People who need people

‘Wait a second, love,’ said the woman in front of me at the Co-op to the man who’d just paid for his shopping. ‘Let me put my shopping through on your loyalty card. I’ve lost mine, someone may as well get the points.’

The man thought a moment, then handed over his loyalty card and minutes later the woman’s food purchases had added to his cash-equivalent points.

But when the card-less shopper left, the man still hung back.

The woman behind the till was slight, grey-haired and quiet. She looked as if, whatever your troubles, she’d lived through worse.

As I emptied my basket and took out my own loyalty card, the man asked, in a quiet voice, ‘How are you, love? How’s he?’

‘Oh, not too bad,’ her hand went to her neck, ‘waiting for more biopsy results.’

I pretended to be occupied with my purse.

The man left, with a look that said much more than his heartfelt, ‘look after yourself, take care now.’

Yesterday I watched two women shoppers deal patiently with an over-friendly, slightly inebriated older man – ‘he was hard work’ one muttered – before exchanging news of funerals.

Not yet elderly, though well beyond young, each bought one packet of cigarettes.

It takes a while, buying cigarettes. All the brands are now in uniform ghastly packaging, behind a closed door. But it doesn’t stop the smokers. As one of the women said, ‘We all know the risks by now, don’t we?’

At this till, there are often long queues. The electronic tills can’t help with the ‘leccy’ or other prepayment-meter cards.

Or sell tobacco or spirits.

Or do the lottery.

Elderly couples, reduced-stickered items stacked in their basket, check to see if they’ve won this week. With a feeble, ‘Put it through the winning machine, love,’ or some such, they’re doing their best to suggest, ‘I don’t really care.’

For one cheery member of staff we’re all of us called, ‘my lovely’. You’d think every day was the best of her life. It’s infectious, whatever our luck or lack of it.

Down the road a couple of miles, at a bigger, mainstream supermarket, a maze of electronic tills occupies the most convenient section of the long checkout area.

Despite the extra walk and inconvenience, the tills run by humans attract long queues.

Plenty of people – especially the elderly, or those with learning and other difficulties – are known regulars.

One day I saw an elderly man sitting, eyes closed, with his shopping by his side. I thought he might have died, since I couldn’t see him breathing, but a passing member of staff assured me he was fine. He regularly cycles in several miles, chats at the till, then naps on a bench by the children’s coin-in-the-slot car ride.

In queues here I’ve chatted to people about many things: politics, religion, recipes, foodbanks – and, of course, the weather.

I’ve watched, surreptitiously I hope, as people count coins to see if they can afford a treat, only to discover they can’t.

I’ve been behind people who plainly struggle with personal hygiene – and much more too, I’d guess.

But it’s a fairly affluent area. Lots of people who queue are plainly far from poor – but still, possibly, disadvantaged on a very basic level. As in, chronically lonely.

Whoever we are, though – lonely or not, rich or poor, struggling or absolutely fine – we don’t just get polite, even kind words from the human beings who tot up our bills. We get time.

Given half a chance, they’ll talk about our shopping. Is that good? What’s that? Have you tried purple sweet potatoes?

But.

Time is money.

People are costly ‘resources’.

And supermarkets exist to make profits.

Electronic tills are cheaper. And, yes, some people like their anonymity and potential for speed. But some people really don’t want to use the soulless machines.

Some people shop in dribs and drabs, most days, so they can see a human being. Have a conversation, however small.

These are customers, but far from being always right, the world of big business doesn’t just think they’re wrong, it doesn’t care.

Amazon, for example, wants us to shop without human intervention.

The firm’s running a trial in the UK delivering parcels with drones. It already delivers to lockers in a range of public places. Cheaper all round, no need for pesky human interaction. And now it’s testing a shop without any tills at all.

Amazon isn’t a people business, doesn’t like such expensive commodities.

Yet how many ‘customers’ use Amazon without thinking about such things? Because it’s cheaper, easier. Because they don’t have local shops (and won’t for long if this keeps up). Because they can’t get out.

Well, for all the lonely people for whom personal shopping’s a mental-health lifeline, I have a warning.

You’re expensive.

Your money’s all they want. Take your goods and go away.

And have a nice day.

Have a nice day?

The full impact of those words, carelessly uttered, came home to me yesterday as I left the hospital after a routine check on my wrist.

I was in the overspill car park, way beyond the usual pinball-experience-corridors of trolleys, cleaners and walking wounded.

On my return I had to follow the signs for ‘mortuary.’ And I thought of all those who’d followed that sign in earnest, before leaving for their cars.

As I put my ticket in the barrier at the exit, a message came up on the machine.

‘Have a nice day.’

If it were a human being, I think it might rephrase that.

‘Look after yourself, take care, now.’

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Of birds and ponds, of war and peace

Walking round one of my intangible charms, in the first week of the new year, I was struck by a sound. Loud, persistent – and arguably cheerful.

‘Tea-too, tea-too, tea-too,’ sang a bird in full voice. As plangent a sound as a great, fat ball bearing falling onto a xylophone.

And no, I don’t know how that sounds, but imagine it comes somewhere close.

The birdsong – they’ve been silent for so long – should have made me smile, but, no, it made me sigh. Ah well, I thought. The days are lengthening, nights waning, soon it will be spring.

Reality can’t be avoided. Well, not entirely. And I’ll enjoy spring when it comes, despite my moaning.

Which is more than could be said for the reality of that walk.

Because vying for prominence with the ‘tea-too’ bird came the dreaded whine of chainsaws.

Tree felling. Log sawing. Nasty noise!

In a nature reserve.

Well, at least I’d missed the grass mowing. And parts of the ponds were still fringed with rushes, swaying whenever a breath of breeze snuck by.

Still the ivy paraded its glossy leaves, flaunted its ripening berries.

Still the moss grew neon green on gnarled trunks.

And still the skeleton trees revealed the underside of their world. The wriggling, squiggling tangle, or upright-poker-thrusting cage of twigs and branches.

I walked quickly, shrugged, told myself the grass would grow again, the tree stumps would weather.

Birds and beasts would enjoy the decaying timber, fungi colonise damp stumps. Dung beetles, earthworms and centipedes would do their vital recycling.

And what goes around would come around. Even if never to be the same again.

Sanguine, I went on my way.

Fast forward to Monday, when I go back.

A human is my first encounter.

A tall man, with hands full of seed, is feeding web-footed ones. Mud and a very deep puddle bring us unavoidably face to face, but it’s always a friendly walk.

‘What beautiful black ducks,’ I say, meaning it. All black, with the petrol sheen that feathers sometimes have, iridescent green and blue. But black.

‘I’m looking for the robin,’ says the man. ‘Been looking all the way round. Haven’t seen the robin at all today.’

I wish him luck – he has a lovely smile – and walk on.

A dog on a lead chases a squirrel round a tree trunk. Its owner untangles herself by walking the other way, as if slow-dancing round a maypole.

‘He wants to catch the squirrels,’ she says.

That much is obvious. She has a nice face, we exchange a few words. And I march on, to the other pond.

Past bright green fences, ferns and stagnant water. Past more felled trees. My mood decaying.

I suspect there has been some wind damage in our storms, but it’s still a sad sight

Then I see a shower of gold. A cascade of skinny catkins shining despite the subdued light.

And on I go till I reach the spot in the pond where the stump sticks up.

And there it is.

The cormorant.

It sits on its perch, way out in the pond. Patient. So still it looks like a sculpture from the perspective of the path.

The cormorant is out there, look closely

A few strides more and the path comes to an end. I turn. The woman with the dog is approaching.

‘Has he caught any squirrels yet?’ I ask.

She doesn’t remember me.

‘Have you tried feeding t’robin?’ she says.

‘No,’ I smile.

‘Oh you should, down by t’gate, just hold out your hand with some seeds. It’ll come, in time.’

On I stride, towards the other pond, diverting to look at the bulrushes.

Then I hear the tell-tale ‘beep-beep-beep’ of something big reversing.  I stand to one side, but it stops to let me by. Then a tractor appears. Stops to let me by.

By the time I cross the path to the other pond I can hear a reverberating bang, bang, bang. The sound of logs being thrown into a trailer.

Brisk, now, I hurry on.

But there’s a low growl in the air that I recognise.

Then a roar.

The air throbs, pulsates, howls.

It’s like being under a massive furnace, invisible flames roaring and pounding, compressing the air.

The hellish noise recedes, then returns.

British Aerospace’s Warton plant is not far way – by warplane standards. There the Eurofighter Typhoon jets are flight-tested.

Seen and heard at close quarters – as we do at annual airshows here – the Typhoon booms and roars, spewing fire from its rear end as it makes a vertical climb into the sky. Earth-shaking, deafening, it terrifies dogs – and me. All sensitive things.

You can hear the noise the engines make, then see a vertical climb, from about 40 seconds into this video:

Today, unseen amid the low-lying thick grey cloud, the Typhoon is soon gone.

Ducks and moorhens, coots and geese that flew for cover under the demonic storm, paddle back out as if nothing has happened.

And relative calm returns.

A tractor, now, seems pretty small beer.

Nature – and humans. Are we compatible?

I wonder. Perhaps one day Mother Nature will say, enough. You had your turn.

And peace will descend on the Earth, for a while. Till some other species fails to learn that fighting is far from fun. That kindness is better than fear. That trust is not always misplaced.

But winter exists for a reason. And with each spring we are given another chance.

I hope.

A metaphor for winter. As I stood staring into this little pond, a woman came over, with dog in tow, of course. ‘Is there anything in there?’ she asked. ‘That dark stuff is growing,’ I said. It wasn’t the kind of thing she wanted to hear. No frog spawn, no newts, not even any water boatmen. She left bemused. But that growth is magical, I think

 

 

 

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Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Nature notes, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Charms

I’ve been collecting charms for the last few years. Metaphorical ones, not silver. I’ve plenty of those– and I rarely wear the bracelet.

It was a present from my parents when I was little. A special request when no doubt it was a newly fashionable thing. Again. What goes around (the wrist) comes around, right?

It made life easy for gift-givers for a while, witness some of the oddities on the links.

My almost-but-not-quite-brother-in-law (the engagement fell through) bought the most memorable. He had a sense of humour and liked beer. So no surprise it was he who bought me a pub that opened – by its floor – to show a drunk inside.

That drunk is now locked in the pub forever, eternally merry, belligerent – or dead. The floor kept falling open, snagging on things, so it had to be soldered shut.

Memories of many hues dangle from the chain. Poignant, sharp or fuzzy (why a lawnmower? Whoever bought a little girl that? My father, wishfully thinking?).

My mother contributed the statue from Pompeii.

She went with my not-a-real-aunty Maureen, because my father wouldn’t fly. But that – and a ban, following a disastrous ear operation – didn’t stop my mum.

Nefertiti I bought myself, in Cairo. A stressful, chilly, working week. But I sneaked a quick trip to the pyramids, the requisite inelegant camel ride and a son et lumière on the Giza Plateau.

I was helping to run a conference about electricity. And I fell sick, of course. Did I brush my teeth in tap water, asked seasoned travellers? Whatever. It’s the only time I’ve ever had an injection in my bum because I was vomiting.

St Christopher came in the post with a Christmas card and flimsy chain, not long after I finished university. Sent by a devout, Anglican, would-be beau who wanted to take care of me. He said.

And, most recently, an unearned, stylised shell from Santiago. Bought by my lovely Prof.

We neither of us walked the Camino, but the memory shines bright. Perhaps all the brighter for want of blisters.

So the heart-shaped lock is appropriate, for it symbolises the locking-up with love of all these trinkets and their memories.

The reasons.

Or lack of reason.

 

My new charms are not possessions. Yet, I can ‘own’ them if I choose.

I recently added a new one to the collection. I’d only just realised I was collecting, or I’d have added it before.

We’d spent a wintry night at a nature reserve, in a wood. Stargazing.

There I saw a galaxy – a galaxy! – called Andromeda, through a small telescope. I saw blue-hot stars shining from light years away. I saw mountains on the moon, the dusty ring of a nebula and the celestial hoops around Saturn.

I saw lights that may have long-since ceased to shine. How can this be?

No, don’t explain, I know there are answers, but that doesn’t mean I want to understand. I like the unsolved mystery, the wonder, the unfathomableness of it all.

It was awesome. And I was in awe.

But wait, that’s not the charm. The stars are not for owning, not even metaphorically.

Two days later, a drear Sunday, out we set. The heavens had spoken. We had to go.

I’ve written about it before, Jodrell Bank. There’s something humbling yet inspiring about the place.

One man’s vision come to fruition. A classic British back-of-a-fag-packet project that, in the 1950s, led the world.

Sir Bernard Lovell. A pioneer.

It was from here that the Russian Sputnik – and the first dog to travel into space – were tracked.

The metal tag says Venus – to be honest I’ve forgotten what this was designed to show…. I will just have to go back again

The debt-ridden early radio telescope became viable when the USA began sprinting into space to keep up with the Russians. They needed its then-unique expertise and camped out in the grounds. Read the fascinating stories here.

And it’s goosebump-inducing to think you can listen to the sound of the big bang. At the push of a button. No really, here:

Anyway, that dreary Sunday we took out a year’s membership. Despite the unusually unpalatable lunch in the cafe. Despite the fact that scaffolding was up around the telescope itself and the hoped-for magical movement was not going to happen. It will, one day.

 

And these things happen to charms. Even those stored in my head, not my jewellery drawer.

They’re tarnished. By humans.

We have a penchant for managing things.

We manage gardens and woodlands, coasts and lakes, rivers and streams, museums and galleries.

Which means sometimes, they lose their shine. For me, anyway.

Museums turn hyperactive. Long grasses are shorn and graceful trees lopped.

Ground is churned by tractors, spoiling the …

But I’m learning to leave well alone. To push such temporary tarnishings to the back of the mental drawer till their time comes round again.

For even intangible charms have their season.

And sometimes, a reason.

But then again, sometimes, not.

Oh dear, I think this had something to do with the sun, but hey, what the heck, I like the image through the hole! I do need to go back…

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Missing the dark

Memory of the Solstice fades. The comfort of those longed-for days of lessening light, increasing night.

I love that time of year – but then, I’m one of the lucky ones. With a home, heating, and warm clothes. A plentiful supply of tealights to dot around the house, making ‘hygge’ of the shadows.

Last year, before the Solstice, I made a seasonal decision.

Last year.

Strange, isn’t it? A casual tick of the clock can change our past, our present and our future. Turn one into the other.

It’s possible I feel it more than most. Three days sit between me and another year. Deduct my year of birth from 2018 and I’m a year older than I ‘really’ am for 362 days.

But I’m ceasing to care about such things, if not about winter. I revel in winter.

I used to revel in Christmas, but not any more. Which is why, last year, I decided to celebrate the season, not the feast.

Christmas has always been, for me, both a Christian feast and a season of traditional celebrations. Of holly and ivy and evergreen trees. Of handmade decorations and fairy lights. Of presents carefully chosen.

A time for carols and seasonal music – medieval, Baroque or Steeleye Span. Even, yes,  Slade.

Twelve days. Well,  fourteen, actually, beginning on Christmas Eve.

Each year, ever since I took the bus to school as a child,  I’ve harrumphed at the ever-earlier start of the Christmas jamboree. Trees in windows, frantic displays of ‘fairy’ lights, inanimate menageries and blowsy, blow-up Santas popping up in gardens.

In 2017 it began in mid-November.

And Advent. Advent was once a time of preparation. Of saving. Of planning.

Now its calendars are a commodity to be sold for maximum profit. Things of greed and consumption. Where once they were tallies of daily anticipation. Awaiting baby Jesus – or possibly Father Christmas. And presents.

But there’s no turning back that clock. Christianity is surplus to modern requirements, as the Beatles presciently concluded way back in the 1960s.

Last year I decided to devise a way of coping. I needed to use the brain cells ranting colonises for more productive thinking.

So, as the days grew shorter, as the sun sank ever further south, as technicolour sunsets turned skeleton trees stark black, I took myself in hand.

I decided to pretend that the blinking lights, the eerie white reindeer and everlasting icicles, the mince pies and shortbread and bottles of Prosecco, were tools for coping with winter. For those who loathe long nights, or short dreary days.

And I chose to celebrate winter. Which has its own duration. Not one ordained by a church. Or a song.I visited dank woods and smelled the raw damp air, scented by fertile fungi and wet, rotting leaves.

I upped the tally of tealights.

Bought a recycled ‘tree’ – a white-washed emblem of the season, not the feast.

Trailed sedate fairy lights  around the indoor bannisters, along the balcony rail and over one of the trees.

I made no mince pies.

I made no rich ‘black’ Christmas cake (as normally is my wont).

I made no Christmas pudding, nor brandy butter.

We watched seasonal films. Star-gazed on sharp clear nights. Ate venison and red cabbage. Parsnips, carrots and Brussels sprouts. Roast potatoes. Figgy ice cream. And fish.  Not all together, of course.

And on the fifth day of what once I kept as Christmas (and is my birthday), we ventured forth to one of my special places. To the Temperance (bring your own wine) Inn, near Sedbergh on the Cumbrian border with Yorkshire.

The Temperance Inn, its origins in the 16th C, looking festive

The inn looks out on Cautley Spout and the common land of the Howgills. Melodramatic  whatever the season or weather.

And seasonal weather we had.

One day the mighty fells crunched with treacherous ice underfoot. Another they hid, dredged with snow, falling and settled. Latterly, muddied with melt, the green and brown of the living earth won out. And all in the space of just four days.

Late in the day, 28 December: looking to Cautley Spout, Cautley Crags on the left

28 December also, returning from an icy walk to the inn, the white building, as evening falls

29 December. looking towards the crag side of the valley

29 December, the Spout is there somewhere

30 December Albert the donkey grazing with his sheepish friend

Our last day at the Inn, 31 December

We spent a happy, wintry time. Next door to a stable, warm with a donkey, cows and sheep. Scented by hay and animals.

We sat by the fire. Read and talked.

Watched small birds – like robins – while eating hearty breakfasts.

From our bedroom window

Snowing outside, the library cosy in the inn

Kat – or Moggy depending on which of our hosts is calling it – hogging the warmest chair in the parlour

Albert letting it snow

No room for this lot in the inn but plenty out here

 

At breakfast. The bird cage lets smaller birds in to feed. The woodpecker has learned how to join them

We visited Long Meg, her standing stones aligned to catch the Solstice. (She witnessed it when we were still far away. What she saw, she wasn’t telling.)

The place of the solstice sunrise, over the hills and far away. Too late for last year’s

Meg with some of her many friends

Well, that was last year.

And now? We’re celebrating winter still, till Candlemas (though without the fairy lights).

I hope you, too, are enjoying this winter tide. Whether yours is a world of snow and ice, or sun and heat or wind and rain. Or all those things, I suppose, in this climate-lottery era.

And thank you, my online friends, for reading.

My very best wishes for a happy, healthy, rewarding new year to you all.

Near Farfield Mill, Sedbergh, on the way home

 

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then, Cumbria, Lancashire & the golf coast, Uncategorized, Yorkshire | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Three winters’ tales, of darkness and light

Part 3: And now, a time for dancing

The small market town awakens to Christmas Eve. The longest night may have passed, but still the morning is late in arriving.

Snow has fallen overnight, coating the footpaths with thin white blankets. They are crunchy now with the frost of just-before-dawn.

Windows of cars, etched with filigree patterns, sparkle in weak wintry sun.

Traffic trickles and pours, then roars through the town and a dirty greyness leaches from the road into the snowy whiteness.

By lunchtime little remains that is clean. Except on the edge of that small market town, where Dora lives, alone.

As the day before Christmas wears on, the sun disappears and the snow melts. A grim, grey mist smothers the waiting world. Rolling down from the wooded hills. Sweeping over the pines, sneaking between their trunks, slipping under their dripping branches.

A fog fills the steep valleys and wreaths garden trees in its pale, dreary tendrils.

But it balks at the lawn. Stops before reaching the cottage.

Behind French windows – which let in too much winter – sits Dora, a blanket on her lap. Beside her, a small polished table bears a china cup and saucer, painted with ivy leaves, rimmed in gold. Her special cup, brought out in December’s darkness to lighten her resting hours.

Before new houses covered the farmer’s field she used to sit at the front of the house. And it’s not that she minds the new people. It’s a comfort, knowing they are there.

But she misses the lambs in springtime. And as the days grow shorter, as the season of  Advent arrives, the lights appear – on house after house after house.

She liked the first white deer she saw, standing alone in a garden at night. But that was a long time ago – and now…

No matter how tightly she screws up her eyes, she doesn’t see fairies dancing.

Nor twinkling stars, like the ones the little folk catch from the sky to hang in the heart of the midwinter forest.

Just lights of myriad types and colours, all of them frantically flashing.

Dora smiles. A wistful smile.

Was it really so long ago, that she sat on the hearth by the glowing coal fire? Eyes half-closed, seeing sparkling fairies where grown-ups only saw lights?

The new houses’ lights are too busy for magic.

Which is why, on this Christmas Eve, she sits by the dining room’s long, draughty windows. Gazing out onto tree-clad hills. Picturing the mountains she knows lie beyond.

It is cold. A gas fire whispers with warmth.

The dank mist brings aching joints and the fire brings comfort. But not for long. Her pension does not really cater for comfort.

As the mist darkens and day ends she sighs and turns off the gas.

Dora would like to hear carols, but her aching legs won’t take her to church. And carol singers rarely come round these days.

When they do, they sing Jingle Bell songs, not carols.

‘We wish you a merry Christmas,’ they bawl on her doorstep, waiting to be given some money. Which Dora does. What little she can.

She nods her head at the thought, knowing full-well what they see. A little old lady with gnarled fingers, struggling to pull a miserly ten pence from her purse.

But Dora hugs a secret close to her heart. It soothes like a cooing dove when she feels the emptiness grow too much.

Her name is Isadora.

As a child she learned of a dancer, named Isadora. Her tale had a tragic ending, but by then she had danced her way into fame.

And our Isadora – this frail, elderly woman – once was a dancer, too. In London she danced before princes and lords, mingled with ladies and rich heiresses.

A dancer upon the stage.

Her mother and father were shocked. The last thing they wanted for their golden girl.

She met and married a wonderful man – and stopped dancing, except for him. But her joy was a short-lived treasure.

She shudders.

It was Christmas Eve when he died.

Isadora came back to this market town, where her elderly parents lived. Where now she lives on, in their old small house. She feels their presence, sometimes.

Tears fill her eyes.

Then a strange feeling comes over her.

Isadora looks up and gasps.

Tiny, delicate points of light scintillate in the darkness. Blue and green, red and gold. And one, dazzling white.

Dancing. Floating. Growing ever nearer.

She puts her hand to her chest, finds it hard to swallow. The joy almost too much to bear.

Is it real? An illusion?

Is it – could it be – magic?

And then she hears music. A song without words. And her whole body tingles.

Feeling light as a wren she stands to greet the fairies.

For the forest folk have come down from the hills, with their lights, caught from the sky, to warm her chilly world.

She laughs as they take her by the hand.

And now Isadora steps through the long French windows. And dances – and dances – and dances. Away to the distant hills.

Next morning, when the neighbour comes with a Christmas treat, there is no reply at the cottage door.

Fetching her key she lets herself in. Finds Dora sitting by the window. A smile on her face, her hands on her lap and her eyes closed.

On her knee is a stole of crimson satin.

And on that stole lies a single pearl.

In Dora’s hand is a golden ribbon, a long, satin ribbon.

And on that gleaming ribbon, embroidered in blue and green, are the words:

‘To Isadora, my darling dancer, upon this Christmas of 1948. I give you the gift of my love, forever.’

Posted in Fiction, probably | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Three Winters’ Tales, of Darkness and Light

Part 2 A middling time, of fire and frost

The thudding of hoofs echoes through woodland glades. A horn blows, a shout goes up.

A deer falls and the huntsmen rejoice with cheers and laughter.

The forest that once, in a time before time, stretched from shore to shore, is dwindling now as the years pass. But still there are hills and wolds and vales clothed in its woodland green. Alive with strange diversions, with oddities and enchantments.

That dwindled forest is now the king’s demesne, to do with as he will. No men may sport in its bounds without his say. But the local lord has the royal favour and so may make free use of it.

These huntsmen, then, are King Edward’s men, all loyal and true. Hungry for sport – and venison. And the deer’s haunches will, in the course of time, be roasted over the great kitchen fire to grace the lord’s high table.

There are many great fires burning this day in the lord’s fine house – a house more castle than manor. And fires are greedy for wood this time of year, as nights grow long and the weather steadily colder with each short passing day.

It is hard toil for those who needs must chop that wood. Men who still see deer dart, hares run, rabbits jump and game birds fly, but may never have one for the pot. No, the woodland’s riches are not for them – and those caught poaching are wickedly punished.

In a clearing made by human hands, one such man, a woodcutter, is busy making firewood.

His home is a tumbledown place, which we might name a hovel. But there, at least, he may keep himself warm, with wood the lord rejects and the woodcutter keeps from season to season to warm his aching limbs.

He lives alone, this toiling man, named William.

Three years since, on this feast-day of St Thomas, his only child was born. A small boy, with much labour.

That night – the night the sun stopped – Will’s own bright star stopped shining. For on that night his wife was taken to join the throng of heavenly hosts.

The boy, named Thomas for the day, was delivered a fragile child. He is so still. But a child whom everyone loves.

His legs may not be strong, but they hold him up well enough. His arms may be delicate, but hold his aunt’s hands well enough.

And his aunt loves him. Raises him as her own. For with that aunt young Thomas has his home. His father cannot care for him and still work the woods each long hard day.

But Thomas – Tom, as we may call him, though he himself cannot – has never spoken a word.

It seems he hears what others say, but has never uttered a sound – except as a babe, to cry when he was hungry.

Now his green eyes follow the world, follow his cousins and uncles and aunts, follow the robins and mice and weather, but what he thinks, no one knows.

Tom’s aunt is busy cooking. Boiling suet pudding for the family feast.

Tom’s youngest cousins are out, playing games where they may on the common land.

But Tom’s green eyes are wide, staring from his doorway perch out into the forest.

It is the shortest day. His birthday, though none will celebrate that birth.

As inky twilight seeps through the sky he snuggles up to the doorpost.

And waits.

Tom is entranced by the stars. Perhaps he knows his mother is with them, keeping a mother’s watch.

Or perhaps he senses the magic abroad in tonight’s chill air?

The cousins return. The fire is lit. In the busy-ness of the cottage, no-one notices as  Tom leaves his vantage point and walks to the edge of the forest.

It is raw cold. Icy cold.

He imagines frost as a winged creature, leaping from air to ground. From tree to grass, from grass to berry. Wizening fruits that cling to branches already gnarled and blackened.

All wondering, he wanders into the forest. Sits at the foot of a lofty tree. And dreams.

But to dream in the forest’s cold embrace on the night the sun stops is not for mortals to dare.

As Tom sleeps stealthy forces creep round him, seeking warm breath to steal.

But deep in the ancient heart of the woods a band of small folk feels that stealthy presence.

Like fireflies they wend their way to the place where young Tom sleeps. With baskets of jewel-bright lights they banish the sprites who would steal Tom’s breath. And with their magic they carry the child back home.

There they dress the rude cottage door with those same jewel-bright lights. Hang them upon the branch of holly draped above its lintel. From the curl of ivy that coils under its poor thatch.

Before they leave, they sing a song of awakening.

And Tom awakes.

Of a sudden his aunt cries out, seeing he is not home. She runs to the door and finds the child. Espies the lights. But not the little folk.

Tom, though, sees them, waving goodbye as they tiptoe back to their forest home. His eyes as emeralds, bright in the glow of their fairy lights (for to him, of course, these are fairies).

He raises his hand to wave. And calls, ‘farewell’.

And though the fairy’s lights fade with each rising sun, they twinkle anew each night until Candlemas day in this long ago, middling time.

To this day the miraculous story is told far and wide, of the boy who spoke when the little folk came on the feast of ‘St Thomas grey’.*

And many years hence, a time will come when fairy lights —

… but that is a tale for another day.


 

*From an old rhyme for the solstice and that saint’s day:

St Thomas grey,

St Thomas grey,

The longest night and shortest day.’

Cited in Nick Groom’s book, ‘The Seasons, A Celebration of the English Year’

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Three Winters’ Tales, of Darkness and Light

Part 1: A Time Before Time

Once upon a time, an ancient time when there was, as yet, no time, a mighty forest was born.

The first small trees seeded and suckered, fruited and grew. Tall and tiny and in-between, the trees prospered and became a wood. And soon that wood made a forest.

From the western shores, where magical whales slept beneath grass-topped dunes, it bent its communal head inland, shaped by gusty zephyrs and buffeted by storms. Lashed by rain and sleet and snow, but soothed by summer sun.

And the forest spread wide and far. Through winding valleys it strode. Marched across moors, clambered through vales to reach the eastern shore. Where it came to a halt, fearing the cliffs which rose to the land – but tumbled down to the ocean.

This burgeoning forest was home to many a creature. Creatures who crawled and climbed, delved and slithered, leapt and hopped and flew.

Now, though this was a time of no time – as humans measure it – still the seasons would change.

The dawning sun would rise, the sun of twilight set. The lucent moon would wax and wane and the world turned, warmed by the same bright star we know.

It’s winter in that forest now. For though it is long since gone, to ships and firewood, chairs and doorways, still the great wood lives. Mysterious, unfathomable. Real, in an unreal way.

Tall trees vie with each other to snare pale light from the distant sun. Branches of oak and ash are leafless skeletons, black against frosty skies. But still there are needles and leaves and berries, trapping each struggling ray before it can reach the earth.

And at the foot of these ancient trees lie shreds of decaying branches.

Leaves, damp and rotting.

Fungi spreading their spores.

And tiny creatures beneath the ground returning the dead to life.

No mortals live in the forest, yet. But in its dark heart, in this deep, ancient winter long before time, a band of forest folk dwells.

And for these folk of the forest, the season approaches for the great winter gathering.

For four nights between sunset and sunrise, under four magical darkenings, these forest folk will harvest the gifts of the skies. Catch lights to shine in the midwinter gloom, when the sun stops and seemingly endless night sets in.

Solstice, humans name it.

On those four nights the forest folk unfurl their woodbine ropes. Hang their silken ladders from lofty branches. Climb to the treetops, where ivy shelters their comings and goings.

There, beneath heart-shaped leaves, they stow their soft grey baskets, woven of thistledown freed by the autumn winds. And they fold pale nets, spun by spiders in sharp spring light, when the nets that are now invisible to any but forest-folk eyes, could yet be seen.

And as dark night saturates spaces between the trees, light catchers climb to their tops and wait. Their task – to capture hope from the dome of the dark.

The sky arches, velvet and black. A host of celestial creatures weeps new stars, crystal tears which twinkle and burn with a brilliant light while shooting down to earth.

Casting their pale nets wide, forest folk capture those falling stars. And this they do for three long nights.

When the fourth night comes and the silent sun stops, the precious stars in their feather-soft baskets are carefully borne to the ground.

Then all the forest folk join in joyful singing. Songs without words (for words are not yet invented), but songs of many meanings, which tell many tales.

Songs of sweet water, bubbling forth from rocks.

Of the taste of nectar that only the honeybees know.

Of how the wind blows – and why the pale moon hides.

Of the exquisite song of the phoenix, dying to rise again.

And while they sing, they hang the forest’s darkling heart with their sparkling treasure.

Glittering jewels swing from each twig and thorn, shimmer from silken threads and tremble on fragile cobwebs.

And now that the sun has stopped, the jewels burn with a different light.

The nocturnal woodland is dappled with colour.

Blue as a sapphire in moonlight.

Red as a ruby in firelight.

Green as a glacier seen from the sea.

But one alone is silver.

Dazzling white.

Vivid as hoar frost on black ivy berries.

And this one, piercing white light is hung at the top of a special tree, dressed with the finest of jewels.

Tall holly, a magical tree.

Her leaves flourish through winter’s depths, darkest green, gleaming and gilded. And now the forest folk garnish her branches with crystals of blue and emerald jewels. Of rubies she has no need, for her crimson berries, juicy and lush, are bursting and bright and challenge the night.

But a star shines from her crown, this queen of the winter woodland.

And so. As the night deepens and frost dances, their task of lighting the endless night done, the little folk – they are slender and slight – may rest.

Thus it has happened, season upon season and will for many more. But a winter will come when the edge of the forest is changing.

And with it, time begins …

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