“Surfacing” Between the Storms

We’ve reached the point in the year when you can glance back, and remember what it felt like to live in almost total darkness. Grabbing quick walks on bare pavements, with a residual mist hanging under the streetlights, sounds carrying clearly on the air. Whenever I’m at that dark point of the year (December) I take comfort in the fire and my notebooks, but the nice surprise here in Scotland is that the change or the “turning” arrives quicker than you expect. You don’t need hot summers here to appreciate the light.

Between 10 hour library shifts and teaching English students, I came home at lunchtime on Wednesday to find the dog staring at me reproachfully. In fact, I think he’d gone beyond reproach to despair.

“Yes, I know,” I murmured. “Come on, Hellhound. Time to hit the woods.”

So off we went.

A short drive to the edge of Sheriffmuir, then a secretive route high above the topside of the glen, with views across to the North Third ridge, then diving down into forest. The path was striped with bars of shadow and sunlight, roots reaching across to trip the unwary, croquet hoops of twisted thorn to catch your foot in and send you flying. But I didn’t embarrass myself, and neither did Louis. We had the whole of the upland edge of the glen, all to ourselves.

I could look across through the gap, and see the deciduous woods on the far side, dusted with gold like a medieval tapestry. And between those far trees and me was a great yawning divide, with the sparkle of the river at the very bottom, threading a path through the landscape.

Louis was delighted. And so was I. It’s only the end of February, but all it takes is a pair of wellies to get out there. Apparently, I have it on good authority that Norwegians grab the moment: whenever there is a hint of sunlight, the whole nation downs tools and heads for Nature.

When I was a child, growing up in Norfolk, we had a very naughty Beagle, impossible to control. One of his more daring exploits was falling off the highest point of Hunstanton cliffs, scattering screaming picnickers on the beach below, surviving uninjured apart from a scraped claw, and helping himself to all the abandoned sandwiches, while my mother wailed “Is he dead? I’ll end up in prison.” She had a flair for the dramatics sometimes. I was the one (youngest of three) who always walked him – on a long piece of washing line, because you couldn’t let him off the lead as he’d never come back. I spent hours traversing the Norfolk countryside, dusty fields and tracks which hardly saw any rain.

We had uneventful weather systems – one hurricane when I was seven years old, which blew the trees across the road on the way to primary school so that Libby (my sister) and I had to crawl beneath a fallen tree, aided by police officers, running the rest of the way in the screaming wind. A proper hurricane, my sister lamenting “Leave me here to die!” and me sobbing in a panic because I thought she meant it, and I did leave her too. I arrived breathless at the school gates, thinking she wouldn’t make it but would dawdle about in the wind until it killed her, and I couldn’t understand why she didn’t run like me. “My sister is going to die.” “Calm down dear, it’s only a hurricane.” (She was fine, by the way).

Paths and fields were dusty in Norfolk, with soil blown dry by the wind. But the books I read were often set in the North. Wuthering Heights, of course.

And our holidays were Northern too: Dad would cram us all into the Hillman Imp and take us to Derbyshire and the Peak District. My most recent novel, When we get to the Island, includes a journey through an underground system of dangerous sea caves, which is inspired by those holidays. Dad loved geology, and he loved Peak Cavern, Speedwell. Blue John. Wynett’s Pass. I loved the names of these places, the magical labelling.

I learned that the land had a hidden world beneath it, of caves and worm-holes and chambers of dangerous darkness, where human-beings had once crawled in dark misery when the earth was covered in ice. It made me shudder to think of it, the immensity of history, Time reaching so far back, to before buildings were a “thing.” The only buildings were caves, hidden in rock.

It would have been my Dad’s 89th birthday on 1st March, and I still have one of his old school geography/geology jotters from 1939, neat as a pin, carefully preserved. He died in 2006, a couple of months after my Mum, (she died just three weeks after my first novel CHILL was published). But everything they taught me is still informing what I do, the way I teach (both my own children and others), the way I see life, and without even realising it, I’ve been drawing inspiration from those childhood holidays in the Hillman Imp. No seat belts, and all five of us and the beagle would emerge from it, brushing ourselves down, Mum carrying the sick-bag because I’d vomited again (sorry!)

Anyway, I’ve digressed a bit, but the point is, all these thoughts were inspired because I ended up – on my woodland glen walk – staring across the River Allan at the small cave where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote bits of Kidnapped, and where he often walked as a child. It’s nowhere near as dramatic as the caves mentioned above, but its historical and literary references delight me, of course. I recently wrote a short story about him called Tusitala, Teller of Tales, and how Death comes for him one inauspicious day, crawling through his memories.

So we’ve emerged from the dark time into the light, and I’ve landed me a gorgeous hard back copy of Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie. I’ve only read the first passage so far – The Reindeer Cave. But her writing fills me with joy. And I’ve got a jug of daffodils on the table! How about that for a sign that we might, after all, be surfacing?

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