‘Beauty Everywhere’

‘I console myself by reconsidering the sunflowers’

Vincent van Gogh, Letter #665

This morning, I unexpectedly found myself with some time to spare, so I spent it drawing a dead bumblebee. The bee had been given to me by my husband, who found it on the road. (Like many insect casualties, it had probably been hit by a car.)  

There might have been many more productive ways of spending my time – cleaning the oven (though why start now?), deleting old emails, etc. – but there’s a lot to be said for just spending time looking and drawing; it wakes up the eyes. And the longer I looked at the buff-tailed bumblebee and tried (and failed) to draw it, the more outlandish and wonderful it seemed, from the furry joints of its segmented legs to the brownish sheen of its overlapping wings.

My sketches of a dead bee

I found myself thinking of Vincent van Gogh’s drawings and how he often pays the same attention to the minutiae of nature – the structure of a bird’s nest, the fold of a moth’s wings – as he does to the countryside’s grandeur. I recently had the good fortune to compile a selection of quotations from Vincent’s letters, paired with many lesser-known sketches and paintings, in a book called The Healing Power of Nature, which is published by September Publishing in collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum. The Van Gogh Museum is committed to preserving the artist’s legacy for future generations, and holds an incredible archive of his work.

The Healing Power of Nature – a collection of quotations and images by Vincent van Gogh

As Vincent van Gogh’s letters and sketchbooks illustrate through their emphasis on the importance of nature, his work speaks as urgently to us today as it has ever done. He shows us how, through connecting with the natural world, we can come home to ourselves and begin to find peace.

Certainly, after an hour or so spent simply sitting, looking and drawing, I felt calmer and more focused. I also felt interested in learning more about our bumblebees. When you do give yourself the gift of looking, it becomes hard not to care.

‘If one truly loves nature, one finds beauty everywhere’

Vincent van Gogh, Letter #22

A Ghost Story for a Dark Winter’s Night

It’s winter, it’s dark, it’s cold and the perfect time of year for sharing ghost stories, when the thresholds between worlds feels very thin…

The Second Commandment

by Sue Belfrage

I met Kirkby only the once, while we were waiting for a ferry crossing. Rough weather had delayed our boat’s departure and we stood watching waves pound the harbour walls.

‘Sky’s clearing,’ I said, and I pointed to a patch of blue overhead.

Kirkby nodded. He was a tall man, greying, his shoulders somewhat stooped and his expression pensive, as though he bore the world heavily.

‘With any luck, we’ll be on our way soon, if the wind drops,’ he said.

It was biting cold. ‘Fancy a pint while we wait?’ I asked.

Kirkby followed me across the quay to the squat pub overlooking the harbour. We found a seat in the snug and introduced ourselves over our drinks – a pint of beer for me and a glass of ginger ale for him. Kirkby, I learned, was on a pilgrimage of sorts. In measured tones, he explained how he had not long left the priesthood, disillusioned with church politics and exhausted by the demands of his parish. Since then, he had been travelling around Britain, visiting holy sites in a bid to resurrect his faith, which, he said, had been put under enormous strain during the last few years. As he talked, his voice began to falter and tears filled his eyes. I excused myself and went to the bar to buy another round. When I returned, Kirkby had composed himself; for the first time I saw him smile.

‘Anyway, my sorry tale is soon to have a happy ending. A couple of months ago, I returned to an area where I spent part of my youth – a trip down memory lane, if you will. And while I was there, I came across the perfect place to live. A ramshackle, part-furnished little cottage in a hamlet near the town. There’s a pub and a post box, and that’s about it. Nobody knows how old the house is, although by the front door there’s a block of ancient stonework, believed to have been salvaged from a manor belonging to the Knights Templar. But what’s more interesting – for my purposes anyway – are the remains of what appears to be a private chapel attached to the cottage. I think I shall be very happy there.’

Kirkby’s eyes sparked, and I wished him well. He pulled a fountain pen from his jacket pocket and a scrap of paper from his wallet, and wrote down his address, pressing it on me.  Out of politeness I gave him mine in return. However, I did not expect to hear from him once we’d completed our journey and gone our separate ways. I was certainly unprepared for the letter that landed on my doormat a little over five weeks later.

It is an untidy and long document, written in black ink and full of crossings out, smudges and annotations. Its contents occasionally resemble those of a diary, listing everyday trivia. And yet, at other moments, it seems closer to the ramblings of a mad man. You must judge the events it describes for yourself.

***

According to his letter, Kirkby took possession of the keys to his new home on 13 October, not long after our meeting. But the move didn’t get off to an auspicious start: the rental agent was late handing over the keys; the weather was vile and gusty; the front door swollen and jammed; and he was forced to shoulder his way into the hall, where he skidded and landed hard on flagstones wet with rain water that had seeped over the doorsill.

Nevertheless, Kirkby told himself to count his blessings. The air in the cottage was thick with damp, but he managed to get a fire burning in the grate, mopped up the wet floor and shored up the doorsill with a twisted towel. He warmed some soup and sat in the single, badly-sprung armchair to eat his supper, the fire toasting his feet. He prised off his brogues. He would unpack the boxes tomorrow.

Kirkby’s eyelids sank and his head dipped under the weight of his exhaustion. He gave himself permission to doze – when something stirred at his senses. He woke with a start. There was a strong smell of burning and he roused himself from the chair. No sparks had escaped from the fire. He lumbered into the tiny square kitchen; the cooker rings were all switched off. Kirkby sniffed the air again. And again. The acrid tang had gone. He shrugged and went to retrieve his bowl and spoon. As he carried the items to the sink, he paused. The nape of his neck prickled and he turned slowly. He had the distinct impression he was being watched.

He told himself he was simply in need of a good night’s sleep. Upstairs, he made up his bed and, after kneeling down to pray, still struggling to give himself completely to the words, he crawled under the sheets. He slept soundly, waking only briefly, fretting he had forgotten something, that there was something he was meant to find. But then he reminded himself his old life was over. There was no cause for anxiety. He sank into dreamless slumber.

In the grey light of morning, Kirkby opened his eyes and glimpsed a shadow by the foot of the bed. He sat up, blinked and realised he had merely been startled by the fluttering silhouette of a tree outside. In his tiredness, he had forgotten to draw the curtains. He heaved himself out of bed and set about his chores.

Later, having unpacked boxes and stacked firewood beside the hearth, Kirkby rewarded himself with a tea break, and took the opportunity to survey his new surroundings. There was a strip of garden at the back, beyond which lay a tangle of laurels. A short stretch of path led to the building he had instinctively recognised as a chapel, attached to the flank of the cottage. The chapel’s rendering had come away in patches, while green blooms of mould spread up towards two narrow yet ornate windows set high beside the arch-shaped door. Kirkby took a last gulp of tea, set down his mug and went to investigate.

The chapel door was locked, but a large rusty key lay in a recess near the entrance. It seemed strange to leave the key where it could so easily be found – more appropriate to shutting something in than keeping intruders out. After two or three attempts to turn the key, the lock clicked and the door creaked open.

Inside, dankness hit Kirkby like a blow to the chest. As he stopped coughing, his eyes adjusted to the gloom. The chapel had clearly not been used for a long time; it was very cold, like a larder in which the shelves had been stripped bare. An image flashed through his mind of a long joint of meat hanging from a beam, but he pushed the thought aside. There was no furniture, no pews or font or altar; the uneven floor was littered with the leavings of rodents, and the remains of a tumbled nest.  When he stepped out of the rectangle of light cast by the doorway, he trod on the brittle skeleton of a bird. The abandoned chapel was a disappointment, a mess.

Kirkby braced himself. Perhaps part of his challenge lay in restoring order to this desecrated site? The chapel should be cleaned up and dedicated once more to the glory of God. That would be the most appropriate course of action.

However, as he stood there, he felt affronted by the overwhelming hostility of the narrow space. He turned to leave, when his eye was caught by a bulky bundle in a corner. The bundle was shrouded in layers of hessian sacking and secured with baler twine. He managed to lift the thing and, as soon as he did so, sensed a change in the atmosphere, as if this was what he had been meant to find.

With nothing sharp to hand, he lugged the object back into the cottage and set it on the stone floor. As he sat there, hacking at the binding with a kitchen knife, Kirkby became strangely gleeful. It was like being a boy again and stumbling upon a hidden present, but here, nobody could forbid him from taking a peek. When he had flicked away the cut twine and eased the sacking down the sides of the concealed object, he inhaled sharply. He had indeed discovered treasure.

It was some sort of ornate cabinet, with two panels opening outwards to reveal, like a glimpse of heaven between parted clouds, a triptych of intricately painted scenes. The paintwork was absolutely filthy, darkened with centuries of dust, the lacquer thick, crosshatched and yellow; but even so, when he peered closely, Kirkby could make out a row of angelic faces. Here was the marriage feast of Cana, the transformation of water into wine. There, the healing of the blind and the curing of lepers. And the raising of Lazarus. The figures were cloaked in dirt yet there could be little doubt they depicted biblical scenes. Kirkby had discovered a portable altar.

The style in which the triptych was painted suggested the altar was very old, possibly medieval. In the top right-hand corner of the centre panel was a minute patch of dazzling blue; if the whole piece were cleaned, it would undoubtedly be a spectacular work. Kirkby knew he ought to inform somebody of his discovery, but the more he looked at the piece, the more it struck him that this was his find – and he was not ready to share his treasure with anybody else. Not yet.

A sudden pressure gripped his shoulder, as if clamped by a hand, and Kirkby sprang to his feet. He took a deep breath. His nerves were taut as wire after his visit to the chapel and his imagination running amok; he would calm himself through prayer. He picked up the altar carefully and placed it on a table under the window, wedging a strip of torn cardboard under the table’s feet to keep it from wobbling. There – he had created a passable shrine.

He went to kneel when it occurred to him that he might as well pray seated. Nobody was watching, at least not a congregation, and his knees were very stiff. He pulled up the armchair and clasped his hands together in devotion. He sat contemplating the triptych for at least an hour, maybe much longer, letting the images enter his heart and wash over his soul. As Kirkby considered the lepers, his skin prickled and he prayed he might never know their suffering. He lingered on a slight female figure in the foreground, perhaps Eve, her naked arms raised in supplication, and sensed an unaccustomed stirring. The scene of merrymakers at the wedding brought a tightness to his throat, the memory of an old, familiar thirst. He reflected on the transformation of water into wine – surely this biblical sanction meant wine was not necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps he could afford a short lapse? It would be a test of character. The row of cherubs grinned in approval.

Rising from the chair, Kirkby was drawn once more to the dash of blue in the middle panel. The triptych’s colours would sing like the angels themselves if the grime were wiped from them. He made a note on another piece of paper of the tasks ahead, and the materials he would need; it had long been his habit to jot things down so he could remember them easily.

The light was beginning to fail by the time he reached town, but he managed to catch the general store before it shut for the night. He selected a bottle of white spirit, some acetone, a roll of cotton gauze; and, as an afterthought, a bottle of whiskey. The woman at the till seemed friendly enough. However, as Kirkby pulled out his wallet to pay, her terrier sprang from its basket behind the counter and snapped at his ankles. The woman caught the dog by its collar and dragged it to a back room, where it continued to yap behind a closed door. Although he was rattled, Kirkby attempted to laugh off the incident. The woman couldn’t apologize enough. ‘I’m so sorry!’ she said. ‘I can’t imagine what on earth’s got into him.’

In the cottage, Kirkby poured himself two generous fingers of whiskey. He gulped them down. The burn made him grimace, but the aftereffect was comforting. A glow filled him.

In a cupboard, he found a pair of candle sticks and a box of candles. He lit two and flicked off the overhead bulb. Cautiously, he set the candles on either side of the altar. The small flames cast unsettling shadows across the triptych, distorting the figures and illuminating strange swells of colour under the patina of dirt. Somewhere in the distance he could have sworn he heard laughter. Then he felt a thin, wet lick of cold at his neck.

Kirkby snapped the overhead light back on and extinguished the candle flames. He put a hand to his brow and realised he was sweating. Perhaps he was coming down with a fever. After lighting a fire in the hearth, he rummaged in one of the remaining boxes and retrieved a torch, then poured himself another measure, smaller this time. Next, he laid the altar on its back and held the torch above it. The angels did not look quite so benign now.

In the kitchen, Kirkby mixed a solution of white spirit and acetone in a cup. He dipped the gauze in the solution and returned to the altar with it. Carefully, very carefully, he cleaned the surface of the central panel, wiping across a face in the gallery of angels. The cloth came away blackened with dirt; and the angel had flown, leaving behind it a grotesque creature. A diminutive, snarling demon. Kirkby dabbed at another face; to his horror, this too revealed not an angel but a beast.

He dismissed the growing chill at his back to concentrate on the triptych, dabbing at scenes, liberating them from stained varnish. Each movement of his hand drew back the veil on his own deception. Where he had seen the marriage of Cana was a grotesque orgy of cannibalism and slaughter; the blind and lepers were not being healed but cruelly tortured; Eve was the sorceress Lilith, and the raising of Lazarus a tormented sufferer on a spit. When he had prayed earlier that day so fervently before the altar, Kirkby had not been contemplating biblical scenes and heavenly wonders, but filling his heart and his soul with the abominations of hell itself.

He felt nauseous. The disgusting object had to be destroyed. And, all the time, he was aware of the growing presence surrounding him in the cottage. The malice he had experienced in the chapel was here with him now, in this house. It was close by, watching, feeding on fear. Overhead, the light bulb flickered twice. Kirkby began to recite the Lord’s Prayer. He relit the candles, moving them from the table to the mantelpiece. He stoked the fire and added more wood. He knew what he had to do, but first he needed to secure a witness for himself and the act he intended to undertake.

***

And that is as much as I can tell you, drawing on the letter I received, which, as I have said, consists of mismatched scraps of paper and sheets of scrawl. The rest is conjecture, based on my visit to the hamlet where Kirkby once lived.

I imagine that once he had gathered his notes, stuffed them in an envelope and addressed that envelope to me, Kirkby set out into the dark night to post his letter. The post box in the hamlet is some 300 yards down the lane, set into a wall next to the pub. He would have hurried along the road, guided by the light of his torch, flinching at every rustle in the hedgerows, wondering if his was the only breathing he could hear. Perhaps Kirkby paused to peer through the pub window at the warmth and laughter within, and – his mouth still dry from whisky – slowly turned his back, determined to complete his task. As he approached the cottage on his return, it must have looked quite cosy, windows aglow; only Kirkby knew what was waiting for him inside.

They did not find a body. Merely charred remains, tinder and ash. The landlord told me it is popularly believed that a piece of kindling caught Kirkby’s clothing as he heaped yet more wood on the fire. I like to think he died quickly. The hearth and the walls surrounding it were completely blackened, but the altar, I understand, suffered only slight scorching along one side. Aside from this, it remains intact. Indeed, the last I heard, it had gone to auction. A specialist market perhaps; for there are always buyers to be found for such articles, such ancient objects of devotion.

Remembering

In the UK, lockdown is easing, the trees are blossoming and I know I should be celebrating. Yet instead I find myself remembering – a life without restrictions, events that didn’t happen and friends who are no longer with us. Amidst the optimism for what might lie ahead, there is grieving to be done.

Here is a poem that I shared with a friend who passed away recently. It might have been the steroids talking, but she liked it – so I hope you will too. Even when she was busy with the hard work of dying, she was full of joy and in love with the world. And with good reason. For all that this world is difficult and challenging, it is a thing of beauty. And that is worth remembering.

Our Apple Tree

In our garden is a space that holds

The memory of an apple tree. As ancient as the farm,

In spring, it pushed clematis to the sky,

Flowers tumbling pink into white blossom.

Nodding at the heavy, scrambling vine,

The old man warned,

‘See here, it’ll be the tree or that climber…’

Come summer, we swung a hammock in the shade

While little birds picked insects from scored bark.

Warmed by autumn’s ripening spell,

The tree turned magician,

Conjuring apples out of earth,

And a single speckled fieldfare visited

To feast drunkenly on fallen fruit;

Witnessed by our cat, too lazy to hunt the bird.

Our neighbour said, ‘Tie poison round the trunk

To stop the codling moth from climbing.’

In winter’s grey, the apple tree unfolded in stark fractals,

Each branch slick-silvered by the rain, and

Boughs bent, thick with sleeping energy;

The fellow next door said nothing,

Stayed at home by his hearth.

Then the day came when I returned to find it gone;

The shock stopped me in my tracks.

Toppled by the vine’s weight and,

Underground, white rot,

The tree had fallen silently

And rested, uprooted, against our garden wall.

We chopped it into firewood, as the old man suggested.

The following year, five thin shoots appeared –

With apple leaves unfurling.

Touching on Ancestors

The cardboard boxes looked unpromising – battered and scuffed at the edges. When I cut away the parcel tape, I discovered a stack of old photograph albums in one box and what looked like the random contents of an emptied desk in another. I guessed this had come from my late mother’s bureau, a piece of furniture that she had inherited from her own mother and which meant a great deal to Mum.

My elder brother had warned me the boxes were on their way. When I called him to ask what to expect, he was evasive yet teased me about a surprise. I told him I already knew about Mum’s flirtations with romance in the years following my parents’ divorce. And, in the end, I found nothing in either box that shocked me. There were Valentines, postcards, and correspondence with pen pals and old friends. I was unexpectedly moved to find a couple of early letters from my father; to read how there was once a time when they were very much in love, and to discover a vulnerable side to Dad as a young man.

No, what did take me by surprise related to my maternal grandmother. My memories of her are characterised by the musty smell of face powder and red tang of Strepsils lozenges; her horn-rimmed glasses and waved white hair; the way she sent us comics each fortnight when we lived abroad, and her flat in Southport with the outside loo. Mum had told me how Nanna came from an Irish family and said she’d changed her first name from Sarah to Sheila because she thought it sounded posher. Nanna’s maiden name, I had been led to believe, was O’Shaughnessy. However, there was no mention of that name in any of the surviving pieces of paperwork. On her crumbling nursing and midwifery certificates her name is given as Sarah Annie Elizabeth Anderson, with one certificate giving her title as Miss, the other as Mrs. Until I saw those fragile documents, I had never connected the surname Anderson with anyone in our family.

Nanna on a day out…

I vaguely recall Mum mentioning that Nanna might have married twice, her first husband dying in unknown circumstances. The dates on her certificates suggest that Nanna trained as a nurse in her early thirties and she must have been in her mid to late thirties when she had children – old, by the standards of her generation. Her twenties remain a complete mystery. She was born three months before the end of the nineteenth century and, while she was the first woman in her street to learn to drive, she belongs to an age when the term ‘digital footprint’ hadn’t even been dreamt of. Yet I still have a copy of Gulliver’s Travels on my shelf that she gave me for my eighth birthday. Inside the front cover, she has written in blue Biro: ‘To Darling Susan, Wishing you A Very Happy Birthday. Fondest Love, Nanna xxx’ – a few lines of handwriting that act as a portal through time, linking back to her physical presence in the world.

The year 2020 has challenged us to revisit the ways in which we connect with each other. Perhaps it is the prohibition of close proximity with others that makes handling items once touched by the hands of my mother and grandmother such a poignant experience. I will never know all their secrets, but neither will I suffer from the delusion that I do: there are no carefully curated screen presences to navigate. Instead I have inherited a jumbled box of old diaries, faded photographs, notebooks and handwritten letters folded carefully into envelopes, jottings of congratulation and condolence reaching out across the decades, connecting back to those loved and lost.

Wishing you well in 2021, wherever it finds you.

Wild in the Woods

The Forest of Dean is one of the few surviving ancient woodlands in England, a place of winding mossy paths and dreaming ponds. Since the turn of the millennium, it has also been home to a thriving population of wild boar after a number of the animals escaped from a nearby farm.

When my husband and I were walking in the forest, we could see signs of wild boar all around us – uprooted plants and areas of soil ploughed with strong snouts. Our little dog knew they were there too, sniffing the ground with his tail in the air, keen to run up steep banks and off into the trees. We kept him close. Boar have been known to kill dogs if they feel threatened.

It was disconcerting yet somehow thrilling to know that boar were there, so close and perhaps even watching us – yet we couldn’t see them. There was something magical about too; folk magic always has an element of wonder and fear. At night, as we lay in bed in our rented cabin on the edge of the woods, we wondered if we would hear them, tiptoeing under the windows, snuffling, bringing with them the wild from the heart of the woods.

Later, at home in Somerset, I wrote the following poem.

 

Wild Boar

We heard wild boar had been sighted again

Deep in the heart of the forest,

Where mists drift over lily-specked ponds

And the ground is moist and black.

Of course, we showered them with curses:

Martha’s pigheadedness and glutton Thomas

And precisely why Morgan’s curtains are drawn…

Then we forgot all about them,

Left them to rootle, tusking up moss,

Cleaving the soil with their dainty toes,

Hoof prints sharp and pointed,

Approaching on the soft-turned mud.

Till we glimpsed the sun rise on the ridge of their backs;

Their moon-cradled bellies and skipping tails

Dancing too close;

Furrowing the turf by the back door,

Sending the dogs wild with rage –

You know that scent – ancient as roots.

At night, we hear wild boar outside,

Below the bedroom windows,

Trampling down marigolds, ripping up daisies,

Waking the dead in the churchyard;

Snuffling and squealing, carrying with them

A legion of sorrows, the sweet sins of the Earth.

A Delicate Balance

This morning, the heat was already shimmering in the fields and now it is too hot to think. I have finished a project and am weary to the bone after a broken night’s sleep. Yet I feel I ought to keep on going: I am lucky to have work, I am fortunate that I can easily work from home. But right now, I simply crave the sea and that sense of stillness carried on the breeze at the shore.

All around Britain, people are flocking to the beaches, and who can blame them? If you and your family have spent most of this year locked in by an invisible disease, wouldn’t you be keen to escape outdoors too? However, I probably won’t be joining them just yet. Not until the crowds lessen.

Much at the moment seems to be a question of balance: of the numbers of deaths, loss and potentially life-changing aftereffects from this terrible new virus offset against those suffering because of cancelled medical appointments and delayed treatments; of livelihoods gone and the futures of the young put in jeopardy; of oceans polluted by waves of PPE; of the price of loneliness set against the risk of infection.

To find our way in this altered world, many of us seem to be adopting a form of doublethink, holding others accountable for breaking the ever-changing rules while protecting ourselves with justifications for doing the same. The challenge is to remain self-aware; in retrospect, I think I can see where I’ve projected anger and frustration onto those who didn’t altogether deserve it.

This isn’t going to be easy – tiptoeing our way into an unstable future; finding the balance and how to live in the world. While 2020 is turning out to be a year of plague, fire and flood of biblical proportions, nature itself is neither inherently good nor bad; it just is. It doesn’t sit in moral judgement of us. If Nature is a goddess, she is indifferent to prayers and responsive to actions. After all, why should she be any more moved by our petitions than the clicking of a beetle, or the roar of a lion? However, we humans do need to be morally accountable, both to this planet we inhabit and to each other.

At least I know that the sea and the breeze will still be waiting.

Brave New World

How have the last couple of months been for you?

We all have our own lockdown stories to share – of challenges and kindnesses, break-ups and reconnections. In my own case, I found myself taking on responsibility for the wellbeing of my mother-in-law, an independent lady in her nineties who has recently survived cancer and chemo, and whose health remains fragile. While there has been lots to cherish, it’s not been an easy time.

One thing is for sure, whenever we do all finally emerge into the world, we will find it changed.

While I haven’t used lockdown to learn a new language or master a fresh skill, here is a (very) short story…

***

Imago

It started at night. She found herself standing in the yellow light of the fridge, her chewing mouth crammed full of bitterness. She realised she was holding a packet of spinach that had been ripped open, some of the leaves spilling to the ground, where she bent to pick them up and eat them.

In the morning, she woke and wondered at her dream. Muzzy-minded from sleep, she opened the cupboard to retrieve her favourite mug, and stepped on the discarded plastic bag on the kitchen floor. For a second or so, the craving returned. She blinked and it was gone. She made herself two slices of toast and went about her day.

The next few nights were much the same, only now she knew she wasn’t dreaming. She would roll out of bed and grope her way along the inky walls to the kitchen. On the third night, she paused in the hallway. In the dark, she could smell the pot plants on the windowsill. Her fingers plucked greedily at the plump leaves and pushed them between her lips. The taste didn’t bother her; only the urgency to eat; to fill herself up.

When she went to the supermarket for her weekly shop, she filled her trolley to the brim with salads, fruit and vegetables. The teenage shop assistant with the piercings nodded his approval.

At home, she ran out of space to store everything. But it didn’t matter. She simply eased herself down to the floor among the unpacked bags. And started to eat.

She couldn’t have said how long she was there, moving about and munching. She knew the phone rang once or twice, but it wasn’t important. There was nobody she wanted to talk to.

Evening fell; the shopping bags were sagging, crumpled and empty, and the fridge door hung open, the shelves stripped bare. She felt very tired. All she wanted was to sleep.

She wriggled and stretched and crawled till she found herself high up in a corner of the ceiling, her skin sticking to the Artex. There was a not unpleasant sense of splitting as she turned herself about, and settled down, tight and snug, light as paper.

Everything that had been was ending. A sensation of dissolving, liquefaction and release. Ready, now, slowly, slowly, to begin again.

 

 

The Voice is a Bridge

I’m used to silence – it’s virtually part of my job description – but even I have been struck by the quiet that has settled over the village where I live. No trains, no planes, little traffic; just the occasional boy racer flooring it and annoying the neighbours as he returns to a house-share up the lane.

It feels strange not to connect in person with the people I love and like, to keep my distance – as if we are all caught up in a weird social experiment. Which, in a way, we are… because of a virus that is casting a fearful shadow over human beings around the world.

In these days of social distancing, family, friends and colleagues have been in touch more often than usual – reaching out over the phone and on screen. Through modern technology and fibre optics, the voice creates a bridge from the heart. In the midst of so much fear, disease and devastation, many of us, myself included, are rediscovering the power of connection, speaking and listening to each other again instead of texting or typing.

So here is my voice to you, in a slightly tinny recording, reading a poem by a writer who was used to solitude and to keeping her own company, and who wrote when she  didn’t necessarily expect anyone to read her words: ‘Hope is a Feathered Thing’ by Emily Dickinson.

Flight from February

I seem to have spent most of the past few weeks either stuck in front of my computer, working, or taking the dog out for a trudge in the mud, wind and rain.  I’ve taken my imagination for a walk too (although in nicer weather). Here is a short story, a flight from February:

 

Bodhi Farm

It’s difficult to know when it began. Perhaps with the dreams that came in the heart of winter, when it was hard to rise in the morning and the water in the pigs’ troughs was frozen solid. Or with the sense of knowing, the unease that would wake me in the middle of the night; I’d put it down to the change or the usual worries. Had I shut away the hens? And, if the snow returned, would I manage to find all my sheep if they huddled under the walls and got covered by drifts? There is always something doing on a farm, anyone can tell you.

By the time the sky cracks red, I’ve usually been up for hours. The lighter mornings come as a blessing with the thaw. Even so, days are no easier. Over the years, I’ve got used to shouldering most of the work alone. When the lambing starts in earnest, I hire Graham, a lad from the village, to come help. But he wasn’t due to start for some time yet. So when I saw his Land Rover on the track leading up here, I was surprised.

The vehicle rattled over the cattle grid then stopped. When it drove on, it pulled away to reveal four slight figures picking their way. Three of them were wearing what looked like long orange and red dresses under anoraks, while the fourth was dressed head to toe in black.

Graham parked in his usual spot in the yard. When I opened the door, he was shaking his head.

‘You’ll never believe this,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘Bunch of weirdos to see you.’

‘Well then send them away.’

‘No doing.’ He pulled a face. ‘Said you wouldn’t want it, but they won’t listen. Come a long way – that’s what they say.’

‘Where’s a long way?’

‘Somewhere foreign. Only one of them as speaks any English. And then you can’t tell half of what he’s saying.’

‘Look at them, what are they doing?’

The three foreigners in robes formed a little procession. The one at the front was swinging a round, glinting object, while the one at the rear banged on a flat drum. The three of them walked slowly, despite the wind tugging at their skirts. The figure in black lingered a little ways behind, as if embarrassed. Weirdly, though, the sight of them stirred something deep in my belly.

‘Better get a brew on,’ I said.

Graham gave a snort. ‘A woman’s answer to everything.’

I gave him one of my looks and he grinned. Cheeky so-and-so.

The water was squeaking up to a boil when there was a knock at the door. I got Graham to fill the mugs while I answered it.

The man dressed in black stood in the doorway and gave a stiff little bow. He looked at me nervously, almost expectantly, then glanced over my shoulder as if hoping to find somebody else. His skin was the colour of polished wood and his features were Eastern. Unlike his fellow travellers, whose heads were shaven, he had a crown of thick black hair and seemed much younger than them. The other men reminded me of monks, the sort you see on postcards and calendars, though what they would be doing turning up at a hill farm was anybody’s guess. The younger man cleared his throat.

‘We are here for the baby,’ he said.

I laughed. ‘There’s no baby here. Not even if it’s a lamb or piglet you’re after. Not this time of year.’

He turned and spoke quickly to the others, huddled behind him. They shared some words, sounds like singing, but it seemed like they were disagreeing with him; the man in black shrugged and turned to me.

‘The child. It is important.’

‘Look, you’d better come on in. You’ll catch your death out there.’ I gestured and they filed past me, into the kitchen where they stood around looking confused. ‘Take a seat, go on.’

Once they were all sat down around the table, Graham handed out mugs of tea and a plate of biscuits, which the foreigners fell upon like birds at the grain. ‘I’ve seen it all now,’ he muttered.

I have to say they looked a bit better for having a hot drink inside them and something to eat. I folded my arms and glanced round. ‘So now, what’s this here business you’ve come about?’

The translator gave a little nod. ‘My companions have been searching for long time. They come many thousands of miles. Following signs.’

‘What’re they in search of? What signs?’ Graham wanted to know. I frowned at him so he huffed and leant back against the dresser.

‘It is difficult to explain. We are looking for a child. My brothers believe the child is born in this place.’ At this, one of the other men leant across the table, said a few words and tapped the translator’s forearm.

The translator continued, ‘Has a child been born here?’

‘Yes,’ I said, and all the men turned to me, expressions bright as if somebody had lit a candle. ‘Yes, the last child to be born here was me. Fifty-odd year ago.’

The translator relayed this fact and there was more conversation, some of it heated, and they batted away Graham’s offer of biscuits from the packet. After a few moments, they settled back down. One of the monks folded his arms, while another heaved a large bag onto the table. It was colourfully embroidered and decorated with little yellow and pink pompoms and tassels.

He carefully retrieved a number of items, reached across the table and placed them in front of me, very deliberately, as though he was performing a ceremony. The bracelet on his wrist winked in the light, and without thinking I went to touch it. His arm turned still as rock and he looked hard at me, dark eyes narrowing under beetle brows. I pulled back my hand slowly.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Don’t know what I was thinking.’

He sat back and nodded. Then, without saying a word, he removed the bracelet and placed it alongside the other objects. There was a loop of brown beads, the flat drum I had seen earlier, a little pair of patterned bronze cymbals, a flute that looked like it was made of bone, an incense burner on a long chain, a scroll of some sort, a large golden amulet and a simple wooden bowl. Those are the things I remember, there might have been more. The monk with the beetle brows spread his palms, as if inviting me to consider the display.

‘What does he want me to do?’ I asked the translator.

‘Choose.’

‘All right!’ exclaimed Graham. ‘Go on, I know what I’d pick–’ One of the monks jumped up and turned to face him, surprisingly agile for an older man. Graham puffed his cheeks. ‘Just saying.’

The monk with the beetle brows spoke. ‘Choose.’  All four of the visitors were watching me, and it felt as though I was being invited to play a game where I only half remembered the rules. Only the game was as serious as anything I had ever done.

I took a breath and found myself picking up the bracelet, then the drum and finally the bowl. I placed them close to me. There was a sense of release among the monks, as if I had passed a test. But I wasn’t finished.

‘This belongs to you.’ I gave the scroll to one of the monks, who bowed his head and accepted it. ‘This is yours.’ I handed the cymbals to the second monk. ‘And, little brother, this belongs to you.’ I reached over to the monk with the beetle brows, and poured the rosary beads into his cupped hands. His eyes were brimming with tears. He nodded.

‘These were mine,’ I gestured to the objects I had chosen, ‘and this is a trick.’  I pushed the amulet across the table. ‘The other things don’t matter. None of it truly matters.’ I realised with surprise that my own face was wet, that I was crying even though I didn’t feel sad. Not at all. I caught a glimpse my reflection in the window and laughed. It was ridiculous: a middle-aged woman with greying hair and a kitchen crammed with exotic visitors, like a pigeon perched among goldfinches. When I laughed, the men started laughing too, thumping laughter, as though we had all finally understood the punchline of a joke at the same time.

 

***

Of course I went with them when they asked. I was away for seven years in all, and now I am back on the farm, I find I miss how the mountains create stepping stones above the valley mist; the fierce blue skies and glare of sun on snow; the echo of the tonqin horns among the peaks. But these things will always stay with me. They are part of me and all that I take with me and give.

Graham has made up a bed for me in the box room. He and his partner have my old room and their two children have the others. He offered to move out but I told him no, there is no need for any of that. This farm is his now, in good hands. And I won’t be here long.

My time in the monastery has helped me remember all I need to know, and I am ready. I have changed out of my old farm clothes into my robes and I have a torch to help me pick my way through the lower pastures, up the rocky slopes, over the stone walls (in good repair, I’m pleased to see). Sheep scatter, taking one or two paces, eyes red in the torch light, before they realise that I pose no threat and stand to watch me pass. Higher up I go, up to where the wind whips and boulders balance precariously, visited only by ravens.

Behind a mound of stones, I find the pit. It has taken me three days to dig, hard labour and cracked hands, and I ease myself down carefully, sliding over the lip and in, then turn and settle, flat against the bumpy soil. The earth holds me tight, squeezing my shoulders, and the stars overhead blink white against black, constellations slowly turning through space and time.

It begins first with my fingertips and toes, the sensation that the skin is opening, that my capillaries are sprouting red to white, seeds unfurling. I am on my way, spreading into filaments, fine and hairlike, pushing into the soil, past stones and roots and waterways, along the slopes in all directions, under the farm, down roads, into villages, towns and cities; a network of knowledge, all that my lives and the lives of my others have gleaned, returning hope and wisdom and belief to this precious Earth, to nourish and nurture, to resurrect her with our love.

 

(c) Sue Belfrage, 2020

 

 

Small Treasures

I went to walk the dog at lunchtime and realised that sheep were grazing along the ridgeway where I had intended to take him. So I kept him on the lead and meandered along the lanes instead, past a clear, shallow stream and around a pond where we startled a pair of  ducks, hidden under the branches of willow.

Behind the hills, the sky was bruised blue, but the steep grassy slopes glowed in the winter sun. I paused and thought how lucky I am, to be here, in such a beautiful place.

Earlier in the week, a friend reminded me that happiness springs from gratitude, rather than the other way round – advice I intend to take with me into this new decade. I want to remember to use gratitude as an active principle, seeking out the good and then treasuring it.

In a year baptised in fire and flood, warmongering and violence, whatever else 2020 brings, I hope it brings you many small wonders to light the way through the dark.