Books in the Blood #5: The Owl Service by Alan Garner

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As an adult, I’ve revisited a chunk of books I first read when I was a child and I’m not sure why.

Maybe as I draw further away from childhood and I can only now experience my younger self through the rear view mirror of memory, I’m desperate to find something I’ve lost.

I don’t think it’s about recapturing my youth – the mirror and the bathroom scales plot together to remind me that that would be an exercise in pointlessness. I have to work hard to keep this wreck of a body functional. From my feet to my back, to my internal workings, it all needs keeping an eye on, whereas once everything seemed to run smoothly with little attention from me. Those corns won’t buff themselves, people.

I really wouldn’t want to be a kid again anyway.

I remember having a conversation with a friend who waxed lyrical about how wonderful his childhood was. According to him it was such a perfect, joyous time, you’d think he grew up in a Famous Five book, filled with exciting adventures catching foreign spies – and lashings of ginger beer for tea. He even used the cliché ‘best years of my life.’

I actually found listening to him a bit irritating. Because, I remember childhood quite differently.

Fear seemed an constant companion, forever holding my clammy hand: fear of the dark and the monsters that splashed about in the loo, ready to take a bite out of the unwary backside. Fear of insanity (yes, at around the age of ten I had a morbid fear of going mad, though worrying about going mad probably took me closer than any actual mental instability).

I worried about school, maths and P.E being regularly terrifying and humiliating ordeals for the humanity-minded plumpster I was. I worried about the bully that spat in my hair whenever she was given the opportunity.

And there was the overriding sensation of being painfully self-conscious, of feeling out of place in my own body, amongst other teens and in the world. I would’ve gladly been bewitched Sleeping Beauty-like by a bad fairy, happy for the most thorny of roses to clamber and tangle around my room, trapping me until I was old enough to not care about how lumpy I looked in drainpipe jeans.

Safe to say, I didn’t recognise childhood as my friend described it. Though, he’s a very confident, easy-going guy, so maybe that carried him over his own bumps and troughs with little damage.

Rereading a once loved book is, though, an exercise in self-assessment.

This week’s Book in the Blood is The Owl Service by Alan Garner. I had a copy bought for me a few years ago after dropping some very heavy and specific hints to my in-laws around the time of my birthday. I read the book eagerly, remembering how much I’d loved it as an adolescent, how I’d adored the mystical elements, the young love, the spine-tingling chills.

The story centres on a trio of young people in a farmhouse in Wales. Unexplained scratching and knocking from the attic draws two of them to discover a china dinner service with an abstract design that could just depict the faces of owls.

There’s a lot to love about this book. Garner is a genius at slow, creeping shudders. He blends violent Welsh myth with modern life, until the characters are compelled to re-enact the past, as if they’re possessed by dead spirits. It’s otherworldly, with a distinctly trippy element – it was first published in 1967 and you feel that sixties ethic through the book.

But what struck me – and here’s where the self-assessment came in – was how much more disturbing I found it as an adult than as a kid. The ending is vague to say the least and how much children’s fiction today doesn’t have a nicely tidied up last act? As the characters lose their grip on their own identities, the tone becomes increasingly unsettling. I remember nothing of this from the first time I read it. I took it all at face value then, accepting its odd qualities as part of the adventure.

Maybe the problem is I’ve had so many more years of conventional story telling rammed into in my head now – beginning, middle, end, story and character arcs – that I find it hard to accept anything different.

I’m glad I read this book as a child – it’s way too grown up for me to appreciate as an adult.    

Found

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The girl with the watery eyes takes me by the arm and her mouth’s smiling, but she still looks sad. She always looks sad. I wonder if there’s something wrong with her.

She leads me into the room with all the chairs in, the one with the big window. Some of the old people sit in there to stare out at the garden, though there’s nothing to see but mud and twigs. It’s raining. It always rains.

I try to explain to the girl with watery eyes that it must be past my bedtime, that I’d better go home to my Mam, but she says I’ve only just had my breakfast. I try to tell her she’s got it wrong, but she won’t listen so I give up. I don’t want to upset her- she smells so nice.

The girl wants me to sit down, but I don’t like the chair she puts me in because I’ve seen one of the old men sitting in it. It’s the man who always has his hand in his trouser pocket. He makes me feel itchy and anyway, he smells like dirty knickers, so when the girl leaves the room, I move to another chair- the one with the big orange flowers on the cushion.

Someone coughs and I’m worried it’s the girl that smells of mince, but it’s another young woman. She’s pretty in an untidy way, blond hair falling from a clip on top of her head. She smiles at me and I smile back and for a minute, we’re just smiling at each other and I’m not really sure why.

‘Hello,’ she says.

‘Hello,’ I say. ‘Have you come to see one of the old people?’

She smiles and nods. She has some bags with her, big blue ones with long handles made of a sort of shiny fabric. The bags are open at the top and lengths of cloth spill from them- there’s pink and a peacock blue and something the colour of peas. I like the colours and the shimmery fabric. I want to feel them, but know it would be rude to do it without asking.

‘What have you got there?’ I say, my fingers twitch wanting to touch.

The untidy, pretty girl’s smile widens. ‘Scarves. Would you like to take a look?’

And she jumps up and begins to lay them over the arm of my chair, the colours flowing and overlapping, so that you can see one through another. Pea mixes with the pink and there’s one with butterflies- a pale ash ground with magenta wings- and as she pulls it from the bag and the wings curl and flutter above my head I can’t help but giggle.

At first I’m too shy to touch. The girl pulls out more and more scarves- like a magician with a top hat- and her cheeks flush and all of the hair tumbles from the clip so it hangs round her face all straggly, but still pretty. She takes off her coat and throws it on her chair and she starts on the second bag. She kneels on the floor and starts to lay the slithering cloths on the carpet and over her coat, and it’s all so beautiful.

‘Captured rainbows,’ I say and she smiles wider than ever.

She looks so happy, I’m sure she won’t mind if I hold just one. It’s a blue-green that makes me think of ducks. I run a finger over its length. It’s soft and slippy and the cloth makes little rasping noises as it slides over itself. I curl my fingers around it, scrunch it in my hand and it’s so fine it fits in my palm.

And then.

I smell the sea, taste the salt, feel the wet sand sloshing between my toes. From one hand hangs my sandals, and the wind tugs at my scarf, the teal- coloured one that Simon bought me for my birthday. I realise my other hand isn’t free by my side, but swaying with a rhythm that isn’t mine. I look up. I see a shirt, crumpled as always, and a blond head, higher than mine so I have to lean up to kiss the cheek. It’s his hand I’m holding, that swings me back and forth, that pulls me out of step, then slips back into it. The hairs are golden on bronze skin and I’m sure I’ve never seen a more beautiful man.

‘Simon,’ I whisper, but the wind snatches the sound away.

‘That’s right, Auntie.’

I’m in the room with the chairs. The sand has gone from under my feet and the only smell is air freshener and boiled veg. But the smiling girl is still here. She’s draped scarves round her neck, like boas. Her hand is on mine.

‘You look pretty today, Suzy,’ I say, ‘I like what you’ve done with your hair.’

She squeezes my hand again.


Day Thirteen: Serially Found

On day four, you wrote a post about losing something. Today’s Prompt: write about finding something.

This is a second installment, a continuation of Lost, Day Four’s post. It’s about the same character, in the same setting. A little sad and a little hopeful.

Miss Honeysuckle Cottage

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Her name is Dina but we call her ‘Miss Honeysuckle Cottage’ between ourselves as that’s the name of her house- crumbling, golden stone and a gate that needs oiling. There’s no honeysuckle in the garden, but bedding plants so neatly spaced they could have been measure by a ruler.

I see her coming along the street before she sees me. Her back’s bowed, her neck fixed at an angle as if she’s constantly fascinated by something just in front of her feet. Her gait is determined, her stick whacks the ground with each step as if to show she’s not ready to slip beneath it yet.

Her basket- the weave baggy, stitching coming loose on the handle- hangs from knotted knuckles and when she enters the shop, she bangs it on the counter. The bottom of the basket’s lined with newspaper, ready to receive the day’s plants.

‘Hello, Lynn, dear. I wonder if you have any more of the polyanthus? I have a gap.’

Her voice is pure Celia Johnson- clipped, rather formal. The skin on her forearms is lightly tanned and papery, but her muscles are still taut with not an ounce of spare flesh. I imagine her as a girl, playing in the hockey team, whispered conversations in the dorm after lights out. Her speech is peppered with ‘awfully kind’, ‘terribly good’. She never lets you call her ‘Miss’, only ever Dina.

I try to ask how she’s been, if she recovered from her fall, but she doesn’t hear a word. She tells me she’s deaf, but I know that- I’ve been shouting at her since he walked through the door.

She shuffles out to look over the plants, hand curling around the doorframe for support, each step carefully placed as she crosses the threshold.

‘No, no, yellow won’t do. And I can’t have white- never have white.’ She chooses three pink polys and I put them carefully in the basket for her.

‘Don’t get old, dear, never get old,’ she says.

I know her eyes water constantly and she has a paper hanky tucked up her sleeve so she can wipe them. Her opalescent cataracts reflect light like grey mirrors.

‘It’s hard work being old.’

She was a singer. An alto. She toured the region, filling concert halls. I imagine her taller, back straight, wrinkle-free, chin tilted high.

‘No microphones back then, dear.’

I imagine her wearing a satin gown, sheer fabric falling slick over her boyish frame, hair in pin curls or coiled into a bun at the nape of her neck. What did she sing- arias or something more current? But my question falls away unheard, unanswered.

She holds out her open purse and I take a neatly folded fiver. I make a point of holding up the note for her to see, counting the change back in. She gets anxious if she loses track of her money.

‘I must go. I need to mow the lawn before the girl comes to do my hair.’

I smile and nod and she waves her stick in farewell.


Day Six of Writing 101- write a character study of the most interesting person you’ve met this year.

Here she is. Possibly one of the most interesting people I’ve met in my life. Still determined, still winning the war, though the daily battles grind her down sometimes.