Meanwhile

Suddenly there are leaves.  Tissues of green illuminated by the afternoon light.  Dabs of lime like fireflies strung across dark branches.  Suddenly there are lacy florets waving from boughs of ash.  Spindly posies springing from maple twigs.  And suddenly there is blossom, wanton wild cherry blossom.  The trees have come to life and suddenly we will forget that they were ever bare.

There is a space in the town centre that was once a small bank.  Now, its empty rooms host abstract paintings and strange installations.  In the old, walk-in safe, a video plays of a buoy silently blinking Morse code over a dark sea.  Upstairs, artists work in makeshift studios.  Sometime in the future this will become a shop or a bank once more.  For now, it is known as a ‘meanwhile space’.  It is a pause between two existences: what it was and what it will become.  And in the meanwhile, it is a crucible for creation.

Lockdown is a ‘meanwhile space’.  A time between what we were and what we might become.  Our eyes have been opened to mountain vistas and clear waters, to clean air and wild animals roaming empty streets.  Amid the fear, uncertainty and boredom, many people are using this as ‘meanwhile’ time.  A time to do things they wouldn’t usually have time to do, or to prepare themselves for who they want to be when this is over.  We are baking, dancing, singing, writing.  We are learning and making art.  We have glimpsed the magic of what could be normal if we were to act as though we are a part of the world and not above it.

The physical world has shrunk again.  All the car parks have been closed along the coast to prevent people going there.  Life is something that happens nearby.  The life of my street is more important than ever before.  I pay closer attention to the Herb Robert flowering between the cracks in a neighbour’s path, the tiny hearts of shepherd’s purse in the gutters, the ivy leaved toadflax and dandelions growing out of walls.  The colony of sparrows on our street makes rowdy music as they flutter from the privet at the end of the lane, from roof to roof, all along the road.  Gulls glide over, wings lit up by the sun.  I can hear the crows’ soft caw as an undertone.  And in the night, foxes slink along the middle of the road.

Under the cherry trees in the park, bees hum and blue tits chitter.  The sun blazes white through white.  I sit against a gnarled trunk and feel the levity of the blossom.  The trees are parasols of light, voluptuous with snowy flowers.   It won’t last long, this perfect flowering, when the green of bud gives way to the burst of white.  After only a week there will be a tinge of brown to the blooms.  The ground is already littered with fallen blossom.

The grass hasn’t had its first cut of the season yet.  It is a shaggy hearth rug, patterned with daisies and dandelions.  Clumps of grass grow long and yellow at the tips.  There are whorls of cow parsley and tiny tree saplings that wouldn’t normally have had the chance to grow.  I watch my world from beneath the cherry blossom.  A recent poll showed that only 9% of Britons want to go back to ‘normal’ when this is over.  And yet we haven’t left the world behind, we have only left the way we normally behave in it.  I want to grasp this time, to wring from it anything that is extraordinary.  I want to be changed by it.  But meanwhile, there is cherry blossom and birdsong and the certainty of spring.

Lockdown

SAMSUNG CSC

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Toni Morrison

The gabion baskets burst with wildflowers.  I don’t know if seeds were dropped into the baskets deliberately, or if they have taken the opportunity to root in the cracks.  As yet, they are mostly green.  But there are highlights of yellow,  pink and a touch of red.  So many varieties of flower, some in quantity, some no more than a sprig: coltsfoot, sow thistle and nipplewort, valerian, hairy violet and scarlet pimpernel; ribwort plantain, ragwort and bladder campion.  A handful of poppies has bloomed and soon the wall will be crimson with them.  I see my first ladybird of the year crawling along the wire.  My first butterfly, a red admiral, flutters onto a dandelion.

SAMSUNG CSC

It’s taken time to be comfortable at home again, without feeling the rooms were too small and that I had to escape.  When lockdown was just a whisper, I worried whether my panic attacks would allow me to cope with confinement.  Fortunately, they were more under control by the time lockdown became a reality.  I work from home now.  The days are often frantic.  I’m classed as a key worker, helping to provide access to critical services through our libraries.  Things change quickly, requiring a response.  I’m on my phone so often it burns my ear.

SAMSUNG CSC

Doggy lockdown is exhausting

But lockdown is also an opportunity.  An extra hour in bed, being at home for Winston, pottering around the house as a break.  Usually when I’m out at work, lunches are taken up with walking home and back to check on Winston.  Now I have the luxury of a half hour walk.  Each day I walk to the river, past the new houses on the bank shored up by the gabion baskets, past the former dry docks and on to the ferry landing.  There’s a steep hill to climb on the way back, so it’s a decent effort for a short walk.  I hear my first kittiwakes of the season.  Most nest further upriver on the Tyne Bridge, but for as long as I can remember there have been kittiwakes nesting on the two tall buildings at Ferry Mews.

SAMSUNG CSC

Rainbows painted by children appear in windows.  Every lunch time the clip clop of hooves announces the passing of a horse and gig taking advantage of quiet roads.  In lockdown, every day is Sunday.  Almost – though not quite – the Sundays of childhood, when shops were closed and the day was filled with family duty gatherings and school the next day.  I hated Sundays as a child, but I welcome the enforced Sundays of lockdown.   My days aren’t so different to those before.  Normal had already changed.  As yet, I don’t know anyone who has the virus.  It still seems far away.

SAMSUNG CSC

Winter returns for a few bitterly cold days, as it usually does in spring, but then it is gone once more.  In the park, the crows have begun re-building an old nest in a sycamore alongside the railway line.  He brings her twigs as she caws and settles into the nest.  They have become more territorial, chasing away gulls and wood pigeons, but they still swoop down for peanuts.  The celandine and the daisies are flowering.

SAMSUNG CSC

Once, I would have debated whether my writing had value in such times as these.  I would have worried that others had more important things to say, that my soft words were irrelevant.  But it’s in these times that we’re compelled to make sense of what is happening to us.  If you’re a writer,  you write.  If I don’t write now, in these strange times, then why write at all?  It doesn’t matter what I write about, it matters that I put one word in front of another.

Moulting

Walking through town, my attention is drawn by the song of a starling.  He perches on a shop sign, singing a passionate song.  I’m astonished at how beautiful he looks.  The cream tips of his feathers glow.  He seems vibrant and brand new.  He has obviously been through his moult.   Throughout the year, the cream feather tips wear away, leaving the starlings in their breeding plumage.  But he has replenished his feathers.  And now, it seems, he is singing for the joy of how beautiful he is.  (The photo above is not this starling.)

Recently, my muse has become as elusive as the songbirds.  I’ve focused instead on re-visiting old stories.  Stories that were finished a couple of years ago.  That have been sent out into the world a number of times without success.  I enjoy the revision process.  Most of the revisions are slight – on re-reading them, I still have confidence that they are good stories.  I tighten a couple of endings which I always knew in my heart weren’t strong.  Distance has given me the inspiration to find the endings that they deserve.  I make changes to all but one of the stories, and each one, I think, is better for the attention.

They say that you should never write for a market; that you should write the stories you’d like to read.  There was a time, years ago, when I tried to write things that might be popular, or to emulate things I had loved.  There was a time I thought I was a horror writer.  I wrote a whole novel – my first – before deciding that although I loved to read horror, it wasn’t who I was as a writer after all.  Re-reading my stories affirms that these are the stories that I should be writing.

The hedgerows have new plumage too.  Rowans are fiery with berries.  A posse of starlings, many of them still in their juvenile feathers, chitter away as they eat them.  Thistles and willowherbs shed flowers to give way to thistledown.  Hogweed heads have become bronze wheels of seed.

In the last week my seagull chicks have fledged.  They are still living on the roof top.  Their parents are still watching over and feeding them.  The two siblings still follow each other around.  I didn’t witness the moment of first flight, but I have seen them take to the air.  Landing is still tentative.  They hover for moments until they finally commit to it, and it often appears that it isn’t quite where they’d aimed.  It will take them a few years of moults to lose their youthful feathers, but by then they will be adepts of the air like their parents.

Maybe we could all do with a creative moult, a time of quiet away from the pressure of producing something new or sending things out into the world.  A time to peck apart those old languishing stories and give them sparkling new plumage.  A time for our muses to preen their feathers before returning to us with replenished wings.


Blogger book of the month: Jennifer Kelland Perry – Calmer Girls

In her blog, Jennifer Kelland Perry – and sometimes her cats – share wonderful sights and stories from their beautiful home in Newfoundland.  Jennifer’s series of YA novels that explore the lives and loves of the cross sisters is also set in Newfoundland.

The course of true love certainly doesn’t run smoothly for the Cross sisters. Uprooted from their home in the small town of Calmer Cove, sixteen year old Samantha and her older sister Veronica are trying to make their way in the city. With divorcing parents, a mother who is drinking too much and the challenges of fitting into a new home comes the added complication of Ben Swift. Attractive, confident Veronica is soon going out with Ben, but Samantha is falling for him too. This YA novel is fast-paced, full of intrigue, enjoyable to read and deals sensitively with a number of issues that young adults might face. The characters are well drawn and the story is engaging. Though the story comes to a satisfying conclusion, there are a number of threads that Jennifer goes on to explore in the exciting sequel: Calmer Secrets.

You can find Jennifer here, and the Calmer Girls series is available on Amazon.

Uncomfortable

Travelling south, there are fields already dotted with baled hay.  Time has moved quickly in recent weeks and I’d forgotten that it’s almost Lammas.  The landscape is still green, but accented by the coming season’s gold.  I hurtle through the country, train travel giving both distance and connection.  Things seen from above that would normally be seen from below; landmarks made miniature; glimpses of things that would never normally be noticed.  We sweep past the Angel of the North, the Penshaw Monument, the Kilburn white horse and the cathedral-scape of Durham city.  Cows, sheep and horses populate the fields, but there is also picturesque abandonment – crumbling buildings, dilapidated trailers and huts often now used to shelter the animals.  But mostly, there are fields and big sky, blue-grey clouds and the threat of rain.

Two weeks ago I gave my first performance as a writer.  North Tyneside Writer’s Circle hosted Keeping My Soul 2, a second annual event showcasing the work of its members.  It was held at the library where we meet, with an audience of around 40 people.  I was terrified to take part, worried about it irrationally in the weeks before.  Though I was confident in the words of my story, I wasn’t confident in my delivery.  I’d thought I would settle as I began, but I could hear the fear in my voice as I was reading.  Strange how much harder it is to present something personal than to present something work-related, because it is, of course, a little piece of your soul that is on show to everyone listening.  I didn’t enjoy it, but I’m glad I did it.  And I’ve realised the value of performance, as another way  to have stories heard that might otherwise never be shared.

Now I’m stepping out of my comfort zone again, coming alone to the Mslexicon writing conference in Leeds where there will be dozens of other women writers.  At the venue, big sky and open fields have given way to the shelter of the canopy.  It is a place of old stone and old trees, hued in green.  Eccentric buildings and hidden corners.  Flag stoned paths lined with lamps.  A bengal cat complaining loudly.  There is a tennis court with an air of abandonment and a dusting of seeds.  A lichen-ed bench and an old tree swing.  Stone cloisters in which to walk and ponder.  A narrow lane leads to a park bursting with giant trees, steep paths and graffiti on old stones.

But there isn’t much time to be inspired by landscape, the inspiration is coming from within.  I learn that what I write may not be magical realism after all, but may be speculative fiction – but I also learn not to worry too much about labelling it.  I learn about Ikigai, about synopses and ‘when to press send’, about concealing and revealing and about making characters interesting.  Regretfully, I miss a performance by Jackie Kay, but laugh out loud with Sophie Hannah.  Most of all, I talk to other women writers and am awestruck by the sheer number of different stories they have to tell.

And the owls have followed.  Since I met the owlet in the forest, there has been a sense of owls all around me.  I hear the call of a tawny outside my window.  What I think is a barn owl takes off into the dusk on the train home.  And Leeds, I hadn’t realised, is a place of owls – they are part of the crest and their images appear all over the city.  Owls can see what is hidden, hence their reputation for wisdom and perception.  I’d like to think that the owls are signs that I’m on the right track.  There may be more discomfort to come, but maybe that will lead me to where I’m meant to be.

Blogger book of the month: Roy McCarthy – Supply and Demand

Supply and Demand: The story of a young woman trafficked into the sex industryI’ve known Roy for a long time in blogging.  He has published a number of novels, each one unique.  His latest is a moving, heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting novel set in the world of sex trafficking. Chameli is kidnapped from her Nepalese village and sold into the sex trade in India. Through her story we learn about the harrowing and brutal lives of the girls who become sex slaves. I immediately cared about Chameli and her fate; the author has done a great job of writing from her point of view, in a way that educates without preaching. Through Chameli’s story, and that of Chantilly, a privileged Australian determined to make a difference, I learned a lot about sex trafficking, the challenges involved in trying to stop it, and the difficult choices facing those lucky enough to escape.

Running parallel to Chameli’s story is that of her 11 year old brother, Dilawar, who travels to India to find her, but ends up struggling to survive on the streets. Ultimately this is a survival story of brother and sister struggling to exist in a world over which they have no control. There is a lot of darkness in the subject matter, yet this isn’t a dark novel. There are touching moments of friendship, great descriptions and sense of place, and an ending that offers hope. An important story that spotlights a horrific trade.  You can find Roy here and his book is available on Amazon.

Giving up

Every time I have visited this forest I have climbed the path up the hill.  It is clearly a path – russet and spongy with fallen pine needles – but it is a path that doesn’t make itself easily known.  The trail winds upwards, flanked by bracken and bramble, surrounded by fallen trees.  There are small patches of colour depending on the season: a lone rhododendron, a clump of foxgloves, fruits of fly agaric.  At its peak, it opens out onto a marshy cleft strung with telegraph wires.  Then, the path moves on, straight ahead, deeper into the forest.

Sometimes the forest enfolds and comforts.  Sometimes the forest is everything you fear.  I have always feared the path ahead.  It looks no different to any other path, but when I set foot on it I find myself breathing quietly and moving with caution.  There is a low buzzing in my ears, as though swarms of wasps lie in wait.  Gnarled tree trunks hunch at the edge of the trail.  You might ask why I always seek out this path, when I never feel welcome here, and I can’t answer that.  But I never travel far along it before I turn back.

It has been a couple of years since I was here and on this visit something is different.  The path up the hill is now blocked by two fallen trees.  Yet it doesn’t feel like a barrier, it feels playful.  An invitation to climb over and under.  Telegraph hill is more overgrown than I remember it, but there is a lightness up here that is new.  I walk to the path ahead and suddenly a tan body stumbles onto the trail.  A roe deer.  She stops, sees me and bolts forward into the trees.  I don’t wander any further than the spot where her hooves have grazed the path, but not because I’m afraid.  There is no longer any sense of foreboding here.

The meadows are bursting with wildflowers: buttercups, ragged robin, marsh thistle and orchids, like jewels in the sun.  I see the deer again, grazing on the meadow flowers.  She lifts her head occasionally to look at me, then carries on feeding.  The season of metamorphosis is over.  Flowers are blooming, caterpillars have become butterflies, eggs have hatched.

Almost three months ago, I gave up smoking.  When you give up an addiction, you get through the physical withdrawal and work on breaking the habit of doing that thing when you would usually do it.  And that’s hard.  But you must also confront the reason you have the addiction in the first place.  That empty space that demands something to fill it.  Life becomes flat because you can’t do the thing you want to do; you become restless because that thing is gone; but you are also raw from not having the addiction to cover up what was hidden.

In the weeks since I gave up, I’ve felt positive and motivated, bored and depressed, despairing and emotional.  I could tell you about a hundred vivid dreams but not a single creative thought.  I could tell you about anger, disconnection and fits of uncontrollable crying in the middle of town.  At one particularly dark point, I decided to give up on the constant effort of writing and to destroy everything that I had ever created.  Spring passed into summer without my attention, because the world seemed lacklustre and I was too focused on wrestling with what is inside me.

I didn’t destroy everything I had created.  Instead, I stepped away to avoid doing something I couldn’t undo.   I stopped writing, but I didn’t give up on it.  The forest is a full stop to that withdrawal.  And the forbidden path somehow doesn’t feel forbidding anymore.  Next time I follow it I take a different turning on the trail.  Just beyond is an enormous fallen tree tangled with branches.  After a moment I notice that there is something there that isn’t quite right.  A juvenile owl.  Completely still.  She doesn’t move, not even as the path leads me closer to her.  She’s not a pretty creature.  Not yet.  She looks plucked and a little angry.  She’s still becoming what she’s meant to be.

The solstice dawn contains a breath of winter within it.  The chill clouds my breath.  A cock pheasant is curled like a cat on the edge of the meadow, sleeping.  Like many other midsummer dawns, this one is grey and unspectacular.  In the forest, a chorus of wood pigeons fills the trees, accompanied by a discordant chiff chaff solo.  I walk the trail, until I emerge from pines to the point where the stream begins to curve.  I’m familiar with this landscape, but it has changed irrevocably.  The plantation has been harvested, scythed into an apocalyptic vision, strewn with limbs and stumps as white as bones.  A pair of dead trees still stand in the distance, as though in a doomed embrace.  On my other side, a huge pine has toppled over the stream, needles still feathery and green.  In the pooling water, a staff sticks out of the silt.  It looks like a small figure, arms outstretched in despair or welcome.

She is there when I emerge from the trees.  The roe deer.  Spirit of the woods.  This morning she is not expecting me.  It’s too early for humans to be up.  I walk on past, leaving her to her business.  And there is the pheasant, still sleeping, this time stretched out on his side.  I didn’t know pheasants slept like cats, but this one certainly does.  He startles as I pass and stalks grumpily into the grass.

Any butterfly will tell you that change isn’t easy. There’s a price to be paid for those wings.  And when they’re unfurled, you’re transformed, but you’re also the same creature you were before.  I’m trying to find out who I am without something I’ve done for more than twenty years.  I can feel a twitch at my shoulders where wings might grow.  After all these years, I’m still becoming what I’m meant to be.  Giving up shouldn’t fundamentally change me, but maybe it will reveal things that have been hidden all along.

 

Potential

I am on a path so overgrown with trees that it is pooled with darkness.  On this equinox, I plan to walk from darkness into light.  For many reasons it has been a challenging winter.  I’m finding it impossible to slough off a melancholy mood.  The move towards spring has been a sluggish one. I find myself wearied by routine, by effort, by restless sleep.  The winds have blown but they haven’t blown my mood away.  I need a symbolic change.  I start my walk on the twilit path with hope ahead of me.  There is a robin singing.  It is always beyond me, distant and mournful, leading me on.

I emerge onto the wide waggonway.  My eyes squint as they take in light.  Not only the light of day, but also the froth of blossom.  Delicate spindly stems and a cornucopia of clotted branches.  It is blackthorn time once more, dark stalks with fierce thorns surging into bloom to herald the true beginning of spring.  Its companion, hawthorn, will not blossom yet for weeks, but the hawthorn is the first tree to burst its pearly green buds into leaf.  They soften the landscape, these sister trees, letting us know that soon the bones of the earth will be clothed.

Spring is a time of hope, yet it is also a time of sorrow.  There is a dark undercurrent to this season of potential.  Only a tiny proportion of seeds ever grow into the plants they were meant to be.  Only a small proportion of birds live beyond their first year.  Many of those seeds will remain in the darkness of the soil, perhaps to bloom years from now, perhaps never to bloom at all.  Many birds will never hatch; many will never have the chance to fulfil their potential and fly.  The conditions must be just right for life to take hold, and for some, those conditions will never be right.  This is the sorrow of spring: all the lives that will not be lived.

The landscape is slowly beginning to yellow with dandelions and coltsfoot.  I saw my first bee last week, a buff-tailed bumblebee on lemon mahonia flowers.  A cloud of pollen beetles swarm my mustard poncho, attracted to the colour because they think it offers nectar.  The goat willows droop with yellow-green catkins like hairy caterpillars.

Someone has hung suet balls from the trees and a flutter of tits crowds them, while a dunnock sweeps up the crumbs beneath.  Ducks fly overhead, already coupled.  The ponds are empty; the water birds have retreated to the undergrowth.  There is a small meadow of butterbur flowers, like miniature purple fir trees.  Later in the year this space will be choked with their monstrous leaves and giant stalks of hogweed.

Spring is chaos.  Spring is joy.  Spring is messy and exuberant, dangerous and thrilling.  To us it is bird song and blossom, light and warmth; to our neighbours it is life and death.

I’m considering giving up on a story.  It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time, after a chance encounter with the elderly man who would be its protagonist.  I rarely give up on a story once I begin.  If I take up an idea and begin to tell the tale, it usually comes to a conclusion, satisfactory or not.  My seeds are ideas and vignettes written in notebooks.  They too wait for the right time and conditions to bloom.  But it seems the time for this story has passed.  It has begun, but I can’t find a way for it to end.  I wonder how many seeds of stories are out there, stories that will never be told for want of the right conditions.  Maybe they will wither and never be born.  Maybe sometime and somewhere they will find their way to creation.

In nature nothing is wasted.  Seeds can live, ungerminated, for hundreds of years, until the time is right.  Those lives lost in the wreckage of eggshells and fledging will help other creatures to reach their potential.  There are two ponies grazing in the country park.  Exmoor ponies that visit to clear the tough vegetation so that the conditions are right for wild flowers to grow.  The ponies clear the way for those flowers to reach their potential, so that they, in turn, can help scores of tiny creatures to reach theirs.

A few days after the equinox, I see my first butterfly, a gaudy peacock fluttering along a path in the dene.  Marsh marigolds light up the burn with luscious yellow and scores of daffodils brighten the grass.  A pair of long-tailed tits flit back and forth across the cascades, digging for insects in the rim of a grimy streetlamp.  Cherry blossom adds its opulent blooms to the blackthorn.  These are the lucky ones, that have become what they were meant to be.  I am still melancholy, but I feel the call to action nevertheless.  This season of potential in nature coincides with a profusion of submission opportunities, so my stories are dispersing once more, perhaps to fulfil their potential, if only the conditions are right.   Where one life ends, another will always blossom.  Where one tale halts, unwritten, there will be another, ready to take its place.

 

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.