When I was younger I wanted my face to have that worn around the eyes lived in look of an old
French actress ( Simone Signoret) who once said that her ‘’ my face bares the scars, tears and
laughter of all of the years’’. I thought that was poetic and glamorous and true. At the age of
fifteen, I wanted the face of a middle-aged actress. At seventeen, I wanted a face that said I’d
lived 50 years, full out:
I’ve just killed a moth the size of a tennis ball. It was swirling around the light bulb. I hate
things with wings. I swatted the thing with a piece of flimsy paper; the first blow stunned it. It
lay still, thinking it was dead I went to scoop it up, but it moved and took off again in a lopsided
way, I hit it again, but it was difficult with the thin paper, this time it crashed to the floor and
spun around upside down in a delirium that made me go quite cold. I smashed at it very hard a
couple more times and finally it was dead – its body squashed, wings splayed, crucified almost,
as I threw it out the window, I felt compelled to chant the Buddhist mantra OHM-MA – NAPAD-ME-HUM. I had a vague notion the chant would somehow pardon my act of homicide.
At 58, I have the beginnings of that face. I have dark circles under my eyes, ‘eye pockets’ that
tell of fictions, of spending nights smoking Gitanes and drinking coffee in the Café Flore or
sleepless nights on a single bed in a cheap hotel room, writing in a black ink ballpoint pen
above the bed on wall – ‘some of my nights give me nothing’ or ‘ you have made my life
miserable, coming to me, to ask about piss and shit and the night’…
I went over to the bookshelves and pulled down a copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays and
opened it on THE DEATH OF A MOTH;
‘’ He was little or nothing but life’’.
Walking thru the Luxembourg Gardens, alone on a cold winter afternoon, the bleached white
Parisian sky, in nice contrast to my all black garb. No lines at all on my forehead, the skin itself
while clear, unblemished is, mostly white with red and some Crome yellow tint to it faint
traces where jowls are on their way. Now instead of ‘putting on my face’ using make up,
I pull on a face from my lint filled/ dust busted pocket of an old jacket / I gaze into my little
silver edged shaving mirror in the bathroom/ before leaving my apartment/ I ‘set’ my face, it
reads symmetrical, regular, no broken nose or lopsided bits; The mask intact – what lies
behind? What secrets? – My expression, the A to B of calm repose, severe, blank and vacant.
Ms. Woolf’s account of a death of a moth was filled with compassion and light. Imagine if I
was that moth – one moment in the dark and then blinded by a white light and then a great
gust of air, followed by an almighty wallop! down onto the floor, dazed and confused and
dusty, after a few deep breaths I get up and go towards…. thwack! knocked down again and
senseless, my hair falling out like powder, my neck twisted around and crushed, my eyeballs
out on stalks laying on my side, I start involuntarily peddling around and around as though
cycling on a bike, between here and nowhere … little particles of brain matter spattered across
the WELCOME mat by the door. Woolf having a final jab.
‘’O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than me’’
The room was nearly dark; I turned and caught sight of my face in the window, light from
opposite apartment shimmering, I could barely make out my reflection, thousands of moths
had made my face a mask of fluttering; no screams, just the sound of wings flapping in my
throat, a drool of words slipping out of the corner of my mouth …..
Bertie Marshall is the author of Berlin Bromley – his critically acclaimed memoir about his life as part of The Bromley Contingent and mid 70s pre-punk London. In 2015 the British Library purchased his writing archive.
His books include the debut novel Psychoboys (1997) Berlin Bromley (2006) Nowhere Slow (2014) collected writings and the novella, From Sleepwalking to Sleepwalking (2016) Wild,Re-Write (2017)
His new novel, The Peeler (2018) is published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe. Twitter: marshall_bertie
Image:  Dusky Sallow (Eremobia ochroleuca) by Ben Sale (Creative Commons)
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