Fragment of Soul

Fragment of soul


The woods are almost silent to the untrained ear but if you stand still and ignore the hum of distant traffic, the forest sounds become overwhelming. The falling of leaves is like slow rain, pattering against the leaves still clinging to branch tips; a squirrel rummaging in the leaf-litter sounds like a much larger animal digging. The smell is the sweet mushroom scent of healthy decay, spicy and slightly erotic; the aroma of damp earth bringing back memories from beyond time when we were animals only.

I walk up the slope and into the grove of chestnuts, the undergrowth retreating into nothing but fallen leaves and a few bare dead plants and the grim green of persistent nettles. In late April this was a sea of blue, and the scent of wild hyacinth intoxicating in the warm spring air; but the bluebells are now withdrawn into skull-white bulbs, and are curled tight in their potential.

Muscles pull. I can feel age creeping up on me, but mostly this is the near permanent pain of a body that got put together ever so slightly wrongly. I know that I must be more and more careful as I age that I put less stress on joints that will bend and let me become circus-freak pretzel-shaped. Distantly I see the cobalt flash of magpie wing and I focus on the bird itself, bouncing on a twig too slight for its weight above the mud of the pond. I wonder if it will fall. It flies to a higher branch and a flurry of leaves drift down and coat the oily surface of the pond.

That’s when it happens, the flash of memory.

I’m holding a fragment of bone, curved like a primitive bowl, and smooth as only countless hands caressing it could make it. It lies in the palm of my hand, bigger and so much more significant than my small hand. I can see the suture lines where the skull bones fused together and I realise that I have always known this, that this skull I hold, broken and ancient, is somehow a part of me.

The curve is delicate, like a vessel made by a skilled and careful potter, and the skull it belonged too must have been a dainty one. None of the hefty brow-bones and bulging lobes that mine possesses. I hold only the very dome of the skull; I cannot see the start of the slope down to eye-ridges or the knobbly temples. You might use this fragment to scoop up spring water with and drink from, a forgotten sacrament that honours both the spring and the soul of the skull’s long dead owner.

I shiver and the images dissolve and I walk on, mesmerised by this fragment of soul memory.

Time is kind

Time is kind


Time is kind:

Each night it wipes

The whiteboard clean

Of teeming words

And painful, wounded songs.

Each day I fill

that empty space

with remembered tunes

and fading rose-petals

browning at the edges,

Their fragrance ebbing,

a scarce remembered thing

topped up by surreptitious squirts

Of artificial scent.

Each day, I rewrite the words

re-enact the scenes,

Aware(but oh-so-dimly)

that what I write is not

what occurred

but now the memory

Of a memory alone

And therefore corrupt and defiled.

Time is kind:

One day I will stand,

bereft but with relief

And be unable to recall

Those lost and keening words,

And that blank space

Will fill with new and better ones.


Take Me Out by Martyn Clayton ~ a novel of warmth and humanity

Take Me Out by Martyn Clayton ~ a novel of warmth and humanity

I was immediately snagged by the blurb that comes with this novel. There’s something comforting about having a main character who appears initially to have little that is instantly heroic about them but who seems both familiar and likeable more or less on first acquaintance. Lauren Seymour is cruising through life with little to either challenge or excite her and she’s probably set fair to do so for some years yet until an idle promise made while half drunk comes back to haunt her. I’ll show you what I mean:

Lauren Seymour enjoys a well-ordered existence. Passing her time in York she likes nothing better than the occasional crisp sandwich, reality TV, listening to her CD collection and ignoring the advice of her big gay house-mate. An early morning phone-call suddenly shakes her out of her comfortable groove.
How do you react when the odd guy you once tried to avoid befriending whilst at university claims that you are now the only person on the planet who could possibly help him? When that man has been pulled half alive out of the icy-cold waters of the River Ouse after attempting to kill himself you might feel obliged to at least see what you could do.
What she discovers in the 32 year old Robert P. Gorman is a man who has kept the ashes of his dead granny under his bed for ten years, and who hasn’t bought an item of clothing for a similar length of time. Yet he doesn’t seem completely beyond redemption. Could Lauren be the one to rescue Robert?”

At first I was concerned that this would be some variation on the Ugly Duckling story, but I soon discovered that the author lives in my world and not a Disney world, and the characters are so real, I swear I already know some of them. Robert, the would-be suicide, is vulnerable and very annoying; he seems to push away those whom he has asked for help, and yet retains a certain little-boy-lost appeal, and the promise Lauren made to be there for him carries more weight than she ever intended.

While many of the themes are serious and even a bit disturbing, they are written is such a stunningly light-hearted way that there were plenty of moments where I roared with laughter. There’s one part that involves a scenic view of the Yorkshire countryside, a Quality street tin full of human ashes and the core characters trying to do the right thing, that had me holding my sides from laughing. It would really be brilliant as a film. The dialogue is often funny, but largely because of the sheer understated humour inherent in the speech and attitudes of people from Yorkshire rather than deliberate jokes or puns. But anyone who has ever spent time in this part of England will also know, the humour of the people springs from great kindness and a closer connection to our shared humanity than you find in many parts of the world.

It’s a very BRITISH book, but I think it would appeal to Anglo-philes all over the world. The story is set in the city of York and is rooted in both the city and the county as well as English culture. It’s also very kind book, and one that recognises the value and the limitations of kindness. The characters are ones you can very much relate to, in their different ways, and I’ve wondered what would happen in their lives after the story finishes.

I guess that is the mark of a good book, when the actors within it make you care enough to speculate about their futures.

Watching the fire ~ how to go beyond emotions and passions

Watching the fire ~ how to go beyond

Imagine that your strongest feelings, those emotions that you simply cannot control or order, and which drive you to the brink of breakdown are not simply inside your mind. See those feelings as a fire in a desert place, blocking your path onward.

It’s a hot fire, burning with fury and the heat coming from it is intense and you can feel your skin scorch as you stand too near.

You might try and put the fire out by pouring water on it, but there is no water source nearby and the water you carry is insufficient and
moreover you need it for your journey ahead, if you are ever able to move past this conflagration.

You might also think of using your coat to smother the flames, or indeed kick sand onto it, but this is fraught with danger. You will almost certainly get yourself seriously burned and maybe even burn up totally.

But the fire is blocking your way and there’s no way around it.

So what to do?

Sit down, a short distance away where you can feel the warmth of the flames but not so close it is uncomfortable. Now is the time to watch those licking tongues of fire, and see the dancing images hidden inside them.

Watch the fire.

After a time, you will see that it has lessened. Do nothing yet. Watch.
Keep watching.

In good time, the fire will burn all its fuel and it will go out and
then, you may pass. If you try to put the fire out, you will just
fuel it, but if you let it consume itself, it will reach its natural

So it is with powerful emotions like rage and jealousy, those fires that will destroy if you let them. Do not feed them but let them consume themselves and you will be left with harmless ash that the wind will blow away and leave no trace.

I’ve made it sound easy but I know from bitter experience it is not easy at all. But it is possible, and knowing it is possible means making the jump from a cerebral knowledge to putting it into practise much more feasible. Each time I find myself overwhelmed with emotions that seem to rampage like rioting madmen through my soul, I try to step back and think of that fire burning in the desert, and once a small part of my consciousness recognises that this state is, and must be, temporary, I find that the rioters lay down their weapons and eventually walk away, muttering.

It’s sure worth a try rather than letting those passions rule you and make you do and say things you regret later.



I don’t have a life:

I exist in the corners

Of the lives of others

Kind enough to lend me space.

No, don’t shake your head,

Protest and frown,

Condemning me for self-pity.

It’s true: the words say it all:

Wife, daughter, friend, mother.

They define me by my

Relationships with others.

My name: a jumble of sounds

Meaning nothing in themselves,

A label by which to identify,

Quantify, stratify and forget:

Put me in my box

And hope I stay there.

Me, I reduce my name

To a single initial.

It takes up less space, less attention.

And maybe, just maybe

Beyond all names

I may shine, alone.


The Snow Queen’s Shard ~ examining the wound (part two)

The Snow Queen’s Shard ~ examining the wound (part two)

I go inside; it’s not as hard as it sounds. My soul-shell parts to let me come inside and then closes behind me again like silk curtains. Inside here, inside this chamber, nothing is as it seems and nothing is easy to see and describe. Like a dream-scape, things shift and change as you look at them and I try not to look around and become distracted by the landscape that shimmers and glows like essential oils dropped onto spring water held in a crystal chalice. I am here to go as deep as I can bear and I let instinct guide me down tunnels that burrow deep into bedrock.

The tunnel walls are rough in places and dimly lit by stubs of melted candles in niches. Someone tends this way but not diligently. I follow the maze as it twists and turns upon itself, a hollow snake that writhes wildly. It’s boring, true, but it’s also boring deeply within something deep and ancient.

Just as I lose interest, lose focus, I arrive. It’s a shock. There’s a thing in the middle of my vision, a hologram it seems. I try to touch and my hand passes through. It looks like a mangled lump of flesh but as I look I see there is a pulse and I know that it is alive. Suspended in mid air there is an immense heart. I feel sick. I retch and want to run but I make myself stay.

The heart is battered and ugly, and I can see healed scars where it has been sewn up, repeatedly. It reminds me of my ancient teddy bear, whose seams came undone many times and has been sewn up and mended, my inexpert stitches in the wrong colours showing even today. That bear is forty five years old, like me.

The heart slowly rotates and I make myself look closer. I can see a gleam of something deeply embedded in the muscle and I discover that if I don’t try to touch, the hologram responds to my wishes. I can zoom in and zoom out. I can look deeper.

I can see it there, the glass shard like a jagged knife, a weapon of accidental power, peeping out and I look closer and then jump back. There is a monster staring back at me from that shard. I want to run. But I lean closer and look again.

The monster is me.

She blinks, this monster, when I blink; recoils when I recoil.

The monster is me.

Everything about her is the same as I, yet hideously different, distorted beyond any caricature.

I cover my eyes and so does she. I’m not sure I can do this but I do. I lean closer still and seem to step into the yawning black void of the pupil of the eye.

I stand in the blackness, and open my eyes again. I have split; part of me is standing watching this, outside the shard, outside the heart. The other part is standing here inside the shard. I can see now I stand not in one mirror but between two, and the reflections go on into infinity becoming smaller and more distant as they vanish into a point a million miles away.

I force myself to gaze obliquely at each reflection and I see that each is made up of something that seem at first like pixels. Then I see that each image is composed of words, millions of them, repeated endlessly. I gaze at the furthest one I can make out and I see that the words that one is made up of are short, monosyllabic and blunt. Dimly I am aware that the images that exist behind it in the hall of mirrors are made up of not words, but emotions that are shown with dull horrid colours and distorted textures and discordant sounds.

The images shimmer as if the original mirrors have been struck and I find myself outside again, looking at the monstrous eye peering back at me from the shard. I look closer, not at the shard itself but at where it is lodged. The muscle around the sharp edges is lacerated but semi-healed in places. A little blood drips constantly but as the heart slowly turns like a grotesque ballerina, I can see older wounds that cross and cross cross each other where the shard has slipped or been struck driving it deeper and deeper into the flesh. The edges of the scars are sometimes silvered over and old, or reddened and inflamed. There is more scar that untouched tissue. I wonder what the shape and size of the shard truly is; does it pierce the whole heart or is it merely shallowly embedded? Would taking a firm hold of it and pulling sharply rid me of it or does it actually form the core now? Would removing it abruptly cause this heart to haemorrhage itself to death?

I cannot see how deep this shard goes but I can see it has been there a long, long time. Perhaps more than one lifetime. Perhaps a hundred lifetimes. I do not know. But the shard and the wound that it has made are ancient. The flesh has grown around the glass in places, seeking to engulf the cutting blade with itself, and it has contained it for a while before the shard shifts, taking on a new position and hacking the surrounding flesh as it moves.

I move away, and stumble back up the winding tunnels until I return to the entrance. My eyes hurt from holding back tears and as I push the curtains apart so I can return to the daylight, a single tear falls, acid burning down my face and I am gone.”

The Swordsmith

The Swordsmith


I’m angry.

More than that, I’m mad.

But the red cools fast

And I plunge the hot metal into water

Watch the steam rise

I look.

Needs more work

Back to the fire,

Pump the bellows

Watch the metal glow white hot

Lay it on the anvil

Beat the ringing steel

Till the forge sings

Again and again,

Folding hot metal

Beating it flat,

Shaping it.

Finally, the steam clears

And the sparks begin

Hold the metal to the grind stone

Hone it till the edge holds.

Fit the handle

Bind with damp rawhide

Heft the finished sword

Watch the light gleam

On newly minted death

I don’t get mad

I get even.

Vivienne Tuffnell 21st January 2009


Drawing a blank

Drawing a blank


Isobel Hunter had a five pound note and a handful of change to get through the rest of the week and it was only Tuesday. It seemed that she might pay the rent and the essential bills on what she managed to earn but eating appeared to be an optional extra. The meagre contents of her purse were all she had to buy food with, having worked out her average earnings for a week of sketching, deducted the rent and so on, put aside a sum to pay for materials, what remained was the money she had left. Out of that money had to come everything else she might need, including food.

Her stomach rumbled like a distant aircraft taking off and she tried to remember when she’d had more than a few mouthfuls of food. Day before yesterday, she thought. It didn’t help that her chosen pitch was right next to a restaurant with tables set out in the sunshine. The aroma of food wafting over was distracting at best, maddening at worst. What worried her most was that she had mostly stopped feeling hungry at all. Oh there was the gnawing ache that nagged much of the time, but the usual anticipatory delight about eating was gone. Food had become fuel and scarce fuel at that. Maybe she’d have done better to have risked going to Paris and trying her luck round Montmartre.

At least it was warm. The thought of sitting here in the bitter cold made her shudder. She could imagine huddling up under her ex-army greatcoat, ten sizes too big for her, with about six jumpers and wearing fingerless gloves while her hands tried to hold charcoal or pencils.

Well, if things didn’t pick up by late October, then she’d go home, cut off the mouse-coloured dreads her mother loathed so much, die a slow death by respectability and get what her father called, a ‘proper job’. No one could ever say she’d not tried and tried bloody hard at that. Some times the odds were just too stacked against you to have much hope of making it. Right now she thought she would commit grievous bodily harm for a good square meal.

Customers(she refused to even think of them as punters; it went down too many unpleasant avenues of association) seemed thin on the ground today. People loaded with shopping bags hurried past her and avoided eye contact.

‘Maybe I’d do better selling the Big Issue,’ she said aloud, feeling just as ostracised and ignored. If things don’t pick up soon I may not even manage the rent this month, she thought and sighed.

The tall guy with the pony tail was due to come past again soon; every lunchtime, he came past, on his way to the sandwich shop at the end of the road. Every day, he smiled at her and she smiled back. It was the one fixed point of this life that she realised she was looking forward to each day. Feeling a lurch of something that might have been desperation mixed with hunger, she made a snap decision. If she didn’t have a decent meal soon, she was going to be ill. Alert now, and mind made up, she watched carefully so she might spot the tall guy before he saw her; it wasn’t hard as he was a good few inches taller than the majority of the shoppers.

At two minutes past twelve, she saw his distinctive hairline appearing above the heads of the mass of shoppers and fixed her eyes on him, rising unconsciously out of her folding chair so that she might better catch his attention when he got close enough. To her surprise she found her heart was pumping much faster and her mouth was dry.

Don’t be so stupid, she told herself sternly. What’s the worst he can do to you? Say no? Well, then, you’ll be no worse off than you are now.

He walked rapidly, but erratically, dodging people awkwardly as if he was loath to bump into people in the crowd and within seconds he was only a few yards away. As if from a mile away, Isobel noticed that his smile began the second he spotted her, standing uneasily by the easel and her chair, her box of materials laid open like a treasure chest.

She swallowed hard and was about to speak when he beat her to it.

Hello,” he said, and then stopped and looked uncertain, though his smile had just got broader.

Hello,” said Isobel, her voice suddenly quite husky. “I’m sorry to just stop you like this but….” She swallowed hard and made herself go on. “It’s been a bit of a slow morning, and I’ve had no customers today. I wonder, would you like me to draw you? For a sandwich, that’s all. I just need to have someone to draw and then people come and watch. It gives them something to see and decide.”

So where does the sandwich come in?” he asked cheerfully.

Isobel went a deep red.

I haven’t eaten for a couple of days,” she said, not meeting his eyes. This was so shaming.

He stood there, considering, and Isobel continued to flush with embarrassment.

Just a sec,” he said, pulling out a diary and flicking through it. “Yep, I can do it. Nothing fixed for this afternoon.”

She waited a moment before internally punching the air and saying, “Yes!” in triumph but outwardly she seemed calm.

Tell you what, though,” he was saying. “I reckon you’d do better on all counts if you had a proper meal over here and then drew me. You grab your easel, I’ll bring the rest.”

Before she knew quite what was happening, he had scooped up her chair under his arm and shut the box and picked that up too and was striding over to the restaurant that had taunted her so often with the glorious odours of food beyond her purse.

Table for two,” he said to the waiter who came out to meet them. Isobel kept her head bobbed so she didn’t need to meet the eyes of the waiter. “We’ll stay out here in the sunshine.”

Isobel felt slightly dizzy, but she wasn’t sure if it was hunger that was causing it.

White or red?” the guy was asking her and she stared at him without understanding.

Wine,” he said kindly. “You can have what you like but it’s a little cheaper to buy a bottle.”

White,” she said, feeling the sensation of vertigo increase but in a pleasant way. “What do you fancy then? Pencil, charcoal, pastels, pen and ink?”

I don’t know,” he said. “What do you like doing most?”

Isobel was stumped.

Painting, actually,” she said. “But that’s not something I can do on the fly. I usually start with sketches and work from there.”

Then we can start with a sketch,” he said, and then grinned at her. “But after lunch.”

He ordered a bottle of house white and the waiter continued to give Isobel quizzical looks; he was the chap who had seen her sneak a slice of leftover pizza a week or two back and had shouted at her.

What’ll you have, then?” the ponytail guy asked her, when she’d stared at the menu for five minutes without speaking.

You order for me,” she said, shyer than she’d ever been in her whole life.

To her surprise his grin became even broader.

Cool,” he said. “No one has ever asked me to do that before!”

He ordered a starter they could share and then a pizza with just about everything on it and a side salad for each of them.

We can think about dessert later,” he said.

From the now permanent smile, she guessed he was enjoying himself immensely and despite her anxiety that the waiter might come over and whisper in his ear that she was a vagrant and a thief, she realised that since they’d sat down, her own smile had barely dimmed at all. The waiter started to pour some wine but the ponytail guy held up his hand.

We can manage that, thanks,” he said and when the waiter disappeared, he commented to Isobel, “I got the impression he was making you uncomfortable.”

Isobel was impressed.

Well, he yelled at me last week for nicking some food,” she admitted and the guy laughed. “It was only going to go in the bin or be pinched by seagulls, so I figured why not? But obviously it lowers the tone of the establishment having someone like me stealing leftovers.”

Is it getting that hard for you?” he asked, and she could hear real concern in his voice.

Sometimes, yes,” she said. “I don’t seem to be able to make above a certain sum each week so the eating bit is kind of optional.”

How did you come to be here?” he asked. “Sorry, I don’t even know your name. We see each other almost every day and we’ve never spoken. How strange is that? You’re the only person who smiles at me.”

I’m Isobel,” she said, and then because she couldn’t help it, “Isobel Hunter, starving artist. I even live in a garret, sort of.”

Mickey Trelawny,” he said. “I’m hesitant to tell you what I do, though.”

She gave him a searching look.

I can forgive most things,” she said. “Just tell me you’re not an aspiring porn star, that’s all!”

He roared with laughter, throwing back his head and giving in totally to amusement.

No,” he said, wiping his eyes and taking a generous swig of wine. “I’m a trainee substance abuse worker. It’s pretty grim and I think I may have taken a bit of a wrong turn. So Isobel Hunter, how did you end up here?”

Simple,” she said. “I did a degree in art, didn’t want to go home and die of boredom while trying to find a job and probably take a PGCE and end up teaching bored teenagers how to draw still life. I figured I’d give it a try. So far so good. Apart from not eating that is. I have friends who went to Paris. I sometimes think I ought to have been a tad more courageous and tried that but hey, if I can rustle up enough money I might still do it.”

Don’t!” he said, and it startled her how sharp his voice was. “I mean, don’t rush into anything, that’s all.”

Chance’d be a fine thing,” she said. “I am keeping my head above water, just, but I think I am unlikely to get enough spare to consider getting over to France and trying my luck there.”

You never know,” he said, and a shiver went through her. “Your luck might change any time. Might even be today.”

Well, at least today I get to eat, she thought, and he seems like a nice guy. A really nice guy. I just hope he isn’t a nutter. Seems sane enough, even if he is having lunch with me.

The starter arrived and Isobel discovered her appetite had merely been suppressed and not gone away at all. She had to rein in her overwhelming desire to stuff herself with the piping hot potato skins and the garlic dip and be at least half way civilised about sharing the food equally. As she stuck an eager fork into the nearest potato her hand brushed his as he did the same and they both froze for a second or two, unable to meet the other’s eyes. Isobel broke the impasse by rapidly dunking her forkful in the dip and transferring it in one swift movement into her mouth.

Mistake. The potato was far too hot, despite its coating of chilled mayonnaise, and she fought not to spit it out as it burnt her tongue and the sides of her mouth. Bugger it, she thought, why did I have to be so greedy?

She grabbed her wine and took a hefty mouthful to try and cool things down. After a second or two, she found she was able to chew without it hurting too much and she forced herself to swallow and get rid of the embarrassingly full mouth. She’d been so pre-occupied with not spitting it out and trying to manage her mistake without being revolting that she hadn’t noticed that Mickey was almost crying with laughter.

I always do that,” he said when she glared at him. “Forget quite how hot those damn things are. Here, have some more wine.”

He refilled her mysteriously emptied glass.

My mother would be mortified,” she said, taking a more restrained sip this time.

Your mother isn’t here,” he said and she made herself meet his eyes and saw nothing there but kindness. “Look, I’d have stuffed myself if I were as hungry as you clearly are, if that makes you feel any better. I’ve never been that hungry in my life.”

It’s all down to stupid pride,” she said. “If I phoned my dad, he’d send me money. He’d never even think I might actually go hungry. He’d be horrified if he knew for sure how I’m living. But I’m not ready to give up just yet.”

Good,” he said, firmly. “Come on, let’s get on with these skins before they get cold.”

Isobel ate until she felt she might possible burst, or at the very least burp loudly, and then, the pizza reduced to crumbs, Mickey asked for the dessert menu.

Please don’t be one of those girls who are always slimming and won’t eat pudding,” he said, with another of those ear-to-ear grins.

I might be one of those girls who eats far too much and embarrasses everyone by belching the national anthem,” she replied. “But you can relax. Not today. And yes, if they have ice cream, I am up for dessert. It’s an ice creamy sort of day.”

He scanned the menu anxiously.

There is ice cream but the very boring sort,” he said. “Tell you what, since I am free this afternoon, why don’t we go down to the pier, and have an ice cream down there instead? They have about fifty flavours, including bubble gum and pistachio….”

His eyes held a pleading look and Isobel was reminded of a small boy angling for a treat.

Sounds good to me,” she said. “I need a bit of a walk to shake things down a bit and make room.”

Mickey paid and they set off, carrying her equipment between them. Sitting on the pier and nibbling at an ice cream that defied gravity with four scoops of pastel coloured sweetness, she sighed. The sunshine on her face was so pleasant, and her worries seemed to have disappeared. She was dimly aware that really, wonderful as it was, she should get back to her pitch and get on with some drawing but somehow she felt so relaxed and happy for the first time in God knew how long that she shoved it to the back of her mind.

The ice cream melted almost as fast as they could eat it and by the time Isobel was crunching down the cone, her fingers were sticky and her face was a mess. Mickey was almost as bad. She scrubbed at her face and hands with a tissue only to have it disintegrate into paper shrapnel and she burst out laughing.

I can’t thank you enough for a wonderful lunch,” she said. “But now I need to keep my side of the bargain and draw you.”

He made a face at that.

You can find someone much nicer to draw than me,” he said.

He got to his feet and started to arrange her chair and her easel and box and Isobel watched in astonishment as he flipped open the box and cleared his throat. The pier was crowded with families and young couples and old people still with their coats on against the mild sea breeze.

Roll up roll up,” he began, his voice taking on the timbre of a circus ringmaster. “World renowned artist Isobel Hunter is here to draw your portrait, a unique record of your beauty and character to treasure forever. First person gets theirs for just five pounds. Who wants their mug immortalised by this talented lady. Only five pounds for the first sitter. You, good lady? Why sit right down and smile that lovely smile….”

He opened the camp stool with a theatrical flourish and the nervously smiling middle aged woman lowered herself onto it and gazed at Isobel. Isobel swallowed hard and smiled her own best smile and switched her professional eyes on.

By the time the sun started to set, and the light became too dim to draw, Isobel had done more portraits than she’d ever done in one day, and had given away a handful of her own little business card (not that it said much beyond a few contact details in case someone wanted to commission her) and she had sharpened her favourite pencil down to a stub. She’d been so engrossed in her work that she had forgotten to be cautious of Mickey and as they walked off the pier, carrying all her clobber between them, she tucked her free arm in his as they strolled through the rapidly diminishing crowds.

That was some afternoon,” she said. “I don’t think I have ever worked so hard before. They were queuing up. I don’t know how to thank you for your help.”

I’ll have to think about that,” he said, with laughter in his voice and then said, “You can thank me by letting me buy you dinner. Please. I don’t want today to end, so can we just carry on as if it never will?”

Isobel stopped dead, letting go of his arm. He had that little-boy-pleading look on his face and she found that when she thought about what he’d said, it was pretty much the same as she was feeling.

If you let me drop this stuff off at home and get cleaned up, then hell, yeah. I’m up for it,” she said.

Later, much later, a little drunk on wine but high on the pleasure of being happy without having to worry, she stood at her door, feeling a chill at the ending of the evening. This was the test, the final test of who this man was, and if he failed it, then it would ruin what had been a virtually perfect day. There was some shuffling of shoes and avoiding of eyes as they stood in sudden silence after having talked all day and all evening.

I’m not going to kiss you,” he said, breaking the silence. “That’s not to say I don’t want to. But I want to save something for tomorrow, and the day after that. I want to go home and think, I have tomorrow to look forward to.”

She gazed up at him, noticing for the first time how much taller he was than her.

Then come and call for me tomorrow evening,” she said, feeling breathless.

His face lit up with another of those massive grins.

I’ll do just that,” he said and before she could weaken and ask him in, he was gone.

It was only as she put her key into the lock that she realised that even with all the drawing she’d done, she’d not drawn his picture at all.

Oh well,” she said. “Plenty of time for that another day,” and recalled what he’d said at lunch about her luck changing.

She had a strong feeling he might very well have been right.

(For whether or not this first date ever became anything more, you need to read Away With The Fairies

Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre ~ and the Lockerbie Memorial

Sammye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre ~ and the Lockerbie Memorial

During my recent break, my husband and I covered a lot of miles and a lot of smiles, visiting family and friends in the north of England and into Scotland. My husband’s sister lives just outside Dumfries with her husband but the last time we’d seen them was for their wedding in April 2009. It’s about an eight hour drive to get there from here on the east coast, and for Brits, that’s one hell of a long drive. So we did it in stages, driving from here first to North Yorkshire and staying with friends there, then going a bit further into County Durham and visiting his mother, and then we made the last stage over the Pennines and over the border and into Scotland. It was great to get there and catch up.

Gus and Zoe wanted to show us some of their favourite places to go, so despite the rather dismal wet weather, we set off on the Saturday for the Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre. I didn’t realise I’d heard of where we were going because the name wasn’t mentioned, and it was only when we came from the car-park I knew where I was.

Heavy rain fell steadily and we headed first for the café. I couldn’t resist having an Himalayan Hot Chocolate but was mildly disappointed it wasn’t made with Yak butter. However, Yaks do not live well at lower altitudes so the possibility was remote….

Walking around the grounds I was struck by the serenity of everyone around; peacefulness seemed to just seep into you as you breathed in the air. Some of my worries, my pain, stopped screaming at me for a while. I made a special prayer for peace, by tying a rag to the prayer tree and that helped too.

I attended afternoon prayers, after we’d had some rather superb soup for lunch, and I was struck by the joyfulness of the attending Tibetan monks. The service was in Sanskrit so I just had to content myself with enjoying the chanting and the drums. The whole premise is that they are praying for peace for every being on earth. To my disappointment, the massive, bath-sized Singing Bowl was not played. Later, in the gift shop I bought myself a large singing bowl. These amazing bowls make a sound when the wooden stick is run around the rim; you are drawn into the sound and it leads you into meditative states.

When we headed back, Gus took us into the town of Lockerbie, scene of one of the most awful terrorist attacks in the world. He was there the night the plane came down, brought down by a bomb. I will not go into the details of it, because it is distressing. He asked if we’d like to go to the Memorial. We said yes.

I have no photos of the memorial for this seemed the height of disrespect to those innocent lives. I stood in the now gentler rain and I shivered. I cannot put into words what I felt, because words are inadequate. Gus told us about the people on the memorial, families he knew, their stories. What they were doing that night, who had been going about their lives with no expectation that atrocity would be falling from the sky and murdering them. We stood in silence and listened and shivered.

The contrast between the peace-seeking ethos of Samye Ling, that sought to change the world by praying that all beings would have peace, and the ethos of the minds that made Lockerbie a fireball could not have been more dramatic.

I know which I choose.

The Snow Queen’s Shard ~ reaching the primeval wound (part one)

The Snow Queen’s Shard ~ reaching the primeval wound (part one)

If I were a dog or a cat, you’d have to put one of those cone-shaped collars on me to stop me worrying at small wounds. My late dog used to chew and chew at her paws sometimes, and it turned out there was a thorn or a grass seed working its way inwards. I’m like that. When I receive an emotional wound, I cannot leave it alone. I chew at it, because the wound continues to pain me long after the surface has healed over and from time to time, it breaks open and suppurates. I’m told by wiser others to let something go, to accept it and move on, and yet I can’t. The wound, nothing much to look at from the outside, hurts a great deal. I can’t seem to convey quite how much it still hurts to others and yet, sometimes this silvered scar is agony.

The daughter of an analytical chemist and wife to another chemist, I sought an analogy that explained this in hydrofluoric acid. It’s nasty stuff, this, but the initial burn is minor because the first action is to destroy the nerve impulses that tell you that you’ve been burned. But the acid burns deeper and deeper, and enters the system and destroys tissue beneath the surface, altering body chemistry and eventually causing cardiac arrest and usually death. You can’t see it at work after the superficial burn is healed over. Yet, if that wound is untreated, you’re a dead man walking. That explained some of the mechanism to me but not the source, the origin of the wounding.

It was a comment from my friend Andrew Meek, my cover artist, that set me thinking. He mentioned about a shard of glass. This led me to thinking about the Snow Queen. You probably know the story by Hans Christian Andersen but the bit I am thinking of is the start. The Devil made a mirror that distorted everything and made it so that even the most lovely person would see themselves as ugly and he sent the imps to carry it up to heaven to show the angels. Of course, the mirror was dropped and shattered into a million fragments and fell to earth. Shards and slivers found their way into people and it distorted the world in their perceptions. A fragment of the mirror pierced the heart and the eye of a little boy……and so the meat of the tale begins.

To my thoughts, this is analogous of a kind of primeval wounding, something that you pass over as merely a bit uncomfortable at the time but which nestles deep in your psyche and stays there unobserved for years. Whenever a similar wounding takes place, it hits right at that unhealed wound with that shard of glass at its core and it creates increasing pain each time it strikes you. And of course, as life goes on, it seems that the same core situation that created the wound and lodged the shard recurs too.

When I was eight, a situation occurred that is best described as abuse. Not family, but the details will remain vague. On a scale of things, it was pretty minor. I know many others who have suffered much worse. But for me, it hurt and baffled me. Scenario is typical: you are selected by someone you perceive as higher up the pecking order, isolated for special treatment, told you are special and you alone, then once they are done, you are discarded, demeaned and rejected. At eight, few of us understand the complexities of this sort of thing and after a few hours crying about it, I stopped thinking about it. I told no one about it for many years. But that was the First Wounding. It came about because of a need to be recognised as unique and special. I wished to be the sun in the sky for someone. (there’s another story here but not for now)

School years were full of rejections that are common enough to all, but on those occasions when a friend decided they preferred someone else to me, I wept tears more bitter than the situation warranted to others. At seventeen something remarkable happened. At my Cambridge interview, another candidate waited for me and took me for a coffee. We exchanged addresses and so began a friendship that was special to me. Letters flew back and forth, often daily. I have them somewhere still, such was the brilliance of his letters. He was the first person ever to consider me worthy of a Valentine, though he went through a rather charming pretence of it being from a Masked Admirer. We were never boyfriend and girlfriend and almost all of the relationship was by letter. I felt sure that there was something special between us. When we both went away to different universities the letters flew almost as frequently but abruptly ceased when I wrote that I had a boyfriend, and resumed almost instantly I wrote to say it was over. Later, it ceased again when I became engaged to my now-husband and never resumed. I knew I must have misread the whole thing and yet, nothing had ever been openly declared so I was never sure. The rejection of me as a friend hurt bitterly. It hit hard on that older wound, with the shard in it.

My attempts to get through the traditional route to publishing success just continued to hammer on that wound. I had phone calls and letters the first go-round. Same scenario as the abuse: singled out, praised, taken aside with half-whispered promises of greater things and then abruptly and with minimal or no explanation, dumped. Ditto my more recent attempts. I had an agent. He rang me after I’d sent samples. We met, he praised me to the skies, implied a great future. After trying less than six of his publishing contacts, he failed to find a buyer for the book that is now Away With the Fairies and stopped answering my calls. I went up to London to discuss it with him but no joy. He appeared to have forgotten all about who I was or why I had been special. I tried everything to restore the situation and nothing worked. I’ve not heard from him in more than five years.

This year I have had another experience of this same scenario: someone singling me out for “special treatment”, praising my abilities to high heaven, and then abruptly and without explanation or opportunity to discuss, rejecting me and excluding me. This has caused me deeper and more bitter pain than ever before, but I had been at a loss to explain why. I have racked my brains and my heart and my conscience (as I have done every time this has occurred in my life) to understand what I did wrong, what I did to deserve to be treated so badly. And the answer has always been logically, nothing. Yet the logical answer would not satisfy, it would not let me leave the wound alone and so I have begun digging deeper and deeper into that wound.

And I can now sense that shard at the heart of that wound.

(to be continued….)