Preparing

The first day of November bears gifts for those who watch the skies. A line of four swans flies in silence among huge flocks of squawking geese arrowing south. A thick, vivid rainbow embraces the library as I get to work.

November brings golden sunrises and swirling pastel sunsets, but when we visit the dene the sun is just a blur of light struggling through gloom. The floodlights have been lit on the football pitches nearby and they seem to be hazed with mist. I remind myself that it is only lunch time, since it feels like the prelude to twilight already. The weekend’s gales have faded into a gentle breeze. I am warm because I am moving, but if I stopped I would feel the bite of cold air. Meteorologists have forecast snow for the coming week and the sensationalist papers are making a fuss about it, but the chances are that we won’t see it much below the north of Scotland.

The dene is slumbering, or so it seems. A few soft twitters from a tit, a brief alarm from a blackbird, but otherwise the trees are silent. The burn is a chain of still puddles. Tawny leaves are interlaced with ivy, raspberry and bramble leaves. A handful of sow thistle and a lone herb robert are the only blooms left. The rushes have yellowed. The avenue of lindens has dropped many of its leaves and they lie in heaps along the path and around the tree roots. One birch among a row of others has been lost to fungi, huge brackets climbing the trunk that have killed it from within.

The pond is peaceful. Trailing willows and floating birds. An older couple circuit the water slowly, holding hands. But then the black headed gulls rise in a frenzy, their screeches filling the air. A man and his son are feeding them. The mallards and moorhens move quietly and determinedly to take their fill among the flurry of white wings.

I know this season isn’t as quiet as it seems. Some creatures are still preparing for winter, hoarding what food they can. Some are busy munching their way through the leaf litter, breaking it down to feed themselves and whatever is nurtured by the remaining mulch. Spiders have been encasing their eggs safely in silk for the winter. They won’t see their children born but have given them the best chance they can. Fungi burst into fruit so that they can send out their spores. Trees pull nutrients back within, renewing themselves for the year to come.

And I’m preparing too. I’m no longer sending stories out, I’m holding them in. At Halloween I festooned my altar with photos of women writers. Not only to honour them, but to honour the thread of creativity that has been passed down through the generations. To remind me that there are others who have come before, women who can inspire and hold space for me when doubt comes. I am no longer languishing, but venturing out in search of stories. And then venturing in to find the words with which to tell them.

The air is full of drizzle on the day after Remembrance Sunday. Knitted poppies adorn the entrance to the cemetery. Rain patters softly on the remaining canopy. Leaves crackle as they fall. These gentle tickings are the only sounds. A discarded pumpkin lantern leers from the base of a tree. Here too, the landscape seems to slumber. But crows dig deep beneath heaps of leaves to find food. A squirrel weaves among the trees. On a nearby gravestone, a gull perches, watching us with interest. And these are only the preparations that we can see.

We walk past the crematorium and overhear part of the eulogy as a funeral takes place. The celebrant talks of a man who enjoyed photography. I smile at that creative thread that links me unexpectedly on this day to a stranger. We prepare, but we never know if our preparations will be enough or when they will no longer matter. Still, we do it, because we hope for a future in which they are enough. I am lucky to have shelter and food for the coming winter. The larder I fill is a creative one. Stories and images are the things I gather to see me through.

Languishing

After the first chill of autumn, comes an interlude of sun and warmth. The tiny creatures respond. On the warm metal of roadside barriers, ladybirds gather. Every foot or so there is another, all with varying colours and arrangements of spots. There are a few ladybird larvae, with their black bodies and orange stripe. Tiny aphids, sunbathing bluebottles, a cranefly and a tiny insect that looks like a stag beetle all share the unexpected warmth.

There is little left in bloom now. A few bindweed trumpets and a single violet among the brambles. A clump of mayweed beside the road. The occasional dandelion shining among fallen leaves and a cluster of wild roses. And yet the violas I planted for summer colour are still in flower and next year’s bulbs have started to shoot. Seeds have been swept up and blown on their way to take their chances. The hogweeds are no more than skeleton spokes and there are only rags of down on the willowherbs.

Summer kept me close to home. I worked from home until September and the heat was too much for adventures. Our walks were short, timed to coincide with cooler parts of the day. I found myself less attentive to the world outside than usual. But I wasn’t idle. The yard has been tidied, weeded and adorned with new plants. I returned to the novel I sent for assessment before lockdown, to complete the suggested revisions. Some of my spring submissions bore fruit. With each rejection I made another submission to keep the work out there. And not everything passed me by. I watched a leaf cutter bee harvest leaves from my rose bush for her nest. I saw a mole building a tunnel on a piece of waste grass, surfacing with a small somersault and retreating underground once more. I watched goldfinches gather on the telegraph wires and sparrows flit through the yard.

In early August, I caught Covid. It seemed ironic after nearly a year and a half of working to keep people safe, a double vaccination and staying close to home, that I caught it at this stage. It was like a bad flu: cough, stuffy nose, congestion, aches and pains, fever, weariness, no appetite. I had bad nights, in which panic attacks returned and I started to worry about the coming winter. I slept and I watched daytime TV. I didn’t have the energy for much more than that. My wife caught it too. As I started to recover, she got the worst of it. But that was nothing. In the same month, a friend of ours in America, also double-jabbed, passed away from the disease.

As summer passed to autumn and the air got cooler, we reclaimed the beach from the crowds. Sanderlings fluted into the silence. A old-fashioned tall ship sailed in front of wind turbines towards the lighthouse. Time has often felt strange during the pandemic, and watching this ship was like seeing another age breaking through. Later, we came upon a group of stones, trailing bladderwrack, planted in a circle, as though the sea gods had placed them there to hold a meeting.

Berries have replaced blooms in the hedgerows. Blackberries are mostly picked or shrivelled on the vine, but there are shiny, plump rosehips, snow berries , haws and elderberries. The ground rustles with leaves and paths are edged with fallen gold, yet looking up, the trees seem as if they are only just on the turn.

I have been languishing in the space between now and normal. But now, everything has changed. If not truly normal, it feels as normal as it will get. I am back in the office for my full working week and have returned to some of my old wandering grounds. I am thinking less about what I have harvested this year and more about what I can do to reap a good harvest in the next. It would be easy to languish here forever, but the season has changed and the winds are calling…

My favourite fairy tale was always Beauty and the Beast, but I was never satisfied when, in the end, the Beast turned into a boring prince. You can read my alternative version, called ‘The Beauty of the Beast’ in the current Firewords magazine, issue 14 on the theme of ‘wild’. You can buy a copy here.

Basking

Late May has brought banks of ox-eye daisies and campion to the motorway verges. It has brought sheep and the yellow of rape to the fields next to the veterinary hospital where we go for Winston’s hydrotherapy. A pheasant, statue-still on the banks. Paddocks of horses and foals.

It has brought a fret from the sea that hangs over the river and rolls through town. All weekend, ships sound their horns, the moans echoing in their wake. The park is unmown, freckled with daisies and dandelion clocks. Cleavers climb the fences with sticky fingers. Clumps of grasses and buttercups have been allowed to flower. Tiny cranesbills carpet the foot of the poplar. The woodpecker drums softly – it sounds like the trees are purring. Everything is in that fresh, abundant state of growth, before the straggly mess of late summer.

Before we get there I imagine how the cemetery will be in the soft sunshine of a bank holiday Monday. I imagine the shafts of light between the trees, the dance of flies and the tangle of wildflowers. Others head for the coast. We avoid the crowds for a sanctuary of green and dappled light.

We’re greeted by blackbird song, high up in the trees. An undertone of wood pigeon and the chirrup of magpies. The mournful vibrato of a robin. A crow approaches, feathers accented with white and very tame. He is joined by others. I’ve seen people leave seed here, along the path by the chapel and these crows are obviously used to people leaving them food. They follow us some way along the path.

The cow parsley is almost as tall as us. Drifts of bluebells mingle with pockets of buttercup and campion. We walk overgrown paths bathed in green and patches of grass laid to meadow. The sun plays over the grave markers, casting some in shadow and highlighting others with pools of light. We bask in the tranquillity of dappled sun and untrodden paths.

When you think nobody will ever like a story of yours again; when you think you’ll get nothing but rejections, it’s then that a little good news comes. You begin to doubt the worth of your words, as you tout them from place to place, imagining them a little more jaded, a little more dishevelled as they are studied and turned away. But then suddenly, someone likes what you’ve done, and then it seems altogether better than you remembered. Often, rejection comes in threes, but this week it was successes. A story that made the longlist for inclusion in a prestigious literary journal. A story to be published in another journal. And a story longlisted, then shortlisted, then winner of the runner’s up prize in a competition.

I wrote The Carousel at my local writers’ circle, following a prompt where we were given a number of ‘things’ to write about. It came almost fully formed, a short story of 500 words. I’m pleased to announce it has won ‘runner up’ in the Retreat West quarterly themed flash fiction competition. One of the prizes was to have it professionally recorded by a sound artist. If you have 5 minutes, click on the link to listen to (or read) the story, but be prepared, it’s a creepy one….CLICK HERE TO READ THE CAROUSEL

Rolling

It has been more than a year since I climbed to the sundial. I would often walk here near dawn, when I had to visit work’s HQ, just across the road, but I haven’t been here since before the first lockdown. We come at midday on a Sunday, the sun unrelenting. The song of a robin accompanies us as we step into the reserve. We pass the butterburr patch, where the flowers are blooming, purple heads tilting towards the sun. Hazel and hawthorn branches clickle and clackle in the wind as we walk a path between them. Then through an embrace of bushy scots pines, until we reach the water.

The ponds are opaque and mucky green. Drowned alders droop towards water that looks thick and lifeless. The water birds are in hiding. We turn to the hill path. Cowslips scatter the grassland and a few primroses have yet to open. Predominant are gorse and blackthorn. The lemon of the gorse and the white of the blackthorn vivid in the landscape. At times they are threshold trees, pointing the way to a meandering path.

A wild wind whips around the top of the sundial. They say we’ll have snow tomorrow, but that seems difficult to believe. The horizon is clear. I see a ship passing behind the distant lighthouse, watch the turbines turning out at sea. It is just past noon and the sundial’s shadow is unequivocal. It’s looking a little neglected: graffiti on the gnomon, broken glass on the ground. A couple exercise by running up and down the steps. Two women and a spaniel join us at the peak. We see a couple of bees. A pair of great tits. A magpie.

In the lonely hours of the night, winter steals back in. Snow flirts in the shadows leaving just a sheen of ice on the morning grass. For the next week it comes and goes, small whirling flakes that appear without warning, while the sun also shines. I watch from the window as I work. One night it stays, gracing the rooftops and the ground with a light covering. The sun shines and it looks like spring, but the cold is bitter.

Time has been on my mind. In these last two years it has stretched and bent, lingered and vanished. Memories pile up, often making me cringe and shrink. But I remember things too, things I liked, things that influenced me – things of another age. Watching Prince Philip’s funeral, I find myself thinking about endings. I wonder if everyone gets to an age where each death, each pause, seems to signal the end of an era we think of as ours. If life is a general knowledge quiz, then I’m getting to the point where I no longer know the answers.

Still, spring rolls on. The hedges are fresh with hawthorn leaves and blackthorn blossom. The cherry blossom buds are about to unfurl. The grass has had its first cut. There are some bluebells in the park and the dandelions are blindingly bright. And I move on too. My wintry paintings move towards summer colour. I send out stories, Some are rejected. I send them out again. I don’t know all the answers, but I know how to keep moving.

Trembling

Nature trembles on the edge of spring. The sun reaches for the earth with renewed strength and the wind whips through the land with a renewed spirit. In places, spring breaks through. The lilac crocus shoots in the park that survived the snow have become delicate starbursts with hot orange centres. A single snowdrop and a single daffodil plant are pioneers from elsewhere, not normally seen here. Delicate nettle leaves and the shoots of bluebells have appeared. Five new trees have been planted. Everything is small, tender and pretty. Only the strident call of the great tit and the drumming of the woodpecker have any urgency. It is a gentle start to spring that belies the activity beneath the surface. We are about to experience the most excitable season of the year.

When I am about to create something, there is a flutter in my chest. Excitement at the idea that is just there, waiting to be born. This is the liminal moment – the moment before creation begins, when I tremble at the edge of possibility. There is excitement that it will work out exactly as I envision it, flavoured by a hint of fear that it won’t. I wonder if this is how nature feels on the brink of spring, knowing that her most creative time is about to begin. A twitch in the roots of the trees, a throbbing in the soil, a note in the song of the birds: the world, trembling with anticipation at what is to come.

Tiny cleavers and a single white deadnettle with pendulous flowers fringe the path to the dene. Hollies dominate the still-naked trees, gleaming in the sunlight. In the dene, spring waits. The burn is a trickle. Alder catkins sway at its edges. Silver birches dazzle. It feels like spring should be further along than it is. I walk down the avenue of linden trees and glance up. A kestrel hovers. I watch it through the branches until it gives up and flies off. A single clump of snowdrops lies on the edge of a pathway of purple crocuses. Dozens of shoots are waiting to bloom into daffodils, and a few already have. A great tit flies across my path. A small bird that might be a young greenfinch follows it. The two-note call of the great tit strikes the air. On the pond, the ducks are snoozing, hidden among the reeds. Two moorhens preen on a shared rock.

The river trembles on the point of a turning tide. A light mist hangs over the landscape. Out on the flats, fishermen dig for worms and crabs. Gulls cluster on the rocks and forage at the edge of the tide. Great hulks of driftwood are like giants’ bodies lounging on the sand. Someone has left flowers beside a driftwood memorial. Slightly upriver, an enormous cruise ship looms over the marina. It would usually be sailing the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, but it is waiting for the moment it can cruise again. In the meantime, 3,000 passenger cabins stand empty. One of the crew jogs back and forth along a deck below the many balconies.

It is my fiftieth birthday. I tremble on the edge of another decade. There’s a kind of excitement at reaching this age and wondering what the future might bring. I know that I have most likely lived longer than the years I have left but I don’t regret that. My concern is only how best to use it. Memories flash through my head unbidden, often from the earliest of years, and remind me that I wouldn’t wish to be young again – not for a minute. I look forward to seeing how I will grow into elderhood. My mind is full of dreams and plans, including all the creations yet to come. Life has a habit of surprising us, and as I stand on another threshold, I feel that tremble of excitement about what is to come.

Breathing

In a winter that hasn’t much felt like one, we came close to a white Christmas. It was Christmas Eve, and we had almost reached my favourite part of the movie Meet Me In St. Louis, where Judy Garland, clad in sparkling headscarf, sings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Just as she was about to begin, the flakes began to fall. They were thick and fat, but they melted as soon as they hit the pavement. I paused Judy and went to the door, to revel in the falling snow. Across the street, one of the neighbours sat in her window and filmed it on her mobile phone. For a while there was the silent magic of falling snow against a twilight sky. Soon, the fat flakes became tiny balls and the snowstorm was over. I listened to Judy sing about us all being together someday, and thought back to March, when, walking in the dene just before the first lockdown, I had heard Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again floating on the air.

Close to sunset on Christmas Day, when dinner was eaten and gifts opened, I walked with Winston into the town centre. The hush of Christmas Day is usually like no other here. Every business shuttered and no people around. Just a life size decorated Snowman gazing down the empty street and a silence that is profound. But this year the silence isn’t a rarity. This year there have been weeks of silence and empty streets. Some of the shops are now empty permanently. The first lockdown is like a dream: hard, shocking but with a good smattering of optimism and community spirit. I remember the shriek of kittiwakes nesting by the river. The red-haired woman who drove her pony and trap on empty roads each day. The bloom of birdsong that filled the two minutes silence on VE day. Back then there was fear, but there was also the possibility of what we could do with the ‘meanwhile space’ we had been given. Winston barks at the snowman and his bark echoes back at us. Gulls watch from sentry posts on the rooftops. A half moon is visible in the darkening sky. It was a short walk, but I am already numb with cold. As we turn for home it seems as if all the gulls have taken flight and are circling in a feathered tornado before settling to their roosts.

On New Year’s Eve, we moved into the highest tier of alert for Coronavirus in the country. It didn’t make much difference to us on our last walk of the year. Roofs were coated in ice and our breath shivered in the air before us. Trees were silhouetted against a pink and blue pastel-striped sky. The crows followed us around for peanuts. I heard the call of great tits and the woodpecker from above and gulls massing in the distance. Soon, there was a blaze of orange in the west. The year’s last sunset had a flamboyant palette. Later, I would be woken at midnight by the usual roar of fireworks, despite the restrictions, but the sunset was fireworks enough for me.

The new year rides in on storms and hope. We are battered by rain, hail, sleet and snow. The wind moans along empty lanes. We are promised cold and perhaps another Beast from the East. We are told that the virus is out of control and tougher restrictions still may be needed. On those grey days when the light hardly touches the landscape, the world seems stark and unforgiving. But in between the grey, the sun struggles through. What appeared stark becomes nuanced. This year has shown us in horrifying ways what it is to be without the most basic element of survival – the breath – and how quickly that can change everything. But it also gave us a taste of what it is to breathe freely, in unfettered time and in unpolluted air. We had no choice but to live in the moment, because we didn’t know what would come next.

A few days into the year and we are in lockdown once more. The messages are serious, the numbers who have the virus are the highest since the pandemic began. Fear is whipped up by the news and community spirit is fraying at the edges. We are encouraged to stay at home. A TV pundit suggests we keep our Christmas decorations up until Candlemas for some extra cheer. The weather still fluctuates between storm and sun. From my window as I work, I can see the clocktower of the town hall across the river. The shifts in landscape bring me joy. Sometimes it blurs into mist and rain; sometimes it is clear and burnished in sunlight; in the dark the tower is lit up in different colours. The snow that lies further north and south has passed us by. But our first trip of the year to hydrotherapy takes us into a landscape softened and made luminous by snow. Out here, I can breathe in the space and light and forget for a moment the oppressive news. Out here I can remember that I am starting this year in a much better place than I started the last. At heart I’m an optimist, still inhaling hope with each breath.

Seeking light

The lights have become a ritual of the quiet hours. Moving around the house at dawn-break, lighting the Christmas trees and turning on strings of fairy lights. And last thing at night, hours after sunset, settling the house into darkness. It is a ritual I find comforting. I am seeking light in the darkest days of the year. I enjoy the Christmas trees in people’s windows. I watch the bloom of sunrise and the sweep of sunset.

Winter hasn’t settled yet. One morning I wake to roofs stippled in frost. The grass in the park is moulded into frozen spikes, mosses have become miniature winter forests and leaves are sugared with ice. Freezing fog cloaks the river in a soft white haze. The last leaves shiver from the trees, crackling as they hit frozen ground. I hear a loud, unfamiliar cheep in the stripped poplar. The woodpecker is back. I haven’t seen him since spring, when his drumming filled the air. Now he circles the boughs of the poplar, foraging for food.

The frost trails milder but more turbulent air behind it. On another morning, we are blown to the dene by a boisterous wind that feels as though it has a storm within it. There is a watery yellow line on the horizon and the clouds are like layers of broiling waves that obscure the light. The sky is on the edge of rain. A pair of wind turbine foundations docked at the marina rise amid tree skeletons. Most of the trees are bare now. White dead nettle and tiny new cleavers push through fallen leaves. The glossy-leaved holly has shiny berries.

I find myself looking for light in the colours that remain. I look for it in the fresh green of ivy, swaddling the trunks of alders. In the bright yellow of Mahonia blossoms and the more muted bones of ivy flowers. In the yellow-green of willows kissing the pond. Most of the ducks are resting today, but the black-headed gulls squabble, scream and soar on the currents. Suddenly the sun breaks through the clouds. Immediately the landscape changes. Covered in golden light, colours become more vivid, shadows appear and lengthen. Later, the sky will darken and rain will come.

Winter returns later in the week, as we travel down the motorway to Winston’s hydrotherapy. The landscape seems bleached, layered with shades of white and grey. Purple-grey clouds loom above the horizon like echoes of the hills before them. The fields cup rolling clouds of white mist. Icy puddles are like mirror-glass. Soon the orange of sunrise lends colour, until it is leached from the land once more. Canada geese fly low over the landscape.

It’s almost time for the sun to be re-born. The nights will no longer take us further into darkness, but will move towards light. In the meantime, I will seek light in the evergreens that garland the winter landscape, in the glint of a gull’s eye and the ripple of a reflection. The light isn’t gone, it has only retreated, so that others may have a summer too.


Myrtle the Purple Turtle has been a light in the darkness since she first appeared as a story told by a mother to her daughter to combat bullying and to encourage us all to ’embrace the shell we’re in’. Mother and daughter Cynthia Reyes and Lauren Reyes-Grange, have just published Myrtle’s fourth adventure, Myrtle and the Big Mistake, which deals with the subject of harmful gossip in a gentle, caring and sensitive way for young children. Beautifully written and illustrated, this book also has the added bonus of suggested discussion topics in the back to open a dialogue with children on the subject. Available through the usual outlets and you can visit Cynthia HERE.


Songwriter Will McMillan shares another point of light in what many have felt to be a dark year, by sharing a song recorded by him and written by Barbara Baig. It is a song about strength and love, and they have chosen to share it as widely as possible so that it finds those who need it. You can find it HERE.

Re-imagining

On the autumn equinox we head for the sea.  Morning breaks on bold blue skies and whipped cream clouds.  Sea and sand sparkle under warm sunlight.   It isn’t quite low tide, but wide expanses of reef are exposed.  The promenade is full of people, who wander over the causeway to the lighthouse.

The beach is almost empty; the sea flat and far away.  The sandscape changes with each tide.  Today it is tossed with boulders swaddled in bladderwrack.  The sand is studded with lugworm casts and bird footprints.  That unmistakeable salt and sweet seaweed scent perfumes the air.  The sand martins that nest in the cliffs are gone, but there are flocks of birds out of reach on the reefs.  A curlew’s cry echoes.  Wind turbines turn slowly beyond the lighthouse and ships break the horizon.

Back on the headland, yellow grass is woven with bronze seed heads.  Yarrow and thistle are still in flower.  Sea buckthorn berries light up the borders.  We sit on the grass and eat ice cream.  There are always starlings here and a mob of them soon moves in.  At one point there are at least forty, hustling for treats.  Once they have decided there is no more, they swarm onto the grass, a sinuous horde, looking for earthier fayre.

The equinox ends with a sky full of storm light.  For two days rain falls and winds blow.  This is not a summer storm.  It is the arrival of autumn.  Outside the air seems charged.  Damp and rich and full of movement.  Though the leaves have barely begun to turn, the atmosphere is bronze.   On a day like this, anything can happen.  The fire hisses flames for the first time since early spring and the dog lies on his side in front of it.  The wind moans in the chimney.  The autumn equinox has passed.  Summer has fled but the season of magic has arrived.

In the aftermath, we walk to the dene.  For a while, our soundtrack is the hubbub of starlings.  I wonder if at dusk they join those at the island to murmur into darkness.  The sky is moody but dry.  A row of linden trees are beginning to curl and brown.  Small tree limbs blown off in the storms cover the ground.  The sports centre around the corner has become a test centre for Covid 19, a white marquee raised next to the skate park.

A gentle cheep greets our entrance to the dene.  Autumn is just flirting here.  Crisp bronze leaves lie in clusters; some of the trees are beginning to turn; but green is still the predominant colour.  Two wind turbine foundations on their way out to sea jut over the trees.  I watch through drooping willows as mallards circle the pond.  A pair of black-headed gulls have taken the high perches on the jetty, but one of them is ousted by another before long.  The moorhens cry occasionally, the gulls scream.

A clump of meadow cranesbill draws my eye to reeds starting to turn yellow.  Sprays of orange lilies and columns of yellow rattle mingle with sienna dock seeds.  Tiny fish dart away from my shadow in the burn.  The edges are full of berries.  Blackberries and rosehips, raspberries and haws, elder and snowberries.  A pair of crows feed on a discarded Yorkshire pudding.  Suddenly, a feather – grey and downy – falls from the sky, in a slow flight right in front of me.  I catch it before it reaches the ground.

On the way home, I notice the weeds between walls and pavement.  It has been the year of the weed.  Fewer grass cuttings and weed spraying has allowed some to appear that wouldn’t normally be seen and others to grow into monsters.

We may be facing another lockdown.  In this area of the country, Covid infections are rising again and there are new restrictions in force.  There is tension between those who think the restrictions are too harsh and those who think we aren’t doing enough.  We are still fighting for balance as we move into the most challenging part of the year.  But this is nothing new.  I watch a documentary that describes how the Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century led to revolts and a re-imagining of the world.  That plague stayed for centuries, re-appearing every ten years or so to take its toll once more.  It feels, right now, like Covid is something that won’t disappear, but that we’ll have to come to terms with.

But for now, the seasons turn.  September moves into October and today, it seems, is arrival day.  Not long after dawn we walk to the park at the end of the street under an arrow of squawking geese.  If that wasn’t joy enough, there is soon more squawking in the air.  In the space of ten minutes, five separate skeins of geese fly directly overhead.  They are heading south.  I wonder where they will come in to land and what they will find there. I am thankful that I was here to witness their passing.

Shifting

It shouldn’t be this hot.  The view is grey.  A fret rolls off the sea.  The piers are  blurry in the mist.  The sun is at my right shoulder, a bright disc among grey clouds.  It shouldn’t be hot, but the humidity is unbearable.  It shouldn’t be bright, but the sun lasers through the clouds to pick out highlights on the water.  In the empty space between the piers I see mirages, columns of white that might be the sails of ships or distant lighthouses.

The tide is in.  Children play on a narrow slice of beach.  Gulls float on the calm water and huddle on what is visible of the notorious black midden rocks.  The massive autoliner carrying cars passes as we arrive and small fishing boats trundle past.  We sit on a bench overlooking the sea, my wife and I.  It is our anniversary, 25 years since we got together and we’re having a celebratory lunch of fish and chips.  25 years seems an unbelievably long time.  If we have been together that long then surely we must be old.  But we aren’t yet.  Not quite.

Even when you feel that there is no movement, the years steam on, until you wonder how you got here so quickly.  Something has shifted in the last fortnight.  I’m moving again.  Perhaps it was our short journey south through fields of gold.  Perhaps it is the shift in the air that follows.  Dark grey clouds gather like a dome.  Winds whip up and rain comes.  But in the end storm Ellen only caresses us.  In the dene it still seems like summer.  The burn is only a trickle, the cascades choked with weed.  A flock of mallards faces off against a flock of moorhens on the pond.

The police helicopter is hovering, its attention focused somewhere north of here.  I’ve spent a lot of time this year like that helicopter, stalled and searching for something to focus on.  But what has often felt like drifting aimlessly has in fact been an absence of the old ‘to do’ lists and wishing time away.  As the world re-opens and structure returns, I’ve been reluctant to embrace the way it was before.

So I shift slowly.  I start to edit my manuscript.  I use my sketch of a woman and cello to create a painting.  I submit some short stories.  It’s a trickle rather than a flood, just like the burn, but it’s a beginning.  The helicopter still hovers, but three swallows are closer.  Like tiny spitfires swooping over the grass.  There is a hint of yellow in the linden trees.  Rosehips and blackberries fatten in the hedgerows.  These swallows are the last of summer, propelling me forward as the seasons turn.

Cracks

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

(Leonard Cohen)

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Spring seeps in through the cracks of the season.  Light creeps in illuminating a changed world.  A world of empty shelves, empty buildings, an empty diary.  The world is different and yet it is the same.  The seagulls are still on the roof opposite, probably the same pair that nest there each year.  The daffodils and crocuses follow the bloom paths of previous springs.  Blackthorn blossom has come, the hawthorns are clothed in green.  And the birds sing for the lives soon to be born.  For the past three months I have been obsessively checking sunrise and sunset times, desperate for the darkness to recede.  Finally light pushes it back.

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Christmas is hardly over when the cracks begin to show.  It is in the early hours of Boxing Day when my panic attacks begin in earnest.  A wave of fear and panic that propels me out of bed, downstairs, turning on every light in the house, then, paradoxically, out into the dark air of the yard.  A desperate need to escape, but there is no escape from the dark until dawn, so the fear remains.   Cold sweat, tingling in my body, pacing and fidgeting, quick breathing, utter dread and despair.  Panic has arrived and come to stay.

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I had an inkling the darkness would be hard for me this year. I tried to accept it.  It worked for a while, but then it came rushing in until I was at its mercy.  The fear isn’t fear of the dark.  I know this. The fear is about being trapped, out of control.  I know that nothing will happen to me. I don’t fear death or disaster.   I fear the feeling of fear and not being able to escape it.  I cry and wail at the  worry that this could be my life now.  I can no longer sleep without a night light.  I go to bed late because I dread waking in the early hours when fear might strike.  The hours between my alarm and dawn are excruciating.

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My fear expands.  From darkness into light.  First the evening, then coming home, then in the heart of the day.  I can’t sit still long enough to eat a meal (my appetite is gone anyway) or to watch a TV programme, before I have to rush outside in panic.  I cling to my partner, afraid to be in the house alone now.  There is a weight in my stomach that twists and burns. I’ve had bouts of depression before over the years and I would trade it in a moment for this panic.  Being outside is the only thing that brings a fleeting modicum of relief.

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I don’t know why this panic has suddenly arrived but I suspect it has grown in the lull after a very challenging couple of years.  A challenging decade.  Now that life has finally let up, there is a vacuum, and the vacuum has cracked.  I try all I can to get relief: meditation, yoga, chamomile and lavender, counselling.  I become worn down by trying to keep the panic at bay.  I am weary and depressed.  I don’t write.  I walk only as far as I have to.  I still go out to work but I am not myself.  Medication helps.  I’ve always avoided medication before, but I will do anything to get rid of the panic.  The anxiety recedes to night times again and is not as sharp.  During the day there is sadness and indifference.

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My dreams are vivid.  In them, I am often being hunted.  I flee from assassination or revenge.  I cross Europe, trying to find a place in which I can settle and be safe.  Unusually, I dream often of my late parents.  In my dreams I am sometimes me, sometimes someone else.  Part of me longs for change, an end to this period of my life, but I’m not ready.  I haven’t found joy yet.  After a few weeks of relief, the anxiety gets worse again.  I start a new medication.

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I don’t panic about the appearance of a new virus.  My internal fear is far worse than a fear of an external disease.  It is only when all our libraries are closed and I see the queues and empty shelves in the supermarkets that I think perhaps this might be serious.  We are told to stay at home as much as we can, but I have agreed with my counsellor to take a longer walk this week, to try to recapture something of the life I had before.  So Winston and I head to the dene.

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The streets are quiet but not empty.  It feels like a Sunday.  I give anyone I see a wide berth.  There will be no doggy greetings today.  Dandelions, daisies and daffodils bloom.  Dog violets peer between the undergrowth.  The blackthorns are just beginning to fade and the cherry blossom is just beginning to flower.  A wood pigeon sits in a hollow in an ivy-covered tree.  Its pecking makes a soft ticking.  A lone coot complains on the pond.  Delicate new fronds of willow catch the light.

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A group of strange mounds on the grass reveal themselves as sleeping mallards, as four small heads pop up to watch us.  We walk through bunches of summer snowflake and fallen poplar catkins.  Marsh marigolds illuminate the burn and a cluster of celandine peeps through ivy.  Suddenly, the voice of Vera Lynn at full volume washes over the park.  She sings about meeting again – of course.  A couple of verses and the last swells with a chorus of voices.  I wonder if this is on the recording, or if these are real people, having a last gathering before saying au revoir.

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I find it hard not to think there is a pattern to existence as there is to the seasons.  In these months in which climate change has been at the top of the news, when we have had some of our worst floods and fires, a virus comes which compels us to act in a way that reduces our impact on the planet.  This is an opportunity for the earth to sigh in relief.  Without wishing to downplay the fear and death the virus brings, I wonder if this should be a hopeful moment for our future.  I wonder if we will come out of it changed.

For now the world seems both different and the same.  My life had already altered before the virus happened and I can’t yet see what I will be when I emerge.  But there is light.  I have picked up a paintbrush again.  I have had good news about some of my writing.  My anxiety is much less than it was three months ago.  I am here, writing words down.  The cracks in our existence have widened this year, but there is always light waiting to pour in