where the management takes a personal interest in your journey
by Morrelle Smith
Some dreams glow with a numinous energy. These are the ones that get me crossing my fingers, touching wood, making offerings of fallen oranges – for only their perfect ripeness is suitable for the gods. How after all do we make gestures of gratitude to the gods in the modern world? No it’s not something we do too often, is it? So I revert to more ancient ways of giving thanks, because they feel authentic to me, though I draw the line at sacrificing a cockerel to Asklepios, the god of healing dreams. Somehow I cannot quite believe that any god would wish for the death of another living creature. Besides, I don’t want blood on my hands.
Other dreams often deal with the go-betweens, the ones that transport or accompany us, from the waking to the dream or mythic realms – and back again – the guides, the ones that know the paths or straits that link the worlds. And, although we have to trust them, we also know there may be negotiations, deals, and bargaining. Charon is not the only ferryman who needs a coin.
In my dream last night, the bus driver turns on the charm, is almost flirtatious in that way, you know, where they’re being helpful and accommodating, then put a slab of icing on top, or extra cream in your coffee, it’s that rolling of the eyes, that – what wouldn’t I do for you, lovely lady – kind of attitude. It’s one I respond to with a smile and an inclination of the head at the same time both acknowledging the compliment and letting it run past me like water, not holding on to it, not taking it up like the end of a rope and winding it in. I’m nudged into a role I don’t really want to play but feel it would be churlish to refuse outright.
When I was very young I used to take this kind of compliment quite seriously. It was the way I met my first husband, he was selling tickets at an open air event I went to. I was meeting up with friends inside the grounds, but I arrived on my own. The ticket-seller, a good-looking young man, said to me – I’ll see you after the show. It was a simple compliment, a throwaway remark, but I believed both in the sentiment expressed and the power of words. I went up to him afterwards. It’s possible that he didn’t even remember making that remark, never mind intending it to have consequences. Well, it did. My first husband’s shyness was masked by a show of bravado which I took to be his authentic nature. What else could he have done, on seeing this young woman coming up to him after the show, except continue where his throwaway remark left off, and arrange a date with me?
In those days, banks – he worked in a bank – were bastions of tradition and security and upheld the status quo. Short hair was obligatory for male employees. He wore his hair as long as he could, with a thick fringe flopping over his eyes.
A bit like the bus driver’s, come to think of it. After marrying someone as a direct result of an admiring but light-hearted comment, I’d been dismayed to discover the deep perturbations and the murky water underneath the sunlit surface. I don’t mean that he was malicious, no, he was incapable of holding grudges, but he was deeply confused and this confusion tended to spill over into intimate areas of our contact, leading to a detachment which he did not mean as coldness but which was felt by me as a lack of interest. I much preferred it when the more sunny and light-hearted side of his nature reappeared – the side that had first attracted me to him. He was kind and self-absorbed. I too was self-absorbed. He talked about his career, where he wanted to go. When I thought of mine and the direction that it would take me in, it was clear that our paths would have to diverge. His job took him to a small town in the north of Scotland. I returned to my home town, to study at university. He stayed on in the cultural desert – as I saw it – where the newspaper he worked for catered to more traditional, straightforward prejudices.
This left me with a deep-seated suspicion of casual compliments and a belief that they covered over personal doubts that the speaker wished only to avoid. My other reason for wanting to sidestep the implied invitation of the bus driver is that I very much wanted to get on that bus. His invitation had been to do with the future – if you can’t get a seat on this bus, then I’ll personally drive another one for you, take you where you want to go – as soon as I can. But he knows it’s this bus I need to get – I’ve already bought a ticket, so there has to be a seat for me. I have a connection to make – perhaps a flight home, I’m not sure, but whatever it is, this is the bus I need to take. I’ve no interest in ‘some other time’ just as I have no interest in personal favours, however well meant.
All these years ago, the remark thrown out by the young man with the floppy hair at the ticket desk took me away from my intended course – I’d been planning to go to university in a few months time. Instead, we headed for a shared life in a tiny flat, taking whatever jobs we could get – for what did that matter, as long as it paid the rent and we could be together? In those days – ah those days! – it was possible to get jobs, rents were low and we earned enough to pay the bills. We lived in a lovely part of town with Georgian architecture and leafy gardens in the centre of curved circuses and cobbled avenues.
We enjoyed each other’s company or so I remember. Having a companion distracted me from the boredom of my job and my lack of interest in the office topics of conversation. But I still had a nagging doubt that something important was being sidelined and neglected. It was not until his job relocation, when we had to leave the leafy grandeur and the Georgian architecture, that it came home to me that this was not, absolutely not, where I wanted to be in my life.
I realised I had to get out fast and I reapplied to university. I’d made a lucky escape. I had nearly sleep-walked into a life that would have been no kind of life at all. For your life needs to engage you, demand things of you, require that you face challenges and work with them, doesn’t it?
We rely on bus drivers, train drivers, ferrymen and pilots, to get us where we want to go. They are all Hermes’ helpers and they have very differing personalities, perhaps reflecting Hermes’ quicksilver and ever-changing nature. Here in Greece, in the land of the gods, these mercurial assistants can be friendly and helpful, as well as curt or impatient with someone who does not speak their language and finds it difficult to convey where it is she wants to go. And sometimes this is because I hardly know myself. Would this be a good place or would that destination be better? When one is exploring, it’s often hard to be decisive, with clear goals in mind. There are as many imponderables as there are possible routes to take. But that’s not for Hermes to decide. The drivers simply want to know where you are going. Sometimes decisions have to be made quickly, despite uncertainty.
Last night’s bus driver offered the possibility of a distraction from the route. Not from maliciousness or desire to lead me down a false path but from – as far as I could see – the very nature of the flighty god with winged sandals on his feet. His embrace of yes and no, his delight in crossroads, in quick decisions, never seen as irreversible, the separations in his nature are not of life or death quality, they are made lightly, in the knowledge that backtracking is always possible, that taking yet another turning may seem like going back and yet can still be going on and that sometimes going on will lead you precisely to the place you thought you’d left behind. For he is also the god of backroads and alleyways, of narrow entrances and unexpected turnings. He might ruffle the sea surface, giving a sly prod to one vessel, while holding back another, but he is not the ruler of the ocean’s depths, he is not Poseidon, who knows currents and underwater waves and deep-sea monsters. Hermes plays with surfaces, he trails fingers in the water, and above all he loves movement. He is the master of the liminal realm where elements and textures, moods and relationships overlap and merge.
Last night’s bus driver made a charming gesture – but only because there seemed to be a doubt that there was a place for me, on the bus. In my experience, doubt is a reliable companion. All is going well – you have your ticket, you’re about to get on board – and then there is some unexpected hitch that you did not foresee. How many times has this happened? To someone as maladroit as myself, when it comes to life’s practicalities, whether wrestling with a door handle, trying to find my way from one place to another in unfamiliar streets, particularly when you do not know the language, it’s so frequent an occurrence as to be customary, even comical.
So I am well acquainted with the hand of doubt slipping into mine. For Hermes has as much allegiance with no as yes, he has no prejudice, to tilt scales in one direction or another. But he spied division in me and exploited it. Then he saw that this time I was clear – this time, I knew where I was headed. This time, the enticements of dark hair and a sunny, appreciative comment, they were not the road itself. All these fascinating characters you may spend time with, they are not the roads you travel on. Even if you sometimes think – ah, here is a harbour in the sunlight, I could stay here, make a life here – you will always – at some point – have to raise the anchor and set off. Don’t ask me why. That’s simply how it is.
I’m not saying that there is no Ithaca. But it may not be as you remember it. After all these journeys made with Ithaca in mind, with Ithaca as your goal – when you arrive it confronts you with itself and you realise that places too, are on a journey.
There’s controversy over the precise location of the real Ithaca, the home and starting-point and destination of Odysseus. This seems fitting to me for surely mythic contours have to be a little imprecise?
But when we leave this ‘once upon a time’ and return to clocks and Everyday – as it seems we always do – won’t some other dark-haired ticket-seller catch our eye one day, won’t we strike a deal with some dream bus driver, board another ferry, cross another wine-dark sea?
Morelle Smith studied English and French at Edinburgh University and currently lives near Edinburgh. She has won prizes for her poetry and fiction, and also writes essays and travel articles.
A couple of weeks ago I did the last of my twenty interviews with Scottish writers over the age of seventy. Reading through the entire set in one day, I was struck by how many of these men and women practised some form of meditation. They reported that it sharpens the senses, refreshes and clarifies the mind, makes one more receptive to creative ideas, opens the gates to gratitude, forgiveness and serenity and increases the chances of getting into ‘the flow.’
For a quarter of a century I, too, have been practising meditation. Every day, for about twenty minutes, I sit, with my eyes shut, in a relaxed position (not the lotus position which I find uncomfortable) and try to empty my mind until I pass into a stage of complete blankness and nothingness. Emerging on the other side of this, I am relaxed, stress-free and refreshed, my mind is clearer and more focused; my pulse and blood pressure are lower than normal, taking about one hour to return to their usual levels. I have definitely not been asleep, but in some other state of consciousness. I couldn’t say where it is that I have been. I only know that I have a strong sense of having returned from a place where there is harmony and beauty. Sometimes this vanishing into nothingness comes quicker than others; sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, as unbidden thoughts chase around my mind. But this, too, I find beneficial because it feels as if my subconscious mind has released things that needed to surface.
What I have described is very much on the lower rungs of the transcendental meditation ladder. On the top rungs are those who have dedicated their lives to meditation, such as Buddhist lamas, Hindu holy men and hermits and early Christian monks, and at the other end are the likes of me.
Most of my deeper meditations have been associated with being close to nature. The author, Stephen Graham, describes his own response to nature:
‘As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of a forest, or spread wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door that does not look like a door, opens.’ (The Gentle Art of Tramping ,1927).
This feeling of a door opening seems to occur more easily after activities in which I have been completely absorbed by the physical and mental challenge and the exercise of skill – that is to say, when I have been in the flow. I have experienced this kind of flow both as a climber and as a kayaker. Csikszentmihalyi, in his work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Expression (University of Chicago Press, 1983.), says there is a strong connection between being in the flow and meditation. People who experience flow report that it enhances their ability to achieve meditation; and people who have found a path to deep meditation also find that they experience flow more regularly than otherwise.
Even without experiencing flow, I find that contact with the natural environment around me aids meditation. It works the other way round, too. Soon after I had taken up meditation my ability as a kayaker dramatically improved. No longer did I see the ocean and the elements as something to be battled against with a clenched jaw and white knuckles. Instead, I felt a new sense of oneness with the ocean, I relaxed and, as a result, became a better paddler.
Each person meditates in a different way; and for each person every meditation is different. I shall end this post by describing just one meditation I did about ten years ago when I was in my early seventies.
One day in late March I went for a walk in a part of the oak forest that covers the rolling hills of Umbria. I was following small paths and carrying my camera. Sometimes I was intensely in the present, in the now, noticing every detail, all five senses alert, photographing the beauty around me from every angle and on a range of scales from the wide panorama across the forest, to the detail on the bark of a tree. At other times I allowed my thoughts to drift wherever they cared to go. Some of my best ideas bubble up while I am walking in the hills or paddling my kayak. I think it is something to do with a steady rhythm, and thoughts being stimulated by the slowly changing scene. I alternated between two different kinds of creativity – being in the present, camera and mind in focus, and being mentally elsewhere, the mind producing new ideas and connections. It was like some mental equivalent to stepping out of a sauna into the pool and then back again several times – invigorating and relaxing both at once. So, when, on the way home (I was staying with my son), I came to the edge of the forest, I was, you might say, ‘warmed up’ for my session of meditation.
In sunshine I descended through a terraced olive grove which overlooked the farmland spread out below. I came upon an area richly carpeted with what looked like oxeye daisies, except that they were purple and not white. I sat with my back to a low terrace wall. Below me and about half a mile away, a tractor was chug-chugging in a field; smoke drifted upwards from a bonfire, its faint tang mixing with the bosky forest scents reaching me from the slopes above. From somewhere closer came the steady snip-snip of an olive tree being pruned. Small birds were in full voice, like sound-stars twinkling or bright bubbles in a lazy river. Near my left foot a tiny beetle ascended the trunk of an olive tree, negotiating the crevices in the bark and the patches of brown, white and yellow lichen.
I closed my eyes and softly repeated my ‘mantra’ – a two-syllable, vibrating sound that has no meaning. Breathe out on the first syllable, breathe in on the second syllable. I tried not to think of anything except my breathing, to still the internal chatter of my brain. Out went my breath to become part of this planet’s atmosphere. Perhaps, centuries from now, particles of that breath will still be in circulation. Breathe in. I think: ‘Maybe I’m drawing into my body a tiny particle of breath exhaled by a creature now extinct, or perhaps by the Buddha himself.’ A sense of being part of something vastly older and bigger than myself began to steal over me. A picture of the beetle entered my mind. That olive tree is its whole world, its whole universe. It has no idea its tree is part of an orchard, or that the orchard is just a small area of one hillside in a range of hills.
Gradually my mind pulled back, a zoom lens in reverse. My worries became more and more distant and insignificant until, in the grander scheme of things, they ceased to exist. The sounds of the birds, the tractor, the clippers melded into harmonious, sweet music. A sense of the unity of everything was strongly upon me. Now I was hardly aware of my breathing. In … out. My mind emptied, but it would be incorrect to say I was thinking of nothing, because even to be thinking of nothing and to be focusing on dispelling wayward thoughts and distractions is to be thinking of something. The mind has simply to relinquish control, to let go and allow itself to be emptied until the self vanishes.
Last month (September 2017) the winners of the Autumn Voices Over 60 Writing Competition were announced on this blog, and the winning entry was posted. This month the 2nd and 3rd placed entries will be going up. The thinking behind having this competition was that while there are many competitions, prizes and awards for younger writers, there are very few for older writers. A glance through The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook or The Writers’ Handbook will bear out what I say. If you are over 40, or even worse, over 60, you will find that you are ineligible for a large number of opportunities. And all too often the phrase ‘emerging artists’ turns out to be a euphemism for younger artists.
One might argue that younger writers and artists in general need encouragement and that they have much more of their lives ahead of them than do we oldies and crumblies, and that they are our future. Yes, I would agree with that, but it needn’t be an either/or situation. If you are one of the many people who didn’t start writing until retirement, you could, these days, have more than a quarter of a century of creativity and productivity ahead of you. This is not something we can ignore any longer.
For these reasons I am very pleased to welcome guest blogger, Joy Howard, who writes about the Grey Hen Press which encourages and runs competitions for women writers over 60.
I quote (again) from my interview with Jenni Calder :
‘There are plenty of examples of writers who don’t get published until well into later life. If you haven’t been published or had success by forty, fifty, sixty, or even beyond that, it’s not the end of the road. I think the important thing is to encourage, not young writers, but first-time writers, whatever their age. The early stages of a writer’s career are just as likely to be in their sixties as in their twenties. There are lots of awards for writers under thirty. There should me more encouragement for people starting out, whatever their age. I’m fairly sure that there are more readers over sixty than in any other age group and a lot of them prefer books written by authors who are themselves mature.’
I have heard it said that, in the eyes of some publishers, a CV showing an impressive list of publications earns minus points, not plus points. It indicates that you have been around too long and, therefore, are not young, sexy, interesting or exciting. I have to say, I’m more open to believing that after receiving a rejection letter. It could be for entirely different reasons, of course, that those letters keep coming.
What do you think? I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has experienced ageism in the publishing world.
Grey Hen Press was founded by Joy Howard in 2007. The idea behind the press (and hence its name) was to showcase older women’s poetry. Why older women? because:
In terms of age, today’s poetry publishing scene is highly competitive and demanding in terms of building up a CV. Women over 60, especially those who may have more recently started writing, are really pushed for the time needed to acquire the necessary credentials. And more generally, older women are underrepresented in the mainstream, dismissed as ‘past it’ much earlier than men in society, but are feisty and fabulous, with a lot to say.
Grey Hen has gone from strength to strength. Eleven anthologies have been published and they have proved to be extremely popular. Well-known poets are published alongside, others who deserve to be better known; each book also features poets who have not been previously published. Over 170 poets have now contributed to the anthologies.
10th anniversary readings are underway across the country – we have already held events in Reading, York, Newcastle, Sale and Glasgow, and more are forthcoming, in Bristol, Woodbridge, Hebden Bridge and London.
Since 2009 Grey Hen has also been running an annual poetry competition for women over 60. I didn’t think initially it would pay its way, with such a restricted entry qualification, but it has proved to be a winner. The two adjudicators (also women poets over 60, a different pair each year) have had many brilliant poems to select from (annual average 450). The prizewinners are always invited to submit to the next Grey Hen anthology and several have gone on to become Grey Hen regulars. Any surplus raised goes to seed fund the next book.
Further details can be found on the website.
In my previous Crumbly Corner post I commented that quite a high proportion of the men and women I had interviewed for the Autumn Voices project practised meditation. When asked about the gifts that ageing had brought to them, an even higher proportion mentioned gratitude – a growing awareness that there was so much in their lives to be grateful for.
Both the wisdom literature and the well-being literature tell us that cultivating gratitude makes us happier and healthier. Gratitude helps us become more optimistic, more positive, more relaxed and more resilient and it results in deeper relationships and increased creativity and productivity. On the other hand, being ungrateful is related to anxiety, depression, envy, aggression, materialism and loneliness.
Some months ago I had a bout of shingles. It kept me awake at night. I accepted the wakefulness as a gift. It allowed me time to think about all the things that had happened that day for which I could give thanks. Distracted by the itching and the stinging, I searched for a pleasant memory I could I link it to. I recalled when my companion and I had decided to follow the course of the River Endrick, walking along its banks from where it flows into Loch Lomond to its source in the Gargunnock Hills. After a rather painful hour bashing through clumps of nettles and being quite badly stung, we came upon a rolling meadow richly carpeted with flowers. The sheer extravagance of variety, the generosity of colour, the profusion and prodigality of perfumes was overwhelming – cornflowers, cowslips, buttercups, thistles, white campion, birdsfoot trefoil, lady’s bedstraw, yarrow, meadowsweet, ox-eye daisies, cuckooflowers and many others I could not immediately identify – their combined scent so heady that in our ecstasy we could readily believe we had been granted a foretaste of Paradise. Out of the discomfort of the shingles had come a beautiful memory. I was grateful for that. OK, I sound a bit too pleased with myself, I know! So I’d better tell you that I have a stiff neck at the moment (spondylosis) and am failing to find anything positive about it.
I often find that it is the everyday things which I fail to appreciate – like the fact that I live in the Western World where I take for granted clean water, sanitation, electricity, medical aid, law and order, comparative safety. Or it is the really big things I overlook, such as death. If our fishy ancestors had become immortal, if evolution had stopped there, I would not exist. Without the cycle of birth and death over billions of years, this amazingly complex form of life that is you and me, would not be here now.
Recently my friend Peter died. I had known him since our university days. I discovered that loss, pain and sorrow can be a form of gratitude – gratitude for the friendship we once had. The pain of the present moment was made possible only by past happiness.
I have discovered, too, that gratitude opens the doors to forgiveness. But perhaps that should wait until my next Crumbly Corner post.
Tuesday 10th October, Waterstones, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, 2.15-3.45 pm. Entry free. This event is part of the Luminate Festival of Creative Ageing. Carl MacDougall will talk about his recent short story collection, Someone Always Robs the Poor. This will be followed by short readings from eleven writers over 60.
The Luminate Festival of Creative Ageing runs throughout the month of October with events all over Scotland. Find out more at www.luminatescotland.org
Painter, novelist, playwright, poet and editor, Alasdair, now aged 82, often combines his diverse artistic talents within single works (some of his murals have words in them, some of his fictions have illustrations) to challenge existing forms. Blending satire and tragedy, realism and fantasy, his work has been credited with spurring a renaissance in Scottish literature.
RLJ: What belief system lies behind your work? And have these beliefs changed as you get older?
AG: No, they haven’t changed. The Oran Mor murals were influenced by Gaugin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (4) These are questions that human beings have asked themselves from the year dot and most religions and sciences and many arts have been created to provide partial answers to them.
RLJ: What are your own answers to these questions?
AG: Our lives are rooted in Death’s republic. What are we? Animals that want more than we need. Where are we going? Our seed is returned to Death’s republic. I have no belief in the immortality of my soul. I am not frightened of dying. Artistically, I’ve been very lucky, because I’ve done most of the things I wanted to do. But I do fear physical and mental decline. I do notice unexpected holes in my memory. Things I thought I knew well that I can’t recall. Memories suddenly disappear – but they do come back.
RLJ: What other negatives do you find in ageing?
AG: The absence of walking. I hadn’t expected to start doing without that so soon. I find it sad to think that I’m not likely to climb a hill again.
RLJ: You have described The End of our Tether as being about the physical, social and moral decrepitude of people. Did you include yourself in that?
AG: Yes. Many of my books and stories have been imagining myself a little older and more decayed than I actually was. It has been a natural progression for me to write about older people as I
age myself. When I was younger my health was poor. I was asthmatic and, therefore, I found it easy to imagine myself being much older than I was.
Entries were received during June and July 2017 and the winners announced at the SAW event at the Westerwood Hotel, Cumbernauld in September. The competition rules asked for any form of prose – life writing, non-fiction, short story, with a maximum 2,000 words. The entry must not have been published before.
1st Place: Moring – the Fishing Village by Jeanne Dron
2nd Place: Travel with Theos Lines by Morrelle Smith
3rd Place: Love and Revolution by Catriona Courtier
Highly Commended: Sixty Seconds in the Death of Henry by James McPherson
Commended: Krakatoa by Ellen Dickie
You can read the winning entry below. The runner-up and 3rd place will be posted in October.
GENERAL COMMENTS BY THE ADJUDICATOR.
The competition was adjudicated by me. There were 40 entries, all of a good standard. The entries demonstrated the same thing that the main interviews demonstrate – that sixty or seventy plus is a wonderful place to be if you are a writer. You have more material to draw upon than at any other period in your life, which you can write about with a wider perspective and a more balanced judgment than when younger; and you can write about old age with an insider knowledge that those of fewer years do not posses.
In many of the entries the voice and viewpoint of elderly men and women, their thoughts, physical problems and worries, their losses and bereavements were recounted with a convincing authority, often with an accepting, self-deprecating humour, gently poking fun at their own infirmities.
Other entries were about none of these things, but simply showed that a late flowering of talent is definitely possible.
Jeanne Dron’s winning entry was a wonderful description of an East coast fishing village, somewhere near Aberdeen, in about 1940. Dylan Thomas meets Grassic Gibbon.
1ST PLACE MORNING – THE FISHING VILLAGE
by Jeanne Dron
Take a deep breath –
The air is crisp and salty with the smell of drying seaweed, rich with the warm earthy dampness of the distant moor. You can’t see it in the dark, but the first hint of burning peat is seeping and swirling up from the cottage chimneys by the shore, mingling with the scent of purple heather on the hill and the sharp fresh sweetness of early spring.
Inside, people are awake. Lighting lamps, dressing, packing provisions and whispering farewells before, all along the steep passages and narrow streets, doors creak open, flashing warm yellow lantern-light as shadowy figures pass out into the still dark morning; feet clattering on cobbles, voices softly yawning.
Now, mumbling greetings as they gather in the glimmer of pre-dawn light down on the beach, the wool-clad men of the households set to work. Here, where there is no comforting harbour, but only the unprotected open shore, ruled by wind and weather, gulls rise screaming from their sleep, anticipating the morning catch, while worn boots labour, crunching wetly through sand and shingle, as the nets and lobster pots are thrown aboard.
Then, with knotted shoulders braced against salty timber and biceps burning at the ropes, they push and shove the heavy wooden boats, hulls churning from their settled they got backk, heave and creak.bed of stones, down toward the sea.
So another day begins.
One by one calling voices fade into the splash of feet on wet rippled sand. Water swirling around canvas bound legs as they leap in amongst the creels, crushing the tang from fronds of crusty dried seaweed. Then, oars clunking into place, they’re away; pulling, muscles straining, into the surf. Each boat finding its path through the tideline rush and tumble of waves and out into the deep, deep green-black, cold and cruel ocean.
And now the long haul while daylight creeps up over the horizon, hands thick and calloused from the grip and roll of the old smoothed wood as oars dip, backs bend and muscles tighten. Heave and creak, heave and creak: hauling the perilous wooden craft through the wild waters to the fishing ground day after day. And all the while their wives wash and cook and do the endless crofting chores, and needles flying, tightly knit the village pattern into the lifesaving warmth of their spouses next woollen jersey.
There, on the empty beach an old man now stands alone. The sailor’s shouts fading with the cries of wheeling gulls. But still he watches; until the clunk of oars and the power of strong back muscles working against the tide, have left a shadow on his mind, against the gentle rush and rattle of shore bound waves.
His arms longed for the work they could no longer accomplish. His tired hands itched for the smooth roll of the oar and ached for the feel of the silk-worn wood. It was this time, when the sun crept up over the horizon and the sounds faded away, that were the best and the worst.
After a lifetime of longing to rest, away from the toil, the danger and the exhaustion; now, now that time was all he had, it was ironic how that slow, powerful rhythm of the oars pulled at his heart, how the very smell of the fishing wafted deep into his soul.
So, what was there left for a man no longer needed, a man whose tasks were complete; an empty home, a table bare but for a half drunk, mug of cold tea? The boats were almost out of sight.
Breakfast held no interest for one without apatite: yet his memory was ripe with the longing for it, rich with the need for porridge and bacon, for thick slices of fresh baked bread, of yellow butter, new from the churn and hunks of precious cheese. And there it was again; the rock of the boat, the cries of the gulls, the cloth wrapped piece in his salty fingers and that longing for site of the shore and the safety of home.
Yet now, with the safety and comfort of home all that Dougal Cameron had; he wanted none of it.
Up the street in the second house on the left, Mrs. Maclean was scrubbing the table, worn and scored by generations of thoughtless men and careless children. She knew every crack and scrape and stain. There, was where Rosie left the beet lying all night, and here, the score where Victor dragged that thumping great creel he was mending.
This was a table that worked for a living, the hub of their home. The scrubbing brush was old too, smaller than the one she used on the floor, its bristles worn almost flat over the years. But there was no need to get down on her knees to do the floor today. She would make the bed; just the one bed now the children had homes of their own. She would tidy and sort the washing, feed the chickens and then, when the table was dry, she would have her tea; her skeins and balls of wool spread across the time worn surface. Then she would cast on the first of a new pair of socks. The thought brought a smile to her round face. Last night had seen her sewing up the jumper she had worked on for many months, the complicated pattern denoting her man. And her thoughts turned to Molly Stevens further up the hill.
Molly was at that very moment, running tentative fingers across the pattern of salt hardened stitches that had identified her husband’s body when it washed up thirty miles down the coast. The men had buried him in his best, but this jersey, she had washed and dried as if it would be worn again, because she didn’t know what else to do with it. Though it would take a week of soaking and soaping to bring it back to life. That was within her power. She knew exactly how to bring the empty sweater back. But not her Gordon; he was gone.
For now though, still stiff with the remnants of the sea, she folded it, pulling open the creaking, hefty oak drawer and smoothed the dark and lonely symbol of her life, down amongst the socks. Everything there, smelling of the wash she had been so proud of until now; now when she only longed for the smell of him. Gone, washed away. Her man.
Mrs. Mclean’s needles were clicking now, four thin shafts to make the circle. The sound would accompany all her resting, waiting, even walking time. Because the weather ruled their lives, and the cold was their enemy. And she knew how to make the neatest, warmest, most watertight, life sustaining woollens to keep her husband safe.
The old man had left the beach, climbing the steep hill behind the village and looking out towards the horizon once again. This time he searched for signs. A tumble of clouds or a soft whisp; a shadow on the sea, a dimpling where a shoal of fish gathered; choppy waters or the shadow of rain heading their way.
His life no longer depended on the weather. Those others could see the signs for themselves. But how to change the things that made you, the thoughts and actions that had been your life?
Billy Turner was out and running, barefoot, hardfoot; running to meet his day. The cow would be waiting, anxious by the gate, udders heavy and sore for want of his pulling hands. And he was late. The cats would have gathered in the barn, mewling and hungry for the smell of the milk that squirted wet and warm, splashing into the pail. Hungry for a drip, dribble or spill. Sometimes, pointing a teat at one, he laughed at its look of shock mingled with satisfaction, as, with an impossibly long pink tongue, it licked itself clean.
Later there would be school, but he was happy there in the barn, where the smell of fresh hay mingled with the odd sweetness of cow; his forehead resting warm against her soft flank. Where the gentle sound of her munching mingled with the pleading of cats. Kittens running, chasing and tumbling. Outside, the cockerel crowing his importance to his chuckie hens.
In any weather, this was the place to be. Even on those days when the gales drove the cow to hide amongst the gorse on the hill and he had to trudge through the mud, leaning against the wind in search of her. Even then, slipping and skidding with her eyes rolling in fear, they knew the warmth and safety of the barn was waiting.
Recently though, his unruly thoughts had changed direction. Cows and hens, foxes, eagles and stoats, rabbits, traps, ropes and kittens had given way to one single image. A smile from Kirsty Morgan.
That smile, having been directed around the room, and at no one in particular, Kirsty’s thoughts were elsewhere. Amongst the secrets sewn into the patchwork quilt on her bed. Revealed, mistakenly as her mother searched through Gramie’s button box. The scrape of tin against wood and bone, ending with a sigh as she pulled one free, remembering. The look on her mother’s face speaking to young Kirsty, of longing and romance.
It had been covered with a yellow cotton print. The same material as the patch Kirsty now ran her fingers across, stitched neatly into the bed cover. It must have been a summer dress, buttons at the neck perhaps. What memories might lie behind that sigh? And what other unknown memories lay silent in the many squares of faded fabric beneath her fingers, warming her through the winter nights?
Greer, grey hair wild on the windy moor, lifted the rabbit to her belt and reset the trap. There were another three amongst the trees, higher up. She tutted, seeing Dougal in the distance, still looking out to sea. With the cow milked, the hens fed and the tatties already hoed, she was impatient at such idleness. For her, time raced by. How could he waste it? She smelt the coming rain and still needed to get up the hill to dig the peats.
One trap was empty. But two rabbits hung from the low branch, supper in waiting, for collection on her return, as Greer trudged on up toward the diggings. The empty creel rubbing a sore on her shoulder. But for now, she needed the woollen head-scarf to protect her ears against the wind that made walking all the harder. With no man to help in the digging, Greer’s limbs would be yellow dyed and mud splattered by the time she had filled the creel. Perhaps by then the wind would have lessened, freeing the scarf to pad her sore shoulder on the way back.
Then there would be soup. The smell, rich and warming as she opened the door. Her tiny croft welcoming her home, to rest before she started her days work. At the weaving.
INTERVIEW WITH JEANNE DRON, WINNER OF AUTUMN VOICES OVER 60 WRITING COMPETITION, 2017
Jeanne, aged 70, lives in Fife . She worked as a photographer for the Ministry of Defence both in London and Rosyth Dockyard before having her two children, and later managing a conservatory design centre. A self-taught artist, she has been drawing, painting and creating for as long as she can remember. Jeanne then added creative writing to her repertoire, joining the Inverkeithing Writers’ group and then the Southeast Scotland branch of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She is currently working on a children’s novel, Boodika Bron and the House of Horrors.
‘Any writing skills I have, I owe to the constructive comments and discussions held with other writers in the two groups I have belonged to. Am I inspired by this competition? Absolutely. Confirmation that you are on the right track is invaluable.’
Jeanne explained some of her thinking behind ‘Morning – The Fishing Village’: ‘Simpler times and situations help provide a clarity that is confused in our complex modern lives. This piece is reflecting on our astounding human ability to adapt to different circumstances and make the most of them, however difficult. To form our own place in the world and create the symbols that comfort and support us. In the long term, those circumstances mould us into the person we become; like it or not. Flexibility fades with time. – A small thought perhaps.’
Jeanne believes strongly that, given the opportunity, older people have a valuable contribution to make to society.
‘In the history of the world, how many devastating mistakes could have been avoided if lessons from the past had not been ignored or forgotten? Not to mention the skills that have been lost and those it is still possible to preserve. In our own lifetime we have seen too much wisdom entirely dismissed in favour of fresh new ideas. Perhaps the opportunity has come to combine forces. Your Autumn Voices project could be the start of a movement to bring that collective experience and understanding into the mainstream. I believe there are a lot of fine minds out there, just grumbling to themselves about the state of the world, when they have it in them to make a difference given a combined voice.’ An Autumn Voice perhaps?
The Introductory section to ‘Autumn Voices’, which I have been working on recently, contains a discussion about the nature of creativity. This passage is part of that discussion.
The French acrobat, Blondin, crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope one thousand feet long, pushing a wheelbarrow. In the analogy between Blondin’s daring feat and our creative processes, Blondin is the artist and the wheelbarrow is the work of art being pushed across the chasm which separates the idea and its realisation. The tension on the rope stands for the opposing forces which are an essential part of the creative process; and Blondin’s skill at staying on the rope represents the delicate balance required to tread the narrow line between these opposites.
For many writers it is one of the gifts of old age that we become more experienced and adept at this balancing act. We learn how to manage the loss of control, the disorder before a new order asserts itself; how to apply both discipline and freedom; we are better at walking the line between the humility to accept criticism and the arrogance required to believe we have something worth saying and to stick at it. By the time we reach later life we are more likely to have learned how to handle our co-existing contraries – believing two opposite things at once – that so often provides the ‘quarrel with ourselves,’ the creative tension. We have learned to accept ambiguity, knowing that paradox is often the only truth there is. We know how to reconcile the need to be both part of society and to step outside it as objective observers. When we are in our seventies and beyond, the tug between wanting to hide and needing to be found has become a recognisable part of creativity, rather than something confusing or frightening.