice, struggling in the chalky, flinty soil that I didn't manure enough in the winter and I remember the cabbages in Limpopo, larger than a woman's head, ear to ear in patches of fertile red earth, dense and heavy as bones.