Category Archives: Debatable lands Vol. 3

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 35, 36, & 37.

Visitation

One morning in late May that year I called at the farm and, to my astonishment, Lizzy was up and eating breakfast. She seemed completely changed. I blurted out something like: ‘was she feeling better?’ She told me she’d had a vivid dream. Peter had come into the bedroom and, standing at the end of their bed, told her how much he loved her and that she must stop grieving for him now, get herself better, and look after little Sarah. She sat up in bed and begged him to kiss her, but he’d insisted he had to go. She heard his footsteps on the stairs and the click of the back door shutting, exactly as she had done when he’d go out early. Then she woke up to hear the cock crowing. I told her how delighted I was to see her up, grabbed whatever I’d gone to collect, and went out to find Arthur.

That’s the official account of how Lizzy started to mend. It’s not, however, quite the whole story.

As we were finishing moving the sheep I noticed a police car parked outside Arthur and Nessa’s cottage and said something to him. We finished up and then went down just as Nessa came out with the young copper who’d just transferred from Hawick. Arthur asked if everything was alright and the young man explained he’d just taken a statement from Maggie, who’d seen a man looking around the farm in the night.. There’d been a series of recent thefts from farms, so the two men went to check the yard. I then noticed Nessa looked very pale. She hurried me into the kitchen.

Nessa and Arthur’s daughter Ruth had recently returned from Canada with her six-year-old daughter Maggie. The daughter, a nurse, had an interview so had left Maggie with her grandmother. In the night the little girl had got up to go to the bathroom and, on her way back to bed, opened the curtain to see if it was getting light. This gave her a good view up towards the farm. As she looked out she’d seen a man come out from the back porch and walk through the yard, looking left and right, then down to and past the cottage. She’d seen his face very clearly and in the morning she’d told her grandmother what she’d seen. Nessa remembered the spate of recent thefts and rang the old police sargent, but warned him it might be nothing. He’d been concerned enough to send the young constable to take a statement.

‘He was very good with the lass and she told him exactly what she’d told me, near enough word for word. But Miss Flora, he asked her to describe the man she’d seen and it was Master Peter. But Maggie’s never seen him, nor any photograph either. Of course the young man just wrote it all down and praised her for her memory. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. I sent her to play and was taking him out when yourselves arrived. Whatever am I to say to the sergeant, I’m afraid he’ll think it’s some terrible bad joke’.

I told Nessa about Lizzy’s dream. She looked at me wide-eyed, shook her head, and walked out of the room. I rang the sergeant myself. He’s a traditional singer I know quite well. I don’t remember now just how our conversation went, but I started by asking if he remembered ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well.’[2]

Whatever you make of all this, and I swear it’s true, Lizzy’s depression eased off, at least to the point where eventually we were able to return to something like our old lives. But after that I had a real sense that I didn’t know the half of it when it came to Lizzy. That, of course, turned out to be entirely true.

I suppose I should also add this.

You may possibly remember sending me a little booklet,A. R. Wright’s ‘English Foklore’(1928), number twenty-three in a series called ‘Benn’s Sixpenny Library’, that you’d found in a second hand bookshop. You almost certainly won’t remember writing that you were disconcerted by what seemed to you my excessive gratitude for such a small gift. My reason, which I didn’t feel able to share with you then, can be found on page twenty-three.

The dead seem to have been carried feet foremost from ancient times, in order to prevent their seeing their home and door and so being able to find their way back as revenants.

This brought to mind something that happened when the undertakers came to remove Peter’s body. There was an altercation between an old neighbour who’d come to help Nessa with the laying out and the undertaker’s men. I only caught the low, insistent, tone of the old woman’s voice, not her words, and then an incredulous refusal from the undertaker; then the old woman again, now openly angry, before I had to attend to something else. When I looked out of the window moments later I saw Peter’s coffin carried out of the house head first. After I’d read that passage in Wright’s book, I asked Nessa if she remembered that day. She looked away and tried to change the subject. When I pressed her she admitted that old Miss Kerr had had words with the men, but insisted she couldn’t remember what the old lady had said. This was the same Miss Kerr who, when I asked about her brother one day, told me he was all upset about a tweed suit bequeathed to him by a former emplyer because it had inexplicably rotted. She’d added: ‘what did he expect, silly man, it fretted for old Mr …, who’d worn it on and off thirty years’.

After reading Wright it’s not hard to guess the cause of the altercation, but I do wonder about her motive.

I know neither of us, as intelligent, rational people, believe in such things. But, as we each know, our intelligent, rational selves are hardly in the majority.

The Reed Estate

 Of course it’s hard for me not to admire Lizzy as the localsee her; that is as Peter’s widow and ‘mistress of the Reed Estate’, since she’s genuinely had to overcome very real difficulties in order to keep the farm going and bring up Sarah. Although there’s something ironic about that view of Lizzy, since the Reed Estate as was realy only exists in memory now.

Originally it consisted of the home farm and a cluster of five smaller tenant farms, all a world away from the intensive agriculture of the lowlands. A parcel of haughs (meadows) along the river and patches of dense woodland in its steep valleys, hill pasture and moorland that’smixture of bog, heather and cotton-grass. In the old days, all this grazing land was treated by its owners, at least in terms of public rhetoric, as ‘for sport’, that is as primarily for grouse and pheasant shooting. As ‘gentry’ the Reeds preferred to see the estate as a recreational site and the income it brought in from farming as a secondary matter. From this point of view once the shooting was rented out ‘the estate’ became, in the eyes of the more hidebound of Peter’s peers, a farming business and Peter a farmer rather than a gentleman who owned land. Of course, nobody would be so vulgar as to put any of this into words, least of all say anything to Peter or Lizzy themselves. But that didn’t make the judgement any less real in the minds of some in the region. It’s difficult to explain the nuances of all this to outsiders. Particularly now when the presuppositions involved, which are essential to preserving an identity predicated on archaic distinctions, would be bitterly defended if ever made explicit. They are, of course, all but invisible to those that hold.

When I first came north I thought the Cheviot uplands were just an endless, undifferentiated succession of dull and very empty hills. Initially it was Lizzy’s schoolgirl pride in both the natural and human history of the region that carried me beyond that first impression. I learned that the upland landscape was differentiated into fields and rough pasture; that the second consisted of bog, patches of dull green sedge, occasional dwarf shrubs and massive hummocks of sphagnum moss and, higher up in the dryer areas, white headed cotton-grass and drifts of heather. In a good year, these drifts turned a wonderful purple in early to mid-August and were often interspersed with cloudberry and ling. She pointed out to me the notable inhabitants of this highland, the hares, lapwings, curlew, assorted raptors, and both black and red grouse. She insisted I understand other, more esoteric, differentiations too. I learned that the Reed Estate did not host relic communities of arctic alpine flora, the dwarf cornel, chick-weed, willow grass, alpine willow herb, rose root, hairy stonecrop, and alpine scurvy grass, that survive in some of the deep rocky ravines of estates further north. A relic flora that brings with it various environmental restrictions to vex its owners.

Even in its heyday the Estate’s farming side never made the Reeds much money beyound the tenants’ rents, but it enabled them to maintain a certain view of themselves. Lizzy’s public persona is now a strange afterglow of that former identity, a sense of self that’s genuinely invested in the farm as a livelihood for Sarah and herself. But it’s all muddled up with a ghost: the former social role of mistress of an estate as it once was; a roll that her mother-in-law wore like a glove.

Lizzy and I have never seen eye to eye on the role of shooting in the whole business of estates here. I dislike the various, largely bogus, claims that this somehow contributes ‘to the conservation and maintenance of the countryside’. Claims made by an industryonly interested in protecting its own interests, including the social status of landowners, and heavily subsidised by the tax-payer.

At the risk of boring you half to death, I’ll give you an indication (albeit a bit dated) of what’s involved, based on notes I made back in 2009. At that time 80 percent of estates were involved in grouse shooting, although grouse numbers had declined by nearly 50 percent compared to 2001. However, the fee levied per brace had increased by over 30 percent in real terms over the same period.Grouse shooting was estimated to account for 46 percent of permanent employment across the estates surveyed, but only 43 percent of reporting estates made a profit on their grouse. I think this confirms my view that maintaining the status of ‘gentleman landowners’ is a significant motive in all this.

The stone heap

That said, more estates were making more profit in 2009 than previously. It wasestimated that they spent almost £11 million on wages, operating, and maintenance expenditures. However, it’s not clear how much of this was offset by other benefits. (An ecologist friend thinks the offset is very considerable, not least because estates are able to collect substantive Government subsidies.)Much ‘everyday’ estate expenditure is on routine countryside management, including predator control (some of it highly suspect, if not illegal), pest control, and heather and bracken management, which to a degree may also benefit agricultural activity. But this is, as you’ll know, environmentally problematic. There was of course no mention in the report I’m quoting from of such environmental issues, nor of the relationship between all this activity and watershed management, or of the social and economic cost to the nation of having to deal with flooding. Nor was there mention of the very substantial subsidies paid to the owners of grouse moors by the State.All of which needs to be understood in the context of other facts, for example that over half of Scotland is owned by just 432 people, the most concentrated pattern of land ownership anywhere in the developed world.

Change

Everything here began to change when the day-to-day management of the estate was passed over to Peter, who by then had graduated from agricultural college. He immediately began worked closely with Arthur Bell to pull the farming side of the estate business around. Some three months after he moved back north he and Lizzy got engaged and she became privy to the financial and other implications of his mother’s battle with the trustees. She would only tell me

so much but, reading between the lines, I think when the lawyers investigated the trust they discovered various irregularities. Whatever the case, the trust agreed to amend its own terms of reference and real managerial authority was largely devolved to Peter. The whole business was probably as costly as it was unpleasant and, at least initially, Peter ran into endless problems created, directly or indirectly, by his father. Not the least of which was that people on the estate he’d grown up with had been ‘let go’, which had naturally generated a lot of bad feeling locally.

 Peter began at once to set in motion a plan that, to many people locally, was simply unthinkable. He put the Big House on the market and then sold it to a business syndicate, part of a package that also gave them exclusive rights to the shooting. The syndicate then turned the house and outbuildings into a small exclusive hotel that, by providing some much-needed local employment, helped to mollify local feeling. In parallel, Peter moved Arthur and his wife Nessa into a renovated estate cottage, taking over the factor’s[1]house at the farm for Lizzy and himself. All this allowed him to pay off virtually the entire estate overdraft. He then established a management company, with his mother and Lizzy as partners to sideline the trust. He and Lizzy then married quietly at a civil ceremony at the Jedburgh registry office. There were only about a dozen of us there, but Kate had come home especially. That was, to my knowledge, her last visit to the UK.

 

‘Picking up’ dead grouse after a drive.

That was in July. Early in the morning on the first Tuesday in December the following year, Peter took the old estate Landrover out onto the hill to liaise with a contractor assessing the value of a plantation with a view to felling it. The plan was that Peter would then meet Arthur and Graham Watson, the cattle man, by nine. At half past nine Arthur called in at the farm to ask for Peter.

It took a long afternoon to get Peter’s body out of the remains of the Landrover and bring it up from the river, which was high from several days of intermittent snow and sun. The police concluded that Peter had braked going into the second of the hairpin bends, that the brakes had failed, and that the vehicle had then skidded and the front hit a low boulder. At that point, the Landrover had turned over onto its side, slide down the rest of the steep, snow-covered bank, and dropped the ten odd meters into the freezing river below. The local mechanic who maintained the farm’s vehicles told the inquest the Landrover had only just scraped through its M.O.T. back in March and he’d suggested it be replaced. Peter told him he hadn’t the funds. The coroner recorded death by drowning. Lizzy, six months pregnant with Sarah, started having the most terrible nightmares and, after a very difficult birth, developed what began as post-natal depression.

Mrs. Oliver and I organized a wake for family and close friends at the farmhouse.

Arthur, normally an abstemious man, drank steadily. Knowing him as well as I do I sensed something was brewing and went to find Nessa, who was holding court among the local women in the kitchen. I told her my suspicions and suggested she get him home.  She was in the process of bustling him into his coat when he turned and said to Lizzy, across the room and loud enough for all to heard: “He might as well ha’ killed him his self”. Nessa, blushing furiously, pushed him out of the door before he could say another word. Everyone knew exactly what he meant. Coming from Arthur, normally the mildest and most discreet of men, that outburst was taken as a judgement. Nessa might tell everybody she met how mortified she’d been that he should say such a thing in front of Lizzy and ‘herself’ (Lady Armitage) but, as I told her, he had only put into words what we’d all thought.

In the year and a half that followed, Mrs. Oliver and I looked after Lizzy and Sarah and did what we could to help Arthur, Mike, and Graham keep the farm going. My father had died of cancer two springs previous and Lizzy’s father of complications following a stroke that same summer, so we were all of us already feeling bereft. Kate was largely out of touch, living a hand-to-mouth existence in Australia, loving it, but poor as a church mouse.

My childhood world, the foundation of so much in my life, was in real danger of becoming something so distant, so prelapsarian,as to be wholly unreal; my oldest friends were distressed or scattered, and Cat was dead. My musing on that childhood began, perhaps, simply as an attempt to reconstruct, to rewrite perhaps, a substantial part of my identity. Historically, disaster of one kind or another has almost been the norm, so we’re used to having to telling things again, but differently, just to keep ourselves going.

 

[1]In Scotland, a factor is an estate manager. 

[2]This is perhaps the most explicit and detailed of all the various ‘supernatural’ Border ballads that provide an account of a revenant,a ‘living ghost’, who returns from the grave to warn or instruct the living.

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 32, 33, & 34.

Land and Sky

I’ve always made Lizzy uncomfortable when I talk about the politics of land, particularly when it’s with Sarah. No doubt she feels I’m getting at her as a landowner. I don’t meaning it personally, but I can see that she might well take it that way. It’s caused a good deal of friction between us over the years.

I’ve been critical of the politics of the landowning elite since my London days. It was largely intuitive until I started learning from Mario’s friends, who were already debating things like the policies of the Natural Environmental Research Council in relation to Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’. (One of them would later became an eminent environmental historian). Later I read Marion Shoard’s ‘The Theft of the Countryside’and ‘This Land is our Land’, which confirmed my sense that our landowning elite were excessively influential in shaping national politics and perceptions. Only a British Tory Government could get away with a response to increased flooding by substantially cutting funding to the national Environment Agency and, simultaneously, massively increasing the subsidy to the very grouse moor owners whose management of land helps cause that flooding. My talk about this kind of thing upsets Lizzy because she feels I unfairly identify her with the small number of hugely wealthy individuals who’ve preserved an archaic and profoundly damaging model of land management. Yet she is intelligent enough to know that in many respects she’s complicit in perpetuating just that model. Intellectually, she knows perfectly well that the vision of rural countryside promoted by everyone from the National Trust to ‘Horse and Hound’is, at the very least, profoundly misleading, and that the public image she projects is virtually inseparable from that vision. Her defence against my politics is a paternalistic localism of the National Trust variety. It would go something like this.

North from the Cheviots

Yes, it’s true there was once a ‘Big House’ here, only it wasn’t that big and was one of a kind with Homehaugh, the vicarage, the doctor’s, and all the other larger local houses. It was really a large farm, a neat cluster of old stone buildings around a courtyard behind a long two-story house, all tucked away in its own little patchwork of land. A small lawn, stands of old trees, and a little meadow running down to the stream, all nestled strategically in the shelter of the hill and between the two big home farm fields. And yes, it was also the busy centre of a business based on a network of hill farms, an agricultural and sporting enterprise designed to provide its owners with both economic capital and social status – but that must be balanced against the fact that it provided much of the employment in the local community.

All of which, in it’s own strictly limited terms, is perfectly true. The 1867 map of the estate, taken from the former estate office and now framed and hanging in Lizzy’s downstairs corridor, embodies the ownership of an area of land that forms a roughly oval patchwork. The Big House, home farm, and the village are more or less at the centre; then various tenant farms around it, their land spaced a bit like the gaps between spokes of an irregular wheel. Today it would have to include several large, seemingly randomly placed, rectangular patches of forestry in what was then rough grazing land. This runs from the valley on either side to the high open fell up to the watershed and the edge of that map. When Dad and I arrived this all belonged outright to Sir William and Lady Aitcheson, although technically it was owned by a family trust. But to local people it was and still is the Reed Estate or, more usually, ‘Reed’s’ or simply ‘the estate’, as natural a phenomenon as the Cheviot itself.

Apart from the Sitka Spruce plantations, it’s still mostly agricultural or grazing land, with cattle or sheep on almost all of it at one time of year or another. For Sir William, it was primarily a breeding ground for the grouse and pheasants essential to his shooting parties. For almost everyone else employed here, it’s hill farming land with the husbandry of animals at its heart. As a child, I took what I knew of all this for granted. Only the sky was different, a constant source of wonder because so vast and changeable.

One late August evening when I was twelve or thirteen, some of us children were up on the ridge behind the village after long walk. Unusually, Lizzy and Peter argued. She wanted to stay out and watch for shooting stars. Peter insisted that we should get back at the agreed time. James sided with Lizzy, as he usually did on the rare occasions when Peter and Lizzy disagreed. Normally I’d have gone with Peter but, emboldened by Lizzy’s rare refusal to honour an agreement, I said I’d stay. I badly wanted to see shooting stars. In the end, we compromised. The others went on, with Peter promising to let Mrs. Oliver and Dad know we’d be late back. The three of us then sat in a huddle on someone’s jacket, our backs against a convenient boulder, James in the middle with an arm around each of us for warmth.

Abandoned track.

The last daylight slipped away and the whole panoply of stars started to appear. After a while the sky darkened and then, every so often, a little point of light would fall and be extinguished forever in front of our eyes. What stays with me, however, is not so much the awe they eclipse inspired in me as Lizzy’s uncharacteristic behaviour. I cannot recollect another occasion when she put her own desire before her sense of obligation to do whatever she had said she would do.

 The Oliver family

 Before I’d been in the valley a week Lizzy, prompted no doubt by her mother, started to treat me like a little sister. She was rather bossy, which I resented, but also practical, kind and, mostly, patient with my occasional petulence. She helped me to settle into school, to negotiate with Dad about clothes and getting my hair cut properly, taught me to sew and darn, and encouraged me to read, particularly the local and natural history she herself loved.

Today I find it hard to conjure up Lizzy as she was as a girl without the help of old photographs, where she’s either in school uniform, or else the jeans or short skirts of our teens. Day to day she usually now dresses like a 1940s Land Girl. (Not that she can’t scrub up and ‘do county’ if she must.) Like us all, Lizzy is several people. The Lizzy of my childhood, always polite and studious, is still in there somewhere, but you’d be hard put to find her most days. Now she has quite a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, a trait previously only visible when she had to deal with obdurate younger children like myself. Although it was often tempered by Kate, who always gave as good as she got.

I never really grasped the relationship between the sisters. It seemed to occilate between two poles: guarded but essentially loving mutual respect and undisguised exasperation. I think each privately had a grudging but genuine admiration for those elements in the other’s character that she herself did not possess; Lizzy for Kate’s restless experimentalism, and Kate for Lizzy’s dependable evenhandedness. They rarely quarrelled openly, at least in public, and their disagreement on any topic in our presence was signalled only by Lizzy studiously ignoring Kate, who for her part would give a wordless snort, roll her eyes, or dismissively shrug to signal her disagreement.

Lizzy regularly dropped in on Dad and me, often as a willing go-between for her mother. Kate, always less compliant with parental requests, we saw far less often at the cottage. She could be disarmingly friendly and open when she chose, but was equally capable of being abrupt or openly provocative with anyone she took against, a regular cause of friction with her parents and teachers. She often escaped the worst consequences of this however because, even as a young girl, she had a sensuous vitality that many people (particularlymen), found hard to resist. In her early teens this quality was enhanced by her developing what her mother called ‘a full figure’. She had fabulous, slighty wavy, ginger hair and a mobile face, dominated by blue-green eyes and a generous mouth, that could shift from a wicked grin, through good humoured but detached amusement, to a look of complete and somewhat unnerving attention, and back again, all in seconds. Dad had a soft spot for her, he once refered to her admiringly as ‘our buxom Kate’, perhaps because she tended to flirt with him. (She genuinely liked him, but she also did it to wind me up.) It was true that as a teenager her bust was everything mine was not and I remember his phrase precisely because, at the time, it cut me to the quick. I had a crush on Kate right from the start, and Dad’s observation pricked my somewhat shameful sense that maybe I loved her as I did because she was everthing I wanted to be and was not.

From the start Kate teased me, mostly in a friendly way, which I uncertainly took as a sign of affection. Then, when I was about ten, she started to take me into her confidence about personal things that I’m fairly sure she never shared with Lizzy. Perhaps that’s why she put up with the various irritations that flowed from my crush, at least for the most part, only occasionally getting sufficiently irritated to threaten me with ‘a right good slap’. (She never carried out her threat, but I absolutely believed she might). She also started sharing the ‘mucky’ jokes she loved and told me about her exploits with boys, which I only half believed. She gave me my first taste of alchohol, encouraged me to go skinny-dipping with the boys when, like Cat, I was too bashful to join in, and even allowed me to visit her sanctum in the old hayloft behind the house, where she’d hide whatever she didn’t want Lizzy or her parents to find.

My crush on Kate finally petered out in the summer of my fifteenth birthday. It had been waning anyway because of Hamish and when, out of the blue, she told me not to visit the hayloft, I flaired up at her peremptoriness. We had an angry exchange that ended with her telling me: ‘to just piss off and grow up’. The resulting coolness between us further fuelled my preoccupation with Hamish. My crush on Kate occasionally led me into various kinds of trouble, none of them particularly serious. I’m grateful to Lizzy for a lifelong friendship in much the way that a truculent younger sister might be. That is, somewhat coloured by the residue of childhood resentments, quarrels, and sulks. But I still feel deeply for Kate, despite her long absence from my life. It was she who recognised and encouraged my desire to draw and make things, urged me to do more and better. I relished and learned from her sensuous enjoyment of the world and I admired her ambivalence about our place in the world. She often said openly what I felt but would not allow myself to say.

Of us all it was Kate, followed at some distance by James, who was most openly critical of the narrow parocialism that coloured (and still colours) so much local life; who looked about her for what the wider world might offer. I remember a particular example of this from just before she moved to Newcastle. She came to collect some money Dad owed her for a set of photographs for the practice. She had wait and we got into a conversation about ‘Martinmas Time’, which I’d left playing while I made her a coffee. It stays with me because Kate asked me about the song and, when I told her I admired its heroine, she asked in a genuinely puzzled voice: ‘So what does she do next, this girl? She’s tricked them all and taken their money, so what? So she can marry some local farmer’s son, have six kids and die of the seventh at forty-five? What’s the use of her canniness if that’s all that happens in her life?’

As so often with Kate, her questions felt like a personal challenge.

Mr. and Mrs. Oliver were as different as their daughters. Mrs Oliver was kindness personified. She invited me to dinner and tea each weekend almost as soon as we arrived. In part simply because I was distantly related and so ‘family’ in the broad Borders sense, and in part to take me off Dad’s hands while he was busy establishing his new practice. Mrs. Oliver never said much particularly memorable to me, other than to encourage me to eat. If I occasionally protested out of politeness, she would exclaim about my being ‘all skin and bones’ and insisted I eat more of everything. (Despite this I remained thin as a rake.)

If the solid and welcoming Mrs. Oliver seemed the most straightforward of souls, her husband, tall and thin with longish chestnut brown hair brushed straight back, seemed rather the opposite. At first I thought I simply didn’t register with him, just another of his daughters’ coterie of friends. But later I realised that everyone registered with Mr. Oliver, the personification of a quiet watchfulness that then made me nervous. I rarely saw him except during mealtimes at Homehaugh but sometimes I heard his voice, urgent and firm, late in the evening at home, back from the pub with Dad for a final drink. I always liked that voice.

Early on Lizzy explained her father to me by paraphrasing something her mother must have said when the sisters were little. When her father was at home he took sanctuary in his study like a bear in his den, leaving it only to feed or sleep. The family didn’t disturb him there, because ‘with bears you don’t’. I assumed Lizzy was paraphrasing her mother when she said her father only came alive when he was at work.

I remember feeling patronised by what seemed to me Lizzy’s childish characterisation of her father, so I didn’t tell her she’d got quite the wrong animal. Mr. Oliver was not a bear, but a big, rangy, sly wolf. He sat quiet and attentive at the head of the table, a glint in his eye and the shadow of a grin lurking in the corners of his mouth. I would have sworn he took in everything, although he rarely joined any conversation for very long. I knew he heard every word because, when he said anything, it was always very much to the point. He would drop slyly into a converstaion to follow up some half-hidden thought or attitude. He was never sharp, although I’m sure he found James’s tendency to pontificate irritating. Occasionally he asked probing questions, usually addressed to the twins or his daughters, that made us all stop and think. When I once asked Dad what he talked about with Mr. Oliver late at night he gave me a dark smile. ‘Politics, pet, and history, and the ways of this strange old world. Oh, and about his charity work with his war-time Polish friends, people who can’t go home’.

It took me many years to realize that Homehaugh being so special had just as much to do with Mr. Oliver’s unjudgemental attitude as it did with his wife’s hospitality. He silently gave us permission to be more ourselves, more open, in a world where almost everyone else tended to focus on our need to conform. What really puzzles me to this day is how this apparently calm and reflective man could come so completely off the rails later.

The watershed

I’ve thought a lot about my late childhood and early teens, far too much perhaps. That started in ernest when Lizzy got so ill, after Peter died and Sarah was born, during one of the most difficult periods of my life. I spent long, desparate days helping Mrs Oliver with Sarah and trying to help Lizzy keep herself together, to keep us all sane.

Lizzy became ill just weeks after Sarah was born. She had a difficult delivery, was in deep shock over Peter’s death, and desperately worried about how she was going to keep the farm going. I now think she stayed ill for so long because she couldn’t get to grips either with all that led up to his death or her own misplaced guilt over what she saw as her failure to be honest with him about aspects of her own life. When she was ill Lizzy became seriously depressed and made matters worse for herself by insisting on reading all the old Reed estate records that she and Peter had unearthed when they cleared out the old farm office.

It began as a way of distracting herself but it had the opposite effect. She was shocked to the core by the deep-dyed stain of calousness and exploitation, the hidden face of our local lowland clearances referred to as ‘improvements’  that, as a trained historian, she read between the lines of those documents. That came to seem the inheritance the old Reeds and Peter’s father had bequeathed Peter and herself. Her sense of upset at what had been done in the name of ‘progress’ was fully justified. Ironically, however, it came at just the moment when her neighbours, the present representatives of the class responsible for that history, were rallying round. They did what they could to help Arthur Graham, her mother, and myself to keep Lizzy and Sarah’s livelihood from falling apart. Her newfound grasp of the traditional realpolitikof regional land management, which she’d ducked before, now gnawed at her until she couldn’t bare it. For releif shelost herself in listlessly rummaging through old course books or holding long, meandering telephone conversations with historians she knew through the genealogical research she’d taken on when Peter was alive, a hobby that kept her old academic interests alive and earned her some pin money.

To escape the weight of the Reed estate’s predatory dispossession of local cottars, she developed a string of strange and unconnected obsessions. These would usually flare up, last a few weeks, and then disappear without trace. But while she was in their grip she could think about nothing else. The only one I remember wasthe longest-lasting and most disturbing.  It had to do with the perceived immorality of her mother’s generation during the war. She would get sudden bursts of energy when she would read, make phone calls, then endlessly quote statistics at us. Eight point threemillion British infants delivered between 1939 and 1945, of which over a third were illegitimate. As many as one in five of all pregnancies during the period ended in abortion, and so on. She assumed all this to be proof absolute that her mother’s generation had treated the war as one long opportunity for illicit sex. This obsession also signalled a real and abiding change in Lizzy’s character. She lost her old liberalism and became increasingly reactionary. Suddenly all the immorality was the fault of the Americans, a claim she justified by quoting a 1943 Home Office study that showed ‘absolutely beyond doubt’ that American GIs were a major stimulus for the rising wave of wartime ‘sexual delinquency’. And so it went on, one quote or statistic piled upon another.

Only when I learned about Lizzy’s crisis when she was a student at Durham did I guess that the cause of that particular obsession was ‘reaction formation’, the obsessive reaction that allows someone to repress an earlier, now unbareable, preoccupation. I think Lizzy was masking the acting out of her student preoccupation with Kate and James. Whatever the case, her mental state after Peter’s death slowly deteriorated to the point where the doctor warned Mrs Oliver that, if it continued, Lizzy might have to be sectioned. We made renewed efforts to rally her through the spring of that year but without any very visible effect. Then overnight her mental state changed drastically for the better.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 29, 30 & 31.

Mike and Patsy Scott

 Mike was the first boy who spoke to me when I arrived in the valley. I’d been nervously chatting to his sister Patsy while I waited for Dad outside the Post Office. Mike had joined us, a tall, handsome, thickset lad with pale skin and ginger hair who asked simple, direct questions. After that I’d often speak to him briefly, at school or when he was in the village running errands for their aunt. Initially Mike disconcerted me simply because I was thrown by being asked a direct question by a boy. This never bothered him. Perhaps the third or fourth time we spoke, the issue of freckles came up for some reason. He proceeded to tell me proudly he had far fewer than Patsy and that his didn’t cover him ‘absolutely everywhere’ like hers did. ‘Just like spots on a leopard’. As an only and rather sheltered child, I was shocked and fascinated by the fact that he knew his sister had freckles ‘absolutely everywhere’. This added to my being disconcerted around Mike but, like everyone else, I was impressed by him, something he simply took as his due.

Later I discovered from Patsy that he was notorious among the boys for stuff we girls weren’t supposed to know about. Like having the biggest ‘thing’ and being able to pee highest up the wall in the boys’ toilet. (The first I confirmed for myself when, much later, we all went skinny-dipping, along with the accuracy of Mike’s claim about the extent of Patsy’s freckles). Later Cat and I would try hard to pretend we despised boys like Mike because they intimidated us. But we liked Patsy and so, by default, rather admired Mike because he looked after her at school in a way other brothers simply didn’t bother to do.

Apart perhaps for the leopard freckles, there was nothing remotely feline about Patsy. Small, plump, and blond, with a pretty, almond-shaped face, she had a slightly impish air that sometimes got her into trouble for things she hadn’t actually done. When that happened she would blush furiously and start to stutter slightly, which she never normally did. As Mike’s little sister she escaped most of the teasing and horseplay inflicted on younger girls by the older primary boys. Nobody in their right mind would risk antagonising Patsy’s big brother. (Mike was in fact slow to anger but terrifying when roused.) Patsy’s immunity from these daily irritations could be irritating to those of us less fortunately connected, but we overlooked that because of Mike’s genial attitude to Patsy’s female friends. But looking back now, it’s perhaps little wonder Patsy’s emotional life turned out to be complicated, given that for years her identity was inseparable from her brother’s status as ‘dominant male’.

Mike and Patsy stayed on the edge of the group, partly because as orphans they were very close, partly because they lived with an aunt who ran stables and so got more chores to do than Cat, Hamish, or me. But they were still our good friends. Mike was essentially a gentle soul but, because he was never entirely comfortable indoors, seemed rougher than he was. He’d been taught early on how to handle a shotgun by a retired keeper and was a better shot than either Peter or James. Sir William had never bothered to teach the twins to shoot, offhandedly telling the keepers to give them lessons when they could. Inevitably these, when they happened, were

By the road to Langleeford.

somewhat perfunctory. When their father suddenly announced that the twins must now keep the pigeons and rabbits down in the fields near the Big House, it was Mike who helped them master the necessary skills. He encouraged them to borrow the clay pigeon trap and directing their practice. At one point, he even tried to teach us girls to shoot too. Lizzy hated guns, but he started the rest of us off trying to shoot cans off a wall with an air rifle. We were supposed to progress to spuggies but only Kate ever got the hang of the rifle and even she never hit a spuggy.

Initially, although I liked Patsy, I somehow assumed she was included in the group just because she tagged along with Mike. I was quite wrong. The older ones genuinely liked her, not because she was Mike’s sister, but because she was generous with her time and affection. Later she would patiently negotiate with her aunt so that Cat, Hamish, and I could sometimes borrow ponies to ride with the others in return for helping with stable chores.

Patsy and Mike had lost their parents when they were very young and were adopted by a somewhat eccentric aunt. She ensured they were clean and fed, but when Patsy was old enough expected her to take on much of the housekeeping. The aunt’s great passions in life were ponies and the beautiful brindled whippets she bred to show standards. Patsy took it upon herself to provide her older brother with something like maternal support. She was always genuinely concerned for his welfare and clearly took great pride in his various achievements. I came to see her as more grown-up than me in many ways and sometimes to wish I too had a brother to care for.

First car

 The other boys (Peter, James, and Hamish)

Oddly, and almost from the start, I felt I knew just where I was with Mike; but it took me a long time to feel I knew where I was with the other three boys, particularly James.

Only a boy, and probably only James, could have used the phrase: ‘hell is other peoples’ families’ (to response to something Hamish’s father had said or done). James smoked French cigarettes when he could and had obviously dipped into Sartre at some point. A good deal more extrovert than his twin, he set the benchmark for our musical tastes and could be relied on to pronounce on anything else cultural that appeared on our radar. He was younger than Peter by a bare five minutes and, perhaps because of this, was always anxious to demonstrate his superior knowledge of the wider world. He could be rather dogmatic and dismissive, particularly with us younger girls, but he was also strikingly good-looking and could be very charming when he chose to be. In all this he rather took after his father. But he also had an unexpectedly thoughtful, even sensitive, side that kept him from developing the untouchable self-confidence and sense of entitlement so obnoxiousin Sir William. Peter was physically and temperamentally more solid, quieter and plainer-mannered than his twin, less strikingly handsome, and with his mother’s darker complexion, high cheekbones, and rather disconcerting sense of humour. Normally serious, he would sometimes make deadpan but very funny observations when you least expected them. To begin with I had trouble telling whether he meant to be funny or not, since he always kept an absolutely straight face when he did this.

Apart from Kate, who once or twice quoted it sarcastically against him, we girls didn’t use James’s phrase. Personally, I felt that whatever hell was probably had more to do with the absence of families than their presence, and I knew Patsy would feel the same. But I wasn’t really sure what James intended by the phrase and I certainly wasn’t going to ask. Why risk feeling more stupid around him than I often did. I think it unsettled me because it appeared about the time the question of boysas boysreally came up for me, prompted in no small part by Cat’s kissing Mike. I felt I didn’t really know what proper families, made up of people like Hamish with a mother and father, were like. But I was starting to like Hamish, so I wondered about it. We’d always got on well enough, but now we started going in for affectionate pushing and shoving like the boys at school. I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that with any of the others and, while I was wondering why, I found myself talking with Hamish on a regular basis.

Hamish was a little taller than me, thin (like me), usually quiet (unlike me), had blue-green eyes, and lots of lovely, fine black hair that flopped down over his narrow face. Because he’d been seriously ill when he was little he had to take pills regularly and was sometimes unwell for up to a week at a time. As a result he tended to be a bit on the edge of things. In the last year at primary I used to talk to him during break, about books we were reading or how things were at home. Although his mum was nice, we all disliked his father because of his sermons. Hamish told me one day that his father wasn’t kind to his mother. He looked at his shoes when he said it and I thought from his voice that maybe he was going to cry. Instead he swallowed and said he felt that he didn’t have a proper father. I said I didn’t have a mum, so maybe that made us similar. He seemed to agree and, despite our later going to separate schools, we kept talking. Hamish fascinated me because he loved reading and writing and spent hours with books his parents had inherited but has father had no time for. Peter, Lizzy and James were, in their different but conventional ways, quite ‘bookish’. Peter and Lizzy because they were interested in natural and human history, particularly in relation to our region, and James because he liked playing with ideas, which he treated like fireworks to entertain and dazzle. But Hamish’s bookishness was different.

I sensed he loved the sound of words and, while he admitted to me that he wrote stories and poems, he made me promise not to tell the others and would never let me read any of them. His fatherwas dismissive of ‘intellectuals’ and ‘arty’ people, but had inherited a considerable family library, later augmented by the more valueable first edition books in his father-in-law’s collection. I sense that he saw this library as both a tangable sign of his own authority and a vague threat to a properly Christian life. Hamish, hoever, secretly plundered this library and got drunk on its contents. When he talked about his secret raids to obtain reading matter, I felt I was listening to some brave and intreped explorer. I became intoxicated by proxy. Hamish dipped into everything from early Ninteenth Century theological tracts and the works of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, to Dickens andthe plays of George Bernard Shaw. His most treasured discovery, however, was: ‘Des Imagistes: An Anthology’, edited by Ezra Pound. There he had found poems by, if I remember right, people like Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence and H. D.

I became caught up in Hamish’s intoxication by accident. He had found me in tears on the stairs at Homehaugh and asked if I was alright. Ashamed, I explain I’d just read Charles Hamilton Sorley’s ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’ for a school project. My tears over a poem led to his confiding in me. It was the first time I’d seen Hamish really animated about anything and had a powerful effect on me. Later, after he’d admitted that he wrote poems, he told me shyly that I was his muse. As often happened in conversations with Hamish, I wasn’t sure what the word meant and had to look it up later in the old encyclopedia at home. Along with the dry-as-dust definition there was a little faded picture of nine women, some with their breasts showing. I was puzzled, having no breasts to speak of at that point, but also obscurely flattered.

Hamish’s passion changed our friendship by initiating a tentative connection between a shared life of the mind and a desire for creative work. His passion gradually fire up my own creative interests. The contents of his enthusiasms, which often left me secretly struggling, mattered far less than the intensity with which this normally near-silent boy pursued them. Initially I found this disconcerting, but slowly I found my way to safer ground. I realized that there were other things about Hamish, his way of holding his head, his quiet determination, and his lovely black hair, that were hppily familiar. He reminded me of one of my beloved rooks. I increasingly found myself always on the lookout for him and, when he was there, wanting him to notice me too. Having listened to Kate and older girls at school, I adopted a word they used to name my own uncertain feelings. I decided that I ‘fancied’ Hamish. I then set about trying to ensure that, muse or not, he would fancy me. In short I was out of my depth and, understandably enough, traded the disturbing mystery of a shared interest in the informed creative life for the safer ground of a schoolgirl crush.

‘The tower struck by lightening’.

I became increasingly fascinated by Hamish. For example, although he and Mike were in many ways opposites, they got on really well. He was also disconcertingly perceptive. For example he noticed that, while Peter always acted older than he was and so appeared our natural if unofficial, leader, it was actually Lizzy who did most of the leading. Hamish said it was almost as if they had some kind of pact about it. When he’d pointed this out it seemed so obvious, but had never occurred to me before.

 

Locally everyone knew that Peter was ‘a steady lad’, and James wasn’t, having inherited his father’s temper along with his charm. Hamish and I agreed that people usually noticed James first and agreed that, although we admired him, we felt he was unpredictable and so a bit scary. We also noticed the way he would play up to Lizzy, deliberately siding with her in any small disagreement between her and Peter, who sometimes assumed too much just because he was older. But, as Cat and I soon discovered, while Peter might be predictable and we were never sure what James was thinking, that didn’t stop james from being unexpectedly thoughtful. One day he casually said that he’d heard from his mother that we liked folk music and he’d borrowed a half dozen LPs from a friend for us to listen to.

‘Singing.’

Learning the ballads

Cat and my learning the ballads had started earlier, when by chance we found a discarded box of records, ‘Border and other old Ballads’, with the lyrics printed in a scholarly grey booklet. It had been an unwanted Christmas gift from a business contact to Mr. Oliver. Cat, who loved singing, asked if we could play it. We were both puzzled and fascinated by the songs, and started to read the lyrics in the sober booklet. We got hooked and were granted use of Mr. Oliver’s record player in the sitting room, on the strict condition we were careful and kept the volume down. We then spent hours listening to, and then learning, ballads. After a few weeks, and whenever we could, we’d sing what we’d learned. Over time we learned ‘Martinmass Time’,‘The Elf Knight’, ‘WillieO’Winsbury’,‘Lucy Wan’, ‘The Broomfield Wager’, ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’, ‘(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen’, ‘Long Lankin’, ‘The Duke of Athole’s Nurse’, ‘Tam Lin’, ‘Clerk Saunders’, ‘The Cruel Mother’, ‘Eppie Moray’and more. We sang them together quietly in the livingroom at Homehaugh and then, out and about, as we walked.[1]

However, we soon heard from Patsy there’d been comments in the Co-op to the effect that the songs we were singing might be traditional, but they weren’t proper in the mouths of young girls. Mrs. Oliver had tried, half-heartedly, to defend us by saying there was little harm since we wouldn’t understand half of what we were singing. Lizzy knew better. She suggested we should be more circumspect in future, adding that if word got back to Mrs. Douglasthere’d be no more ballad singing. Because we knew exactly what we were singing about, we did as she suggested. While we relished the fact that tradition licenced us to sing about illicit sex with plow boys, unprovoked violence, incest, sibling murder, pregancy, and attempted or actual rape, but we also knew that there were limits to local tolerance. The ballad tradition, something of which we’d been entirely ignorant, might inadvertantly have providing us with the means to express our own particular form of teenage revolt, but our rebellion would have to remain with strictly circumscribed limits.

At some point I think Mrs. Oliver must have said something to Lady Aitcheson. She certainly mentioned our singing in a letter to the twins. So, unbeknown to us but very much on our behalf, James borrowed a whole clutch of LPs from schoolfriends over a couple of holidays. As I remember (and I may well have this wrong), these included Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s ‘Traditional Songs and Ballads’,MacColl’s ‘Ballads: Murder, Intrigue, Love, Murder’, Joan Baez’s ‘Farewell, Angelina’,Fairport Convention’s ‘Liege & Lief’, Pentangle’s ‘Sweet Child’ and ‘Basket of Light’, Trees’ ‘On the Shore’, June Tabor’s ‘Ashes and Diamonds’, the Mr. Fox LP and Steeleye Span’s ‘Please To See The King’. We were stunned and then electrified by these records, June Tabor’s ‘Clerk Saunders’ still makes the roots of my hair prickle, as we were astonished by James’ going to so much trouble on our behalf. These records not only cemented our interest in the ballads, but also opened up a whole new world of folk music.

[1]Readers unfamiliar with the balladsFlora refers to may be interested in listening to the following, (not all of which are versions she would have heard). Anne Briggs: ‘The Bird in the Bush: Traditional Erotic Songs’: ‘Martinmas Time’; Phil Cooper, Margaret Nelson & Kate Early: ‘Hearts Return’: ‘Lucy Wan’; Shelagh Mcdonald: ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’: ‘Dowie Dens of Yarrow’; Karine Polwart: ‘Fairest Floo’er’: ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’; Fairport Convention: ‘Liege & Lief’: ‘Tam Lin’ & ‘Matty Groves’; Emily Portman: ‘The Glamoury’: ‘Long Lankin’;June Tabor: from ‘Ashes and Diamonds’: ‘Clerk Saunders’;from ‘An Echo of Hooves’: ‘Fair Margaret and Sweet William’, ‘Bonnie James Campbell and The Duke of Athol’s Nurse’;from ‘At the Wood’s Heart’: ‘The Broomfield Wager’;Ewan MacColl ‘Ballads: Murder, Intrigue, Love, Discord’: ‘Clyde’s Water’;Fotheringay: ‘Fotheringay 2’: ‘Eppie Morrie’; andfrom Alasdair Roberts ‘No earthly Man’: ‘The Cruel Mother’.

 

 

 

 

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 26, 27 & 28.

Sharing with Cat

It was difficult in those days for me to know where ‘we’, both human and non-human beings, each stopped and started, and to a degree that remains the case even now. Sometimes I seemed to overflow into other people or animals, and them into me. With Kate, Cat and, in a different way Hamish, in particular.

It is still hard to write about Cat, even now. It’s as if she crawled inside my skin when she died and, as a result, became so close as to be invisible. As girls we would tell each other everything: share gossip, dissect the grown-ups stupidity, discuss clothes we liked, food we didn’t, people in the village, the weather, songs we’d heard, everything that made up our world. We also fretted endlessly together about ‘what to do next’: about my skinniness and hair, about how I might deal with Mrs. Purvis,about our spots, Cat’s sweet tooth, and her Mama’s controlling strictness. All exhaustively andwithout restraint. Cat was less than three months older than me but started puberty well before me and, enjoying her advantage, kept me up to date with every detail. We had become friends soon after I arrived, then best friends, so I believed we had no secrets from each other.

Sometimes when we had a homework project to work on together, Cat’s papa – who had a trim black beard and was, so I firmly believed at twelve, the most handsome man in the world, would bring her over to stay on Friday night. After we’d been sent to bed and, having tried unsucessfully to gentle us into settling, dad would eventually put on his stern voice and call up:

‘Enough talking, put that light out now, please’.

Cat would slip quickly out of the the little truckle bed always Dad pulled out for her and turn out the light. Then she’d turn, pause, and whisper:

‘Faun, can I come in with you, please’?

And, happy at the trace of pleading in her voice, I always said:

‘Yes, of course’.

There was hardly room for the two of us in my little bed but somehow we fitted ourselves together like two spoons, usually with her hand over my heart. Once or twice this arrangement led to kissing and some chaste mutual touching, but it was nothing more than curiousity, not as I remember. Mostly I recall falling asleep to the slow rhythm of her breathing against my neck.

Later, whether through choice or carelessness, I forgot those nights close to Cat, something which seems inconceivable now. Then one evening staying with friends in London we had to lift little Freddy out of his bed and back into his old cot so I could userp his place. In the early hours I woke, balanced precariously on the edge of the bed, to find Freddy positioned like a car jack between me and the wall. After some gentle pulling and pushing we compromised and shared his bed fifty-fifty. His fat little stomach, impossibly hot against my back, must have triggered old memories and, a few days later, my nights shared with Cat rose back into consciousness.

When she was staying over and our school work was done, we’d spent hours in complicated worlds that spilled out of my room, across the landing, and either slipped sideways into the bathroom or else cascaded down the stairs. They grew from whatever was to hand. Chairs, a wooden dryer and blankets became a castle. A cardboard box, washing basket, and mop, a ship. A stool, pillows and old skipping-rope, a great white horse.

‘Faun, you be the great soldier who defends the castle and keeps all the women and children safe from the enemy.’ ‘Faun, you be the captain and guide us through the storm.’ ‘Faun, you be the prince and rescue me’. Somehow she always had me take on the traditionally male roles, although this never stopped her being in control or from coming up with the most violent interventions into whatever I was having us do. Maybe she just liked to maintain her new-found woman’s status.

As we started to get bored with such adventures, we spent more time locked in the bathroom while we strained to catch the wobbly music on my tiny transistor. We washed, dried, and combed out each other’s hair, swapped cloths and studied our changes, trying to make sense of their mysteries while speculating about becoming the kind of sexual beings we glimpsed elsewhere, mostly via magazines and Kate’s stories. All this in entirely unnecessary whispers. We acted as mirror images of each other, were inseparable until a month or so after Cat’s fourteenth birthday. Then, within the space of a few weeks, that entire world started to evaporate and our adolescence began in earnest.

The trigger was two quite different events. One was discovering the Borders ballads. We were mesmerised by their account of a great, raw, tragic, yet uncannily familiar world in which a lord’s wife picks up a beautiful boy outside the church and takes him home to bed. (So then they both get killed, but at least she tells her husband what she thinks of him first and, we told ourelves, had no regrets). Where the husband insists the murdered lovers are buried together, but with her on top because she was posh. Where a girl meets her dead boyfriend as a revenant, then follows and frees him so he can die properly. Where a young woman disobeys the people who tell her what she can and can’t do, runs across country to argue her property rights and gets a lover. A young woman who argues back, takes responsibility for her own fate, acts on her own choices. Who was just like we were going to be, except that maybe she turns out to be The Dame of the Fine Green Kirtle in the end, and not an ordinary girl at all.

‘Gordon Moss’.

A dangerous, very real if semi-magic world of wild rivers, vivid prophetic dreams, incest, bloody fights and murder; of canny girls who outsmart and outride soldiers, or win back their child’s father from the Elphen Queen. What, as an American said to me recently: ‘isn’t to like’ about such songs, particularly if you’re two teenage girls who need to rebel but don’t know how or against what.

Before we found the ballads we had had very little to help us imagine our way into the world where our bodies meet our particular places; no ‘young adult’ books, as Sarah had Janni Howker’s much loved Martin Farrell, a tale of the Reivers. We had no Anne Eliot, no ill-fated Bess Graham, to give us imaginative keys to the hardness and bodily hurt, the hills and black moss, the bloody world of (usually) men’s violence, the meeting of the natural and supernatural worlds in a pig’s heads or a swarm of flies. Beyond Kate’s stories (which Cat always wanted to discount), we had no way to intuit the fate of women, the particular gendered nuancing of sex, suffering, death and haunting that is the invisible marrow in the cold bone of our Borders. The ballads were our Songs of Experience by proxy.

Later we came to believe that Annie Briggs, Jacqui McShee, Maddy Prior, and Sandy Denny had bequeathed these songs specifically to us, not to boys caught up in the noisy posturings of rock music. Finding the ballads freed us from the uneasy hold of the fund of generic tales that all seemed to have been written for boys, or in which the girls’ job was to be a suffering sister or daughter. What we craved, and found in the old ballads, were stories which firmly put girls like us, brave and canny, at the heart of the story, and did so in our own familiar landscape.

The second, and initially far more unsettling, trigger was that Cat kissed Mike, shifting the whole shadowy issue of sex from theory to practice. There had previously been intense discussions after games of Doctor and Patient and, later, after we’d gone skinny-dipping with the boys. And there had always been Kate’s stories of her adventures. But this was different because it was Cat, not Kate, doing the kissing. What she told me was that she and Michael had found themselves hiding together in the big upstairs walk-in cupboard during Sunday’s game of sardines at Homehaugh. She’d whispered: ‘shove up, you’re squashing me,’ but he’d just shushed her. So she kissed him. She added, in an indigent voice: ‘to stop him shushing like that.’

When I questioned her she wouldn’t say if anything else had happened but, because she blushed furiously, I knew it had and pressed her to tell. Eventually she admitted there’d been some ‘touching’ but absolutely refused to go into detail. A refusal that, by excluding me from her experience, cut me to the quick. Our friendship never really recovered its former intensity after that. In a deliberate act of revenge I broke my promise to Cat and told Patsy everything. A couple of days later she reported that she’d asked Michael if what she had heard was true; that he’d touched Cat’s titties and she’d touched his thing. He’d stomped out of the room without answering.

Everything began to change. Cat and Michael had secret knowing that Patsy and I didn’t, bodily secrets that both fascinated and hurt us. The privilaged world Cat and I had built around ourselves began to fade. We remained good friends, but I knew we no longer mirrored each other. To make things more complicated, Patsy initially bombarded me with questions I couldn’t answer. Secrets between Michael and Cat made her quite uncharacteristically cross. That unsettled things further because for a while she obviously thought I was keeping secrets from her too. (It only came to me much later, when Michael was dead, that maybe she was jealous.) Although Cat and I remained close, our attention started running out in parallel towards our other friends, the world of the ballads, and the actualities of village life.

The day world

I think I always slightly resented that the twins’ parentsowned everything around us, with the result that they really belonged to quite another world to my own. Another world that, through Mrs. Oliver’s friendship with their mother, had always pretty much included Lizzy and Kate. As little children they’d all four gone to the same parties, played the same games long before I’d come to the village. I knew I should be grateful that I was now part of: ‘the Oliver girls’ menagerie’, as the vicar called us. (He had also been overheard to say that we: ‘let the side down’, although it was never clear to us what he meant). But sometimes my anxiety made any such graditude difficult. I also knew from Mrs. Purvis that Sir William didn’t like the Olivers, which suggested to me that ‘the menagerie’ was always somehow under threat.

I was also worried about my own status. I felt myself to be an outsider, a late-comer. As the last addition to the menagerie, I naturally became its most ardent devotee. That led me to ‘not seeing’ all manner of tensions, not least between Kate and Lizzy and between the twins. Only with The Judgement did I really begin to notice how much those tensions, many of them handed down from the adult world, simmered just beneath the surface of our childhood.

Dad and I weren’t ‘locals’ like Lizzy, Kate, Hamish, Mike and Patsy but nor, in my view at least, were we just ‘incomers’ like Cat’s parents and, in Mr. Oliver’s view, Sir William. We were, after all, distantly related to Mrs. Oliver. In my private but passionate view Peter and James were ‘inbetweens’ just like me. But then the Aitchesons were a Name, a sept of Clan Gordon, and Lady Aitcheson(née Reed) had been born here and, more importantly, was what Dad called ‘County’. At eight I simply didn’t understand these adult distinctions but, while the others, even Cat, seemed to accept them as given, I struggled to make sense of what I resented. All this was further complicated by school.

There were about thirty children in our little Victorian primary school and we did a great deal together, without any very obvious social distinction. Either as ‘the primary’ or, when necessary, as ‘the little ones’ or ‘the big ones’. Nature walks, day trips out together in the old bus, and school plays where almost everyone got to do something. All of this initiated by Miss Richardson and Mrs. Roberts but, I am certain, discretly supported by Lady Aitcheson. Not, I think, out of any desire whatsoever to promote social equality but paternalistically, because she saw all local children collectively as ‘Reeds estate children’. So I did not have to confront the mysteries of class head on until Lizzy approached eleven.

That year Lizzy went to a local private school as a weekly border where, in due course, Kate and later Cat and I, would join her. First, however, Cat and I had to sit scholarship exams. These were the final act in a mysterious process, initiated by LadyAitcheson,that involved letters to an educational charity and our having gone to church each Sunday. Nobody bothered explained the details to us, and we did not ask, but we knew our parents could never have afforded the fees and, once again, understood that we had acquired an unspoken debt of gratitude. At eleven Peter and James went away to their father’s old boarding school in Yorkshire, while Hamish, Mike and Patsy did the 18-mile round trip to the big comprehensive school, with Mary, Barbara, the two Maggies, Charlie, Eric andthe rest of our former classmates. Hamish, quick to learn if slow to speak, was happy enough. Michael, only truly at home with what he could do with his hands, was never much interested in school and indifferent to the new situation. Only Patsy really suffered. Diminished when transplanted into a bigger, less initate world, she became quieter, less assured. Once among the livliest at primary, she gradually came to dislike everything associated with school, leaving as soon as she could to help her aunt and, building on her Saturday work at the Co-op, to establsh herself in a proper part-time job.

During the holidays we initially simply reformed in our old group, walking, and occasionally riding, the woods and moorland together. We talked in an animated huddle well away from our elders and met for approved and illicit activities as before. But although there was never a clear-cut division, after a while Lizzy and Kate, the twins, Cat and I grew a little apart from Mike, Hamish and Patsy and, more radically, from our other former classmates. The sisters and twins remained the nucleus around which we all gravitated but, by the time I turned twelve, we were only occasionally nine. More often there were just the six of us.

We still met regularly in the shabby former playroom next to the kitchen at Homehaugh. That big greystone house – two spacious main floors, a small stone cellar, and three little attic rooms – stands back from the top of the village street behind a mossy lawn and neglected flowerbeds. The old, southfacing, walled vegetible garden running down the right side as you face it has, however, been renovated and a little home garth on the left is now grazed by a resident pony. The walled yard, stable block and hayloft that run along the lane at the back of the house remain unchanged to this day, as does the small home field beyond that. Built in the eighteenth century, it’s all of a piece with the church and the Big House, where Peter and James lived (located at the end of a long drive in a private domain of its own that I rarely visited).

Homehaugh was the center of our late childhood and early adolecence and the locus of the bleak, if sometimes beautiful, world into which we grew. A world of great whale-backed and seemingly bare hills; deep, twisting, hidden cleughs full of steep fast-flowing burns; rivers that carried a restless cargo of gravel and stone torn from their own banks and are bordered by green haughs. Running up from these were clusters of fields, which I later learned only appeared around eighteen hundred. Each field is defined within an irregular grid of lichen-covered dry stone dykesleading up towards the White Lands above. All this part of a larger lacework that includes the tracks, farms and other buildings, along with irregular patches of natural woodland ofoak, birch, alder and hazel, and the great dark, roughly rectangular plantations of managed forestry that, close to, remind me of the scary illustrations in a old and treasured book of folk tales in Russian belonging to my mother.

Abandoned forestry hide.

Dad passed it on to me at Christmas the year she died. (Although she never knew own her parents, my mother ‘Anna’ had actually been christened Anastasiya). The book, with a text neither she nor I could read, had beautiful, vividly coloured pictures of wolves, bears and strange beings like Baba Yaga, with her cabin on chicken legs but no windows or doors. A perfect match, somehow, for the hides to be found at the edge of any young Sitka spruce plantation.

At first this larger world seemed inpenetrable. I only began to feel differently when we walked or rode the ancient tracks and drove roads that cross the Cheviots. I learned that for centuries these had been busy routes, with drovers taking herds of cattle from the western Isles to southern markets, peddlers bringing goods and gossip, or beasts being hurried away after some raid. As I developed a sense of the histories that still haunt the region, as dense as they are invisible, I began to feel less displaced. But I remained divided between my love of the natural world that presented itself to me and the hidden world of adult power that seemed inseparable from it.

 Off the coast

 We rarely went to the sea when I was young and, perhaps for that reason, it always fascinated me. The second summer after I left London I badly needed both money and a change, so I got a summer job working in Oban. For three months, I cleaned and helped re-stock a variety of sailing boats hired out by the week. Towards the end of the season things went quiet and, when there was a sudden last-minute cancelation, my boss Ted decided to take a trip around Skye and Lewis with his wife, a young couple they’d befriended, and their two sons. He offered to take me with them as a galley hand and general crew. It was quite an adventure and, at one point on our return journey, we stopped in the mouth of a secluded sea loch so that Ted could gather scallops.

It took a while for me and one of the sons to row out from the boat, while Ted guided us to the scallop bed. Even when he’d found it we had trouble keeping the little dingy steady and in the right spot, given the constant tug of wind and swell.Ted, masked and wet-suited, then took his knife and basket and disappeared down into the weedy darkness.

Within moments they arrived, bobbing up to watch us with big, liquid eyes. The light was already starting to fade and, at intervals, a big black muscled head and shoulders would rise ghostly quiet out of the inky water, always disconcerting me because a seal would never appear in the same spot twice. To cut resistance to the wind we kept our bodies low and our heads down, listening to the slap of water on the side of the dingy and the dull swish of the kelp moving in the swell. The seals were so close and so curious that it was impossible to ignore them and, with the dingy sliding and twisting in the wind and tide, it became increasingly hard focus on holding the little craft in the right place. I started to feel an unexpected panic rising in my stomach.

The root of my panic was simple enough. An image in my mind had pulled me back to my childhood reading of Scottish folktales about the Selkie Folk. Then a question had risen and insinuated itself into my consciousness. How, in the gathering darkness, could I be sure that when the next great round head rose out of the sea and moved to climb over the gunnels and into our little dingy, that it was Ted coming aboard and not some vast water-black male Selkie?

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 23, 24 & 25.

Plantation, late winter (sketch)

Only now the thaw’s well advanced can I allow myself to remember that mid-winter walk.

The plantation track, March 2004.

I climbed the last length of the hill road and arrived at the short stretch of road that runs under the southern lea of the plantation, my lungs seemingly full of ice. Until I reached the lea there was only the driving snow and the road beneath my feet. Everything else was invisible. Then suddenly there were a series of dramatic aural discontinuities and transformations that meant I almost stopped looking where I was going. My resistance to the wind’s hold on my inner ear was disrupted by an acute silence that cuts off sound like the blow of an axe. In that momentary vacuum, before the sound of the wind, my footfalls and breathing returned, I knew just how punched out by the unrelenting wind my hearing had become. I stepped into the relative shelter of a big Sitka spruce, becoming part of the dramatic monochromatic patterning of trunk, branch, and snow as a momentary shift in the cloud bathed everything in bright sunlight. All around the tree tops still roared, a shaking, raging sea. Then the cloud closed in again and the light vanished.

Foolishly, I allowed the tracks of a hare to lure me off the road and into a broken, snow-covered clearing between the little self-seeded trees that fringe the entrance to the plantation and the wood itself. I followed the increasingly hesitant tracks despite sensing that my body had been losing heat since I had broken the steady rhythm of my walking. The tracks disappeared as suddenly as they had started. A mystery, deep among the sheltering trees, where the air was somehow still and crystalline, despite the wind roaring above. The flare of light off snow had undone the usual look of things, a brief ecstatic moment of disorientation that quickly turned to fear. What I believed was the beginning of the path that would lead me out to the road was in fact a narrowing cul-de-sac. I also knew that I was dangerously cold, and, retracing my steps, I left the trees’ siren shelter for the road. Somewhere in the wind’s orchestration I detected notes of mocking laughter.

 I lost the high hill’s fearful soundscape as soon as I turned onto the bridle path back down towards the valley. Part-sheltered by the drystone wall from the driven snow, I could see the track’s uneven surface cross cut with long ruts that regularly expanded into half-frozen pools running almost wall-to-wall. Jumping from stone to sodden tuft to mud bank failed to carry me forward fast enough to restore my body heat. I took to scrambling along the wall’s protruding lower stones to avoid the chill and the chance of my boots filling with icy water. My feet and legs ached.

I lost the fear that came with the fading of the hare’s tracks when my attention contracted against the wind chill and I focused on maintaining momentum for warmth, allowing my feet to find their own way. My momentum was only broken twice. When a four-wheel bike passed me, the driver seemingly unaware of my presence, and left the sourness of diesel in the air long after its snarl was lost to the wind. The second time, when a cock pheasant exploded into the air from under my feet.

Only at track’s end could I look up and around again, allow the larger soundscape to flood back in.

Patternings

After Sarah collected me from the Borders General Hospitalafter my first discharge, I re-read Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Out of Exile’? If you don’t know it, it takes as a starting-point a drive through the Borders towns. I’ve always responded to its honesty and the range of our experiences it acknowledges; to its ‘shadow foxes running in the sky’and her recognition of our ‘inventing things as they might have been’. Perhaps remembering my own experience of being a child at the door, ‘with bags and coats, telling stories, laughing, coming home.’ I badly needed to assure myself that I wasn’t doing what she warns against in my writing; simply inventing things as they might have been. But, of course, that assurance is impossible. I can only continue as best I can, keeping my ears and eyes open.

My first clear memory of being here in the valley is of going with Kate, Hamish, Mike, and Cat one Saturday in late July to find the others, who were helping with the hay at the Grahams’. I felt very shy because they all knew what to do and I didn’t. I was even frightened of riding on top of the bales, something I loved doing later. Dot Graham made space for me in the tractor cab next to one-eyed Meg and asked me to watch for cars at the gates. It was my first experience of a now familiar smell: that mix of diesel, dung, oil, old dog, hay, rubber boots, and sweat. I became happy just as soon as I felt necessary, and perhaps it was then that I started to absorb lessons about the relationship between shared work and community.

I know I had meet and spoken with Mrs Purvis the day before, as she was ending one of her particularly nasty exchanges with poor Anthony at the post office. But the less said about it the better, since it earned me her undying disapproval. I must have blocked it out of my memory almost as soon as it happened. I was still recovering from it that Saturday. It makes me shudder even now.

I woke up on another Saturday, about four months later during that first year, just knowing something had changed in the night. I’m now so familiar with the muffling of sound and change of light from sudden overnight snowfalls that I take them for granted. But that first time I was transported. I looked out over the snowcovered fields from the end of my bed, wrapped in bedcloths and my old quilt, knowing that to watch, from a warm bedroom, that vast white world coming to life in the morning light was to know I was both safe and loved. I could happily have sat there all day but if I hadn’t needed to pee.

When to face the cold and pee was a constant preoccupation on winter mornings. I always put off leaving my bed until the very last moment and then, desparate, jumped up, shoved my feet into woolly slippers, and rushed next door. (If it was really cold I wore my socks in bed and skipped the slippers). Knowing Dad would be downstairs I didn’t bother with the door, slid over the linolium, pulled down my pajamas and squatted just above the icy plastic seat. The sight of our old linolium still brings back a sense of that intense relief and the oddly sweet smell of my own urine.

My bladder empty, I would run the hot tap and have a ‘quick lick’ – how quick depended on the temperature. Then a dash back to my room to struggle into whatever clothes came to hand, while exposing as little of myself as possible to the air. Dressed, I’d drag a brush through my hair, find a hair band, shove my feet into shoes and, without lacing them up, clatter down the stairs into the kitchen.

I remember some things so vividly, yet much of my childhood hovers at the edge of memory like the faint smell of Dad’s liver, bacon and onions in the kitchen curtains. That elusiveness disconcerts me, particularly when I can’t place an event. It leaves me uneasy, although why I don’t exactly know.

I fell in love with the rooks and their attendent jackdaws simply by looking out of my bedroom window that autumn. I would gradually become fascinated by all the birds, but they were my favourates. I particularly liked those that lived by the water; the busy dippers, mallard, and pied wagtails that swam and hunted along our stretch of riverside, and the tall gray herons that rose ghostly silent through the morning mist if disturbed. But above all I loved the rooks. Morning after morning I would watch their ragged emiscaries cross from the rookery behind the graveyard and fly their sorties out across the fields. I loved both their noisy gegariousness, their tattered black forms buffeted by winds that, in winter, carried long plumes of dry powdery snow up off the tops of the dry-stone walls and towards them high into the air. I’d even risk the cold to open my curtains in anticipation of their arrival and, while I waited, listen to the house waking up.

First the floorboards would creak gently as the electric booster warmed the pipes, then the various noises that meant Dad was up and, before long, would be in the bathroom. But before that happened the first rooks would already be in the air.

It’s possible that my fascination with following the rooks’ regular voyaging while in the bath somehow led to my becoming fascinated with the idea of baths as boats, of a bath/boat/bodily little voyaging world all of its own. One that could at a pinch be shared with another body, as when I would occasionally share a bath with Cat, but essentially a solitary warm space in which to voyage whereever I wished in imagination. Or, of course, a boat/coffin, a possibility that only came to me after we did the vikings at school. Because of that childhood fascination I’ve always kept an eye out for re-cycled baths, particually those that hint at viking ship burials.

Summer holiday mornings were, of course, quite different from winter ones. I’d be up very early and into the day, usually without bothering to dress. Dad would come downstairs to find me sprawling on the big hooky-proddy rug, either reading or drawing and still in my nightie with, as he’d say, my ‘thin bits’ sticking out in all directions. (In winter I wore thick striped boy’s pygamas and  sometimes kept my vest, pants and socks on for extra warmth, particularly during weeks when condensation left wonderful patternings of ice seemingly etched into the inside of the window each morning.) Not in summer, when Dad always half-heartedly protested about my lack of sense and decency.

‘Put some proper clothes on that scrawnly little hide of yours, daftie. And for goodness sake do something about that bird’s nest too.’ (Referring to my frequently uncombed hair.)

Until I reached publity we had a daily summer holiday ritual. Usually I’d jump up as soon as Dad reached the bottom stair, stick out my tongue, and scamper up past him, knowing that if I was too slow I’d get a playful smack on my bottom. But if he looked tired or worried I’d stay put and wait until he came over, before asking him for a hug. Then he’d scoop me up, hug me for a moment or two, ask how his ‘daft skinny little lass’ was and, before I could answer, give me a kiss on my cheek that always turned into a wet raspberry. Then he’d unceremoniously dump me back on the floor and send me up to dress. I liked that he could so easily lift me off the ground, his bear-like hug, his newly shaved smell, and the familiar feel of the hot wet raspberry on my cheek. So I was sad that, when I got to be ‘a young lady’ (his euphemism for puberty), he gave up on the rough and tumble closeness we’d had before. I sensed this distance was the price I paid for my little half lemon breasts and the shadow of hair starting to appear down below, which only added to my general confusion about it all.

Perhaps that’s why my pre-pubescent self and her shadowy look-alike brother still lurk among the night-people who visit me?

Poor Dad. He tried so hard with me after Mum died, in his funny, slightly gruff and sometimes absent-minded way. He took good care of me, made sure Mrs Oliver or my Aunt Claire dealt with things he didn’t feel able to, listened fairly patiently to my endless prattling and, when I was still a child, giving me the cuddles I needed whenever I asked for them. He even did his best to kept Mrs Purvis’ encroachments on my fierce sense of personal dignity to a minimum. But my reaching puberty was somehow just too much for him. As a wiry, androgynous little tomboy, my ‘girl bits’ didn’t come between us and I believe he treated me much as he would have a son, although perhaps with more tenderness. But when his little stick-insect daughter started to develop a proper bum and a chest that could no longer pass for an ironing board, not to mention all the related complications, he went into slow retreat. I think now that my changes meant I reminded him just a little too much of Mum, since Aunt Clare always said I was her spitting image. That must have made things hard for him in ways no twelve-year-old girl could possibly imagine.

Perhaps that’s why he was happy for me to spend so much time at Homehaugh. I knew deep down that he loved me just as he’s always done, but the shift in our relationship was unsettling. Sometimes when I was doing school work, drawing, or darning socks, this one of many tasks Mrs Purvis did for Dad but flatly refused to do for me,he’d stand behind me, gently kiss the top of my head, and then give my hair a playful little muss. ‘Goodness pet, you’re growing up so fast’ he’d always say, with just a hint of sadness. But, apart from that and a bedtime peck on the cheek, there was no longer the physical closeness between us there’d been before. No morning bearhugs, no more of the playful smacks on my bottom that I’d always rather enjoyed, and none of the mock fights over nothing that always ended up with him tickling me until I squealed for mercy.

 

I could not have begun to say that what I was missing was something physical, bodily, given that it involved Dad and my growing sense of being a girl. But it was around that time that I started having little shoving matches with Hamish. I probably needed that physical contact to get a proper sense of myself, of where I ‘stopped’ and ‘started’ as this person who was not just ‘me as I’d always been’ but, more and more, also this new person: ‘me as a young lady’. Of course I talked to Lizzy, Kate, Cat and Patsy about this, particularly Kate and Cat. But all that talk was quite different from what my body mysteriously learned from its initial tentative contact through those little push and shove holiday sessions with Hamish.

 ‘Love’ and other puzzles

 In those days of whirlwind changes  in my feelings, the non-human world was often much easier to deal with than the human one. Most people, most of the time, just tended to confuse me, even the ones I would have said I loved, like Dad.

I knew without a shadow of doubt that I loved our rooks, something I felt particularly keenly in winter and early spring when I was most aware of them. And I felt much the same about next-door’s cat, Minnie, and the stocky little black pony with one white ankle, Charlie, who I rode as often as I was allowed. I think I also knew this love was far from unconditional. The only demands the non-humans might make on me were of the simplest, most immediate, kind. The rooks, like the roe deer and rabbits, simply needed my attention, my noticing them. The rooks, of course, also needed an audience, someone to hear their numeros and varied exchanges and admire their airial gymnastics, or so I firmly belived. Minnie and Charlie needed to be stroked or patted, given immediate, physical attention which, each in their own way, they returned simply and directly. I also loved them because I could imagine something of what it must be like to be them, something I found much more difficult with adults.

Since I had regular and extraordinarily vivid dreams of flying as a child, it was simple enough to imagine feeling the wind under my sleek black wings, to imagine twisting, gliding and flapping out over the fields with my companions. It was equally easy to sense cantering round the field shaking your mane when there was too little wind to keep the flys off. (I did something very similar when the midges were bad.) Or sitting on one of the big flat stones that topped a wall warmed by the sun and methodically lick myself clean all over, as Minnie did. I used to think how I could so easily have been a rook, a small tabby cat with one broken ear, or a stocky little black pony.

Roe doe in a field near Chesters.

Rabbit on a wall, Morebattle.

Loving people was, by comparison, much more complicated. Even Dad expected me to behave in ways that had little or nothing to do with what was actually happening that moment. Instead of going on doing whatever I was doing, people always expected me to second-guess what they wanted. That usually involved breaking off some important imagining to do things I didn’t want to do. But in the late spring and early summer of the year I turned thirteen there was much to distract me from my resentment and confusion.

The whole mysterious panoply of the non-human world seemed particularly vivid and beautiful that spring. At sunrise there’d be dew-bejewelled cobwebs festooned with points of trembling light as the breeze tugged at them. These would throw the faintest dots of light onto the bathroom wallpaper with its scattering of unfeasably crimson pomegranites contained within a barely visible decorative grid. Outside there would be rabbits on the back lawn, patient ewes and their lambs with legs like pipe-cleaners, maybe a resplendent cock pheasent or, later in the year, a clutch of black cows with their sloe-eyed calves as suppliment to my usual pleasure in the rooks. This kaleidoscopic world, which tugged my senses out beyond the human, all seemed to hang together in some unfathomable way, a coherent patterning of innumerable connections. It was my attempting to share something of this that started Hamish and I on becoming more than simply friends.

Now, of course, I recognise the difficulties of this child-like, kaleidoscopic sense of love for the world, something I have to weigh in the balance against what I know of the world as a citizen. That process of weighing-up is complicated further because there’s a certain, not always wholly separable, childishness that the valley also perpetuates, or so it seems to me, something that I think keeps people like Lizzy from seeing this world straight.

But my need to engage with that balancing act was still far in the future when my little cottage bedroom was still the certain centre of an expanding world.

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 21 and 22

Another Lizzy

‘What’s that about my life?’ Lizzy came unsteadily into the kitchen as her mother was speaking, wrapped in the new red quilted dressing gown Sarah and I had given her for Christmas.

‘We’ve been talking about men, pet. I was just saying …’ Lizzy grunted angrily. ‘Oh, fucking great.’ My stomach knotted. Lizzy only swears when she’s been seized by the sudden bouts of anguished rage that have dogged her since Peter died. She thumped down onto a chair and, glaring at the tabletop, tugged at a strand of hair. ‘Faun been playing the Elfin Queen again?’ (Our private term for casual sex).

‘Pet, she was just …’

‘Christ, mummy! Faun can speak for herself. What were you saying Faun?’ I repeated that I’d wished that, like her, I’d settled on one man when I was young and stuck with him.

‘Oh, instead of fucking half the art students in London?’ I said nothing. Lizzy knew I’d had a couple of brief affairs before Quentin. I’d hardly been promiscuous, but then she had always been something of a prude.

‘Christ, you think Peter and I were a fairy story with an unhappy ending. You’ve no idea, Faun, not a clue’.

Mrs. Oliver, now visibly upset, knew better than to intervene. Like the Ancient Mariner, Lizzy needs an audience and, having chosen one, insists on full attention. If you stay quiet and listen she’ll rant and lament and then, tearful and exhausted, sleep for hours. If not, she gets violent and starts breaking things. I was just thankful Sarah was staying over after the party because she finds her mum’s outbursts unbearable

‘You  think Peter and I …? Oh for fuck’s sake, Faun …’

Her mother stood up a little unsteadily and left the room. Lizzy then spent the best part of two hours filling me in, with far more candour than I would ever have expected, about aspects of her life about which I indeed knew almost nothing.

 

A Blackbird

The girls of the ‘Oliver menagery’, including Lizzy it now seems, had always assumed she and Peter would eventually marry. But by the time she started university he was all but absent from her life. When she’d ring him in York he was largely monosylabic, clearly deeply preoccupied with his family’s problems. His answers to her letters consisted of a few scribbled lines. After a while she gave up, desperate to concentrate on her studies and assuming he’d get back in touch when things at home had settled down. So in a relatively short time she went from being at the heart of a group of friends to barely socializing at all. Initially, because she was preoccupied with working and trying to reestablish her relationship with Peter, then because she turned in on herself, consumed by a toxic mixture of unhappiness, anger and self-doubt.

Her assumption that, after college, she and Peter would get engaged, marry, and in time live on the Reed estate, now seemed presumptious to a degree that appalled her. There had never been any explicit understanding between them. She’d just somehow presumed that signs of affection on his part, a quick hug or peck on the cheek on all the usual occasions, were a prelude to all that. Now she neither knew where she stood with him, nor what she herself really wanted. She was too furious to talk with Kate, who she blamed for triggering Peter’s family situation, and didn’t want to discuss it all with her mother. She’d also started to obsess about something James had once said when she, Kate, and the twins were arguing about what to wear to a posh fancy-dress party the Easter before we were all caught drinking. (‘Posh’ being my tern for anything the rest of us were not invited to). He’d proposed they go as their fairytale selves and they’d all asked him what he meant.

‘Lizzy always does the right thing. She’s our parochial equivalent of the beautiful and virtuous princess. Go as that. Kate is the mischivous fairy who gets everyone into trouble, of course.’ Kate threw a magazine at him and asked about the boys. ‘Dad’s taken to introducing Peter to his shooting crowd as his ‘son and heir’, so he’s obviously the Prince who’ll inherit a kingdom. He’d better go as that. Which means I’m the younger son who has to go out into the world to seek his fortune. So, rags and a stick with a bundle in a spotted handkirchief for me. Or I suppose, if the younger son is lazy and cunning like me, he might just steal the virtuous princess from under his briother the Prince’s nose  and live happily ever after off her father’s land!’

It had all been smilingly said, in the usual half-joking, half-mocking way James used to wind people up and that Lizzy usually ignored. But she had a bit of a soft spot for him and he’d smiled so warmly at her as he spoke that, despite knowing it was all nonsense, she’d been touched by his calling her beautiful (something James had never done), and a little flattered by his proposal to steal her away. And now, because of all that had happened since, those feelings returned to trouble her.

Then by a stroke of ill-luck a student, whose demeanour and self-confidence reminded her a lot of James, transferred into her seminar group and quickly become the centre of attention among its largely female attendees. Lizzy, troubled by his similarities to James, studiously avoided him. He quickly noticed this and took it as a challenge, going out of his way to greet and flirt with her whenever they met. She started to feel haunted by James’ doppelgänger. She had always told herself that she was angry about Kate’s sexual adventure with James because of its consequences. Now she began to realise that, at some level, she was also furiously jealous of her sister. She’d always rather liked James and Kate had had carnal knowledge of him, something she could barely admit to herself that she too might have wanted. This became mixed up with her increasingly ambiguous feelings about Peter, her gratitude and irritation at his being the quiet, steady, and yes, slightly boring, twin; for not having made her want him enough to do what Kate had done with James. And so on, interminably.

Lizzy now doubted everything she’d formally believed about herself and, increasingly consumed by self-loathing, clung to the life-raft of her academic work. Often unable to sleep, she would pace up and down in her tiny top-floor flat, fearful that she was heading for some kind of break-down but equally determined to block out that possibility.

Then one evening James’ doppelgängersaw her on her way home, dodged the traffic on the busy street to cross and speak to her, insisting she let him buy her a drink. She said she had to get home but, true to type, he refused to take no for an answer. Tired and unable to resist his smiling insistance, she eventually reluctantly agreed. She drank a gin and tonic faster than was sensible and was then cojoled into accepting a second. The result was a sudden emotional thaw and, knowing quite well she shouldn’t, she accepted a third. Later, very drunk, she invited the doppelgänger back to her flat.

When she finally woke next morning Lizzy was first appalled at what she’d done and then incandescent with a blind rage. She blagged the doppelgänger’saddress from the departmental secretary on the pretense she’d picked up his essay with her own and needed to return it. She went to his flat and, when he answered the door, forced her way in. When his flatmate tried to intervene, Lizzy boilded over, screaming and yelling. The flatmate called the police. The angrier Lizzy got the more the doppelgänger actedbemused. They’d had a drink, she’d invited him back to her flat, he’d used condoms, what was her problem? Fortunately the police arrived in time to help the flatmate restrain her from hitting him a second time.

She spent several hours in a police cell until the doppelgänger informed them that he would not be pressing charges. She was released with a caution. But she knew she had completely lost her way and dispaired. Knowing both her parents would be out she drove back to Homehaugh and, having gathered up all the pills she could find, drunk the best part of a bottle of whisky to get up the courage to take them. The alcohol kicked in really quickly, she eaten practically nothing in the previous twenty-four hours, and she dropped the pills, most of them white, onto the white bathroom carpet. When her mother came home later she found Lizzy slowly circling the bathroom on hands and knees like a damaged insect, sobbing wildly as she tried to collect up the pills. She was literally blind drunk. Her mother put her to bed and rang the university to say she’d had an accident and wouldn’t return for the last week of term. When Lizzy finally woke up she was as mortified as she was monumentally hung over.

Mrs. Oliver tried to insist Lizzy take time out from her studies. She refused but promised to see somebody and get help. At the start of her second session with a counsellor, she heard herself say all this, adding that she obviously didn’t love Peter. She was so shocked by this that she couldn’t speak for the rest of the session, just shook and cried silently while the counsellor passed her tissues. Nothing really changed for a long while. Afraid to go home, she barely spoke ouside tutorials and seminars. These were a nightmare because she was convinced the whole world knew what she’d done and despised her. But her deepest fear was that she’d fail her degree. That terrified her but also kept her working.

Then very early one morning she heard a blackbird singing. The sound upset her terribly, which in turn shattered her numbness. Shivering, she ran a hot bath and, soaking in it, realized with a clarity she’d not experienced for months that the blackbird’s song  reminded her of times with Peter.

Once, on a winter charity walk, Lizzy, Peter, and James’s group got caught in a white-out. It took the young woman in charge about ten minutes to orient them and start them on their way down but, before that happened, Lizzy spoke out of turn, something about which direction they should take. She’d been told in no uncertain terms to shut up. Humiliated, she’d sulked at the back of the group. Peter had dropped back to walk with her. When they got back to the village Lizzy, still miserable, sat down on the low wall behind the village hall and cried. Peter sat down beside her and put a rather tentative arm around her shoulder while offering her his rather grubby handkerchief. A blackbird sang nearby and they sat and listened to it until she’d stopped crying. Then he’d walked back with her to Homehough.

‘LA’.

Remembering Peter’s concern that day let loose a flood of memories. Most particularly, Lizzy remembered going with Peter’s mother to pick him up at Edinburgh airport after a school trip. She’d been maybe fifteen. Peter didn’t see her hanging back until he’d put down his luggage and hugged his mother.  When he did see her his face had lit up.  She’d given him a little hug and kissed his cheek and he’d blushed and ducked his head as he aways did when he was really pleased about something. They’d sat together in the back of the car and, when it got dark, Peter had reached out and found her hand on the car seat and held it until they got back to the village.

When the cold bathwater brought Lizzy back into the present, she knew all she wanted was to finish her degree and put things right with Peter. She wrote him a long letter and, contact reestablished, struggled through the rest of her degree to get a Two One (we’d all expected her to get a First.) Peter and his mother came to her degree ceremony.

By the time she’d told me all this Lizzy’s anger was quite spent.

‘Not a fairytale princess, Faun. Just weak, stupid, neurotic. Jealous of Kate about James, and angry Peter hadn’t wanted me the same way. I fucked a nobody, tried and failed to kill myself and, yes, finally married Peter because I couldn’t live without him. And now I have to anyway. And Faun, I never told him. I just pretended he was the first because I was so ashamed. I’m a lie, Faun, everything about me is a lie.’

She started to rock back and forth in mute anguish.

‘Come on Lizzy, you’ve coped wonderfully with Sarah and the farm, with everything.’

‘Oh God Faun, I miss him. I needed Peter so much and now he’s gone.’

I helped her upstairs and then got her into bed. She was asleep in moments. When I got home I set the alarm so as to be at the farm by seven. When Lizzy wasn’t down for breakfast by half seven, I phoned Arthur and got Nessa.

‘She’s had a bad night.’

‘Right Miss Flora, I’ll tell himself she’ll speak with him later.’

I collected Sarah from the sleepover and, when we got back, Lizzy, although still in her pyjamas and new red dressing gown, was eating breakfast while making a list of groceries with her mother.

Cattle on the high hill

‘Hello pet, did you have a good party? There’s toast left over or grab some cereal. And soon as you can, please, let the hens out. I had a bad night and I’m already terribly behind. I must go and help with the cattle’.

Sarah gave her a sharp look and openned her mouth to say something. But whether because of the redness of her mother’s eyes, her grandmother’s warning glance, or the slight shake in Lizzy’s voice, she closed it, nodded, buttered a piece of toast, and went upstairs to change into her everyday clothes.

 

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 17, 18, 19 & 20

London

I was excited about being called for interview, but nervous about what would happen if I actually got a place and had to live in London. I wanted to believe my Foundation tutors, who had told me my work, ‘the broken necklace of a teenage troll girl’ as Dad once affectionately described one piece, would get me a place. I knew I had always worked really hard and, much to my own astonishment, also managed to overcome the innumerable logistic problems of attending a Foundation Course. At home I felt I’d earned my cofidence and was prepared for anything. But my old nervousness returned with a vengence when I was faced by the jostling crowds on the Tube and the sophisticated second-year students who directing us to wait to be called to interview and ticking me off on a list. I felt like a heffer in a holding pen.

I’d been waiting about twenty minutes when the only other girl in the room came over and whispered that, since obviously we weren’t going to get interviewed before the coffee break, maybe we should retreat to the loo and take stock? Suzie, who looked vaguely Chinese to me but spoke with an Irish accent, was clearly working as hard to hide her nerves as I was. We reassured each other and then shared her bright red ‘lippy’ to boost our morale. (Later my aunt told me I looked like ‘a tart’, much to my secret delight). With that simple act of sharing Suzie and I became two young women against the male art world. We agree to meet after our interviews and compare notes. Mine went by in an anxious blur and afterwards I found myself laughing about it with my new friend. I’d never met anyone remotely like Suzie. My wry account of the interview made her laugh so much that, as she proceeded to tell half the canteen, she ‘nearly pee-ed herself’. I quickly realised I must be as much a pleasing novelty to her as she was to me. Before she went for her train we promised to stay in touch whatever happened.

To tackle my fear of London I stayed an extra night with Aunt Claire. Armed with an ‘A to Z’ I set out to explore and discovered Foyles and the second-hand bookshops off the Tottenham Court Road. There I found a copy of Hamish Fulton’s‘Pilgrims’ Way’, which I took as an omen that, if I was granted a life here, it would not just be possible but might even be enjoyable, despite all I would have to give up.

Top Road, January (sketch)

Under snow the quality of sound changes up in the high hills. This has less to do with changes to the acoustics of the physical landscape than with the practical conditions regarding clothing imposed on anybody who ventures out in these conditions.

Walking the top road today all the usual early spring sounds are muffled, truncated, by the clothing necessary to function at over three hundred meters above sea level. Today a violent north wind intermittently blew snow horizontally across the land. All the usual taken-for-granted differentiations and qualities by which I navigate were subject to a single overwhelming distinction: in or out of the wind.

I needed two layers of headgear for warmth and dryness and that produced a new soundscape, one dominated by the scratchings and rustlings of woolen cap moving against waterproof hood, the rhythmical thump of boots on wet road that seems to travel up through the body itself; and the squeak and scrunch of wet snow, occasional bird cries, distant vehicles.

All these present themselves as filtered and limited by the degree to which I turn to face, as a satellite dish might, the source of the sound. This baffling or muting of all sound serves to synchronize hearing and line of sight, so that to be able to stand bareheaded out of the wind is to be returned to a three-dimensional world, to once again become the center of a circle of sound.

 Mario

Mario, an Italian student at the art college who was some years older than me, befriended me almost as soon as I arrived. By the end of the autumn term I’d rather fallen for him. It wasn’t reciprocated, but it took me months to fully accept that fact. Mario was kind, funny, and knowledgable. He introduced me to his beautiful cousin Desideria, a design student, who in turn introduced me to their wide circle of European friends, most of whom were students studying Social Science subjects. Mario was warm-hearted and tactile in what I came to see was the usual Italian way, something I chose to misintrerpret for desire held in check. When, in due course, it dawned on me that he really wasn’t going to make any attempt to move things on between us, I felt lost and confused. I had long since worked out that my attempt to seduce Hamish had simply scared him off and wasn’t about to make the same mistake again. I became increasingly miserable.

Then, just before start of the the summer term, Mario sent me a rather sweetly-worded invitation to his twenty-fifth birthday party. We met as agreed. He complemented me on my dress as we walked into the club that his friends had hired for the evening and seemed genuinely pleased to have me on his arm. I tried to believe that, after all, this was the night I’d been waiting for. He danced with me to start with, but then increasingly left me at our table while he chatted to old friends or greeted acquaintrances; all with the clear expection that I’d follow his progress and smile when he pointed me out. Suddenly I felt beside myself with anger, fetched my coat, and left.

On Tuesday morning the following week someone told me they’d seen Maro put all his work into a van and leave. On Thursday Desideria met me as I arrived at college. She said Mario had gone to New York, that his uncle had asked to see me to explain, and that I simply must go. Bemused I agreed and taxi was duely sent for me. The meeting was, to say the least, bewildering. The moment I walked into his office Mario’s uncle, a diplomate of some sort, started talking, fast and in rather stilted English. He told me about the standing of Mario’s family; that he thought Mario a talented artist and a fine young man, despite his politics. (Which puzzled me since, unlike most of our circle, Mario showed scant interest in politics.) I was told Mario’s circumstances had changed, that he had moved to New York. I was assured his family were as upset by this as I must be; that they had been very much looking forward to meeting me in the summer. (I grew increasingly astonished. Mario had never talked about his parents to me, let alone about us all meeting.) Then Mario’s uncle got up, thanked me for ‘our conversation’, gave me a little nod, and showed me firmly out. I had had no chance to say much more that ‘hello’.

Desideria was waiting for me when I got back. When I told her how the meeting had gone, she was furious.

‘Basta, they said he’d tell you.’

‘Tell me what?’

Desideria was on the edge of tears but insisted she had promised Mario’s parents to say nothing. It was not her place. Eventually she relented a little, telling me Mario had inherited a lot of money when he turned twenty-five and had used it to go to New York. Pressed, she then admitted he’d apparently told his parents he wanted to get engaged to a beautiful Catholic girl called Flora. They had been to come to London in July to meet me. Later she discovered he’d also told some of his male friends we were sleeping together. I was speechless. The only other response I got to all my other questions was a derisive snort when I asked her about Mario’s politics. About ten days later she came to find me at lunch-time and handed me an envelope. It contained a letter of from Mario’s parents and a cheque for five hundred pounds.

The letter acknowledged that Mario’s behaviour must have been very hurtful to me and my family and asked that I accept the family’s profound apologies. The enclosed cheque was a testament to their regret and distress over what had happened. It was all very formal and felt vaguely threatening. Desideria asking me to sign a receipt to acknowledge that I’d received both letter and cheque. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I said I couldn’t take money from the family of a man who I fancied but didn’t fancy me, who’d told his parents he wanted to marry me and his friends we were sleeping together. It was just crazy.

Untitled image [1]

Desideria managed a nervous laugh, but insisted I sign the receipt. I didn’t understand. It was a question of honour. They were genuinely worried about how my family might react. In Italy to talk about getting engaged was a very serious business. She assured me they were good people who, by their own lights, where trying to do the right thing, and so on.

In the end, I signed.

I swore I’d avoid entanglements with men until I’d graduated. Not knowing to which, or how many, people Mario had spoken about us before vanishing, I saw less of our mutual friends. Then, towards the end of my final year, I started going out with Quentin, a painting tutor, and became part of a crowd of postgraduates and younger staff. This included a beautiful young Irishman who, Suzie told me, was her head of department’s lover. After a while I noticed that he had ‘adopted’ one girl in the group in much the way that Mario had me. It finally dawned on me how naïve I’d been. When I next saw Desideria I asked her straight out if Mario was a homosexual. There was a long pause before she answered ‘yes’. She insisted that she’d not been able to tell me before because, when his family discovered he’d gone to New York with a boyfriend, they had made her solemnly promise to say nothing to anyone about it, particularly not to me. I felt foolish, angry and relieved in equal parts.

Later the money they’d insisted I take would enable me to set up my workshop.

Years later Desideria and I met up again and, over a long morning drinking coffee in the William Morris room of the V&A café, she told me what happened to Mario in New York. (Also about her own complicated personal situation during our student days. But that’s her story). Mario, it seems, had become a rising star of the New York art world before he died of AIDS, abandoned by his former lover and the group of artists he’d been associated with. They had discovered that after he’d left London, a student on the edge of our group had been arrested and deported back to Italy. Press articles had suggested this man had been involved with left-wing extremist groups and had been blackmailing various people to raise money. His friends believed Mario had been implicated in this man’s arrest and broke off all contact.

I simply didn’t know what to say.

 In the park (sketch)

I walk between the trees and up the hill early, through green dappled sunlight and shadow and out into the open parkland. The cool air and sun both bath my face. There is a moment of intense closeness to him, but not as something separate from my walking up and out into this space where the grass has started to brown in the summer heat. I breath him in with the cool air and, with it, a sudden understanding that, whatever happens, it will always unite us. And then an overwhelming sense of tenderness followed by desire so sudden I stop and lean my back against a tree.

 While he slept, his hair rumpled and his body sprawled across the chaos of the bed, I remembered climbing the orange-red sandstone that dominating everything on that distant childhood day, its colour so much stronger even than the miraculous blues of sky and sea. I remembered its heat on my sides and stomach, chest, neck and face as I twisted and turned, slippery with sweat from the effort of my climbing. The texture of the coarse-grained sandstone under my fingers, its weathered little ridges and shelves, the harder bands sometimes stained with traces of iron. All this texture hospitably available to my fingers and toes. And I had found my way up, much as I had just found my way with his body the previous night, our shared heat filling the feral darkness of his tiny basement flat.

My body held me completely and at no point did I start to think during that whole long climb; a self-contained organism that happily edging its way up until it found a place where heat and cooling breeze met in perfect balance, the summit its own natural climax.

 

[1]The young woman at the top of this image is Flora and I would guess it was probably taken when she was living in London.

 

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 14, 15 and 16.

Lower valley, March (sketch)

 Editor’s note. Flora included among her notes various descriptions or ‘sketches’ of visiting local places at particular times, of which this is the first. These are, I believe, as much ‘portraits’ of her kith as are her descriptions of the children she grew up with. 

The roar of the river descending is overwhelming – every surface throws back or drowns out all other sounds in this narrow place. I resist the draw of the falls and turn elsewhere – my attention running out ahead feeling its way into the complex tangle of saplings, fleshy plants, old fallen trees, then down to test out the uncertainties of the path as it turns suddenly underfoot – first scree, then mud, twigs, water, fractured rock, the path a fading trace.

With the turn up hill my ears adjust, start to catch differentiations against the diminishing roar. The irregular and muffled ‘plock’, ‘plock’ as the stream pushes one stone after another over a lip of rock to fall onto the pitted shelf below. Sounds that appear to be the drowned ghosts of hard, clean, crisp sounds of stone and water; sounds that bypass my turning thoughts to work directly on the nervous system. These speak of the singular unity, weight and density of each small stone that falls. Beyond the wild garlic and saplings are the sharper notes of melt water finding its way down through irregular stone heaps, frost-shattered boulders, the iron-stained crumbling cliff. There are an infinitely variety of sounds of trickling, falling, spouting, running, streaming down. And back behind all this still further, there is a faint, counterpointing, rumble and boom of water hitting the black pool edged with shreds of swirling, soapy foam.

So, along with an opening up of and losing sight of what is in view, a shift dictated by the simple logic of following the path, the valley is simultaneously re-constellated in quite another way; as the damp, chill, all-pervading space of sounding water in all its variations.

After bell-ringing practice

 As usual, I’d spent much of the Christmas holiday going down to the farmhouse to visit Lizzy, Sarah and Mrs. Oliver. This must be eight or ten years back now.

Lizzy had dropped Sarah off at a party early in the evening of New Year’s Day and, on her return, we started to tidy up the aftermath of the festivities. Then the phone rang. There was a pony out on the road above the ford and could Lizzy please help catch it? Mrs. Oliver hears well enough when she wants to and, as Lizzy put the phone down, she asked me if I’d go instead. Lizzy started to protest but, when I agreed, shot me a grateful look. I knew only too well how much she always missed Peter over the Christmas period. I put on coat and boots and went out into the rain.

When I got back the kitchen was immaculate and Mrs. Oliver was sitting straight-backed in her chair, a sherry bottle, two old wine glasses, and a large wide-necked plastic container of mixed nuts on the table in front of her. Without speaking she poured me a large glass of sherry and pushed the nuts towards me. Pulling off my coat, I caught sight of the photograph of the bell-ringers and, on a whim, asked who they were.

‘Lizzy’s gone up’.

I thought she’d decided to ignore my question but, after a sip of sherry, she adopted the storytelling voice I’d not heard since Sarah was little. She’d clearly been on the sherry some time.

She wasn’t particularly keen on bell ringing, but she was keen on the boy second from the end on the right. (She referred to him variously as ‘the boy’, ‘Bill’ and ‘Billy’, always with affection.) They were second cousins once removed and, looking carefully, I could see that his face somewhat resembled hers, round, strong browed, serious. She didn’t remember much about the rest of the group, only Billy and her friend Millie, but thought the younger man in the over-large suit was arrested in 1945 for selling black market goods. Billy was involved in bellringing because his uncle was both a church warden and a bellringer. Having persuaded Millie to sign up with her for moral support, Mrs. Oliver set about getting Billy to walk them home. (Millie lived two doors down.) As soon as she did Millie, now redundent, was allowed to gave up bell ringing. That happened shortly after the photograph was taken and, with Millie out of the way, Mrs. Oliver could focus on Billy.

They started walking out together properly when she was seventeen and, when Billy became an apprentice motor mechanic, she found weekday work cooking in a little hotel near the garage where he worked. Despite the hours, she and Billy managed to see a fair bit of each other. When the wat broke out and he was drafted into the RAF, she somehow managed to get work in catering at the big airfield where he was based. She then joined the WAAF when she was there and eventually rose to corporal. While she was there, she met Aircraftwoman 2nd ClassElizabeth Reed. Despite their different social backgrounds, the two women became lifelong friends.

Billy died just outside Caen, the result of burns following an accident. The two of them had promised his uncle they’d go back and ring the bells when the war ended, but when it came to it she hadn’t the heart. After her mother’s death she found the bell-ringers’ photograph among her mother’s things.

After the war she’d returned north to a job managing the canteen at Oliver and Son, an agricultural suppliers business. There she met young MasterMichael, a decorated soldier and a Socialist in a largely Tory world. She danced with him at the 1947 Christmas office dinner and accepted the offer of a lift home afterwards. After a short courtship they married. She’d wanted lots of children but he hadn’t. Once his father died he put the business first, something she took in her stride; that, his politics, and the charity work he did with his Polish friends. They had the two girls and, she added fondly, later you and the other children would always be around and needing to be feed.

 When she’d refilled our glasses a second time she asked about men in my life. Taken aback, I meant to give a quick answer and go home. But the sherry got the better of me. I told her that after Hamish I went off boys for a good while. I didn’t mention Mario. Instead I told her about London, the strangeness of living among people I knew nothing about, and who neither knew nor cared about me. About how, as a a child, I had longed to be just myself, Flora, not ‘Andy Buchan’s daughter’ or ‘one of the Oliver girls’ gang’ and, in consequence, how London had given me both a real shock and a new sense of identity. Finally, I told her a little about Quentin and my leaving him to return north.

‘Not much luck with the men then.’

I didn’t answer. I knew I should go home but it was blowing a gale again outside, the rain hammering the corrugated roofs of the outbuildings and clattering a metal bucket somewhere in the yard. I told her Quentin had been desperate to be a successful painter, and I didn’t want to play second fiddle to that. I didn’t tell her about going back to our flat with a sick headache one lunchtime and catching him and a voluptuous Spanish Masters student in flagrante delicto on our bed. I’d known for months we were drifting apart, but it took the shock of that betrayal to finish things between us.

‘Nobody local courting you?’

‘No.’

After another silence, she asked me what I was thinking. I had in fact been thinking wistfully about an all-too-brief affair in the last days before I left London, but I said I wished I’d been like Lizzy, set my heart on one man when I was young and, for better or worse, waited for him. Even I could hear just how maudlin that sounded.

‘Lizzy’s life’s been more complicated than you think.’

 

 Upper valley, June (sketch)

The rapid call of oystercatchers that rise and swerve sharply away, a flurry of black and white avoiding our advance, breaks into my reverie. From the distant hillside, now thick with flowers, come the barely audible sounds of sheep, curlew, lapwing. A small cloud of fieldfares rises from beyond the tree-covered bank and is swept away by a wind that does not yet reach down into these broad, sheltered, pool-dotted flats that run up alongside the upper burn above the gorge.

Closer at hand there is the ever-present plash and tumble of water that, combining with the unexpected warmth of the sun, becomes a soporific. The zigzag of ripples where we step across the narrowing burn echoes the strange, rhythmically stabbing heads of two goosanders working against the swift current in the river, now far below. Topping the steep bank above the ford we re-enter the realm of wind, its sound once again battering all else away from the inner ear. Everyday time returns.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Parts Eleven and Twelve.

Telling Stories

Miss Richardson was Northumbrian born and bred, and had a great fund of old Northumbrian stories that she’d slip into our lessons as pointers to how the world worked. She knew we’d shut our ears to anything that smacked of preaching and so always told her stories accordingly. I still remember some of them. One was about the couple from Netherwitton who are asked to adopt the son of the king and queen of the fairies. The man is then blinded in one eye when he catches the king stealing. She had begun by asked what we thought of old stories about fairies. When we didn’t know how to respond to what seemed to us a silly question, she suggested that if people can’t criticize authority directly, they invent stories that allowed them to draw attention to the injustices they suffer.

The story I remember best was one she told us older children just before I left, about the treasure in Broomlee Lough. The treasure should have been recovered long ago, but a link in the specially forged chain needed to pull it up had broken. I can still feel the pleasure of the shock of her explaining that this was because the smith who had made it was not the seventh son in an unbroken line of smiths as his father claimed. It turned out his father had gone away to Willimoteswick to gamble with the drovers and, while he was away, a bold young tinker had visited the farm. Nine months later his wife had given birth to the boy who became the smith who made the link that broke. She said we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be impressed by people who claimed their family or birth made them special, because everyone has their faults.

Another story, which I appropriated and retold one evening in London when talking politics with Desideria, Giulia, Francesco, Mario and Simon, was ‘The Faa’s Revenge’. It’s about what happens to the people who forget that ‘their’ land is taken from the people who previously tended it; their wealth acquired at the expense of others’ labour. People who fail to respect the basic laws of human compassion. Being the amateur historian that she was, this tale was mixed in with information about Kirk Yetholm, for centuries the headquarters of the ‘Egyptians’ or Gypsies in Scotland. (We’d not then learned to call them Roma). Their king, John Faa, a contemporary of King James V, had been granted a letter under the Privy Seal that confirmed his authority over all his people in Scotland and required all sheriffs in the country to assist him in maintaining the laws of ‘Egypt’.

In my mind, I always link of this story to the old Border ballad I associate with John Faa’s people: which Child calls ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’, but is also known as ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies O’, ‘The Gypsy Laddie’, ‘Black Jack Davy’ and ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’, but I know next to nothing factual about Faa himself. There is, however, a story that presents a very different tale to that in the songs. Namely that Faa ran away with the Countess of Cassillis and that her husband followed them and caught them at a ford over the river Doon, still known as the Gypsies’ Steps. He then forced his wife to watch from an upstairs room while he had Faa and his followers hanged in front of the Castle Gate at Cassillis. She was then said to have been imprisoned for the rest of her life. While Faa’s role as king of ‘Little Egypt’ is historical fact, there is absolutely no evidence to support the story of John Faa and the Earl of Cassillis’ wife.

‘Jan. 1979’

 

Laura

Iain, even now I find writing about Laura difficult. The facts are straight forward enough. Laura was Hamish’s imaginary friend and, apparently, my ‘lost’ twin sister. (Just how or why she was lost I was never told, but she was supposed to have disappeared soon after we were born.) Literally speaking, then, Laura was simple a fiction. But, because of being a shared secret I never participated in first hand, because of things that happened and didn’t happen between Hamish and me later, and because she became all too real in my dreams, it’s all rather more complicated than that.

I can’t find the James Hillman quote in the first Debateable Lands book just now, but the gist of it has stayed with me. That we don’t die alone but join the ancestors, the little people, the whole multitude of compound souls who inhabit our nightworld; the various complexes we talk to, the invisible friends who pass through our lives, all with their gifts of desires, fears, regretful sighs, surprising ideas. The multitude who accompany us all along, both angelic and demonic figures. Both angelic and demonic accomplices who, like the beasts in Rilke’s first ‘Duino Elegy’, are aware that we’re not really at home in this interpreted world but, as with habits, liked us and lodged, never gave notice. I think many children, like the animals they often feel closest to, notice how literally, reductively, adults take the world. Literally, of course, in large part to avoid having to acknowledge the ancestors and accomplices who give the lie to our belief that we are self-contained, self-sufficient monads. All of which is a way of saying I’ve come to think differently about Hamish, so haunted by his feared father’s obsessive vocation, and by all the ghosts of dead priests and academics who created the family library going generations back. Haunted too, I suppose, if only for a while, by me, Laura’s supposed twin sister. But all this relates, strictly speaking, to the time when Laura had gone to ground after my arrival in the village.

Hamish had been a sickly, and an unhappy, child. His maternal grandmother cared for him much of the time when he was small because his father insisted his wife put parish business first. His grandmother had worked as a librarian at Edinburgh University until she married a Classics professor twenty years her senior. When the Professor died, she moved south to be near her only daughter. Mrs. Laidlow read Hamish fairytales and all manner of poetry, including Petrarch’s The Canzoniere, which is maybe where the name ‘Laura’ came from. She knew perfectly well that her son-in-law regarded fairytales as an irrelevance in a properly Christian culture, and thought secular poetry was produced by unbelievers and degenerates. I like to think that’s why she read them to Hamish.

Hamish never spoke to me about Laura and I never asked him about her. I think he must have been afraid I’d tease him or challenge his story. I know, however, that before I arrived, Laura was the great secret he shared with a select few: Patsy, Cat, and two other girls at school, Mary Bell and Barbara Dunne. She became the central figure in their imaginative lives until my arrival broke the spell.

This seems to be what happened, pieced together from what Cat and Patsy later told me. They all somehow missed the announcement that a little girl called Flora was to join them next term, all except Patsy, and she misheard it. In high excitement, she told the others that the teachers had said Laura was coming to join them at school next term. I don’t know what Hamish made of this, only that Laura’s imminent arrival ‘in the flesh’ caused some consternation.

Hamish had enthralled the four girls with stories of Laura’s adventures for several months. Although Cat always insisted she knew perfectly well they were ‘just make-up’, Patsy insisted they all wanted very badly to believe in Laura. At that time Hamish had that pale, slightly unreal, aura of someone recovering from serious illness, so it no doubt it seemed entirely possible to them that he’d know about a mysterious girl who lived alone in the moss. Someone adults mistook, if she appeared in their peripheral vision, for a vixen, a roe doe, or a brilliant dragonfly.

Laura lived in Lady Moss and the surrounding woodland.

Later, when I learned ‘Long Lankin’, I used to imagine Laura and Long Lankin sharing a shelter there, with her listening to his muttering about the wrongs done to him and the terrible revenge he’d take. But Hamish was talking about our moss, one of the rare places that, as primary school children, we were expected to stay away from. Not, as far as I remember, forbidden because adults thought it was particularly dangerous (it wasn’t), but because it was simply somewhere they’d rather we didn’t go.

This, of course, made our going there essential if we wanted to earn the respect of our peers. There was, however, a ritual to be observed when making such a visit. You always told a friend you were going to the moss, you went alone, and you marked your visit by adding a little stripe of fabric with your first name written on it to the old tree right in the heart of the moss. Judging by the amount of old, decaying cloth there when I was a child, this ritual had been observed for a long time. Whether the moss was originally home to a ‘clootie’ tree I simply don’t know, but its name suggests it might in some way have been connected to either the Virgin Mary or to the Queen of Elphame.

Located between a big Sitka spruce plantation on one side and a string of small upland fields, our wooded moss lay just to the north of a flat, meandering section of Black Burn. With its dim light, numerous moths, tangle of stunted birch roots, dark pools, and sense of almost uncanny stillness, the moss was a perfect place in which to imagine Laura.

Patsy later told me that, after I turned up, Hamish quickly explained me away by saying the grownups had made a mistake. I wasn’t Laura but her very ordinary twin sister, and that I didn’t know a thing about her because she’d been stolen away.

When I was a girl, I tended to assume that Hamish was just naturally quiet, since that’s how he usually was when we were together. Later I wondered whether his silences weren’t the result of his being deeply preoccupied, working out how to locate me in relation to Laura, his first and perhaps deepest, all-be-it imagined, love. Did he really see me as her twin, or as her pale shadow or, later, perhaps as her uncanny, uncertain double; perhaps even as a dubious, ultimately illusory, seductress sent to make him forget her? Our imaginal life works in such odd ways any of these seems possible.

Quite some while after we split up, a figure I just knew was Laura started haunting my dreams, my ominous darker-haired, sharper-faced doppelganger. Her persistent presence eventually became frightening and, in the end, I had to exorcise her by making a ‘Laura’ mask for a little ritual where I ‘became’ Laura. (Why this took the form of a stylized fox’s head I don’t remember, but no doubt it was suggested by the dreams.) I got a friend to photograph me wearing it, to evidence the fact that I had finally ‘become’ Hamish’s Laura. But still, occasionally, there’s this young girl’s voice in my head that tells me I’m just imaginary, an invisible part of someone else’s kith!

I have wondered about Laura and her animal forms since I learned of the widespread folk beliefs that a person’s spirit can take possession of an animal, often to help the living in some way. You’ll remember our discussing the idea that children have a sense of themselves as emerging out of a field of forces and materials too big for them to grasp, only some of which are captured in their current, human, form? I suspect Hamish was just such a child, somebody who was troubled with illness and an unhappy home life and didn’t make the conventional absolute distinction between humans and the animals and insects he saw around him on an almost daily basis. So, Laura could also be a fox, a roe doe, a dragonfly, as well as a girl. Just as like so many girls in old songs who take animal form and then, as often as not, are killed accidently by their lovers.

I’ve also linked all this to A.’s comment in your book that he was all for permeability, which he linked to explorations of various figures from old folk cultures: the Mistress of the Animals, the Women from Outside, Artemis, Richelle, the Mistress of the Game, Oriente, and the Queen of Elphame. All these powerful figures who could move between the visible and invisible, the worlds of humans, animals and the dead. After his beloved and awe-inspiring Nana’s death, maybe the poetic figures she’d evoked leaked into Hamish’s world, a compound that took the form of Laura?

Sarah Aitcheson wearing the Flora / Faun / Laura mask.