Cold Iron

It’s almost midnight.  Sky and sea are faded to indigo, as though there is nothing beyond.  A moon just past full wallows in the sky.  The church is the highest point on the coast.  It’s spire is a beacon on the landscape, visible from sea or land from miles distant.  A violet blush illuminates its windows from within, hinting at something taking place inside.  At this time of night on a Saturday, the coast isn’t quiet.  Revellers weave along the sea front, making their way home from a night out.  Cars pull up in the car park, their owners greeting one another before pumping away along the coast road.  Soon they will all be gone, leaving this domain to the gulls and the crows once more, but first, I have an appointment with some ghosts.

Cold IronTonight is the launch of Cold Iron, an anthology of 21st Century ghost stories, in which my story The Last Bus Home appears. The launch is part of the Iron in the Soul festival, a series of literary events taking place across the town of Cullercoats.  Cullercoats has a history as a cultural centre.  Founded in 1539 to support fishing, coal and salt mining, it is little more than a small village, perched above a crescent shaped beach surrounded by caves.   But from 1870 to 1920, it was an artists’ colony and Winslow Homer lived here for two years, painting the fishwives as they worked on the beach.

The launch takes place at St George’s Church, a large, French Gothic church built in1884 by the Duke of Northumberland in memory of his father.  Inside, the church soars on sandstone arches, with high windows.  There is a sense of height and narrowness, the curves drawing your eye up to the ceiling.  Most of the church is in darkness, but there is a purple cast to the apse and three sanctuary lamps burn red before the altar.  As we enter, the organ soars.  It is considered one of the best church organs in the country and fills the space with deep, rich notes.

I’ve always been interested in ghosts.  I like their magic and their mystery, though I don’t know whether I believe they are the spirits of departed souls.  My story is set on a bus, the last bus home of the title.  There is something lonely and eerie about an empty bus, travelling through the darkness, particularly on a rainy night.  The drone of the engine, the gentle movement, transporting you to another place.  There is something about a bus that encourages reverie.  A bus is full of anonymous people thrown together by their need to get somewhere.  You don’t know what their story is or who – or what – they are.

The readings introduce us to a variety of ghosts, all in modern settings.  In between, we drink hot chocolate and listen to the moan of the organ music.  When we emerge into the night, the revellers have gone and the coast is quiet.  The sound of the organ still vibrates, along with the gentle roar of the sea.  We have listened to their stories and now we leave the night to its ghosts.

Cold Iron is available to buy now from Amazon here or through the publisher here.

Life’s little dramas

Outside the library, a drama is unfolding.  A crow perches on an aerial, complaining loudly.  Two jackdaws watch from the roof and  a herring gull peers down from a chimney.  At intervals, the crow flies towards the building and back again, still calling; a posse of more jackdaws and gulls appear.  The sky churns with black and white bodies, circling the top of the building.  I don’t know whose drama this is.  Perhaps the crow has a nest nearby that is being threatened, perhaps the threat is from the crow himself.  I know something is going on, but I don’t understand it.

In the park, I walk into another drama.  A blackbird cries alarm relentlessly from the hedge.  On the grass, a trail of grey feathers leads to the bloody carcass of a pigeon, abandoned on the ground.  I don’t know what has had the pigeon.  I don’t know if the predator is still around and this is why the blackbird calls, or if there is another, unseen threat.

Outside the supermarket, I sit in the sun eating a sandwich on my lunch break.  Beside me on the bench, a pair of hoverflies entwine.  They stay there, seemingly motionless, until my sandwich is gone.  Suddenly, the male moves off, flying drunkenly to another part of the bench.  He lurches twice into the air and back down again, before he is able to fly away.  The female, meanwhile, calmly grooms herself.  After a while, she rises up, hovers in my face for a few seconds as if to scold me for my voyeurism, then she too is gone.

In the garden, my laundry births spiders.  On the duvet cover hung on the line this morning, a patch of spiderlings, each one a few millimetres long, huddles in a circle.  They begin to scatter as soon as they feel my touch on the fabric.  Their mother will have died in the autumn, leaving an egg sac.  I don’t know whether the sac was attached to the washing line or blew onto the duvet cover from elsewhere, but they have hatched there in the few hours the laundry was outside.  I gently transfer those that haven’t already escaped onto a garden table.  Within seconds, a thread has been launched from table to chair to the nearest plant and I watch a procession of tiny funambulists beginning their journeys into the world.

Sometimes I think that despite all our distractions humans are the loneliest species on the planet.  Lonely because we stand outside of nature.  Because we don’t know our place in the world.  A spider knows what it is born for.  It instinctively knows what to do with its life.  Whereas we, with all our choices, find it difficult to grasp the meaning of them.  Spring takes place all around us.  The trees know that they must clothe themselves in leaves.  The flowers know that they must sprout.  The birds know that they must nest.  And when spring comes, we feel the call to action too, but we don’t know what to do with it.

I can’t grasp the dramas that are taking place because I’ve lost the language for it.  I can observe, try to understand, but I can’t feel that imperative of life and death that the rest of the earth surely feels.  I will always be outside the drama because my human mind wants to label and compartmentalise.  My human mind says that laundry is no place for the birth of spiders, but to the spiders is it just a part of their world.  Yet I feel joy when I witness some of nature’s tiny dramas.  I feel lucky to have been given a glimpse of them.  I feel part of the world, not apart from it.  And I make sense of them by writing them down.  Perhaps to understand them, perhaps to feel closer to them – not as a scientist, but as someone affected by the emotion of that moment.

Writing is my connection to the earth.  Paradoxical maybe, because describing things with language can distance us from them.  But I always feel most connected when the writing is flowing – whether from the pen or brewing in my mind.  Perhaps because this creativity comes from something in the earth.  Our first stories were ways of making sense of our place in the world.  Creation myths that explained how we got here.  Stories that helped us to understand the weather and the workings of the natural world.  And who is to say the song of a bird isn’t his story, or the dance of a bee isn’t hers?  A story is more than words, it is a connection.  The best stories remind me that my life has never been lived outside the world, but always as just another little drama within the whole.

Blue

I’m waiting for the words to come.  I’ve waited since the turn of the season, for my mind to follow the industrious tide of spring.  Waited for dreams nurtured by the winter dark to emerge into the light.

Spring passes in waves.  Daffodils blaze and wither.  Cherry blossom unfurls and melts, polka-dotting the grass.  Dandelions turn to clocks.  Hawthorn blossom and cow parsley flourish.  After each, I sense a pause, when the days hold their breath and things are hidden from view, until the next wave arrives.

Spring delivers its gifts.  It passes quickly, as inevitable as the tides, but I wait in vain for the words to describe it.

I watch the two carrion crows resident in the park build their nest.  I see them pick fur from the grass and peck strands from an old hessian sack in the middle of the road.  I witness them mating on the field.  Their nest is visible in trees that are only now bursting buds, but is too high for me to see what is inside.  I hear a regular caw from the nest and watch one crow forage and chase seagulls from the park, beak only centimetres from wing.

I observe the spring rituals, feeling the season pass me by.  And still the words don’t come.

I find a tiny goldfinch nest in a small maple in the square; a soft, furry cup almost part of the tree itself.  I watch blackbirds collect worms for their young.  Listen to the chitter of blue tits and the harsh call of the chiff chaff.  I watch an oystercatcher, foraging among a posse of magpies and wonder if he has mistaken himself for one of them.  A blackbird and a magpie perch in the same tree trying to out-sing one another.  I find a dead rat, tiny pink paws curled tenderly.  A minute later a magpie swoops down and begins to feed from its corpse.  Spring is bursting but my words are fallow.  It is one of those seasons when the mundane world takes over and there is no energy left for creation.

In the hedgerows it is the white season, but in some places, it is the season of blue.  Beneath the shady trees of the cemetery, the froth of cow parsley tangles with the azure of bluebells.  It is another gift of spring, this treasure of blue.  Blue has always been a precious pigment.  It took time, effort and expense to source it.  It is a colour of joy and harmony, yet also describes sadness.  I suspect the words this season will continue to be elusive, as precious as that pigment used to be.  But I will seek them where and when I can, and though the fallow period isn’t over, I finally find some words to describe it.

Rebirth

The transition from winter to spring is always, it seems, the most capricious.  The slow dream of winter unravels into instability as the season is about to change, and if there is a time when my life is likely to be unbalanced, it is often around the spring equinox.  Spring never arrives straightforwardly.  The weather swings between sun, gales, rain and fog, with occasional freezing temperatures to remind us that winter won’t leave quietly.  It is as though the energy of the season can’t be contained and wants to spiral through all four seasons before settling on one.

And perhaps this is necessary.  It is, after all, a rebirth.  Bare branches burst violently into bud, hard ground is pierced by shoots.  Spring has to be forceful because it holds the promise of the year within it.  Spring is abandoned, unruly, visceral.  From the dazzle of colour to the crescendo of song, the world is no longer quiet and contained.  It’s no accident that gales sweep in, chasing away doubt, indecision and lethargy, because for us too it is rebirth.  We slough off our winter skins, opening up after the introspection of winter, vulnerable at being out in the light again.  It can be a painful birth.  I find myself scoured and broken wide open, just like the earth.

But if the season drags me kicking and screaming, it is within it that I find comfort.  When I can hardly bear a moment more of winter, suddenly spring is here.  The world changes, our lives change, but there is re-assurance in the re-appearance of the coltsfoot flowers in the same patch by the side of the burn; in the luscious crocuses scattered across the square.  There is joy in the abundance of daffodils and marsh marigolds, in blackthorn blossom and fresh hawthorn leaves, in alder catkins garlanding the trees.

Spring is a sensory cornucopia, too much perhaps after the monochrome of February.  But perhaps spring, unlike any other season, is meant to be a shock to the system.  No matter how many springs I have witnessed, it always lifts my spirits when it arrives.  How could it not, when my eyes are suddenly flooded with colour, my ears with song?  I revel in sweeping spring energy through the house, bestowing blessings on every room; in taking down the decorations of the dark year and placing new ones above the hearth.

The struggle into spring has been a lengthy one this year.  I’m still struggling to find that balance.  There is optimism in putting winter dreams into spring practice.  This is the best time to begin because this is when we are flooded by light and colour and activity.  I’ve been slow to start and a winter heaviness lingers.  But there is always a moment of beginning.  Each spring I seek a tiny treasure, a token to remind me of the year’s possibilities.  Today I find it, almost hidden in the cemetery’s undergrowth.  The snake’s head fritillary is a flower I’ve always wanted to see but never expected to find because of its rarity.  Amid the daffodil dazzle, I might easily have missed this solitary blossom.  But as soon as I see it, I know this is my spring treasure.  Because in this moment of rebirth, what could be more appropriate than to see, for the first time, the flower once known as the Lazarus bell?  This isn’t a treasure I’ll be taking home with me, but the memory of it will be enough to light my imagination in the months to come.

Glimpses

A story begins with a glimpse.  A glimpse into another world, a glimpse of a character, a glimpse of a narrative.  Sometimes that is all it remains: a half-caught moment that will never become anything more.  A scrawled fragment in a notebook destined never to become a tale.  The trace of a fiction that won’t be fulfilled.

On a gloomy day seeping drizzle my dog and I walk through the dene, challenging the dregs of February.  There is nobody else here.  The world is hushed and the silence pulses with promise.  I stand at the edge of the burn, captivated by the way the gold of the reeds lights up the gloom.  The day feels enchanted and as far as I’m concerned the enchantment is in just this: the reeds and the silence.  But as we walk the meander of the burn, I glimpse the flicker of a vibrant tail.  I gasp, because I’m sure I have seen my first kingfisher, the metallic teal feathers unmistakeable.  Only a glimpse and then the bird is gone, but I return the next day and am rewarded by a longer glimpse of the kingfisher’s back.  It flits off, under the bridge, and though I can see it perched on a branch in the distance, it disappears before I approach.

Glimpses are moments of possibility.  They are often the things that I see when my attention is elsewhere.  Caught by that softness in the vision, when I’m aware of my environment but I’m not trying to look.  Glimpses are suggestions.  They could lead to something, but you don’t yet know what.  My imagination is fired by glimpses: a white-haired woman in a tartan cape cycling through the square; a dawn-lit fox in the undergrowth; a couple taking refuge from the rain under a tree; a trio of roe deer in gossamer-clad fields; an abandoned slipper under a winking streetlight.  Moments that are nothing in themselves, but seem bigger than what they are.  I write them down and they may only ever be small slices of potential – or they may become something more.

It seems that I always want more.  More of the experience.  A closer look.  I want to see more than a glimpse of a kingfisher – I want to see her close up in all her colourful glory.  It’s in our nature to not want to let go.  But sometimes the glimpses are the blessings.  Ephemeral gifts.  Useless to try and hold on.  I’ll never catch that wisp of kingfisher; perhaps she’ll never reveal herself to me.  She was there, in that particular time and place, to let me feel a little of the spirit of the earth, and to remind me of its impermanence.  That’s the magic of the glimpse.  Sometimes I can fashion it into something tangible, sometimes I’m not meant to.  But I will always remember that glimpse of green, spiralling away like a radiant breath at the end of a dreary February.  They may be fleeting, but often the glimpses are the moments I remember the most.

February’s doubts

SAMSUNG CSC

February is the fag end of winter.  Though I love this season, this is the point when I’m ready for spring, for light, for warmth.  This is the point at which the cold and dark tires me and I trudge through the days simply surviving.  When it is no longer as easy to connect with that self I find in the rich, dark dreaming.  I have woken up, but rudely.  February is the alarm that wakes me when I’m not ready to wake, interrupting a peaceful sleep.  It is the truculent moment when I haul myself out of bed before I’m ready, to a day that I’m not looking forward to.  A transition time, but not the lazy transition of summer into autumn, or the barely perceptible change from autumn to winter.  February is hard work.

SAMSUNG CSC

This is the time of year when winter can seem harshest.  It is usually our coldest month and the short slice of daylight is often grey.  Though the first signs of growth are visible, spring still seems a long way off.  Despite the wealth of green, the landscape can appear monochrome.  Travelling to work and home in darkness wears thin, despite the beauty of the stars in these often clear skies.

SAMSUNG CSC

And the world is truculent too.  All over the airwaves and newspapers, conflict and negativity linger.  My job finds me too busy to think or to carve out a still moment to reconnect with my days.  My world is noisy and chaotic and there seems no space for creativity.  A writer always has doubts and this is a month in which it’s easy for my doubts to surface.  One of the doubts that I have regularly is whether I have anything important to say.  I don’t write political works, I don’t write about issues.  My stories are small, personal.  My non fiction is about life at its simplest.  I know that through my writing, I’m teaching myself how to live.  The personal is political after all.  But still, I sometimes doubt the value of my work amid the bigger changes in the world.

SAMSUNG CSC

Nature doesn’t doubt.  In the cemetery, the snowdrops have bloomed, clusters of light punctuating the green.  Though they don’t have colour, they have the effect of it, a pleasing shock to the senses.  And February belongs to the corvids.  Wherever I go, I hear the harsh cry of magpies, as they swipe through the air or perch on roofs and tall trees.  Walking along a cemetery path, I look up to find myself surrounded by crows, perched on the graves like wayside spirits.  Further on, a  crow and a gaggle of magpies scrap over scattered seeds.

SAMSUNG CSC

The only way to deal with February is to dive in.  Not to withdraw from the world but to engage with it.  To go out into the gloom and expand into the darkness.  To be scoured by rain and sleet and hail and perhaps be surprised by it.  Then you may find breathing space in the spun gold of reeds, the yellow flash of a grey wagtail or the song of a blackbird in the dark.  February is hard work, but then so is life sometimes.  The only certainty is that it will change and before you know it February’s doubts will scatter on the winds of spring.

Still life

SAMSUNG CSC

I’ve never appreciated still life paintings.  I can applaud a good likeness of a bowl of fruit, appreciate the depiction of light falling on a group of objects or marvel at the way an artist has captured the transparency of glass or the lustre of metal.  But they rarely move me in the way that a landscape or a portrait can.  I’m not alone in this, it seems, for still life has often been considered the lowest form of painting.

SAMSUNG CSC

Recently, I heard still life described in a way that caused me to re-think this prejudice.  Art historian Professor Norman Bryson called still life ‘a re-enchantment of the overlooked.’  These paintings take a point in time and try to wring meaning from it, bringing vitality and attention to things that are so familiar we don’t see them anymore.  Still life painting may, in fact, be the most profound kind of art of all, as it poses the big questions of life and death in a portrayal of the most ordinary objects.

SAMSUNG CSC

I choose to surround myself with cherished things that, in reality, are poorly cherished.  I’ve stopped paying attention to them.  The ‘sleeping woman’ figurine from Malta, the mermaid goddess from Lesvos and the desert rose crystal from the Sahara are displayed on my mantelpiece, but I no longer really ‘see’ them.  My mother’s Murano decanter and glasses stand untouched on the sideboard and my grandmother’s tea set is never taken out of the china cabinet.  Wherever I go, I collect pebbles, feathers and shells, which then grow dusty in neglected containers.  These aren’t just objects, they are history, family, memory.  They are moments of life and death captured in stone, wood and pottery.

SAMSUNG CSC

For a few weeks in December I see things differently.  My home is transformed with objects that emerge for only a brief period each year.  The Christmas baubles are unpacked, many with their own cherished memories.  They’re placed carefully and festooned with the sparkle of tinsel and lights.  The mood of the house is different: light, festive, enchanted.  It vibrates with the energy of tradition and memory.  There isn’t room for anything else but the yuletide, not even ordinary life.  The house and the objects in it are no longer just a backdrop, but a focus.

SAMSUNG CSC

So usually when the decorations are packed away, the house challenges me.  For a while, it can seem drab and bare.  The old familiar things are back again and, for a while, they don’t seem enough.  They have the inertia of a still life painting without any of the insight.  But this year I don’t feel the usual grief that the festivities have passed.  Instead, I delight in the space and make an effort to re-acquaint myself with what has been overlooked.

I light a candle in the hearth – Vesta’s  place – and sit with the house awhile in silence and flickering light.  Letting in the space of the stripped down rooms.  Listening as the tick of the clock fills the silence.  Feeling myself expand into spider-filled crannies and the very earth beneath.  How often do we really appreciate this place that shelters us?  How often do we see it as it is?  The house sighs in relief at having its regular rhythms back.  The things that belong here settle back into their places.  Normal life gives space for new growth and no opportunity for disguise.  We get to know each other again as we really are.

SAMSUNG CSC

Out in the world, I appreciate the still life of winter: the serenity of a snowfall in the park before dawn, the lazy gliding of swans among frozen reeds, the huddling of ducks on frigid ponds.  Out here, I look for magic every day.  I then bring the magic back and fashion it into a piece of writing that tries to capture its meaning.  Each one of these posts could be seen as a still life, enchanting the ordinary things that I see every day.  My fiction is different.  It captures movement, a journey, a transformation.  But in these posts, I gather together a group of experiences, display them in a pleasing composition and hope that they will shed light on what that moment in time meant to me.  There is enchantment inside and out, not only among the things that grow and fly, but among the things that stay as they are.