Dry Salvages ~ a story for Hallow E’en

Dry Salvages

The sea sucked at the shingle so gently that the frenzy of the storm of the previous night seemed like a nightmare. Soft white clouds scudded along with the breeze, and a distant gull soared low over the waves breaking along the sandbar a hundred yards off shore.

This was to be the last of her yearly pilgrimages here, but she had told herself this many times before and every year she came back. It was as if she were waiting for a sign, to finally give up and turn her
back to the sea one last time, never to return. Since that wild night
so many years ago, she’d never set foot on a boat again, vowing that
the sea that had widowed her would never get the chance to touch her.

She’d walked up from the town, leaving behind the shabby shops as fast as her aching heart would carry her. The flowers were already withered after the stifling heat of the train, turned up full in anticipation of October frosts. Each year she’d tried to choose something different. Often it had been expensive flowers, as if she were trying to bribe the sea by her gifts. This year, she’d bought
chrysanthemums. She couldn’t remember whether she’d ever done so before but she thought not. Chrysanthemums were such classic funeral flowers that she’d refused to consider them. After all, there had never been a proper funeral, to her thinking. If there is no body
then it is merely a memorial.

Yet the churchyards on this coastline were surely full of gravestones of men whose bodies were long lost at sea, fish-devoured and vanished  Sometimes the inscriptions reflected this. Sometimes they did not. Her husband’s did; she’d insisted on that. Lost at sea was a common enough fate of deep sea fishermen, but these days, the fleet was also gone. Just a few inshore boats now plied their trade along the coasts. It had become rarer and rarer for the kind of loss she’d grown up with as a child to trouble the town’s folk today; now a man lost at sea was deemed a tragedy and was given two minutes on the local TV news. In her young days, you shrugged; the sea gave, but she also took what she deemed her dues. It was an accepted fact of the life they led.

Her bungalow was a long way from the sea, but every year she came back, to make this offering and remember. The breeze played with her greying hair and tossed it this way and that as she stomped along the pebbles piled in huge drifts where the storm had flung it. The strand line was thick with debris, from man-made rubbish like flip flops, to frayed and faded tangles of rope and heaps of stinking sea weed. Feathers littered the beach, masses of them, and dead gulls too lay here and there to testify to the ferocity of the storm. The smell was powerful and rank, that mix of freshness and decay that characterises the seaside, but intensified by the sheer volume of the flotsam and jetsam.

As a child, she’d found amber washed up here, dredged up and transported countless miles, perhaps even from the distant Baltic. The power of the sea storms was incredible; mines and other ordnance from wars long forgotten sometimes washed up, creating days of havoc while the bomb squad came to deal with them. But bodies were seldom washed up; the North sea was too deep and a human body too fragile to withstand both the pummelling of waves and the voracious maws of fish. Many fishermen refused to eat mackerel, deeming them scavengers who’d surely dined on the odd unlucky soul. Sometimes the trawler nets dragged in a picked-over skeleton, still encased in oilskins and even sou’wester but the captains usually said a prayer or two and threw the body back. It unsettled families to get the body back, and the paperwork was unbelievable.

After this amount of time, she knew in her heart that nothing of him would ever be coming back, yet still she came, to be sure. A lone tear trickled down her face, and she brushed it away. Too late for that, and she’d shed too many tears already. Peeling away the wrapping of her bouquet, she took each individual spray and peeled away the stems of flowers. One by one, she threw each rust coloured flower onto the water, and as she did so, she said her own secret prayers. The flowers bobbed on the water, looking out of place. The rusty colour was so like old dried blood that she shivered and turned away as the last one fell into the waves with a tiny splash.

Done then, for another year. He was never coming back, never, never, never.

The past is finished,” she said to the sea and turned to go, scrambling up the banked-up shingle.

The pebbles shifted under her shoes and made her slip, falling face first into the piles of rubbish on the strand-line and she recoiled in
horror at what she saw, poking out of a tangled mass of seaweed and feathers. Unmistakeable in shape and size, a human femur jutted above the greens and dull reds. The bone was bleached and pitted with years of salt water, an old thing surely.

She pulled herself together enough to reach out and touch it. All these years and she’d never seen a bone on the beach. Tentatively she pulled the femur out of the weeds and gazed at it. A man’s arm, for sure, she thought, comparing it to her own.

Wrapping the relic in the paper the flowers had come in, she tucked the bone under her arm and began the long walk back to the station. She didn’t know why she’d brought the bone; it would have been better to just leave it. But after all these years, surely this was a sign?

The train ride home seemed far longer and she walked home in the dark, the bone still tucked under her arm. The bright lights of her home were a welcome sight after the miserable journey and her renewed anxiety. Her husband was making tea when she came in, and she went to hang up her coat while he poured it, taking care to hide the bone in a drawer. He never liked her pilgrimage days, objected to them on principle.

You gotta let the past go,” he’d say. “Joe died doing what he loved
doing; let him rest in peace.”

He never came back,” she’d say. “I just need to check, once a year.
I know it seems silly to you, but for my peace of mind….”

Her second husband had the sea-blue eyes of the archetypal sailor but he’d never been a fisherman. He got sea-sick, in fact. It had been one of the things she’d loved about him, the fact that the sea held no draw, no glamour for him. He’d smelled of land, not sea, not that mixed aroma of fish, salt, seaweed and engine oil from the trawlers that made her feel sick whenever she caught a whiff of it now on a man. 

That night she slept poorly, tossing like a rowing boat in a squall, and in the early hours, she woke, hearing the foghorn calling like an old cow in pain. Confused, she sat up, and gazed around. Her husband snored gently beside her, but she could hear the distant sound clearly and when she went to the window, the garden beyond was filled with dense fog.

Only along the coast did the fog-horn sound to warn ships they were too close to land.

Heart beginning to pound, she dragged on her dressing gown and left the room. The big patio door from the living room into the garden stood open and wisps of mist curled their way into the room. A smell of fish and rotting sea weed and of decaying gulls made her gag and she ran to the drawer where she’d hidden the bone.

Babbling half remembered prayers, Hail Mary Queen of Heaven, she rushed out into the fog, luminous with the vulgar orange of the street-lamps. At the end of the garden, there was an area her husband had been clearing to plant spring bulbs and the spade still stood where he’d planted it. Seizing it, she began to dig.

I’ll put you in a proper grave,” she muttered. “I’ll make you stay
there. If you wouldn’t stay at the bottom of the sea after all these
years, I’ll make sure you stay at the bottom of a six foot grave.”

As she dug, her feet bare on the earth, she remembered his surprised eyes when she’d struck him with a boat-hook, and the stream of blood that had rushed down his face. His eyes had seemed to say, “What did you do that for?” before he keeled forward onto the deck, unconscious. She’d checked his pulse, strong and steady, and knew she only had moments before he woke and fought back. Getting him over the side of the boat had been hard, but the splash of water below told her he was gone. Then she’d battened down the hatches and let the boat go where it would, making sure that as the storm raged, she was safe inside the cabin. She’d not slept, for the fear that the storm would wreck their little fishing boat, bought with Lottery winnings without ever asking her what she wanted to spend the money on.

The boat was found when the storm had waned and she’d sent up a distress flare; a fisherman’s daughter as well as a wife, she knew her way round a boat from childhood. But she never wanted to set foot on it again and it had been sold, a chum of Joe’s buying it from her after the inquest. They’d believed her story; too many were lost at sea like that to doubt her tale of Joe being washed overboard by a
massive wave.

So she’d moved inland, bought her own little home and installed her
second husband as soon as seemed decent. But each year, on the
anniversary of that night, she went back, just to be sure.

The fog was making it hard to breathe and her chest was heaving as she dug in the damp soil. The stench of dead fish and seaweed was growing stronger and as she looked back at the house, she saw standing in the doorway a familiar figure, clad in waterproofs of livid yellow and she let out a shriek of such dread that it seemed to catch in her own throat and stick there.

I can’t breathe, she thought and dropped the spade and sank to her
knees, holding her chest with both hands. The paper containing the
bone fell next to her and as she lurched forward onto her face, she
saw both the shining white of the bone and the yellow clad figure
running to her before her heart stopped completely.

*

He did everything he could to revive her, bring her back from the dead but nothing worked. The paramedic stood beside him and they both looked at the  dead woman.

What on earth was she doing out her at this time of night?” asked the paramedic.

I have no idea,” he said. “I woke and found her gone, and the house was cold. I saw the patio door was open when I went through and I saw her out there, digging. I didn’t know what to think.”

He pulled his dressing gown closer, the egg-yolk yellow terry towelling beading with moisture from the heavy mist that still filled the garden.

She’s always a bit odd on this day; it’s the anniversary of her first
husband’s death,” he went on. “She’s always been a bit obsessed
by the fact they never found his body. They rarely do, but it
bothered her. He was a fisherman, just got his own little boat. The
offshore fleet had made so many cuts, he lost his job. Then they had
a windfall and he got his own boat.”

The paramedic nodded. It was often better to just let people talk but it worried him what the woman had been doing out here, digging a hole at that time in the morning. He spotted something on the grass.

Have a look at this,” he said, holding it up to the bereaved man. “It’s a bone. What do you think?”

The other man took it and held it so he could squint at it.

Seal,” he said after a moment of intense scrutiny. “Probably. But
certainly not human.”

You sound very definite!” the paramedic remarked.

The bereaved man gave a short laugh without amusement.

I was a marine biologist before I retired,” he said. “My wife
didn’t know what I did when we met. She was a bit horrified, she
thought she’d got away from the sea totally. After that awful night
when her first husband was swept away, she never wanted anything to do with the sea. Of course, by then I was mainly in a lab anyway so it was never much of a problem.”

He shivered.

You’ll catch your death of cold, standing here in your night clothes,”
said the paramedic and started to usher him inside. “There’s
nothing you can do for her now.”

I know,” he said, sadly. “What do you think killed her?”

Oh, heart attack for sure, but there’ll have to be a post mortem,” said the paramedic. “You said she had a mild heart condition, I think.”

She did.”

He took one last look at her contorted face.

But you know, it looks to me as if she died of fright.”

“It’s the end of the world as we know it ~ and I feel fine!”

It’s the end of the world as we know it ~ and I feel fine!”

The world has been about to end pretty much ever since a worried
proto-human went to bed worrying if the sun would come up again
tomorrow. Every culture has had its end of the world myths and
predictions and even today, we have the whole dreadful 2012 Mayan
calender predictions, not to mention intermittent fruit-loops
announcing the Rapture to brainwashed followers.

In the run-up to the Millennium, folks worried that computers would
simply not cope with the change of date and would send everything
into free-fall. I had a friend whose job for that year was ensuring
that various systems were definitively Year 2K compliant and I
confess his dire predictions of chaos gave me a few shivers of doubt.
But I generally have a stock of basics in the house in case of
illness, power cuts and water shortages, and I’ve always figured that
if things are sorted after a few days, not having enough baked beans is the least of my problems.

But it’s not that sort of end of the world I’m really talking about. It’s
a bit more personal really. You know when your own world suddenly
changes so dramatically that it becomes unrecognisable? When you
simply cannot see any future at all? When things you thought
permanent vanish like the dew on a sunny morning, and leave no trace?

If you’ve been through something like that, you’ll know precisely what I am talking about. Roughly five years ago, this happened to me. Our whole life was thrown into complete uncertainty and nothing I’d thought fixed remained so. It took me six months after our move to our current location to get past this sense of my world ending. More recently, things I thought fixed in my life ceased to be so, and it threw up a lot of questions about both past and future. It also
caused me a lot of sleepless nights, anxiety and tears.

But if you examine any of the end-of-the-world myths, you will find they are almost always end of A world stories. Even the bloody mess of death and destruction that is Ragnarok, that Norse apocalypse, has a rebirth at the end of it. The world is recreated. After the Flood in the Old Testament, the world is reborn.

So it is with our lives. We stare in devastation at the ruins of our old
life, we rend our clothing and we sit in mourning. But eventually, we
get up again and we rebuild. Even when it feels futile, we rebuild
and we start again. We learn from our disasters, and we become wiser and more able. The saying, “that which does not kill you makes you stronger,” has some merit. Scar tissue, as I have said before, is
actually stronger than the flesh around it, though it is not as
pretty.

I belong to the Scar Clan, that band of untold women and men whose scars proclaim them as survivors, those who rebuild when the world around them has ended. I may weep, and I may mourn, but even as I cry, I am starting to look at the wreckage and see not simply ruins but space to build, and start again.

(the following song rather sums up how I feel about it, some times!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-5oGnvfUEU&ob=av2e

Clap your hands if you believe in fairies!

Today I have been given a guest slot over at Barb’s, so go and read more about fairies over there. Wonder how many of you then realise you’ve got them in your house or garden after reading this:

http://creativebarbwire.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/i-believe-in-fairies-just-dont-ask-me-to-define-what-a-fairy-actually-is-guest-post-by-vivienne-tuffnell/

Quintessence by Andrew Meek ~ a review of one of the most original books I’ve read in years.

Quintessence by Andrew Meek ~ a review of one of the most original books I’ve read in years.

I’ve been slower than I like in my quest to find literature that bucks the trends and hacks out new paths; not so much the finding of them but the finding of time to read and then review them. I’ve also found that amid the vast array of new, often independently published
literature, there are extraordinary works of genius that shine out
like gems on a pebbled beach. But like any beach of pebbles, the
shoreline constantly shifts and the gems become covered and lost to
view.

Quintessence is such a book. The rate at which new books appear means that the modest launch went more or less unnoticed and authors more willing to shout about their work got heard and this extra-special book has been left to be buried beneath the scores of pebbles. I am hoping that I can encourage my readers to give this one a try and discover something that defies both genre and description. But beware: if you’re looking for a beach read or something to simply entertain you for a few hours, this is not for you. This is for folks who think, who ask questions and who are open to discovery.

Ostensibly the book is the story of a man, Alexander Staalman, recovering from mental breakdown and the fear that he is losing his wife to his best friend. It is not. That said, this heart breaking narrative will draw you in, and hook you totally, but this is not the real story. Alexander has conversations with people who are dead, with Seneca and with Einstein and others; he knows full well they are not real and yet, the conversations are so enthralling that you begin to wonder quite what IS real and what is Alexander’s damaged mind filling in the blanks. Alex is a physicist and his deep love of this subject comes through with the enthusiasm with which he explains his theories and his work. This too is not the real story.

Like an onion, you peel this novel back, layer by layer until you reach the very core of it and it will rock you to YOUR core when you get there. I read it while on a camping holiday, during the short time in the evenings before we went to the pub for dinner. The fading light was my enemy, and I read until the light was gone, desperate to uncover some more. It made me feel not so much like a physicist but like an archaeologist scraping away layers of years before getting
back to the very earliest and deepest part of the story. I can tell
you that when I finally got to this shocking centre, my jaw did drop,
and yet, all the clues were there, patiently pointing the way.

It’s a very unsettling novel, in some ways, but in others, deeply
comforting and inspiring. The author has produced something that is
so far beyond the run-of-the-mill novel that I think it may take more
than run-of-the-mill readers to truly grasp the full scope and vision
of the tale. The only work I can even remotely compare it too is
Robert Pirsig’s Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and even
here, the comparisons are tenuous. Yet the scope of the vision is
there, and the character who has had a brilliant mind and a total
breakdown is there. But Meek takes it further, to a truly staggering
conclusion and there, I must step back and simply say, Go read it.
You’ll either get it or you won’t; what you get from the novel is
unique to you, and that is one of the most incredible aspects of it.
It speaks to the individual and your level of experience and depth of
understanding will govern quite how deep you are able to engage with the issues. At a most basic level, it’s a mystery, a story that draws you into it and out the other side; at a different level, it’s an
exploration of what being human and mortal actually means.

Quintessence is available via Amazon UK and Amazon USA but not yet as a paperback, though if we all nag enough, perhaps Andrew might consider this option. What more can I say? Go and read it!

Heart and Hearth – how a sense of belonging can heal the soul

Heart and Hearth – how a sense of belonging can heal the soul 

Despite the fact that I go away for work often enough to keep a separate bag of toiletry essentials, I really struggle to leave my home for holidays. Even for work, I over-pack and take things that might
baffle a Customs official if they were ever to search my bags. But
going away for a holiday often fills me with a greater degree of
panic than you’d expect. Somewhere deep inside me lurks an agoraphobe who still clings to home with her fingernails.

This most recent holiday was no exception. While most look forward to holidays, I find preparing so stressful that I don’t have that
excited sense of anticipation most enjoy. Once we are gone, I am
usually happy by the time we reach the end of the road. The weekend before we left, I had something occur that upset me badly enough to give me sleepless nights and a terrible weight and pain in my chest. This enormous and unspeakable sadness meant I really wanted to dig down into my pit, hide from the world and lick my substantial wounds. And fester, frankly. I packed instead, and forced myself to remember the various items I’d promised to take with me on our tour of the north.

Come Monday morning and I’d had probably four or five hours sleep in forty eight and my chest felt like an elephant was sitting on it, but by midday, we’d loaded our gubbins into the car and were gone. The usual relief I feel once we have departed did not happen. The sense of impending doom remained, the gnawing ache in my heart twisted and I found it harder and harder to breathe.

Until I saw the White Horse, carved into the hillside as we entered the Vale of York and like a ghost at the feast, the pain vanished.
Tightness remained, but the pain had eased.

When I saw the mini Matterhorn of Roseberry Topping, the North Yorkshire hill my friend Kate lives under, the tightness loosened its grip, and when we walked into her home, it was gone. Talking late into the night, and sitting by the fire, I felt such a sense of healing, I was almost shocked when I went to bed that I did finally sleep. I’d been so locked into a vicious cycle of pain that I didn’t think anything
could end it. And yet, a simple image of a white horse in a chalk
hill, and a familiar landmark had released me.

I’ve lived more than half my adult life north of Watford Gap, that mythic cut off point between north and south in England, and seeing the White Horse made me remember the numerous happy years, not to mention the family and friends who live in the North. I had an instinctive sense of homecoming when I saw the Horse. Seeing the almost iconic image of Roseberry showed me I was within close reach of dear, loving friends. Kate and her sister were at sixth form college with my husband, and we shared three years of university life with her sister, before later living within a few miles of each other. Our kids played together as small children and kept in touch despite our peregrinations through the British Isles. We’ve laughed and cried
together many, many times. In arriving at this special, welcoming
place, I came with a sense of being loved not even in spite of my
imperfections but possibly because of them. To be accepted, and not
rejected, is the goal of all human relations, and the rejections I’d
suffered before the journey had scored deeply into my soul. Kate, her family and her home poured a sweet balm onto those hurts and helped me to step away from the relentless pain.

The power of love, gentleness and acceptance to heal emotional pain is incredible but there is another factor in my recovery that is harder to explain: the hearth.

The hearth is the symbolic heart of a home, and in many cultures, is
sacred. Rituals and prayers were and are performed at the lighting of
the fire in a home and there is something special and magical about a real fire. Even symbolically, a home needs this heart-hearth. My home has no hearth as such but I have a small altar where there are sacred images, and candles, and I say a simple prayer here every day. The sacred heart of a home is what creates the atmosphere of love, tended by family members and is too often missing or neglected in our homes. Being welcomed at the hearth of another person is an act of benediction that blesses all, and builds a sacred trust between people; to eat and drink in the home of another reinforces our common humanity and our connections. Some of my sense of being welcome in the world had been damaged, and I was in danger of not only withdrawing myself from the wider world, but also of withdrawing my own welcome to others because of that trust being broken.

When you come home and sit down, before you turn on the TV or the computer, why not light a small fire, a candle perhaps and connect with the sense of belonging that a heart-hearth can give you? These hearths of symbolic light draw good things to you, and are beacons of light to the world. I light a candle and send prayers for those I love, and for those who are no longer in this world and I take a moment to re-sanctify my own thoughts and my own welcome to the world. We all need to belong somewhere and even if that belonging is more figurative than an actual location, it’s still needed. I belong among those who love me, appreciate me, faults, failings and all. So do you.

(This one is for Kate and Mike, with my great love. Thank you!)

Announcing my new baby ~ Introducing Away With The Fairies

Announcing my new baby ~ Introducing Away With The Fairies

I’ve been away for a fortnight on holiday (more of that soon) but the day before we headed off, I hit the publish button for my new book. I’ve had limited and sporadic internet access, not to mention not a lot of time to go online, and when I did try to write a blog post with my net-book, both WordPress and my net-book refused to play and only allowed me to post a photo. So this fanfare-and-trumpets post has had to wait till I got home again and had the time and the technology to write a suitable “press release” for it.

That said, the small amount of publicity I was able to give it has
resulted in sales, which made me grin like the Cheshire Cat.

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to…..Away With The Fairies. Originally entitled Fish Out of Water, I wrote this novel
some years back and it was one that very nearly landed me a
publishing contract. It landed me an agent, too, who proved to stink
like rotting fish, metaphorically speaking and who threw me out of
the keeping net when he failed after a few tries to find a publisher
to take it on. Since I have changed the name, the fishing metaphors
need to be dropped…sorry, I could never resist a bad pun.

The following is the synopsis of the novel:

Irrepressible artist Isobel has survived most things. She’s coped with everything from a sequence of miscarriages, her husband’s ordination, the birth of two small and demanding children, and finally the recent death of both her parents in a bizarre suicide pact. She’s managed to bounce back from everything so far. A sequence of domestic disasters finally signals to Isobel that perhaps things aren’t
quite as rosy as she’d like. With her half of the inheritance,
Isobel buys an isolated holiday cottage where she hopes to be able to catch up with some painting, as well as have the occasional holiday.

The cottage is idyllic, beautiful and inspiring, but odd things keep
happening. Doors won’t stay shut, objects go missing and reappear
in the wrong places and footsteps are heard when there’s no one
there. One of Isobel’s new neighbours suggests that it is the
fairies who are responsible, but Isobel is more than a tad sceptical:
there’s not a hint of glitter or tinselly wings or magic wands.

Isobel’s inner turmoil begins to spill over into her daily life when she hits a deer while driving back from the cottage. Her family hold crisis
talks, deciding that she needs to have time alone in the cottage to
get over long repressed grief and to paint it out of her system. As
she works at frenetic pace, the odd happenings begin to increase
until even Isobel’s rational, sceptical mind has to sit up and take
notice. And that’s when she gets really scared. Up until now, her
motto has been that there’s nothing in life that can’t be made
better by a cup of tea and some Hob Nobs. This time it’s beginning
to look like it’ll take more than even chocolate biscuits to make
things better. 

I’ve long believed in the existence of fairies, but defining precisely
what I mean by fairies is hard. Beings that inhabit our world but are
not human is possibly the simplest definition and it encompasses all
the possibilities from a pygmy race of primitive humans (like the now
extinct Homo Floresiensis), to spirits of the dead and to the devas
that guard the natural world. Folk-lore and literature are packed
with stories and anecdotes about the fairies(also spelled faeries; I
chose the modern spelling deliberately to ensure I kept the story
firmly in this century) and like ghosts the subject divides people
between believers and sceptics. I’m cool with that.

Isobel is very close to my heart; in some respects she’s the me I’d like to have been: capable, rational, practical and pragmatic but with a streak of artistic madness that can drive her like a demon. She
played “best supporting actress” in another novel that pre-dates
this one, set when Isobel’s husband is at theological college and she
teams up with the rebellious Chloe to play merry hell with the staid
and bigoted wives at the college. She also appears in two other
novels as a pretty vital character, but Away With The Fairies is
Isobel’s own unique story.

The book is available right now from Amazon Kindle US, Amazon Kindle UK (also the Amazon sites for France and Germany but I can’t see it being a big seller in non-English speaking countries) and will be
available as a paperback from both Amazons in due course. It is
already on sale at Lulu, and will be listed on Amazon in due course.
Likewise it will be listed for Nook and in the iStore at some stage.
For those of you who do not possess a Kindle yet, it is possible to
download a Kindle app for your pc or Mac and then download a free
sample to read. My husband doesn’t yet have a Kindle but he uses
Kindle for pc and buys and reads books on his laptop.

Anyway, one final thing. The cover art was done by the very talented Andrew Meek whose book I will be reviewing soon. The image was suggested by our very own Wherearetheheroes, and he has a mention in the acknowledgements for reminding me of the very striking description of one of Isobel’s paintings. I am so very grateful to both you guys for your help and support.