August, 2019. Lichfield Cathedral.
The sisters lie together, sleeping in stone the way they slept in life. It’s a fine memorial to children who died more than 200 years ago, commissioned by their distraught mother. Visitors are often drawn, not just to the small white figures but to the marble mattress that looks soft enough to yield to the touch. One, a child herself, strokes an arm, a foot, a face…as if expecting the girls to wake up at any moment – then frowns and turns to the nearest grown-up. ‘Why do they feel so cold?’ There’s a scientific answer, but it’s not that kind of question – so I just smile and point out the frozen snowdrops in the younger sister’s hand.
The living human hand has always been drawn to the smooth and rounded-ness of a surface that weathers well and takes on a natural shine…safer than the sharp corner, the spiky stem or the jagged edge of rocks or teeth. Which is why the Neanderthal child, playing alone on the banks of a river, noticed a polished pebble – aeons older than she was – picked it up in wonder, held it in the palm of her hand – and kept it.
Another eternal attraction – to the uneven surface. Not the coarse or scratchy kind, like the woollen knickers the schoolchild of the ’50s was forced to wear, but the gentle irregularity that promises warmth and invites exploration or caress. The super-smoothness of silk or satin is lovely, but there seems to be a cellular yearning for the fabric that when you touch it, seems to touch you back. Like velvet or fleece, faux fur – or even the real thing.
My mother’s favourite winter coat was high fashion in the ’40s. Big-shouldered and fastened with a single hook, it once belonged to a beaver. A lost photograph showed her wearing it in Berlin, near the ruins of Hitler’s bunker. When she died in 1963, I held the coat close, then laid it on the bottom of my student bed.
In the table of basic senses, that of touch is often listed last, but it shouldn’t be – because it’s the surface of the body itself, the largest organ of them all, that tells us: too hot, too cold, too soft, too hard, just right…The skin, both bridge and boundary, that helps us learn where we begin and end. Unless the neural signals sent to the brain get lost along the way….
A Special School. London, 1999.
The supply teaching agency was desperate to find people willing to work there for longer than a day, so I said I’d give it a whirl for a week or two. Besides, I needed the money. The pupils, I was told, had Moderate Learning Difficulties…
Any skills I had then depended on dialogue. My class was a small group of profoundly disturbed or disabled teenagers – their carers in calling distance – who couldn’t or wouldn’t communicate, avoiding eye-contact even with each other. One boy, a ‘fitter’ called Darren, wore a helmet and couldn’t speak, sit still or colour a picture within the lines. Another boy, a football fan, sat in silence in his wheelchair. If startled by loud noises, he’d cover not his ears, but his eyes.
But the one who got to me most was a lovely girl of 15 who spent her time chewing holes in her sweater, like a moth, or eating the ends of her hair. A hunger way past my understanding. Once, on lunch duty, I watched her ways with real food. She’d lift up a chip or a carrot and lay it against her cheek for a moment before putting it in her mouth, as if the feel of the item mattered more than the sight, smell, or even the taste.
The lesson plan provided by the regular staff – to teach them about Elizabethan drama – was soon abandoned. Containing them in the classroom was challenge enough, but on a ‘good’ afternoon, I told them vaguely Shakespearean stories about young lovers and unhappy princes, which the carers at least seemed to enjoy. One told me that the local authority lost interest in children after the age of 17, so God knows what happened to them all. I kept one of Darren’s efforts for years.
We come into casual contact with so much we barely notice the encounter. Buttons, handles, cups and credit cards – and all the surfaces in between. Thousands of objects a day – most of them material that doesn’t invite attention. Which is just as well or we’d suffocate in sensory information. No one reasonably normal pets a piece of metal or plastic for long – or dwells on a doormat.
There’s a natural selectivity in the way we move through the tangible universe. Away from the dead-lettuce sort of slime that gives slugs a bad name, that suggests decay and our own secretions…towards the grain of wood or the irresistibly loopy pile of a luxury towel.
One of an object’s lesser noted properties: relatability. An academic acquaintance, who lectures abroad a lot, always carries his Kindle too. It’s a light and convenient resource, but he doesn’t love it, not like his library at home. Handling a real book and turning its pages treats the tiny nerve endings in ways no digital device or high-tech screen ever can.
It may be a fluffy thought – but it’s not only loving other people that keeps us kind and extends our emotional range, but loving the feel of things too….at least here, on this beautiful ball of life, slowly spinning in space.
In the famous footage of ’69 and ’72, men bounce and stumble on the pockmarked face of the moon. Their suits, several inches thick to shield them from the radiant sun and hostile dust, also limit their ability to sense and test out the terrain. The heavily insulated gloves have special rubber tips to enhance their sensitivity, but cannot be taken off outside the mother ship. They can pick up samples from the surface, but not touch them.
‘We shall return,’ said the last man on the moon, ‘the stepping-stone to Mars.’ And they will. Further down the future road, there’ll be new worlds, new sensations even – but it’s hard to imagine making a human home – here, there or anywhere – where we can’t reach out and touch someone or something direct, with bare, welcoming hands.