The Picture Left Behind

The Picture Left Behind ~ on serendipity & happen-stance

I’ve moved house more times than many in my life, though I’ve rarely had much (if any choice) of where I have lived. On the one occasion when I did get to choose what house I was to live in, the process of house-hunting had to be fitted into ONE day, where seven possible properties were scheduled. It’s a long story why we had to do it all in such a short time but we settled on the second house; awareness of budget and other factors made it clear enough that there was no point in looking further.
It’s never bothered me (much) that when it’s come to housing, the default is pretty much Hobson’s Choice (this, or nothing). I’ve never thought there was a perfect home for me somewhere if I just kept looking; and since our residence also comes as part of the package of my husband’s job, I’ve learned to see that every home has draw-backs and advantages. My favourite house so far (in terms of practicality, looks, comfort and location) also happened to be on the flight path for East Midland’s airport, so every two or three minutes a plane would roar across the sky, alarmingly low, and drown out the birdsong.
When we moved into our house on the east coast, it had the advantage of being a half hour walk from the sea-shore, but moving in was part of a traumatic change of life-style and the first six months were cramped and confusing. I kept walking into walls, believing in a sleep-befuddled state that there ought to be a door into another room. Like any house move, we found small items left behind by the previous owners. Mostly junk and the usual detritus of bits of paper, the odd rug, oven tray and so on, there was one item I saved. Every move we have made we have usually found that previous occupants have abandoned or deliberately left behind furniture and other possessions; we once acquired a huge box of interesting old books, several (useful) beds and a wardrobe. I’m not fussy about where my belongings come from, and if they suit out uses, they are welcome (indeed, I have the three piece cottage suite donated by an aunt the year before we got married; it was over twenty years old even then). But the east coast move the single item I saved was a picture. It stayed stacked in a corner with other of our own pictures that I never got round to hanging on the walls of that house. Only after our most recent move did I look at it properly again.
Initially, you’d maybe not see why I didn’t bin it when I found it in the last house. It’s a print, framed many years ago by Boots (the Chemists) who used to do quite a range of things other than cotton wool, aspirin and toiletries, in a dark wood frame. There’s no intrinsic value and yet something made me keep it to one side and not throw it away. The signature of the artist is not legible (or I’d perhaps have tried to find the history of it). It’s a night time or twilight scene, somewhere exotic, probably Arabic or Persian, of a caravan of camels leaving a walled city or caravanserai by lamplight. The camels are being led through a high arched opening in the shadowy walls; moonlight seems to catch the tips of the long spears carried by turbaned figures. The lead camel is carrying a sort of covered palanquin, the colours of which are reminiscent of a Persian carpet, and inside sits a serene-faced man, dressed in rich robes quite unlike that of the camel drivers walking beside the animals. There’s a feeling of expectancy, a journey being embarked upon in hope and some trepidation.
In my mind is conjures words like Istafan, and a sense of the deserts beyond, the Silk Road and other such evocative things. And even though it’s an old, slightly faded and probably cheap print, it’s filled for me with mystery and stories waiting to be told.
And yet, when I found it, I had no story that would ever touch upon the images and the atmosphere this picture holds.
But now I do. Whether the memory of the picture has worked within my unconscious or whether the story has created the need to incorporate the feelings and the images and the connections from this picture, I do not know. Whatever the process involved, the picture now hangs on the wall of my study, near the door. I see it many times a day and it works upon my imagination.
Sometimes life throws us gifts we don’t realise the value of, when they arrive, because they don’t appear to fit our needs or wants at the time. But something can make our instincts prick up, and if we listen, we might see that this thing, this person, this occurrence is a way-marker or a guide or some kind of clue or prompt that has greater meaning that we at first can see.

“Life feels better when you have a plan” ~ on plans and oracles

Life feels better when you have a plan” ~ on plans and oracles

I’ve got a difficult couple of weeks coming up. On Saturday, I am in for surgery to remove a tumour in my throat, caused by hyperparathyroidism. It’s a benign tumour in so much as it isn’t cancerous, but it’s been causing serious physical and mental health problems for heaven knows how long. The surgery is predicted to last about an hour, longer than I’ve ever been under anaesthesia before, and will leave a scar a couple of inches long in the hollow of my throat.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared, because I am. Terrified, in fact. But it needs doing and that’s that. I’ve put a lot of things on hold that I’d intended to crack on with: final edits for Square Peg, working on several novels, garden stuff. You get the picture. What scares me almost as much as the surgery itself is the possibility that this won’t bring me significant relief. I’ve not been able to make any plans for some time. Even things like going away on holiday have been put to one side; many of the things we enjoy doing when off on holiday I’ve been too poorly to contemplate.

There’s an ad on British TV at present from insurance company Scottish Widows and it’s haunted me. The images and the music and the voice over have got under my skin.

Life feels better when you have a plan.” Note it says, ‘feels’, and doesn’t say ‘is’. People get hung up on plans, especially things like business plans, five year plans and life plans. Plans don’t work out the way you think they will but they give a sense of purpose and structure to what might otherwise be a meandering, spiral or even circular wandering through life. Plans are the coalescing of hopes, dreams, ambitions, giving you something to aim at.

I’m a sucker for oracles, as regular readers might know. Oracles like tarot don’t foretell the future, or even predict it; used skilfully, they can show you potential futures based on past experiences and choices. There’s nothing like understanding where you’ve already been for helping you understand where you’re going. On my birthday last week I bought Colette Baron-Reid’s The Map, a book and card set to help map out your life so far and see where it’s leading; I’m enjoying exploring the book (though it’s quite superficial and a little too whimsical for me) and finding the cards helpful too but one of the reasons I bought them was to do with something I started writing three years ago.

If you’ve been with me that long, you might recall I did a weekly serial called Lost. I posted ten episodes as I wrote them, and at a certain point, I stopped. I began the project after events in real life left me feeling worse than Lost; every time I got into a state about it, I worked through things and came to write a new instalment, in a state of trance. I didn’t plan or think or even care much; I let the words of the story draw me to a point where I could stop. I came back to it a year ago and began working the same way, though the excruciating emotional pain was gone. I realised it was a deep project, exploring my inner landscape and have been working on it slowly since then. I have no idea where it will go or when it will be finished, or even if once finished will I publish it.

Here’s a segment of it to illustrate my point:

I walk round, my feet leaving a silvery trail in the dew laden grass and select a tree I think I may be able to climb and find a massive oak, its bark green with lichen and moss and scramble up into the lower branches without much problem. Up and up I climb, awkward and inept and trembling at times when I look down.

It’s one of the tallest trees and when I reach the canopy, and have to stop to catch my breath, I make the mistake of looking down. A tangle of branches weave in and out like a mandala below me and my mind becomes confused by the pattern. I shut my eyes and try to focus.

I open them and steady myself, gripping the wood tightly and shift a little so I can turn left and right without risking slipping. Over the sea of greens, the sun is rising, a great red ball that becomes golden as I watch the mists spiralling up out of the forest. For as far as my eyes can see, there is only trees, mile upon mile of forest. I can see no roads or significant clearings beyond some that seem to be where the more ancient of trees have fallen to their deaths. I see no buildings or signs of people. In the extreme distance, I can see the faintest glimmer of a mountain range, a thin blue line of hummocks at the furthest horizon.

The forest is waking as I stand gazing over the canopy and I can hear birds and other creatures greeting the new day and I can also hear my stomach rumbling.

Slowly I realise that having got up this high, I have now to get down again and after fixing the direction of those mountains in my mind, I begin my shaky descent.

As I climb nervously down, all I can think about is that sea of green and the miles of endless forest ahead of me.

There are no paths. All around me, endless shades of green, with some brown and red and orange as counterpoint, and no opening, no indication that anyone has ever come this way before. I sag against the trunk of the tree I have just climbed, the memory of those distant mountains burned into my retina like the after-burn of lightning flashes, and for a few long minutes, I want to curl into a ball, and bury myself in the moist leaf-litter and return to the earth.

But somehow I square my shoulders and take a long deep breath. I gaze around carefully and I spot it: not a path as such, just a thread through the greenery. It’s probably a deer path but it seems to be going in the right direction at least, so I begin.

The way is not easy; I cannot walk, but rather have to weave myself in and out of fallen branches, over rocks and heavy rotting trunks. Sometimes, in the soft earth I see the footprints of the deer who use this trail and sometimes droppings, but they are old, and I feel sure the deer do not come this way often.

I merge with the forest, my mind slipping into its rhythms as the sun climbs higher and higher. I sip water from a tiny rivulet that crosses the path, scooping water into my mouth; it tastes earthy, a tang of smoky peat teases my taste buds, making me remember something I cannot quite put my finger on. It’s not unpleasant, just odd. I eat leaves, to stave off the hunger, and the occasional berry. In the back of my mind, I wonder how I know whether something is safe to eat or not, and worry that perhaps I do not.

By late afternoon, as the sun has begun its decline to evening, I have covered perhaps a mile in a straight line and am exhausted and filthy. I’ve crossed and recrossed the same ground, and it was only seeing my own footprints in the moist ground my a stream that told me I had doubled back. I never once thought they might belong to someone else. Throughout this great wide forest that seemed from the treetops to go on to the edges of the earth, I cannot sense another human soul. Only birdsong and insects disturb the peace here.

I can sense the sunset even though I cannot see it and I know I must find shelter for the night. I’ve nothing to keep me warm and I am dimly aware that the food I have eaten would be sufficient for a family of field-mice to live on. Every limb aches with exertion and my heart sinks because I know that those mountains are still as far away as ever.

As I climb into a tree and try to snuggle as close to the trunk as I can, feeling the living force of the sap slowing inside, I ask myself, why am I heading for the mountains?

But I sleep before I can even start to answer that question.”

Why am I heading for the mountains?”

An excellent question. But all I can say for this story and for my life is this:

Life feels better when you have a plan.”

 (you can watch the ad here. It’s rather moving)

Lost 10

Lost 10

I slip in and out of bitter blackness, and even when I am mostly unconscious the pain keeps me from resting fully. My bones hurt, as I lie under the darkening sky, thrashing feebly from side to side trying to find warmth amid the dank mosses. My teeth chatter as the fever rages and I roll myself over to try and bury myself in the ground.

A hand stops me, holding my burrowing hands firmly and I find myself rolled back on my back. I have as much strength as a newborn rabbit and I cannot fight. For the first time, I understand the resignation of the prey animal at bay finally, wounded and dying. Let me die with dignity; let it be a final single bite.

I close my eyes again, hoping I will never open them again, and as I slip once more into a fitful unconsciousness that is in no way like sleep, I feel something unexpected. Is it my imagination as I die, or has a warm soft blanket really been wrapped round me?

The passing of time is impossible to gauge but when my eyes open again, there is indeed a blanket around me, and it is dark. I feel strong arms raising me, and a wooden cup is placed to my lips and I am made to drink. The liquid is warm and reminds me of the willows at the waterside in some distant memory, but as I drink it, beneath the sweetness of honey, there is a bitter woody taste that is not unpleasant. I swallow and am allowed to lie back down. There is another, rougher blanket that has been eased under me and a pillow too.

I fight the fever, alternating between throwing the covers off me and clutching them tighter round me. I drift into dreams that have me striding amid the stars of the heavens and wake to find more of the willow-drink being poured into me. How long this goes on for, I do not know, for the passing of day into night and back again seems to blur and ripple and become confused.

Eventually I wake, and I sense that something has changed. My skin is neither burning nor clammy and when I open my eyes properly, I can see without that haze of fever distorting everything. Near me is the old woman, wrapped in a heavy cloak that I at first take to be made of rags. As my eyes clear, I see it is not. It is made entirely of thousands of feathers, arranged in ranks that grown longer the closer to the hem they are. Near her neck, brightly coloured feathers form a ruff.

She gives me a stern look and comes over, carrying something in her left hand. I may be free of fever, but I am also free of any strength, and I lie there passively to await my fate. I cannot imagine that someone who has cared for me these last days can mean to harm me now, and as she kneels next to me, I see that what she carries is a bowl of thin broth, with a spoon in it and my mouth fills with saliva at the smell of it.

Lost 9

Lost 9

The sound of the water gurgling over the rocks is lost beneath the thunder of my own heartbeat as I stare in shock at the little building. I’m not sure what I feel; fear and hope fight each other for supremacy over me but their effects are just the same. My knees wobble and I sink to the ground, shaking.

The blue thread of smoke wavers a little as a slight breeze catches it, and then settles back into a steady line. I make my legs work and walk very slowly down to the stream. The water is noisy, and my thirst is suddenly unbearable and I drop to my knees once more, scooping handful after handful of icy water into my parched and foul mouth. Thirst quenched, I back away but the sound is soothing and I stand a few paces away, before tiredness creeps up on me. I am exhausted and now one of my most urgent needs has been met, something in me gives way and as if bewitched, I curl up on the soft mossy ground a few yards from the stream and close my eyes. The voice of the stream becomes my lullaby and I drift off, aware how foolish this may be and yet not caring any more.

The sun far above has shifted a few finger-widths when I wake and I am thirsty again and I return to the stream to drink.

As I dip my hands into the fast flowing water, I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone is emerging from the hut. I freeze. I have no time to run, no time to hide. Like an animal, my only refuge is staying completely still.

The figure is clearly that of a woman, and by her long white hair, an old one at that. She wears long robes of simple design and muted greens and browns but for me, she looks……beyond human. She seems a goddess to my starved and frightened eyes.

She is watching me, as if she was long aware of my presence by the stream and as if like a gracious host, she has waited for me to wake up. In her arms she carries a large bowl that steams, and as I catch a whiff of the steam, I let out a groan of pure desire. I smell things I can no longer name, for the words have been so long unused that they have become dormant, sleeping in my memory like winter bears in mountain caves. But the smell is like every delicious foodstuff I might ever have smelled and I feel my dry mouth fill with saliva and I groan again.

Nodding to me, but not speaking, she places the bowl on a flat rock on her side of the stream and turns back and disappears into the little house again.

The steam rises, and the soft breeze carries the scent of the food to me. Saliva spills out of my mouth and down my chest, and I whimper. The food calls to me, calls so seductively but is this a trap?

As I watch the rising steam, my body acts without my conscious consent and I wade through the bitterly cold waters to the other side. I crouch, and see that there is a large carved spoon embedded in the food and I lift it to my mouth and cram in the hot stew as fast as I can, hardly chewing but letting the taste overwhelm my senses with bliss and swallowing to make room for more.

The bowl is soon empty and I drop the spoon with a clatter and wade back to my side of the stream. I should run away, I know this but my legs are not wanting to work any more. The shivers I’ve been feeling are growing and I ache all over. It seems so cold, and my rags of clothing are soaking wet too. I huddle up, trying to get warm, pulling tufts of thick moss to cover myself and I close my eyes and lose consciousness as the fever takes command of my body.

My last thought as I slip into darkness: was the stew poisoned?

Lost 8

Lost 8

The wind shifts the branches above us and the moment is gone and the starlight with it. I stand very still, waiting, in the darkness and
after a moment or two where all I can hear is the broken wheezing of my enemy, finally I hear the crunch of dragging footsteps as it
staggers into the dense blackness. 

Slowly, because I find that now the adrenaline of the fight is seeping away. I move back to the tree I had been dozing against and slide down into a crouching position.  Every muscle is screaming with pain and when I touch my face, I can feel stickiness everywhere. It must be blood, but I will have to wait till morning before I can really make any true assessment of my injuries.

I can hear my own breathing, hoarse and rapid, and it scares me,
because the forest is otherwise unnaturally silent. The normal rustle
of creatures going about their nightly business has ceased and an
uneasiness remains. I cannot sleep again or the creature will come
back and finish me off. My instinct towards mercy will surely not
serve me here where raw survival is the aim of every day.

And yet, I could not kill it (him? Her? I do not know.) I’ve killed small animals and birds to feed myself, and fish too, but this was a much harsher choice and even though I worry, in some ways I do not regret sparing it.

The night seems long but when the grey morning arrives and the ground and I are both covered with dew, I rise from my crouch to find that I am stiff and very sore. I systematically pat myself all over, and find many areas of almost unbearable pain. Blood covers me from head to foot. I have no means of knowing quite what damage I have received but when I start to move, my whole body hurts. My stomach aches from hunger but there is a pain too that wasn’t there before and it scares me. Did the pummelling I endured do some serious damage? Am I bleeding internally?

I limp onwards, my mouth dry and I know I must find water soon. I lick moisture from leaves and scoop it from hollows in the spreading roots but I crave clean cold water, from a fast flowing stream. The water from the root crevices tastes woody and stagnant but it has to

By the time the sun is fully up, I can hear the sound I have longed for, the rushing of water and despite my pain I speed up towards the
sound. It seems to take an age but finally, I find myself at the head
of a low valley and at the bottom of it, I can see a deep, swift
stream, cutting its way through the bedrock of the valley and I start
to scramble down to it.

Halfway down I stop, shocked.

On the opposite side of the stream there is a small wooden building,
clearly a dwelling place and from the hole in the roof, I can see a
thread of blue smoke rising into the sky.  

Lost #7

Lost #7


Every sense becomes heightened and my nerves begin to twang with
adrenaline. Very slowly, I make myself sit up, legs coiled under me
to spring forward if I need to. I open my eyes as wide as I can but
there’s little but uniform velvety darkness, and no more than the
occasional gleam of starlight when the wind moves the branches.

I wait.

My legs begin to cramp under me, and I silently extend first one and
then the other to stretch and relieve the tense muscles.

That’s when the attack comes, when I am off balance.

The force of the impact knocks the breath from my lungs but there’s not a second to spare for recovery. The creature is upon me, clawing, ripping, punching and grabbing for me, and with that far away instinct of the animal desperate to survive, I know something.

I know that my attacker is not a bear or a wolf or a big cat. It has
arms and legs and though the claws that are rending my skin are
sharp, they are not lethally so. It may be some vicious great ape, or
monkey grown to huge size. I grab back, my hands closing round sinewy wrists, hairy and rough, and with a massive effort, I drag those hands away from my neck and somehow turn the tables. I am on top now, and it is me who is punching and gouging and kicking, head-butting and scratching. There is no sound, but the crunch of leaves and twigs as we roll, locked in combat, around the forest floor. The creature doesn’t growl or howl at me, but I can hear harsh breathing, and smell its foetid breath when the head lurches towards me.

I fight for my life, for I know this thing will kill me and probably
eat me as I lie dying.

We are evenly matched, perhaps, though after some minutes of this
wrestling, I can sense my opponent is tiring and know that I must do
something soon. My own energy is waning, drained not just by this
fight but by the long miles of walking and little food.

With a final desperate burst of aggression, I redouble my efforts and I land a lucky kick into the softer middle of the creature. I fling it
away and am on it, pinning it down, and with an arm pressed hard
across the throat, I begin to press the life out of it.

The wind in the trees shifts the dense canopy of leaves and a beam of light from the bright stars above seems to pierce the blackness and for a second or two I can see as it shines in the eyes of my opponent and I recoil in horror. I release my hold and I stagger back, appalled.

For the eyes that shone desperately in the filthy face of the creature
were human eyes pleading for a mercy they would not have shown me.

Lost #6

Lost #6

   The change in terrain has spooked me a little; I feel like I have moved beyond my territory and into that of another creatures. I feel
vulnerable without trees I can scale if danger threatens and with
nowhere secure to sleep, I am worried whether I will sleep unharmed in this place.

I walk on, feeling every crack of a twig and rustle of leaves underfoot as much louder than it truly is, for it gives me away to anything that might be listening for the arrival of prey. It is far easier to walk here as there is little dead-fall and less undergrowth to slow
my progress and for the first time in a long while I can feel my legs
reaching their full stretch as I walk. It feels good.

After a few hours I see that the dim green light is getting less and I feel the chill in the air that signals that the sun is long past its
zenith and has sunk almost below the horizon. Night-fall will not be
far behind and I am scared, suddenly, of lying down and trying to
sleep. While the light lasts, I walk on, trying to find somewhere a
little more secure. A crevice in a tree trunk would do, but these
giants are in the prime of life and their towering trunks are intact
and unbroken. A fallen tree would be a welcome sight, but no.

As the last of the light slips away I can fool myself no longer that
night is still far off and I realise too that my limbs are tired and
my head is beginning that animal-like descent into  a dull
half-awake, half asleep state where I begin to see shapes in the
darkness. A night bird calls, shrieking like something evil and I
startle and begin to run, my instincts kicking in before my mind can
tell me it’s just a bird.

I run some yards before my mind tells me to stop, and as I stop, raw fear and horror take over and I curl up, like a damaged spider, hard against the bole of the nearest tree and sob bitterly. There is no
comfort to be had except from the shedding of tears, and when the
numbness they bring with them tips me into a deep slumber, still
upright and tense from flight.

I don’t know how long this sleep lasts, but when I wake the night still holds the forest in almost complete darkness except for a few very faint twinkles of starlight that penetrates the canopy as the wind
shakes the leaves and makes gaps in the thick cover. I open my eyes, but can see little or nothing, and I uncoil and stretch my legs out. I sit like that, eyes fighting back sleep.

For something has alerted those hidden senses I never knew I had and I know that unseen in the surrounding forest, something is watching me.