Nailed to the page

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Goodbye was the word that jumped out from the scrawl.

Some of the phrases were lost forever, rinsed away by the rain or crushed to muddy pulp by my footprint.

I cursed myself for being so careless. But if it hadn’t slid beneath my boot, I wouldn’t have seen the words or cradled it in my hands as it dripped brown water between my fingers. I wouldn’t have carefully dried the fragile paper by the fire.

The letter held together, but what remained was fragmentary, shards of emotion nailed to the page.

It rested in my hands, light as a leaf, yet heavy. I looked around the room.

My books leaned drunkenly on the shelf where yours were missing. A dusty rectangle on the stand was all that remained of the television set. I remembered the conversation: you’d paid for it, you said, and by then I was too tired to argue.

I put the letter in a cheap frame and hung it on a vacant picture hook as I listened to the rain fall.


Day Five of Writing 101 and the challenge is to write about finding an emotionally-charged letter in the park – as briefly as possible.

A great exercise for me, as my fiction tends to rabbit on, and on, and on…

The monastery

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Now, let’s get this straight from the start. Some people are described as ‘widely travelled’- I would describe myself as ‘narrowly travelled’. Very narrow. So, when I’m asked to imagine myself somewhere and to describe it, you’re not going to get warm, sandy beaches or sun-kissed, oiled-up lovelies.

You’re going to get something cooler, muddier. Earthier…

My wellies are on, my jeans tucked well into my socks until they bulge.

I scuff up the steps and our wonky garden path, leaving home behind. I pass the coal house- concrete, pitch black inside and filled with spiders’ webs. It would make a good play house, but it’s too cold, too filthy and I don’t like the dark. I pass the cabbages- yellowed and gone to seed. No-one’s touched them since my dad moved out.

I reach the top of the garden, and there it is, the drystone wall that marks the boundary between my world- Firefly paintwork, Tiswas, pork chops for tea- and Barker’s Hill. The hill is wilderness, as wild as the Serengeti as far as I’m concerned. I wedge my toe in a gap between some loose stones, not too far in because the rubber can snag on sharp edges and you get caught up. I swing my leg over the wall, imagine I’m mounting a tall, grey-backed stallion, though I don’t really know what the word ‘stallion’ means, and I don’t like horses anyway. Not if they’re anything like donkeys, because  donkeys bite your fingers when you try and feed them carrots.

I swing my other leg over the wall and drop down into a forest of nettles, waist height. This is why I’m in jeans, why they’re tucked so tightly in my socks. I’ve been over here in a skirt before when we first moved in and found that dock leaves don’t help.

I swish a boot around, trying to catch the nettles at their base, pressing them down so they lie flat. I haven’t been over the wall in a few weeks and the prickly gits are lush and green, their tresses waving in the breeze, ready to attack the unprepared. Nettles conquered, a path beaten, I move on.

There’s an arrangement of limestone boulders at the bottom of the hill, where water sometimes gathers. I found a froglet there once, green and speckly, keen to hop even though he hadn’t grown front legs yet. But it’s summer now- too late for froglets.

Further up the slope, there’s an outcrop that local kids use as a den. A natural overhang of grey rock is the roof and three large rocks have been moved under it to make low walls. Maybe it was for a shepherd, or someone watching cows- is that a cowherd? Anyway, it’s probably older than our house and the RAF base and the catering college. I found fossils in the den walls, tiny ammonites, the rubble of a broken seabed that turned to rock. Like looking back millions of years.

But I’m not going to the den today.

I walk round the base of the hill, until the hard, scrubby grass turns squishy and I know I’m almost there. This part of Barker’s is always boggy, always sags and squelches under your boots. Only once have I seen it dry and hard as the limestone, cracked like a dried up river bed. But it’s rained heavily over the last few days and the cows have been through and the mud is churned, pitted with a thousand hoof prints.

I stand on the edge of the thickest mud. It stretches for what seems like forever, to the horizon, or at least the boundary wall. If I get stuck I’m on my own- no big brother to pull me free today. But I so want to visit the Monastery, I convince myself it’s not as bad as it looks. I plunge in but try and stick to the edge, where the mud’s not as deep. Still, I have to stop every so often, shake the heaviest of clumps from my boots, stop my feet from weighing me down.

A few more steps. The light begins to dim as I cross into the shadow of the wood. Trees climb the slope, though young ones, younger than the Monastery- all the trunks are slim enough to wrap my arms round and I know trees get thick as they get older. There are a lot of them, thin grey trunks, though a smoother grey than the mottled limestone. Before I know it, I’m there.

Walls litter the bank, their rubble tumbling into the mud. Not one wall is intact, but I can still make out their lines. I try to work out where the monks slept, where they ate. That section there’s taller, though leaning at such an angle, I wonder for how long. I think of that as the bell tower, calling the monks to prayer. How often do monks pray anyway? I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s lots. I imagine their bent, cowled heads, their hands tucked in their sleeves, the scuff of sandals on limestone flags. Did they really wear sandals- even when frost had crisped the grass? Their feet must’ve gone blue-black- maybe their toes fell off. My toes are cold now in socks and wellies, and it’s summer.

The tree roots have grown round the walls, forking and bending round the blocks. I wonder how something so solid could also be so flexible. Then the sun slips behind the clouds. Leaves rustle, though there’s no wind today.

A shadow darts from one trunk to the next. I stop. Wait to see if there’s another. I feel my boots slide deeper into the mud, past the sole, the toes. It feels as if I’m not sinking, but that the mud is crawling upwards. It’s a frightening thought, and I know that the longer I stay still, the higher the mud will climb. But I can’t move because I’m waiting for another shadow. Or a lack of shadow, or the sun to come out. Waiting for something.

A crack of wings, a chitter and squawk as something black takes to the air and flaps away. I jump, jerk back but can’t move because my ankles are wedged. I flail my arms, nearly fall, then steady myself. I know it was a blackbird- my dad taught me to recognise its croak- but I imagine it a raven disturbed from feeding and if I wait for its return I might be drawn to see what it was eating and suddenly I don’t want to be here.

I try to turn, but my feet move while the boots stay welded to the mud. I try again and again, but the boots won’t come. I keep looking back to the trees, watching for the ravens and the monks. I consider deserting the wellies, leaving them stranded while I wade home in my socks. I imagine my mum’s face when I give her mud-filled socks, tell her about lost wellies. It’s not a happy thought, so I persevere, pointing my toes up so the boots can’t come off. I pull one leg out and it waves in the air as I search in vain for somewhere dry to stand.

Step by sucking step I walk free, back to the drier margins of the bog. On solid ground I move quickly away, listening for a snap of feathers, the ring of a ghostly bell.

I’m sticky-hot and tired by the time I reach the nettle patch. The sun’s back out, baking the scrubby grass, making the clover glow bright pink.

I take one last look at the wilderness before I climb our wall, knowing I can conquer it again tomorrow.

Fasten your seatbelts- it’s going to be a bumpy write

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I’ve just signed up for WordPress Writing 101 and the very first challenge is a twenty minute free write, no subject, just a ramble through the inside of your own head via your fingertips.

I’ve set the timer on my phone, so here goes.

When you say the words ‘Free Write’, for some reason I think of the radio programme ‘Just a minute’. Now, for all of you under 45 and those who don’t live in the UK, ‘Just a minute’ is a panel game where the contestants have to speak on a given subject without pausing, deviating or repeating themselves for sixty seconds. This is not as easy as it sounds. Have you ever tried to riff on one subject for sixty seconds without repeating yourself? It makes you realise how limited your own vocabulary is.

During the game, other contestants can challenge the person talking and take up the baton themselves, so that they then have to continue talking for the rest of the sixty seconds. I guess it’s a parlour game but transferred to the radio.

Obviously, the best parlour game is charades. When I say best, I mean best and worst. I’ve spent many a Christmas with family, half of us half-cut, forcing ourselves away from ‘The Great Escape’ on the TV to show that we’re more educated than the stereotype couch-potatoes that we actually are, trying to come up with a mime for ‘Dumbo’ without actually being able to think of anything that rhymes and still being politicly-correct enough not to pretend to be stupid.

Half of the time you’re playing charades, you have to explain what’s going on to the older, deaf members of the family, though you’d think they’d understand it better, as you have to use a lot of sign language to compete. The other half of the time you spend trying to explain the rules- again- to young members of the family who don’t remember ‘Give us a Clue’ with Lionel Blair or don’t know how to mime a cine-camera because they’ve never seen anything take footage that doesn’t have a microchip inside it.

There are so many things that I grew up with that my son would not understand- ice on the inside of my bedroom window because we didn’t have central-heating, black and white TV, only having three channels,Sunday closing for shops, the total lack of internet, Ipods and everything else that he loves and takes as part of life, part of life that has surely always existed.

I guess it’s the same for every generation. My mum grew up without any TV at all, only radio. Mind you, she also grew up above a grocers shop, making paper bags for flour and sugar out of flat sheets of paper and having to cut the mould off the cheese before weighing it out for the customer- a different age.

Memory is a weird and diaphanous thing. Once my mum’s generation’s gone, no one left will know what it was like to live that kind of life, that hand-me-down, making do, having the same-stew-pot-on-the-stove-for-the-whole-of-the-winter kind of life.

Is that necessarily a bad thing, though? My son recently did a project at school called ‘Has there every been a better time to live?’ They looked through several centuries with their varying technologies, lifestyles and living conditions and almost unanimously voted that today is the best time to live. For all the worries and problems and there are many, who could argue with them? Certainly in the developed world, anyway, we have better nutrition, life expectancy and entertainments than in any other period in history.

Try living through the fourteenth century- nothing but war, famine, civil unrest and Black Death, for pretty much the entire one hundred years. Truly brutish and short existences. I mean, people lived the whole of their lives, pretty much slaves to some over-fed warmongering lord, toiling on the land, breaking their backs to die at thirty of malnutrition or the ‘flu.

Do you think they were resentful, do you think that they thought ‘what the hell did I do to deserve this life? Surely being a slug or a butterfly would be better? At least they don’t know that there’s a king or a lord or an earl down the road how’s living a more comfortable, better-fed, more privileged life.’

I mean, are slugs jealous of birds because they can fly? Do moths get jealous of butterflies cos they can go out in the daytime and look at the sun? I dont think so. Jealousy or envy is a purely human and rather corrosive trait.

How much better off would we all be if we didn’t have ‘Cribs’ to show us how crappy our own lives are compared to the rich, famous and smug? Wouldn’t we all be happier without TV, without the media showing us all the awful things in the world and the internet enabling us to slag the next person off just because their hairs not great or they’re carrying a few extra pounds?

But then, if there was no internet I wouldn’t be able to do this challenge and meet all the people I’ve met since I’ve been blogging and that would be a very sad thing.

Firstly, my I say that yes, I have gone through, sectioning the text (it was too much of a block and unreadable, man) and I’ve corrected the misspellings (many) and added punctuation the odd word for clarification. I’m sharing this with the world- it’s gotta be slightly legible.

Interesting how much I can write (badly) in twenty minutes. I usually write so little, drafting, redrafting, copy and pasting. If people just wanted to lap up my BRAIN VOMIT (ooh, nasty), then I could’ve written fifty novels this way by now.

Nice exercise, though.