Magic and Monsters

The darkness is glutinous but I have a sense of things moving around me. And suddenly, I want to leave. It doesn’t matter that my things are still in my room, or that water covers the causeway. I need to leave now and I understand that I’ve wanted to leave since the moment I crossed the causeway.

The Siren Flower – Andrea Stephenson

The moon is waning in a baby blue sky.  The sea is dimpled glass and the sun an exploded tangerine.  A path of pink wanders across the sea from sunrise to land.  There is a sense of calm, of balance.  Gulls lounge in groups on the rocks.  Cormorants dry their wings, always at the very edge of land and sea.  I watch an oystercatcher stumble as it forages among the rocks and it amuses me that even a bird so adapted to this environment can have a clumsy moment.

Seals repose on the rocks.  Grey seals use this as a haul-out point, to rest between forays into the water.  They breed further up the coast at the Farne Islands.  A bundle of grey fluff is probably one of this year’s pups.  A huge bull – a rare sight here – flops across the rocks with great effort.  His moans and grumbles fill the air.  Winter has retreated.  It feels warm and it seems every creature is sunning itself.  On days like today, the island is luminous.  Suspended in a bubble of stillness as the tide slowly flows out.

This island is my soul place.  A place of sun-kissed sand and wrack-wrapped rocks; of childhood play and adult solace.  It is the magic of wave and wing, of liquid and light.  In my novel The Skin of a Selkie, selkies dance here on moonlit nights and three generations of women fall under their spell.   But every place has a darker story to tell.  There are stories here of shipwrecks and cholera victims, buried bones and murder.  From the headland overlooking the island, the body of a murderer once swung from a gibbet.

Beneath the waves there may be monsters.  And sometimes, monsters also walk on land.  Both appear in my own dark story of this island The Siren Flower, the tale of a troubled woman who visits a remote inn looking for the start of a new life.  But there is something very wrong on this island and she will soon discover that more than her happiness is at stake.  Last year Fresher Publishing ran a short story competition on the theme of monsters, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I’m pleased to report that my story was shortlisted and appears in the anthology, available now from the publishers.


 Volume 4 - Monsters

There is no evidence of monsters here this morning.  The island’s inhabitants go about their business unconcerned by what may lie below the surface.  But when the sun sets and the rocks are clothed in darkness, perhaps the monsters will have their time…

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

Bursting

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The cemetery is at its most luminous in late spring and autumn, the key hinges of the year.  In autumn, the cemetery hums with the colours of turning leaves.  But now, in late May, it brims with the lace of cow parsley and a tide of bluebells.  Spring has not come quietly.  It has burst, all of a sudden.  The cow parsley is so tall that the graves hide amongst it, or only peek over the blooms.  The vegetation has the untidy lushness of late summer.  The energy is playful and busy.  A robin strikes something, a snail perhaps, on the edge of a grave, crows caw and rattle, blackbirds sing.

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Hawthorn is in full blossom, leafy tresses daubed in clotted cream.  Horse chestnut flowers thrust upwards like snowy Christmas trees.  Sunlight plays between the trees, pooling in clearings and shafting through the canopy.  Light pours through the windows of the chapel, so that, seen from the outside, it is a transparent arch of illumination.  Scores of tiny flies dance in the air and hoverflies hover under the trees, seemingly motionless, like tiny baubles catching the light.  Most of the abundant dandelions have finished flowering, and there are waves of clocks like grey lollipops.  So much potential, the seeds of next year already on the wing.

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My creativity has followed the pattern of the spring.  Low key at first, it has now burst open.  Like the landscape, I’m enjoying a creative spurt.  My novel and stories are out for submission, dispersed like dandelion seeds,  in that sweet moment of possibility when something good might happen to them.   I have revisited the first novel I wrote, revising it to correct those niggles I have never been quite happy with.  There is another story on the go and I have joined a writer’s circle.  At times like these writing feels easy.  Words fall into place and stories present no barriers to being told.  Fallow periods and the panic of creation is forgotten.

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On a rare rainy day, I see my first swallows, two of them, darting and swooping over a roof top, switch-backing from one direction to another.  I can’t see any insects but they have obviously found something to hunt.  In the dene, the burn chatters and gurgles past miniature forests of yellow flag, thistles, cow parsley and purple comfrey.  The avenue of lindens is so lush it has become a tunnel of leaves.  There are swallows here too, but only a couple.  And more flies.  A particularly delicate creature flutters up into the trees before me, slowly, on spectral lacy wings.

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There is so much to see that I don’t know where to look, so much born and being born, so much potential.  And yet life is fragile too.  In the park, early one morning, I witness a vicious scrap between crows.  The two resident sentries of the park noisily mob another close to the tree where they are nesting.  They fight, beak to feather, then resort to dive-bombing the stranger, swooping so close I hear the crack of wings across its back.  But it is too late, the interloper has stolen an egg and proceeds to devour it, one small life that won’t be born.

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Among so much growth, it is hard to imagine this fragility, yet there are concerns that this year there have been fewer insects, fewer migrating birds.  When the rain falls, the tiny creatures disappear; when the sun comes out, there they are again in their hundreds.  I wonder where they go when the sun hides its face.  Perhaps they are poised, just like inspiration, waiting for the conditions to burst into life.

Returning

I hadn’t meant to walk to the sundial today.  Fog hangs heavy over the reserve so I know the dial will not be giving away any of its secrets.  I walk past the misted pond, past drowned alders laden with cones and catkins.  A trio of mallards lurk among the roots as a black Labrador cuts a scythe through the water.  Drenched paths are mudded with puddles.  Deep into April and most of the trees are still bare.  A smattering of cowslips try to bloom.  I’d wanted to wait until I could watch the sun cast shadows from the sundial, but I find myself wandering towards it anyway, a dark hyphen in the mist.  Meandering up a path lined by gorse and stunted alders.  A horse has passed this way, leaving shoeprints and garish manure.  Goldfinches and great tits dart across the path.  Woodpigeons are solemn sentinels in the trees.

I reach the top of the hill without effort.  The dial is laid on the ground in iron and stone.  The gnomon towers useless in the fog, twice my height.  A single bunch of daffodils bloom at the edge of the path.  All below me is obscured, trees peep out of the mist, the pylons are hidden as though modern time has faded into the grey.  I stand near the edge and close my eyes, picking out a trill of blackbird song, the vibrato of a robin and a chorus of twittering.  When I open my eyes and turn, a large bee bumbles past.  It takes me a second to realise what it is, it seems so incongrouous here in this place made lonely by the fog.

Every time I think spring is here, another season takes its place.  April has been rain and mist, with the briefest hours of sunshine to fool us that winter is really over.  Nevertheless, there are dandelions like pinpricks in the embankment, daffodils and blackthorn have begun to blossom, lesser celandine trying to open in the grass.  The loud songs of great tit and chiff chaff grace the air and the heron has returned to the pond.  A starling visits my yard collecting dried weeds from the cracks in the wall for her nest.

It’s tempting to say this has been an unusual spring.  It has been very slow to come.  I’ve been slow to return too.  But I’ve learned through observing myself in the seasons that spring can never be predicted.  It isn’t the pretty, predictable blooming of flowers, creativity and action I would expect.  There is always something wrenching, something off about it.  It is like the moment of panic when I write a story – a moment when I know how the story will end but don’t know how I’ll get there, or how the story begins but not how it ends.  A very real stab of panic that I won’t be able to find the words to tell the tale that wants to be told.  There is always a moment when the story settles and it is written.  There is too, a moment when spring settles – or when I settle into spring – but it hasn’t happened yet.

It hasn’t been a period without creativity.  My unpublished novel The Wintering Place was longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize.  I have a story short-listed for another competition.  I have written new stories, tales of wind and blood.  But this period of withdrawal has also been a time of seeking comfort.  Of re-reading favourite books and walking well-worn paths.

On May Day morning the grass is silvered with frost.  I return to the sundial anyway, as the rising sun is strong behind me.  But it is cold.  I’m beginning to feel as though I haven’t been warm for months.  The alders have sprung into leaf since my last visit, and the cowslips are scattered banks of yellow.  Hawthorn blossom rarely blooms here in time for its festival, but the cherry blossom is out, if a little more muted this year.  The reserve is full of birdsong including the piping call of a particularly loud great tit.

At the top of the hill, the sundial does its work, shadowing the correct hour.  Last time I was here there was no world beyond the hill; today the landscape is set out before me in a haze of sunlight.  To the east, sea and horizon; to the south the river and the huge ship waiting to carry wind turbine foundations to sea; to the west, the shadow of the Pennine hills.  Stretched out below me are all the places I have travelled as spring struggled to be born, all those well-worn paths deepened by the pad of my feet.

It might have been the moment spring settled, that morning on top of the hill.  But as Beltane fades, winter doesn’t turn to spring, but to summer.  The air thickens and the sun bakes.  And it is the dandelions that put on a show, vivid raffia splodges in the grass.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an abundance of them.  Soon daisies and cherry blossom petals sprinkle the spaces in between so that the grass is a quilt of yellow and white.  I see my first butterflies and myriad tiny creatures cloud the air.  A crow calls from a nest at the top of the still-leafless poplar.  I don’t know what this season is anymore, or what I should expect it to be.  Perhaps there won’t be any settling this year after all, only a messy, jubilant return to light and life.

 

What we leave behind

When you frequent the green places and the edge-lands, you notice the things that people leave behind.  I am fascinated by those leavings that jar the senses because they don’t seem to belong.  Not the thoughtless litter that blights the landscape, but those objects that once had purpose but have now been forgotten.

Walking through the dene, I have a sense of something that shouldn’t be there.  Something dangles within the branches of a small tree.  I look closer and find a golden duck swinging among the leaves.  Not the kind of duck I usually see here, but a tiny cartoon duck with huge eyes and a wide smile.  Lost property?  A whimsical decoration?  Or an offering?  I smile at the incongruous duck and walk on.  Further in, on a rock by the pond, someone has propped a pair of flip flops.  There is no sign of their owner, as though he or she waded into the pond and was swallowed up, though the water is far too shallow for that.  How is it possible to leave a pair of shoes behind?  Was their owner abducted by water sprites, or did they simply want to feel the rustle of autumn leaves between their toes?

Some things are lost and unlikely ever to be reclaimed.  The upended umbrella on the railway embankment, the woollen glove ground into mud, the rubber glove with cracked fingers on the beach.  These lost things become part of the landscape.  I have watched the umbrella brim with leaves in autumn and gather snow in winter for two years now.  It has become so deeply buried into the land that only its curved handle remains visible.  It is no longer an umbrella, it is an extension of the earth.  I have watched the offerings made to the shoe tree in the park reproduce over the years, until they are hued green and crusted with lichen, like strange fruit born of the tree itself.

Some objects have uncertain provenance.  The child’s dinosaur in a rock pool that may have been dropped on the beach or may have arrived with the tide from some far off land.  Some speak of mischief or malice, like the shopping trolley in the burn or the empty bottles displayed on the rocks like the flutes of a church organ.  Some speak of helpful strangers – odd gloves propped on the spikes of the railings in the square in the hope that their owners will find them.  Some are left with purpose, like the dozens of knitted angels that appeared like magic all over town one Christmas, so unexpectedly that we smiled and talked of nothing else for hours.

If ever there was an object that seems destined to be left behind, it is the hapless glove.  I have seen so many lost gloves that I have begun to feel sorry for them.  I wonder how many are left in unexpected places.  How many are left to rot in the earth, or to be pulled apart by tiny beaks and teeth to add warmth to dens and nests.  And how many of their partners languish in drawers, never to be reunited.  How many gloves lie in landfill, little woollen hands waving among the rubbish, perhaps finding their way to other lost gloves to form a mismatched pair.  If animals wore clothes, I expect there would be tiny, paw-shaped gloves discarded all over the landscape.

The things we leave behind us always tell a story.   It may be as simple as a glove dropped carelessly while walking.  It may be that the glove was dropped because that person had something very specific on their mind.  There is the real story of why the item was lost and then there is the story imagined by its finder.  No matter how lightly we tread upon the earth, we can’t help but leave things behind.  We are part of the landscape as much as the trees and the birds, and while they leave feathers and twigs and tracks in the mud, we leave parts of ourselves too, in the objects that once had use or meaning for us.  There are things we leave behind deliberately – the heirlooms and trinkets that fill attics and cabinets – but I wonder if it is the things we give up without meaning to that tell our most intriguing stories.

 

 

We are all Myrtle the Purple Turtle

From the beginning, it seems, I was always going to be different.  I began life upside down, and from then on, I struggled to find my place in the world.   At times, the difference was visible: the splint I wore as a young child to correct what was then called ‘clicking hips’; the Bells Palsy that for a while paralysed half my face; the period when I made myself stand out with black make up and spiked hair.  At times, the difference wasn’t as obvious: a period of childhood deafness; my sexuality; the feeling that I didn’t quite fit.  So when, in high school, I was targeted by bullies, I was never sure why.  I could only assume there was something wrong with me.

Like many kids, I endured the casual but brutal name-calling so endemic in schools; the name-calling that spotlights any sign of difference.  But I was also targeted by an older group of girls for no reason I could fathom.  Bullying is a brutal process that kids unwittingly play along with of shaping each other into what is acceptable and what isn’t.  It tells us that we are too much of this, not enough of that, stripping us of our uniqueness and telling us that we aren’t good enough as we are.  And there is a shame attached to bullying.  If there is something wrong with us, then it must be something to be ashamed of.  I told nobody I was being bullied.  I still have a clear memory of the intervention of a friend, who realised I was hanging back later at school so that I wouldn’t encounter my bullies on the way home, and made me report it to a teacher.

When Cynthia Reyes’ daughter Lauren was bullied for having a black doll, she began to leave the much-loved doll at home.  She felt that there was something wrong with her that made her different.  To help her feel less alone, Cynthia wrote a bedtime story – Myrtle the Purple Turtle.  Myrtle is a heart-warming story about what it is to feel different, how we try to change to fit in, and ultimately that our differences make us special.

At times, we are all Myrtle.  Sometimes other people make us see difference in ourselves and tell us it is bad.  Sometimes, on comparing ourselves with others, we tell ourselves we aren’t good enough.  Often, it seems society is conspiring to highlight and demonise difference.  Bullying has a long term impact on individuals.  It made me adept at hiding my emotions.  It transformed me from a self-confident little girl into a shy, depressed teenager.  Some of us will emerge stronger.  It will give us insight and compassion for others we may not otherwise have had.  But the effects are long-lasting, and some will not come through it at all.

I wish I’d had Myrtle when I was younger.  I wish someone had told me that I was special as I was.  Myrtle is an important story, helping children to accept and love themselves just as they are.  And today, when the pressures seem even greater, and the methods of bullying have expanded with social media, it is more important than ever that children learn that difference is good, that our unique traits make us special and that self-acceptance and acceptance of others is important.

And now we can all have Myrtle.  Myrtle the Turtle will be available very soon as a beautifully illustrated picture book.  Gentle, funny and uplifting, with a powerful message told in a way that will engage young children, Myrtle promotes the importance of loving the shell we are in.  It strikes me that in many ways this blogging community is like Myrtle’s pond.  We are from a myriad of countries, races and religions, of all ages, differently-abled and from varying backgrounds.  We all have a unique shell that we present to the world and we gather by the pond together and appreciate each one.

Myrtle the Purple Turtle by Cynthia Reyes is published on 9th October.

Visit Cynthia’s blog here and learn more about Lauren’s story here.

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