Rewinding

Halloween blusters in like an unrepentant politician. Wind tears through the canopy, whipping the park into a frenzy. A multitude of privet branches bob like scolding fingers. The lindens, almost shorn of their leaves, sway back and forth like grass skirts. Clumps of bronze seeds wave in the stripped branches of the ashes.

The crows appear. This year’s pair of youngsters are still hanging around near their parents. While the adult birds will approach and wait patiently on a nearby perch, the youngsters are pushy for peanuts. As we walk, we unwittingly play Grandmother’s Footsteps. I stop and look behind me to find they have edged closer. When I turn they hop further away. Winston is very tolerant and only rarely chases them.

A gull cackles. There are three herring gulls worm-charming on the field. It is hard to tell now what is grass and what is leaf. The ground is an autumnal checkerboard. A Moses basket has been abandoned in a quiet corner. Not cradled by bulrushes, but by stinging nettles and dead leaves.

It has been one of the quietest Halloweens that I remember. No decorations. No trick or treaters at the door. No ritual or celebration. The remembering of those who have passed has a particular meaning this year, even if I haven’t lost anyone personally. And on this night when divining the future is usually traditional, it seems folly to try to predict what the coming months will bring. I am filled with nostalgia, as I often am at this time of year. Recollections fuelled by damp, golden afternoons, wind-whipped leaves, rustling pavements and the long-ago scent of candles flickering in turnip lanterns.

The Halloween winds soon fade into days stilled and obscured by mist, but the wind returns mid-month. We walk out to the dene under a dull sun blurred by glowering cloud. Much of the autumn colour is in heaps on the pavements now, but a few trees still glow with unshed leaves. The last of the rosehips and haws shrivel on the branch. Stripped trees are still hung with red berries as though decorated with festive beads. Mahonia bushes bring cheery yellow to the withering landscape. Crispy leaves crackle on branches like quiet applause. The pond is thronged with birds. Mallards, moorhens, tufted ducks, herring and black-headed gulls float and bathe and stake their claim on bordering rocks. Pigeons and gulls line the bridge. All the action is on the pond, the smaller birds well hidden.

Yesterday, we put up the Christmas decorations. This is early for us, but we felt the need for a little cheer. The lights of autumn won’t be with us much longer, as we move towards the darkest weeks of the year. Way back at the beginning of the year – months before all our lives changed – I found fear in the darkness. That fear is fading, but I have learnt to appreciate light in a way that I didn’t before: the expansive days of summer, the golden mornings of autumn, the icy sparkle of fairy lights. I recall the infusion of light on a winter solstice two years ago, when I met the dawn at the mouth of the river and I glowed in the sun’s rebirth. The embers of that light will remain through the darkness, there to call upon when we need it, waiting to flare into life once again.

Igniting

December is the month of artificial light, when our townscapes gleam with the cold twinkle of illumination to ward off the darkness.  Teardrops of amber.  Scrolls of silver.  Cascades of gold.  White garlands and pinpricks of pewter.  Kaleidoscopes of lights.  On the high street it is often too much:  too gaudy, too synthetic.  But on silent streets and in deserted parks, they are islands of light to guide us through the night.  Windows flooded with colour welcome us home, so that we can turn our backs on the discomforts of the darkness.

December skies are flushed with colour.  Dawns of orange and purple; twilights of pink and blue; a half moon lighting up the darkness.  Stripes of wavery tangerine cross pale peach.  Fingers of pink span baby blue.  A full moon hangs in a blushing sky.  Perhaps nature is trying to rival the pull of electricity.  Artificial light is pretty, comforting and useful, but it will never equal the display of a sunset or a sunrise.

On election day, we vote before dawn.  Afterwards, before work, I walk in the country park.  It is dark, barely light enough to see.  There is no colour yet, only shades and shadows.  Trees creak, undergrowth rustles.  A blackbird trumpets in alarm and I hear the distant chink of a moorhen.  Ducks descend on the pond, first a pair, then a quintet, mallards in silhouette.  They cackle as I walk the path to the sundial.

The coming sunrise inflames the trees, glowing through skeletons.  The temperature is two degrees above freezing with a biting wind: it is bitter up here at the top of the hill.  Coloured twinkles in the distance, the hills chains of artificial light.  Sunrise begins as a vivid orange splash, brighter than any of those electric lights, but it soon becomes more nuanced.  I won’t see the sun all day, but it puts on its show from behind the clouds.  Violets and pinks, oranges and reds, blushes and blooms of colour.  The sea is a violet stripe prickled with platinum.   The sunrise pushes back the electric lights until they disappear.

Crows appear, swooping and cawing.  Next, the gulls begin to call.  Finally the muted voices of songbirds and the stutter of magpies.  The sky lightens to a block of grey-blue cloud with a strip of buttermilk across the horizon.  The park regains colour.  There is a sprinkling of autumn leaves and berries, but most of the autumn colour has leached from the landscape.  A charm of goldfinches flutters from a tree as I pass, leaving a lone dunnock behind.  I have seen the blaze of dawn but now daylight comes quietly.

It has been a speedy and subtle season.  I have hardly noticed the darkness.  As the glory of the leaves faded, the skies blossomed.  Autumn is gone and winter is gaining, but there is little fanfare.  Election day passes more quietly than I expect.  It seemed like an important day, with an opportunity for real change, but ends up as more of the same.  The creative spark is sleeping.  I’ve felt weary and in need of a break.  Soon the solstice will be here, when the light will ignite once more.  And my break is finally here, a stretch of gloriously leisurely days that will lead me to the light, sky by painted sky.

Wounded

This is the way it will be now: walking in the darkness before dawn.  The world rain-washed, figures no more than shadows.  This is the way it will be: darkness falling before I leave work, walking home in the dark.  Summer officially ended with the winding back of the clock and that extra hour gave darkness a space to seep in.

Three times recently I have woken from an unsettling dream and into a panic attack.  The darkness has seemed too thick, too close.  The dawn has seemed much too far away.  I have had to get up and turn on every light, go out into the yard to breathe in thinner air.  I have had to open my curtains wide so the glow of the streetlamp settles me back to sleep.

I have always appreciated the power of the dark and the things that are revealed there.  Darkness is fertile ground, a place for dreaming.  But this season I have dreaded it.  I have dreaded that long spread of days when the only daylight is diffused through my office window.  And yet in dreading it, I have embraced it.  At the year’s turn, I stood in darkness and welcomed it and it hasn’t been something to fear after all.

There is loss in the darkness.  Something wrong in the park in the gloom of early November.  A disjointedness.  A commotion of songbirds fluttering aimlessly.  On the edge of the park where we walk every day there is a bungalow.  It is surrounded by a long privet hedge, at least fifteen years old, maybe a metre deep and taller than I am.  You can see it in the photo above, a backdrop to the cherry tree.  It is thronged by birds all year round and buzzing with insects in summer.  And it is gone.  Chopped down and ripped out.  Over the coming days the garden is paved over and a wooden fence erected where the privet once lived.

The privet belonged to the owners of the bungalow, and yet it didn’t.  It became part of the park and belonged to all the creatures that used it for food and shelter.  I’m finding it hard to get over its loss.  Without it, the landscape is wrong.  The whitebeam sapling that was planted in the spring and has lasted all through the summer has also been lost in the last few weeks  – broken off at the trunk.  The whitebeam was an infant compared to the privet, but I still feel its ending.  I wonder if the landscape feels these wounds the way I do.  Does it recognise that some key part of itself is missing?  There is loss in the darkness.  Perhaps that is the price of the dreaming.

But there are gifts too.  Autumn has been kind to those organisms that live in the dark, waiting for their moment.  Fungi have revelled in the rain and released bloom after strange bloom.  I have revelled in hammering rain and bellowing wind.  The air births a rainbow against a glowering denim sky.  A skein of geese squawks overhead and a puppy pounces joyfully on a leaf.  The crow guardians in the park swoop a greeting as I arrive with a handful of peanuts.  These are the lights in the season’s darkness.   I breathe in as many as I can for the days when the darkness is too much.

And I have a talisman for the season.  Owls have been shadowing me since I came across an owlet in the forest in midsummer.  Now I have a little friend to take me into the darkness.  Frivolous, fun, but with eyes to drown in all the same.  She was blessed and charged at the year’s turn and now she will travel with me, helping me to remember the light in the year’s dark.


Blogger book of the month: William Holland – Shadows Kill

Bill Holland is passionate about life and passionate about writing.  He shares observations and questions about both on his blog Artistry with Words.  Bill is also a prolific writer.  Shadows Kill is the first in a series of (so far) four unusual thrillers.  It is a gritty, intelligent and fast-paced book that will have you hooked until the final chapter. The author has a knack of making you care about the characters very quickly, which means that you’re both rooting for them to win through and fearful about what might befall them. The book starts from an unusual viewpoint, not that of a straightforwardly ‘good’ cop or investigator, but of a character who is a vigilante of sorts and therefore poses questions about morality. But despite this, I came to care for Eli very quickly and couldn’t wait to turn the page to find out how it ended. A well-written exciting read and a great introduction to a series.  You can buy Bill’s books on Amazon and you can find his blog here.

Lighting up time

Even on these deep black mornings, there is light.  A luminous moon and burning Venus side by side  as blackbirds trill in the dark.  Evenings, and streetlights cast cones of swirling silver on the sky.  Puddles become silver pools.  Falling rain is glitter flickering on the road.   Iron benches are splashed with liquid gold.  It is rare that I experience true darkness in this town that I call home.

I have seen true darkness, when the sky is crowded with stars and soaring meteors; when fish light up the water with the luminescence of their passage.  I have walked on the edge of the forest while the nightjar sang and only glow worms lighted the paths.  But that is not here.  Here the sky is obscured by reflected light, streetlights puddle in sickly orange or cold white.  Still, there is a velvet to these mornings and evenings, when shadows bloom into darkness.  Still, I can revel in the fertile dark.

I have a print on my wall by Peter Brook called ‘Lighting up time’.  It shows a man and his dog on a snowy hill with the fire of a street lamp punctuating the monochrome.  One of the delights of winter is when the lamps wink on and bring comfort to the dark.  When light spills from houses and we wonder what might be going on within.  When the streets are wreathed with lights and there is a Christmas tree in almost every window.  This is the lighting up time of the year, when we ward off the darkness with a barrage of illumination.

The river is a blur of luminous colour: amber behind glass, cold white of floodlights, green and red warning beacons, the flash of the lighthouses.  Lights that waver in the water like coloured streamers.  I walk there in the dark on the morning after the solstice.  I am here to celebrate the sun’s birthday on the dawn after the shortest day.  From now on, though it doesn’t seem like it, it will only get lighter, the days will only get longer.

And at first it seems the birth will be muted: a brush of red below indigo clouds.  It is low tide and the sea is just a whisper.  Gulls congregate on the sandbanks and the air is all gull cry.  But the birth of the sun does not disappoint.  The sky blushes with colour.  The river becomes stripes of lilac, the sea left behind on the sands is a lake of pink and orange and blue.  Soon the dawn is molten colour.  Just before sunrise I hear a loud creaking and an arrow of geese soars against orange wisps of cloud.  I watch as they fly south, out of sight.

And then the sun is born, blazing orange.  I feel its heat light me up, burnishing my face and warming my core. The beach behind is washed in gold and my shadow lengthens. The sun is now too bright to look at.  Then, the Amsterdam ferry sails past, blocking out the sun.  For a moment the day is revealed for what it is – grey and wintry.  Afterwards, the day never quite regains the light of the sunrise.  It seems darker than the dawn.  But I felt the fire of the sun as it was born and that is enough to light up the winter to come.


Myrtle's Game Book CoverI’m thrilled to share that Myrtle the Purple Turtle has a new adventure.  Written by the talented Cynthia Reyes and her daughter Lauren Reyes-Grange, Myrtle’s Game continues the theme of difference and belonging begun by the first book.  It is about other’s perceptions of what we can do just because of the way we look or who they think we are. It is about not being defined by those prejudices and about being who you are and excelling at it. This is a great book to read with a child to prepare them for their first visit to nursery school or their first group situation where they are trying to find their place.  This story is about friendship, supporting one another and showing that we should never let what others’ think stop us from doing what we love. A lovely story that will really appeal to children and would make a great gift, both the print and e-book versions are now available on Amazon.

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.