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.

 

 

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.

Wild Garlic

There can be few places more beautiful than England in the month of May. Late afternoon, I went for a walk along a meander of the River Stour, which winds its way between the market town of Sturminster Newton and the village of Hinton St Mary. The water was slick with willow pollen and a little way up from the old brick mill, a couple of boys and a girl were splashing about in the ford, laughing and screaming at the cold.

The path took me past the house that was once home to the writer Thomas Hardy and his new wife, Emma. Some years ago, I used to receive acupuncture there. The sessions took place in a downstairs room that had been repurposed as a clinic, with a black treatment couch and charts of meridians and pressure points on the walls. At the time, I found it odd to think that some 130 years earlier, Hardy might have been sat at his desk in that same room, drafting The Return of the Native. What would his ghost make of the procession of semi-dressed strangers who visited now, to be pricked and prodded with tiny needles?

Further along the path from the house, through a spinney that floods in heavy rain, stand the ruined arches of the railway bridge, dismantled as part of the Beeching cuts. Here, a sports bag, clothing and a pair of shoes hung from tree. In the river below, two heads bobbed, shiny pink against dull green, like a couple of bizarre lily buds; two men wild swimming and scaring the ducks.

Beyond the bridge and the surrounding trees lie water meadows, now dotted with sheep and chubby lambs.

After the emptiness of winter, the fields have been repopulated, which means my young dog often has to stay on the lead longer than he might like, but there’s still plenty for him to sniff and enjoy. The path crosses the meadows into the tail end of Twinwood Copse, and here I paused.

The air was rich and heady, and in the shade of the trees lay a sea of stars, a pocket handkerchief; the fading white flowers of wild garlic lit by the sun. I let the dog lap from the stream while I drank it up; a sight to fold up and store in the memory; to bring forth when the warmth has gone.

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.

Of Nightingales and Sparrowhawks

Yesterday, at sunset, I heard a nightingale sing. Its voice trilled, dipped and soared from the shadowy boughs of a sycamore tree. My companions and I stood enthralled, hardly daring to breathe lest the spell be broken. It seemed impossible that a small brown bird, hidden from view, could weave such sounds.

Nearby, another nightingale answered, and in the distance another, while all around blackbirds chattered goodnights and blackcaps joined in the melody. With the fading of the light, the birdsong ebbed away till at last even the nightingale fell silent, perhaps to strike up its song once we had gone.

In folklore and myth, the nightingale has long been linked to love and loss. Yet listening to the birds at dusk was soothing as balm –  a contrast to an avian encounter two weeks earlier.

Then I had been sat outside reading in the sun, when a starling and her fledglings started to screech alarm calls from the garden next door. A blackbird joined in, as did other birds, and suddenly a squadron of starlings swooped in overhead.

I peered over the wall and still could see nothing. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked; I didn’t expect a reply.

As if summoned, a sparrowhawk hopped out from a tangle of plants onto the lawn, wings dropped like a magician’s cape. If it had been mantling prey, it had abandoned this and now looked at me, head cocked, eye yellow, assessing; for all the world as outraged as a pantomime villain. In a blink, it took off and scimitared across the grass, then disappeared over a far wall.

While the garden birds settled back into their comings and goings, the surprise of the episode momentarily shook me. No wonder the ancients believed in augury – in divining the future from the behaviour of birds.

And no wonder, when we hear them sing, we’re touched by untamed magic.

 

*******

Just to confirm that the publication date for the paperback edition of Down the River and Up to the Trees is nearly here: 14 June!

 

Of Rainbows and Burning Branches

When I realised I’d just spent the last 10 minutes by the window, staring at a rodent that was fine-dining on the fat crumbs from the bird feeder, I decided I probably needed to get out more. To be fair, the rodent was a bank vole – that round-eared, snub-nosed cousin of the mouse – and it was a lot more interesting than your average hamster. But even so.

I’d finished work that afternoon on the first draft of a text, and my brain and eyes were aching from pushing words around. In fact, I was beginning to feel a little like the Jack Nicholson character in the Shining typewriter scene – ‘All work and no play…’

Fortunately, while being a freelancer can be a risky, feast-or-famine and occasionally lonely business, one of the perks is that you are, after all, your own boss. If you need to take a few moments out, there’s no one to tell you that you can’t. I pulled on my parka and headed through the door.

It started to rain – but no matter. The light was a curious cast of brilliance against dark rolling clouds, and the horizon was smudged by the tail of a rainbow. By the time I reached my destination, the drizzle had cleared and the sky had cleared to blue. The trees were bare, but out on the lake a pair of willows burned like two torches, their reflections catching fire in the water.

As I walked, I let go of the day’s trivia. And for a moment I experienced that sense of freedom which carries with it an echo of childhood – of just being. It didn’t last long, but it was enough.

Today, I made a point of going for a quick stroll at lunchtime. Just down the lane and into the fields, squelching through mud. And, yes, it rained and, yes, I got soaked. But again it didn’t much matter. I returned to my desk feeling alive and awake – and promising to give myself permission to get out more. To live a little.

Arrivals and Departures

This morning our postman, Phil, handed me a small, white package through the downstairs window, and I put it immediately to one side. I already knew what was in it and held off opening it for a little while. I can’t quite explain why.

In the package was an advance copy of my first book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees, which will officially be published in a couple of weeks’ time. The arrival of this advance copy in the post marked a year to the day since I’d left my old job to embark on a freelance career. Quite the anniversary present!

A year ago, I had no idea what the future held. All I knew was that I needed to make some changes and couldn’t delay them any longer. I was lucky to have some savings put aside and the support of my other half, so I took the plunge – and resigned.

It was a good summer and I spent a lot of time outdoors, painting landscapes and in the beautiful surroundings of a friend’s garden. It was, in a way, a deeply healing experience – simply standing there, looking at the shapes and colours of the plants, feeling the breeze and hearing the birdsong. There is something very restorative and mindful about painting landscapes, whatever the elements throw at you or your canvas (though I can definitely say that oil paints and rain aren’t such a good mix).

At the end of the summer, a seed had been sown. And that seed has grown into the new book.

There is a famous piece from Goethe, ‘On Being Bold’. Now, I’ve had that piece stuck to my wall for more years than I care to remember – but the truth of it struck me again today:

‘The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur that would never otherwise have occurred.’

A year ago, as I sat on a train home, feeling a little bit wistful and cradling a bunch of farewell flowers, I had no idea that a small, white package would arrive in the post today. Who knows what the next twelve months will bring?