Halloween is the day when there is neither past, nor future, only between.  Before the year turns, I have a notion to re-visit the green places of my past.  I step out into a breezy day, leaves rustling in spirals on the pavements, rays of sunlight bursting through grey cloud.

My past has been fenced off, built over, locked away.  We were urban children, grown on a Council estate, but there were always patches of green, hints of the wild.  The ‘res’, the ‘cut’, the ‘back field’, these were the edge-lands on our doorsteps.  Our lives as children were lived along these tracks and in these spaces.  The walk to school and back, the trails between each others’ houses.  The green spaces for playing, exploring and hanging around.

The first of two reservoirs, at the top of the street where I used to live, is a trapezium of grass tangled with purple clover and dock.  The gate is locked.  Perhaps it always was, but we got in anyway.  I always found the reservoirs puzzling and slightly mysterious.  How could a field contain a reservoir of water?  I never quite believed they were what they were supposed to be.  There is an old stone building, stamped 1901, which must have been some kind of access or pump house.  It is boarded up, painted with graffiti, art deco railings rusting around its roof, rubbish and weeds littering its steps.  There is talk about building houses on top of the reservoir, squeezing yet more dwellings into one of the last green spaces.

There was a park once, where the newest houses on the estate have now been built, an open space with swings and climbing frames.  The ‘back field’ is still there.  It was once just a ragged patch of land behind houses, with waist high meadow.  Now it is a water-logged square of shorn, vivid grass.  I disturb a posse of blackbirds in the shrubs at its edges.  I wonder how much it is used, and for what.  It seems unlikely that it is ever allowed to become as overgrown as it once was.

But my sycamore is still as I recall it.  The only tree I remember as an individual from my childhood, it stands on the corner, arcing over the road.  When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird it was this sycamore that I pictured when I read about the gifts left in the tree.

The ‘cuts’ were narrow paths between.  Each was the length of a street.  A narrow lane beyond the back garden fences.  A pathway between houses and the reservoir.  Small slices of nature, bordered by trees and plants.   But no one will be travelling those paths again.  They are blocked at each end, locked behind spiked metal fencing.  I stand looking between the bars, yearning to walk the old path again.  But within the fencing, nature has taken advantage.  Brambles, grasses and small saplings have reclaimed the path.  They have become liminal places but not human places.  On this still autumn day, they are peaceful pockets of green behind the bars.  Who knows what happens within the fences while the people aren’t watching?

The bordering reservoir has been fenced off too, metal spikes above the wall.  Fences and fences.  Adjacent, my old school has been demolished and re-built with yet more of the ubiquitous railings.  There was a time when a farmer’s field lay opposite the school.  I still remember the feel of the ploughed furrows under my feet.  The old hawthorn hedgerow is still there, now backing onto houses.  It is a reminder of a past when there were spaces to explore and everything wasn’t locked up tight.  It is half-term and the children are on holiday from school, yet I haven’t seen or heard a single child during my walk, only the ghostly footsteps of those who have left childhood far behind.

I cross the busy road to get to the cemetery and leave the fences behind.  Here there are meandering paths scattered with leaves.  Tilting headstones rooted with ivy.  A laburnum like an umbrella sheltering graves.  The foliage is still mostly green, but maples appear like pools of light in the distance.  A large leafless hawthorn has berries like fairy lights.  A giant beech is a beacon beckoning me along the path.

My ritual tonight is all about stripping back and letting go.  I am letting go of the year just gone, and all the years that have gone before.  The past is a familiar place, but not always a comforting one.  I have witnessed again the way the world never stands still.  The fences represent a changed world – one in which it seems necessary to fence children in and fence others out.  But fences are no barrier to memory.  Once, small feet traversed this landscape without impediment, and the imprint of their passage is part of the landscape still.


Autumn winds sweep in for a few days, making leaves dance and whipping up dervishes from cut grass.  But the winds can’t sweep away the summer sun.  It is still warm, dry and lazy.  Bees and hoverflies still throng dandelions and sow thistles.  Wherever I step, wasps drowse on the grass.  Speckled woods have replaced painted ladies.  Monster docks sway among the reeds in the burn, the most vivid bronzes and coppers of the season so far.  Two swallows dart over the grass.  Mallards and moorhens float on the pond.  A bird cheeps in the bushes.  Branches bleed with raspberries, rowan berries, rosehips.  The burn is dry, pools still and clear.  I struggle to feel the essence of September amid the lingering heat.

Two glorious weeks of respite from work, but not a straightforward holiday.  My wife is recovering from surgery and I have an ear infection that leaves the world muffled.  But a holiday at home has its advantages.  There is none of the upheaval of packing and going away.  There is the simplicity  of sleeping late in your own bed, pottering and preparing for the crossing between one season and another.  I prune and weed and get rid of rubbish.  Plant a late season rose bush and lavender to fill some empty pots.  I worry how many more of my rose leaves will be eaten.  But I have been pleased to see more insects than before in the yard, particularly moths.  A huge house spider in the bath heralds spider season.  I begin to notice all the tunnel webs on old walls.

On the day of the Harvest Moon, I take a walk back in time.  The church I went to as a child is having an open day.  I haven’t been here since I was nine or ten, when we moved, but I have a couple of clear memories and I want to know if it’s as I remember it.  Walking the streets I grew up on, I pass the traditional bakery, now derelict.  There is no sign of the corner antiques shop where I used to pet Sarah and Spencer the two St. Bernards.  The upstairs flat I lived in, with its floor length windows has been combined with the flat below into a nondescript house.  The sweet shop we used to visit for a 5 pence mix up appears unchanged, but you wouldn’t get much for 5 pence now.

Across the road from the church, the hall where I went to Brownies has been converted into an expensive house – sold off by the church as it was too expensive to maintain.  The church itself is not so different.  I clearly remember the chancel with its iron gates and grey marble floor, carved choir stalls and a relatively simple altar.  I remember the stone pillars in the nave.  But what I didn’t recall were the windows.  Three pairs along each side of the nave, commemorating people who were important to the church’s past.  Above the altar, a triptych of arches: Mary with her spectacular blue, star-studded robe, flanked by the fieriness of the other two windows.  I sit in a pew and enjoy the silence.  I watch trees flutter behind some of the windows, shadows blooming in the coloured glass.   My memories of being here are actually very few, but the building itself is clear in my memory.

Later in the week, an old-fashioned trip to the seaside for fish and chips, ice cream and 2 pence slot machines.  The bright blue sky and wispy white clouds signify a summer day, but there is a slight chill in the breeze.  A handful of swallows dance over the waves.  Two herring gulls perch on gutweed covered rocks.  Out at sea, the ship Aegir might be servicing the wind farm or perhaps extending it.  It will dock at the marina later and I’ll see its crane towering above the roofs in the park.

The sycamore in the park that always heralds autumn is definitely dead.  It has remained bare all year round.  But the new whitebeam has survived.  It boasts orange berries and frilled leaves.  Someone has piled a moat of cut grass in a circle around one of the cherry trees.  Perhaps they remember last autumn when, for a time, it became a portal to another world.  For now, the world still belongs to summer.  I have had the fire on for the first time this season.   At times there is a chill and the air is grey.  But summer lingers, never quite crossing the threshold into autumn.

Blogger book of the month: Alethea Kehas – A Girl Named Truth

Order a Girl Named Truth on AmazonAlethea Kehas is a writer and healer, who writes poetry, memoir and spiritual pieces among other things on her blog.  A Girl Named Truth is a brave and beautiful memoir exploring the nature of truth. The starting point is the author’s name – Alethea – which means ‘truth’. As a child, she feels that because of her name she has an obligation to be truthful, but this is no easy task when she is unable to distinguish the truth of the stories told by those close to her and when their emotional demands cause her to fear speaking out. The author’s life is defined by a mother who runs away with her and her sister, away from her biological father, to set up home with a stepfather the author is in fear of. The memoir explores abuse, bullying, conditional and unconditional love and ultimately healing. The subjects in this book aren’t easy and I felt much sympathy for the dilemmas and events she must face. But nevertheless I found it an easy book to read and wanted to go back to it, hoping for the healing it would bring. The author is clear that this is the truth as she experienced it and I was glad that by the end she had found a resolution and acceptance which was both moving and hopeful.   You can find Alethea here and her books are available on Amazon.

On the edge of the tide


There is a place on the coast, a place that is almost forgotten.  It lies in the shadow of the promenade and you might never notice it was there.  The zig-zag of steps leading down to it is unobtrusive and ends abruptly on the rocks.  You might wonder why there is a staircase here at all.  But look before you and you will see a bowl scooped neatly out of the rocks.  Peer into the foggy water, choked with bladderwrack, and you might notice flagstones at its base.  Look closely at the walls and you will see rusted metal rings driven into the rocks.


Table Rocks is an accident of geology: a natural pool filled by the tide.  It was opened as a swimming pool in 1894, when it was 20 feet long.  In 1908 the rocks were blasted to extend it to 70 feet.  Steps were cut to lead down to it.  A rope rail was threaded through the iron rings.  A changing hut was built that was later swept away by gales.

Old postcards show the pool thronged with people, the spectators clad in formal suits, hats and long dresses.  This was a time when English seaside resorts were booming, but swimming in the sea wasn’t as easy as it is now and there were concerns about its safety.  Still, swimming here must have been a thrilling experience, with the waves booming against the rocks only a few metres away.  My mother swam in this pool, though I never did.  It was used until 1971, the year I was born.


Just along the coast from Table Rocks, another pool lies abandoned.  Tynemouth open air pool was specially built in 1925.  It lies on the edge of the beach, snuggled into the cliffs and was filled by the tide.  My grandfather helped to build this pool, often working at night between the tides.

These places are remnants of another age, before people abandoned the seaside resorts to take their holidays abroad.  Swimming became very popular in the inter-war years and in the 1930s a craze for sun-bathing developed, so in the twenties and thirties more than 200 lidos were built in the UK.  It wasn’t until the sixties that indoor leisure centres took over.

In the early nineties the pool closed, forgotten by all but the hardiest of swimmers.  The pavilion was demolished and its rubble pushed into the pool.  Covered by sand and rocks to make it safe, it was hoped that it would develop into a rock pool landscape, but it never worked.  There is a stark beauty to its dereliction.  The way the sea air has weathered the old barriers in rust, framing the sea beyond.  The abandoned stairs climbing to nothing.  The cracked steps haunted by ravens and gulls.


But when I see what has become of it, there is a sadness too.  For I remember what this place once was.  It had none of the comforts of indoor pools.  The temperature of the water was that of the frigid north sea.  Its taste was salt.  The changing rooms were no more than concrete cubes.    But swimming here, you could feel the sun and the air on your skin.  I have been here when it buzzed with people, sprawled on the steps, splashing in the pool, frolicking by the fountain.  And I have been here, cocooned at high tide, when it was almost empty.  One of my last and most vivid memories is of swimming alone, the last person in the pool as a lightning storm rolled in.

Swimming in the open air pool aged about 9

But perhaps there is a future for these places after all.  Outdoor swimming is becoming popular again.  A group of local people are seeking funding to re-open Tynemouth open air pool.  I hope that one day I will swim in it again.

The girl I was

She offered me distant cities, food that I had never tasted and the echo of words in alien tongues, but I chose terraced streets, white satin and packed lunches.  I see her still, shivering in a print dress, the lake reflected in her eyes.  ‘I could be your muse,’ she said, as I snapped the sketch book shut, capturing forever the hope and challenge in her face.’ 

The Girl I Was – Andrea Stephenson


I wonder what the girl in this photo is thinking.  She’s around four years old, on holiday in Blackpool, secure in the grasp of her father’s hand.  I suspect she’s not really thinking at all, but simply enjoying the moment.  Just look at those snazzy sunglasses, that colourful dress, the celeb pose, one leg in front of the other.  She’s carefree and unselfconscious.

This girl is too young to know that others have dreams and expectations for her.  In her pose, there’s not only contentment, but also freedom.  She doesn’t yet have a concept of who she is or who she will be.  She hasn’t made any important choices or compromises.  She’s the girl that existed before should replaced could.  Before the opinions and actions of others made her question whether she was enough.  She’s the girl before disappointment, responsibility, grief.  Before life is mapped out to a destination.

She’s the girl I was.


I’m fascinated by the lives I might have led.  I believe that in some other place a clutch of other selves live all of our possible lives.  I believe that every moment we have ever lived is still happening, somewhere.  I suspect that one of the reasons I’m a writer is because I’m captivated by just this: who we are and might have been; the choices we made or didn’t make; the paths taken or ignored.  Within all of these many possibilities, I think there is a childlike but steely little soul for whom any of these lives would have been the right one.  The trouble is, that powerful little being is easily buried.

As I get older, I move backwards, becoming closer to the girl I was.  No longer so distracted by forging an identity in the world, I can look back at myself with a sense of compassion.  I can accept that I’ll never get to do this all again differently and know that I wouldn’t want to.  I’m slowly re-connecting with the hopeful, confident little girl I was then.  And one day, I hope to be able to nod my head in wise agreement with Maya Angelou, when she said ‘wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now’.

The Girl I Was is my most recent published short story.  It was a finalist in the Aesthetica short story award and is available now in the 2015 Creative Writing Annual, which you can buy here.  It’s a story about the lives we live and the way we lie to ourselves about them.  This story is very different to Reckoning, the last story I had published, but both are concerned with the path a life can take.

In this new year, I’d like to propose a different kind of resolution: remember the girl (or boy) you were before you became who you thought you should be.  Embrace her.  Re-connect with her.  And live as she would have lived.

My Father’s Box

I was honoured when Holistic Wayfarer asked me to guest post on A Holistic Journey. I was pleased to accept and write about the impact that money and class had on my upbringing and the way I live now. You’ll find a collection of thought-provoking, passionate and powerful writing on the blog, so please visit and take some time to explore. Thank you Holistic Wayfarer for inviting me.

A Holistic Journey

When my father died, I kept the wooden box in which he had stored his tools. Dad worked as a plasterer, so the box is scarred and coated in plaster dust.  But this box reminds me of all that I learned from him about earning a living.  From Dad, I learned that loyalty and pride in your work are more important than how much you earn.

I was raised in North East England. For the first decade of my life, we lived in a small flat with an outside toilet.  We bathed in a tin tub in front of the fire.  Dad could have earned more working for another employer, but he was loyal to the small family firm he’d apprenticed to.  He took pride in his work and often carried out jobs for family and friends for nothing more than a couple of packs of cigarettes.

We didn’t have…

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A quiet man

006My Dad died in the second year of the twenty-first century, but in many ways he was a man of a much older generation.  He lived to see computers, mobile phones and digital TV, yet his first job was driving a horse and cart.  He was already forty four when I was born.  They’d tried for some time to have me and in the end, weren’t able to have more children, so I was an only child to parents who were, then, significantly older than the norm.

To me, Dad was always handsome.  Tall, thin, with very dark hair and pale blue eyes, as a young man in black and white photos, he is dramatically featured and almost foreign-looking.  He wore his hair brylcreamed back in the old-fashioned way until the end of his life.  In later years, he grew grey and craggy, hands calloused and nicotine stained, face crinkled and worn.  In all my years with him, Dad never dressed casually.  For most of the year, his long-limbed frame was clad in shirt and tie, a dark suit, a dark raincoat and black, polished brogues.  We would joke that we knew when summer had arrived, as he replaced the dark suit with brown trousers, a light coloured jacket and cord shoes.  This, or a cardigan instead of a jacket, was as casual as Dad got.

I would have liked to inherit Dad’s tall, slender frame.  Instead, I got his temperament.  Ask my partner what is most frustrating about me and she’ll likely say the fact that I never share what is going on in my head.  Dad was the same.  Quiet, calm, never giving much away.  I’ve always struggled to write about him and I think it’s in part because in many ways, he’s still a mystery to me.  Ask me about his history and there are only fragments.  Ask me about his family and there is evenAnne, Joan, Ron, Cyril, Dennis & Katie less.

My mother was the dominant one in our household.  If there was a battle to be had, Mam would fight it.   A punishment to be given and she would deliver it.  An opinion to be expressed and it was hers.  She sometimes used the classic threat of ‘wait until your Dad gets home’, yet I don’t remember Dad ever raising his voice, let alone his hand.  He didn’t fear or shrink from confrontation and he wasn’t hen-pecked, he just didn’t seem to worry about the things she did.

And there was always a sense that Dad’s family was different.  For years, Mam’s side was connected – Sundays at my grandmother’s house and regular contact.  We rarely had the same interaction with Dad’s side and there was the suggestion they often fell out with one other.  Although now Mam has gone, her side of the family has drifted further apart, I still know more about them and have more contact with them than Dad’s.

Riches weren’t important to Dad.  He was a time-served, skilled plasterer, but though he could have earned more elsewhere, he stayed loyal to the small family business that was his first employer until he was finally made redundant many years later.  I rememb001er him waiting to be picked up from work, dressed in plaster-crusted overalls, perched on a newspaper so he wouldn’t dirty the furniture.  I remember Mam becoming indignant that he would always do work for family and friends, asking no more than a couple of packs of cigarettes for his efforts.  I was so proud that he was so good at what he did that I never wanted him to be anything more.

Dad was a man of habits.  For years, his only outing was to the club on a Friday.  He would enjoy a shandy and play dominoes, always coming home at eleven, sometimes with fish and chips for our supper.  And yet there was always the suggestion that this very traditional, proper man had something of a past.  My favourite story was when he’d been for a night on the town across the river and resorted to stealing a rowing boat to get home again.


My relationship with Dad was uncomplicated (unlike the one with my mother).  I loved him without reservation, without criticism, without thought.  I never told him and he never told me.  If I could have one more moment with Dad, I would wrap my arms tightly around him and tell him how much I loved him and how happy I was that he was mine.

Dad died when I was thirty, on the first day of December.  He wasn’t able to witness many of the events of my life.  But I’ll always believe that on the day we moved into the first house we bought, he came by for a visit.  I stood in the living room with a friend and was thinking what a shame it was Dad couldn’t see it.  All of a sudden, a large, black butterfly flew in through the window, fluttered casually between my friend and I, and in a perfect loop, soared out of the front door.  It was such a strange, magical moment that the two of us stared at each other in mute surprise.  Immediately, I thought of Dad and I’ll always think that black butterfly was him, popping in to let me know he was there.