Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Not sleepwalking


Sheltering at the back door.

My last post was a bit show-offy. I made it sound like I’m living a fantastic creative life like that other On The Road guy, whatsisname … Jack Kerouac, and being a Really Serious Writer who is prolific at the drop of a proverbial diphthong. This is not the case. While there have been moments of dizzying progress, this has not been the norm, and is probably nobody’s norm, which is what makes these creative instances so enticing. I’m guessing there’s dopamine involved here too, so often a culprit (see the chapter entitled ‘Can You Fix It?’ in Writing on the Road.) These moments certainly keep a writer going, but chasing after them is like trying to catch soapy bubbles in the wind. Writing is often fun and daft, gripping and otherworldly, but also gritty, painstaking, annoying and, well, ordinary and daily-grindish.


The secret road I looked back on.

Neither can I deny that in this wandering life there have been moments of excruciating personal pain, frustration, self-loathing, doubt and fury. I’m fairly sure this is not how people imagine life in my little van and that everybody believed my last post, didn’t you? And were you jealous? Aren’t I leading the idyllic life of a perambulatory writer? Don’t I have uninterrupted time to focus, uninterrupted vistas, uninterrupted dreamtime? Beach walks, the absence of deadlines and responsibilities, wheels to remove me from unpleasant situations/views/noise/smells/people? So how can it be awful? And, frankly, why don’t I just go home if it’s so tough? Nobody’s making me do this. There isn’t even anyone telling me to go home when I’ve had enough. Or to stop whinging.

But this is partly the point. I’m not just wandering geographically or even imaginatively, though obviously I’m doing both. I’m also wandering about in my gut and connecting that gut to the natural life of the place that I’m in. And the natural world is cruel beyond belief. Life is cheap. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’re a goner. And there are no second chances. But it’s also constant. Have you noticed the way the sea is still raging at 2am. No? Raging. In the dark. I can hear it from the cliff top at night, or the layby, or the carpark, or the campsite. The wind is still roaming around the planet too, fuming one minute then just hanging around to see what we’ll do the next. Everything is being conceived, rotting or dying with no regard to night-time or the need to rest. And I am no different. I might be asleep but my lungs are still on the go, blood moving around, cells deciding what’s poison and what isn’t and directing molecules accordingly, and thoughts, images, ideas, possibilities all being put through the sifter that is my brain. I never stop either, and neither do you. I bet some of the thoughts you have are as dark and scary and not nice as mine. And alone in a campervan when I’m writing about the horrible things we humans do to each other, this can be extremely useful and productive, but also quite difficult. And like I say, there’s no-one but me to tell me to stop, or show me how, or distract me.


Restless in perpetuity.

Someone asked me at the beginning of this years’ extravaganza of campervan trips (I’ve actually lost count - I may be up to eleven since April now) why I need to keep moving. People often ask me this and I rarely have the same answer twice. I guess every trip is different. Today’s answer is that I want to experience everything I see, do, think and feel, and everything I hear about or encounter directly and to the greatest degree so that I can get closest to the truth (if there is such a thing), understand it better and write about it accurately. Both inner and outer. I therefore have to minimise input and be selective. I can’t hear the voice of the modern-day slave in my story if I’m listening to Boris barbarities. Boris Johnson is not in my book. He is therefore, on these trips, an irrelevance (and arguably elsewhere too). I can’t hear the boom of the waves if I’m lost in the petty dramas of my own family life (sorry guys). But I can write the very real dramas of my imaginary characters if I can temporarily swap their anguish for a booming wave, a grand vista, or a clump of swaying grasses, and thereby calm myself enough to go back into the dark world of torment I’m creating for them (or indeed my own dark world of torment – we all have one of these, don’t we? Do we?). This is the closest I’ll ever come to living through what I’m doing to these imaginary people. Being able to move regularly from one experience to another and back again seems to allow me to go deeper into every encounter, thought, feeling or happening, or to notice when I don’t and wonder why.


Dusk falling before the storm.


The natural world is the leveller, the constant, the reassurance that while everything always changes, the laws of nature don’t appear to. The seas may be rising, but they’re rising in accordance with the straightforward rules of the behaviour of chemicals, energy, temperature and life, and the interaction of all these. The perpetual nature of this is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and so is its expression, for instance the giant waves here outside the van on the beach in Kintyre as the storm gathers, the bees still bumbling with apparent ease amongst the purple knapweed, the gulls, quiet for once, hanging out peacefully together at the shoreline, the vast ever-changing sky.

I do love my life at home, and I love my work as a therapeutic counsellor, but after a while I notice I’m tired, physically and emotionally, as if I’ve shrunk or at least my battery has. Then I get homesick for what I would call the ‘real’ world and feel I can’t sustain the depth of my engagement with the life around about me, or in my writing. I need the sea, and some impenetrable brambles, and a sky that hides the islands it shone brightly over five minutes ago, and I need the existential nature of all this and myself in order to avoid sleepwalking through life and to be fully present with myself and clients and writing. Here at the shore or in the mountain, where there is less human interruption, I can have that experience of being present to the fullest I am able, including those people I do meet, without shielding or filtering. This would be overwhelming in a city but is nevertheless a way of being I need to hold close and bring home with me.

P.S. I do have friends, family and a social life and respond well when spoken to, so if you see my van, stop in for a cuppa.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Update - Upgrade - Upended world.


This little beaut is Hot Water Tracy, so named for her number plate, which I guess I’d better not tell you. HWT has not caused any hot water situations so far unless you count the trial first night in March this year when I discovered how easily duvets fall off narrow benches in the middle of very cold nights. Otherwise all is spectacularly well.

For those of you who’ve read Writing on the Road and seen the pictures or were lucky enough to climb aboard at events or by the roadside, HWT has the same basic layout of two benches and a kitchen area as Vanessa Hotplate, my thus far most beloved campervan, another Romahome. But HWT’s interior feels more spacious because it is open to the cab. No more fumbling along the outer flanks to reach the back door. Just hop between the seats and keep the heat in.

I have opted for luxury now and routinely turn the benches into a bed the width of a kingsize and the length of the width of a kingsize. Such comfort, as long as I sleep diagonally. (There is a foot extension thing stored at home for insisters on parallel lives.)

And it turns out dearest Tracy is made of magic. In the four months since my first proper trip at the beginning of April, I have been on nine writing trips. This is extraordinary. To put you in the picture, the last van was simply not suitable, not an office on wheels with a convenient scullery kitchen, but a cramped space in which something always had to be moved before you could get at something else. It even had bars at eye level between windows and no toilet (gasp). Consequently, there were few trips and even less satisfying, writing-focussed ones. Add to that a temporary but extremely demanding day job and you can see why a psychological thriller full of human atrocities was not getting written. But bless my previous employers, they fired me (for all the right reasons). So I was left with lots of time on my hands, a perfect van and a novel to write.

Nine trips later and I finished the first draft, then the second draft. And lo, I looked and much of it was good. There have been poems, several, often written while writing the novel. Simultaneous writing. There’s a new thing. Weird. Perhaps I have two brains after all. Some of it was good. Some not so good. Often hard to tell which was which. More on these later. Phew!

But boy does this writing on the road malarkey work.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

"The universe is made of stories, not atoms."


The title of this post is a quote from a poem by Muriel Rukeyser, the American Beat poet. I often start workshops or events with it and then a couple of years ago finally enshrined it in the poem below.

FOOD

An evening walk
To shake off work and home,
I strode unpeopled streets
a moon huge above
the hill our house sits on.
It spread its silver coins for those
who chose to lift them.
I filled my pockets
and brought home dinner.

They think I’m there all day for them
and want to chat.
This gets no writing on the page and only
feeds me greens and wine
when what I need is word protein
spicy flights of fancy
the sugar of phrases falling
in surprising ways and
book borscht with feta metaphor
that turns what I produce a vibrant red
and frightens me
then makes me laugh and
feeds the world.

With this nutrition I could forgive
those proper Charlies who want a piece of me.

Verily I say unto you:
the world is made of stories
not atoms.
Words are the food of life
and nothing else matters.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

gannets

This is where I have often watched gannets spiral upwards then drop themselves from great heights into the sea where unsuspecting dinner awaits. Their bright whiteness catches the light so they are easy to spot and often do their diving close enough to the shore to be viewed with the naked eye. The poem below is named after the layby in which I spent the afternoon and evening watching them. As the light dimmed, a weird ruffling of the sea caught my eye, so I lifted the binoculars and was rewarded by catching a mass of them congregating at considerable distance. With only a basic phone camera and an old digital Cannon, there was no possibility of saving them for posterity, except in my mind's eye.



Tangy T-Shaped Layby
20/6/19

four gannets passing plus a follower
four more gannets and a straggler
second posse disintegrates, dissolves
another four gannets, no follower

my disparate family, plus Gran
my dishevelled family, each flying their own path
maw, paw, the weans
and Gran

six gannets and a straggler
break into three, two, one and one

two gannets together
one soars, one skims

speedy little brown duck
cuts through the jutting rocks

two more gannets and a follower
catches up to make three

eight gannets in a swirling cloud
party in the rain and wind
above a tempestuous sea
riding the airwaves

nine equidistant gannets
split into fours
one straggler
between them
undecided

lone gannet rises
falls with grace
to the surface
rises again

lone gannet fights for height
swoops like a peregrine
curves off the shallows
fights up again

no diving

twilight, binoculars, hundred
distant silent hullaballoo
youngsters party in the fading light
on a choppy sea
adults encircling

Monday, 22 April 2019

Cost

Today is World Earth Day. Here is a short story, written before the existence of Extinction Rebellion, to illustrate the price some people pay for their dedication to our world. It comes with a message to look after yourself. Being open to the enormity of the problem and the task is difficult emotional work.


Ria wiped the wrapper of her carefully prepared sandwiches with a damp cloth she kept in a freezer bag for the purpose. She opened the sandwich pack, then crammed bread, cheese and pickles into her mouth so quickly I thought she might choke. I should have known better. She was entirely in control of what she was doing.

Meanwhile, I tried to disentangle a hair clip buried on the side of my hair. She tossed her dark curls back over her white waterproof shoulder with a shrug. ‘Gimme,’ she said, and gestured at the plastic cup which dangled off the back of my rucksack displaying its coffee-stained interior. I undid it and ran a doc leaf round the inside of it. If docs neutralise nettle stings, they’re ok in your soup, right?

Ria unscrewed her own cup from the flask and set it gingerly on her knee then poured hot soup into mine first and hers second. I cracked open the chocolate biscuits and ate one while I waited for the soup to cool. The red tear-here strip unstuck itself from the packet and floated off down the hill we had just climbed. I watched with interest as it travelled a series of updrafts, downdrafts and this-way-and-that-drafts. Ria thrust her cup into my free hand and raced off after it. I stayed put and laughed as she chased this tiny meaningless thing through the long grass and thistles.

Her perfect almond-shaped face was pink with effort when she finally captured and tamed the red ribbon and thrust it, quivering in her palm, under my nose.

‘Got the little bastard,’ she said with exaggerated triumph.

‘Ria saves the world,’ I laughed.

‘A bird might think it’s a worm,’ she said in staccato. Her fingers snapped around it and she turned from me and fiddled with her bag. ‘It’s like a streak of blood,’ she said, holding the tiny red thing against the blue sky.

On the train home, while working my way through the remaining biscuits, I gazed at our bags on the luggage rack. We bought them at the same time, identical in light green and grey, except that I had covered mine with badges from Oban, the Pyrenees, Cumbria Council , and other exotic locations. Along with the usual scrapes from hillsides and bogs, there were beetroot stains from a salad that burst its Tupperware, blood where I caught my leg on barbed wire, and paint when I did up my room without removing valuables first. Hers looked like it had never been used. It was overfull for a day trip.

‘I’ve been picking up any rubbish I saw,’ she said, and flushed again. ‘I didn’t want to spoil your day. That’s why I let you lead, so you wouldn’t see me.’ She opened her bag to reveal an orange placky bag within it full of chocolate wrappers, tie-wraps, at least one sock, an industrial glove, and several crisp packets, and that was just the surface. ‘The glove is for picking,’ she said. ‘It’s amazing how much rubbish is out there once you start looking.’

‘Why would that spoil my day?’ I asked. ‘That’s a great thing to do.’ I believed it was. Ria really was saving the world. What could be better than cleaning up the wilderness while you wend your merry way through it enjoying its great splendour? And what extra effort would it take to just reach down every so often and pull some piece of weather scrubbed junk out of a bush?

The following weekend I learnt the truth.

As always, we set off in the semi dark and boarded a train. Dozing against the window I dreamt of blizzards of snowstorms of metallic crisp packets glinting in the autumn sun. When Ria nudged me awake, we were in a remote station with no houses, not even a ticket office. We swung our packs onto our backs and looked out at the sun-bathed landscape. There was not a scrap of rubbish to be seen.

‘Hurrah for the day!’ she laughed.

‘And the clean fresh air!’ I said. ‘No rubbish here.’

She made no reply.

We took photos of the view with our phones. Following a lonely windswept cloud, Ria made a long narrow panorama and I did the same but with the sunlight that came after. This gave us two very different photos of the same place and time. I balanced the phone on a post for a joint selfie, her in her white jacket and me in sensible navy blue, but the wind knocked my phone off the post and it only caught our feet.

‘Let’s do a before and after,’ she laughed, ‘and see how dirty you get.’

‘And how clean you stay,’ I replied.

It’s amazing we’re friends at all.

Outside the station area, beyond a once-white picket fence, there was a rubbish bin. It was a plastic bag held up by a ring with a rubber lid. The bag was inside out and drooping over the side. A mass of sweetie wrappers led off like a treasure hunt in the direction of the prevailing wind. It was clear the lid didn’t stay shut in a gale. We set to with our own plastic bags, laughing at the oddments we found: a child’s sun hat, a pair of American tan tights, a crime novel and an entire newspaper (Ria checked the page numbers). I was done in half an hour, by which time I was also well warmed up, feeling rather pleased about being so virtuous, and ready for some brisk walking. I sat on the bench on the platform and watched Ria vanish over a small rise, still looking for pages five, six, forty-three and forty-four of a forty eight page tabloid. After ten minutes I lay down on the bench with the rubbish sack under my head for a pillow and looked at clouds, and after another ten, fell asleep. Twenty minutes later I woke shivering under a grey sky.

‘There you are,’ said Ria. ‘I thought you’d gone on without me.’

‘I did consider getting on the next train. Oh no, we’re doing that anyway.’ The next train was also the last and only one.
The path we had chosen was a circumnavigation of a mountain, passing through some forestry, over a couple of hills, crossing two rivers and skirting three lochs. This was all laid out before us like a great glittering banquet. The trail would bring us back to the railway station in time for this one and only train homewards. It was a good plan.

But it went a little awry. We had just started off, this time facing into the wind, when we came across a bright shiny purple chocolate wrapper and a walking pole. Ria drew out some antiseptic wipes to wash down the perfectly functional stick while I stuck the wrapper in a side compartment of my backpack. Ria noticed and winced.

She tied the stick to her pack and wiped her hands. ‘Aren’t you going to put that in a bag?’ she said, pointing at the pocket.
‘I can’t be bothered,’ I said. ‘I’ll wait until there’s more.’

Despite the idyllic setting, in which there seemed to be no rubbish whatsoever, I didn’t have to wait long. Suddenly there was rubbish everywhere we looked. Maybe I had never noticed how far little scraps can travel. I don’t know. They seemed to be lurking under every clump of heather, and teasingly just visible. Twenty yards later we got out our plastic bags. Ria put on her special gloves and offered me a pair which I refused because I work all day in an office building. I like the wind on my skin.
Soon there were decisions to be made about how large an item of rubbish had to be before I bent to lift it. We’d never do our walk if we stopped for every fag end.

The wind was stronger than we’d anticipated but the sun came and went as the clouds drifted and thickened. We were mildly disappointed there was no-one else on the trail. Correction, I was disappointed. Ria was too absorbed in gum wrappers. She also missed the heron flying awkwardly to the loch shore and the herd of deer sheltering in the woods, and I had to point out the two buzzards dancing in mid-air and making the most extraordinary noises.

At the first river I slipped off a stone then tripped over another and landed up to my knees in peat-brown water. I nearly went flat on my face too and got splashed across my back side and up my sleeves. Meanwhile, Ria scooped a brown shoe, about size ten apparently, just one, from amongst the rocks at the ford and didn’t notice I’d fallen. Luckily my boots were tied so tight that very little water seeped in, but it wasn’t long before my jeans started chaffing.

I know, you’re not supposed to wear jeans for hillwalking, but I hate the noise of those special trousers, the fablon ones, or whatever it is they make them with. However, I learnt the error of my ways that day and quickly had raw patches on the insides of my knees and a burning sensation at my upper inner thighs.

No matter. The sun shone for the next half hour and it was only later when we came out of the forestry that we realised the sky had turned a dark gunmetal grey. By this time my arms were tired manoeuvring the black sack full of junk. My jeans were mostly dry but there was a dark red rust stain down my lower leg which I kept thinking was blood. As if by some magic, Ria’s clothes were completely untouched by path mud, bog splatter or garbage leak.

It was disappointing to see milk cartons around an old bonfire, ring-pulls between the logs that surrounded it, half rotted beer cans in a collapsed heap amongst the ashes and, worst of all, gun cartridges. We found twelve cartridges in all and Ria took a photo of me with ten of them over my fingers.

‘What a great job we’re doing,’ she said without joy.

We stopped at this cold bonfire and ate our sandwiches, then tried to compact the contents of the bags to make them easier to carry. We hadn’t actually considered the fact that we might fill two whole plastic bin bags each and have to carry them the length of the trail. Unfortunately, compacting them meant we could cram more in, and it was only when we came to a confusing divergence of the path an hour later that we realised neither of us had the map. First we emptied our back packs then, finding nothing, the rubbish bags.

‘Why don’t we just burn some of this?’ I said.

‘It’s horrendously polluting,’ she replied with an ill-concealed tremor of disgust.

At last the map was found, slightly damp and sticky and smelling of the mostly empty beer can we had found three miles back. Ria got out the antiseptic wipes and we chose our path.

After another hour, the darkness of the sky had more to do with time than weather and we realised the station was still at least thirty minutes distant. In our haste, I stumbled once more as we re-crossed the river, this time landing heavily on my rubbish bag. The resulting BANG made me wonder if one of the gun cartridges had been loaded, so I was relieved to find the wet sensation up my front was only water.

While I lay freezing in the river, some of the rubbish wound its way down stream with Ria in hot pursuit. There was little I could do about the rubbish which had escaped back to the wilds. My bag was burst from top to bottom and only a cradle of its sheet remained. I did have a small spare one I’d brought with my lunch inside and another to keep my book dry. I began to divide the rubbish between the two. But panic suddenly overtook me. If we missed the train, I’d die. It was late October and I was soaking wet. We had no shelter and no phone signal. I yelled for Ria at the top of my voice.

‘Hurry up! Forget the fucking rubbish. I’m going to die of exposure out here.’ We were on the last bit of the circle. The wind was against us. She couldn’t hear any of it. It was only when I waved like a wind turbine that she noticed and came back. I carried on yelling after she hurried towards me because it warmed me up and because opening my lungs into the approaching gale stopped the rising panic.

‘We’re going to miss it,’ I hissed. ‘And all because of this stupid rubbish.’

‘We’re not. And this is important. How could you be so selfish?’

‘We have five minutes.’

‘We have twenty-five,’ she said in a sensible voice.

‘Bollocks, my watch is broken.’

‘Hurry up then.’

‘We should never have come. All this rubbish. I didn’t realise what a mess our country is.’

‘All the more reason. Stop complaining and get a move on.’ She charged ahead of me.

Arguing did at least keep the blood flowing into my chin as the east wind began to bite it. We ran past cotton buds glowing in dark heather, scrunched up tinfoil catching the last of the light and a broken umbrella pointing jagged spokes at the angry sky.
We sat at either end of the station bench, back to back, me chewing the last of my toffee biscuits, her crunching on a granny smith. My jeans were stiff. I wondered if they were already ice and how long I had left to live. The train didn’t come. A slice of yellow light sat on the horizon and skited along the rails the train should have been on. The clouds were black smoke above.
Then the rain started. There being no shelter, I put one of the bags on top of my head. I was, of course, wearing my favourite hat, a bright Shetland wool one, slightly lopsided, which I’d knitted myself. The bag on my head was Ria’s, the one that hadn’t burst. In fact there was a little tear, out of which ran the contents of a banana milk carton and directly through the dropped stitches of my celebrated hat, and attached itself to my scalp.

The train still didn’t come, but the gale did and with it the rain thickened until there was no glimmer of light on the horizon, only darkness beyond the one dim bulb that flickered over our heads as its shade swung in the wind.

The train was late. I was too wet to sit anywhere inside it and too tired to dig out the dry clothing I’d brought in yet more placky bags, so I went to the bike area and lay down on the floor. I don’t know where Ria went, because I only woke up when the cleaner arrived. She kindly relieved me of my collected rubbish and helped me onto the platform.

I spent a week in bed amongst Lucozade bottles, Lemsips, used tissues and increasingly damp sheets. The autumn weather continued wild and when I emerged the following weekend there were no leaves on any of the trees.

I did not hear from Ria. Our weekly excursions, which usually continued through winter, came to an abrupt end. I flicked through the photos on my phone and laughed at the selfie of our feet, her boots pristine, mine still carrying mud from previous trips.
But, on my instigation, we had one more excursion together that autumn, a short walk up a hill on a well-kept pathway and not far distant from our homes. We passed several people. Ria was oddly silent and allowed me to be our ambassador. I greeted our fellow humans with a friendly ‘hello’. Despite my outward cheeriness, I was depressed by all the rubbish. I had walked this way many times before, knew it well and considered if a fine clean piece of countryside. But all I saw was Twix, Mars, Kia Ora, and Morrisons. When birds swooped across my path I imagined them mistaking bottle tops for berries, sweetie wrappers for seeds and socks for cheese. This last made me laugh so I told Ria, hoping to lighten the mood.

‘That is exactly what happens,’ she quipped. ‘It’s no laughing matter.’

‘Even the socks thing?’ I laughed. The more serious she was, the sillier my thoughts became.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ she growled. ‘Don’t you even care?’

‘Of course I care,’ I said. A bird the shape of the lunchbox swooped through my mind. ‘I know this is serious.’

‘Do you?’

We glared at each other.

‘Why are you so angry?’ I said. ‘Of course I care but since our last trip I see debris everywhere, and it’s awful. It’s depressing.’

‘That’s because it is everywhere.’

‘No it isn’t. I certainly didn’t see it everywhere before, but now I do. I can’t enjoy the grass swaying like hair in the wind, or the purple heather against the peaty earth, or …’ Here I paused. Her eyes were fixed on mine, daring me, as if I was the most abhorrent piece of rubbish stuck to her shoe. ‘ … your company. I can’t enjoy your company because you’re being weird.’ I finished. Not laughing now, and gasped at what I’d said.

She smarted. The wind threw a dark curl across her face. She whisked it away as if it was a wasp that had stung her. The rims of her eyes reddened, then narrowed.

I chewed my lip. I should apologise, I knew it, but I couldn’t. The slit eyes were putting me off.

A woman holding a toddler passed us. The little girl sucked a biscuit in a wrapper and listened to her mother recite a nonsense rhyme.

‘Eenty-teenty, heathery-beathery,’ she murmured.

‘Aren’t you going to say hello?’ said Ria, once they were gone. ‘You said hello to everyone else.’ She swung her pack onto the ground, wrenched it open and took out a half filled plastic bag and some gloves. ‘I wasn’t going to do this, for your sake, I wasn’t going to bother, but I can see now how selfish you are and that you don’t care, and that the earth matters a million times more than you.’ She flicked the bag as if she was cracking a whip then dived into a bush.

I was rooted to the spot, then I noticed the toddler and her mum coming back down the path. The girl had dropped her wrapper and the mum was trying to pick it up without letting the child fall. I rushed to help and stuffed the wrapper in my pocket. We exchanged a few words about balance and life being top-heavy and they went on their way.

Ria had gone. Back pack, placky sack, wet wipes and all. I turned back down the hill determinedly resisting the temptation to scan the ground for rubbish.

A month later I got a round robin email from her inviting me to a community clean up. ‘Dear Caring Friends,’ it began. Being late November, even the hedgerows had shrunk back. Rubbish was suddenly everywhere.

‘That’s the point,’ said Ria. ‘It’s so much easier to do it now than in summer.’

The car park at her chosen spot was full. It was popular with picnickers, the kind who want to admire the view without leaving their car. Ria sent me round to knock on the windows and ask if they were here for the clean-up. But none were, though I did persuade four lads smoking joints in an escort not to throw any more biscuits papers out the window. Two of them danced around their car for five minutes retrieving anything they had already tossed, but nothing that wasn’t theirs. I gave up when I found my old chemistry teacher snogging my mum’s friend across a gear stick.

A sharp frost made everything hard and stuck together. Even inside protective gloves our fingers froze. Ria had brought twenty pairs of these special gloves and several mechanical grippers for people with bad backs. This gave the three of us, Ria, myself and the mysterious John, plenty of choice. John arrived silently by bike, remained silent apart from giving us his name, bent entirely to Ria’s will, and left without saying goodbye.

It was the most miserable day of my year thus far. We began on the trail, watching the car park from a distance and soon realised the car park was where the main problem lay. We filled several bin bags, many of which were ripped apart again by someone’s Jack Russell while we were crawling in ditches. We squeezed as many bags as we could into the car. Naturally, Ria emerged from the whole ordeal spotless while I chanced upon some unspent tomato sauce packets.

I drove the bags to the dump a few miles distant and left her collecting more rubbish. When I returned we repeated the process, and when I returned a third time it was clear she was replenishing the pile quicker than I was filling the dump.

We argued for several minutes until she agreed to stay and guard the pile against hounds and seagulls and fill no more bags. I did three more runs. The car seats were covered in Buckfast tonic wine, charcoal from a barbecue and oily mud. Ria broke her promise and spent the time filling more sacks and hiding them behind a stone wall, which was patently stupid because dogs, and probably seagulls, navigate by smell not vision. I agreed to return early the next day to collect them but told her she wasn’t invited because at some point we had to stop.

‘I’ll never stop!’ she yelled. If we hadn’t been several miles from home with the light fading fast, I’d have left her there. As it was, she produced another plastic bag, laid it across my passenger seat and sat her pristine bottom upon it. We drove in silence.

When I returned the next day, Ria had cycled out with the mysterious John who had also brought a dog trailer which was capable of holding two full bin bags without toppling over. I took a load to the dump then decided I needed cheering up and went home for a late warming breakfast on my own. But anxiety for Ria took me back out there in the evening.

The car park was empty. There was not a speck of rubbish in it and no-one to be seen. Neither were there any piles of black bin bags. I ventured into the easterly wind and by the light of my torch found a giant mound of shiny black bin bags, like a pile of copulating slugs, under a green tarpaulin amongst the trees. Tutting under my breath, I was about to leave when a flicker of light in the woods caught my attention. My heart skipped a beat, two in fact. I cut the torch, stumbled out of the half-light into the forest and stood in silence. Ria’s head torch and white jacket moved between the trees. Small supermarket bags full of rubbish were piled under a pine tree.

I turned on the torch and swung it about to attract her attention, which it failed to do.

‘Ria,’ I called. I noticed her bike half hidden in some gorse by the path.

She didn’t hear me. Perhaps she was wearing earphones. This seemed unlikely as she didn’t like music. I spoke a little louder and approached with the torch swinging back and forth. I didn’t want to frighten her. She was digging crisp packets out of an icy puddle at the root of a tree. I paused until she stood up. She shook the bin bag in her hand and walked round me and then round the tree, examining the ground at its roots. Then she moved to another tree.

‘Ria,’ I said, noticing her ears had no plugs.

She began to mutter something as she passed me again en route for another tree. ‘… freezing … minus four, probably … similar to submersion so … fifteen minutes max ... but with wind factor ...’ She stood straight and looked me in the eye. ‘Need to start again,’ she said with a shake of her head. Setting down her bags, she counted something on her fingers.

‘It’s going to snow tonight,’ I said. ‘The forecast said so. Why don’t I take you home?’
She moved silently across the pine-needled floor to another tree and began poking about. I saw her hands were ungloved. They seemed blue in the LED beam and had several cuts.

‘Your hands are cut,’ I said.

‘No they’re not,’ she replied without hesitation.

I glanced at my watch in the dark and couldn’t see it. ‘It must be half eight,’ I said. ‘We can put some of these in the boot.’ I tapped the pile of white shopping bags with my toe. ‘I’ll help you down with them and take you home.’

The first few snowflakes landed on the path a few feet away, but despite much cajoling, haranguing, and pleading, Ria wasn’t going home. Ria wasn’t stopping. Ria was staying until the job was finished, which would be never.

She didn’t say this. She didn’t speak at all. Even when I got in front of her so she had to walk round me again, her jaws were clamped shut. But I knew it anyway. After an hour of failed persuasion, I started back down towards the car park. There was no signal on my phone until I reached it. I dialled emergency services and told them what had happened. They said it wasn’t a medical emergency but a mental health one and gave me a number to phone. I lost reception and drove home, heated a milk drink and phoned the number. A woman took down all the details and cited legal circumstances in which they could act. We tried to match the situation in the forest to the law of the land. I asked them what to do. They said to stay with her. They explained the symptoms of hypothermia, that naked at zero degrees she might have fifteen minutes depending on wind factor but obviously she was clothed so it would take at least twice that. We speculated on Ria’s possible mental state. They asked about my relationship with her, turning their spotlight on me. I told them I was fine and perfectly sane and asked them what I should take with me in case I found Ria already with hypothermia, though I already knew, as did Ria.

I was in my kitchen by the stove looking out at the dark buildings opposite lit dimly from within behind curtains and beyond the black walls some orange streetlight. Thick snowflakes made the street lamps flicker until the air was thick with white and snow swirled in updrafts past the window.

My heart scudded into my throat.

I threw last week’s contents of my backpack onto the floor and filled the bag with three jumpers, two hats, two blankets, a pair of ski gloves, several scarves and a blow up mattress to lay her on. I filled a flask with hot soup and grabbed a twelve pack of chocolate biscuits.

The drive was difficult with limited visibility. I drew up in the perfect white car park and humphed the pack onto my back. I couldn’t see the trees, never mind any torchlight. Snow silence reigned.

It took me two hours. I found her clothes first, folded and piled neatly in the shelter of a Scots Pine. Hat on top, knickers discreetly folded in a square underneath, jeans next, then jacket, two jumpers, a tee shirt and bra folded so one cup fitted snugly inside the other. The socks were one in each boot. This all sat on a pile of unused supermarket bags. Beside it her backpack stood to attention, stuffed full. There was no snow under the trees in which to make footprints. She could have gone any direction. I screamed her name at the top of my lungs. The magic snow silence returned. I took out the biscuits and wolfed two, though they were dry in my mouth, then headed onto the path. The torch picked out the shadows and I followed some slight indentations which had the regularity of footsteps. These then strayed into the tufts and mounds of the field opposite. I swung the torch and climbed the fence to follow them. The field was rough, troughs and peaks of mini snow mountains, and on the far side another stretch of dark forestry stood penitent behind the thickly falling snow.

Like a fool, I searched the surface of the field for pale flesh, but saw only snow-capped bracken in jagged twists. A winter hare startled at my approach and scuttled out of view. My chest hurt, my drumstick heart beating against my ribs. I ran across the field and back, tripping over the long grass, until I lost sight of the woods or the fence over which I had just passed. Then we were both lost, Ria and I. Her name echoed through the silence and my own voice frightened me. I began to shake. The cold was in my bones, but terror was in every cell of me.

I came upon my quarry so suddenly I nearly trod on her. She was a smooth mountain landscape amidst the disappearing peaks, her outline unmistakable with knees and hips and shoulders, an unpainted alabaster mask for a face.

How strange to touch her icy flesh, to draw the new fallen snow from the bridge of her nose and down her cheeks and find her eyes open underneath and ice rivulets running from them and from her nose, but no cloud of breath to match my own. Her naked untouchable body lay hidden yet revealed, and held in a fluffy white blanket that followed every contour, like on a child’s bed.
I shuddered as if I leant against a beating engine and not my childhood friend. My own body wanted to dance some skeletal unburdening, to shout or scream, to let the furnace inside me out, but I set my bag beside her and held myself close, and leant in to see her better with my torch and pleaded with her to not have done this.

I thought I’d lay beside her and tell her all the things I hadn’t said, like how hard it was to find her and she should always wear red in the snow. I knew she would not hear me. I knew she was a shell. But I was tired and a tiny rest would help me back down to the car park for help. I wrapped myself in my own arms and crept close to her, stretched my legs along hers and closed my eyes.

But I was jolted awake by a dream that my life was leaving my body. I lifted my leaden head, my arms like unoiled pistons in a steamship, and raised myself from the dead before the pearly gates and walked to keep my blood flowing. I came across a fence, then another, and still another, hitting the ground with as much force as I could manage. After some period of sleep walking had passed, a light showed me the curve of a hill and lit up the snowy sky above.

‘Light,’ I whispered.

I walked towards it as directly as I could, falling helpless in ditches as I did, and came to a white road with two black lines along it. I chose a direction and walked until a car came, then hitched a lift to town.

Copyright (c) Sue Reid Sexton 2019

Friday, 6 April 2018

Lovely Layby Life

Yesterday was a belter of a day for me. After the lengthy but enlivening snow cover, we’ve had a lot of dull, overcast, wet and cold days. And thanks to the BBC weather department I knew in advance that the sun was likely to appear and the temperature rise, but for one day only.

So I set off in the campervan for the hills. Local ones, mind. An overnight still feels out of the question. Having set off, I could see my destination was in fact white with snow, whereas the countryside I was driving through was a rather pale, sleepy green, and mud brown, not forgetting the black arms of trees against the sky seeming to implore the weather god for something better, and soon. I did consider rerouting to greener pastures, but I know and love my chosen layby. Routine saves wasting time on unnecessary decisions, and therefore keeps the focus on writing.

My road into nowhere was only passable because forestry lorries, such a feature of Scottish country life just now, had been up and down all morning. But my layby was full of snow, and another car (shock! horror!) was parked at one side. No matter. I had important things to be getting on with.

So I got in the back and made tea (obviously) and considered my options. The sun was doing its best and where it was breaking through the clouds, the hillside was dazzling. So I decided to chance it and opened the back door, the better to afford a clear view of the hillside opposite, which I think you’ll agree is rather lovely with the snow picking out drainage features, rock structures, fields and enclosures. There was heat in that sun. It seemed wise, if not unavoidable, after my tea, to gather my strength by laying back and having a little snooze. I kid you not. I slept in the sun yesterday.

By the end of the day much of the layby’s snow had thawed to chilly puddles. Also by the end of the day I had written loads of words and more importantly, made numerous decisions about my story, sorted out some inconsistencies and moved it on by a couple of plot points.

As well as all this, and this is one of the real pleasures of layby life, I had three layby encounters, and no, not that kind. The kind where real things are said and no-one has anything to gain by faking it or showing off. First was a woman out walking with (perhaps) her husband. While he wandered on, she stopped to say hello and ask what I was up to. I waved Writing On The Road at her and I gave her a short tour of the van (it’s very small). It turns out she’s a poet. Naturally I offered her all the encouragement to escape and write in laybys as I could muster.

The next was the sheep farmer who works the land around my chosen layby. I’ve been going there for years and only ever seen him fly past on his buggy with his dog in a box (open) on the back. What a pleasure it was to meet him and get to ask about stuff that’s had me wondering for ages. There was also a walker with rather limited manners, but of course, he might appear in the next book. Nothing in layby life is ever wasted.

I'll be on Radio Scotland's Out for the Weekend program later on today (about 3pm) if you want to hear me talk about the joys of solo campervanning, what made me write the book and some of the things that have gone both wrong and right.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Opulence

I have many bodies, professional ones that is, and this weekend I attended the 30th anniversary celebrations for the existence of one of them: Person-Centred Therapy Scotland. When not writing, I work in private practice as a counsellor/psychotherapist. Like writing, it can be a rather lonely occupation, so imagine my delight at being with 70 other counsellors in one giant circle of friendliness.

I find the same comfort at gatherings of writers because I do and feel similar things to both these groups of people. And of course what those two occupations have in common is the need to find the right words and to follow stories in all their glorious or painful detail as accurately and delicately as possible.

Saturday’s celebration was a strange day. The venue was Merchant House, slap bang in the centre of Glasgow. Sitting opposite the extremely grand City Chambers at the other end of George Square, but with a comparatively discreet side entrance on West George Street, the grandeur of the architecture is obvious but dwarfed. It's an ancient organisation of Glasgow merchants, including the tobacco and sugar lords. Its constitution dates from 1605, but it’s been in existence much longer and came to its present accommodation in 1877. The interior of Merchant House lives up to the description in the brochure and is opulent.


It seemed an odd choice for a bunch of counsellor, many of whom deal daily with some of the most disturbed, unhappy or deprived people in our society. Huge dark portraits of well-fed white men hung in gilt frames above our heads. Dark panels lined the lower walls and contained the names and ages of dignitaries who bequeathed ‘100 merks’ or more on their passing in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the dining room there was more gold than paper in the walls. In the Grand Hall, a globe and galleon soared in the highest most central spot above what, in a church, would have been an altar.


Last month was Black History Month. There have been events and exhibitions throughout the country, not least in Glasgow where our slavery history is at last coming to light. Slavery through the centuries and around the globe, including present day slavery, has become the obsession of the writing part of me for the last year. It was difficult, therefore, to view the beautiful scale model of a three-masted sailing ship without thinking of the famous diagram of the Brookes slave ship with hundreds of Africans squeezed together like inanimate cargo.


It was ‘challenging’ to view these benign portraits of men amidst the gold with the empathy required of a counsellor when the writer in me knew that much of their wealth derived from overseas plantations they may never even have visited but which were populated by people who were abducted from their ordinary lives and enslaved. The story is of course more complicated than that and Merchant House continues to do the charitable work around Glasgow it was set up to do. This is to be applauded and encouraged, especially today when banks and badly run capitalist ventures are encouraged in their capricious ways by an equally capricious and irresponsible government.

But actually the history of slavery is as simple as that. People we were abducted en masse, dehumanised and treated with absolute brutality.


We are horrified by the Holocaust of WW2 and wonder how the Germans could not have known what was going on in their back yard. But we humans are a delusional lot. We compartmentalise. Out of sight, out of mind. A tiny drop of sugar in your tea doesn’t mean you’ve lost control of your diet. A wee dram of rum won’t tip you over the edge of oblivion. You deserve that chocolate because you’ve had a hard day. But the abstinence movement that was popular around the 1790s, the first popular consumer boycott of its kind in Britain at least, when women were engaged in the fight against slavery by, as housekeepers, refusing to use sugar or rum from overseas plantations, was a major blow to the trade in human lives.

Today most of the world’s chocolate is harvested by enslaved children and young people working in conditions identical to those on the North American, South American and Caribbean plantations. Knowing this makes me careful I my choice of brand.
It is often the job of the counsellor to hold the different and conflicting realities of our clients, and indeed ourselves. It is also our job to do this with clarity, including not muddying up the waters with our own issues. At times it was hard on Saturday to listen to the discussions of the counselling group while so aware of the source of the wealth of the accommodation. But it is my job, and for me it is also my philosophy as both counsellor and writer, to see with the greatest clarity possible what is really going on around me, or indeed far away.

The reality of the estimated 27,000,000 people around the world currently living in conditions of slavery is a reality which is extremely difficult to contemplate, and less easy to bear. But to be fully human we must see it and know it and act.