Nine Perfect Strangers versus Six Imperfect Pilgrims

Nine Perfect Strangers versus Six Imperfect Pilgrims

I’ve been a subscriber to New Scientist magazine for many years; indeed, I’ve had a couple of letters published and I even won “The Last Word” once. We moved to digital only and I stopped reading it, largely because I don’t find reading on screen pleasant. The irony of writing that on a blog is not lost on me. A few months back, we started getting the paper magazine again; it means I can pass on copies when we have read them and I can stuff a couple into a bag if I am going somewhere where I am likely to be waiting around. Experience has shown me that sitting reading a copy of this magazine while waiting for a medical consultation improves my outcome of being listened to; following a botched (ish surgery) around 10 years ago, the same (admittedly exhausted) doctor responded very differently to me the morning after the surgery when he and the ward sister found me reading a copy (and a couple of novels in French laid on my side table too) from the night before when my belongings were still in my bag. We had an actual proper conversation; their opinion of me shifted in the light of my reading material. Sad but true.

Anyway, a copy from a couple of weeks ago caught my eye today because my daughter had mentioned something key from it the day before. She’d been checking out a mini series on Amazon prime called “Nine Perfect Strangers”, because the premise of it seemed at first glance to bear some resemblance to my novel “Strangers and Pilgrims”. The concept of troubled, damaged people seeking healing by going on a retreat somewhere remote and beautiful but with some sort of mystery at the heart of it, is not (thankfully) trademarked, and on reading the review of the series that appeared in New Scientist, I relaxed. The nine perfect strangers of the mini series could not be more different in circumstances than the six imperfect pilgrims in my novel. The nine are damaged and hurt people for sure, but their lives are otherwise ones of privilege and plenty. The wellness retreat of the series is plush, expensive and extremely well-ordered; visitors give regular blood samples to ensure their tailor made smoothies are perfect for them. The cottage, known as the House of the Wellspring (in “Strangers and Pilgrims”) is a tiny place, comfortable but not luxurious, and the food is plentiful but the pilgrims must work together to prepare, serve and wash up after eating. They choose classic, timeless comfort foods, of stews and crumbles and cheesy bakes, and the making and the baking is a part of their healing process. To spend time with others, cooking, eating, clearing away, serving each other, is a very elemental part of being human; to be waited on by servants is part of a form of elitism that is pernicious when it becomes something we see as our right rather than as an occasional treat or holiday.

At the heart of the “Nine Perfect Strangers” retreat is a guru; a mysterious, ethereal figure played by Nicole Kidman. At the heart of “Strangers and Pilgrims” is a mystery, yes, for each retreat member has come because they reached out, in their lowest ebb, to a shadowy but compelling figure, the Warden of the Wellspring. This person, in a series of emails, has shown both love and understanding to those who contacted the House of the Wellspring, and has offered the chance to visit and to drink the healing waters, that will heal their unbearable hurts. Each yearns to meet this Warden, to pour out their sorrow and rest in the quiet of understanding and of unconditional love. And so, they make their way there, trusting and hoping for healing.

I don’t have any streaming services for TV, so I haven’t seen “Nine Perfect Strangers”. I’m always late to the party; I’ve probably not missed much by not having any streaming. We watch only a very small amount of TV and these days I quite enjoy binge-watching a series I missed years ago, now that the hype is forgotten and the painful pressure of FOMO is gone. When it does come on ordinary free-view TV, I may well watch because it may be good drama. You may already have seen it. As I say, I’m always late to these kind of things. “Strangers and Pilgrims” was first published over ten years ago now, and it’s garnered some wonderful reviews. It’s also got one or two excoriating ones, because you can’t please everybody. It’s in need of a new cover, because things have moved on (and yes, I hope to do this at some point but I have zero energy and mojo), but the core of the book is what it was ten years ago, and if you didn’t read it then, perhaps now is the time to give it a try. The evenings will be drawing in and it’s a perfect autumn or winter read, especially around the time of All Hallows, during which the main part of the story is set.

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

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

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

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

Mwah! Mwah! Kisses from a Moth and from me.

For the rest of November, as a special treat to lovers of spooky fiction, The Moth’s Kiss (ten tales of truth and consequences) is just 99p. That’s less than 10p per story. The price is equally low world-wide, so grab it as the nights draw in, darker and darker. I’d love to see some new reviews as well. (hint hint!)

For those of a nervous disposition, Strangers and Pilgrims has had a little price drop to comfort and cheer during the dark days before the Christmas lights go up.  It’s now just £1.99 (or whatever that converts to in $ etc). There are plenty of folks who have loved this book and reread regularly. I am working in a very roundabout way towards a sequel but that might take a few years; there are five other works-in-progress in various states of undress.

“Where springs not fail” ~ on not losing hope

Where springs not fail” ~ on not losing hope

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

Heaven-Haven Gerard Manley Hopkins


If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you’ll know that the poems of Hopkins have always spoken to me. I think this was the first poem of his I read as a teenager and I’ve always loved it.

Perhaps the concept of the wellspring began here for me. I do not know. I have written extensively about springs, wellsprings and the metaphysical meanings and implications of both. I’ve used the idea of groundwater seeping deep and then eventually springing back up, purified and revivified, as a metaphor for the creative process. I’ve written an entire novel (Strangers and Pilgrims) about a healing spring, the waters of which will heal broken hearts and spirits.

But I have begun to lose heart and hope. In the wake of the general election, in the face of the continued wall of horror that is the news, and in the constant onslaught of things I can do nothing to mend, I have begun to buckle. I cannot carry the world’s woes; I cannot even manage to carry my own personal woes very well now, and they’re trivial by comparison to what many bear each day.

A few weeks ago, though, I found a wellspring. I didn’t happen upon it; rather my husband had been taken to it as a part of something else entirely and he was so struck by it that a few days later we went back. You would not find it readily; deep in woodland, with no visible paths, you had to know it was there to find it. At one time, this spring and others in the same lands, supplied all the freshwater needs of Ipswich.

Around six feet across, roughly circular, and entirely unexpected, it was filled with water so incredibly clear it was invisible. At the bottom of the pool, perhaps three or four feet deep, the spring itself bubbled up in a constant and quite mesmerising pattern of churning up the sand. Viewed from above, it looked a little like a volcano erupting with ash. Shining specks of mica and quartz gleamed as the spring poured into the pool; pure white shells of ancient molluscs turned over and over before being lost. The pool spilled over into a stream that chuckled and sang and ran on under moss covered branches. It was like another world, and one I’d forgotten existed. The water was icy cold, and sweet to taste and if the day had been warmer I might have bathed in it.

I cannot rationally explain why this place lifted my spirits and the memory of it continues to do so. Nothing in my world is changed materially by it. Logically I know that such springs exist but it is the experience of being close to one that reminds me that there are things that do not fail and fall away when we do. I do not know whether my own creative springs will ever be restored, but I still desire in my heart of hearts to go “where springs not fail.” And that, with faith, has to be enough.

Film of the spring on my Facebook author page:

Happy Birthday, Strangers and Pilgrims!

Happy Birthday, Strangers and Pilgrims!

As May ticked over into June, I realised that this month marks three years since I launched Strangers and Pilgrims as a Kindle book. Prior to that it had been available as a paperback for around a year or so, selling a few copies but generally just sitting there. I’d had people ask was I going to put it out as an e-book and I’d said yes, yes, of course and had done nothing. Circumstances at the time meant I didn’t do so until a shift occurred that caused me much hurt, upset and grief, and as a way of reassuring myself of my worth as a writer, I set to and launched Strangers and Pilgrims again, as an e-book.
When it was first launched, I know I was far from ready to publish. The book was, but I wasn’t. It’s hard to explain why without raking up past pain, but it wasn’t until June three years ago that I was able to face making a book available to the Kindle market which barely existed when I wrote the book. There’s something tender and vulnerable about releasing a book and Strangers & Pilgrims is dear to me. As I explained in my post about revisiting it after a long period unable to even look at it, it’s a book that touches people. The majority have loved it. It’s been sharing page space with some very famous books and very illustrious authors in the various Kindle charts for such genres as metaphysical and visionary fiction, as well as in personal transformation. In a small way it seems to have become a kind of a classic.
In the first year it was out on Kindle, it sold steadily and it continues to sell, though not in the numbers is did a year or two back. When I’d first launched it, as a paperback, there had been naïve talk about it somehow going viral and becoming a worldwide success. Naive on my side, I think; perhaps a bit more delusional on the part of the other person. I don’t know. I’m a realist. I’ve always felt that the chances of any book becoming one of those unstoppable hits are very small indeed, but like with the Lottery, at least buy a ticket! Putting Strangers and Pilgrims onto Kindle was like buying a ticket. There’s still a chance of it becoming that international best-selling sensation, but you know, the fact that it’s been read by a few thousand people (perhaps three thousand or so; I’ve stopped counting obsessively now) is a HUGE thing for me. It’s not a beach read or a blockbuster thriller and the fact that it’s reached that many people is amazing to me. Literary-ish fiction is horribly hard to sell independently; the folks who like literary fiction tend not to be Kindle users and are those who love books made of paper rather than pixels.
I’ve been asked numerous times if there will be a sequel and for a long while I toyed with it. I let the idea go, after writing a few chapters. Nothing seemed to shine; ideas flared briefly like a match struck in a dark cave before dying back into darkness. Then, a few weeks ago, a scene came to me that I had to write and I wrote it. I think that the long term effects of my late and unlamented parathyroid tumour meant that ideas just fizzled and died, and I lacked the necessary mental agility needed to link ideas and characters and plots. Now I am recovering (other stuff going on but…) I hope that the mental progress I’ve seen will continue and books will get finished. The sequel is about ten thousand words down so far. I have no idea when (or even if) I will finish it, but for those who felt the ending of Strangers & Pilgrims was a tiny bit too neat, there were threads left hanging that mean some things will be coming unravelled. (No spoilers here).
Anyway, three years old (we won’t count the first, damaged birth) and still touching lives, here’s to Strangers and Pilgrims and many thanks to everyone who has read and loved the book.

(If you have read and enjoyed the book, but haven’t left a review, I’d be extremely grateful if you would consider doing so. Reviews seem to generate interest and activity.)


Everywhere else, replace the .com in the URL with whichever suffix your country uses ie .de  .ca and the rest of the URL stays the same.

Tales of the Wellspring 3 ~ inspirations

Tales of the Wellspring 3 ~ inspirations

for part one visit Tales of the Wellspring 1

for part two visit Tales of the Wellspring 2

Once or twice in my life I have made a decision while under the influence of alcohol. Most of us have, if we’re honest about it and if we’re lucky nothing very untoward has come of it. The most life changing decision I almost made was on the strength of exhaustion, the exhilaration of moving to a new and very rural area, a childhood dream and several pints of Scrumpy Jack cider. Thankfully, I said I would sleep on it and come and view the horse the next day. Good sense kicked in with a mild hangover and though the horse was beautiful as a de-horned unicorn she had not been broken in and on the strength of the fact that I’ve never owned a horse before, let alone broken one in to bit, bridle and saddle, I said no.

I am relieved now that I didn’t go through with the purchase as I suspect it would have led to much heartache later. I’d also learned my lesson from something that had occurred in a pub about six years previously, though in that case it was the result of a pint and a half of Guinness and some persuasive friends.

It was a bit more than that really. My husband had been accepted for ordination training a few months previously, to commence to following autumn, and life was in a kind of free fall. We were gearing up to moving from Middlesbrough to Nottingham, selling our home and renting another and at this time our daughter was about 18 months old. There were so many uncertainties my head spins now to even think about it. We belonged to a Fellowship of Vocation group that supported those considering or entering ministry and it was after such a meeting that we decided to capitalise on having a babysitter and when the core of the group decamped to the pub afterwards, we joined them.

David, the group leader, was a Taizé fanatic and he set himself to convincing us to come that year. Taizé is a religious community in the far south of France famed for its music and its silence. Young people from all over the world visit for a kind of retreat. My objections were simple: we had virtually no money and we had a baby. Money? Ha, as we were at that time under a key age, we were able to pay the bare minimum, David told us. And there were lots of activities for children and so on.

So I said yes.

When the time came, I regretted the decision immensely. We were in the throes of selling our house and I was reluctant to go away at a crucial time. But we’d paid our initial deposit for coaches etc so we went. Let me tell you something: travelling from the North East of England to the South of France on a coach with a hyperactive two year old who doesn’t sleep was possibly one of the most challenging experiences. It took a full 24 hours and the last 12, driving across France was horrific. It got hotter and hotter. By the time we got there, the temperature was in the 80s.

I had had no sleep whatsoever and I don’t like heat anyway. Since I speak French, I sorted out where we were to be billeted and we trudged half a mile up the road to the farmhouse where those infirm or with tiny children were put. We found out later a minibus would have ferried us there but no one  thought to tell us. The old farmhouse was lovely, but in a state of some disrepair and the girl who was there to welcome us was Hungarian and spoke only basic English. She showed us to our room, which turned out to have a stone flagged floor and one single bed. At this point, I sat down on the bed and burst into tears.

We have a problem,” said the girl and left us alone.

Ten minutes later she came back with a very nice nun who spoke good English and found us first a room with two beds, and then a travel cot for the baby.

I didn’t like Taizé; it was full of too many people, and too much noise and bustle and confusion. I felt miserable and confused myself and I wanted to go home, desperately. I liked the Church, with its icons and its flickering candles but I didn’t like the service I went to the first evening. Hypnotic repetitions of simple songs wound my nerves up to breaking point and I could see everyone else falling under the sway of it, becoming entranced and I felt angry and excluded. I tried to get into the spirit of it but couldn’t. Total fail. We also had to share child care because it turned out at just short of 2 years old our daughter was considered too young to be in any of the kid’s activities without one of us being present. So we had to turn and turn about participating in services and study groups.

We’d been there about three days, and I had become resigned to being there and was just keeping my head down and trying to get as much out of it as I could. I felt a massive sense of disappointment; it was just not what I had hoped it would be for me. I blamed myself, because I’ve always been useless at anything with groups. Then my husband said, have you found the Chapel of the Wellspring yet?

Simple answer, no. I’d not even known it was there. I went and looked at it next time it was my turn to be baby-free. It looked…..intriguing. It looked like a cross between a B&Q summer-house and an Orthodox church. A rough wooden roof over decking but an onion dome on the very top. I stood for a moment looking at it. Inside, candles flickered by icons and in the middle was a trough of water. I went in and sat down. There were only benches or prayer stools and it was simply nice to be out of the glare of the sun. The little structure was filled with the fragrance of cedar-wood and of the branches of box that were stapled to the frame (I still don’t know why) and the sweeter smell of candles. The birdsong outside was muted and after a few seconds I could hear only a trickle of water. Below this structure was a real spring and the water was channelled from below into the stone trough at the heart of the little chapel. The heat of the day was so intense that the slow trickle of water from deep in the earth kept the trough filled but it rarely overflowed. After I had sat there for a while, I could smell the water: cool, and fresh, filtered through layers of ancient rock and earth. I went and knelt by the stone basin that held it and touched it. The refreshment went somehow beyond the coolness of water on a hot day; the water felt newborn and ancient at the same time. I did not drink, but I did touch my face with the water.

From that point on this place became my touchstone for getting to grips with whatever was raging inside me. I would come in and sit in silence and after a short while what had bothered me had melted away. There was a power there I cannot describe, and even writing about it now, I feel the silence and hear and smell the water. Before we left to go home, I bought a pendant with a simple representation of the wellspring, two lines of waving blue and it came with a tiny card that has sat on or near my desk in the 20 or so years since then.

It has the same quote from the Book of Proverbs in five languages, reflecting the multi-lingual nature of Taizé:

More than all else keep watch over your heart since here are the wellsprings of life.” Pr.4 v 23 

I’ve wished every day since we left that I had that Chapel of the Wellspring somewhere that I could visit every day; wanted to live in a home where the garden held a spring I could meditate by and be healed constantly of the pain life can bring me. It’s taken me those intervening twenty years to start to understand that in reality, I do.

Can you see what I see? Can you feel what I feel? ~ Empathy and Imagination

Can you see what I see? Can you feel what I feel? ~ Empathy and Imagination

One of the most frustrating questions to be asked when depressed is, “What are you depressed about?”

It’s frustrating on so many levels. On the first level, it’s simply baffling to the person being questioned. To be asked to single out an actual cause for how you are feeling is very stressful, because the first answer that you’d prefer to give is, “I don’t know.” The onus is on you to provide an answer that the asker can understand, and the simple fact that there IS an onus on you to do that is deeply distressing. You don’t ask someone with cancer what do you have cancer about. You just do. It’s the same with depression. Of course, the fact is that many people do not understand what depression really is. They think it is the same thing as unhappiness, and has an identifiable cause and an achievable cure.

So you flounder to name triggers  for the current bout of depression in the hopes that someone will nod with understanding, and stop asking such silly questions. I know for myself I often try to name a trigger because I know that the person asking cares and wishes to help; naming an external force is a way of opening up a space between us that continues the discussion and maybe eases some of the loneliness of soul I often experience. People who care are often keen to offer solutions and advice and if you’re anything like me, you may seek to allow them that solace of feeling less helpless.

But there are occasions when you try to explain your triggers and someone looks at you blankly, unable to understand quite why something that seems trivial to them could cause such pain in you. I’ve found it interesting quite how many people did understand why those daffodils caused me to break down, and how many did not.

In response to a series of discussions both online and off, I did a Myers-Briggs questionnaire and discovered some interesting things about myself. It seems I am one of the rarer types:

Here’s some information about this type. I found it spot on.

INFJs are conscientious and value-driven. They seek meaning in relationships, ideas, and events, with an eye toward better understanding themselves and others. Using their intuitive skills, they develop a clear and confident vision, which they then set out to execute, aiming to better the lives of others. Like their INTJ counterparts, INFJs regard problems as opportunities to design and implement creative solutions.[13]INFJs are quiet, private individuals who prefer to exercise their influence behind the scenes. Although very independent, INFJs are intensely interested in the well-being of others. INFJs prefer one-on-one relationships to large groups. Sensitive and complex, they are adept at understanding complicated issues and driven to resolve differences in a cooperative and creative manner.[2]INFJs have a rich, vivid inner life, which they may be reluctant to share with those around them. Nevertheless, they are congenial in their interactions, and perceptive of the emotions of others. Generally well-liked by their peers, they may often be considered close friends and confidants by most other types. However, they are guarded in expressing their own feelings, especially to new people, and so tend to establish close relationships slowly. INFJs tend to be easily hurt, though they may not reveal this except to their closest companions. INFJs may “silently withdraw as a way of setting limits”, rather than expressing their wounded feelings—a behavior that may leave others confused and upset.[14]INFJs tend to be sensitive, quiet leaders with a great depth of personality. They are intricately and deeply woven, mysterious, and highly complex, sometimes puzzling even to themselves. They have an orderly view toward the world, but are internally arranged in a complex way that only they can understand. Abstract in communicating, they live in a world of hidden meanings and possibilities. With a natural affinity for art, INFJs tend to be creative and easily inspired.[15] Yet they may also do well in the sciences, aided by their intuition.[16]

or more from:

But the INFJ is as genuinely warm as they are complex. INFJs hold a special place in the heart of people who they are close to, who are able to see their special gifts and depth of caring. INFJs are concerned for people’s feelings, and try to be gentle to avoid hurting anyone. They are very sensitive to conflict, and cannot tolerate it very well. Situations which are charged with conflict may drive the normally peaceful INFJ into a state of agitation or charged anger. They may tend to internalize conflict into their bodies, and experience health problems when under a lot of stress.

Because the INFJ has such strong intuitive capabilities, they trust their own instincts above all else. This may result in an INFJ stubbornness and tendency to ignore other people’s opinions. They believe that they’re right. On the other hand, INFJ is a perfectionist who doubts that they are living up to their full potential. INFJs are rarely at complete peace with themselves – there’s always something else they should be doing to improve themselves and the world around them. They believe in constant growth, and don’t often take time to revel in their accomplishments. They have strong value systems, and need to live their lives in accordance with what they feel is right. In deference to the Feeling aspect of their personalities, INFJs are in some ways gentle and easy going. Conversely, they have very high expectations of themselves, and frequently of their families. They don’t believe in compromising their ideals.”

I’m choosing to share this because it helped me to discover that the way I am is recognised and understood by a body external to my own circles. One of my primary experiences is that of empathy. INFJs are capable in ways most types are not of making the jump to understanding the feelings of others without having to experience the same things. I recently had a review of my novel Strangers and Pilgrims where the reviewer felt that only two of the characters had “real issues” and that the rest were “wallowing in self-pity and needed to get a grip.” Their internal distress simply did not register because the causes for it would not have provoked the same reaction in the reviewer. I found this a curious response, really, because I’ve always felt that someone else’s internal processes are uniquely theirs and while sometimes I don’t feel that what would upset someone else would upset me, I’ve always respected that it did genuinely upset them and that it is a real cause for distress.

Let me give an example. Around twenty or so years ago, I lost a pregnancy through a miscarriage. Once the hormonal balance was restored, I didn’t feel much grief about it. I do sometimes wonder about that child that never was, but I do know plenty of women (and men too) for whom a miscarriage is a lasting wound that never quite heals. They mark the passing years, with memorials for the child’s probable birthday and the day of the loss. While I share that experience of losing a baby in pregnancy, I don’t share the same experience of grief, but I never doubt that their grief and their pain is real and powerful. 

It’s far from unusual to have people commit suicide or attempt it without those around them ever quite registering what has been going on inside their minds. And if they do express what has motivated them to try this desperate act, others often fail to understand why what seems to them merely an inconvenience or an upset could make another person try to kill themselves.

It’s the qualities of empathy and imagination that give us the ability to step into another person’s skin and see what they see and feel what they feel. I suspect it is the lacking of both these qualities that feeds into the general uncaring so prevalent in society.

When someone next says, “Oh grow a pair and toughen up,” perhaps it’s worth remembering that some of us are capable of much greater empathy and imagination than others, and then smile and silently pity the speaker.

Tales of the Wellspring (1)~ where is the wellspring?

Tales of the Wellspring

I’ve said that the Wellspring in “Strangers and Pilgrims” is a real place, which it is indeed, and then refused to say where it is. I know this is frustrating, and possibly annoying. I’m not doing this to annoy; the clues to the location are in the text. When you understand this, you will also understand why I can’t tell anyone directly where the Wellspring is. It simply isn’t right. It’d lead you all wrong. It’s like the mystic’s finger pointing at the moon; the fool sees only the finger.

But what I can do is tell you a bit about the background to how I found the Wellspring. Remember this is the mystic’s finger and not the moon itself. You have to see the moon yourself.

I was ten when I first found a holy spring. I had in some ways an idyllic childhood, filled with fields and flowers and streams, and back then in the mid seventies, there was little of the hysteria that makes parents keep their children locked in houses and glued to the TV. Back then my best friend was a girl called Tina. We spent hours after school and during holidays roaming the countryside for miles round, coming home only for meals. One of our favourite locations was a place known as Topham’s field. There’s probably a housing estate there now; I haven’t been back in twenty years. It was a large area of grazing for cattle, on a fairly steeply sloping valley side, and at the bottom, the little River Kym trundled through the countryside, cutting a deep groove through the land. We spent many afternoons fishing and wading and generally messing about in the water. In the spring we used to lie flat in the grass and creep on our elbows and bellies to get close to watch the hares boxing. In the summer we played endless games using the massive felled corpses of elms as spaceships and dens. In the autumn we collected nuts and conkers and hid from rain showers under the trees. Winter time made the mud so thick that even the cattle were taken elsewhere and we’d come along in February, ever hopeful that the wind might have dried the mud enough the make entry possible, but it was usually late March before we could claim our kingdom back.

That summer was the drought year of 1976 and everything was dry and burned by the sun. We drank from cattle troughs when our water bottles were empty. The heat was relentless, and we sought shade beneath anything that stayed still, but then so did the cattle and these areas were peppered with cow-pats. This made sitting anywhere risky, not to mention the smell and the flies. Tina was smaller than me and generally more adventurous and while we were seeking a cool spot away from the cows, she crawled through a rabbit run in some brambles and vanished.

I was a bit alarmed until she crawled back and told me she’d found the perfect place. With more difficulty I followed her back down the rabbit run and when we emerged we found ourselves in another world. That’s what it felt like anyway. We were in a deep bowl of green, the walls of which were mixed bramble and saplings that leaned in and almost cut out the sky. The bowl was almost perfectly circular and the floor was the lushest, greenest grass you can imagine. All the grass in the fields was burned to dry beige so this was amazing. The sound of the summer meadow vanished also; I couldn’t hear the swish of cattle moving through the dry grass, or their contented chewing. I couldn’t even hear the endless song of the million grasshoppers. It was almost silent.

We stood without speaking for a minute or two. A faint sound did begin to register; a soft bubbling noise that came from one side of the dell. The dell was only maybe twenty feet across, and as I went to go and sit on the grass, my sandalled feet discovered it was wet. Not just wet, but boggy. My feet sank into the soft wet grass and into mud below.

That was when I realised we’d found a spring. You’d never know it was there; you couldn’t see into the dell from the outside. We talked for a minute or two about building a proper den here; no other kids would ever be able to find us and we could leave our stuff there all the time.

Suddenly Tina’s face froze and she went white. Before I could ask her what was wrong, she bolted back up the rabbit run and was gone. I shouted but she didn’t answer me. I was cross. I sat down on the bank where the dell curved upwards and then realised I’d found at least one of the points where water reached the surface. In the friable soil of the bank there was a little hollow that kept filling with water that then trickled over and disappeared in the grass below. It wasn’t enough to form a stream as such; it trickled like it had all the time in the world. I leaned in close and I could see the water fleas dancing in the bubbling water.

I felt very happy and I couldn’t understand why Tina had run away. Then I felt as if a shadow had crossed the sun. But the sunshine was as unrelenting as ever beyond the walls of the dell. I felt very cold and suddenly very scared. I could feel someone watching me. The feelings grew rapidly until I too was scrabbling back up the rabbit run, certain to my bones that I simply must get away and never, NEVER go back.

I caught Tina up at the gate to the field, half a mile away.

What happened?” I asked her.

I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.

And we never did.

We drifted apart after that; another friend claimed more and more of Tina’s time and affections, and the year after that we went to secondary school and were in different classes and made different friends. The gap got bigger and from being inseparable, we lost touch steadily. She still lives in my home-town; I last saw her about twenty years ago. My mum sometimes sees her mum. But we never, ever discussed what happened. I wish we had, but too much time has passed now. She probably doesn’t even remember what occurred that hot sunny day during the heat wave of ’76.

It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I ever began to get to grips with what I experienced that day and even now I’m not certain. When I was reading Latin at university I came across a description of the god Pan terrifying mortals by menacing them or jumping out at them; the feelings were pretty much what I remember. So for a long while I wondered if Pan had been playing silly buggers and having fun scaring the life out of us. But it doesn’t really add up; why would Pan bother with two pre-teen girls? And it does seem presumptuous to imagine such a deity being even remotely interested in us. I might be a Christian but I do believe such entities exist. Usually they’re not much interested in humans; they only tend to interact with us when we enter their territory.

In my late twenties I began to explore a lot of interesting areas and I discovered that there were more beings that I’d sensed but hadn’t until now understood what they were. Nature spirits is a poor name but it maybe conveys enough: non-human entities that are connected deeply with places like springs, special trees, rivers, mountains and so on. Like humans, they are variable in terms of good and bad, but their primary goal is the protection of whatever natural feature they are tied to. So a tree spirit is to help protect the tree and so on. Sadly they don’t have as much power as they need, or this world would not be in the state it is.

With the wisdom of over thirty years passing, I think now we were warned off. We were on holy ground and we were trespassing. The spirit of that sacred spring didn’t want us there, messing about, making a den and using it like any other place. So, since children are still quite psychically receptive, the spirit scared us away. So much so that even as a young adult I never dared go back. I don’t dare go back now either, in case the whole place has been destroyed. I’d rather keep it as a memory.

I encountered another similar experience when I was sixteen, but that was in the centre of a city and that’s another story….

To be continued….

For all links to Strangers and Pilgrims go to my Strangers and Pilgrims page

The grit at the heart of the pearl ~ or the point from which stories grow

The grit at the heart of the pearl ~ or the point from which stories grow

Writers are often asked a question that can be virtually impossible to answer: “Where do you get your ideas?” as if there’s a kind of
supermarket you can shop at. It’s hard to answer because in some ways ideas come from everywhere; too often writers become blocked not because of a lack of inspiration but a surfeit of it and indecision
about how to bind them together cohesively.

For me ideas are the grit that sneaks into an oyster and causes so much irritation that the poor oyster does its best to cushion and coat the sharp grit so it stops hurting. I’ll come back to the pain of the
oyster later.

Strangers and Pilgrims was an odd book for me because some of the grit has been lurking in my personal oyster for a very long time. It’s an odd book for me for other reasons; I’ve never written a novel that had six powerful protagonists whose stories drove me quite so hard. Each of those characters was a lump of grit in my system that had each sneaked in from elsewhere, and stayed, bugging the hell out of me for years because I simply didn’t know what to do with them. They had a story, certainly, but only one that maybe comprised a short story or a novella at best.

One of the oldest pieces of grit was the origin of Sara, the character
whose story starts the novel. I’d long loved Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott and especially the song version by Loreena McKennitt.
I’d got this image in my head of a woman staring at a computer screen, rather than a mirror, and being cut off from the world by something and only able to see the world from that “mirror” of a computer. Then I had a hideous nightmare about how she came to be imprisoned and woke shaking, because in these dreams, I am the person being tormented. Of course, I could do nothing with it, so it got noted down and left for later.

A little later came Gareth’s story, again through a nightmare. I found myself in police uniform, male and quite self-assured, smiling at people as I walked through a crowded shopping centre. I was totally unprepared for being shot, or lying in the arms of one of the
bystanders while she pleaded with me to stay awake, to live. I woke
from that dream, certain there was a story, but not sure what to do.

Ginny’s story is older yet, mixed in with real experiences of sleeping at the foot of Glastonbury Tor and finding myself lost in an eerie mist that swept in and divided me from my tent, and of uneasy dreams of being thought mad and kept locked up against my will. It’s a real fear, if you’ve ever suffered from mental illness.

Elizabeth came out of a long train of thought, based on the fact that at nineteen, I almost became a nun. Needless to say, I didn’t, but I
often have speculated what my life might have been had I taken those steps back then. Her faith, shattered but not destroyed mirrors my own.

A long and complex dream of archaeology began Alex’s story. As him, I crawled down the long stone tunnel to a horde of treasures left from when the dark ages began with the departure of the Romans from Britain. My heart pounded as his as I saw the possible fruition of my own dreams that Arthur had been real and that I had found conclusive proof of it. The later discrediting of this discovery was another nightmare. I had a very distinct mental picture of Alex, sandy haired and slightly fussy fledgling academic at the start of a promising career, older than his years but still somehow a dreamy boy at heart, believing in chivalry and honour.

The character whose story ends the first section of the novel is probably inspired by a famous faith healer in Britain, Matthew Manning, but only by a very dim thread. Mark’s story for me began with a curious dream of being a healer who has lost his gift and who is found out as a fake. It was a very strange dream indeed.

The unifying thread (apart from a river they all live somewhere near
to)for all six characters was the focus upon typing a phrase into a
search engine while at the peak of despair: my heart is broken and I
am dying inside. Each character does this and finds the same answer.

Another piece of grit was the title. I stumbled upon the phrase strangers and pilgrims many years ago, embedded in the post-communion sentence for All Saints in the Church of England liturgy “may we who have shared at this table as strangers and pilgrims-”  and I had an image of people sitting quietly round a table after a meal, and reflecting on their journey to this point. 

So I had all these people who wanted me to tell their story and yet, I couldn’t begin. There was something missing. Several things missing in fact, the largest of which was an actual story.

It bothered me for years, as this crew of diverse and damaged people rooted around in my unconscious mind and niggled at me constantly to somehow or other bind them together. Then I had another series of dreams, that had me and a companion searching for something that changed when we found it. These were numinous dreams, full of symbolism and gradually, I found myself aware that what I was seeking in these dreams was a spring. More: a Wellspring. And then it started to fall into place.

The concept of a spring that heals is an ancient one and one I’d long been fascinated by. The Wellspring in Strangers and Pilgrims is real, and not a fantasy. It’s somewhere I’ve visited. Wellsprings exist,
hidden and secret throughout the whole world and the whole of
history. Their waters heal.

Which brings me back to the pearl. For writers like me, writing is about a form of exploration and of seeking to understand both the inner and the outer worlds. But more than that, writing is a means of coming to terms with conflicts and pain and of finding healing. Each of the characters in Strangers and Pilgrims is in some strange way a
fragment of my own psyche, each screaming a very different pain and demanding relief from the agony. While each of those fragments was grit in my soul and in my consciousness, it was hard to rest. In
allowing those stories to bloom and become luminescent, I allowed
some of my own pain to flow and be healed by the process of creating a story around it. Coated in shining words, it became something beautiful and oddly transparent: those who had experienced similar pain were soothed by those stories. Each of my readers who has commented, either in a review or privately has identified with certain characters more than others: some have identified with all of them. I’ve had requests for a sequel and people have very different ideas of whose story they wish to follow next. Not sure yet if I can provide this but I can work on it. 

In the end, writing a novel like this one took a great deal of emotional energy that left me drained and empty but with a feeling of having accomplished something: a story that healed in both the writing of it and in the reading of it. Anyway, I hope I have given some insight into how one book came into being and how both writing and reading can heal and comfort the soul of the troubled, which is pretty much most people!  

The future? Well, there is plenty more grit within me, to be worked with. Each of my novels comes to me in this uncomfortable way. I chose to publish Strangers and Pilgrims first for a host of reasons but I have a back catalogue of novels to be released. The next novel to come out will probably be Fish Out of Water (which title may well be changed to Away With The Faeries; still thinking about that), but I’m planning a collection of short stories in the meantime, which is to contain a teaser or two about Fish. Fish Out of Water is about Isobel, artist, mother of two small children and wife to a minister, who starts to lose both her sense of identity and her grip on what she thinks of as reality after the double suicide of her parents. Dividing her life between the humdrum grind of being a mum and the visionary life of an artist is tearing her psyche apart, and the weird and unexplained activity in the family’s isolated holiday cottage makes her question her own sanity. As events unfold with increasing speed and strangeness, Isobel struggles to stay her usual sensible and cheerful self, being dragged rapidly to breaking point. Look out for news of Isobel here or on Facebook or Twitter.

(This article first appeared at Thea Atkinson’s blog) 

Strangers and Pilgrims now available on Kindle and at the iStore

It’s been a long delay but I have finally managed to get Strangers and Pilgrims up on Kindle.

So for those who have been delaying till this deed was done, the wait is now over.

It’s available from Amazon US  and also from Amazon UK  and I guess also Amazon Germany but I haven’t checked that one out yet.

I am quietly chuffed to bits about this, and now I’ve figured this one out, it’ll be a shorter wait till the next ones come out.

Thank you.

And also now at the iStore:

A new review of Strangers and Pilgrims

I was deeply touched to read the following review by Fibi:

Thank you so very much!