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.

 

Through the fog

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We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships…a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was:…a voice  that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves.   A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore.  I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls…’ The Fog Horn – Ray Bradbury

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At the end of the north pier, where the river transforms into the sea, the fog horn dwells.  Housed in a squat, brown lighthouse on the pier that took more than fifty years to build because the waves kept breaking it down, beyond the Black Midden rocks where so many ships saw their end; there the fog horn dwells.  At night, I can hear its moan, seeping in the windows. That deep, melancholy howl is one of my favourite sounds in the world.  Sometimes, I hear it in daylight, if the air is quiet, often accompanied by the honk of ships’ horns.  But it’s a sound that really belongs to the night, when it speaks to the loneliness within us all.

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The world is a softer, more mysterious place when it is wreathed in fog.  Fog blurs the landscape round the edges.  It makes the air feel hushed.  The world around us is altered or no longer there.  In the park, as others sleep, we walk mist-blurred paths, lit by fog shrouded lamps.  The river is gone, everything south of it lost in a foggy haze.  Before work, I’m alone in another park.  To the pond, where the trees are damp and laden with dewy spiders webs.  Canada Geese and mallards float lazily, as though the fog makes them slower.  Beyond, the distant trees blend into the horizon, the buildings behind them invisible.  Fog is not unusual here, where it rolls straight off the north sea.  A drenching, gossamer fret that leaves droplets on the skin and a freshness in the air.  The week before last, the fog barely lifted.

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Fog is perfect for tales of mystery and suspense.  It distorts and bewilders.  It cloaks dastardly deeds or monstrous creatures.  Its mystery lies in what it might conceal.  Until recently, my favourite fog fiction was the 1980 movie The Fog, in which a town’s history comes back to haunt it.  I love the movie probably more for its atmosphere than its story.  But then I discovered Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Fog Horn, with its conjuring of the ancient mysteries of the deep and the aching loneliness of the horn that calls to it.

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Fog is really nothing more than droplets of water suspended in the air.  Yet the science does no justice to the wonder of experiencing it and the emotions it evokes in us.  Where I feel delight, others feel fear.  The word ‘fog’ is synonymous with confusion and gloom and murky evocations of Victorian London would not be the same without descriptions of the smog caused by a lethal mixture of soot and fog.  But usually, fog is transient.  Just like that, the fog is gone and the world is no longer enchanted.  We’ve come through the fog and everything is clear once more.