A gift of dreams – a short story for Christmas

My food ran out days ago and there’s no prospect of rescue up here at the top of the world. I try to put up my tent, but the arctic wind bludgeons and tears at the fabric. My compass is gone, my GPS is behaving strangely and the whiteout obliterates the stars. I no longer know which direction to walk in. The next time I fall, I stay there, slumped in the snow, ready to give in to sleep at last.

I drift, watching flurries of snow dart past my goggles. The snowstorm cancels out any differences in the landscape. When my eyes close it’s darker, but that’s the only difference, it seems, between being awake or asleep.

There is something tugging me. Something rough and insistent. I try to shrug it off but it gives me no rest. I open my eyes to a blur of dark movement. It takes a moment to focus. There is a small figure pulling at my arms. At first, I think it’s an animal, it is wrapped so tightly in furs, but no, there are two arms, two legs, and the shape is distinctly human. The storm is too loud for speech, but the figure is clearly attempting to pull me up. I’m resentful at the inconvenience but something tells me I should follow its lead.

There shouldn’t be any settlements this far north, so I can’t imagine where this person has come from. It’s random luck that they’ve come across me in all this whiteness. But the figure is strong and determined, clutching my hand. A child? Surely too strong for that. I stumble to my feet and follow.

Trees appear where no trees should be. Is it possible I’ve drifted south in the storm? But trees were days and days ago, I couldn’t have re-traced my steps that far. The figure pulls me into a clutch of pines and immediately there is calm. The whiteout is gone, replaced by gently drifting snow. There is a soft, subdued light akin to twilight, a relief after the glare of the tundra. This is not some small bunch of straggling trees, it’s a forest. The green is a shock to my scoured eyes. Among the trees, there’s time and space to relax from the effort of survival. I pull off my goggles and my hood. It’s hardly warm, but the absence of the blizzard makes it seem so. The frenzied, maddening wind is gone, replaced by the muffled silence of a snow-clad forest.

I look down at my helper. The figure pulls back its own hood and loosens the fur around its throat. Wisps of grey hair cloud the face. But I can tell it’s a woman, neither very young nor very old, with burnished skin and fierce green eyes.

‘Come,’ she says, beckoning me forward.

‘Where are we?’ I ask. She shakes her head and moves off, confident I’ll follow. The walking is easy, though if this is a path it has long been covered in snow. My energy has returned, despite lack of food and rest. The scent of the pines is intoxicating. I’ve smelt nothing but my own sweat for weeks.

Soon, I see light at the edge of the twilit forest. Lanterns hang from branches, not LED lights these, but candles cupped in glass. They dance, casting amber shadows on the snow. And there are shapes between the trees, I think, circular structures of wood, peaked roofs covered in moss. I stop, because there are other scents now flooding my nostrils: woodsmoke and cinnamon and cooked meat. There is the faint sound of music, the soft tinkle of bells. After the nothing out there, this is too much stimulation, too much colour. I have to steady myself on the nearest tree. The woods are coming to life around me, but how can that be?

There are paths between the trees, narrow curving paths. I see now that the wooden structures must be dwellings. They have lighted windows that hint at warmth and frivolity inside. I glimpse Christmas trees and rustic garlands. Lanterns deck the trees along the paths. This place is filled with dancing light. It’s the middle of June, but here, it seems, it’s Christmas.

I don’t see any other people, but I sense them. As though they wait and watch just out of sight, holding a collective breath. More than once, I glance behind me, expecting to see a huddle of followers. We walk endless paths, twisting and turning into the village, if that’s what this is, until we come to a clearing. In its centre is a spruce, much larger than the others and trickling with lanterns. There are things tied to the branches: pieces of cloth, small bells, trinkets of wood and glass. Some are frayed and battered, some so ancient they’re covered in lichen. A Christmas tree, but like no Christmas tree I’ve seen before.

I sink to my knees before it. Overwhelmed by all the remembered scents of Christmas. By a medley of echoing carols. I sense the roots of this tree stretching for miles beneath snow and soil. And a sound, half-way between hum and heartbeat. This is a tree that goes beyond Christmas, beyond time itself perhaps. It has always been here and always will be. I have nothing to offer, but I’m compelled to offer something. I tear a fragment of fabric from the inside of my pocket and carefully tie it to the end of a branch. The leaves caress me like a comforting hand.

The woman beckons me on. I don’t want to go, but she’s determined, dragging me forward. We follow a wider path until we reach a building different to the simple roundhouses I’ve seen before. It has the same foundation but it is bigger, with makeshift extensions so it looks like some strange confection of timber, moss and glass. The door is enormous and decorated with an intricate garland of evergreens. It opens the moment we reach it.

The light that spills out is diffuse and silver. There’s a figure silhouetted in the doorway. I think my companion bows and fades away, but I’m not sure because I can’t look away from the man on the threshold. Tall and portly, with acres of white hair and a beard that falls almost to his feet. He wears a robe the colour of the pines, edged in fur. His face is dark and weather-beaten, his eyes the shade of the forest lanterns.

‘Well,’ he says in a voice that is loud but gentle. ‘You must be Annie. We’ve been expecting you.’

I move towards him without thinking to ask how he knows my name. I want to walk into his embrace and tell him everything there is to know about me. A sudden memory comes, of my father hoisting me onto his back and dancing around the room as I cling to him laughing and squealing. For a moment, I’m caught up in the memory, unwilling to shatter it, but I feel a hand on my arm and I’m guided into a room warm with wood, cluttered with knick-knacks and lit by a crackling fire. The room is decorated with evergreens and a large Christmas tree stands by the hearth. But it isn’t Christmas, I remind myself, not in the world I’ve come from.

A woman stands in front of the grate. She is as tall as he is, broad and strong. She also has white hair to her feet and a face creased with lines. When she moves, she has a sinuous grace in contrast to the man’s bulk. She takes my gloved hands in hers.

‘Welcome Annie,’ she says.

She leads me to a simple room, containing a bed with a patchwork cover. A robe of pale green is laid out on it. She leaves me to change. I’m relieved to take off the suit I’ve worn for weeks, to get rid of my boots and sodden socks, to be able to wash and change into something that is warm and soft against my skin. All changed, I sit on the bed to catch my breath. It seems like years since I was out in the blizzard, ready to give in to a sleep I wouldn’t have woken from. Perhaps I’m dreaming, because how else could I be here in this strange, unexpected place, where it seems I was expected. I’m unusually shy as I open the door, but a loud voice greets me.

‘Come and join us, my dear.’

The couple have moved to a table, laden with food – simple soups and stews, vegetables and bread. My stomach tilts at the sight. I haven’t eaten for days and even then I was eating survival rations. I’ve had nothing fresh for weeks. ‘Tuck in,’ the woman says and I don’t need to be asked again. Any curiosity I have about them or this place is curtailed by the desire to eat. My manners desert me as I load up my plate and waffle it all down, until, sated, I sit back and remember where I am. I should be exhausted, but I’m wide awake. I scan the room and my hosts. They watch me. Carefully. Silently.

‘Thank you,’ I say. They both nod and it seems I’m watching them in slow motion.

There’s a tension that I’m loathe to break because it might undo all my ideas of what is true. But I can’t wait any longer.

‘Where is this place? Who are you?’ I ask.

‘Oh my dear,’ says the woman. ‘Don’t you already know?’

I think I do, but I’m reluctant to say it. It’s ridiculous. But they’re waiting. There is expectation in the silence. These are the questions they’ve been waiting for me to ask.

‘You’re….Father Christmas.’ I blurt.

The man laughs, nodding. ‘But you can call me Santa!’

‘And this is my wife, Frija – or Mrs Claus.’

I shake my head, more to clear it than in denial.

‘You don’t believe it?’ he says.

I ponder the question. Of course I don’t believe it. I haven’t believed in Santa since I was a child. But here I am and I somehow knew it from the moment I saw the big tree and there doesn’t seem to be another explanation that I’m happy with.

‘I believe it. Right now I believe it. But how? I know there aren’t any settlements up here. This place can’t exist. You can’t exist.’

They both laugh then. Mrs Claus leans forward and her face is suddenly serious.
‘This is a world between worlds,’ she says. ‘It’s not a place you can touch from the outside. And not a place that just anyone can visit – or even see. Call it a dream, call it a mirage, whatever you like, but it’s as real as the world you come from.’

‘So I’m not dreaming then? I’m not still out there in the storm?’ She doesn’t answer, only smiles.

Santa pushes his chair back suddenly and claps his hands. ‘You’ll be wanting a tour,’ he says. Mrs Claus rises too and they wait for me to follow. They lead me through convoluted passageways, up and down stairs, past bedrooms, sitting areas, studies and kitchens, but nothing I see is what I imagine Santa’s village to be. This is just a house, if an eccentric one.

In the end I blurt it out: ‘Where are the workshops…where are the…elves?’ I shrug apologetically. This still seems ridiculous.

‘Ahhh,’ he says. ‘You want to see where the magic happens.’

Mrs Claus nudges him playfully. ‘Of course she does.’

He nods. We’re standing in front of an arched door. He sweeps it open and I peer in. Not another bedroom or living room this time, but a tunnel. Narrow and smooth and carved from the earth itself. I can see soil and roots and worms. Like everything in this world it twists and turns, but finally we reach another door, labelled ‘workshop’. I take a deep breath as Santa turns the handle.

This is like no workshop I’ve ever seen – or imagined. There are no work-benches. No tools. No piles of toys. The room is huge, circular, sloping up to a skylight. Every wall is lined with shelves and on every shelf there are rows of books. There are piles of books on the floor too, some in stacks, some lying open. And between them, figures roam – small figures with pointed ears.

‘But this is a library!’ I say.

‘Of a sort,’ Mrs Claus says. ‘Come and see.’

I follow them further into the room. The elves are engrossed in their work, but I’m not sure what work that is. They gesture and dance, sing and sway, shout and mutter. I realise that the room, which seemed silent when we entered, is a blur of noise and movement. And when I look more closely, I see the pictures. Suspended in the air. Transparent, moving images. Like holograms, though I suspect Santa’s village isn’t computerised. There are dozens of them. Mirages. I gasp and stutter, swinging my head from side to side to try to grasp what it is I’m seeing.

‘This isn’t what you expected.’ Says Santa.

‘No.’ I tear my eyes away from the kaleidoscope and focus on Santa.

‘I expected workshops full of elves making toys for you to deliver on Christmas Eve.’

‘I don’t deliver toys,’ he says.

I stop in shock. ‘But you do! You’re Santa. That’s what you do.’

‘Is it?’ he says.

I nod my head vehemently and Santa smiles.

‘It’s true,’ he says. ‘There was a time I loaded my sack with toys and delivered them around the globe. You could be sure there would be a gift from Father Christmas under your tree.’ He looks a little sad.

‘And now?’

He spreads out his arms in a big shrug. ‘Nobody needs toys from Santa anymore. They have quite enough under the tree as it is.’

I’m stunned into silence for a moment. ‘But…but surely that’s not true. You’re still needed. Not every child has toys.’

He nods. ‘And I still have something up my sleeve for those boys and girls.’

‘But on Christmas Eve, what do you do…have you retired?’

He laughs. ‘I do what I’ve always done. I get in my sleigh and I travel the world.’ He walks through the workshop and I follow.

‘But you said…what’s the point?’

‘Do you know what the elves are doing here?’ he says.

I shake my head.

‘They’re conjuring dreams.’

‘Dreams?’

‘My purpose was never to deliver toys,’ Santa says. ‘It was to deliver dreams!’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘You had a dream once,’ Santa says. ‘To go to the North Pole and visit Father Christmas. That’s why you’re here. Do you remember?’

I shake my head. ‘All children dream of that.’

‘Mm, that’s true. But not all of them end up on a North Pole expedition. All the years of training, the fund-raising, the sacrifices…’

‘But that wasn’t to see you. That was to see the arctic, to test myself, to see if I could do it.’

He’s silent, watching me question myself. ‘That’s what it is now,’ he says. ‘But in here…’ he rests a hand over my heart. ‘In here you never stopped seeking the magic.’

Warmth spreads through my chest at the touch of his hand. Suddenly, I’m not the woman pursuing a determined quest for the arctic, but the child wishing for Santa Claus. I am a girl again, standing vigil at the window on Christmas Eve, desperate to hear the tinkle of bells and to see the sweep of a sleigh across the rooftops. I nursed the wish to meet Father Christmas long after other children had discarded it and perhaps somehow I knew that I would have to come here to do it.

‘Come,’ Mrs Claus says. She leads me to a bay of shelves and with a small push, the wall opens. I gasp. Stretching away into the heart of the earth is a catacomb of sorts. But not filled with death or bodies, filled with books. Some look new, some are crumbling, and each is labelled with a name. She takes one off the shelf and opens it. Immediately the pages begin to dance with shapes and colours and letters and faint images. It crackles in her hands.

‘A book of dreams,’ she says.

‘Every child has one. It’s the elves job to create the possibility of the dream. Elves are masters of magic you know; they conjure dreams out of nothing. They can build toys too, of course, but their skill and their purpose is much greater than that. Santa’s job is to get each dream to the right child – that’s his gift.’

‘But not everyone has dreams.’

Santa nods. ‘Oh but they do.’

‘Some get lost along the way,’ says Mrs Claus. ‘Some don’t have the opportunity to fulfil them.’ She is sad. ‘But they remain. We hold them in trust. You might call me the librarian of the North Pole,’ she laughs. ‘It’s my job to keep them safe. Dreams never go away, do they?’ she says softly. ‘Not really. And that magic you feel on Christmas night – even if only for a short while – that vein of hope and anticipation, it’s a reminder to everyone that dreams are still possible.’

I turn back to the workshop. Step into the chaotic flurry of the elves’ work. I reach out a hand. Just beyond is the image of a child on horseback, galloping along a shore. When I touch it, it has no substance, but for a moment there is joy, movement, the sense of wind tugging my hair. I step back quickly to find myself looking into the face of a young elf. He’s smiling at me.

‘Good?’ he says.

I look around me. The room has gone silent. The elves are still. The air is full of dreams, paused, waiting for their conjurers. I nod.

‘Exquisite,’ I say. I bow and step away, back to Santa and Mrs Claus. The cacophony starts up again.

‘Now.’ Mrs Claus says, ‘It’s time for you to go and fulfil your dream. You’re almost there you know.’ She takes my hand and squeezes it. Then Santa takes the other. I see myself looking out of the window on a frost-filled Christmas many years ago, hoping to see Santa, wishing I might visit him in his village one day. I hear a faint laugh.

I wake smiling. My eyes are filled with orange. Not the soft amber of lanterns, but the garish fabric of my tent. All is calm and still. I feel rested. There is no hunger in my belly. The despair of knowing that I’m not going to make it is gone. You’re nearly there….I sit up suddenly. A moment ago – surely it was only a moment – I was with Santa and Mrs Claus. Wasn’t I? I look outside my tent and there is only white. Was it a dream then? But my tent is up, my belly is full and in the corner there are new supplies, enough to keep me going for days. A dream, yes, but not the kind you have when you sleep. I don’t know what day it is, but somehow I know I’m on time. I’ll reach the pole when I’m supposed to. My support team will be waiting for me.

I pack up my things with renewed enthusiasm. The sled is light. My muscles are strong. The landscape is little more than a wash of white, with a faint blue tinge in the sky. But I know now that somewhere in this wilderness is a world between worlds that only a handful of lucky dreamers get to see. My most treasured dream is almost over, but somewhere, in a magical library tended by the most diligent librarian, there is a book with my name on it in which other dreams wait.

Between

In the park, the wild cherry is the last tree of autumn.  The others have already embraced winter, skeletal limbs clawing at the sky.  But the cherry still shimmers with golden leaves that drift drowsily to the ground.  A pool of saffron encircles its base.  Where the other leaves in the park are crisp and shrivelled, those from the cherry are sleek and shiny as though they still live.  The tree is like a beacon on this otherwise grey afternoon.  It draws the eye and not only because of its colour but because it is clearly something ‘other’ in the drab landscape.

Walking under the cherry is like walking into another time or place.  Time slows as the leaves descend.  I am in a different world, lit from within by the gold-clad branches and the fallen sun beneath.  My skin sings of yellow and gold and I’m sure that if you saw me, I would be glowing with light.  At this moment, the cherry is a threshold to another world.   I feel different standing underneath it.  I’m in the park but outside of it.  Beyond the cherry tree is a different place altogether.

On this evening, I am between: between an amber sunset in the west and a half moon in the pale southern sky.  Between a blazing cherry and a congregation of sleeping naked giants.  Between seasons.  It is no longer really autumn, but not quite winter.  The shift from one to the other is often impeceptible, and this is the time of uncertainty, when there may or may not be frost on the grass, when my breath might cloud the air or my winter coat may be too warm.

As a child I was entranced by a world at the back of a wardrobe, enchanted by a garden that appeared when the clock struck thirteen.  I have always been drawn to thresholds, the places that are between.  I’ve come across unexpected portals: a tree with a swing in a darkened glade,  a bridge overgrown with grass and lichens, towering stones and a circlet of trees.  I wonder why these places are so enticing.  It is because this world isn’t enough?  Or because we sense that the world really is suffused with magic and these between places give us a glimpse of it.

Stories are portals too.  Even those that are tales of the most ordinary places still transport us to another world for a while. Writing a story is like being in another place: I become apart from the world as it is and engrossed in a world that isn’t – yet.  Most of my stories offer a hint of the between, a thread of magic brought back from that other world.

Some places are so soaked in magic that they are always between places.  But sometimes, it takes only a shift in the time of year, or a crease in the fabric of the landscape for the door to open.  It will not be open long, but it is enough to show a glimmer of something else.  In a week or so, the cherry will shed the last of its leaves and the between place will wink out.  The grey will close in and cloak what was for a while a crossing point to another world.  But I was here.  I stood for a moment in that place of gold and light and knew the enchantment of the in between.

The gathering

The starlings are gathering again.  They swoop over the park in a graceful curve and trickle into the branches of an old sycamore.  Not content to rest, they tumble from branch to branch, calling and chattering.  Something spooks them then, because they are off again, another arc of the park, back to the same tree.  Today they are in the sycamore, but on another day it will be an ash on the other side of the park.  The ash is bare but for clumps of seed and it’s hard to tell seed pod from bird, except that the tree is alive with their song.

Often, they take to the streets, settling on the peaks of roofs, chimneys, TV aerials.  They are here this morning, as we set out for our walk to the dene. There are too many of them to cluster in one spot, so they spread out – a chimney here, a telegraph pole there.  I wonder if each starling has her own favourite viewpoint, or if it’s merely a scramble to secure a spot.

Late afternoon and they often gather on a mast on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in town.  Starlings are fidgety birds.  It seems impossible for them to stay still.  They must always be taking off, moving position, and all the while giving off that tremendous noise.  I wonder where they go to roost, if they join up with hundreds of others for a huge murmuration before rest and quiet finally takes over them.

In the dene, other birds gather.  Black headed gulls crowd the jetty.  Mallards and moorhens forage among the fallen leaves or glide across the pond.  Occasionally a scrap breaks out and one chases another in a commotion of wings and water.  There is a messiness about this part of the season.  The boisterousness of birds gathering for winter.  The fallen leaves decoratively littering the ground.  Every path has a flaming border.  Every bench a cushion of leaves.

The sun blazes low, gilding the remaining leaves, but darkness will soon be falling.  A last golden spill of sunshine by three and then twilight begins.  The birds and the darkness gather but I’m gathering stories.  Harvesting tales from snippets of ideas written in notebooks and on scraps of paper.  A lost hour, a hymn of bees, a woman with wild-flowers between her toes and a visit to Santa’s library.  I have written four stories in a couple of weeks, each one with a touch of magic, befitting the dreamtime of the year.

We return from the dene and the starlings are still gathered on the rooftops, still filling the air with their cheerful noise.  Starlings are loud and disorderly and they always seem delighted to be alive.  I wonder what stories they tell as they gather in the winter darkness.

Withdrawing

Autumn rushes past and I’ve found myself retreating, the fallen leaves suggestive of a warm duvet to bury myself under.  I’ve retreated away from the computer and into times past.  I’ve been solving murders with Miss Marple in St. Mary Mead and visiting the Old Curiosity Shop.  I’ve been writing a short story about lost time.  Neil Gaiman said that books are the way we communicate with the dead.  They are that, but they are also a way to experience a time I was born too late for.  Although I know intellectually that I would have found the conventions and prejudices of earlier times restrictive, I often think I was meant for an earlier age, a time when there was less of everything and awe was more possible.

In the wake of storm Callum, I walk the old waggonway.  I walk under tarnished clouds scudding quickly across the sky.  The air is hollowed by wind, the hedgerows rustle like old paper.  Rain falls, augmenting the vibrant colours.  Not all of the trees have begun to turn.  On the edge of a dark copse, hooded by the canopy and overgrown with bracken, in a place where pink campion blooms in spring, there is a beech that is always spectacular in autumn.  It is a bright quilt of vivid colour in the gloom.  The horse chestnuts are already half-naked, clinging to crisped bronze leaves like curling fingers.  Here and there, the hedgerows are lit by a fiery maple or a golden hawthorn.

The hawthorns are strung with garnet beads.  Rosehips are like tiny crimson lanterns.  The track groans with seed: hogweed starbursts, knapweed pokers, spiky clocks of ragwort.  Rosebay Willowherb is also known as fireweed, because of its penchant for growing in the wake of destruction, but it might just as well be because of its autumn finery: columns of burning red, orange and brown with whiskers where its seeds have flown.  A few flowers remain – solitary thistles and clover, purple vetch and clusters of viper’s bugloss.  Monstrous butterbur leaves, some green, some rotted and black, cloak the banks.  The hawthorns sing with goldfinches – it must be a time of plenty for them.

To walk in nature is both to engage and to retreat.  I engage with the earth and its turning, but I retreat from the clamour of the world.  These waggonways are layered in time.  Haunted by the ghosts of horse drawn carts and the shades of steam locomotives carrying coal from the great northern coalfield to the river.  Listen closely and you might still hear the clatter of hooves or the wheeze of an engine.  Look closely and perhaps you’ll see a mirage of rails.  The past speaks, if we know how to hear it.  It speaks in the words of dead writers and in the song of the landscape.

A flock of long-tailed tits loops suddenly across the path ahead, to take refuge in a tall tree at the side of the track.  I listen to the commotion of their twitterings, watch the graceful dip of their tails.  In winter they group together for warmth and safety, and perhaps also for company, to share stories of their own ancestors.  My own journey for the moment is away from company; there is always an element of withdrawal at this time of year, preparation for the journey inwards.  But the time for company will come soon enough.  A time to set another space at the table or to pull another chair up to the fire.  To remember those who have come before and to know them through their stories.  The past speaks, if we only listen.

Grounding

A tree lies broken on the path.  The old poplar has been rent, a bough the size of a large tree torn away in the winds.  The splintered heartwood is shredded and the tree nurses a jagged ivory stump.  Its amputated limb blocks the path, causing passers-by to stop in wonder.  It isn’t the only casualty.  A bough of the shoe tree has fallen, a mossy pair of trainers tangled in its branches.  In the dene, a large bough of weeping willow is hanging by a thread of bark, like a besom broom sweeping the path.  Storms aren’t unusual before the equinoxes, as though the earth needs to expel its energy before it can come into a balance of sorts.   After the day of wind comes a night of rain, before the morning calm.

After the storms, I go in search of stone, a balance to the torrent of air and water.  I want to be grounded by the size and the steadiness of earth.  I start at the Pen Bal Crag, the tallest of all our cliffs, where the priory and castle sits atop limestone and sandstone.  I rarely come to this small bay – the steps are steep and many and dogs are banned for half of the year.  In fact I don’t recall the last time I stepped on its sand.  Alone on the beach, I’m dwarfed by the rocks rising above me.  Boulders are tumbled at the bottom of the cliffs, some from landslides, clad in bladderwrack and gutweed.  Water drips from vegetation in the cracks and behind it all, the sea roars.  These rocks are layered in time and faith and blood and the ancient lava flow that once poured through them.  I am as slight as a grain of sand in comparison.

Strange how the memory plays tricks.  I have a very strong recollection of a barbecue here many years ago.  It has the gilded patina of nostalgia, redolent with soft evening light and the taste of sausages.  I remember clearly exploring a cave under the cliffs – so clearly I used the memory of it in one of my novels.  This is why I’m here, to re-visit it.  Yet as I stand on the shore, gazing at the cliffs, I realise that this cave doesn’t exist.  It most likely never did.  All these years, the image of it has come to me and it seems that I invented it.  I puzzle over my trickster memory, willing the cave to come into being, but of course it doesn’t, except in imagination.  A crow, the trickster bird, squawks and lands on the rock beside me, as though laughing at my foolishness.  It has something that might be a crab in its beak, something spindly and long-fingered.  I watch as it pulls the creature apart and welcomes in its mate to partake in the feast.

The sand is virginal.  There is only the faint meandering imprint of a small bird’s passage.  The remnants of last night’s storm churns the sea into boisterous waves.  But that is out there.  Here on the beach, all is tranquil.  The sky is pale blue washed with wisps of buttermilk.  On mornings like this the dawn sky is insubstantial.  It holds a luminous translucence that makes my skin seem thinner than it is, as though I too am made of gossamer.  The clouded sun turns the breakers to liquid platinum.  I can see the lighthouse silhouetted at the end of the pier beyond the cliffs.  I came here for stone, but it is sky and sea that are the most precious gift this morning.

I walk to the other side of the bay, passing a few black headed gulls and an oystercatcher.  A young herring gull bleats for food as I pass.  Up a bank lined by valerian and the leaves of silver weed, past a rusting old bench.  My coastline stretches from the mouth of the river to the island where one county ends and the next begins.  In between is a chain of bays.   I head down to the next, down to the derelict open air swimming pool and onto the sand.  Here, I search for a memento of the light, a token to take with me into the dark season.  I spot it immediately, as the thought is taking shape, a pebble that is, in fact, neither light nor dark but blushed with both.  I take a strand of kelp and draw a circle in the sand by the tide line, and bisect it.  This represents the year, with both halves in equinoctial balance.  I step into the circle and cross the line, clutching my token, symbolically moving from light to dark.

This harvest I have a sense of completion. There is nothing that niggles, undone.  It hasn’t been an easy year and the strange weather seems to have reflected its challenge.  But I have two polished novels ready for submission, one of which was long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize; two agents asked to review my full manuscript while another said it was the strongest submission she’d seen for some time; three new stories written and a story short-listed for a short story prize.  There are things I would like to have achieved – such as one of those agents agreeing to represent me – but perhaps that is for another year.

The sun is at my back now as I walk.  That luminous sky behind me, as is the zenith of the year.  This bay is known as the ‘long sands’ and it is a mile long.  By the time I reach its end, my circle will probably have been washed away by the tide.  I walk at the water’s edge.  There isn’t much of a strand line here, just wisps of seaweed, a single maple leaf, a few pebbles, shells and feathers.  I follow it, such as it is, letting the tide seep over my feet when it chooses.  I’m always greedy for treasures from the strand line – one more pebble, one more shell – my house is full of jars and tubs of them.  I pocket a sliver of sea glass,  a chunk of sea-washed china, an intricate shell, a pebble honeycombed by piddock trails and a tiny white feather.

A group of four sanderlings scuttle in the tide in front of me.  I try to catch up with them, thinking that if I overtake they’ll see I’m no threat.  But they keep scuttling, back and forth, always the same distance away, until finally they take flight, sick of the game or never having noticed me in the first place.  A cormorant dives in the surf and I watch as three times it dives, three times it rises.  At the north end of the beach, curls of kelp litter the shore.  The tide has created an island out at sea, thronged by birds.

I came for caves and there is one bay where I know they aren’t imaginary.  I clamber down sandstone crags, feet sinking into slimy banks of bladderwrack until I reach smuggler’s cave.  A few pigeons take flight and a redshank sounds an alarm.  I walk under the arches, past limpid pools and clusters of pebbles and seaweed.  From above, these caves are sunny sandstone.  From beneath, they are grey, green and dark.  The caves are beyond the pier, cut off from the safety of the sands.  From under the arch, I see the same ship I’ve seen in my walk along the shore, the same sea, the same sky, but the view from inside the stone is a secretive one.  Here, there is no-one to know that I am a witness.  I am the watcher in the dark, looking out onto the light.

My harvest is completed and now I absorb inspiration, to take me into the creative dark.  I ground myself in the resonant stone.  Moving inwards, to the sheltered half-light of autumn.  I will take with me the brilliance of this, and other, watery dawns; the iridescence of a kingfisher’s wings; the stripes of a badger’s face.  The light is always there, running like a vein of crystal through the stone.

Leaving

I fear that the herald of autumn is dead.  The small maple in the park – the smallest of all the trees – always turns first.  Its leaves are bronze and gold while the others are still clothed in green.  It tells me – even if I hadn’t felt that nip in the air, that soaking of early morning dew – it tells me that autumn is here.  But this year its boughs are bare.  There was no unfurling of bud, no burst into green.  Its trunk is spattered with buttery lichen, its branches tipped with desiccated flowers, but there is nothing to suggest it lives.  The park is littered with boughs and branches.  They say that in drought, trees give up parts of themselves, making themselves smaller against the stress.  I wonder if the long winter and bruising summer were just too much for the little maple.  I wonder if somehow it has made itself dormant, and that it will sigh back into being next spring.

A crackle of geese honks in a corn field.  A twitter of swallows echoes over the cliffs.  As we move towards the earth’s gilding there is the sound of leaving in the air.  The winds sweep in, carrying the scent of far-flung shores.  The horizon yawns with promise and I wonder what a bird feels as it gazes on that expanse.  When does the leaving begin?  Perhaps its starts with a faint humming in the blood, a tremble of expectation.  Perhaps it begins with a twitch in the wing, a distance in the eye.  Until the urge can’t be contained any longer and the bird must stretch its wings.  So many birds feeling that longing, that pull of invisible threads across the planet, becoming ever tauter until they can’t be resisted.  Maybe these autumn wind storms aren’t wind at all, maybe they are the flutter of thousands of wings, churning the air with excitement.

I hear my first blackbird sing after the silence of August and I wonder what the blackbird feels.  Does it sense the urge to movement and feel loss that it is staying behind?  Does this vibration of leaving account for the expectancy I feel in autumn too?  Perhaps my body yearns for a journey while scarcely knowing it.  As a species we have wandered for so much longer than we have stayed still.  Following the herds, following the weather, following the tides.  When those early people settled in one place, they may have felt relief, but also sadness that they would no longer roam.  Maybe we have lost something in our safer, more stationary lives.

But we still have cause to roam.  3% of the world’s people are migrants, moving not at the urging of the seasons, but for a better life, for escape, for survival.  We have roamed for centuries and there are those of us for whom the journey is not over.  Some of us are the blackbird, destined to stay in one place.  Some of us are the swallow, with no choice but to move.  September has always meant change.  For a third of my life it meant moving on – another year at school, college, university – with all the promise and apprehension that held.  Now I stay still but the urge to movement is still there, somewhere deep inside.

Of course September is not only a time of leaving, but also a time of arrival.  Just as those threads pull our summer visitors away, they reel in others who will accompany us into the depths of winter.  Each season brings its own gifts, and there is a sweetness in the inevitability of each wave of coming and going.  The herald of autumn may be dead, but the old poplar is strewing its leaves on the grass like offerings of gold.  Life is all arrivals and departures.  People move into our lives and are gone.  Things alter unexpectedly.  The world of my childhood is no longer the world I live in now.  We watch and feel the joy and sorrow of each change.  It gives us our sense of history, of having lived.  But even if we stay in one place, we are never really still.  We are coming and going too.  We are the bird soaring into the horizon and the bird arriving home.  And someone, somewhere, rejoices at our passage.

A joyful interlude

 

I don’t normally take part in challenges, my muse is too slippery for that, but when Alethea Kehas over at Not Tomatoes challenged me to write about the word joy it seemed serendipitous, because it is a word that I’ve noticed myself using increasingly often.  Thank you to Alethea for inviting me to take part in the #3.2.1 Me challenge, which involves writing about the chosen word and including two quotes, before nominating three others to take part.  You can visit Alethea here to find out what she made of the word inspiration, but for now, here is a brief joyful interlude.

The ridge’s bosses and hummocks sprout bulging from its side; the whole mountain looms miles closer; the light warms and reddens; the bare forest folds and pleats itself like living protoplasm before my eyes, like a running chart, a wildly scrawling oscillograph on the present moment. The air cools; the puppy’s skin is hot. I am more alive than all the world. (Annie Dillard – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Joy has always seemed to me an extravagant word.  Beyond contentment, beyond happiness.  A word for unbridled feeling, for ecstasy.  It seems fit only for big spectacles and life-changing events.  It is not an everyday word.  Strangely, it’s a word I often come across in the negative: ‘no joy’ or a sarcastic ‘deep joy’ to describe someone’s negative feelings about something.  The positive phrases that include the word, such as ‘jump for joy’, ‘pride and joy’ or ‘full of the joys of spring’ are so diluted that they no longer have any real meaning.  Joy in its truest sense seems a word mainly used for Christmas.  And yet I find myself noticing the word more often than I ever have and I wonder why I didn’t feel it was appropriate before.

For me, joy isn’t confined to spectacle or achievement.  It is something I most often experience in those small moment of life that we come to realise are the big moments.  It isn’t about the satisfaction of something gained or done well.  It isn’t about an item checked off a bucket list or an ambition finally reached.  Yes, there is delight in those moments, but for me, joy is something both smaller and deeper than that.

Joy is the delight I feel when I hear my dog dreaming and watch the twitch of his nose and paws.  It is the tilt of his head and the wag of his tail.  Joy is in the wild whip of the wind and the teem of rain.  It is the exuberance of blossom and the shimmer of autumn leaves; the scent of the sea and the crash of a wave on the shore.  Joy is the stab of excitement when I witness the wanderings of a badger or the dart of a kingfisher.

Joy is the feeling of awe at being alive and able to experience this one moment just for you.  When the earth seems to shimmer, to lay our her wares and say, here, this is what it is all about.  It is the moment described by Annie Dillard of being so clearly in the present that no matter whether you are at a gas station (in her case) or in the most astounding wilderness, you feel completely alive and completely connected.

In September dawns I hardly breathe – I am an image in a ball of glass. The world is suspended there, and I in it.  (Nan Shepherd – The Living Mountain)

I can feel joy even when I am sad, because, for me,  it isn’t about happiness.  It’s about awe and it’s about connection to the earth.  When I feel that I am a part of this earth, when my skin seems to tremble from being in the world, then I feel joy.  Then I know that my daily worries don’t matter, that what does matter is being a part of this.  I am coming to grips with joy.  Coming to know that it is a word that does fit into my world after all.  It isn’t too extravagant, because there is nothing more extravagant than this world.  It is not a word only to be sung out in carols or written on cards at just one time of year, it is a word for every season and the quiet wonders that each one contains.


I’ll pass on the challenge to: Jeanne at, StilladreamerLuda at PlantsandBeyond and Pat at Equipsblog but you are under absolutely no obligation to accept.  If you do, the word is ‘vision’.  Write about the word, including two quotes and pass on the challenge to three other bloggers.