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…

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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.

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.

Healing Words

Last week, I headed out on a blustery, rainy night to listen to poetry being shared in a warehouse. This spoken word event grew out of an initiative set up by Take Art, an organisation that promotes the arts here in the county of Somerset. Their philosophy is that we need to ‘keep believing in the power of the Arts to transform individuals and communities for the better’ – and that November evening was as good an example as any. The Rainbow Fish Speak Easy began life as a project designed to help adults with mental health challenges find new ways to talk about their lives, and now the events welcome everyone.

Besides readings by three professional poets, there were open mic slots in which members of the audience were invited to share their work. While the rain drummed down on the metal roof, ordinary men and women, young and old, overcame their nerves and got up to read their pieces. The themes were as varied as the people there – from searching for ancestors, learning to drive, dealing with depression and the joy of owning a key to your own front door. It was moving, entertaining, funny and thought-provoking, with lots of applause and loud cheers.

It struck me again how poetry not only creates opportunities to share and be heard, but builds windows that allow us to see beyond our own lives and understand the world as others experience it. Which is, of course, what the arts are all about, and just one reason why they are so important.

In an age of austerity and stretched resources, the funding for projects like this one is under threat as rarely before – although it is precisely in these difficult times that we need the arts and all that they offer. I wonder if one day, the Government will be puzzled why there are no world-class British artists, musicians or poets – unless perhaps Eton educated. But the arts should never be just a pursuit of the wealthy: as the events like the Rainbow Fish Speak Easy show, they are a vital expression of the lives and souls of us all.

 

Flakes of Gold

Last night’s half moon was a haze and today the woods seem singed, as though burnt by an exhausted, sinking sun, with faded greens and exposed boughs. Summer is passing – it’s back to work. Yet these past few months have felt like so much hard work, with juggling jobs and balancing the books. These are not comfortable times.

It sometimes seems like the easy option would be to say, Enough! Despite knowing this isn’t an option. Not really.

Instead, I’ve fallen back on looking for flakes of gold; finding the little glimmer that can light a whole day. For me, this has often meant searching for a familiar wonder: glimpses of glow worms burning like alien lights in the hedgerows. I’ve written about these beautiful bugs before, tiny neon lanterns, but this year they’ve taken on even more importance for me.

Last thing each evening after dark, I walk up the lane in the hopes of spotting a tiny green dot of light, almost talismanic. With each passing night, their numbers dwindle, like the lights going out along the front of a seaside town at the end of the season. Still I smile to see them so late on, now into September, my birthday month – a time of personal new beginnings.

I remember, many years ago, panning for gold in a water way – and the wonder at discovering tiny glints of yellow in the mud.

It comes down to feeding the heart with these scatterings. These splinters of beauty. Flakes of gold.

On Vulnerability

Everything is stripped away. In the garden, robins and blackbirds perch on bare branches, while wrens hop in leaf litter among scrawny tangles of shrub. In the fields, the low sun picks out the horizon. There is a starkness to the land.

I find myself facing this new year cautiously. Little feels certain or secure, worries abound, things over which I can exercise little control. But with this vulnerability there has come a subtle shifting, of gratitude and appreciation, of letting go and acceptance, learning to look outwards rather than in.

Now the solstice has passed, the days are growing longer; light is returning. Primula are already brightening up the bank side by the wall. They might yet be covered by snow, but the seasons will carry on turning.

Bees in the Eaves

With dawn, the wall begins to wake and I lie listening to the sounds of stirring. Bumble bees have made a nest under the cottage eaves. In the quiet, you can hear them as they start to go about their working day.

These bees are less intrusive than our previous summer guests – a colony of hornets. While  the hornets were placid creatures, we soon learnt to shut the windows when dark fell. The insects were attracted to artificial light, and would parade outside the glass near lit lamps. Similarly, whenever I mowed the lawn, I was aware they might be disturbed by the vibrations, so kept my distance from the site of their nest above our back door. Although the hornets would occasionally emerge to take a look while I was pottering around outdoors, we left each other respectfully alone. All the same, I admit I was relieved when they moved on.

The buildings we live in are home to many more lives than our own, from solitary masonry bees who crawl into cracks between bricks and beetles under the floorboards, to summer’s swifts swooping over the roofs of rural towns. While instinct can incite us to treat some of these cohabitants as ‘pests’, the rewards to be had from controlling our impulses towards them are manifold – from pollinating gardens to caring for the planet.

The buzz of the bumble bees in the wall and the way we react to insects generally inspired me to write the following short piece; I hope you enjoy it:

 

Inside The Wall

 

The woman and the man watch the wall

A-creep with beetles, bees and ants.

When, at last, the returning queen

Docks with the insect grace of an airship,

The woman points and the man nods.

In white suit and alien helmet

He cautiously climbs a ladder,

Puffs poison into cracks

And seals the entrance with dead white:

No hornets here this year.

 

Next summer, she lets a waking queen

Out of an upstairs window,

Then stops to listen.

The bedroom wall humming like a blocked tap.

Outside she spots them circling:

Small bumblebees, black blobs of velvet,

Nesting under the eaves.

Their song is strangely comforting –

As if the stones were alive and

Nothing quite destroyed.

 

(© Sue Belfrage, 2018)

 

In other news, Bull Mill Arts near Warminster,  Wiltshire are hosting an open studio event on 7 to 8 July, where copies of the new paperback edition of my book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees, will be available as part of the event’s celebration of trees and nature.

Spring Fever

‘The city mouse lives in a house;

The garden mouse lives in a bower’

Christina Rossetti, ‘The City Mouse and the Garden Mouse’

 

A dash of brown caught my eye, up and over the garden wall. I watched and waited: a rodent of some description was on the move, building a nest among the masonry and scurrying back and forth to collect bedding. It was too far away to be sure and I’m no expert, but based on previous sightings, I’m guessing it was a vole.

During the winter, I found the entrances to one or two burrows in the lawn after snowmelt. (In fact, a neighbour became so fascinated by these holes that she suggested installing a camera to capture the occupants.) Now the weather’s warm enough for mowing and the grass is short again, perhaps the tunnels have been abandoned – after all, who wants to live rattled by lawnmowers – and the voles have opted for high-rise living instead?

Mouse or vole, I was impressed by the little creature’s industry as it dragged rose leaves the length of its body back to its hidey-hole. I was also secretly impressed by its lack of respect for boundaries: although it had made its home on my side of the stone wall, it kept nipping over into another neighbour’s garden to collect building materials. This particular neighbour has a very beautiful and ordered garden – and a notable aversion to rodents.

Try as we might, perhaps it’s impossible to prevent a little chaos creeping in; and maybe that’s no bad thing? The end of April and beginning of May are traditionally a time of celebration, of dancing and rebellion, fertility and Beltane fires, of waking energies and creativity on the loose…

When I inspected the wall where the beastie had built its nest, I found hazelnut shells crammed into the crevices, fragments of brown amidst grey. Evidence of life hidden in the heart of rock.

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The paperback edition of Down to the River and Up to the Trees will be available this summer. Watch this space!

Fieldfares

This week, the snow came, carried in by a storm. And a day ahead of it, the fieldfares arrived.

A flock of about thirty birds took over a crab apple tree in our neighbour’s garden, crowding out the local blackbirds. Every now and then, a few would visit us next door. They kept their distance from the other garden birds busy on the feeders, yet their hunger made them brave, and a couple of them (along with a song thrush) would hop right up to the jasmine by the front door to pluck the berries.

One of the visitors took to guarding some fruit I’d put out at the foot of the garden, reminding me of a single fieldfare who used to visit us years ago, when we had an ancient apple tree. The bird was a plump, waddling creature, seemingly unfazed by anything – and I was pretty sure it was getting tipsy on the fermenting fallen apples.

Anyway, here’s a short poem-in-progress inspired by these latest visitors:

 

Fieldfares

They settle before the snow

On the black boughs of the crab apple tree

Like the notes of a half-remembered song

Sung in fluttering harmonies

Quavered by bright red fruit,

Of movement and feeding and hunger.

 

When the storm breaks and the snow falls

Over two clipped, sky-white days

The birds strip the tree;

With dusk, they disappear

To roost in the heart of the woods.

 

Twice they return;

Then vanish for good,

Suddenly, silently,

Snow borne on the tips of their wings.

 

The Edge of Spring

Drenched fields hold pools of sky and, in the surrounding farms, the cattle are restless in their byres. There is a tension in the air. One day the sun is out; the next it vanishes behind banks of cloud. Yet the birds are beginning to sing of spring, with the great tit’s two-syllable ‘It’s com-ing, com-ing, com-ing’; and pairs of jackdaws have started to make their nests in the outbuildings.

This past week, where others catch colds, I’ve found myself infected by anxiety. A couple of delayed projects meant my work temporarily dried up. Such are the joys of life as a freelancer: one day you’re drowning and the next you find yourself in a desert. Rather than stay fretting at my desk – or doing the sensible thing and phoning around for jobs – I went in search of water.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I walked for hours along the footpaths that crisscross the River Stour in the heart of the Blackmore Vale, a landscape immortalised in Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It’s flat and lush pastureland. The farms are large and ancient, and the river ribbons its way between them.

Along the way, I saw herons and egrets, skirted an ox-bow lake and was befriended at one point by a perky white terrier (whose owner I had to phone to come and fetch her, so keen was she on accompanying me across the fields).

And it struck me how hard it is to feel like a failure when you are walking: when you are simply moving one step at a time across the land and engaging with what you see, rather than worrying about what you should be doing or what you think you ought to have achieved. Equipped only with a map and a sense of direction, it can be easy at times to lose sight of the way markers – especially when you are trying to tiptoe your way round farmyards – yet somehow you always find the right track, even if it’s not the one you intended.