An Unmerry Christmas Book.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

Actually, for many, it absolutely ISN’T. I’m not a fan of Christmas; I don’t get starry-eyed and enthusiastic about getting the tree up. I get quite morose about it all. And if life is distinctly unwonderful anyway, the whole Christmas thing is often a way to just rub it in.

Anyway, if you feel anything like I do, you may need an antidote to the sugary, sentimental side to the festive season. I’ve dropped a quid off the price of my own favourite novel, The Bet. Here’s a nicely gloomy extract to whet your appetite.

“In the days after the funerals, Greville worried endlessly about his assistant. The Christmas season seemed indecent with its tinselly colour and insincerity, and the old man’s heart contracted with pity watching the boy decorating the foyer, and to see him arrive every morning on time and go through each day like a man sleepwalking. He watched him working with school children on educational visits, wanted to applaud him for sheer determination when he saw him speaking with a shadow of his old energy. He found him asleep in the midst of the basement chaos, or head pillowed on arms on his desk, or once, sitting on the stairs, resting his head on his knees. Greville touched his shoulder to wake him.

Sorry,” he said, scrambling to his feet. “I just sat down for a moment because I couldn’t remember what I was going downstairs for.” He stopped a few steps down. “I still can’t.”

Doesn’t matter, whatever it was. Go and make us some coffee, boy.”

Ashurst turned on the stairs and headed back up to the tiny kitchen, Greville following. He stood behind him while he filled the kettle, washed out the cafetière and mugs.

Not sleeping, eh?”

Not much, no. I usually get to sleep around three, if I’m lucky.” He didn’t sound as if he were complaining. “I’m sorry I’ve been dropping off here. I do try not to.”

Couldn’t sleep for weeks and weeks after my wife died,” Greville said awkwardly. “It does stop in the end, the insomnia.”

The boy didn’t say anything; he’d been very economical with his speech lately, none of the impertinence that Greville had been used to and had grown to enjoy. He made the coffee with almost exaggerated care; Greville had noticed his hands shaking any time he’d actually got him to talk, even a bit. He was stirring the coffee now, slowly, as if he were counting how many times the spoon went round.

I keep remembering,” he said softly.

That’s good. That’s important. We all need to remember,” Greville said, putting an awkward arm around him briefly.

You don’t know what I’m remembering,” Ashurst said, and walked out.

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The Second Coming

The Second Coming

(warning: possibly another depressing post. Sorry.)

You’ve probably come across the line: things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. It’s from Yeats’ classic poem The Second Coming. I’ll let you read it and then I’ll carry on.

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Samhain at the Cave

Samhain at the Cave

Samhain at the Cave

It’s been so long since I visited this place that I am strangely afraid. Afraid that it will not be here, or I will not be welcome. Or that I will find everything changed beyond recognition.

I need not have been so afraid. While I cannot remember precise details, I find that when I pass into the lighter part of the cave, I feel that sense of coming home that always greeted me on arrival. I expected cobwebs and dust and perhaps for small creatures to have nibbled at the belongings I left here, but the floor is without footmarks in the deep soft sand, and the ledges are untouched, and the items stored as fresh as when I last came.

It’s early morning; the damp air is filled with the scents of an autumn forest. From the lower slopes of the forest I can smell the tang of fallen leaves, that spiced mushroom fragrance mixed with woodsmoke. From higher, I can smell the pines and the other evergreens that cloak the peaks. I can even smell the distant odour of snow, though the clouds today hold only rain.

A small movement catches my eye; rising up from the path at the edge of the clearing is a figure I had not realised how much I missed. The clear shining eyes are the colour of morning sun on spring water rising through peat-rich soils, that luminous, glowing brown. We greet each other, and I run my hands through the warm pelt that feels like rough silk, and lean my head against the strong neck of the reindeer who is my guide. I do not apologise for my long absence; for time does not run the same here, and apologies are not necessary. I am here now and that is all that counts.

We spend the day gathering against the coming winter: nuts, a final crop of berries to dry and store, wood, the last batch of herbs and barks to see the winter through. Soft rain falls all the day, but it does not matter. At midday I light a fire in the fire-pit at the edge of the cave; the smoke does not fill the cave but is drawn away and lost. I make pine needle tea to warm and restore me; it’s a good source of vitamin c, and of good cheer. There is a stoneware jar in a niche to the back of the cave; it’s stoppered with a well-worked bung of wood, and I lever it open to find that it is filled with honey. Thick golden goodness and some comb. I put a small spoonful into my tea for the glory of it.

By mid afternoon, I can feel the pull of muscles unused to this work and am glad when Reindeer suggests we have done enough. I stoke up the fire and we sit companionably, me with a blanket around my shoulders and Reindeer a little further from the fire. We watch the light fade from the sky, and the forest below becomes quieter. I can hear the wind in the remaining leaves, rustling them. I think I hear something else, but I convince myself I am imagining it. I walk to the edge of the clearing, where the ground drops away steeply into the forest. There are paths which wind down this mountain, and into the forest, but few use them but me. This night is the night when the ancestors may walk among us, but I cannot sense anything this year. Previous years I have seen the glimmer of souls passing by to reassure me that they are not lost, but this year, I see nothing. The forest is lost in a dense, velvety blackness. I look down; in the very far distance I see the flicker of a few lights, camp fires perhaps, but most of the forest is in comfortable darkness.

As I turn to go back into the shelter of my cave, for the night is raw with rain and a wind that is starting to chill me to the marrow, I see a light. Two lights, in fact, which are approaching up the steep path from the forest. It takes me a moment to realise that the lights are actually eyes, reflecting back the glow of my fire in the overhang. I ought to be afraid but I am not. I ought to run for cover, to grab flaming brands from my fire but I do not. I step back, to allow my visitor to enter the open space before my cave.

It is a great she-bear.

Reindeer stands beside me, unconcerned, and nudges me, reminding me of my duty.

I clear my throat.

Greetings, sister,” I say. “You are welcome to share our fire and our food.”

She-Bear turns her head this way and that so that she can look at us both, but she does not speak. I see that she is thinner than she should be at this time of year and there are wounds on her flanks, which look only half healed. She grunts, softly, and we all move back into the cave mouth. She-bear skirts around the fire, cautious but not afraid, and lies down, still watching us.

I bring food. I find dried, smoked fish (salmon, I suspect) and berries and even some dry bread, and then I remember the crock of honey. I unstopper it, and pour it onto one of the slabs of smooth bark that serve here as plates, and place it close to She-Bear. She sniffs at it, and throws her head back in what I interpret as delight, before licking the plate clean. I give her half the crock, and then she eats fish and berries, but declines the bread. Then she yawns. Her teeth are huge, and frightening, but she is a good guest and we do not fear her. Instead, we sit together, the three of us, and we talk, in our own ways. Of those we have lost, of our fears, of our memories and of our hopes. I do not know how it is that we understand each other, but somehow we do. I learn that She-Bear has come to guide me, to be my guide as well as Reindeer, but that her lesson now is that of rest. I learn that the deep rest of winter is essential, and that I have not rested sufficiently in previous years. I have fretted and refused to rest.

The sky has begun to clear of rain clouds, and the temperature has dropped, as the stars begin to show in the dark sky. I can feel frost starting, and my other senses can feel the snow that waits, not many weeks away. The sharp, bright, invigorating smell of cold and ice and snow is still muted by the soft spicy scent of autumn, but I can smell it. Unconsciously, I find myself leaning back into the dense fur of She-Bear, her breath sweet from the honey and the hawthorn berries she has eaten, and I find her solid warmth extra comforting. I curl up in the space between the two animals, pull my blanket around myself and allow myself to sleep, guarded by two sentinels who I trust entirely.

‘Tis the season to be spooky…

…and I have some spooktacular* offers for you to enjoy.

I have (for the duration of the season and maybe beyond) made my shorter works a little cheaper.

This means that my novella The Hedgeway is now just 99p or whatever the equivalent is worldwide. Here’s the blurb to tempt you:

Leading from the overgrown grass and thicket of brambles were the distinct signs of feet passing: small, bare human feet.
A child had walked here, breaking the crisp coating of hoar frost, and had stood only yards from the kitchen window.
Cathy thought: They’re only footprints, so why do I suddenly feel so scared?
Daniel’s grandmother’s house seems only a few years from becoming a ruin but the roof is still sound and unlike his rented accommodation, the whole place is his. It seems the perfect time to ask girlfriend Cathy to move in with him and together they plan to renovate the house. But the old house has secrets that it wants to share with them whether they want to know or not.

Then there’s The Wild Hunt, also for 99p:

Six short stories of encounters with forgotten deities and demi-gods and otherworldly beings.
The Piper at the Back Gate ~ a woman discovers a primeval forest beyond her night time garden and waiting there is someone from her childhood days.
The Wild Hunt ~ a wakeful woman joins the hunt first as prey, then as hunter, in a frozen land millennia ago.
Snag ~ a man meets a strange girl who seems to know all about everyone, to great effect.
Snuggle ~ as a premature baby lies hovering between life and death, a girl sits spinning wool in the hospital foyer.
Snip ~ an arrogant young man fights a battle with post-operative infection and his conscience.
The Faery Trees ~ an angry child discovers why you should never fall asleep beneath the elder trees.

And finally, also at 99p is The Moth’s Kiss:

A collection of ten short stories to unsettle, disturb, chill or terrify. From the creeping unease of The Moth’s Kiss of the title to the eeriness of A Fragrance of Roses, the stories seep into the consciousness of the reader. Shivers down the spine and a need to check doors and windows are a probable outcome of reading this collection alone at night. You’ll never look at willows or mosquitoes the same. Or moths.

If you are not keen on the spooky stuff, but do want something that reflects the season somewhat, then Strangers and Pilgrims, a book many readers have found to be comforting and uplifting as well as enthralling, is set during the three days of All Hallows Eve (Halloween) All Hallow’s Day and also All Saints day. It’s not on offer at this time but at £2.99 for a full novel, that’s not a bad deal anyway. Here’s the blurb:

“My heart is broken and I am dying inside.” 

Six unconnected strangers type these words into an internet search engine and start the journey of a lifetime. Directed to The House of the Wellspring website, each begins a conversation with the mysterious warden, to discover whether the waters of the Wellspring, a source of powerful healing, can heal their unbearable hurts. 

A journey of self discovery and healing awaits them, but will the Warden grant them their wish? Invited to spend some days at the House of the Wellspring each of the strangers comes with the hope of coming away whole again. 

But where is the Warden they all longed to meet and where is the Wellspring they all came to find?

 

All books also available in paperback. I recently did the required migration from Createspace to Kindle Direct; it was easier than I feared though I did get very stressed about it. Most of the books are a little cheaper now than they previously were.

Shares very much appreciated. For all other Amazon stores, please change the dot co dot uk in the URL to whichever dot you need. Or put the title and my name into the search facility.

 

  • sorry about that. It’s also the season for very bad puns.

It’s Ground Hog Day – no, sorry, it’s #WorldMentalHealthDay

It’s Ground Hog Day – no, sorry, it’s #WorldMentalHealthDay

(Warning: serious gloom ahead. Just letting you know.)

Just like Christmas, World Mental Health Day takes me by surprise each year and leaves me just as disappointed (I’m not a big fan of Christmas either) as previous years. More celebrities opening up about their struggles, more empty rhetoric, more pleas for ending stigma. And what changes? I can see few changes since last year. In my own country, provision for serious mental illness has declined still further; what is offered to people coming in with mental and emotional distress is extremely limited and chances are, you’ll be on a long waiting list just to be assessed. I’ve heard whispers that the government is appointing a minister for suicide prevention.

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The vital importance of beauty, truth and hope in books

The vital importance of beauty, truth and hope in books

The vital importance of beauty, truth and hope in books

As a card-carrying depressive, I’m not someone known for being an optimist. I’m sometimes like the love child of Marvin the Paranoid Android and Eeyore. It’s hard to not feel that the world is currently going to hell in a very large hand basket. I take breaks from the internet on a regular basis, hoping that the world beyond my small bubble will have improved by the time I go back; I retreat into the world of books and seek what solace I can find there.

I’ve recently finished reading a biography of Elizabeth Goudge. Beyond the Snow  by Christine Rawlins  is an exhaustive, and inspiring account of the life and faith of this most beloved of authors, and I didn’t want it to end. She had an interesting and sometimes very difficult life, though cushioned somewhat by her privileges of birth. Though she does not write much about it, it is known that she experienced severe mental distress and even breakdowns; this is reflected very much in certain books (such as The Scent of Water that I have blogged about here) and echoes in many others. There is compassion and bravery in her decision to write happy books.

Critics sometimes dismissed her books as “pretty pretty” and as light romances (they’re not) but the public bought them in their millions. She does not shy away from the difficult things, like death or loss of faith or suffering, but she offers a vision of hope, of redemption and of atonement too. The books are full of havens: places where people go to be healed, to rest and recover their strength and to go out again to continue their work in the world. There is faith, but it is built into the woodwork and rarely centre stage. There is kindness and care and hope, even in dark times. People make tough decisions, ones that reflect a code of ethics that is now rare.

In these dark times, I know that I am avoiding fiction that seems to revel in darkness and hatred. I’m trying to find books that are trying to be beacons in the dark, to be rallying calls to resist the lure of what Hopkins calls Carrion Comfort. I’ve read a few recently. I reread Sir Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, my favourite of his Discworld novels; though it looks evil squarely in the face, it fights back. I have recently read a couple of novels by Jane Davis too. My Counterfeit Self https://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Counterfeit-Self-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B01KTY22R0/  is an excellent and immersive tale of a woman who stayed true to her own beliefs and who fought for justice and social changes. The fact that the main character is a poet just adds to the charm for me. Smash All The Windows https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smash-all-Windows-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B079MBP3WD/ is a powerful (and sometimes very disturbing) account of a major disaster on the London Underground; the survivors and the families of those lost face huge difficulties in getting at the truth of what happened, and even greater challenges of transforming the grief into something that shines beyond all the pain and sorrow and loss.

In non-fiction, I recently read another book by Robert McFarlane, The Old Ways. It’s about walking and about the power of paths. I’d highly recommend it if you are someone who loved walking but whose health does not allow longer distances or more difficult conditions. There is great beauty and evocation of all the senses in McFarlane’s writing, taking you out of yourself and into another world of experience.

All of these books offer beauty and hope and truth without ever scuttling into whimsy and unrealistic withdrawal from the world. They’re books that strengthen your soul; they put shining steel into your limbs and the gold of optimism into your soul.

As for my own writing… Well, I’ve been limping along with several projects and having read Beyond the Snow, I have become convinced that to keep going as a writer, I must commit myself to writing books that are filled with beauty, truth and hope, however unfashionable, however bourgeois and some might say, naff, such a concept might be. My existing novels, all available from Amazon, are already books that I believe offer a haven and a support to battered souls. Despite the fact that it feels like the world has become so focused on capitalism that unless you pay for advertising, I do believe that people will find my books even if Amazon is steadily erasing all the opportunities that once existed for unknown independent authors to become known. I’m not sure how, though. I have less than three thousand followers on my Twitter, less than five hundred likes on my official Facebook page and around five hundred subscribers to this blog.

But that, perhaps, is not my business. My business is to find that beauty, hope and truth and let the stories weave themselves. That’s all I can do right now.

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away” says the old hymn.

And its daughters too, though we still seem to be seldom mentioned, despite being, on average, a good fifty per cent of the world’s human population.

Whatever your gender, time is an inescapable force, and no matter how you resist, it passes, slipping through your fingers like water, and you find yourself saying things like, “I can’t believe it’s so many years since…”

More than a quarter of a century had passed since I went to Taizé

A lifetime ago, really, yet the memories were unfading, holding my heart in ways that you’d not imagine a single week could. I found the photos shortly before we set off; was I ever that young, really? I’d gone in a highly stressful time in my life; we were about to set off for a new life (I’d have called it an adventure back then but the reality proved to be quite crippling for me, in so many ways) and we’d left keys to our house with the estate agents, hoping they’d sell it before we got back. I’ve written about that visit here. If you’ve read that post, then you’ll know what stayed with me most was the chapel of the well-spring: a little wooden structure built over an actual spring that was directed into a shallow stone trough. You could feel something even before you saw the water or stepped beneath the shingled roof of the shrine; a presence, a sense of the numinous, something otherworldly and deep. Continue reading