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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Falling

First came hail. Then stinging sleet, whipping my cheeks like an angry weather monster.

Later, lonely white flakes fell – dawdling down in isolation. Mere afterthoughts. Certainly not a snowfall.

The clouds passed, their smoke-grey curtain drawn back, revealing a bright blue sky and sunshine.

But it was cold.

A pretty dance of frost filigreed our car’s windows. Icing sugar dusted the golf course greens. The sandhills, pines and holly glistened.

It was a day ripe for returning. It had been a while since I  visited my sanctuary-place.

Two months ago, we had a date to see a comedian, Rich Hall. Hurrying to catch a train, fumbling for coins in my purse, I tripped, in my headlong haste, over a paving stone.

The Prof grabbed my left arm but couldn’t stop the descent onto my finger – third finger, right hand – and wrist.

Vanity overriding the shock, I rapidly assumed a sitting position, aware of traffic passing by.

My finger wasn’t at a good angle.

I took the Prof’s proffered hand with my undamaged one. Climbed to my feet feeling slightly sick.

Blanking any questions, I went straight to the station platform without a word, leaving him to buy tickets. And when at last I spoke it was to ask the most important of questions.

‘Have I scratched my jacket?’

Second time of wearing. Soft, supple Italian leather. Black and biker-chick style. But sophisticated for all that.

The meal – Sardinian – was probably good, but mostly I recall the ice wrapped in a napkin on my side plate, where I rested my ballooning hand.

Red wine helped. And Rich Hall was diverting, but I couldn’t clap.

Next day, with my hand bruised and swollen, I found it hard to type. To work, cook, dress – do anything.

Five days later I was longlisted for a first novel award. I had two weeks to lick 99,000 words into better shape.

Another five days passed (and 11,000 words were cut) before I resorted to A&E. Five hours later, an X-ray and turquoise-blue cast had shattered my illusions of being badly-bruised.

Six weeks dragged. Finally, the cast came off and dandruff of the arm descended upon my world like the snow that didn’t fall.

I could drive again, hooray!

But my burst of joy was clouded by the news I’d not been shortlisted.

The editing had been painful and inadequate, I knew. I was prepared for the decision. Still, it was another falling. Another bruising. And another attempt by me to dismiss it as trivial ensued.

But fall I did.

‘Don’t let that black dog in,’ warned my sis-in-law, nagmailing from Texas.

He growled, that dog. He prowled, whined and poked his head through the door.

Then came Monday.

Jack the Frost had danced his jig on the golf course overnight. The sun shone in a sky so blue the Virgin Mary could have worn it.

And a door opened in my head. I could drive to my special place.

I scraped the windscreen till my wrist ached and my fingers burned. Then I drove.

Seven miles later I stepped from the car and the cares of the world fell noiselessly, to the ground.

From behind a bird hide the sun casts shadows on reeds at the frozen edge of one of the lakes

Ducks laughed and birds on the ponds whistled.

Geese honked and wheezed as they flapped in straggling v-formations.

I walked along the riverbank and something undiscernible made me look up. As I turned my eyes to the heavens a swan flew by, low in the sky, then glided to land by its friends on an icy lake.

One of the three swans in the distance had flown over me earlier

I stopped at all my usual places. Spied on my old summer sights in their winter déshabillées.

I entered the young woods, through shaded sentinel posts.

Blades of grass and edges of fallen leaves were frost-touched. Spiny arching brambles, clouds of decaying nettles were delicate white traceries.

Tree tips yearning for heaven burned orange in the sunlight.

Standing among the trees, luxuriating in the peace that is not silence, I saw a sight and heard a sound.

A leaf fell.

And I heard its falling.

The leaf with spherical hitchhikers wasn’t the first I heard, which I couldn’t see landing among the trees, but I saw this and heard it fall

There, in the wood, amid falling leaves and dancing frost my spirits rose from the icy ground.

With the gift of a beautiful winter’s day, I was one with Mother Nature, in her shape-shifting, ever-changing, transformational glory.

As Leonard Cohen (in a different context) sang, ‘for something like a second, I’m cured and my heart is at ease.’

Pride – and many other things – may come before a fall. But resurgence, like spring after winter, can surely follow.

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Nature notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Relative

I’m thinking about time. A subject about which I am very dubious.

I’m not sure I really believe in it.

But earthly time, as measured in hours and days and weeks, does have its practical impacts.

I now have a date for the removal of the pot – or cast, or whatever you like to call it – from my right (writing) arm. November 30th: an earthly day that cannot come too soon.

Thus, whether or not I believe in it, time seems to be relative.

A theory supported by the evidence in this picture, taken at one of my favourite places,  Jodrell Bank. Where it’s either time – or not time – for a nice cup of tea and a sit down. A chance to ponder the meaning of signals from outer space – and the probable dearth of leaf tea in a black hole.

Some final words now – if it is now as you read this – on time past, present and future, taken from the Four Quartets. Because TS Eliot describes how I feel (fleetingly) about time better than I ever could.

For this I forgive him for measuring out life with coffee spoons (The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock), when it should, plainly, have been teaspoons.

And he was, after all, born American.

[I didn’t scrawl on my copy, that’s Microsoft Photo pencil]

Speed is also relative, at Jodrell Bank

Listening…

 

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What lies beneath

I asked permission to take a picture at the fracture clinic in our local hospital yesterday.

At first I couldn’t decide how I felt about the poppy, the symbol of remembrance for those who died in conflict, serving their country.  But then I thought, it’s a pretty stark reminder of what ‘the ultimate sacrifice’ means.

Tomorrow, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, some of the Saturday hustle and bustle will stop for one minute. On Sunday, services of remembrance will be held at war memorials around Britain and, in our local town’s case, around the peace memorial.

One side of Southport’s majestic peace memorial

The names carved in stone on these memorials, or engraved in metal, are predominantly of  those who died in the two world wars of the twentieth century.

Every small village seems to have its own tragic reminder of families who gave lives to the nation’s cause. And I believe it is fitting to honour their sacrifices.

Whether the cause is judged, with benefit of hindsight, to be worthwhile, mistaken or futile is not the point. They fought, they died, they served their fellow citizens to their last breaths.

But it is always a sad reminder of how easy it is for humans to choose to go to war. As they continue to do – and as more threaten to do, as I write.

As we slip further into the twenty-first century, thanks to certain men in power,  the threat of a nuclear conflagration rears its horrific, mushroom cloud of a head again.

For some of us it has never, of course, gone away.

When will we ever learn?

Why can’t we humans give peace a chance, as a boy from Liverpool, who would later be shot dead in New York, sang long, long ago.

Posted in Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Food, inglorious food

I’m resting my broken wrist (and imagination) for the next few weeks. Well, as much as I can. The recent editing of 99,000 words of fiction down to 88,000, in two weeks, took its toll.

I am also confined to visiting places I can reach on two feet and with the local train since I am not supposed to drive. And new experiences are proving less inspiring. So far.

We still have to eat of course and I’m trying to think of simple things to make that won’t take too long when the Prof, now doubling as cook (or sous chef) whenever onion or other tricky chopping is required, comes home.

[He always shares the cooking at weekends, btw, but it makes sense for me to cook on weekdays]

So, instead of ranting or raving I plan to share the odd picture, or anecdote – and a few recipes.

Here’s the first. Not totally sound environmentally and a little extravagant (the lentils) but in the circumstances please forgive me. Fresh is also workable for all the ingredients if you want to do it all from scratch. I would rather eat before 9 pm I’m afraid…

Quick and easy cheat’s veggie casserole (Serves 2-3)

Make this in a frying pan with lid, or casserole that can be used on the hob.

1 Large-ish red or brown onion

1 Red pepper

Olive oil for frying

1 Pack of veggie sausages (I use Linda McCartney red onion and rosemary)

1 Pouch of ready cooked Puy & green lentils in a tomatoey sauce (eg, Merchant Gourmet brand)

1 Tin of ratatouille (I find the Co-op’s best)

Leftover red wine (yes, it does sometimes happen)

Worcester sauce* or mushroom ketchup

Slice the onion and red pepper and fry while cooking the sausages as per packet instructions in oven.

Add sausages, lentils and ratatouille to onions and peppers. Add about a third of a bottle of leftover red wine and a little mushroom ketchup or Worcester sauce, to taste.

Simmer for about 15/20 minutes or put in a 180 degree oven for a little longer – till you feel it looks thick enough and good enough to eat.

Alternatives:

You can make this with meat sausages of course, in which case fry or grill them first.

You can use dried Puy or green lentils in which case boil them first without seasoning (except a bay leaf if you have one)  for 20 minutes or so and when you add them also add a tin of tomatoes and more seasoning.

You can also leave out the red pepper and add  courgette or a chopped fennel bulb if you prefer.

Experiment!

* small rant: it’s called Worcester sauce. The label is just the label. It’s the British way, that’s why. Sigh.

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A graveyard’s cure

Our local cemetery is about a third of the way between our house and the nearest shops. It’s a beautiful place. Serene.

Full of love and grief, of stories barely told.

Today, of necessity walking to the shops, thanks to my broken wrist (I’ve been advised not to drive) I took the slight diversion it affords from the main road.

Just a few feet through a gate, one of the cemetery paths parallels the road. As you pass through the gate the traffic noise is hushed, as if by divine decree.

Actually, it’s because of a slight bank and newly planted monkey puzzle trees that lie between the graves and the outer pavement.

I usually find myself distracted by the angels, the weeping women, the carved books and inscriptions.

But today I stopped before a glossy, reddish-brown marble memorial. Obelisk-style, with a pedestal and stone border. There were three names on it.

Mary’s name was nearest the top. She died in her 59th year in 1926.

George, her husband, died in his 60th year, in 1927.

A large gap led my eyes to the base of the obelisk.

There hid little Norman, ‘interred’ elsewhere. He died, aged 13 months, in 1906.

We can fill in those blank details in whatever way we choose. Or choose not to think about the three human beings who are no more. Their loves, their lives, their sorrows. And, in the case of Norman, the unfairness of that abruptly terminated existence.

Beneath the obelisk, on the pedestal, are inscribed the words:

‘Peace, perfect peace’

Which rewrote the story I had written in my head.

Well, that’s all I want to say, today, this eve of all the hallowed, the departed souls who are – if you are a believer – now in heaven. Saints, in other words.

When garish orange is everywhere and a witch in nylon robes serves me in my local bakery, the departed souls in the graveyard were a rather effective antidote to cynicism.

Now I must return to work.

May they rest in peace.

Posted in Lancashire & the golf coast, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Today’s swift insight into my world

I walk into the upholsterer’s shop.

A pair of pointy black leather men’s shoes stands, as if the owner disintegrated, like the witch the house fell on in the wizard of Oz.

‘Your shoes?’ I ask the man behind the counter.

‘Oh hell,’ he says, ‘I know whose they are. Hold on.’

Picks up phone.

Dials.

‘Hi, you just dropped your trousers in my shop.’

I snort and burst out laughing.

He grins but carries on.

‘You left your shoes behind,’ he says to a footballer from a well-known local team.

Well, it brightened up my day.

#sad

🙂

OK. Break over, back to the grind …

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